Departures and Grief

I’ve been preoccupied with death today. More accurately with grief.

A colleague found out on Monday that her sister had died. Based on what they know so far, she died in her sleep. The sister had not suffered with a long-time illness. She was healthy in all appearances. Strong, happy, and healthy is how my colleague described her. Happy. This adjective is the least meaningful in a diagnosis, but it is still so important to the people that love her. “She was happy, how could she die?” or “At least she had a happy life.”

To get that call — someone you love has died. Not a death you were expecting. Not an elder come sweetly to the end of their winter. Not the afflicted finally at peace. She was strong, happy and healthy. And now she is gone.

But you are still here — waiting your turn or running from the inevitable.

Following the theme of today’s thoughts, I received the unexpected gift of a poem postcard from my favorite poet. The poem was about death, or grief. Or it wasn’t, but my thoughts were about death and the interpretation got shadowed by looming gravestones in my memory.

The poem is called “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji and the last few lines hint that we might be inclined to chase that departing train, for one last touch, but “What lies ahead is not yours to embrace.” — at least not this time.
The lines remind me of the many dreams after my father died where I would wake myself up trying to hold his hand. Once my dream self recognized that it was a dream…when lucidity crept in to remind me that he was gone, therefore this must be a dream, I would stretch my arms out to catch his hand in mine. To pull him back? To keep us there in that moment? Or just to feel his hand — strong and solid, a constant of my life — one last time. Only to let go of it again.

Grief can be a form of self-torture. Or grief breaks down our defenses and causes us to engage in masochistic thoughts. Like examining all of the ways you took someone for granted.
“Why didn’t I answer the phone more? Why didn’t I skip that Thanksgiving with other people and go have one more holiday dinner with him? Was I kind enough? I should have been more respectful. Why did I argue with him about the stupid VHS tapes? Was he disappointed in me? I should have been a better daughter instead of a brat.”

You know they loved you but there is significant doubt as to whether you deserved it. Did they love you despite all of your many flaws? Of course. But how much happier would they have been if you had less flaws? Masochism.

There is a cavernous void in my life where my father belonged.

People like to say, “Time heals.” They say a whole lot of nonsense when it’s your loss and not theirs. At least not this time.
If you’ve ever lost a person you loved more than yourself (or at least the person you reeeally reeeally tried to put first but you were too tired to talk and your favorite show was coming on and the stuffing was so much better at Ant P’s Thanksgiving…so you failed.) If you’ve ever lost a person that meant more to you than everything except your most selfish moments, you know that time doesn’t heal anything. Loving a person who is a major part of your life is an addiction you didn’t know you had until they are gone. You have to quit cold turkey. The only thing time does is retrain your soul not to need them. As much.

After a year you stop reaching for their hand in a dream. After two you stop reaching for the phone to tell them things. After three maybe you can get through their birthday with dry eyes and some laughter. After five you can remember them and not fall apart. Most of the time. It’s been fifteen for me and today has not been a dry-eyed day. Every time someone else experiences a significant loss within my vicinity I revisit the hole my dad’s death left to see if it’s any smaller or hurts any less. Nope. Other people’s grief is like a smoldering butt in an ashtray that makes me want to light up. (Figuratively. Smoking is a disgusting habit I will never take up again but a former smoker will totally get what I’m saying.)

The hole they leave isn’t two dimensional either. It has X, Y & Z axes but it also crosses time. When I lost my father: I lost him giving me away at my wedding and the father/daughter dance; I lost the answers to all of the questions about his childhood I forgot to ask him, and the name of the Japanese girl he fell in love with before the Korean War broke him and sent him home; I lost the other end of the phone call for every day when stuff and things would happen to give us something to talk about. I lost his voice, his aftershave, his smile as we pulled into the driveway, his stubble scratching my cheek when he said hello or goodbye. He was my father, my mom can remarry, but I can’t get these things from anyone else.

There’s no methadone for the departed.

I don’t like to talk about it, but I can’t
write about this,
about grief,
about the hole left behind by loss
and the space-time it has punched through,
without thinking about the gut-wrenching grief
the other great loss.
Two great fissures have cracked open my soul.
The other has not reached the five year mark of not falling apart.

It may very well take longer without a Tardis.

