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Harvester of Sorrows

Art: Britton Sukys

I don’t stand to inherit a great family fortune, but I used to console myself that I have a wealth of family stories. If times got hard, I thought, I’ll just write a book and cash in on the amazing tales of my ancestors. Because writers are known for being rich.

Lucky for me, I found myself in need of money recently. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to transform my legacy into riches, so I called on my ancestors to help me bring their lives to a public that needed to hear it. I had heard the stories so many times, I can repeat them as well as I can the Apostles’ Creed.

 

 

The Mother of All Jobs

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys

 

“Not everyone has to become a mother, Megan. The world also needs good aunties.” If I could remember what prompted my mother to tell me that when I was a teenager, I might not harbor this suspicion that she thought I’d make a lousy mom. That, in turn, might make me feel a little less like a lousy mom.
Then again, I may just be a lousy mom.

***

My mother died before I had children. In her final years, she continued to downplay the importance of parenthood. “You really don’t have to have kids, Megan. It’s okay to focus on your career. You don’t have to try to do both.” I lived three-thousand miles away from her at the time, but we had money problems in common. She could barely afford to stay in an apartment and cover medical care with her disability payments. My husband and I were under a mountain of debt, barely making minimum payments and rent with our entry-level salaries. Her reassurances were a relief.

Less than a year after she died, though, I was pregnant. It seemed like an act of rebellion. “I’ll show her. I WILL do both. And I’ll like it!” Giving up my career was never an option. I might disregard my mother’s advice on kids, but her lessons about making a living were sacrosanct.

***

When I was in junior high I’d sit at the table with my mother every day after school. We’d drink ice tea and she’d lecture me about the importance of getting a college degree, earning my own money, never relying on a man, learning what it took to succeed in an industry and then doing whatever that was with passionate intensity.

05-07-16 BW Mommy Pointing Amigo-1

My mother would point out to me that it was only because she got Multiple Sclerosis that she was at home. “If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d certainly still be working.” Before she had to take disability retirement, she earned her Masters in Education and considered moving from teaching into school administration to improve remedial instruction.

She fondly recalled the brief time when she worked and my father kept house, back when they lived in Chapel Hill and only had one child, just before I was born. “You know, that was the perfect situation for us. He was so good at homemaking, and I loved having a career.”

My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.
My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.

 

But then I was born, my father took a job at his father’s mattress plant, we moved to Hope Mills, and my mother was diagnosed with MS the first week in the new house. To her, the correlation implied causation. To me, it was a cautionary tale.

I concluded that all of the other factors that contributed to our family’s crises – my father’s bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and hereditary depression, my mother’s chronic, degenerative disease, the socio-economic shifts during the 80’s and 90’s – could have been avoided with better employment decisions. Specifically, NEVER LEAVE A CAREER FOR FAMILY.

Family is unreliable, marriage is vulnerable, love is blind, but a career gives you freedom. I hard-wired that into my brain and made professional success my priority.

At the start of my senior year in college, my boyfriend broke up with me, accusing me of wanting to trap him into a traditional married life. He thought I wanted him to work and take care of me so I could have babies. He said I’d stop him from pursuing his dreams.

Ending the relationship hurt me deeply for many months, but that accusation burned me for decades. There was no greater insult than to say I might be willing to just be a mom. I had dreams too, and they didn’t include staying at home with kids.

***

I went back to work full-time when my son was eight weeks old. After my daughter was born, I started working from home only four weeks postpartum. My husband cut down to part-time work: three days a week with the first baby, then just one day a week when I was pregnant the second time. He assumed the primary parent role so I could hold on to my career. I became the breadwinner.

Our situation echoed my mother’s best times. According to my teenage judgement, I should have been as happy as my mother remembered she was before I was born.

I wasn’t happy.
I also wasn’t healthy.

Even though I put my job first, the factors that contributed to my family’s crises still affected me. Professional success did not rewrite DNA nor avert socio-economic shifts.

Not only did I have less and less time to see my kids, the stresses of my job drained all my emotional capacity. I couldn’t offer them any support through the daily challenges of growing up. I couldn’t even offer my husband much. And no matter what, I didn’t have anything left over to take care of myself.

I started to crack. Then, I cracked. A debacle to call my own.

As much as I wanted to fulfill the dreams of my fourteen-year old self, and as much as I respected my mother’s experience, life didn’t turn out the way I planned. I broke up with my career. My husband went back to work full-time. I started part-time consulting. Our family budget took a huge hit, and our lifestyle is exactly what I feared most as a senior in college.

Ever since then I’ve had time to sit down at the table by myself, with a glass of ice tea, and re-examine what my mother told me. I am now the same age she was when she imprinted the primacy of a professional life. Rather than seeing her as an irrefutable authority – and she had an amazing authority about her – I have tried to see her as a fellow mom, as a peer.

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys

 

My mother raised three girls while slowly losing the use of her body. She counseled us through school work, boyfriends, frenemies, lousy jobs, cruel teachers, car crashes, and most notably, our father. Despite his long decline, the drunken insults, the DUIs, the embarrassing public displays, the inconvenient absences, she believed in his better nature and told us not to hate him because it would only be hating ourselves.

