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.
December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
This is a chapter from a memoir I ghost wrote for a client. It is still looking for a publisher.
“If you let them do this to me and get away with it, then you’re giving them the eternal right to do the same damn thing to any one of you!”
After the Newsweek article ran, I continued to work as a bartender at the Greek restaurant and at night at Sally’s. It took both jobs to pay the bills for Paul and me, and though I was tired most of the time, I liked my work, and my customers liked me. It was the disco days, and every night was a party night at Sally’s.
Sally, the owner, was an incredible woman. She had several children, and she liked younger men. At night, she’d come to the club dressed up and looking beautiful. She was a fun lady, and she made sure the staff got treated fairly.
We dressed in the basement next to Sally’s office, and besides the skimpy costumes we wore, we were issued “stacked heels” to wear while waiting tables. My foot ached constantly from those shoes, but I never complained. I needed the job.
Sally made sure the staff got two checkout drinks. While we emptied ashtrays and cleaned tables, all the staff indulged. I learned to drink beer and peppermint schnapps. The Kansas City winters were bitterly cold, and the schnapps warmed us up before we changed and went out into the weather. These two drinks were my limit.
It wasn’t unusual for people, mostly men, to come into Sally’s and strike up a conversation with the waitresses. Most were friendly and just wanted to talk, so when on a February evening a nice looking man wandered into the club and paid particularly attention to me, it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
Morris was an ex-Marine, strongly built, and had just moved to Kansas City from St. Louis. He drank several drinks, and we chatted off and on during the evening.
“Hey, I saw your picture in Newsweek, girl!”
Sally had the photo made into a life-sized cut out that she stood at the front door. I was uncomfortable about it after a while, but she said people wanted to see me.
When the club closed that night, we cleaned up, had our two drinks, and went back to the dressing room provided for us to change into street clothes. I wore a turtleneck sweater, a dress, and boots. I left by the back door as usual. Outside, I walked toward my car. It was cold. Morris stepped out of the shadows and surprised me.
“How about going for a drink?” He asked.
I was still wired from work and not ready to go home, so I said sure. But all the bars were closed.
“Well, I’ve got some scotch in my motel room. How about it?”
I really didn’t sense there was any danger. He seemed nice. We had chatted several times. So, I agreed to follow him. In fact, on the way to the motel, I convinced myself that I really liked him, that if he made a pass at me, I wouldn’t mind.
I followed Morris up to his room and as soon as the door closed, he bashed me in the face.
“What are you doing?” I screamed.
He didn’t answer; he just continued to beat me in the face. I fell on the bed and blacked out for a few seconds. When I came to, Morris was on top of me tearing at my clothes. He pounded me all over my body.
“Please don’t hurt me, Morris. You don’t have to do this.” I begged. But it was like he couldn’t hear me. My eyes were so swollen I could barely see.
It wasn’t like before. I was very aware of each movement he made, of each angry thrust. He bruised my arms, my breasts, my thighs.
Why? I kept thinking. Why was this happening to me again? What was it about me that made men think they could use me this way? I fought and struggled the whole time, but he was much too strong. He left me bleeding and bruised and swaggered off.
Dazed and confused I struggled to my feet and followed him out the door. I saw Morris strolling down the hall as if nothing had happened. I don’t know what made me cry out, but something inside, some roiling, boiling anger erupted, and I called out.
“Help me! Help me! R-A-P-E!” I yelled, over and over, and finally, someone heard. The night guard heard me and chased Morris down. The police came and took him away. I was sent to the hospital.
At the hospital, I endured the examination, the photos, the questions, the looks. The worst of it was when they kept my underwear for evidence. The police questioned me and I could tell they weren’t convinced of my story. Eventually, they let me go home.
Morris was charged with the rape. A hearing date was set. I couldn’t stop crying. I wouldn’t leave the house. I was terrified he’d find me and hurt me again. Paul never knew why I was so sad. I called Aunt in Memphis. I needed a mother, better yet, my Grandma, and Aunt was the only substitute I had. I told her what had happened, and she begged me to send Paul to her, to give myself some time to heal. I hated to let him leave, but I was no good for him or anyone else at the time. So I sent Paul back to Memphis, and Bev and Alice became my support system.
