Her father’s skin was paper thin and his hair had no color. She stroked his head and leaned close to hear him.
“Remember when we went riding?"
“I sure do. Daddy. I remember all the times we went riding.”
“I liked that. We had fun. Is Big Pancho in the stable?”
“Well .. yes, Daddy. He’s fine.”
“Those were good times. We rode all over.”
“We sure did, Daddy.”
He dozed and woke, dozed again as she sat by his side. The afternoon passed for the two of them.
“Remember when we went riding?”
“I sure do, Daddy.”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. You rode close to the cliff ..”
“Oh, that’s OK, Dad ..
“I was afraid Big Pancho might slip .. If I had lost you ..”
“I’m fine, Daddy.”
“Are you ready to go? Put on your coat, honey ..”
“All set, Daddy!”
“Did you ride him here?”
His eyes waited, watery, half open.
She hesitated, then nodded.
“May I have a drink of water?”
He took such a small sip it was almost nothing.
“I love you. Do you like school?”
“Yes, I do, Daddy.”
Again he dozed and she didn’t mind. waiting. He had a long life for her to reflect on. Half an hour passed, and she heard muted sounds outside his suite. They brought his dinner and she fed it to him. He didn't eat much and then dozed. She sang old cowboy songs they always loved. "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". "Don't Fence Me In". Ever so softly. She didn't know if he could hear her.
“Do you remember when we went riding?
“I sure do, Daddy.”
She sat up straight and looked around. There were pictures of them all from when they were little. The nurses said he was in little or no pain. His letterman’s jacket lay draped over a chair, the jacket Mom once wore on campus. He liked to wear it when they took him outside in his wheelchair. In the dim light, the machines beeped and hummed. Against her hip, his body felt small, fragile. He used to break horses. While he dozed she waited. Her sister had dinner guests. Mom would inspect Dad before he left, straighten his tie, lick her finger and press a cowlick down if he had one, pull his coat here and here so it fit perfect, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. Then she would pat both his shoulders, as if to say “OK!”
To the daughter, it seemed like ancient times, and a month ago, too. They never lived far apart, their families. She came here twice a week. Waiting was no imposition at all. None.
She waited. He still wore a little of his old shaving lotion. They didn't make it any more but her sister found a bottle and bought it do him.
From the corner of her eye, the daughter saw her father gasp, hardly more than a baby belches. His eyes started to open, faded now, once so blue. She saw him sag, and his machines changed the noise they made. She held her face against his and touched his shoulders. He insisted they shave him every day, and close. She held him tight, his daughter.
The little woman assigned to him came inside, held her fingers to his wrist, stood back, waited for the daughter. They exchanged a look of understanding, and hugged each other.
“May I stay with him a minute?” the daughter asked.
“Sure,” the woman said, and she was gone in her quiet way.
The daughter combed her father’s hair and wiped his saliva from his chin. He didn’t look surprised. He looked tired, so tired.
She stroked his forehead with one hand and held his hand with the other. She’d call her sister who would call everyone. Make the arrangements. She was surprised at how peaceful she felt herself, and lighter. She didn’t need to worry about her daddy any more. They’d been good to him here. She had to get back. Her youngest son’s daughter was due any time. There had been talk of naming the child after his great grandfather, the horseman.
She got down on her knees and bowed. Her head touched her father’s chest.
“You meant everything to us, Daddy. You and Mom. Everything. We’ll see you later.”
She got up and washed her face in his bathroom, freshened her makeup, combed her hair.
When she walked out, the staff members smiled at her and mouthed the words “Good night”. Sad smiles, warm smiles. She returned a smile and waved, not stopping. Several of the old people saw her, stared, looked at each other. The daughter said good night to each calling each one by name.
Outside it was chilly. Inside her car, she realized she left her coat in Dad’s room. She turned on the heater and drove off anyway.
She went by their old house first. All the owners had taken good care of it. In the years that passed, trees had been planted and grown tall. The horses, stable, tack room and corral had been in back, gone many years now. Same with the canyons where they rode.
She was calm and drove home in silence. Her husband stood at the door from the hallway to the garage. She stepped out and he led her by the hand inside.
Before she changed, she had sat down in the kitchen and they had a drink. He waited.
“Well, that’s that,” she said, and after a few seconds they chuckled.
She could rest now, have dinner and rest. There was nothing more she could do.
February 1, 2023