Two generations, present and future, slipped into the void. Sacrifices made in the past became moot. Never again will there be unexpected messages that begin, “Hey Mom. It’s me. Your son. And you better know who this is, because I’m pretty sure you only have one.”

There is no methadone. No patch. No smiley faced Welbutrine. It’s strictly cold turkey and burning guilt.

“all points
erased in the null,…
lost to touch and forever beyond reach…”
excerpt “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji


Author’s note: I’d like to say a special thank you to Robert Okaji. In obtaining permission to quote his poem I found out he has not shared it anywhere but the special snail mail poet’s bio card. Gracious as he is talented, Bob gave me the greenlight to use it anyway.

Words Escape Me

A life celebrating beauty – seeking it out, sharing it, creating it…training yourself to find it in the darkest places – it’s not a bad plan.
But as a word beauty can sound dull or superficial; unsuitable to the moment it is meant to define. It is not uncommon in our lives and language for the words we pluck from the scene of an adventure — with the tips of our grasping fingers — to fall short of conveying the emotion felt. Yet the memory of the experience is engraved on us in more than words. The happening does not simply fade into our story, it carves symbols into our psyche and lines them with ink. Even without the symmetry of imbued words to describe it for another, the lesson is not lessened and the profundity still yawns beneath us effervescent with superlatives, triumphs, and monsters.

Example one – “Deep” :
Around the age of sixteen a group of us from school met at a local beach under the auspices of a “Senior Skip Day”. One of our number had a father with a boat (or a moderately-sized pleasure craft) and had arranged for said father to take us out on said boat. I’m not sure who made the plans and why we didn’t arrange to meet at a place with a dock, but shortly after we had polished ourselves in fragrant oils in compliment to the radiant sand and waves of blinding photons our boat’s operator signaled from 100 feet offshore. One hundred feet is a placeholder here because I don’t really know distance well. It was farther than I was comfortable swimming, yet close enough my classmates knew it was the right father / right boat. The girls chirped and took flight for the water. The boys cried out and gave chase.

I hesitated.

I pondered Jaws and Jaws 2 and Jaws 3D.

Then I considered being left behind to miss out and ran toward my fear.

As a swimmer, I have always performed better under the water than on the surface. On that day, my sloppy strokes and terrible rhythm barely helped me keep pace with my classmates. In addition to bad form, I was wearing contact lenses – very expensive, hard contact lenses – so most of my journey through the lightly splishing waves was spent with my eyes tightly shut. I relied on the weak sonar feedback of friends splashing through the water to guide me to the boat. (Much as a hungry shark would.)

When the sound changed from splashing to dripping and lapping, I took a break from my labors to look around. I was treading water a few arms length away from the group. My friends were only visible as parts – butts and legs climbing or scrabbling over the back of the boat, heads and shoulders bobbing for their turn. Then I looked down.

The water was so clear I could see the little hillocks left behind by currents pulling and pushing across the ocean floor. Visible too were the nets of sunlight weaving through the refraction of wavelets. I turned slightly to mark my distance to the shore and took in a narrow reef stretching its bony slalom south.

It was the reef that brought the scene into perspective. Our staging area in the water was deep. At some point while swimming, the bottom of my familiar beach had fallen out and left me dangling atop the expanse of an ocean. I gasped, twice, as though filling my lungs could counter the feeling of space unfolding around me and taking with it the comfort of ground and stronger gravity. My chest constricted, pushing out lungfuls of fragrant sea-breeze and terror.

From a place outside my leaden body, I saw myself as a Looney-Tune with churning legs of propeller strength. My own tension made me lighter than the surface of the Atlantic. In a desperate surge, I flung myself over the side of the boat.

The rest of “Senior Skip Day” was a blur. I’m sure we had fun, though maybe everyone else did and I just watched. For I knew that when the boat engine stopped again, I would have to dive back into that crystal-clear water and swim to shore.


Example two – “The stars are out”:
In my late twenties, I found myself in the fortunate position of being on a road trip from Houston to Flagstaff. Back in those days I still had a love for adventure, and my life had been tame enough that a road trip to somewhere new counted as a good one. Joining me in my travels were my son, age 11, and an ex-boyfriend of about three and a half years (our term together prior to his “Ex” designation, not his age). The Ex and I, who we will call Jon Doe, had been on a few road trips together resulting in a slight distrust, on his part, of my judgment skills.