Depression settled in hard and fast. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I suffered terrible headaches, and my hands shook so badly I couldn’t have worked if I had wanted to. I had to quit work until my face and body healed. Then I had to wait until I had the courage to face the world again. John Ball, an old friend from Memphis, sent me a plane ticket home. I stayed at his house for a while. He took good care of me and even sent me to a counselor. Then back in Kansas City, Bev and Alice saw me through the rest of it.
My attorney filed a petition with the courts for damages: $100,000 plus costs, and for the sum of $500,000 for punitive damages and costs.
The hearing was held in a private room, not in the actual courtroom. I learned that Morris had raped before. My lawyer presented the evidence that made it clear that I had fought him. He assured me that everything would work out, and I felt some measure of relief that the courts would punish him.
But the Defense Attorney used everything he could find against me.
He showed the Newsweek photograph of me in my working costume, labeling it and me provocative.
He held up my stained underwear, passing it in front of everyone present. “Did you have a climax during the alleged attack?” He asked.
I was humiliated. I left feeling raped again. In time, my body healed, but my soul had been damaged. Eventually, my friends helped ease me back into work.
My friend Mary invited me to go to Las Vegas. She worked at Hallmark Cards during the day and at Dirty Sally’s at night, and because there was a Dirty Sally’s in Vegas, we got the red carpet treatment. A limo picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel. We had carefully planned just what to wear to the various shows we wanted to see. Mary wore a long black dress, and I wore a white one. We were a pair of opposites in coloring, but we were sisters at heart.
Frank Sinatra performed on stage, and we really liked him, but Wayne Newton was the Vegas star we most wanted to see. We even paid extra to sit up front at his concert, each of us hoping to be the one to get his scarf during the performance. The night was magic, and Wayne seemed to notice us from the stage. Our hopes for the scarf grew, but then this old lady climbed up on stage with him and grabbed him in a bear hug. She slyly slipped her hand up to his neck and stole that scarf away. The audience went wild, and even though Mary and I were disappointed, we laughed and applauded her like everyone else.
Back in Kansas City, I found a new apartment, but I was still afraid of being alone. So I found two perfect roommates: Ed, a college student, and Charlie, both of whom worked as bartenders. They knew about the rape and became sort of bodyguards for me. Life resumed its usual pace, but for me it was mostly going to work and coming home. Ed and Charlie eventually lured me back to some sort of social life. We had a lot of fun together. But the memory of what Morris had done to me overshadowed everything. And almost as bad, was what the justice system had allowed.
I still have nightmares about seeing my underwear displayed in public. Grandma would have been so embarrassed for me.
Finally, in April of 1978, a check came. My attorney received $917.12 for his services. I received $898.13, and I never again wore underwear.
December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
excerpt from published book 100 Ways to Beat the Blues by Tanya Tucker and friends.
©The Land and The Blues
written for Phil Richardson by Sandy Richardson
My first memories are of my dad telling me about our family’s history and showing me the land where my ancestors lived. For generations, they built their homes, raised their families, and worked the land in the midlands of South Carolina. So I suppose it is no surprise that I, too, would turn to the land for my livelihood.
After thirty years in the landscaping business, people still ask why I do it. It’s hard work. Dirty work, and totally unpredictable as a means of making a living. But my answer is always the same.
I love it.
And it’s the best cure I know for the blues. The feel and smell of that rich soil touches something on a visceral level, becomes a part of my being…binds me to it—like blood. It is a part of me, and I am a part of it just as certainly as my ancestors who now rest beneath its weight.
This land is my past, my present, and my future. In it, I find solace I can’t get behind a desk or glass-enclosed office. On down days, and particularly on Sunday afternoons, my wife and I ride its sun-dappled roads, wander under the moss-draped oaks and towering Carolina pines. I can see what I planted thirty years ago and know I’ve made a difference.
But so has the land. And I am in awe of it—awe that it takes my sweat, my labor, and nurtures what I plant, so that for years to come, I see my mark on it and feel it’s mark on me, and know there’s no time or reason for the blues. It goes on.
