April 1, 2020

A Love That Never Dies

I’m one of those people who feel guilty reading a book twice. So it was with great surprise when my father told me, as we prepared to pack up his belongings, that he’d be taking many of his dust-covered favorites with him.

“But there’s so much out there still to be read,” I argued. “True,” he answered, “but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’d just like to spend the time I have left with some old friends.”

My father is 83 and getting ready to move into the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. His words struck me for their lucidity — he’s been in failing health for years. And so I wondered: What other “old friends” would he be keeping now that he’d chosen to remove mortality’s rose-colored glasses?

A few weeks later, I again found myself at his house winnowing down a wardrobe accumulated over years, holding up various articles of clothing one at a time. Almost as if playing out some macabre Roman tableau, they’d either be given a thumbs up or thumbs down. My father was merciless in the application of his “old friends” rule toward whatever it was I happened to have in hand.

This went on for hours. I’d pull something off the shelf; he’d yea or nay it. The nays were tossed into a pile on the floor that, as the afternoon wore on, rose to the height of my chest. I’m 6 feet 1. The yeas either were returned to the shelf or hung back up and allowed to live another day.

When our days are numbered, I’ve learned that it’s love, above all, that shines the brightest.

For a while it was even fun. Who doesn’t feel the need to clear out their closet? Who hasn’t accumulated clothes they rarely wear? For my father, a retired Conservative rabbi, every item seemed to have a story, whether it was a T-shirt from a visit to the Great Wall of China, a galabeya picked up in Amman, or a sweat jacket given to him by The City of Hope hospital for his volunteer work. Heck, I even scored some stuff that was old enough to be hip (black corduroy jacket, anyone?).

Then we came to his uniform. My father served as a United States Air Force chaplain for four years in active duty and 28 in the reserves. I’m also, in military parlance, an Air Force brat, having been born on a base. We Kollin kids grew up climbing in and out of old bombers, going to air shows and watching space shuttles land. But that’s not what I remember most. The best part was always, always, watching the MPs salute my dad as we drove onto base (he retired as a lieutenant colonel). To this day, my respect and awe for our military personnel is entirely because of him.

I lifted his dress blues, carefully protected in a clear plastic garment bag, sure of which way Emperor Kollin’s thumb was going to point. But I was wrong.

“Dad, they’re your dress blues. You can’t.”

“And when,” he asked, “will I ever wear them again?”

We both knew the answer was never. This was not a book he could re-read and enjoy. This was the memento of a distinguished past he could never recapture. Experience was more powerful than memory.

By putting his dress blues in the “nay” pile, there was no denying the painful truth that my days with my father were numbered — that we were easing past the time of symbols and into the ineluctability of life.

There’s a beautiful song by Tim McGraw called “Live Like You Were Dying,” in which a man who finds out he has months to live, suddenly sees the world in a way he never had before. He loves, he laughs, he forgives and he accepts. And his ode to the world is that all people should learn to live like that, too. This, I believe, is my father’s song.

There’s another song, one by Patty Loveless, called “I Already Miss You Like You’re Already Gone.” That’s mine. Both songs take a hard look at taking nothing for granted like, say, the love between a father and a son.

When our days are numbered — which is true for all of us — I’ve learned that it’s love, above all, that shines the brightest. Love for old books, love for old friends, and love for all those we crave to spend more time with.

Dani Kollin is the award-winning co-author of the “Unincorporated” books and an advertising creative director in Los Angeles.