I liked to follow my curiosity, which sometimes took us off the map.

Even with twenty more years of life under my belt, it is my ardent belief that it is not possible to be Lost (yes, with a capital L) as long as there are paved roads beneath your tires and they don’t lead you to barricades preventing one from falling off the planet. Eventually, you’ll find your way again – the time in between is the driving bonus.

Dallas had been a weekend of Amusement Park Convention-eering. Houston had followed with an overnight stay in the home of a very intense member of my family. Then we pointed the car [north]west and aimed for Thanksgiving 1998 in Flagstaff, AZ.

I always enjoyed the driving portion of a road trip. Back then I could manage an eight to twelve hour stretch on my own, especially if most of them were at night. Unfortunately, driving in the hazy sun of a bright morning or afternoon puts me right to sleep. I drove us out of Houston until the sun got high and yawns ate my face. At Wichita Falls we switched drivers and I napped across the backseat to the tunes of Siouxsie & The Banshees and my son spotting VWs. We stopped in Amarillo for dinner and by Tucumcari, NM I was the driver once more. I’m fairly certain I slept through the most boring part of Texas.

When the sun went down, New Mexico became a magical and mysterious place. I’m a Florida girl, so right off the bat I was impressed with the altitude. I can also be counted as an unwilling suburbanite, so passing from one brightly lit Trucker’s Paradise to the next fifty miles down the deserted ebon highway felt like space travel. I actually suffered a moment’s panic when driving on a particularly raven stretch because the engine of the compact Ford we had rented was bellowing like a cornered rhinoceros. We were in the middle of the kind of nowhere that actually resembles nowhere – like a hole in space-time with no sense of momentum or inertia. When the car made the noise, I gently tapped the brakes in fear and it quieted immediately. A short while later, feeling confident the noise was a fluke, I reset the cruise control and scanned for a radio station. Not long after, the rhinoceros returned accompanied by a tractor-trailer in the next lane.

His running lights and the added illumination of his headlights put things into perspective. We were climbing a fairly steep incline on that midnight highway; the poor little Ford was trying like hell to maintain my cruising speed but it didn’t have enough power or dilithium crystals.

The following bit of driving was a slog. I had to accelerate/ease off/accelerate for at least a light year – gripping the steering wheel tightly and pulling the yoke of gravity with my neck and shoulders. Luckily, my passengers were asleep, so nobody saw me stretch.

Then everything changed. One moment we were pulling to break free of Earth and the next we were sliding back down the well. The darkness parted, or someone ripped the cloth off the planet with a single tug, and laid out before me was the light of every star the Earth has ever been in the path of.

My initial reaction was disbelief. I craned my neck to see out of the Ford’s windows but there was too much sky out there to fit in the car’s cut-outs. I was also accelerating [very fast] without touching the pedal. The emerging universe had revealed yellow caution signs to down shift and take note of your runaway truck ramps. I struggled for a time with my fear of hurtling off the side of a mountain and my desire to see Space.

As fate would have it, there was a large area a short distance from the sharp peak designated for truckers who needed to [safely] take a break from the bowel-shaking drive. There were about 30 long parking spaces and a cabin of convenience. I pulled the Ford into a car-sized space and deliberated a moment. I wanted to wake up my son to come look at the sky with me, but that would risk waking up Jon Doe who would bitch about the deviation. I whispered Adam’s name so softly it didn’t wake him, then I exited the car with ninja stealth.

I had a moment to steal from the universe and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Wrapped tightly in a wool coat, I stepped onto the Ford’s bumper and perched on the trunk lid. Then I just gave in to the cosmos and leaned back on the frigid rear window. My chest expanded with suffocating awe as photons that had been in another galaxy not a moment before bombarded my eyes. They left trails of wonder on my brain as the vast sky overhead tried to convince me I was falling up into a bio-luminescent ocean. I held my coat collar closed over my throat while trying to breathe and trying not to cry. Amidst all of the emotions whirling inside me as I simply looked up at the night, was a sense of being cheated. This boundless vista was always waiting just beyond the glare of light from our self-absorbed lives. I had lived 28 years but was only just seeing it. I wanted to study it, memorize it, dip my hand in and swirl it around. Forget road trips, I wanted to go there.

Adam walked up to me and asked why I was laying on the car. I pointed to the sky. “The stars are out.” We stole half a moment more from the universe before the magic was dispelled by a cranky voice of reason.