***Phil Richardson is the descendant of six South Carolina governors and lives and works in his beloved sand hills of South Carolina with his wife, author Sandy Richardson, and their two children.
December 17, 2011 § 1 Comment
Excerpt from Reflections of a Porch Sitter by Sandy Richardson
A Porch Swing
There’s nothing in the world like a porch swing. I can’t think of anything that relaxes me more than an afternoon spent there, or anything that conjures up more sweet memories of the past.
I remember a girl from my childhood. She was a little older and from a big city, compared to where I lived. She was the girl all the boys in town wanted to date. They clustered around her as she sat prettily in her swing, one leg tucked neatly under her on the seat, the other extended, toe pointed downward to lightly touch the porch floor, providing just enough push to gently sway the swing back and forth, keeping time with the music of the 50s playing from her transistor radio.
I wanted to be her. Not so much for the adoration of the boys, but because she looked so perfect perched in that swing—a young lady whiling away the afternoon with her music and her dreams.
There was an old swing on my grandparents’ porch. Besides my grandmother’s lap, it was the most coveted of the seats aligned along those boards. From there, I spent many afternoons reading, listening to music, gossiping with my friends. In the evenings, my granddaddy sat, arm across the swing back, one of us kids snuggled under that arm, head tucked neatly on his chest. The thump-thump of his heart, the soft rocking of the swing, and the swishing of tires on the wet pavement out front lulled us into, not sleep, but that state somewhere between consciousness and dreams, where the soft murmur of conversations blurred into an indistinguishable music, so familiar and comforting.
Lessons of life were learned in that swing, sweet cakes and homemade ice cream sampled there, babies rocked there, songs sung, books read, and laughter shared there. Tears, too. Everyday hurts and heart bruises healed there. Hellos and goodbyes were said there. Love and security abounded there.
Everyone should have a porch swing.
December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Excerpted from Reflections of a Porch Sitter by Sandy Richardson
Everything I ever really needed to know, I learned on the front porch of my grandmama’s house. Tucked just off the main thorough fare from New York to Miami, most afternoons and evenings were spent right there in rockers or gliders watching the cars go by and discussing life’s important issues—not the least of which was where babies come from. We went through the usual stories of the stork, the cabbage patch, and one time my granddaddy said babies grew in the swamps under cypress stumps.
But at age nine, my cousin Donna was convinced that babies were summoned to earth by lots of prayer, and being desperate to have a baby sister, she decided on a plan. Donna and I, along with another friend, broke into the church, donned choir robes, and performed Donna’s version of a fertility ceremony. She arranged and lit candles on the altar railing, then loudly begged God to send her a baby, after which she commanded our friend and me to dance in circles around the altar.
Dancing in circles caused dizziness. Dizziness caused a stumbling, bumbling kind of walk, and stumbling and bumbling naturally led to candles being knocked over, wax spraying across the carpet, and burnt holes in the new church carpet.
We were in BIG trouble.
After hysterical crying and excuses on our part, mama and my aunt got the church cleaned up and arranged for the carpet to be repaired. But afterwards on the front porch, my mama asked us, “What in the world possessed you girls to do this?”
“I want a baby, and Mama says she’s not ever having any more babies, but I want one, so that’s why we did it,” my cousin answered with a glare sliding sideways toward my aunt. She then went on to explain how she had come to have this crazy ritual idea in the first place. It seems she’d been reading some very different kinds of books on spells and rituals in the ancient world.
Good Methodists that they were, both adults turned slightly pale, and that’s when they decided it was time we knew the real facts about where babies come from.
Mama, rocking nervously in an old wooden rocker, explained to us that when a man and woman fell in love and got married, the man would fertilize the woman’s egg, and nine months later, there’d be a little baby.
Now, growing up in the country as I did, I knew a lot about chickens, eggs, and fertilizer, but I just couldn’t imagine how all this related to a man and woman having a baby. But Donna promptly decided that it happened orally.
“You mean the woman eats a chicken egg, and the man feeds her some fertilizer to make it grow?”
