Several days before Thanksgiving my 83-year-old father arrived at the El Paso airport from New Hampshire.
The following day, Linda, Dad, and I visited Juárez. At the El Paso Convention Center we boarded the “Border Jumper Trolley”―actually a simulated trolley with rubber tires―that inched across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge, over the Rio Grande and into the Mexican megalopolis. We disembarked not far into downtown Juárez with an assurance from the trolley’s PA system―comforting, no doubt, to at least some of the Yankee passengers remembering The Alamo―that the trolley would return us to the United States on the same day from the same location.
The section of the city through which we walked with no particular destination in mind was crowded, chaotic, and shabby. Street and sidewalk construction had created giant holes that were, at least by standards to the north, insufficiently barricaded. I feared my father, who at this point in his life was walking slowly and unsteadily, would disappear into one of them, becoming a permanent part of Juárez’s municipal water system, a Border legend. But, to my relief, he remained in view. I could see he was, as in New Mexico, fascinated by the heavily-painted Latinas.
One morning he joined me at the college. I introduced him to a number of my students, some of whom commuted from Juárez. Prior to our arrival, I shared with him some of the phrases I’d grown accustomed to using since teaching in the border city. Thus, “No hablo Español,” said Dad while smiling and extending his cool, prominently-veined right hand to a student, who gently clasped the hand while returning his smile.
On a chilly Thanksgiving evening, pecan logs burned in our fireplace, producing a vibrant flame, but a somewhat bitter smoke. As the turkey cooked, I slipped a CD Dad had brought with him into the player, and Dad danced with Linda to Errol Garner’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly,” which Dad had lately indicated was his favorite song.
My father was now mostly deaf and had had little success with hearing aids, although this didn’t frustrate him. In fact, he rarely complained about anything. Since I had last seen him, he had been diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack, or “mini stroke,” and as a result was easily confused. He never mentioned the stroke. For years his favorite outdoor activity was skiing on New Hampshire’s King Hill. Now, however, my sister and I knew he would never ski again. Yet our father, to our surprise―for he had always struck us as someone willing to acknowledge his limitations―continued to talk as if he would.
During the visit, a discussion of nursing homes occurred, not in regard to my father’s health―my sister and I had never suggested to him that he might be a candidate for “long-term care”―but merely incidental to Linda’s adult-medicine practice prior to moving to Anthony. Then, my father, who was still living independently, weighed in with a remark that was gaining in frequency with him: he said he would kill himself, preferably by an overdose of his prescription medications or by car-exhaust asphyxiation, before entering a nursing home. It was not a threat, rather merely a declaration as he calmly sipped his martini and gazed contentedly into the blue and gold flames dancing upon pecan logs. Several days after Thanksgiving, we returned Dad to the El Paso airport. It would be his final visit to the Southwest.
Perhaps due to their being thrust into a climate far more arid than New England’s, my father’s legs itched often during his stay, and their skin, now loose and papery with age, bled easily. With Dad’s departure, I stripped and bundled the sheets and mattress cover, both spotted with blood, from his bed. Proceeding with the bundle to the laundry room, I passed the guest bathroom that now reeked of the 1950’s, of Mennen Skin Bracer.
Six years later, Dad passed with relative comfort into the mystic―“Nothing to get riled about,” he assured my sister hours before his death―at a lovely assisted-living facility he willingly entered in his New Hampshire town. The facility included a bar, open late-afternoons, stocked by the residents, and tended by various volunteer townspeople. My father’s weakness was vodka martinis. Not long after his arrival, the bar had to display a two-drink-maximum sign as my father was frequently requesting thirds, thus prompting his fellow residents to do the same, all of which almost resulted in a mutiny of sorts. In any event, those chilly New Hampshire cocktail hours were likely warmed with tales of Old and New Mexico by a certain fellow.