My entry for August Quotation Inspiration Contest, closes Aug. 31, 2008
I thought I heard the automatic doors hiss my name as they glided open. The deliberate stride I counted on to carry me to my father’s deathbed faltered as the eerie illusion seeped into my consciousness, unraveling my nerve. The hospital seemed to be under a spell at this late hour; the usual hustle and bustle of the institution was poignantly absent. I drew a deep breath. Like smelling salts, unpleasant antiseptic odors invaded my nasal passages and revived the fortitude I so desperately needed to face the imminent truth in Room 242.
I passed no one in the darkened corridors and rode the elevator alone. My heart hammered in my chest, and I was glad nobody else could hear it. As the elevator arrived at the second floor, I had the sudden, irrational thought that perhaps this door would try to address me, too. I nearly jumped out of my skin when it slid open and I did hear my name, and my mother’s strident voice.
“Charlene, you made it!” she cried out in a discourteous tone for that time of night. She pulled me out of the elevator, hugging me harder than I hugged her back.
When she released me, I got my first real look at her. She appeared older than when I saw her a year ago. I pushed a strand of wiry hair away from her eyes like I'd seen her do to my younger sisters so many times before. She grabbed my hand and held it to her cheek.
Softly I asked, “How is he, Mom?”
She kissed my fingers before letting me go. “He’s not so good, Char.” She smiled, but not with her eyes.
“Can I see him?”
“Of course, honey.” She led the way, but paused at the door. “Just so you know... he looks…” She nodded, as if finishing the sentence was too painful. She pushed open the door and we went in.
I immediately grasped Mom’s half-spoken warning. My father, once tall and fit like a runner, lay dwarfed by the size of the standard hospital bed. His papery skin stretched over his face like it had shrunk, and last year’s tufts of salt and pepper hair were now white as winter’s first snow. I stared at him, assaulted by so many conflicting emotions that I felt nothing at all. I looked away.
“Is he just sleeping?”
“He’s not in a coma, if that’s what you mean. He is heavily sedated, though. He hasn’t been awake since they admitted him.”
“He just collapsed? Just like that?”
Mom folded her arms across her chest, her habitual posture when talking about unpleasant things. “He complained about an upset stomach yesterday morning. He was taking it easy, reading through his bottle collecting catalogues. I found him on the floor…”
This time, when I hugged her, my embrace was tighter than before. My father and I shared a tumultuous relationship, and I held certain opinions about my mother, too. Nonetheless, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for Mom to find her husband of 45 years in the midst of a medical crisis. My heart went out to her.
She pulled away suddenly. “Oh, you have got to see what I found!” Pushing the heavy curtain aside, she retrieved a shoe box from the window sill. “Do you know what this is?”
As I shrugged my answer, she dragged a corner chair next to the one at Dad’s bedside and motioned for me to sit down.
“When I was home this afternoon, while your sisters watched over Dad, I came across this in the back of his armoire.”
She placed the box on my knees, and I opened the lid. There were envelopes inside, arranged upright like files in a drawer. Puzzled at first, I recognized the contents upon closer examination.
The box was filled with all the letters I have ever written to my parents, sorted by year. I thumbed through them, amazed. They represented more than evolutionary samples of my penmanship skills; they substantiated most of my life.
“You knew nothing about this?” I whispered.
She smiled sheepishly. “I always loved reading your letters, especially when you were overseas. But Dad, he kept them. I really had no idea.”
She pulled the first letter out of the box. The back was entirely covered with cheerful stickers. We laughed at the formal address, “To Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Maynard,” written out in my careful, childlike print.
“You sent this from your very first summer sleepover camp. You were so little, but so brave.” She skimmed through the letter, chuckling to herself, until a deep yawn interrupted her.
“Mom, you look exhausted. Why don’t you go and get some rest? I slept on the flight in, and I planned on staying with him tonight.” She didn't want to go, but when I insisted she told me a nurse had offered her a couch where she could stretch out. She said she'd be right down the hall, then kissed Dad and me, and slipped out the door.
I wandered to a framed picture on the wall and afforded the generic, pastel seascape the concentration deserving of a masterpiece. The room felt warm, stifling. I sat down again, taking several slow breaths. For only the second time since I’d arrived, I looked right at my father. “Hi Dad, it’s me, Charlene.” My voice sounded hollow on the still air. I stared at him. He seemed so defenseless lying there I felt guilty at my urge to argue with him. Years ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t let him go to his grave without giving me the answers I was too cowardly to demand. Tears stung my eyes and I set my jaw; I realized I’d probably never know ‘why’. Why did he hit me? Why not my sisters? “Why me?” I snarled.
Growing up, I was his target. Only I, the eldest of three girls, received his blows, both physical and verbal. He drank, and as his blood alcohol level rose so did the heft of his abuse. I squared my shoulders against the pain. Be strong.