There were stifled giggles coming from mama’s end of the porch, and my aunt looked furtively around avoiding eye contact with everyone.
“No, the man uses his penis to fertilize the woman’s eggs, not chicken eggs.” Mama was choking on her words.
Donna’s eyes filled up her face. She swallowed loud.
“You mean he puts his penis in her MOUTH?”
My aunt left the porch. Mama bent over to search for something underneath the rocker. I was lost.
Finally Mama straightened back up and looking just above our heads, she said,
“No, not in the mouth…(tee, hee, hee) . In her privates, you know,
‘down there.’ ” She waved her hands around that general vicinity.
And just like the proverbial light going off in a cartoon characters head, Donna
ended the conversation with a satisfied nod and one quick observation.
“Uh-huh. I see. I always knew THAT was down there for something besides going to the bathroom.”
Mama left the porch.
December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Excerpted from Reflections of a Porch Sitter by Sandy Richardson
My family has been homeless for almost two years now — that is to say, my extended family has not had access to a central gathering place for the first time in over one hundred and thirty years. Our family home, the home my great, great grandfather built, was sold, depriving us, the grandchildren, of the place we gathered in, the place we knew and loved as home.
The house was a wonderful, rambling Victorian. White, gingerbread trim adorned every inch of eave, porch, and railing that encircled the pale yellow wood-siding, and despite the fact that several years ago, Hurricane Hugo harvested many of the grand oaks and pecan trees, the house continued to reign majestically over the two acres of azaleas, camellias, and daffodils that are so much a part of our southern landscape. We said goodbye to our home soon after Easter that following year, and I am certain the new owners must have discovered our usual supply of un-found eggs tucked into the secret places between the twisted tree roots and beneath the tangled ivy. The lavenders, pinks, and blues of the eggs surely would have faded by then, and only to us, would they have brought smiles of remembrance of the many story-book-perfect Easters of the past.
While remembering, there are of course the summers to recall. Thinking back, I can still hear the plip-plop of raindrops that fell, magnified and echoed by the corrugated tin that covered the roof. Cots for napping lined the huge upstairs hall, and a marvelously cool draft was created by the open double doors to the balcony–so cool in fact, that in spite of the heat outside, we would draw-up soft cotton spreads to cover our bare legs and arms. As we rested there, the rain would plunk out melodies on that roof–melodies hypnotic enough as to be transcendental in effect. I learned the art of meditation early and effortlessly.
Autumn memories are set against a different tune on the roof. Acorns from the oaks surrounding the house pinged and popped in double-time above our heads, creating images of tiny toy soldiers marching on patrol. Afternoons of gathering pecans, the hours on the porch spent shelling them, the smell of hogs’ blood, fire, and hickory, all foretold the gargantuan Thanksgiving feast ahead.
As winter wrapped us in early darkness, the symphony on the roof grew silent. Fireplaces were lit, the smell of burning wood and coal filled the air inside and outside of our family home.
Every nook and cranny became suspected hiding places for Christmas surprises, and garlands of pine and magnolia swathed the doors and stair banister. The scent of cinnamon clung to the very walls of the rooms, and it seemed that someone was always pounding out carols on the old upright piano.
Of course, as with any old house, there were all those little annoyances which weave in and our of our reminisces. That spacious central hall that cooled us in July became a frozen tundra in February. The doors that lined it were closed tight at night, vainly attempting to seal in the feeble heat from the small gas heaters in the bedrooms. We slept in socks and long-johns under three thick quilts, and mornings found us calling for help just to get out of bed. First, the three quilts were peeled back, layer after layer, and then a helping hand was offered to pull us free of the toasty burrows we had dug in the soft feather mattresses.
The “necessaries” were brought inside of the house some sixty years ago. What once appeared as a cavernous dorm-type room at the back of the house was converted to hold them, and while inside plumbing of any kind proved quite a luxury back then, the race down that long, cold hall on winter mornings was, in our day, much less than convenient.
The windows of the house provided additional cares. They operated in only two positions–completely opened or completely closed. Now this worked fine for summer and winter, but fall and spring required that someone be ever mindful of sudden rises and drops in temperature, not to mention sudden wind and rain storms.
