The Happy Children

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A Saturday in August, 3:50pm, and I am sitting next to my father in church while he dog-ears pages of a hymnal according to the numbers listed on the board. “Seven-ninety-two,” he mutters, flipping carefully through the pages.

“Dad, maybe you shouldn’t –” I start, but don’t finish. Because really, why not? What are a few folded corners in the grand scheme of things? True, he undoubtedly dog-ears pages every week, and true, that has surely added up to a lot more than a few folded corners. He used to know not to do this, but then came Alzheimer’s Disease. And anyway, look how nicely he does it. Neatly. I let it go.

Having located seven-ninety-two (I watched to make sure he was actually folding the correct page, shame on me), he now flips backward, looking for six-ninety-three. It occurs to me that unless they’re using some kind of skip-counting numbering system, this is an awful lot of hymns. “Six-eighty-six . . . oops, too far,” my dad says, and when he then flips too far forward, back into the seven hundreds, I resist the urge to help him. I feel the disapproving stare of a well-dressed woman across the aisle, and turn to stare back at her until she looks away. Shortly thereafter I see her whispering to an equally well-dressed man whom I presume to be her husband. I look away from them, but through my peripheral vision I still manage to catch the man’s head turn our way. My dad has found six-ninety-three and moved on. His back is straight, his hair is combed, and his shirt might be forty years old, but it’s tucked in. The man across the aisle finally looks away.

“Hey, Mis,” my dad says, leaning slightly toward me. “You feel that wind? Jesus Christ, what is that?”

“Dad . . . shhh. Don’t swear in church. It’s the air conditioning. See the vents up there?”

He looks up at the vaulted ceiling. “Where? Up there? I don’t see anything.” A pause. “Where the hell’s this wind coming from?”

“Dad! Stop swearing!”

“I’m not swearing. Who’s swearing?”

I sigh, but then the organist strikes the opening chords of the processional hymn and my father, having momentarily forgotten the wind, cracks open his vandalized hymnal. The song is one of those Catholic church kind of melodies that seems to veer all over the place while still sounding remarkably similar to every other Catholic church melody I’ve ever heard, save for the Christmas songs. Well, maybe even them. It puts emphasis on strange syllables, and demands a vocal prowess not quite attainable by your average Catholic-church-goer. My dad, though – he sounds good. Nothing fancy, just a nice, clear voice, loud and true and not unpleasant to the ear. Maybe a little extra-loud. But not in a bad way. It’s charming. He’s into it. His finger follows along with the words in the hymnal, which are printed like sheet music.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d put on my bathing suit and was all set to take my kids for a swim in the pool next door when my mom had called. “Can you take Daddy to church?” she asked. “I just feel yucky . . . I can’t go. But you know Daddy. Would you mind?”

I did know Daddy, and I knew his insistence on going to mass every Saturday at 4pm bordered on the obsessive. I also knew that I did, in fact, sort of mind being asked to take him. It was sunny out. I was already in a bathing suit, and I’d spent all day doing stupid chore-like crap. Also, I am still sort of the little kid that says “nooooooooo!” when the parents say it’s time to go to church. Still. I hated the sigh I heard in my voice when I said, “Sure, I can take him . . . no, I don’t mind.”

I also hate the thought of what a rigid individual I have turned out to be, though the phrase “turned out to be” might be pushing it a bit. It’s entirely possible that I have been this rigid all along. I don’t drink mimosas in the morning because I don’t want to be tired by lunchtime. I rarely drop what I’m doing to go do something else, even if that something might be fun. I don’t accept weeknight invitations to dinner at 7pm because that’s too late, I get up early in the mornings. I have been told that I am “no fun.” I only sort of disagree.

