Joyce Pellino Crane

Some things you can't get back

By Joyce Pellino Crane
June 21, 2009
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THE ASIAN WOMAN inside the ladies room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel looked perplexed, so I clicked my lipstick case shut and asked if something was wrong. Moments before, I’d seen her sticking notes to one of the elegant bathroom stall doors.

“I flushed my Rolex watch down the toilet,’’ she said in halting English. It was worth $10,000. Her scribbles on the notes said something about not using the toilet. As I sympathized, I absent-mindedly felt my wrist for my sterling silver bangle and realized it, too, was gone - lost somewhere between the Lowell commuter rail and these bathroom pipes.

I was attending a conference in May on venture capital, where the woman had come from Taiwan to promote her business to potential investors. She would later make a presentation in one of the meeting rooms, but at that moment she had a single-minded focus - to get the watch back.

My bracelet had cost about $20 and I wanted it back, too. It had an inscribed sentiment that I regretted losing. The words came from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but my connection had little to do with religion. A year earlier, I’d noticed them in my father’s office where he’d taped a clipping of the scripture to his desk shelf.

I had arrived at his Florida home on the day he died - a few hours too late to bid him goodbye at the hospital. His name was Paul. So I tended my broken heart with an old routine - I began rifling through his desk just as I had done as a child.

It was an effort designed to unravel the aura of mystery that had always surrounded him. I read every cartoon, prayer, and clipping taped to the shelves. I opened the file drawer and pulled out a treasure of memories: postcards and letters received while he served in Europe during World War II, photographs, report cards from junior high school, and literature on the prostate cancer that doctors said wouldn’t kill him, but did. Inside a spare wallet were three photos: baby pictures of his three children.

The more I snooped, the more I realized that everything that mattered to him was contained in this desk - a cluttered mess of papers, records, and pictures of the latest pope.

Love is patient, love is kind, said the scripture. Here’s how he lived his life, I realized, and I was only now taking note.

It was a spotlight on my own shortcomings, and for weeks afterward I repeated the phrase like a mantra. Then I forgot about it. So when my sister bought me the bracelet that had the words inscribed on it, it took on a symbolism, and served as a reminder of how I so often miss the mark.

A few weeks before he died, my father interrupted my phone conversation with my mother to say hello. He rarely spoke on the phone because he could no longer hear well enough to understand the conversation. He was losing weight, my mother mentioned before assuring me that all his medical tests were negative. He didn’t look good, my brother e-mailed me. I couldn’t take it in. Fathers don’t die - even at 84.

On the phone that night, he asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me, Joyce?’’ The uncharacteristic question was one last opportunity to say the words that matter. My thoughts raced. I love you, Dad. You kept me safe. You were as consistent as time. I didn’t say them. (Love is not proud.)

I was perturbed that he’d missed a recent milestone in his grandson’s life - that he’d chosen to attend the wedding of another grandchild instead. (Love is not jealous.)

It was the last time I spoke with him.

Hotel management at the Mandarin fished out the Rolex using an underwater camera, according to the businesswoman. Hours later I recorded a video of her happily displaying the watch on her wrist. Regardless of my own loss, I left content that I’d witnessed the end of her story. Too bad life doesn’t always wrap up so neatly.

Joyce Pellino Crane is a Globe correspondent.

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