The finagling it took to have the darned things cleaned would boggle even the most cunning of minds.
Even those tall ceilings we adored so in summer, prompted further creative approaches to housekeeping. Cobwebs bloomed over night in the upper reaches, and changing light bulbs in the ceiling fixtures was somewhat of an olympic feat– even the bravest among us was subject to vertigo while balancing on a fourteen-foot ladder.
But in spite of the inconveniences, the grand old lady drew us all back to her at least once a month for as long as I can remember. Marriages and births added to our numbers. Deaths were mourned, but they never completely deprive us of our loved ones. Ever inch of that house held reminders. The very essence of who we are was fused with the floors, the walls, the ceilings. Our loved ones might be gone from our midst, but never–no never, was anyone forgotten.
Meals often proved to be culinary extravaganzas. Each branch of the family prepared chosen favorites, so a variety of new and often times exotic dishes arrived to accompany the usual fare of fried chicken, rice, butter beans, and biscuits. There was always something to suit each taste, but seating everyone at the same time provided another challenge altogether. Small tables, chairs, and trays spilled out into the hall, the parlor, and even onto some of the porches, and besides serving as impromptu eating areas, those porches provided five extra sitting rooms in good weather. Usually we would gather in groups according to age, but as the afternoon slipped away, we would eventually make the rounds to all five, and each porch offered its own brand of gossip, news, entertainment, and therapy. It was on those porches that we listened to my grandfather’s stories of the merchant marines, eavesdropped on the adults’ gossiping, studied the stars, cried over our hurts, learned of sex, and eventually, rocked our own babies to sleep.
I look back in amazement at my family–amazed at our vast differences, at our individual uniqueness, at our continuing sameness. I look back also in absolute awe of the love that bound us together in that house, both were the vital components in the structures of our lives and the very foundations of our identities.
Thinking of saying good-bye to that house seemed impossible, yet when the time came to let go, we did so with a unified sigh of relief and sense of rightness. This past Sunday proved us right. We christened my grandmother’s new home with a long-awaited reunion. The house sits unpretentiously across the road from the old place; its compact newness, red bricks, and green shutters contrasting sharply with the sprawling Victorian. The new roof is shingled; central air and heat will provide year-round comfort; the windows are adjustable; there are two bathrooms, and practical, eight-foot ceilings.
Dinner was a real extravaganza, and again, we ate wherever we could find a seat. We counted twenty-seven present, but this Easter will bring everyone together once again. We will number 35.
After dinner we sat on the porch–yes, of course there’s a porch! It stretches across the front of the house, lined with rockers, straight chairs, and a new wooden swing, and as the afternoon waned, we talked of politics, religion, gossip, and sex. We laughed; we argued; we cried, and we gave thanks once again for the love that still binds us together.
It was so good to go home again.
December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Every night for two weeks, I waited for the phone call telling me my brother was gone. I didn’t know what was worse, the knowing he would die, or the waiting for the call to tell me that he had.
The family had watched for months while he shrank, grew frailer, paler, and struggled for each breath. Every visit we made ended in sorrow. How many times can you say goodbye? How many times can you leave thinking, praying, that he wouldn’t have to suffer much longer? How many times must my eighty-year-old mother bend to kiss him goodbye and whisper, “Be a good boy, now.”
I came to believe the agony of waiting was hardest. What was the purpose of it? What good could possibly come from this extra time he lingered with us? The family had long-since accepted the cancer’s victory. My brother and I had remembered countless childhood hours, every grandparent, aunt, and cousin, every summer of pick-up ball in the vacant lot next door, each tiny brown paper bag stuffed with Mary Jane’s and Sugar Daddies. We had explored every shadow, every hurt, and offered and accepted forgiveness for each. What more was there to do? To say? What more did we have to learn from this?
And then, late one Friday night, my phone rang. My sister-in-law needed to talk. She was weary. Heartbreakingly sad. Carolyn and I talked through the usual run down of the day: my brother’s meds, the visitors, the hospice reports. But, there was a difference about that night. It didn’t come from the words or tears we shared, but rather in the form of a familiar warmness spreading through me—the same warmness I had experienced at other times when loved ones had left me. It felt as if some gentle hand rested on my head, sending rivers of radiant heat down my spine.