Simple things

I saw them as a splash of color. They drew me across the nursery like a wasp to a sticky mango.

Once my eyes saw beyond the showy colors, I recognized them as lilies and named them aloud. Then I remembered it was Easter.

For Easter, every year since about my sixteenth, my dad bought my mother and I each a plant. I would stumble into the kitchen on Easter morning and it would be sitting on the pass-through shelf — shiny pastel paper dressing up the business end, pastel enveloped card propped against it, my dad’s slanting scribble shouting out one of his nicknames for me.

Tooper Loop on the Daffodils.
Tinkerbell on the Crocuses.
And after my son was born – Mommy on the Lilies.

As though a toddler could buy flowers.

I planted some of them at our shared home in Jacksonville. The ginger grew three feet high and surprised us all.

Anyway, I saw these lilies yesterday and thought of him.
And of all the plants that wilted in their pots.
And of the bulbs that never even sprouted
(because you have to plant them right-side up).

As though a ghost could give you flowers

To remind you that he loved you.


Actually forgot the challenge part!

The Rules:

1) Post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo.

2) The story can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or simply a short paragraph — it’s entirely up to you.

3) Then each day, nominate another blogger to carry on this challenge. Accepting the challenge is entirely up to the person nominated, it is not a command.

My nomination:

Rio The Clown

London Calling

From tumblr-

Write a piece about the most comfortable item of clothing in the world.

When I was sixteen, I traveled with my Senior Class to London for ten days. It was the most amazing trip I have ever taken in my life. Aside from the thrilling sensation of being in a place so far from my internal home coordinates, the metropolitan nature of such a big city – to a suburban girl – provided a level of freedom I had never experienced.

When we woke up each morning, my friend Becca and I would skip the nasty, free breakfast provided by the hostel to head off on foot to the nearest McDonalds. No need to wait for a ride, we could just walk a few blocks and it was there. At every opportunity, we set out on foot to explore the city – armed only with our maps, scarves, and a camera.

We found Soho and Baker’s Street, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square (under construction), Paddington Station and Charing Cross (which smells like a library right from the street). We found Covent Gardens, Portobello Road, and spent one hour lost, looking for #17 Cherry Tree Lane.

Every day was a micro adventure, and I’m grinning like a love-struck fool in every photograph. Truly, I had fallen in love with the place and I never wanted to leave.

The amount of pocket money we would need had been grossly underestimated by the school planner. I ran out of money fast, partly because I was too picky to eat the free daily breakfast of sunny-side up eggs, tomatoey beans, tomatoes, and that weird piece of meat they call bacon, but back then a McDonalds breakfast was around three pounds. Some mornings I’d just have a Snickers.

I’d been given so little money though, I had to abandon all hope of a souvenir. Most of the kids wanted a Hard Rock t-shirt from London, but Becca and I didn’t want to waste time in line and the food was outrageously expensive. We wandered away from there a bit disappointed and started poking around in some other shops with subtler signs.

We found a tiny little place that sold red plaid suspenders (braces not sexy underwear) and a variety of elements for punk anti-fashion. I was merely looking through the racks to pass time while Becca shopped, and tried on silly things that didn’t suit her beaming innocence.

When it comes to clothes I tend to shop with my fingertips first, then my eyes. On this occasion, as I stroked a rack of t-shirts, an unusual softness alert went off in my brain. In response, I extracted a t-shirt from the group that was feathery light, unburdened by iron-on decals, and unblemished by airbrushed icons of the day. It was a plain black t-shirt, in my size, and marked down to five pounds. I verified three times that the five bucks included the tax (mostly because I didn’t know what the shop kid meant when he said VAT was always included).

I wore that shirt at every opportunity for years. I washed it on delicate and hung it up to dry to keep it from shrinking, stiffening, or wearing out too soon. It wasn’t just the softest, most versatile piece of clothing in my wardrobe; it was a tangible memory of a love I would never stop trying to return to.

When I become one with the sun

Prompt from Word Light Show on Saturday, Nov 1

dance_therapy

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I Siiiiiing The Body E-lec-tric! I celebrate the mee yet to coooooome.”

