You would have been 85 today.
Eighty-five. It is so hard for me to fathom, because you are frozen in time for me. I think about you and picture someone in decent health, quick and strong, handsome and deeply tanned from working outside. I never picture you the way you were just before you died. That will never be who you were to me, not even on your worst day, not even right after an operation, or when you were a prisoner to the click-and-whir of a dialysis machine. You will always be towering, capable, commanding, and just a bit grumpy. You will always be smiling at me in that way you never smiled at anyone else. You will always have a stash of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer that are just for us.
Even as I struggle to imagine you as an old man, I wonder all the time what you’d be like now. Would your dark hair have grayed at all, even just a little? Would you still work in the yard? Would you read every day like you once did? Would we disagree about politics? Would you be able to offer me some comfort about the state of our world? I just don’t know. I do think you would talk my husband’s ear off about engineering and industry. I think you would make my son laugh his silent, out-of-control laugh that he reserves for a chosen few. I think you and my daughter, your namesake, would discuss Greek and Norse mythology like a couple of experts. I think you would be the same amount of brilliant and ornery as you are in my memories. I think maybe you’d still be a little grumpy.
I hardly ever talk about you. At first it was because I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to even acknowledge that you once existed in the physical world, and then ceased to do so, without experiencing a complete emotional implosion. Years after you left us, when I was an adult with a mortgage and a job and responsibilities, you came up in conversation once and I got up and left the room. I did not feel very much like an adult in that moment. Perhaps where you are concerned, I, too, am frozen in time somewhere.
I can talk about you these days without too much incident, but I don’t. I think it’s because we never did too much talking ourselves. We had an understanding. I was mostly in my own head back then, and somehow you were there, too. You got me. You knew me. You talked to me, but you never demanded a response, at least not a verbal one. We didn’t have to say a lot of words. You were always singing or whistling or humming. You always held my hand, or rested your own hand on my shoulder as we walked, or hugged me to your side. You always let me help you with whatever you were doing, even if it was complicated, and if I couldn’t help I watched. It was in these hours of quiet companionship, from the kitchen to the tool shed, that I became observant and resourceful. I learned to figure things out by watching you figure things out. I didn’t realize it until much later, so maybe you never knew the significance of your example, or maybe that’s what you had in mind all along. Either way, your presence has guided me through more DIY fixes and repairs and projects than I can count.
Not that you weren’t a talker. My god, could you talk. Mostly you could argue. You could argue with a Maple tree about why it should have been an Oak. It was sport for you, a satisfying pastime. You were usually the clear winner. I once watched your sister-in-law, my great-aunt, grow increasingly infuriated with you as you sat together in the swing “talking about the Bible” one summer afternoon. The two of you “disagreed” on some points, to put it lightly. She got louder and more agitated, and you never once raised your voice, and I think it was this that launched her into hysterics. At one point she stood up, hands on her hips, and faced you as you calmly continued to swing back and forth. Then she walked away, a few feet at a time, stopping frequently to turn around and continue her rebuttal. Eventually she marched home, which was across the road and up the hill in front of your house. There would have been smoke pouring from her ears if that were a real possibility. She stopped on her own front porch and shouted back at you one last time for good measure, “You are insufferable, Ennis Hilbert!” and slammed the door behind her. You were still swinging gently, back and forth. You just smiled and chuckled. “Let’s go get an ice cream sandwich,” you said to me.
Sometimes remembering you is like watching an old movie: the edges are blurred, and the color isn’t quite right. Age and experience tell me this is because I only knew one version of you, and that is partly true: my lense was mostly limited and narrow. There was a time or two when you were someone else, a lead in a completely different feature, with an erratic script and a score that sounded grating and discordant. Remembering those brief flashes is like clicking through channels and stopping inadvertently on a horror film, losing track of the remote before you can switch quickly to another station, fumbling to find the arrow to move past that scene you’d rather not see again. I try to avoid those moments, because on pretty much every other channel is scene after glorious scene. I could watch those for hours.