“I’m on my way,” I said to my sister-in-law.
Carolyn didn’t argue. She had cared for my brother through every interminable hour of his illness, and I believe she sensed something different that night. I think she knew she needed someone there, and I believe that particular someone needed to be there. That someone was me.
I made the two-hour drive through misty fog, and even as I walked to the front door of my brother’s home, I could hear his gasps for breath. Carolyn met me at the door. We hugged, and I prayed silently before I went in.
My baby brother lay as he had lain for weeks, on his back, head and shoulders propped up on pillows. Every breath rasped from his lungs, his skin had yellowed, and his eyes were clouded. He turned his head toward me as I sat next to his bed, but he couldn’t speak.
I sent Carolyn to rest and took my brother’s hand. He had no strength left to hold mine in return, but his eyes followed every movement of my body.
I rubbed his arms, his hands, his chest, but his moaning grew worse. He couldn’t seem to get comfortable, in spite of the morphine that pumped regularly into his swollen veins. I placed my palm over his heart and talked again of long gone summer days, bream-fishing in the creek, rides in the bed of our grandfather’s old truck.
“Remember how the yellow flies swarmed around us when we came to that certain part of the woods, and we’d yell for Daddy Bill to ‘Hit the gas!’ to outrun them?
“Remember the snake that swam between your legs at the old branch? And how your lips would turn blue and you’d shake from cold but refuse to leave the icy water? Remember Roscoe, our mule, and the hobbledy-walks he carried us on? The fireworks in July, the homemade ice cream, the time you had a dart stuck in your head? Remember…? Remember…?”
The night turned to wee morning hours, and still my brother struggled.
Please, God, help him. Take him.
I never dreamed the thoughts I would think through that next hour as I sat by his side—thoughts of extra morphine drops, of pillows over faces, of a hand pressed too firmly on a frail windpipe. Thoughts of silence. Of release. Of goodbyes.
But I couldn’t act on any one of them.
I massaged my brother’s head, running my fingers along his scalp, brushing back the strands of hair that fell across his forehead. His moaning grew fainter, but he continued to stare at me.
“Remember those crazy songs Daddy Bill sang to us?”
Another raspy breath.
“‘She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes… She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes….She’ll be….”
My brother’s head turned slightly toward me.
“Oh, how ‘bout Ol’ Dan Tucker? That was one of your favorites. “Ol’ Dan Tucker was a funny ol’ man. He combed his hair with a frying pan….”
I sang what I could remember, and then my brother’s silence of the last few days broke.
“Ugggghhh!” He uttered.
I stared at him. He stared back.
Then through tears and laughter, I said, “Well, Bucky! I know I don’t sing that bad…”
He scrunched up his face. I stared. Was there a lift to one corner of his mouth? A little more light in his eyes?
Perhaps I just imagined that somewhere in his heart and mind he laughed with me. I can’t say for sure. But afterwards, he grew quieter and stiller, and the harder I prayed for the Lord to take him—“Please”—the slower his breathing became. With each forced breath out, I watched and waited, sure another rasping intake would follow. But, finally, with almost a sigh, he breathed out, and the room grew quiet. I moved my hand up to check the pulse in his neck.
The clock behind me ticked.
I pressed my hand gently against his heart. I put my ear close to his mouth. And still, only the ticking clock broke the silence around us.
My brother had gone—just like that.
Once again, that familiar warmth spread through me—a gentle, loving invisible hand touched my soul. The memories of all the tortuous weeks of waiting, all the hours of suffering faded away. I didn’t have to question why anymore because I knew the answers to the questions I had asked for so long. I had been given a gift. Except for the births of my children, no other moment in my life compares to the beauty and sacredness of watching my brother leave this world to be born into the next. Nothing can compare to that last, weak smile we shared.
I cried as I gently closed his eyes and watched a grace-filled peace settle on his face. He was free. He was safe. And I knelt in grateful prayer.