How often I sang those lines when I was a kid without even knowing what they meant. Dressed in legwarmers and cut up t-shirt, I spent many the afternoon throwing myself around my best friend’s front room with broad arabesques and high kicks as her little dogs pawed our calves. We believed we could be stars too as we belted our hearts out into brushes and tossed our hair wildly, yet meaningfully.

For a few summers Rena’s older sister Liza was our baby sitter in the period between day camp and the parents coming home. She was only about four years older but she was trusted, for those few hours, to keep us in line. It wasn’t really that hard either. Just throw some vinyl on the hi-fi and turn the volume way up. Back then there were so many musicals to choose from and we knew them all by heart. From Fiddler on the Roof to Annie, and Grease to Xanadu – we were the young divas hoping someone would hear us from the sidewalk and rush to the door to get our names for some Hollywood or Broadway producer.

In roller skates we were muses, spreading magic to believe in with our open arms. We believed in it even if you don’t. Puffing on candy cigarettes we were innocents, faking a wild side the male lead had yet to notice.

Even without a cohesive theme we were singing at the top of our lungs (and always from the diaphragm). Billy Joel’s Glass Houses told us it was okay to be crazy. Chrissi Hynde confused us with references to the contents of her pockets, but we sang along anyway because she sounded cool and we loved to sing – loved to perform. We were daydream believers who wanted to go sailing, be lost in love, and have someone shout, “here comes my girl,” as we strutted down the block. (Watch her walk.)

The friendship with Rena ended long ago, but my love affair with music never will. My inner nightingale still sings like a chanteuse every chance she gets.

 

 

“Promises You Can’t Keep”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 2, June
Prompt: Promises
Genre: Non-Fiction, Reminiscence
Word count: 1,962
Title: “Promises you can’t keep.”

The last time I saw my father…well the last time he saw me, I’m not one hundred percent sure he knew who I was. He’d been in the hospital for a week following an aggressive surgery to remove cancer from multiple organs. It took twelve hours, the surgery, and it was twenty four from the time they wheeled him off until we were able to speak to him again.

 

He had always been a terrible patient. Even on that first visit, after a surgery that had seriously reduced the length of his intestines and esophagus and had relocated his stomach to a spot just under his shoulder blade, he was asking when they’d let him go home. For three days our time with him was measured. Fifteen minutes per hour, twelve hours per day, only two people in the room at a time…

 

But it was only for three days and then he’d be in a regular room; a week after that he’d be home.

 

Nearing the end of the third day they decided to keep him in ICU just one more day. There was evidence of a small internal bleed that they hadn’t been able to track down. It was nothing really, but after such a major surgery – and since he only had one kidney – they thought it would be smarter to monitor him closely.

 

Dad insisted I leave. I had a job to get back to. My son was missing school. Everything would be fine. He promised. We packed up the car and spent the final seven hours of day three on the highway home. I spent day four at work with reports from my mother that Dad had a bad cough so they may not move him to a regular room just yet. Just after dawn of day six an ICU a nurse called me at home.

 

“If he was my dad,” she said in a furtive tone, “I’d want to be here.”

 

It was pneumonia.

 

Even though my brain quantified the news with words like ‘only’ and ‘just’, I called out to work and school. We headed back to the highway for another seven hour drive. The drive took closer to ten – accidents, pile-ups, the metropolis-style rush hour where traffic stands still. We arrived and had to wait an hour for the proper fifteen minutes on the clock.

 

What an hour. It was like hell. Not from the worry – just pneumonia, it’s like a bad cold – but from the company. My mother’s sister had arrived – Ione. Never have I met a more loathsome person. Ione is one of those that not only forcibly hugs you, she doesn’t stop until you are blue-lipped and tapping the mat. This is a woman so odious, my tender-hearted father couldn’t stand her; she’d been pole-vaulting over his tolerance bar for thirty years. But as my mother often said, “You can’t choose your family.”

 

Aunt Ione sat across from me and Adam in the family waiting room and said something like this:

“You both need to accept that Larry is not going to recover. Even now God is calling him home. All of the actions the doctors are taking are prolonging his pain, just like you are postponing your own pain by continuing to believe that he will live. The good news,” at this she smiled her version of beatifically and turned her palms up to the ceiling, “is that I’ve spoken with him and he has assured me that his love for God is real. Trust that Our Lord knows best and is taking him to a better place.”

