With my iced tea lightly sweetened and a small bag containing two truffles stowed in my purse, I strolled to the exit of the choclate shop and checked my phone. There was a message from a number I didn’t recognize so before stepping back out onto Michigan Avenue, I dialed in to see what I had missed. Turns out the case of wine I had ordered from the state liquor store was in. It was a reminder that I stop by and retrieve it sooner rather than later. I called my mom.
“Hey, are you heading out at all today?” I asked when she answered the phone back in Philly.
“Yes,” my mom answered in an unusually calm voice.
“Well, remember that Vouvray I brought to your birthday dinner? I ordered a case for you guys and it’s at the liquor store near Trader Joe’s. Apparently it’s been there a week and I already paid for it. Since I’m in Chicago and you, well, aren’t I was wondering if you could pick it up?” I asked, my last word swallowed down with a sip of my iced tea.
“No, I won’t be going that way,” my mom answered with a stilted politeness.
I knew something was wrong. I knew from the tone of her voice, the tremble of her breath, the slowness of her words. I knew that if my mother was heading out on a Sunday but couldn’t manage to stop someplace located within two miles of home, something wasn’t right. I remained quiet and waited for my mom to continue.
“PJ, something has happened,” she said, her voice cracking just a little so as to separate the last word into two distinct sections.
My dad, I thought. Fuck. Motherfuckerfuck. Something happened to my dad. He was in the hospital. He was sick. Or sicker. I locked my knees, steadied the weight of my body against the metal bar running the length of the door and I slowly pushed my shoulder against the glass so the warm air drifting up the Avenue could embrace me.
“I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want to ruin your weekend in Chicago. But Morty fell yesterday,” she announced.
I exhaled. I felt calmness replace fear when I learned that something-bad-has-happened didn’t relate to my dad being unexpectedly hooked up to tubes and machines. It’s the selfish relief known only by the child of a sick parent. A relief that balances the fatigue that comes with waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a distorted way that the bible surely tsk-tsks, I felt comforted that someone else was the one in peril. Someone close, someone who acted like the grandfather I never had, but also someone removed just enough that the immediate fear and anxiety was beyond arms length.
“His lip wouldn’t stop bleeding so they ultimately went to the hospital. He was doing okay but they admitted him just to be sure. Half an hour later they called the family back. He slipped into a coma and he’s on life support.”
“What? That makes no sense. Did he have another stroke? Are they bringing him back to Philly? I mean, the hospitals down the shore are horrible. He’d get better care in a third world country.”
“No, there’s no point. PJ, he isn’t going to make it. Dad and I are going down the shore to say goodbye. That’s why I can’t go to the liquor store.”
I’m not sure why my mom felt a need to bring the statement full circle to the wine. Six bottles of Vouvray had nothing to do with anything. I don’t know. Maybe ending the conversation with wine softened the reality of it all. Because libations sounded less sad than the imminent death of a warm and gentle man with piercing blue eyes and an insatiable fondness for ice cream who lovingly folded everyone into his world.
When the call ended, I stepped out onto the street and in a composed manner walked toward the river. With the pedestrian signal offering a glaring red hand, I joined a clutter of tourists on the corner and waited for the light to turn. The summer sun cascaded over my face. The heat rose up from the cement. Strangers around me giggled and talked and mingled in their perfect world. And that’s when the selfish relief about my dad evaporated.
As the light turned, I slipped into a hazy daze of moving without thought. My sneaker clad feet carried me off the curb without intent or effort. The movement and sounds of the city felt like a choreographed dance that I was merely passing through. I ended up across the street. I ended up on a boat listening to a portly woman excitedly identify the architecture dotting the river. I checked in at the airport, passing my bag off to someone wearing a polyester uniform. I stood at the gate and watched a little boy refuse to sit in his stroller. I buckled the belt on my assigned seat, curled tight to the right and leaned my head against the hard plastic wall encasing the window. I cried.