Three years ago today my father died. Last year this piece was published in Prime Decimal, an online journal.
One: The doorbell rings. Your feet hurt a little as you walk from your bedroom to the stairwell and down the top stair. It’s Friday, it has been a busy week, and though the weekends are lonely, on Saturday you will put on your favorite gray corduroy pants and the red flannel shirt we gave you for Father’s Day, watch ball games and talk to some of us on the phone. On Sunday you’ll put on a suit, go to church and sing in the choir.
Two: The second stair, like the first, is fairly easy even though you are in a hurry to get the door, to pay the man who worked in the yard today. The money you pay him is so appreciated he always says, and though he does only a so-so job it is worth it because you are helping him. So many people you’ve helped through the years: giving donations, tutoring, baking pound cakes, sending get well cards.
Three: Three times a month you deliver meals to shut-ins. You, eighty-eight years old, get in your car and knock on the doors of those too old or too tired or too sick to fix food for themselves. You feel so fortunate as you walk down their stairs and sidewalks to drive to the house you’ve lived in for sixty years. “Three,” you think as you count your way downstairs.
Four: On the fourth stair you falter, grab the rail with a veined and arthritic hand. You re-balance and move on. Four times this month you have gone to funerals of friends; you know how fragile life is and how “like that” it can all be over.
Five: On the wall beside the steps is a picture of our mom, dead now these twenty-five years, with whom you had the five of us. Five children with children of our own, lives of our own, we don’t need you that much anymore and you try not to need us either. You keep the bad news from us: questionable doctors’ reports, high blood sugar, low energy, knees and back that ache as you move to the sixth stair.
Six: The knocking at the door has urgency now that you can detect even without your hearing aids in. We talk too loud when you wear them, too quietly when you don’t, make fun of you by saying, “Huh?” to each other when we think you can’t hear us. “One minute, I’m coming,” you call out as you move one stair closer to the bottom.
Seven: Your mother just died seven years ago. Maybe you’re only now beginning to feel free, an adult without a parent to answer to. You could live to be as old as she was—a hundred and one. You move carefully to the next stair.
Eight: Eight seconds it has taken you to get to this stair, eight seconds that your life is still productive; it’s still a time when you've never missed a Rotary meeting and go to work every day and sit in your chair in your house, yes, lonely but gratefully self-sufficient, so glad to be alive. And then for some reason you will never understand, you've miscounted the stairs—was it when you stumbled on the fourth one?—and your foot hits only air and you’re falling in a twist, landing heavily, awkwardly on the worn brown carpet. The pain is engulfing you so you can’t think and groans issue from somewhere inside you and the knocking at the door is more insistent; “Mr. Lewis? Mr. Lewis?” is muffled in your ears, but you can’t reach the doorknob or even the deadbolt key, and somewhere behind the pain, as frightening as what has happened to your body, is the certainty that you have counted your last stair.