 

I put my arm around my thirteen year-old’s shoulders and held tightly to one of his fists. The hug was a multi-purpose thing. I wanted to comfort him and myself, but I was also preventing someone from punching Aunt Ione in the face. It was a toss-up which one of us would have done it first. My mother always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Seemed like an ideal time to apply that rule.

 

I looked passed the aunt barricade at my mother. “What’s changed since I got on the road this morning?”

(It was 2002, none of us had mobile phones).

Almost breezily my mother replied, “The pneumonia is bad and they’re not sure about giving your father stronger medicine to combat it because he only has one kidney and it’s working overtime. They still haven’t found where he’s bleeding from, but they’re worried that coughing might make that small hole a bigger tear. Also, the pneumonia has caused a relapse of his Malaria. You might not remember how sick that makes him – you were a toddler the last time he relapsed – he gets delirious. His fever is really high and they can’t bring it down.”

 

She was working on a jigsaw puzzle through the last half of the explanation. It was one I had bought a few days before when I thought I was leaving her alone for a few days until he could be moved to a normal ward and then released – a Thomas Kinkade. She held the box top in her hand as she sifted through for pieces of a lemon-chiffon sky striped with clouds the color of pink lemonade powder. A Country Time day over an English garden and the thatched roof of a cozy little cottage where no one was dying.

 

I was baffled. The medical information sounded negative, but not dire. My mother was acting like it was just another day and my aunt was already writing his eulogy. Ione forced her way into my personal space again for a strangling hug. She pressed her face against mine. My skin crawled at the feel her chill skin against my cheek as she tried to rock me like a baby. My mother snapped pieces of the sky together with a satisfied smile and Aunt Ione encouraged me to let go of something. My father? My tears? My anger?

 

Then she fed us the tidbit my mother had left out.

 

“The doctor is putting him in a coma today to ease his suffering. They waited this long to give you a chance to say goodbye.”

 

I wriggled until I got my hands on her shoulders and forcibly pushed her off me. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”

 

My mother nearly dropped her puzzle box and immediately shushed me, looking around to make sure I didn’t disturb the other families. “They are just giving him something so he can sleep for a few days and really rest. They think the pain and stress are causing him to move around too much. They want him to be completely still so the little perforations he could be bleeding from will heal themselves. There’s just too much going on and he’s so anxious to go home. The doctors have had him on kidney dialysis to help him process all of the medication. He’s having the Malaria dreams… I told you they make him delirious.”

 

I stood up as Aunt Ione reached out for me again. I was way too taut to be respectful and ignore her bullshit, but I was also in a large room full of people who had someone they loved in a boat similar to my father’s. Grinding millimeters off my back teeth to keep it together, and one more ‘praise God’ away from a full on meltdown, I sat in the chair next to my mother and pushed the puzzle box out of her line of sight.

 

“Why would we need to say goodbye over that?” I asked.

My mom’s eyes strayed from my face to the colored bits of cardboard strewn across the table. “The doctor said they could put him in the coma and they would wake him up, but if he gets worse instead of better they won’t. It would be cruel. The goodbye is just in case.”

 

When my fifteen minutes came around, Aunt Ione jumped up and said she’d just be real quick. She wanted to blah, blah, blah. I cut her off and told her no. Under no uncertain terms was she to be allowed back in that room. I looked at her husband, my mother, and the elderly Pink Lady in charge of the waiting room, nobody jumped to her defense. When she tried to protest and treat me, a 31 year old woman, like an unreasonable child I pointed out that we had just driven nine and half hours to get there. My son and I were going to spend the full fifteen minutes with him – we were his blood and she was too inflammatory to be around a man who the doctor was instructing to lie still. Ione made that comment again that he was going to a better place.

 

“Stop saying that!” I snarled. “He would be the first one to tell you that there is no better place than with his family. My father would choose us over ‘heaven’ any day of the week!”

The nurse in the ICU room was not the one who’d called me. This one was just coming on shift and taking his vitals. I was surprised to see that Dad already had a tube down his throat hooked to a respirator. When we walked up to the bed the nurse was saying something to him about his stats, he turned to us and met my eyes. There was some message in the look he gave me, but I don’t know what it was; not for sure. Seeing us upset him. I know that because the nurse was watching his vitals on the monitor and gave me a warning glare.

