My father sat across from me in a restaurant booth. Here was a man I hardly recognized: vulnerable. Two days before, cancer had killed my mom in the bedroom they shared for almost 30 years.
"So how's school going?" he asked.
"Fine," I said.
"You know, your mother wanted you to go."
"I know, Dad."
"You know, she was happy that you..."
"I know, Dad."
I've since heard my father compared to early Paul Newman characters like Cool Hand Luke, a prisoner whose bulletproof resolve leads to trouble. But if my dad—a retired air force colonel, devoted Christian, and family patriarch—has a flaw, it's one we share. Or, as Luke put it, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
Because we couldn't talk about God, politics, or her, we went to Best Buy. We trolled the fluorescent aisles, browsing among shiny objects. It smelled like plastic. It sounded like static, an incipient white noise holding hostage otherwise erratic thoughts.
Talking about operating systems counts as a conversation between my father and me. The man owns his own power generator, fiber-optic flashlight, and solar-powered radio. I've had my gearhead phases, too: rock climbing, photography, and lighting design equipment. We are a lot alike. We are completely opposite. I'm Apple, he's PC.
While we've always been gadget crazed, the high-tech spree began after the hospital sent her home to die under hospice care. My father upgraded every possible device to provide comfort and make life easier. But the week preceding the funeral was an all-out electronics binge.
My dad bought two additional keyboards (one collapsible, one hardwired) for his newly acquired laptop, a wireless mouse and a wireless modem to connect our portables along with his desktop to the printer. We had a lot of work to do, a funeral to plan. We needed all systems up and running. This we threw ourselves into with zealotry fit for presidential elections. Every hour brought something else we needed: USB cables, another modem, better software, photo paper, ink cartridges.
My older sister arrived with a PowerPoint presentation featuring family photographs set to music—a Hawaiian ukulele player's rendition of "Over the Rainbow." We bought an LCD projector to display the slideshow. We could have borrowed one, but all projectors were not created equal, we knew.
I drove an hour south to buy a mini disc player to record the service. It wasn't enough to turn on an analog tape recorder. We needed top-quality sound, good enough for a movie, but burnable to CD.
We spent a lot of time getting these devices to work. While my brothers transported family members, and my sisters went to the morgue, my dad and I saw to all things technical. We hardly had time for condolences.
When visitors arrived, we made them watch the PowerPoint presentation, thereby determining the proper focus for any given square feet of distance, from projector to screen.
"Computer stuff," my older brother said, when someone asked our whereabouts. "They're in there doing computer stuff."