A dozen years ago, we celebrated my birthday together in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Under the veranda of the Palace of the Governors—the oldest building in America, he informed me—I spotted a watch with turquoise stones on its bracelet. Six stones, the color of a pale sky—of my father’s eyes—were framed in silver. I remember saying simply, “Oh.” My dad was wearing aviator sunglasses, and he took them off to look at me, “You see something you like?”
“That watch,” I said, pointing to it. Its face was a small oval of mother of pearl. It had tiny, elegant Roman numerals.
“How much?” he asked the Navajo woman who sat on a bench in the shade of the palace. Turquoise jewelry was spread on a woven mat in front of her, and on each earlobe she wore a string of beads entwined with a feather.
It is too early to call my dad to wish him a happy birthday. I will pull his phone number from my address book and call him tonight. The number I could dial without thinking is no longer his. He lives with my brother and his family, now. Half a day’s drive away. I used to see him whenever I wanted, because he lived just a mile from me. When I think of the distance, my face heats.
Our daily calls stopped five years ago when my father had a stroke.
He had called me late on a Sunday night. The New England Patriots had beaten the Pittsburg Steelers, securing their spot in the Super Bowl.
“I keep falling down,” he said.
“What do you mean you keep falling down?” I asked. Instead of being alarmed, I was annoyed.
“I got up at Half Time and tripped,” his voice was slightly off, like he was scared. “Then I just fell again.”
I didn’t want to drive the short distance to his house in the frigid night, “What do you want me to do?”
“I dunno. Maybe I’ll just go to bed now. The game’s over. Brady really showed ’em.”
“Yes. That sounds good,” I spoke quickly, wanting to get off the phone. “I’ll call you in the morning. Goodnight, Dad.”
Instead, he called me the next morning, “I talked to Dr. Stoltz.”
“Oh. Ok. What did he say?”
“He called an ambulance. He thinks I’ve had a stroke.”
I couldn’t feel my feet as I ran for my car. Then, behind the steering wheel where I should have been the night before, Oh my God. He could be dying.
I beat the ambulance to my father’s house.
Flinging open his front door, I raced down the hall. He was sitting on the rattan sofa in the den, dressed in his warm, corduroy jacket with the quilted lining. I could not tell anything was different about him. He did not have any signs of paralysis or loss of speech. My father’s face was too white, though. He wore his black ski cap with the red stripe. I thought of the last time I saw him in it. On the snow of the Liberty Ski Resort in southern Pennsylvania. Vibrant. Happy. Not that long ago.
My dad didn’t smile at me, but he didn’t scowl, either. He looked terrified.
Within minutes, we heard the whine of the ambulance. It was loud enough to cut through the double panes of glass on my father’s storm windows.
I drive to my office and take off my coat. Pushing back the left sleeve of my jacket, I glance down to read the time, but my turquoise watch is gone.
My head throbs. I suck in my breath. Where is it? When did it fall off? Slipping my coat back on, I retrace my steps, heading back to the spot where I parked in the employees’ lot. Scanning the black asphalt for the silver of my watch’s bracelet, my steps are quick, painful.
It’s only a thing, I try to tell myself. A watch.
Someone will find it. Sterling silver links and oval turquoise stones, my watch is valuable. I have no faith that it will appear in our “lost and found” box.
But I still have my dad. I try not to think of what his loss will do to me.
The doctors gave him six to nine months—ten months ago. His kidneys are failing. He now weighs one hundred and forty pounds. He is six feet tall, living on hope.
Home from work, I park my car in the garage. My watch floats in my mind. I can visualize it on my wrist. When I step out of my car, I search the garage floor. Nothing. I scan the ground where I walked that morning. I study the floor of my kitchen, the front hall. I get out a flashlight and illuminate the front hall closet from where I grabbed my coat that morning. I do not see any shining silver or turquoise. My feet are heavy as I climb the stairs. I’m certain I will never see my watch again. But I can still see my dad.
I debate whether or not I should tell him about the watch. He might not remember it. He has memory lapses.
In my bedroom, I sit in the cushioned chair next to my dresser with the address book that holds my dad’s new telephone number. I punch it into the phone.
My dad answers. “Hello?” His voice is croaky.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!”
I can hear him chuckling. It is a good sound. Kidney disease has made him grouchy.
We talk about the weather; cold and blustery. I tell him I’m taking Friday off to drive down to see him, “I’ll be there in two days, Dad.”
“We’ll celebrate then.”
“Ok.” I do not mention my watch.
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, too.”
I put the phone down. The tears sting. I swallow, remembering how I wore the watch to the International House of Pancakes the last time I saw him.
“That’s a pretty watch,” he said as he smoothed his paper napkin on his lap. We ate pancakes the first morning of each of my visits.”
You bought it for me.” I smiled. “In Santa Fe.”
“I did?” His eyes searched mine. His white eyebrows knitted together.
“Yes, for my birthday,” I said. “We went to New Mexico.”
“The Land of Enchantment,” he said, smiling. Our pancakes came, and he passed me the syrup in a glass bottle with a stainless steel top. When I handed it back to him, he sang his version of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
My dad replaced the second “Louis” in the lyric with my name, “Meet me in St. LOOee, Caryn.” We sang it when I was five. I had stood on the lawn, looking up at him as he climbed a ladder to replace the storm windows with screens. I held the ladder for him. Singing with him, I’d hand him the lighter, screen windows each time he climbed down with a heavy glass one.
Gazing at the ceiling of my bedroom, I sing our lyrics to “Meet Me in St. Louis” and try not to cry.
I see a white flash on the cornflower blue of my ceiling. A sparkling light, dancing. I stand up.
Following the light from the ceiling, I look into the jewelry box on my dresser. Flat, silver ovals are lying on the velvet. I never put on the watch this morning, my dad’s birthday. I pick it up and pluck the silver spear into the toggle resting on the back of my wrist.
Two days later, the watch is light and slides down my arm as I hug my dad. He smells of Ivory soap, just like he did when I was five. The turquoise stones of his gift press against my skin when I hold onto his bony, frail shoulders.