 

“Is this your daughter, Larry?” she asked in that tone people use to ask questions of dogs and the elderly. “And you grandson came to see you. What a handsome boy. Remember to stay calm, okay. We don’t want to raise your blood pressure.” This last she said to him, but was really for us. “No emotion,” her eyes said.

 

I looked back at my dad, the look was still there. He was waving his hand a bit, as if trying to shoo us out of the room.

 

Adam caught his hand and said, “Hey, Pop.”

 

Dad’s eyes softened as he looked at Adam for the first time since we entered the room. I was back to gritting my teeth again, but that time was to keep from crying. I was surprised by my son’s casual way of just sitting next to his grandfather, holding his hand, and talking to him about some school thing that had happened the day before. I knew Adam was just as confused and hurting as much as I was, maybe more because he’d never lost anyone this close before.

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything to my father in the last 15 minutes I really had with him. I told him that I loved him, but we never significantly exited each other’s company without saying so. That strain was still in his eyes. It may have been the Malaria or the pain, or maybe he didn’t want us to see him that way. Being who he was, it might have been as simple as he disapproved of our traveling all the way back after he sent us home. I belonged at work. Adam shouldn’t miss any more school. It was just like him to worry about us as he lay there unable to breathe and operate his own kidney without a machine.

Maybe he was thinking, “Everything could turn out fine, but your mother always says not to make promises you can’t keep.”

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything, but before I let go of his hand I did tell him this:

“Don’t listen to Aunt Ione. You’re not going anywhere.”

Suzy Q

SuzyQ
“What’cha lookin’ at Suzy-Q?”

At the age of six, I was a very active child. Never stood still, rarely stopped talking and was into everything whenever the adults weren’t paying attention. So when my uncle came upon me that windy spring day, standing silent and still in his backyard – looking up, with one ear tilted to the sky – he was understandably curious.

“Tami Sue. Your uncle asked you a question…” Daddy said in his gruff but gentle voice, breaking my concentration.
“Whaaat? I didn’t hear,” I replied distractedly.
“I asked what you were doin’ out here all by yourself. Did you see a squirrel?”
“No. I’m trying to hear what the trees are talking about.”
My uncle listened for a moment then chuckled, “That’s not the trees, Q. Those are cicadas you hear.”
I shook my head, curls bouncing for emphasis, “Not the bugs, Uncle Finn. Can’tcha hear the trees whispering to each other?”
Daddy’s grin was visible through the porch screen as he and my uncle shared a look, “What are they saying then?”
“I don’t know,” I said with a touch of frustration, “but it must be a secret because they’re whispering. Uncle Finn, can you lift me up to that branch? Maybe if I get higher I could hear better.”
“No, little monkey. You don’t want to go climbing an Oak tree.”
“Why not?” I pouted.
“You’ll get your Easter dress dirty.”
“I’ll go change,” I said simply, heading for the screen door.
“You still can’t climb an Oak tree, Q. Feel this bark, it’s like sandpaper. It’ll rub your hands and feet raw.”
I tested the bark, but was undeterred. “I’ll wear Aunt Nene’s kitchen gloves and two pairs of socks,” I announced.
“Nice little girls don’t climb trees, Tami Sue,” my mother called from the darkness of the porch, “and they certainly aren’t so stubborn. You climb that one, you’ll fall, break your neck and ruin everyone’s day.”
Arms crossed, I scowled at my mother’s voice and murmured, “I’ve never fallen before.”
“She climbs trees like she was born in one, Lois. Leave it to me,” Daddy interjected.
I smiled at the tree, Daddy would help me.
“Go change out of that dress, Tinkerbell. We’ll get you up there.”

Minutes later I returned in brown, corduroy overalls and yellow, rubber gloves that brushed my shoulders. There was a folding ladder set up under the tree, with Daddy and Uncle Finn securing it from either side – cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths like movie stars. I still wasn’t allowed to climb the tree, was even warned not to reach out for the nearest branch. But I spent a happy hour sitting on the top step of the ladder listening to the trees converse in breathy murmurs while two of my heroes stood guard, exchanging stories and laughing.

To this day, I have never climbed an Oak tree, but I’ve never stopped wanting to try.

What I did on my summer vacation

Image
I caught the travel bug pretty early in life.  My dad was really big on family vacations.  Since we were relatively poor and lived in Florida, most of those vacations involved road trips.  There’s lots to see and do in here in the gun-shaped state and not all of them involve mouse ears. 

