Reading the Panama Canal

By Doug Elwell

She would have been happy to live in Antarctica if that was what he wanted. I can picture her sitting on a chaise lounge bundled up in a parka watching penguins frolic on the ice as they slide into the sea—a book in her hands. She would have been okay with that. For over fifty years she gave herself over to his needs and wants. She was like that. They had that kind of marriage.

But they didn’t live on an ice flow in the Antarctic. The last years of their marriage was spent in Sun City, Arizona. They moved there after a stroke left Dad unable to continue his dental practice. He bought a house there because the desert was what he wanted after a lifetime in the sticky humidity of the Midwest summer and the numbing dark cold of its winters. It was where he wanted to be. By day he tottered around his yard on one and a half legs and one arm planting flowers and shrubs. His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and by the look in his eyes—a deer in the headlights. I suspect fear of impending death that could sneak up on him at any moment and he would have no control and control was what he was all about. But in all things, they kept on as best they could and I respected that. Then he died.


I flew to Phoenix on the next available flight. He had named me their executor. It took several days to sort through paperwork with the attorney, but the fact that he had an estate plan smoothed the process and in short order their small estate was settled. Then, what about Mom?

Her small failings, unseen by me because I wasn’t around her on a day-to-day basis, had begun their slow, unforgiving decline. Forgetfulness now, then the gentle drift downward to dementia and Alzheimer’s had she lived long enough. She was never diagnosed. We talked. She knew she was becoming more forgetful. She said she wanted to stay on in Sun City as long as she could. Having been a nurse, she volunteered two or three days each week at the information desk at the hospital across the street. She was one of the grey greeters who directed visitors unfamiliar with the building. She had her circle of friends there, her church, the hospital volunteering. Her nephew lived only a few blocks away and often looked in on her.

‘I can work on my forgetfulness. I’ll keep a pad and pencil on the table with the calendar and write reminders of things I have to do. I can manage that.’

I found un-opened bills in a wicker basket on her kitchen table. Dad had always managed the money in the family and she hadn’t a clue really how to pay her bills. Before I left, I arranged for a woman to look in on her a couple times a week to check her mail and see that bills were paid. Things soon settled into a routine. I wanted to believe she could do it. I wanted to protect her independence as long as possible. So I set my better judgement aside.

When I returned home I called often to visit with her. She seemed to be doing well. She had her church and her ‘job’ at the hospital to keep her busy and she seemed to be managing quite nicely. I took some time the following spring and flew out to see her. She fixed iced tea to take out to the shade of the Florida room.

‘I have some good news.’

‘What’s that Mom?’

‘I’ve been invited to go on a cruise.’

‘Really? How did that come about?’

She explained a retired minister friend was organizing a group to take a cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal and up to New Orleans. She wanted to know what I thought of the idea.

‘Mom, that’s great! You always wanted to travel and now you can.’

‘Do I have enough money?’

‘You have enough to do whatever you want. I’ll get some trip money to you right away.’

I sent the money for her tickets to the reverend who was organizing the trip. Then I deposited money in her checking account with written instructions to withdraw the amount I deposited for her out of pocket expenses on the trip. There was more than enough for her to indulge herself in ports of call for meals, souvenirs and so forth. On the eve of her departure I called and wished her a fun trip. She had her camera packed and was bubbling with excitement I could hear in her voice. I was eager to hear about her trip and told her to call me when she got home.


When she got home she called.

‘Tell me all about it.’

‘It was wonderful. The weather through the Canal was perfect except for a little rain now and again, but I found the ship’s library and settled into a comfortable chair and read. It was a marvelous library. I spent several days there actually. It was heavenly.’ Then she laughed, ‘Between reading magazines and books in the library and eating like a pig, I didn’t have time for sightseeing away from the ship.’

That didn’t sound right. Mom had always been adventurous and I knew she would have taken some of the side tours offered. She was interested in historical places.

‘Did you go to any museums or old ruins or do any shopping?’

‘No. I looked at the list of day trips and didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without, so I mostly stayed on the ship in the library.’

‘What about shopping?’

‘Oh, I didn’t do any. Everything is so expensive in those tourist places you know.’

‘Well, I’m glad you had a good time anyway.’

‘Oh, it was wonderful.’

‘Well Mom, I’m glad you’re home safe and sound. I’m coming out in a few weeks for a visit. I’ll call with details before I leave.’

‘That will be grand. See you then.’

‘Love you Mom.’

‘You too sweetheart.’

After we hung up I sat in the chair thinking. Something wasn’t right. Even being forgetful she hadn’t lost her enthusiasm for adventure. On an earlier visit, I took her on a glider ride at a small airport we passed north of Phoenix and she was thrilled. I went into my small office over the garage and rooted through some papers until I found the number of the reverend who had organized the cruise.

‘I’m glad you called. I felt so badly for your mother.’

‘She didn’t take any money with her did she?’

‘No. She didn’t. I can’t tell you how bad we all felt for her. Several of us took her to lunch when we were in a port. She is such a delightful lady.’

I explained I had money in the bank for her and had given her written instructions to get it before she left, but obviously she didn’t do it. I apologized for inconveniencing the others and sent him a check the next day to reimburse everyone’s expenses.

I thanked the reverend for his kindness and asked him to pass my gratitude to the others.

I went to the kitchen and poured a stiff drink then went out to the machine shed. It stood about fifty yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

She ordered her last days in such a way that she could sit in her chair in the last hour of the afternoon to read. She had a favorite old wing chair in need of re-upholstering in her small sitting room. It sat near the west window. In her late afternoons, she would curl up with a book—a comforter over her lap.



‘It’s the sun,’ she thought, ‘some quality of the late afternoon sun when it filters through the pane and hits the page I’m reading. It is unsteady and thin, yet warm on my cheek. Father is very close to my chair. In the corner of my eye he stands winding his pocket watch he retrieved from his wool vest pocket. An elk’s tooth swings back and forth on the fob as he winds. He bends and kisses me on the head—see you later Kiddo—always the same thing. He is off to his work conducting freight trains. I can’t explain it, but through some sort of alchemy, when the sun hits the page it picks up a quality of light and mixes it with its own—as in stirring tint into a can of paint to create a new color. It turns me into a young girl again and I feel my father close and if the book I’m reading is an old one, I smell tobacco in his vest.’

(c) 2016 Doug Elwell


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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