I am small, probably too young for memory, but this much I remember: I am curled up in your lap. At church. At the Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse. At the preacher’s for dessert after Sunday evening services. In the living room watching old Westerns and daytime soaps. I am curled up in your lap.
I am three or four, and the snow is so deep the cows can’t escape the upper pasture. We hike up to let them out, and they slip and slide down the hill for food and shelter. The snow is still falling. The wind whips it into our eyes. You are wearing your big blue coat with the hood pulled up, and you’ve wrapped me in one of MaMa’s shawls like a blanket. I watch you look around and back down the hill, and then you lift me out of the snow. You sit down and pull me into your lap, and we fly down that hill on the tail of your coat, faster than any sled.
I am five or six, and you are pulling my cousin and me in a trailer behind your tractor. It’s cold–we are bundled up in coats and hats–but Moses, your huge German Shepherd, is stretched out between us, and I am lying against him. I can still feel how warm he was, the thickness of his fur. Around that same time, I cut off my eyelashes with a pair of school scissors, and when you questioned me I told you Moses had done it. That he had bitten my eyelashes right off. Maybe I’m projecting, because I know now how it feels to be undone by a child you love, but I think you fought with everything in you not to laugh at me.
I am seven or eight, and a neighborhood dog is chasing me on my bike. This same dog had snarled and lunged at me on the walk home from the bus stop the week before, and now I am terrified of it. When it begins to chase me I abandon my bike and run for the yard, and you abandon the yard and run after the dog. I watch you sprint, and I am frozen with wonder. I did not know you could move this way, or at this speed. Years later I would find your West Virginia HS Athletic Association track medals from the early 1950s, and when I pictured you sprinting the 200 yard dash or sailing gracefully over hurdles to win those awards, it was as you were that spring day, the day of the dog, in your white collared shirt and khaki pants and the blue and gray sneakers on which I had attached a beaded friendship pin the week before.
I am almost 11, and we are in Florida, visiting that same sister-in-law of yours who stomped up the hill away from you a few years before. We came in your motor home, parking at campgrounds along the way so we could hook the dialysis machine up water and electricity, visiting places like St. Augustine and Jekyll Island, stopping at produce stands for local peaches and corn and tomatoes so red they looked fake. My 92-year-old great granny is with us–we’ve brought her to see her daughter who moved away–and one day we take her to Disney World, where you and your brother-in-law decide to enjoy a cold beer. No one said a word, but it was clear from the tongue-clicking and speed-walking that the sisters did not approve of your beverage choice. They stormed away (a common theme in their family, perhaps?), pushing Granny in a rented Disney wheelchair, her fine white hair flying up in the wake of their rage. You just grinned and walked faster, too.
I am 10 or 11, and it’s a dialysis day. I am curled up in the yellow beanbag eating dinner with you. Jeopardy is on, and you do not miss a single question. I am awed by all the things you know, and I tell myself I too will win at Jeopardy someday, but I don’t. Even now, with a few degrees and 20 years of teaching under my belt, I’m hit or miss, but I always think about you when I come across Alex Trebek and his ever so slightly derisive “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not right” on TV.
I am probably 13, too big for your lap, but I am sitting there anyway. Some things never change.
Some things will never change: you will never be 85. Your hair will never be white. My kids won’t ever know you. I will never know your thoughts about the current administration, will never hear you condemn terrorism, will never worry that we might lock horns over some political or social issue. I will never FaceTime you, or read an email from you in my inbox, or show you how to send a text message. But somewhere in my memory you will always be showing me the way, or pulling me into your embrace, or running as fast as you can to my rescue, and even on the days when I struggle to remember what your voice sounded like, I can still hear you whistling in the swing as we rock back and forth, back and forth, and the only other sound is the waxy wrapper of the ice cream sandwich tearing as I rip it away. The cookie sticks to my fingers, like it does every time, and I lick them, same as always. It still tastes exactly the same.