Every summer, my parents would pack up the car (or van, depending on the year) and whisk us away to someplace hot and sunny with at least one attraction that offered the coveted reward of a wax souvenir, made on demand in an injection mold machine.  We stayed in roadside motels, near the highway or a large body of water, and ate our way through every diner and mom & pop ethnic restaurant in the state. 

I’ve seen the mermaids at Weeki Watchi Springs and floated on a blow up raft down the Itchnatukee River.  I’ve fed marshmallows to alligators at Homosassa Springs (from a safe distance) and been chased out of the Gulf of Mexico by clouds of dead fish who perished in the red tide.  AND of course, I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can remember. 

But my favorite summer vacation of all was a two week stay in a rental cabin, on a bay off Matlachee Island over on the west coast of Florida.  Normally, I hate the Gulf Coast – the water is gross (even when the fish aren’t dead), brown with tannin and algae, warm like bathwater, and the bottom is littered with sharp rocks.  That particular year, though, we didn’t hit the beach.  

The bay where we were staying wasn’t really something I’d swim in either.  It was deep and dark and my mom spent many an hour sitting on the dock fishing for these huge fish with pointy sword beaks.  I think they were tarpon, I’m not a fish expert but I think that’s what my mom called them.  All I knew is they were big and looked scary and I DID NOT want to swim with them. 

The little cabin where we stayed only had one bedroom, so I slept on a day bed in the living room under a window where the breeze off the bay woke me up every morning.  My mom always had something against air conditioning so open windows were just a fact of life for me.  There was a little drug store within walking distance, so once a day my dad and I would hike over the bridge between Matlachee and Little Pine Island to get groceries and he would buy me Ritchie Rich, Archie and Brun Hilda comics.  I still remember how that breeze felt when it danced through the curtains, the way the mini comics smelled, and the scent of boiling blue crabs. 

Oye the crabs!  Mom convinced Dad to buy the crab trap shortly after we arrived.  He baited the cage with meat and dropped it just off the little dock.  Each day my mom collected the spiny little beasts and cooked them up with special seasoning packets.  I refused to eat them because they stank and they looked like little more than bugs to me, but my parents loved them.  

One evening, when we were all on the dock, dad pulled up the trap to check the bait and there was a huge blue crab hanging on the outside of the cage trying to reach through the wire for the last bit of raw chicken.  The startled crab jumped off and lunged at my father.  His first thrust with one red-tipped claw drew blood. That crab clipped my dad right between the big toe and the second; hanging on for a moment before my father shook him off.

My mom and I were paralyzed with laughter as the thing chased my dad all over the dock and finally backed him into the water – Dad fell in, not the crab. The weird little creature stalked to the edge of the dock raising his claws in victory as Dad stood sputtering in water up to his neck. That Spartan of crabs did not end up in the pot. 

Another day, in a closet of the cabin, we found a metal detector that I immediately claimed.  After spending hours walking up and down the grounds finding nothing but half buried fishing lures, I decided that the metal detector could talk to dolphins. Every evening at sunset, we had seen pods of dolphin playing in the deep water, so that night as the sky turned orange, I sat on the deck turning the knob that made the metal detector whine up and down the scale, trying to summon the dolphins closer. It didn’t work, but in my child’s imagination it could have. I figured they were scared of the giant blue crab too, so they didn’t swim up to say hi.

It was simple and relaxing, a really great vacation.  During those two weeks, we made little day trips to see what attractions were on offer in the area and strangely enough, the most memorable tour for me was this place that harvested Orange Blossom Honey, the best tasting honey made naturally in the US. We got to watch them smoke the bees, pull screens covered in honey comb out of the hives and they even had a hive forming behind glass to show the queen bee and her little baby bees at the center. Mmmm, there was taste testing, too. We left the honey farm with several jars of the beautiful amber serum and tubs of honey butter for our morning toast. My mother even tried out the honey butter on the blue crabs, but that still couldn’t tempt me.

In my life, I’ve traveled all over the south and the eastern seaboard.  I’ve been to the Bahama’s twice, London once and even took my son to the Grand Canyon for our own family vacation.  I loved it all and have plenty of stories from the road to tell, but I will never forget the two weeks when I was nine or ten, that were so peaceful even the dolphins were dancing. 

Thanks Dad ❤