When All That’s Left Is the Board

"We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time." - Vince Lombardi

“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
– Vince Lombardi

King’s pawn to e4.

My dad has opened every chess game with this classic move. But this time, I’m not the one sitting across from him. It’s Nick, and he’s matched my dad’s move with an equally classic response.

King’s pawn to d5.

The two figures will stare each other down for the rest of the game.

Before this year, I had only beaten my dad once. It took us both by surprise. Left with only a bishop, knight, queen, and a smattering of pawns, I had haphazardly zeroed in on my dad’s king until he had nowhere left to run.

“Check,” I announced proudly, then, looking at the pieces again added, “…mate?

He examined the board – I could see from the rapid movement of his eyes, he was not only verifying the win, but replaying the moves that had led to this conclusion.

“Yes,” he finally said, then added, “Good game.”

He could well have said, “it’s raining outside” because his words were a statement of fact, not a verbal high-five. But I was used to it. After all, this was a West Indian household and superior performance was just the status quo. His tone, like his chess game, was decisive. There was a set pattern of behavior that yielded a set outcome. It was how he lived his life and how he had raised his offspring.

We were checklist children:

Private school. Check.
Afterschool enrichment. Check.
Competitive college. Check.

And it was how his father had raised him. A man who, by the time I was old enough to remember him, was a whisper of his former self – the proud family patriarch with the orator’s voice and the scholar’s vocabulary had become just “grandpa” – a mumbling, meandering man for whom once familiar faces were now a mystery.

“Dad, are you sure you want to move that piece there?” His knight hovers over f4, where Nick’s bishop will easily take him from h6.

He scans the board again, slower than I remember, then shakes his head ruefully before moving a pawn instead.

“I don’t know what I was thinking.”

This is how it has been for the last year. The difference between who my father was and who he will become is now a question of subtraction – as memories fade, skills diminish, and the person who shaped who I am fades away.

“Grandpa, it’s your turn,” Nick prods gently. My dad has drifted off to sleep, but Nick waits patiently as he returns to us. “You could move your rook there,” he says, pointing to a5. “I promise I won’t eat you.”

At 7, I can see the man he is becoming, a question of addition as the sum of his experiences define his personality, like shouting so Lori’s mom can hear him, or helping his other grandma down the stairs, or letting my dad retain some dignity as he faces losing to a 2nd grader.

The day’s game ends in a draw – both players chasing each other around the board with neither able to declare victory. But I know this is temporary, that some day soon, Nick will beat his grandpa. That some day soon, Grandpa won’t realize that he’s lost.

Or what he’s lost.

I’m saying goodbye to my dad piece by piece because I know how the game ends. I think he knows it too.

But he probably won’t remember by the time it happens.

4 thoughts on “When All That’s Left Is the Board

  1. I don’t know that I can say “like” because it is infinitely sad to see a parent fade away – but you have captured it beautifully, and in the cycle of life with your son as he grows, too. Sending you love.

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