February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
December 15th, 2011 § Leave a Comment
My daddy died, and my heart broke. And while it has never completely healed, the hurt has lessened in time. Still, the experience remains profound—not so much in big ways, but in the tiny details of every day life as time moved on: in the smell and taste of a vanilla milkshake, Dad’s only food for the last week of his life; in the bump of the car against a parking space curb, sparking the hilarious memory of parallel parking lessons he gave me when I was fourteen; in the tempting sights and smells of bakery goods at the grocery store where we often debated which new treat we might try. Hundreds of these casual, everyday memories still pierce my heart in moments unsuspected and normal. They hit suddenly—like ocean waves washing over me so forcefully I can scarcely catch my breath. And then they pass.
Life moved on.
For a few days after Daddy’s death, guilt hounded me. It wasn’t guilt for unkind words or neglect of any kind—quite the contrary. For months during his illness, Mama, my sisters, and I shared the daily care Daddy needed. We bathed him, dressed him, fed him. We gave back rubs, foot rubs, head massages. We spent endless hours talking, watching movies, remembering. We shared all those things, as well as the everyday housekeeping of cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. Soon, clothing, paperwork, and the other detritus of life spread from Mama’s house to ours, so that all our lives and homes were blended, totally focused on one thing—caring for Daddy. And like tag-team wrestlers, my sisters, Mama, and I took terms helping him battle the cancer that pinned him down.
Then suddenly after many false alarms, he slipped away from us in one rare, unguarded moment. And after all that time preparing for it, we simply weren’t ready. And we weren’t there. That haunted me most of all for a while—we weren’t there. But later, I remembered Daddy’s words, “I’m not afraid of dying,” he said. “I just don’t want to leave all of you.”
“I know, Daddy. But you don’t have to worry. We’re going to be okay. I promise.” But he wouldn’t and didn’t leave. We continued our vigils. Crisis after crisis came.
Life moved on.
Then, on the Sunday before the first day of spring, I sat alone with Daddy in his hospital room while my sisters took Mama out for some fresh air. The day was cool and wet. Gray. He lay turned toward me, staring, sometimes smiling, but not talking much. I remember asking myself what more can I say to this dying man? I remember praying that he would just go to sleep, that the pain would stop, that he wouldn’t KNOW.
But Daddy always knew. And before I left the hospital that dreary day, I stopped to massage the bottom of his feet. He wore his favorite light-blue socks, the ones we often teased him about not being appropriate for a grown man to wear.
“Keep those feet warm, now, you hear. I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He answered only with a weak smile. Exhausted, my sisters and I left. Mama stayed. Through the night and into the wee hours of the morning, she talked with him, tended him, and tried to comfort him. He was fighting still, but losing ground quickly. And in the one moment she left the room to phone me, he left us.
I recognize now that it was the only way he could have gone. He simply couldn’t say goodbye while we were there.
My sisters and I met at the hospital, gathered Daddy’s things, and returned home. There was yet more laundry to do, arrangements to make, and tears to shed.
Later that same day, I returned to Mama’s house to help select Daddy’s clothes to take to the funeral home. Opening the dresser drawer to store the clean laundry I had brought with me, I spied the neat rows of rolled, various colored socks, and I realized I held the same blue socks Daddy had worn the day before. I placed them gently in the drawer and chose a sedate navy pair to take to the funeral home. But then, the light-blue ones drew my attention again. They were the color of my daddy’s eyes, soft, and even though clean, they still smelled like him.
I realized I had to have them. Not for the funeral home, but for myself. My conscience pinched. Guilt sneered in my ears, but I wasn’t going to ask for them. No one was likely to ever notice. And so… I stole them.
I tucked them into my purse, carried them home, and slept holding them in my hands next to my heart, while guilt tramped through my restless dreams.
Two days later, I returned to mama’s house. I made my way out back to sit on the bench by the pond, thinking of Daddy and how he had loved that very spot—how he had so often turned his face to the sun, cocked his head to catch the rustle of the breeze through the pines, the songs of the wrens, or peered unblinkingly at a flurry of dragon flies hovering nearby.
I had a good cry, but my guilt ranted louder.
Raised as Southern girls in the heart of the Bible Belt, my sisters and I knew guilt. It was the unwelcome shadow hovering constantly over our heads, appointed to us as guardian at the snip of the umbilical cord, and it loomed large and loud over even the smallest of deeds. That is the Southern way. It was meant to keep us honest and virtuous. And for the most part, it did keep us honest.
So, I cried harder.
And then my sisters appeared, taking seats on the spring-green lawn in front of my bench.
“What’s wrong?” They asked. “What’s happened?” They stared at me with eyes so very like my daddy’s—clear, liquid blue. And in that afternoon light, with tears streaking my cheeks, and guilt stomping on my chest, I confessed my sin.
“I stole Daddy’s blue socks,” I cried. “I’ve been sleeping with them.”
Denise, the middle sister, wiped at her own sudden tears and sobbed, “That’s okay. Really, it’s okay…because I, well, I stole the jacket he wore to the hospital the other night.”
I looked from Denise to Melissa, our youngest sister. She stood suddenly and brushed grass and leaves from the seat of her pants. Then, with neither a tear nor a blush of embarrassment, she tossed her head back and stared directly at me with the straightest of faces. Sassy as always, she said, “So…. I have his underwear.”
My guilt skipped a stomp. My heartache shifted, and from somewhere overhead, I heard my daddy’s laughter.
Then (and I am ashamed to tell you this!) the three of us—grown women that we are—laughed so hard we wet our pants!
- And life moved on.