My local fruit market was selling cherries today so I bought a bagful. Eating cherries reminds me of my father. Walking home, I imagined him standing in our 1970’s burnt orange kitchen, the glint of the metal colander in the sink behind him filled to the brim with the wet, shiny fruit. They seemed like the Rolls Royce of fruit to me as a child.
“I’ve got cherries!” he'd singsong with a wink, as if it were a covert snack. I only remember the two of us ever eating them in my family.
Before I grew into a wanna-be-hippie teen who clashed with his conservative values, I remember my father and me as “pals”. We have similar tastes and temperament and everyone said I looked the most like him of his four children. He doted on me and over the years we shared a secret or two: teenage transgressions with boys and drinking on my side, the same, with middle-aged women on his.
My father is now nearing the end of his life. He lives alone at 91 and with failing health, he is tired. I feel it in his voice. A voice that terrified me as a child. He was a yeller then, needing to be heard over four kids and a dog. But his anger was something that burst like a firecracker, then dispersed into playful teasing or offering of something special, like cherries. Even though now, his voice is losing its spunk, he is lucid and philosophical, ready to “check out”, as he says. I want to offer solidarity, but agreeing with his death seems wrong.
“Tell me something you remember about me as a child”, I say.
His nostalgic grin not missing a beat, he launches into a story of losing me on a crowded summer beach when I was three.
“I looked up and you were gone! I later found you roaming the boardwalk, as if you were on a tour of the town, just taking it all in”.
He seemed delighted to find me in that state, and I like to think he followed me for a while—letting me wander— before scooping me up.
“You were never a good sleeper”, he says, telling me another story.
“You had devised a way to climb out of the crib and slide down the wall to the floor”. A feat my son would perform many years later. Mother and son escape artists. My father thinks this took great intelligence and smiles with pride as he thinks back to my toddler ingenuity.
Food was love in my Italian family, especially with my father. He owned and operated a deli and catering business and loved to cook. Since he often proclaimed me his “best eater”, I’d wait in anticipation on summer days for his return from the Italian market with delicacies like cannoli and cheesecake. And cherries. Stone fruited skins, stained, bloody fingers; juicy spits of pits into our hands. We’d make a pile of them with the stems, sweetly chewing our way through summer.
Eating cherries with my father. At the kitchen table, the big bowl between us like a shiny purple mountain. I am looking up at him, so I must be small. Is this a memory? Or did I see it in a photograph. Is there a difference? Gauzy monoprints on paper merge with distorted remembrance. A big protective hand, a shoulder that smells like a scented envelope I slip into.
I am sitting at the piano, age nine. My feet can’t reach the pedals without a slide forward. “The falling leaves drift by my window…” peals from my fingertips as my father stands singing and turning the sheet music. He puts his hand on his heart for the high notes.
“He’s going to survive us all,”my mother used to say.
Even though his first heart attack occurred at 45 and he has had a multitude of hospitalizations and health issues ever since, that prediction of hers has turned out to be true. Did you know that cherries, the heart-shaped fruit, have properties that protect the heart?
He sits looking like a bobble head doll, his head larger than the rest of him. It hangs low, his enormous, sad eyes protruding. It must be the newly lost weight I think. My sister dislikes this hang-dog look. His “puppy-eyed face”, she calls it. She thinks he perfected it to win our sympathies after he left our mother. But I was never as hard on him as she was. The sister who would remind me that I left and she stayed; saw the deception, the lies, the toll on my mother. I allow my breath to soften this knot between us like the pass of an olive branch we have extended to each other late in life.
On the phone today, my father doesn’t sound like a dying man, but suddenly rather animated. I want to treat him like he’s dying, but I’m not sure what that should look like. Do I feel obligated to have reverence for the moment? My old Catholic coming out. But he refuses to be somber about it. He assures me he is ready.
Organs are failing. The amount of energy it takes to do simple things is starting to frustrate him. With shrinking activities and everyday tasks harder to perform, my sister offers hospice and despite his initial refusal, now he says,
“ I’m ready to go.”
Older traditional Catholics believe there is a heaven. An actual place you will float around in forever surrounded by benevolence. Both of my parents shared this belief. My father believes that my mother is waiting there for him. Maybe he thinks hospice is one step closer to heaven.
When I call him these days I want to ask questions: Will you tell me a boyhood tale? What was the happiest time? The worst? Why did you leave my mother? Do you remember telling me I was your favorite? Can I bring you some cherries? But I am mute on these points. We talk about music and how he will be happy to have WiFi again in hospice which means Nat and Frank back in his airwaves. I make a mental note that their music must be played at his funeral service.
Sorting through his things, he wonders if he needs to take his pots and pans to hospice. “No”, my sister tells him. “They will have everything there”. He seems relieved. In fact, he seems relieved about all of it: the leaving of possessions, the moving, the dying. Death is close enough to smell now. She is suddenly shadowing his days. I wonder if he yearns to sleep young in green fields again, get away with petty crimes, and make-out until his lips ache. Or maybe that is my list.
How is a life filled? Behind my eyes, an image downloads from nowhere —or from everywhere—thousands of cherry seeds winnowed and blown, each contributing a pixel, until a scene appears, fully-formed like Aphrodite from the head of Zeus: A summer day, a bowl of ripe cherries, a feeling of rightness. Was it enough? Your life?
Note: I wrote this story when my dad was about to enter hospice (2019). It was recently published (2022) in "Bare: An Unzipped Anthology" from Life in 10 Press. Please visit here where you may purchase a copy if you like.