Archive for October, 2015

My plane was over three hours late. I agonized as the plane circled the Charleston airport, knowing my father was waiting, knowing the waiting area had no chairs in which to sit, knowing he would be there, standing, uncomplaining, waiting.

This was the first time I had returned home since Mom had died, two month’s previous. Mom’s was a startling and quick death – 12 days from start to finish – and Mom, in characteristic thoughtfulness, had let no one know she was sick, so when we saw the scans of her lungs and brain riddled with tumors, we had each and every one been astonished at the depth and severity of her cancer.

Mom was the love of Dad’s life. For over 60 years my mother and father had been by each other’s side.   As I walked with my carry-on bag toward the gate, my father broke into a big grin. I was stabbed with love and gratitude for him, for the fact that he would never complain about the long wait, that I would never know if he had been uncomfortable or tired, that he would never complain or even give voice to any discomfort in his body, and that this teaching had carried me long and hard into the vicissitudes and difficulties in my own life.  I was grateful and filled with awe sometimes that this 87 year old ex-Marine could endure so much with a stiff upper lip, yet be so filled with love and kindness to me, his eldest daughter.

I folded into Dad’s arms and he held me for a long and hard hug. He then gave his characteristic “tap, tap” which meant it was time to break away and begin walking.  We got into his old, rundown car and made the long trip from the Charleston airport to Georgetown, arriving well after midnight.  Not once did he complain about losing sleep or being tired.  In fact, when I awoke in the morning, coffee was made, the paper was laid out for me in Mom’s place at the breakfast table, and a cereal bowl and spoon were laid as well (with a note),  as he had gone for his morning constitutional.

The week I stayed with my Dad without my Mom, for the first time in my life, was painful and difficult for me, yet strangely one of the best weeks I had ever spent. In fact, at the end of the week, my father told me he had more fun that week than he had ever remembered.  I had a hard time falling asleep in the upstairs bedroom next to my parent’s room, peeking through the door to the bed they had shared for over 60 years, seeing Dad asleep on his side of the bed, wondering how he could do it, how he could fall asleep without her next to him, when he would crack up, when he would certainly begin his descent into the hell I was sure would come (and this did happen, but mercifully, not for another year.)

I cleaned Dad’s house from stem to stern. The tumors in Mom’s brain had made her addled, and the house, over 200 year’s old, was dusty and moldy, so I turned it inside out.  I polished silver and furniture.  I scrubbed toilets.  Glennie, down at the shrimp docks, saw fit to bring us so much fresh shrimp I boiled us a potful almost every night, and we sat at the kitchen table, melted butter at one end, cocktail sauce at the other, my homemade slaw in a bowl, the ubiquitous and essential white rice in the other bowl, and we ate and ate and ate like there was never going to be another bite to eat on this entire planet.

And the cat, Mr. Chrissy, (God only knows where the names of my parent’s animals come from), became gregarious again, and began coming inside and curling up at the end of my parent’s bed, as he had done before.

My days with Dad took on a rhythm, which I now realize probably mimicked my Mom and Dad’s time together. I would accompany Dad on his first walk of the day often down to the water and shrimp docks, then set about doing housework.  After lunch and a nap, we would go on an outing, usually a drive, often to Pawley’s Island, an enclave of beautiful, old homes on the ocean, where Dad had played as a child in the summer, and where Mom and Dad had taken us each summer when we were kids.  A haven for those with old money and a place where new money and newly built houses were an absolute impossibility, Pawley’s Island was a place of ease and almost clumsy wealth.  With its’ ragtag beauty and laid back people, perfect clapboard houses and sparkling white sand, I felt like I had truly returned home.  I got my first kiss on the pier at Pawley’s.

My father’s birthday is October 25, and had he lived, he would be 94 years old this year, 2015. He died two years ago, at the age of 92.  He was considerate and kind when he died, having just finished dinner.  He ate his ice cream and put his head down.  Then he died.  Just as he was in whatever this thing is called ‘life,’ he was courteous and respectful in this thing we all call ‘death.’  He was courtly and mannered and caused no trouble.  He just died.

I was unable to visit him the last few years of his life, counting on my brother to keep his commitment to call me with reports each time he visited. But my brother failed to keep his commitment, leaving me to rely on a few calls every now and then to the Assisted Living facility to hear Dad’s childlike voice, trying to gauge from it if there was any issue to which I should tend.

