BY LATE JANUARY THE GROUND was still bare, and Dad was setting off on a major journey. Each day he seemed to grow a bit more abstracted from his shrinking world. He was never short with any of us. If his grandchildren were on hand, he would watch them playing around his bed with deep delight, and he never ceased following Mom with his eyes.
Sometimes the world he was visiting seemed inscrutable. Once I asked him what he was thinking so deeply about, and he replied, in a loud voice, "Insects!" But he did tell Mom several times that he constantly saw a white line in front of his eyes. One morning, when he was more alert than usual and when we had the house to ourselves, I asked him if he could describe the line to me. He asked for a pencil and, gripping it tightly in his shaking hand, drew a wavering line about two-thirds of the way across the page and labeled it R. On the edge of the paper, he drew a wavering circle and with great effort wrote "W. Ocean" across it. (In a lifetime of writing, they were the last words he ever wrote.) The picture represented, he said, a "typical Western river" leading to a "Western ocean."
"And what does that ocean mean?" I asked.
"Infinity," he said. "Completeness."
He nodded off for a few moments and then woke back up. Why didn't the river connect to the ocean? I asked.
There were, he said, necessary tasks still to be done, but he couldn't find the words to say what they were.
"Is death more scary to think about or more peaceful?" I asked.
"More peaceful," he said emphatically, and then drifted back to sleep.
That night at dinner he seemed happy—we'd been discussing "ultimate truths," he told Mom, with just a little smile to let us know he knew how unlike him it was to discuss ultimate truths. But a new man was clearly taking shape before our eyes.