There is a feeling of acceleration; of building speed. Of the accretion of slow years of slow descent finally reaching some unnumbered critical mass, shifting the axis of his world into new climates of collapse and quiet loss.
And while we are gathered on this day in celebration, there is also the unspoken understanding that this is a formality; a fiction. That the good spirits and smiles are more a reflection of the gathering itself, rather than joy in his company. We are together in understanding: the days of vanishing by inches have dwindled away, and the distance is now growing by longer strides — pulling him farther and farther away from the man he was, and the life he had.
There is the raucous laughter of young children, unleashed upon one another after months of separation, circling the room and the house in concentric orbits of wild energy and cackling glee. There is the clever patter of siblings and in-laws, parents and grandparents, catching up and cracking wise and pouring pink champagne into thin-bodied glasses, the sweet bubbles drifting across our lips and cascading through ribbons of bone onto weary and welcoming hearts. There are comforts, in these rhythms.
Comforts count for a great deal, these days. And at the edges of this horseshoe of cushioned chairs and dark-hued ottomans, ten feet and a thousand miles from where his wife holds court and glories in the presence of warm family and joyful voices, he sits. Without a sound, without moving. Wrapped tenderly in layers of soft woolen blankets, in protection and camouflage, his eyes blinking slowly behind thick white glasses, his mouth paused in half-smile, half-hidden in the thicket of white beard. Decades of insatiable hunger - for the taste of fresh words and calculated learning, for riddles of tannin and bright fruit, for the artistry of flavor ringing clear and true in strange and endlessly fascinating chords of spice and subtlety, bold simpicity and layered, labyrinthian genius - now stilled, sated, silenced.
He is a gentle ghost, haunting the periphery.
(It feels forever, since this was not the way of things. The children no longer seek him out. They dutifully greet him in cheerful voices when arriving, and hug him when it is time for goodbyes. But they do not seek him out. They know he is here, and they know he is not here.)
In good time, when dinner is ready, I remove the blankets and then carefully steer the wheelchair out of the living room, down the hallway and around the corner into the dining room. "Let me bring you up close to the table," I say, explaining what is happening. It is an attempt to be deferential, but I know it is the same tone that I used with my own children when they were very, very young.
He lifts his hands and feet, slides into place at the table, and then drops them down again. He waits, quietly, as the children and grandchildren file in and find their places. Not speaking, not seeking out eye contact. Simply waiting for food to be brought to him, so that he can begin to eat. I sit next to him, offering him a smile. "We got Chinese," I say. "An exotic feast, from faraway lands. And/or the other side of town. For you." I hold the smile for a long moment, less in the hopes of a response than in the knowledge that reaching out like this is what we are supposed to do. And then I let it go, and turn away.
We serve the children and we serve their grandfather, and instantly they begin to eat in a flurry of forks and fingers while the rest of us calmly begin serving ourselves and enjoying the food and camaraderie. Wine is poured and dishes are shared, and the kids engage in lively debate and demands for more scallion pancakes and threaten to sing terrible songs that will delight and horrify us and we are here and we are all together and
he sits there in his wheeled chair, locked in profound concentration on maintaining his hold on the fork. On guiding it beneath the scallops and noodles, and lifting it without losing his bounty. On slowly guiding it to his mouth.
On eating until he is done, and then it will be time for sleep.
An hour passes and we finish the dinner, and the grandchildren run off to destroy the house and argue over which superhero would beat which Star Wars character and to await the siren call of dessert, and the room grows a bit quieter as we sit around the table, drinking and talking and sharing stories and
then his wife says, "Do you want to go upstairs?" and we look and notice that he is slowly pushing himself back from the table, his gnarled toes pressing against the floor and gradually pushing the wheels backward, by inches and then by feet and then suddenly he is four feet away from the table and looking up as he hears her ask the question and his voice - small - says "no" as if in some kind of surprise and we all laugh a bit although it is not funny and I stand up and smile and say,
"You're drifting away from us, here," and something in my face twitches beneath my smile and I am glad that no one points out that what I'm saying is too obvious and correct for this moment, and I recognize that as a small mercy and I am grateful, and then I push him back to the table. He lifts his hands and feet, and then settles them once again when he is in place.
Someone suggests that perhaps this would be a good time for desserts and presents, and so we call the kids back, and in short order the chocolate cake and apple tart are carved and distributed and summarily demolished, as all good desserts are meant to be. It is a welcome rush of sugar and sweetness.
And then we present the gifts. They are placed before him, like offerings before a stone idol, and wait to see what the fates will bring.
He lifts one wrapped gift from the table and turns it over in his hands. Twice. Three times. Then begins the task of trying to work his way in — to puzzle his way through the scotch tape and cheerful paper wrapping and find the prize hidden within. His fingers move unsteadily along the folded edges of the paper as if they are foreign tools, unaccustomed to the challenge of navigating such fine tasks. We watch, allowing him his time. Not speaking. There is no need.
After a few long minutes, he finds his way in, and uncovers a CD. Music from a film he had once prized and loved deeply. From a city he'd long called his home. A kind gift — thoughtful, embracing who he's been, where he's come from and what he's loved. He turns it over in his hands, twice, three times, then puts it down without saying a word. Then picks up the next item and begins again.
We watch the process repeat itself, several times over, until all the gifts are unveiled before him. Then we watch as he reaches forward to lift one item from the table, and look at it over the top of his thick glasses, mouth half-open as he reads the words and absorbs their meaning. The minutes pass. Until finally, his wife of forty-odd years gives him a gentle prompt. She says his name, and then asks, "Is there anything you want to say?"
Surrounded by gifts and grandchildren, by this family and feast brought here today, for him, for his birthday, he turns to her and says - his voice small and sharp - "Be quiet."
We sit there in silence. For such a long and awful and awkward minute, we sit there in silence, together.
Eventually, I pull my eyes from him and look around the room. Some are staring at him. Some are staring at their plates. Some look on the verge of tears.
I break the moment - because that is what I do - and say something. I cannot remember what it is that I say, because it is probably stupid and certainly meaningless, but it serves its purpose and the long minute ends and we all begin to thank the lady of the house for her kindness in hosting this event and for the great Chinese dinner and the wonderful desserts, and she assures us she is glad to do it, and
we let her know: she is appreciated
and then the table is cleared and the children are gathered and in the kitchen we hug one another and say our thanks and wave, through the door, to the man in the dining room, and we do not wait for a response because already the children are heading to the driveway and we follow, outside, to
where the air is fresh and cooling and alive with cricketsong and late September starlight and we leave, not looking back, knowing that as one year passes into the next
the hour is growing so very, very late.