Still focused on my daughter’s lunch, I took the phone. “This is the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.”
I squeezed a handful of chicken nuggets. My hometown police. This was it. My dad fell asleep at the wheel and wrapped himself around a tree. Worse, he killed someone. Oh God.
“Do you have any idea why his phone would be disconnected?” the officer asked, her voice gruff. I released the nuggets. This was better. At worst, he was lying on the floor in his kitchen, dead, his desperate fingers having dialed “9-1.” “He’s part of a program where we call people regularly to make sure they’re ok,” she continued, “And we got the message that his phone’s been disconnected.
“Well, he tends to have spotty phone service,” I said.
“We tried the two neighbors he listed as contacts, but we couldn’t reach either one. We may need another keyholder. I realize you’re out of state…”
“I know another person with a key. She’s local,” I said.
“Does your father have a cell phone number?”
“He does,” I recited it, knowing full well he keeps it only for emergencies and it would be turned off.
“Okay, we’ll try that,” she said.
“Thanks, Officer,” I said, and hung up.
I didn’t know what to feel. More likely than not, my dad had gotten what he’d paid for with his cheap phone plan, or he’d left his phone off the hook. The man can’t hear the TV unless the volume’s up to thirty-five, so he would never be able to hear the loud buzzing that comes on when the phone’s left off the hook too long.
It was pretty unlikely that he’d died in the house and his phone had been cut off. I’d talked to him two weeks ago and it takes a much longer delinquent period to get your phone cut off.
It was possible he’d been hurt and was laying on the floor. I knew the sheriff would send a car over there, so at least they’d find him and help him.
I waited for the next phone call. I nuked the mushy chicken nuggets, added carrot sticks and a juice box to the lunch. I packed my son’s diaper bag. I got him dressed. I nagged my daughter to get dressed. All the while I was thinking. Even though it was unlikely, this could be it. They could find my father dead. What was the last thing I said to him on the phone? “Okay, bye.” Appropriate. The last thing he said to me? “I’ll be talking to you.” Not if he’s dead, he won’t.
Is that the last exchange I want for us? Is that what I want to remember when I think of him? It could be worse. We could not talk at all. Or we could have argued. We used to argue all the time but we kind of gave that up. From junior high through my twenties we argued constantly, then my mom got Alzheimer’s and we had to call a truce. We did continue to argue about politics — we’re political polar opposites, but now I don’t bait him unless I have a pen and paper to take down his crazy paranoid ideas. They’re a writer’s comic gold.
But last time we talked, we didn’t talk politics, or argue, or anything, really. He just told me about his latest fall — this time off a ladder in the kitchen while attempting to change a light bulb — and we agreed he shouldn’t climb ladders anymore.
But what do I want from our conversations? How do I want them to end? My dad will be 83 this month. Any conversation we have could be our last. My best friend takes that concept very seriously. She’s only in her 40s but she and her husband will end each phone call with “I love you,” lest that be the last time they ever talk.
But is “I love you” appropriate for my dad? I know I could say it, and probably should, but every time you say “I love you,” it makes you vulnerable and I worked very hard to build the protective wall between me and my dad. If I say it, how will he react? I know it will make him uncomfortable. When my daughter started saying, “I love you, Papou,” he’d tell me to tell her he loves her and her brother too.
He’s never said it to me, to my knowledge. The nicest thing he’s ever said to me was a few months ago, when he said he was glad my birth mom gave me up because it enabled he and my mom got to know me. There was a time when my mom, speaking for both of them, when I was in big trouble, would say, “We love you, but…” He never even said that. Why would he start now?
Here’s the thing, though: If I don’t say it, I’ll never know.
Someday I will get that phone call. Someday they’ll have found him dead in his house or narcoleptic at the wheel and I’ll never know. I’ll never know if, given the opportunity, he would have said “I love you” for the first and last time. He can live without hearing it, I’m sure, but can I?