It’s May. April showers bring May flowers. Time to send a check to my best high-school friend, across the country, to ask for her annual favor: to purchase a nice bouquet and drive it four towns over to the cemetery where my father is buried. To clear away the weeds and old leaves and pine needles, to stick the flowers into one of those green metal cones with the stake at the bottom, and to email me a digital photo so that I can show my mother.
My mother doesn’t like being far from my father’s grave on the anniversary of his death (or at any time, for that matter), and this long-distance tiding is the best we can do. Every year she asks anxiously, “Do you think Cathy has time to do this?” Bless her heart, Cathy always has time.
May 23, 2000. It had been six years since my father’s first abdominal aneurism surgery, which had left him first in a coma, then unable to sit up, and finally, paraplegic and in a wheelchair. He had beaten the odds so miraculously; and I’d come to believe he could beat anything. So when a second aneurism showed up on X-ray, I wasn’t so worried. He’d been through it before. We had the best doctor. But still, I flew out to New Jersey to be with him.
I found him sitting up in his hospital bed, chatting on the phone with a buyer at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. At 81, he was still actively selling souvenirs and trinkets to gift shops all over the south; even though he couldn’t drive anymore, most of his longtime customers didn’t want to give him up and they managed all their sales by telephone. A pile of invoices and envelopes lay across the waffled blanket that covered his legs.
“Hey, Sus!” he cried, when I walked in the room. He was always beyond delighted to see me. The feeling was mutual. And he asked me his typical question. “What can I do for you?” I didn’t say, please pull through this surgery, but that’s all I wanted. The only thing.
He asked me for a favor then. “I couldn’t get out of this place to get your mother anything for Mother’s Day.” He scrabbled around in his bedside drawer and pulled out a fifty. “Take her out to dinner, for me?” He never failed to celebrate her on Mother’s Day, with a silly Hallmark card, a piece of jewelry, and a nice restaurant dinner.
So my mom and I kissed him good night and put on our coats and I took her out for a lobster dinner which is where he would have taken her. The lobsters were tiny, but she ate happily with the plastic bib around her neck, and I don’t think either of us were overly worried.
The next morning I woke up early and said, “We need to go see him before the surgery.” She said, “What’s the point? We saw him last night.” But I insisted, and we pushed through rush-hour traffic to arrive just as they were tucking his brown plastic chart — thick as a New York phone book — into the foot of his rolling gurney. They were taking him down to surgery. He wore a blue gauze shower cap, which amused us, since he was very nearly bald. He made a joke.
We rode the elevator with him, and the orderly let us walk down the corridor until the double swinging doors. “You have to stop here,” he said, and stepped away, looking at his watch.
We bent down to kiss him, but my mother was too short to reach him over the bedrail. “Never mind,” she said, but I gestured to the orderly, and he looked at his watch, and I looked at him again with my fiercest eyes — just do it — and he swung the railing down and my mother gave my father a kiss. “See you later, alligator,” my father said, and we chorused back, “After a while, crocodile.” Then the railing came up and they disappeared through the double doors.
That was it. The surgeon came out, nine hours later; his eyelashes were wet and stuck together. He drew a diagram of my father’s aorta on the fabric of his blue scrub pants. He illustrated the story of the little hole, the fissure, they hadn’t seen until it was too late. “I’m sorry,” the surgeon said. “I’m so sorry.”
The funeral was held the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. When we went to the mortuary and spoke with the elderly director, he took out a clipboard and filled out a form with notes about my father. “Was he a veteran?” he asked. Oh yes. My father was a World War II veteran, a member of the Japanese-American 442nd Regiment, amongst the most decorated in history. It was one of the things in his life of which he was most proud.
The funeral director put his clipboard down and dabbed at his eyes. “I’m so honored,” he said. “I’m honored to have one of those heroes here in my own home.” He arranged for military representatives to present a perfectly folded flag to my mother, as a handful of my father’s 442nd comrades stood around her. The entire funeral home was bedecked in flags and red, white, and blue banners. So was the rest of the neighborhood, the whole town.
Every Memorial Day weekend, the flags spring up everywhere and I imagine that they’re all for my father, in remembrance of him. So May is for flowers, for flags, and for taking my mother out for the nicest dinner we can, because that’s what he would have done.