My dad surprised me with two gifts towards the end of his life. Both came with expectations I ignored at the time. I regret that now.
In those days, he and my mother made an annual trip from the Connecticut home where I’d grown up to visit my family in San Diego. My wife and I were both teachers. Our daughter, Rosie, wasn’t yet in school, and we kept her out of her regular daycare while they were there so they could spend as much time as possible with her. They took walks together, went to the playground up the street, read books, colored, baked, things like that. My mother organized these activities and my father tagged along or sat reading the newspaper nearby. When my wife and I got home from work in the late afternoon, my mother would already have dinner warming in the oven, and Rosie would watch television while the rest of us had cocktails and some sort of appetizer my mother had put together. My wife and I didn’t normally do that, but it had been a ritual for my parents for as long as I could remember.
It was during our initial cocktail hour on both of those last two trips that my father gave me his gifts. The first was a grandfather wall clock that had been his own dad’s and had occupied a place of honor in the front foyer of their little five-room house in Waterbury. It remained there ticking faithfully and chiming on the hour until my grandparents had each passed away and my father and his brother sold their house and most of their belongings. My father had kept the grandfather clock as a keepsake. It was about two feet tall, made of black lacquered wood, and had a round face with gold-plated numbers and hands. A small bronze eagle adorned its top, its wings raised as if it was about to lift off in flight, and a painting of a clipper ship on high seas was encased in its square base. My father never used it himself, but kept it at the back of a hall closet wrapped in the towel in which he gave it to me.
“Wow,” I said after I’d unwrapped it on my lap. I felt my eyes widen as I looked from it to him. “Thanks.”
He nodded, his expression full of pride and solemn satisfaction. “It’s at least a hundred years old,” he said quietly. “I wanted you to have it.”
“Your father thinks it’s some sort of talisman,” my mother said. Her tone was slightly weary. She shook the ice in her empty glass.
“It’s certainly an heirloom,” my father told us. “No disputing that. An important piece of family history.”
“It’s beautiful,” my wife murmured.
Rosie had come over from her spot in front of the television and was running her finger across the clock’s face where the hands stood still. She looked at my father and asked, “How does it work?”
The sound he made was something between a snort and a chuckle. “Well, that’s the thing. I checked it before we left and it doesn’t right now. Something’s wrong with the winding mechanism. I’m trusting you can find a repair shop that will fix it.”
“In the meantime,” my wife said, “I know just where to put it.”
We watched her cross the room and take down a framed photograph from our honeymoon that had been hanging next to the front door and had faded with age. She replaced it with the grandfather clock. Rosie clapped her hands.
“It does look nice there,” my mother said.
My father nodded. “Perfect.”
I nodded, too, but forgot about the repair.
He gave me the second gift during their next visit the following year. We were about halfway through cocktail hour, my parents and I on the couch, Rosie in front of the television again, and my wife behind us in the bedroom of our infant son, Ben. He’d been born earlier that year severely disabled and medically fragile; the dysmorphologist who treated him called it an undiagnosed genetic syndrome. He spent six weeks after birth in the NICU and had already been hospitalized three other times for ‘Failure to Thrive” and pneumonias. He basically needed round-the-clock care for all his living needs, which my wife and I shared while we waited toqualify for home health nursing. We’d both nearly maxed out our extended family leave at work. My wife came back into the living room, keeping Ben’s bedroom door open, and collapsed in the armchair across from the couch. The dark circles under her eyes and exhaustion on her face were what I saw each time I looked in the mirror. I watched her exchange grim nods with my mother.
“How’s he doing?” my mother asked.
“Okay.” My wife blew at a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her face and tucked it behind an ear. “Had a short seizure. Needed to suction his trach, increase his O2, reposition him, and undo a kink in the connection to his G-tube.”
Quiet laughter came from the cartoon Rosie was watching followed by the regular, steady cacophony of whirs and whines from the oxygenator, mister, sat monitor, and feeding pump in the bedroom.
“So,” my father announced from where he sat between my mother and me. He put his drink down on the coffee table and lifted something about the size of a bulky loaf of bread wrapped in another towel from between his feet. He handed it to me. “Here. I brought you another little present.”
Like my grandmother’s, his eyes were downturned at the outside edges, gentle, tender. At that moment, they seemed even more-so than usual. Ben coughed in his room, a little explosion of secretions.
Rosie came over next to me and said, “What is it?”
I smiled at her. “Unwrap it and see.”
She took off the towel. Underneath was a duck decoy. Its balsa wood, the color of creamed coffee, was unfinished and tattered in spots. Both Rosie and I studied the decoy for a few seconds, then turned to my father with curious frowns.
“I stumbled across it a few weeks ago at a yard sale on one of my morning walks,” he said and shrugged. “I just liked it and wanted to give it to you.”
When I’d been little, my father had spoken fondly of his duck hunting trips with my grandfather. It was something he often talked about doing with me, but which never actually happened.
My mother said, “I told him it was a piece of junk. What’s someone with a disabled son going to do with an old duck decoy in San Diego, California?”
I watched my father purse his lips and run his hand, it seemed to me almost lovingly, across the curve of the decoy’s back. He shrugged again, then lifted the duck’s head away along a thin crack from a post poking up from inside its body. “This needs to be glued or something. And of course, it should be refinished. Sanded and stained. It’s pretty delicate, but you can find someone with the expertise do those things.”