Dad had fallen down the slanted stairs in his pre-war house several years after Mom’s death – probably very deliberately trying to kill himself – but instead of dying had fallen victim to a severe subdural hematoma, which had left him mentally compromised.  He was eventually put into Assisted Living, and my sister, God bless her soul, cared for him until his life ended.  But my sister had, many years before, turned against me in bitterness and envy, so I could not rely on her for information nor could I visit, as my visits triggered her deep hatred and she was likely to strike out at me, usually in ways which affected my livelihood.  I therefore steered clear of South Carolina during my Dad’s last years.  It was best this way, and I was deeply grateful for the times I had previous with Dad, before his downfall.  Family curses run deep, and it is often best to respect and understand them rather than challenge them.

The last time I was to see Dad, it had been his birthday again. That is why this time of year hurts so.  It holds a morphogenic trauma, a memory which can never be burned away.  In fact, it should not be burned away.  For it was this last visit I realized Dad was not okay, he was not processing his loss, and he was drinking heavily, trying to drown the impossible grief he had buried at first.  With no hope and the certain improbability of healing, he had kept drinking and drinking, to the point of oblivion many nights. My last trip to see my father had been difficult and humiliating, resulting in neighbors helping me carry my proud father up the stairs and to bed as he could not, quite literally, walk.  After I left this time, Dad hurled himself down the stairs.

And it was this trip, the afternoon of my leaving (for I had rented a car by this time to drive myself back and forth to the Charleston airport) wherein something in me recognized I would never see my father again.

Not only had Dad been drinking heavily each evening, but during the day, he had begun the troubling behavior of saying “Let’s go visit your Ma!” We would get into the car, always silently, and journey down Highway 17 to the beautiful Hospice building Mom had been so instrumental in building in backward, pre-Revolutionary War Georgetown.  It was here she had died, in a beautiful, mahogany four-poster bed, thinking she was in her bedroom at home, with her family and loved ones around her, loving her more than anyone could be loved on this plane of so-called existence.  Dad would drive in the driveway of Hospice and circle the parking lot, slowly, his jaw set, his eyes dull yet somehow troubled.  We would do this two or three times daily.

On my last afternoon, my bags packed and in the trunk of my rental car, Dad and I were sitting outside on his porch. The day was balmy, and he slowly, without any further chit-chat, got up to walk me to my car.  I suddenly began to cry, hard.  He held me and said “Save it, Kathy!  You will need it!”  Then he looked hard into my eyes and hugged me so tight it took my breath away.  Then I was gone without awareness of driving my car.  Suddenly something drove around the block as awareness of a body, a heart and mind crept into me again, and I pulled over to  sob and sob.  I knew I would never see my father again.

As difficult as things are with my sister, I do have a great deal of sympathy and compassion for her, having moved from Florida to South Carolina to be with Daddy, only to have him become so ill so quickly after her move. How disappointing this must have been for her, with fantasies of sitting on his front porch in the rockers, sipping mint juleps in the afternoons.  But this was not to be, and she was thrust into a caretaker position long before anyone could have wanted or assumed this role.

When Dad died I did not go to his funeral. I knew I would not go, knowing the funeral would be for the living, not for Dad.  I had said my goodbye to him that day, when I had wept.

But I did go back to South Carolina two years ago, for his birthday, when we had a small memorial service at the family graveyard, in Sumter, South Carolina.   I was deeply moved at lunch afterwards, looking at my brother and sister and the children, realizing that things would be different now, that my sister and brother would surely get over their small and petty differences and would include me in their lives.  I said so and held them each tightly before my daughter and I left to begin our journey back to the West.

Several days upon my return I was served with papers for a lawsuit, initiated by my sister, with the full knowledge and apparent support of my brother.

What my father gave me was the knowledge that he had my back, that he would never betray me, that his mind would never be filled with bitterness or envy. I never heard him speak an ill word about or to anyone.  He offered presence.  He offered loyalty.  He was there for me.  He furthermore celebrated my independence and freedom from the limitations and expectations of being, not only a woman, but a Southern woman.

My sister and brother, and even my mother when she became mentally ill, punished me for being preferred by my father. This is their cross to bear.  It has hurt me each and every time, but I truly would never trade places with them.

This time of year is hard for me. It is a time of incredible loneliness for me.  It is a time when I am told, in word and in deed, that in order to have a “family,” I would have to become a hostage.  This is not a price I am willing to pay, so I prefer to go it alone, knowing I am okay, knowing I only have to cross the threshold of memory, once again, into the sanctuary of my father’s arms.

Katie Law Goodwin © 2015

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