Still, everybody knows there’s comfort in routines, and in having plans and sticking to them. Look at my dad. The processional hymn has ended, and now he’s unfolding the corner of that particular page in the hymnal, smoothing it out as if the fold might actually go away. When he closes the book, I can still see the slight gap where the paper doesn’t quite lie flat. We’re in the introductory part of the mass now, and my dad follows right along with all the responses and refrains, even the ones I no longer know because they inexplicably altered them a few years back, effectively undoing years of Catholic school rote memory. He looks as relaxed as he ever has, at least in recent times; the rest of his life might be a fog of confusion and mystery, but here in church, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The organist launches into the next song on the agenda; if you ask me, much of the singing in a Catholic church seems to exist for the express purpose of dragging the mass out as long as possible. The word “alleluia,” for instance, does not take that long to say, but when you stretch it out to ten syllables and set it to somber organ music, it can really slow down the proceedings. As for lifting one’s spirits – well, just forget it. What would be awesome is if they would rewrite some of these cheerless canticles to the tune of, I don’t know, something more lively. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys comes to mind. Surely you could come up with something even better than that, but either way, I can’t be the only one who thinks a good upbeat number or two would do wonders for the Catholic mass.

My dad, though – I’m pretty sure this music that I find so very dreary is not bringing him down in the least. He’s singing like Neil Diamond. I’m not. In fact, I’m having a hard time paying attention at all, because I can’t stop thinking about flexibility versus routines. One the one hand, it seems routines are inarguably good. I mean, maybe my dad’s lifelong church attendance is helping hold him back from a slide into full-on dementia. In any case it clearly brings him comfort. And that’s good. Obviously. Right?

On the other hand is the person like me, who gives up an hour of time as if giving up a limb. Less good. Obviously. Right.

I also keep thinking about something that I read recently; something that I’d known right away would change my life but perhaps has not totally done it quite yet:

It is often to the wary that the events in life are unexpected. Looser types – people who are not busy weighing and measuring every little thing – are used to accidents, coincidences, chance, things getting out of hand, things sneaking up on them. They are the happy children of life, to whom life happens for better or worse.

                        –Laurie Colwin, “A Mythological Subject,” in The Lone Pilgrim.

This is what I aspire to be, and yet judging by my reaction to my mom’s phone call earlier today, I most certainly am not.

I hate not being what I want to be.

As the priest delivers his post-gospel sermon, it’s all swirling around in my head: routines and rigidity, comfort zones and champagne for breakfast. Clearly there is something good to be said for routines. Equally clear is that flexibility and spontaneity should not be completely surrendered. Balance. That’s the answer. Great analysis, I tell myself, because, like who didn’t know that?

And then I spend the remainder of the mass thinking about how much time I’ve spent thinking about this. My dad has most assuredly never spent a minute thinking about such a thing in his life; even back when he had the capacity to over-analyze, he just did what he did and kept moving. I doubt he’d have even second-guessed the ‘no dinner plans after 7:00’ thing. “No, thanks,” he’d have told anyone who asked. “I have a goddamned job to get up for.” And that would be that.

It is possible I have spent way too much of my life thinking about things that ultimately mean nothing. I mean, maybe some things – maybe most things – don’t have to be questioned and pondered and measured, maybe most things don’t have to be deemed good or bad. Maybe most things just are what they are, good in some ways and bad in some ways, and that is the secret to being one of the happy children: don’t fucking think about it so much. Right. Obviously.

God.

Speaking of whom, the mass has ended, and the recessional hymn is underway. Strangely, this is the most uplifting tune of the whole hour, as if to tell us, “Go on, now. . . you’re free! Enjoy! Celebrate!” Most people pack it up and leave before the first verse is over, but my dad has his page marked and he’s not going to waste it. He belts out the song like he’s on Broadway. People have told him he has a nice voice, but I know he doesn’t remember that now and even if he did, he wouldn’t be thinking about it. He’s just singing. He’s a part of the world, doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment.

And when the song is over, he extends his hand to me and I put my hand in his, and we shake. I can’t imagine why, but then, he speaks.

“Well,” he says, “it was good seeing you.”

And because I am pretty well used to this kind of thing, I say, “Yeah, Dad . . . it was good seeing you too.”