My father died recently. His long term battle with dementia is finally over. I watched from the sidelines as he slowly disappeared into himself over the last decade. For years my mom took care of him as the first signs appeared. She would finish his sentences, or help him find the right words that were at that moment lost to him. This is something my wife Gretchen does for me sometimes and it scares the hell out of me.
After my mom died, my sister Lynn, and brother Larry, took over his care. Lynn eventually moved into the townhome where he lived. I really appreciated that they took over that effort. Dad was able to live out the rest of the life surrounded by the momentos that, from time to time, reminded him of mom, his love since the early 1950’s.
There are so many things I learned from Chuck. He taught me that the way to find out how something works was to take it apart and put it back together again. Has anyone reading this ever taken a bicycle coaster brake apart? Well, that was one of my first lessons. Inside the hub are alternating layers of brake material and metal that get squeezed together when you press the pedals backward. There are cams and ballbearings and all of it fits in a certain order.
He taught me to be self-reliant. When I wanted a 10 speed racing bike in middle school, he recommended that I get a job and buy one. I did. My first job was in 1966, paid 50 cents an hour, and consisted mostly of putting together bikes in a small bike store. I graduated to fixing tires and adjusting brakes. I had a great time and learned about bikes and myself. On the first day I brought home my new Legano italian racing bike, dad rode it down the driveway and crashed it. The nick in the all leather, Brooks saddle left by that accident was an enduring reminder of that incident.
Dad loved modern architecture and Japanese gardens. I learned about pruning trees from him. At it’s simplest, study the form of the tree, and eliminate what is un-necessary. Branches growing down, or crossing others should be eliminated. Each tree and shrub is unique; reveal the inherent form and nothing more.
I did not learn to love fishing from him. That honor goes to my brother Larry. That was a connection that I (and my sisters) never shared. I say this, almost confessing to not being a true Zwissler.
All Zwisslers seem to love fishing. Somehow it passed over me. What I did like was getting to drive the boat. There is a picture of me at about 12 years old driving an old fishing boat on Lake Shasta, with my hand on the tiller of the an old faded Johnson outboard, a grin on my face, and an over-large baseball cap sheltering my freckled nose. It’s possible that dad took that picture, mom never really like fishing.
The one thing I did like about fishing was the eating. I learned to clean and cook a fish by watching dad. There is nothing that beats a fresh caught fish for eating, and I can hear all of the Zwisslers, past and present, nodding their heads in agreement.
We used to have an old red 1958 Chevrolet station wagon that my dad bought second hand. Legend was, that he bought it without telling mom, and that he caught hell for it. I knew nothing of that. I loved taking driving trips (more head nods for the Zwisslers). My favorite place, until I could drive, was in the middle of the front set where I could see everything. We drove that car to Flathead Lake in Montana, I think twice. Long flat miles, in the desert, with no air-conditioning, driving at night and early morning to avoid the heat.
When I reached 16 and we drove to Florida for a vacation in the Bahamas, my favorite place was behind the wheel. My favorite place is always behind the wheel. The first day on the road, while leaving California, the sky was painted brilliant orange and red and purple, and the song Tequila Sunrise was playing on the AM radio in the dash. I always had to wait until dad was sleeping before I could move the speedometer past the posted limit, and then watch the miles click past. My mom knew what I was doing but never said a thing.
I want to believe that it was love at first sight for mom and dad, Chuck and Joan. Dad the dark-haired motorcycle tough with black boots in college, and mom the beautiful blond high school student. They met in the swirling aftermath of WWII and eloped to Kingman Arizona to get married. They started so young and stayed together until the end, mom going first, and then dad recently.
There was still a spark of that love, even when it seemed like what had been Chuck had gone with the dementia. He would walk past a framed picture of Mom either as a young girl on the beach, or another taken later in time, and would often say something like, “There’s that nice lady that used to live here. What ever happened to her?”
And now visiting their house is like that for me.