Hi, it’s me.
You settled in yet?
This is what I think every day: you’re finally warm. Knowing you’re warm makes it easier. And yes, I’m still sleeping in your jacket. Oh, don’t look so pained. No head shaking! I’m working on it, okay ?
It’s a good ten degrees warmer here than at your house. You took off your jacket. Sat in the sun. It’s why your jacket is still here. You didn’t need it.
Remember when I asked you if you should see a doctor or something? Find out if there was a reason you were cold all the time? You shook your head ruefully.
I’ve been cold since the war.
World War II seemed history-book long ago to me…a very long, long time to stay cold. Why? I asked.
Army. Snow and ice. Germany in winter. COLD. People shooting at you. Hitler. Living in a frozen trench in the ground for months. Warmest thing we had were matches. Couldn’t use ’em. Felt like years. Haven’t been warm since. Especially my feet.
That told me more about your real life, your inner life, than I’d discovered in forty years. There are whole chambers and caverns I’ll never know about who you are. It’s the secret life you have to keep from your kids. The dreams you gave up, the experiences, (good and bad) that aren’t appropriate to share: grooves in your soul. We have kids, so I understand why there are areas that are off-limits. Makes me sad though. I wish I could have known you as Not My Dad also.
Unbelievable you took us to the snow every winter when we were kids. You must’ve hated it. But we wanted to build snowmen, forts, and throw snowballs. I remember sliding down a hillside on a metal trash can lid with you, sitting in your lap, screaming a high pitched little kid scream that probably blew out your ear drums. Hopefully it did not remind you of bombing raids.
After you told me about being cold, I always had some knitting in progress. I love you for accepting all the scarves, hats, mittens, socks, slippers. You meant it when you said lemon yellow socks with red, orange, and green dots look great on you, and you’d wear them all the time. You did too. (After awhile, I was running out of color combination ideas, so you got the more Jackson Pollack color experiments. Sorry about that. There’s one half finished sock in my bag. You would’ve liked this pair: black with multi colored ticking.)
You didn’t have an easy life. The Great Depression, 3 generations living under the same roof on the farm, the effort to get enough food to eat, extra to sell, and some to give away at the back door. I didn’t appreciate it at the time: our silent drive to the town where you grew up. It took years for me to understand what you were showing me. You said, with surprise, it’s just the same: small, remote, struggling, hot, humid, and isolated. The one room school house was still a school. One store. An old chewing tobacco sign. No lines painted on the road. It must have been like time traveling for you. That road over there? I was driving our model T when Pearl Harbor was bombed. A guy ran across that field, waving at me to stop. Didn’t know him. Middle of nowhere. I should have known who he was.
The differences: rice, walnuts and apricots grow in the fields now. Stink of chemicals in the air. Big machines. Watering systems. Your grandparents farmhouse, gone.
Your grandpa grew grapes for raisins, grain and hay for the animals, did the plowing by draft horse and plow, harvesting and planting by hand. Your grandma worked the vegetable garden. Your dad worked cutting lumber until the accident that ruined his arm, your mom sewed, canned, took are of the chickens, and hoed with your grandma. You did whatever: worked in the fields, picked grapes, spread them on racks, moved them to follow the sun all day. The groan on your face when you thought about bringing the racks back into the barn: hundreds of racks. If there was too much moisture in the air, sometimes you’d put them in and out 3 or 4 times a day, so the grapes dried right. Listening made my back hurt. You were a kid.
You didn’t much like Baptists. You grew up Baptist. Too fussy, you thought. Too many rules. What’s wrong with dancing?
This makes me laugh, you hated to dance.
You had a few rules yourself: Honor your mother and father. Make the sacrifice and do the right thing. Never disrespect women. Do your job and anyone else’s that needs doing. Action speaks. Never turn someone away hungry. Do what society expects, even if it makes you queasy. There is right, and there is wrong – that one was your yardstick –what is right and what is wrong in this situation?
I told you I was gay, uneasy as to how this would fit with the society/queasy thing. Telling you was the right thing to do, whatever the consequences. It would be disrespectful not to. You said: Doesn’t bother me. I don’t care.
This is what I believe you thought, piecing together various conversations we had: I don’t understand ‘gay’. I don’t need to. Frankly, don’t want to think about it. I know right and wrong. It is wrong to disrespect women, my daughter…people because we are not the same. Hitler taught me that. I saw it firsthand, people different and not different from me, in ways you will never know. If you didn’t fit his ideal you were dead: the disabled, the retarded, the mentally ill, the Jews, the gays, people who were not white. It’s not like you think. I was there.
You danced with me at our wedding, then tapped Shaun on the shoulder, and cut in and danced with her. I don’t know what your inner feelings were. (Other than you HATE dancing.) But I know this: you did what you believed was right. It tickled you to death that you liked Shaun so much. You intensely disliked the man I married when I was very young. Nothing wrong with the guy, and you knew it. You just didn’t like him. On some level you knew he wasn’t the right person. The right person turned out to be Shaun. I marvel that you FELT that truth. I could never get a word in edgewise around the two of you. That tickles ME. It didn’t escape me that our wedding photo was opposite your bedroom door, that it would be the first thing you saw when you got up in the morning.
When you asked mom: How bad am I? And she said, It’s bad. It’s that bad. You knew what she meant.
You asked her: So how old was my dad when he died?
A good ten years younger than you, she said. That wicked smile. Ha. I beat him! you said.
When you finally knew you were never going to see home again, I felt like I was breaking over and over again. God you were brave. No matter how many people love you and stay with you, dying is lonely: it’s the locked screen door through which we can see you moving bulky shadows, dragging crates, lifting burdens that threaten to crush you, we watch the enormous weight and effort drain your reserves: movement getting harder and harder. You didn’t want to die, and you didn’t forget you were dying. Even asleep, your hand had an iron grip on the bed rail, keeping you anchored to that bed, that room, this life.
The little kid in me would look at your body: still so physically strong that you had to be careful not to crush the attendants with your arms as they helped you, and I’d think but dad, look at you, geeze you could give Sugar Ray a run for his money. How can you be dying?
I know took every ounce of courage and strength you had to let go. You were so not ready to leave.
You made a decision. This really was it, you were going to die, and dying is a part of life you were going to have to accept: going through dying with some acceptance was the right thing to do, however long it took.
No. I don’t think you were perfect any more than I am. (Maybe more perfect than your dad though!)
I am struck, once again, by the force of your choices: accept the reality, no matter how afraid you might be, and walk forward. I know you’d say: what other choice did I have?
I think this is true and not true. All choices are ugly at that point. I would guess none of them feel right. You had the choice to resist the inevitable, but you didn’t take it. Instead you quietly did the heavy lifting, until you couldn’t lift anymore.
I hope I inherit a tenth of your courage.
And all those time you made us eat lima beans? I forgive you. I know you hated them too.