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When in Rome

My father is slowing down. This became most apparent in Rome this past summer.

A former football coach, he would doze off in piazzas and wake up speaking of the defensive secondary plays his players use in different scrimmages. It was bizarre. He would wake up from a nap telling me about different patterns and zone defenses that Pitt or Tennessee would run.

My mother would say, "You're in Rome, Joe. Snap out of it!"

He thought the Tiber River was the Potomac River where he grew up in Washington DC, and when he pointed to St. Peter's Basilica, he said, "There's the Washington Monument, folks."

One day I set him to writing postcards at the table. I thought that would occupy him while everyone was getting ready.

I should say that were traveling, nine of us, ages nine to 82. So we all had to slow down, but I was especially aware of slowing down for my father.

So I gave him postcards and on one he wrote:

"Dear Lucy, We are having a fine time in Rome. All we miss is your presents."

For some reason that made me sad.

"All we miss is your presents."

He used to write with such precision and accuracy and now the handwriting was shaky too.

I didn't correct it but I asked Lucy about it later, and she said she didn't notice. She was just happy to get a postcard from Rome and from "Curby" - her grandfather.

But Dad was cranky in Rome, and he had to get the train station hours ahead. He was terribly anxious and was only himself when eating and drinking. There was a lot of eating and drinking.

He liked the waiter at one restaurant and told him a joke - (who knows what it was?)

But later Dad said, "I told that waiter a joke and that guy didn't crack a smile."

I said, "Well, he probably doesn't speak English."

Dad said, "Hell, I know that. I know that."

In a store, he asked a clerk, "Where is your tonic water?"

The clerk ignored him.

Dad said, "Have it your way, buddy."

He had never seen so much art in his life. In a way, I think all that art broke his brain or that is what it felt like on those sweltering days in Rome when I would seek out glacial fountains to splash and drink and soak a scarf to wear sopping wet to stay cool.

His belly seemed to grow with pasta and gelato. The cars in Italy are tiny, and he could only fit into the front seat. My sister said it was like the car had to birth Dad each time he struggled to get out of it.

Now when I ask him he remembers loving every bit of Rome, but this was not the case. But one night he was crystal clear.

My sister and I made a pact to dilute his wine, so I happily jumped up to refill his glass with half water and half wine out of his sight.

But then he said, "Kerry," in a low and stern voice like he did when I was a kid and in trouble.

He said, "I see why you're so eager to get my wine. You're pouring water in it. I'm disappointed in you."

I was eleven again.

Kiffen, my husband, shouted, "It's a miracle - water into wine!"

I made some excuse but I was shocked that he knew.

Did I get annoyed with him?

Absolutely.

Did he hurt my feelings with his temper or his disapproval?

Not really.

It was strange. I think because I've gone to so many 12-step meetings where you learn that you get to choose how you react to a situation.

I had never learned that growing up and had always taken things so personally.

And in Rome, I realized I didn't have to take Dad's temper personally.

Did his temper bring back memories?

Yes.

But I wasn't reacting to it the way I did as a child, which was always to burst into tears.

In Rome, I breathed and looked at art and studied the cobblestones and ancient buildings.

And I would take my Dad's arm and kiss his cheek and tell him I loved him.

I also made a vow to myself that I would go back when I wasn't traveling with eight other people.

Dad's opinion of the art?

He said it loud and clear one day, "A lot of tallywackers, folks, a whole lot of tally-wackers."

My mother rolled her eyes and moved on to study the Bernini sculptures wearing her headphones.

Life in the Fast Lane

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