“Sure,” I said. I juggled the almost weightless decoy in my lap. “You bet I can. I love it.”
I saw him glance over at the grandfather clock. I know he’d tested the winding mechanism after he first arrived because I’d heard him mutter about it from where I sat snuggling Ben and humming him his goodnight songs from the rocking chair in his room.
“I can,” I told him. “And I will.”
But I didn’t. However, he wasn’t around to discover that, too, because he passed away from a heart attack the following summer just as my siblings, their families, and my own were getting ready to head back to Connecticut to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Ben was almost four the Saturday morning I found my wife perched on the edge of the couch waiting for me when I returned from dropping Rosie at soccer practice. She was wearing her fleece jacket and had a small suitcase at her feet. There was an envelope with Rosie’s name on it on the coffee table.
She gave me a sad smile and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done being a martyr. I have a right to be happy.”
It felt like the floorboards had given way beneath me. I heard myself say, “What do you mean?”
“I admire you, I respect you, but I don’t love you anymore.”
My heart hammered. “Is there someone else?”
“That’s only part of it.”
I began to weep. Except for the noises of Ben’s medical equipment, it was silent until she stood up and lifted the suitcase to her side. I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arm. The front door closed behind her, her footsteps hurried down the front walk, and the sound of her car driving away had completely disappeared before I lowered myself to my knees.
I was served with divorce papers while I was on bus duty in front of my school that next afternoon. I did everything I could to make her change her mind, but she refused to respond in any way to my attempts at communication. The divorce was finalized eight months later; the terms included her having Rosie with her half the time at the condo she moved into with her lover, and Ben stayed with me. By then, I had regular home nursing each day while I was at work and overnight, so unless he was hospitalized, I was only responsible for his care during the remaining hours. Like me, Rosie was devastated at first, but seemed to adjust or become resigned over time, certainly better than I was able to. The periods when Rosie was with her mom and I was alone caring for Ben were the hardest for me; the house seemed so quiet then, it fairly screamed. I wandered through it aimlessly staring out windows, leafing through old photograph albums, rearranging items. I often paused at the grandfather clock and the duck decoy where I’d placed it on a bookcase in the corner of the living room, but did nothing about either until a thought struck me several weeks after the divorce became final.
I waited until the next weekday school holiday when Ben was with his nurse to drive with both to an appliance repair shop I’d passed many times on my way to and from school. It was a tiny place wedged between a nail salon and a laundromat in a disheveled strip mall at the edge of town. Bells tinkled on the door when I came inside. An old man wearing a work apron over a plaid shirt looked up from behind the front counter and set aside the toaster and screwdriver he’d been holding. He adjusted the rimless spectacles on his nose as he watched me approach. I carried the grandfather clock in one hand and the duck decoy in the other, both covered in their original towels. I set the grandfather clock on the counter in front of the man and took off the towel.
“Wondering if you can fix this,” I said. “Winding mechanism doesn’t work.”
The man’s eyes went from my own to the clock. He studied it for more than a minute, turning it every which way in his hands. Finally, he said, “This is quite an antique. Made before the turn of the last century, probably in England.”
I watched him open the latch at the bottom and swing free the little door in which the clipper ship was encased. He moved the pendulum bob inside so it rang the chimes, and memories flooded back to me from visits to my grandparents’ house when I was young. Next, he twisted the key as I’d seen my grandfather do, and a clicking sound followed that was different than the ratcheting one I’d heard years ago. I watched the man shake his head, close the door, and look at me again. His eyes reminded me of my father’s.
“Well,” he said. “Of course, there won’t be replacement parts anymore for something this old, but I can try repairing the mechanism. I might have to replace it altogether, though.”
“That’s fine. Whatever you need to do.” I paused. “I do have something else, but it’s not an appliance.
He slid the clock to the side and said, “Show me.”
I put the decoy down in front of him and lifted away the towel. His eyebrows knit as he said, “What’s this?”
“Like for a blind?”
“No, never have.” I took off the duck’s head, then replaced it on its post. “This needs to be secured. And I’d like it stained or protected somehow.”
His stare was steady and puzzled, but kind.
“Truth is,” I said, “my father gave me both of these shortly before he died.” I shrugged.
He nodded slowly, then juggled the decoy in his hands and turned it around like he had the clock. “Well,” he said again. “You’re right, it’s not appliance, but I do woodworking as a hobby. A bit of epoxy should take care of the head. Don’t think this would tolerate much more than light sanding, but I could put a coat of sealant and clear resin on it. Keep the coloring the way it is. Kind of nice like that.”
A little bubble rose in me that felt something like hope. I felt a small smile crease my lips.
He said, “Give me a couple weeks.”
I took a turn nodding. “Thanks. It really means a lot to me.” I found myself gripping the counter. “I mean, it’s something important I can see repaired, you know? Something that can be fixed.”
“Sure,” he said softly. His eyes smiled, too, and he patted the back of my hand.
I watched him carefully replace the towels over the clock and decoy, then carry them through a curtain into a back room. Dust floated in a slant of sunlight over the counter where they’d been. I blew out a long breath. The bells on the shop door tinkled again as I let myself out into air that was cool and crisp.
William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal,december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, has received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020. He lives in San Diego, California.