I turned back to the box of letters. I pulled out one with loopy handwriting, not like my now tight, careful calligraphy. The date on the letter was April 30, 1987. From my college years. I began to read aloud, “’It was great of you and Dad to come to Binghamton the afternoon of my birthday. Thanks for the cake, make-up and book bag. Did you like Ron?’” I lowered the paper, searching my memory. You drove up for my 21st birthday? Funny, I don’t remember…
I put the letter back and reached for another. This envelope was bordered with red and blue darts and marked, “Par Avion.” One I sent from Africa. I glanced at Dad lying motionless in front of me, and then read aloud again, “Our pirogue trip was awesome! Eight days and seven nights on the Ubangui River. We travelled downstream 250+ miles, from Mobaye to Bangui, spending nights on the exposed sandbars in the middle of the river.” I read on silently, savoring the memories of those precious years spent alone, when I learned to rely on myself. In a sense I grew up there, parented myself until I was strong enough to embrace my self-worth.
I read every letter and relived a lifetime. As dawn approached, I realized one was missing. Where was the letter? The one I wrote from Los Angeles, the one I never should have sent.
The year I graduated from college, I was living on my own for the first time. LA was a big, expensive city, and I felt small and broke. The pressures of starting a career, making ends meet, and trying to fit into the urban scene were too much for me. Keeping my painful feelings stuffed down took more energy than I possessed, and inevitably they surfaced. I spun in an eddy of depression; I couldn’t manage my life. In desperation, I joined a support group for adult children of alcoholics. One of the exercises designed to explore my feelings challenged me to write a letter to the drinker who affected me. The instructions emphasized not to hold back, but to unleash all the pain while transferring it to paper. The last step was to set the letter on fire. Release and purify. My letter began, “Dear Mom and Dad, I hate you because…” I filled five sheets of paper, front and back. Each paragraph recounted a different memory of abuse I suffered by my drunken father and mute mother.
I revealed the terror I felt the day he chased me with a baseball bat, and the humiliation of realizing the neighborhood kids had witnessed it. I expressed how cold my heart grew the night he held me by the throat, fist drawn back, as I stared past him at my mother, aghast and cowering in the shadows. I described the sickening stench of liquored breath mingled with the metallic flavor of blood that inundated my senses during an afternoon beating. My tears spattered the ink as I visited all the dark places where I’d stashed my agony. Defiant, I reached past the matches for a stamp, and mailed the letter. That was in 1999. Neither Dad nor Mom ever mentioned the letter. So I never did, either.
“Where is that letter, Dad?” I demanded. Angrily, I turned the box upside-down on the bed. A small, leather-bound journal tumbled out from under the envelopes. Hesitant, I picked it up. The first page was covered with poetry in Dad’s minuscule writing. I stared, astonished. I never knew he wrote poetry! I read through the pages, full of verses about nature, and politics, and life. Then I found the letter. It was tucked in the middle, attached to the page with a paper clip. I removed the letter to reveal a poem whose title took my breath away. I reached for my father’s frail hand, took a moment to compose myself, and began to read aloud:
I am a man walking backwards
along life’s twisted path
I move in reverse toward each new day
Blind to how I inspire wrath
Though unable to peer ahead
And plan how I will deal
When I stop, look in the past
‘Tis me who spins the roulette wheel
Backwards I’ve raced into the future
couldn’t see where I should steer
Your sisters, so like your mom, sidestepped
Fearful, they let me domineer
But you are more like me, my dear
Courageous no matter what
In my path you bravely stand
My actions, you fiercely rebut
If I were a stronger man
who could simply turn around
I’d see your attempts to save me
I’d embrace you on common ground
But my demons keep me weak
Draw me to bottled, false truth
Looking back I see my road
Paved with vodka and dry vermouth
I hope you can forgive me
Ran you down so many times
Racing forward backwards
I’ve committed too many crimes
Know this my beautiful Charlene
You are Intelligence, Vitality
I pray someday to face forward
and walk next to you in sobriety
The book fell from my hand as I covered my face, overcome with tears. “Thank you, Daddy,” I whispered. Dad’s grip tightened, and my head snapped up. He lay as still as before, but there was a smile on his face, a simple smile with indefinable power.
I shot up from my chair. “Dad, can you hear me?” I sobbed. A moment later the door flew open and my mother rushed in. “Mom,” I cried, “he’s squeezing my hand!”
Mom cradled his other hand, and burst into tears. We told him we loved him, kissed his face, and held his hands until his grasp slackened again. His smile faded, but its image was forever etched in my memory.
The monitor sounded its shrill alarm, and he was gone.
(Word Count according to Word: 1996)