"How long can you stay today?" I asked my father as he walked through the door.
He was on his lunch break and (as usual) he'd come to visit me in the hospital. I was 6 years old and tired to death of being there. Other children had come and gone - the girl with rheumatic fever who knew true facts about all nine planets in the solar system, the girl whose head was swathed in a fashionable turban of bandages because she'd been in a fiery automobile accident. But me? I was the one still stuck in my hard crib of a bed.So, as I said, I was bored. Also, I was scared - afraid of hospital smells and charts, pill trays and hushed conversations. And I was especially scared at night when the familiar busy sounds of daytime died down so that the thin pained cries of the baby down the hall could be heard for what they were.
"I can stay until 1 o'clock today," my father answered my greeting in that happy, hearty voice worried parents like to use to cheer up children in hospitals. Then he draped his suit coat across the foot of my bed and took the chair next to me like we were going to the movies together.
Naturally I was pleased to see him - I was always thrilled to see him - but instead of chattering or whining or joking or doing any of the things I normally did when he came to visit, I took my dad's hand and stared wordlessly at his watch until it was exactly 1 o'clock.
Time for him to go.
I'd be truly surprised if my dad remembered this one incident out of the many incidents of that uniquely stressful year. He himself has said that he doesn't always remember the details of his children's childhoods as clearly as he would like to because there were so many other details vying for the attention of a young man building his life.
Still, I've wondered what my father must have made that afternoon of his unnaturally quiet child intently watching (of all the silly things!) his watch. Did he think I was fascinated by its motion? That I thought it was a pretty piece of jewelry? That I was practicing how to tell time? Maybe he went home to my mother later that night and said, "I had the oddest experience with Ann today. She didn't say or do anything except hold my hand and look at my watch. I wonder what that was about?"
I, on the other hand, clearly remember what I was thinking that afternoon, just as I clearly remember the suit and tie my father wore and the way the sun slanted through the window so that motes of dust swirled in the light and how he sat loose-limbed in the chair and also how he masked his anxiety with a smile whenever he spoke.
There is no way I could have articulated this then, but I remember knowing (as I held his wrist and tracked the sweep of the minute hand across the face of his watch) that Time would eventually take my father away from me. No question there. It had happened so many times before.
It's just that I, who was afraid of everything, wanted to be brave enough at least once to watch it happen. I wanted, as it were, to stare down Time as she ticked away the minutes my dad and I had together.
All of this came back to me in a rush a couple of weeks ago when I attended an outdoor concert with my extended family. About halfway through the program the leader announced the band would play the theme songs from each branch of the military and would all veterans in the audience please stand up when they heard their tune?
So when the band struck up those familiar strains of the Army theme song ("And those caissons keep rolling along!") my father rose to his feet, clasped his hands in front of him and listened.
I was unprepared for how strongly the sight of him standing against the deepening blue of the evening mountains moved me, and suddenly I was wondering about the boy he had been, shipping out for Japan as the conflict in Korea grew. Was he nervous? Anxious? Excited? Curious? Homesick for his new wife? Was he as afraid as I had been during those endless nights in the hospital?
There are so many things that children and parents share - bones and blood and common history - that we sometimes think we know everything there is to know about each other. And then something happens, something as ordinary as the sight of a father standing at attention during a concert, to remind us that even the people we know and truly love the best are as full of mystery as the black back of a summer moon.