julia foulkes

Again Please, Anne

A tribute to my father, who died in 2012.

I had never watched someone die before. Tracy Atkinson was killed in a car accident at age 14. Chip’s paramour-in-mind hung himself from a belt over a shower curtain rod. Grandparents disappeared, transforming from material to vapor over days months years, in meandering suspension, like a balloon that loses air through its rubbery membrane rather than by a pinprick. You, though, died. Over six days. And I watched you mark the destined decline, checking off items on your last list, from growing weariness to shuffling a few steps to looking out from the bed at the forest that beckoned. You bent to the side, arched over an ache. “I think that’s my spleen breaking down.” You said you weren’t scared. “I know I’m just going off to la-la land.” You twitched awake from an unbidden stupor to see me watching you. “You are an angel.”

There were signs. A need for a daily nap increased in the final weeks, initially a desire that did not warrant much concern. Who wouldn’t grow weary in the face of your long to-do list. Piano gigs at friends’ parties or the occasional wedding, tending the vineyard a couple of hours a day, tracking younger folks as they wound through schools, loves, jobs. You never checked off cleaning out the basement, though, tending to more present concerns than rummaging through files for the gems to pass on – the check to Frederick of Hollywood’s to cheer up a swollen-bellied wife with a nightgown a few days before I was born – or discarding the thousands of accumulated slides, snapshots of joy contained in a form no longer easily accessible. Naps seemed a reasonable response.

But they rarely made you feel rested. Tests. “More tests needed,” you replied. And then. “It’s acute. I’m fine. We’ll head to the hospital tomorrow. OK?” No. Please stop reading from your script, carefully prepared to get through this difficult conversation. Just be with me on the tightrope telephone line stretched taut from Penn Yan to Brooklyn. Wobble. Sigh. Settle.

The hospital visit lengthened the lists. Contact the lawyer about the will, follow up with the town supervisor about the land question, burn the brush pile by the vineyard, paint the cement blocks on the staircase down to the basement, note the daily changing medley of medications. Make yet another entreaty to prod soft-spoken Mom to speak up for failing ears. Instead of a sharp demand, try “Again please, Anne.” Scrawl that on one of the ubiquitous index cards that carried the lists, this one tucked into the corner of the frame of a photo of your bride fifty-four years ago. (Tell me again, Anne; marry me again, Anne; let us live life again, Anne. Please.) Discuss short-term plans, long-term plans, maybe plans, perhaps this-then-that plans, never-to-be plans.

Then plan for your memorial. “In the obituary, make sure to mention the day of the service, a save-the-date notice.” Disbelieving giggles. “You expect me to change now?”

In the days after death, working off a new list, I rummaged through your bureau drawer, probably looking for a phone number of your college friend or little-used credit cards to be cut up or the key to the safe deposit box or the round glass paperweight holding a thumb-pressed picture of seven-year-old me or gobs of batteries or coins from foreign lands or Sky’s Little League baseball with the curvy serious signatures of young boys or stacks of 3×5 index cards or Vitamin D pills or Christy’s popsicle-stick box Father’s Day present, and I found a small, red, worn “Efficiency Memo Book,” with your barely legible script. “New Acquaintances, T.S. Foulkes, 6/6/68.”

6/7/68 Bob + Pat Davis, new neighbors.

3/16/74 H.I. Fri nite supper Bill Parsons – grey sideburns blond wife.

11/15/74 Murray Party Gene Hodges – blond, rock and roll, Vivian – tall, teeth.

12/82 FBC Bob + Martha Lays – Good looker from BHS Brunette, Pointed Nose.

The dates, places, names, descriptions pile up the people the years the decades spent meeting, recognizing, and noting. A catalog of attention paid, of person recognized, of promise of remembrance, of commitment to more, of putting people first.

As an engineer, perhaps it’s lucky you got to be logical and lucid to the end, controlling what you could. Each final day trimmed the list but still structured the unmooring, at least one item left to the next day. Take a phone call about the surveying of land off the list – where you were going had no land – but dictate an email to a clarinetist, telling him that among all the musicians you had played with, he was one of the best. “I just thought I’d pop this thought off to you.” Forget about going through a file on financial assets but make your last phone call to your piano teacher, who you asked to play at the party following your memorial service. “You know my favorites.”

When the dying began, I urged you to make sure you put pleasure on the list. You listened, noted. Headphones into Ipad at the hospital, keyed to Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Ray Charles’ “God Bless America.” I put those on surround-sound at home, recorded your too-brief recounting of childhood days, told you that you had done all that you needed to do. “Thank you.” I folded my hand into your bent one and held on. Those pale blue eyes reached to mine. “That’s nice.”

And then. “How is the tendonitis in your forearms?”

I sometimes got exhausted by your lists, thinking “I love you” was sandwiched between “Are you arriving on the 14th or 15th?” and “your sister would certainly love to hear from you.” Said, check. I wanted love to overwhelm any list. Efficiency often erases emotion, makes propulsion and order the meaning. But I’ve come to see love infusing every list, every drawer with batteries, old Father’s Day presents, and index cards, and every daily life-long detailed effort a pocket-hidden efficiency memo book guide to care.

Now gone.