Thursday, February 12, 2015

Maybe he didn't always remember but he never forgot

In some ways the past year seemed to last a lifetime. In other ways 2014 slipped by so quickly and with such a forceful rush that I'm still a little breathless from the exertion of it all.

I just passed the first anniversary of my father's death and realized I've been subconsciously marking most days in 2014 with "A year ago...."

A year ago, Daddy was still alive and we celebrated his birthday. A year ago, Daddy attended his last granddaughter's wedding. A year ago, I cooked dinner in South Carolina and Daddy ate roasted root vegetables and told us old family stories. A year ago, we called the ambulance. A year ago, I held his hand and cried.

I'm still doing a bit of that in 2015. A year ago, I was so cold, every day, all day. A year ago, I didn't really know what to say when people at work expressed sympathy, or asked me how my family was doing.

I don't know if we've really comforted each other in grief. We've stood side by side, each holding our own personal grief and taking comfort from one another that we're not alone. It's like a BYOB party. We're all drinking sorrow, but we didn't pour our individual bottles into a community bowl. Every sip tastes just a little different. We're each chugging from our own bottle and saying "Mine's pretty strong. How's yours?" What can I say? It's our way.

Old enough to remember but young enough to forget

In the post that started this series over a year ago I spoke to a type of lonesome sadness that followed my father. I said I thought it had something to do with losing his own father at such an early age. I also said that one of the only times I'd ever seen my father run was to run to my mother after a serious fall in 1989. He sat with her in pasture grass and held her hand.
Solemn even then
Circa 1932
 Such a little boy when his father died - old
enough to remember, young enough to forget

In the last month of his life, hospitalized and helpless as he was, he still ran to her with his eyes even when he could not run to her with his body. Seeing my mother's face made things better for awhile. Theirs was the type of love story I don't hear much anymore. It was the story of two people who were fully committed for the duration. People who never really considered leaving each other. People who loved each other even when they were getting on each other's nerves.  People who walked together even when they were walking apart.


Maybe he didn't always remember but he never forgot

Not too many years ago, my parents, my sister, and I were walking the small downtown of my home town in South Carolina. Daddy pointed to a building across the street and said, "Right there. That's the place I first laid eyes on your mother." It was the former site of a long defunct restaurant. My mother had worked there in the 1950s, and my father and his (surrogate uncle) friend, Ramie, had come there for breakfast. My memory of the story is that Daddy and Ramie were semi-regulars. Maybe they were always regulars, or maybe they started coming more frequently because there was a cute girl. The way my mother tells it, there were several cute girls working at the restaurant (but I'm sure she was the cutest...I mean, look at her).

Augusta Fair 1954
Augusta Fair 1954
That shirt was the first one she bought him in married life.
Her mother told her you have to watch a man with eyes that dark.
It was hard to tell at first as we strolled along Laurens Street whether Daddy was most happy to be reliving his discovery of Mama or just to be reliving the past in general. He said, "I also remember the very first words your mother ever said to me." She was skeptical. Her eyes narrowed. "Tell me what I said to you!"

I remember that Daddy didn't even pause to collect his thoughts. It was clear to me he really did remember. His exact words are lost on me, but I can hear the tone of them even today. "Ramie Yonce told your mother that I liked her and wanted to take her out and she looked right at me and said 'Well, why doesn't he speak for himself then?' And then she walked away."

Bluffton pier 1987
Bluffton, SC 1987
Walking together even when they were walking apart - at the
end of a South Carolina pier the day my brother and his
wife told them to expect another grandchild in the fall
Mama didn't say much. My sister and I pressed for more stories. We had a nice walk. The sun was shining. And then we went home. When I walked into my mother's kitchen for coffee the next morning, the stovetop was a flurry of activity. She was busily cooking a full breakfast, including omelets. That was unusual for a routine Sunday morning in my parents' house. I think she had already taken Daddy his first cup of morning coffee, but he padded into the kitchen in bare feet to refill his mug.

"What's all this?" he asked in surprise.

"This is for you for remembering the very first words I ever said to you."

"If I'd known it was going to get me an omelet I would have told you a long time ago!"

Silver tongued devil.

He does

I noticed something in looking at old photos. At some point my father's appearance morphed into a 1970s/1980s television detective. Think David Janssen in Harry O or James Garner in The Rockford Files. Tanned. Casual. Sometimes squinting into the sun. My mother took many of those photos, loving him through the camera.

And then he morphed into an old man. I didn't notice and I didn't notice and I didn't notice and then one day - BOOM - I noticed. Daddy was an old man. He was unsteady on his feet. In all honesty, so was my mother. When they did walk together, I suspect they were holding each other up. On good days they still walked together even when they were walking apart.

Aiken State Park March 2013
Huddled together for warmth less than a year before he died -
It was freezing. She insisted he clutch that afghan.
February 14 is Valentine's Day. February 15 would have been my father's 89th birthday. Conversations with my mother mingle present day with the past. They circle round stories of my father she's told time and time again. Several times she's marveled that a man so special as my dad would find anything special in her. She doesn't seem to realize how special she is, or that they somehow managed to be more special together than they ever were apart. I see again my father - a man who had only one speed and that speed was "amble" - running through pasture grass to get to her. I am reminded of the fact that I was his baby and he thought I was pretty swell, but nothing in me ever compared to my mother.

Last week she ended a telephone call with a single poignant question.

"I wonder if he really knew how much I truly loved him."

I can only say here what I said to her last week.

I think he did, Mama.

And more than that, I think he does.

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