I can clearly remember countless days of talking with her for hours. In my memories, I’m in a parade of different hairstyles, fashions from halter tops to floral dresses to vests and then overalls. And always, my mother is there, listening, asking questions, offering advice.

There was no way for her to know what I needed to do to have a secure future. She didn’t even know how to secure her own future. In fact, she didn’t know a lot of things. She didn’t know that I might marry a man very different than my father. She didn’t know that a good job is still no guarantee. She didn’t know that I’d take one thing she said one afternoon and try to build my whole life around it.

Most importantly, my mother had no idea what kind of a mother I might be. I know this because I have no clue how my kids will turn out. I’m still surprised they made it out of diapers. I dispense wisdom and warnings in equal measure, hoping that the right things will stick so they’ll make the best decision they can when they’re all on their own. Only now can I see that that’s what she did as well.

As a child, I listened to her words. As a mother, I look at her actions. Rather than saying the perfect thing or accurately predicting any future, her greatest gift was showing up day after day. If I still followed all of her advice, I’d be wearing patterned sweaters, oversize glasses, and have a smart, short haircut. If I follow her example, though, I give my kids my time.

Mothering is in the minutes.

***

I think my mother was right that not everyone has to be a mom (or dad). The world does need good aunties (and unkies) because kids require a tremendous amount of guidance and support. But whether or not my mom thought I might be good at it, I can’t back out of motherhood now. I have two kids and if I’m lousy the only thing I can do is try to get better.

That’s where all those years of institutional indoctrination and management training might help me gauge if I truly am a lousy mom. I need a personal performance review.

Since a performance review is based on a job description, I wrote one for myself. I put down what I think I’m supposed to be doing – not what I want to be doing or what I think would be ideal. My hope was to capture any illusions and unrealistic expectations as well as the daily tasks I expect of myself right now.

***

JOB TITLE: Queen Megan

Reports to: The Higher Power
Colleague: Captain Britton
Supervises: Young Padawans

Work Hours: All of The Hours

PURPOSE: This position manages the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the family which is defined as the four humans and three cats currently living Chez Sukys, Tacoma, WA.

DUTIES:

  • Physical Needs
    • NUTRITION: Provides food eating routines consistent with a healthy body, community, and planet.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: grocery shopping, meal planning, meal preparation, school lunches, Receiving Complaints
    • SANITATION: Develops and maintains routines which inhibit noxious germs, odors, and clutter on people, in rooms, in the yard, and in cars.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: dishes, laundry, garbage, recycling, compost, kitty litter, floor, dusting, pest control, disinfection, bathrooms, windows, filing, organization, winnowing, gardening, car maintenence, showers/baths, haircuts, handwashing, medicine cabinet, veterinary, doctor and dentist appointments, Lectures on the Black Plague
    • SUPPLIES: Evaluates and maintains stocks of necessary possessions.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: food, cleaning supplies, clothes, shoes, school and office supplies, art supplies, games, entertainment, catnip, incense, cars, household items,  gifts, tools, luggage, garden supplies, bath products, appliances, Saying No
    • ENRICHMENT: Researches and schedules opportunities to enjoy and learn through physical, mental, and artistic experiences.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: after-school clubs and sports, summer camps, family vacations, educational opportunities, screen time, library, home improvements, dining out, babysitting and child care, parties, playdates, movies, bikes, watching baseball, Judge of What’s Funny
    • BUDGET: Creates and maintains resources to accommodate all needs and duties.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: contract consulting work, financial software, taxes, reconciling accounts: checking/savings/retirement, insurance: health/car/life, loans, budgeting, allowances, charity, debt collection, low balance warnings, Uncomfortable Family Finance Meetings
  •  Emotional Needs
    • SELF: Assesses and provides the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view self and this incarnation.
    • COLLEAGUE: Communicates with and supports Captain Britton to maintain a loving, compassionate, cooperative, creative, Cosmic, sensual partnership and parenthood.
    • PADAWANS: Communicates with and nurtures children to help them recognize their unique needs and personalities, assists them in creating routines for self-care to maintain loving and compassionate Cosmic views of themselves in this incarnation, offers love, compassion and personal Cosmic views where they need it, allows them room to also practice their routines of self-care.
    • EXTENDED FAMILY: Maintains relationships, knowledge and communication with family members outside the house, as well as ancestors, to share and understand the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view of self and this incarnation.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, napping, sleep schedules, eating schedules, meditation, yoga, books, storytelling, family photos, character analysis, videos, letters, cards, ancestry, dates, holiday celebrations, visits, music, artistic expression, hugs, kisses, tickles, Apologies 
  • Spiritual Needs
    • SELF: Develops and maintains daily routines to connect to the timeless, Cosmic view and applies any lessons to daily activities.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, meditation, research, classes, reading, rituals, oracles, retreats, fellowship, Being Alone
    • FAMILY: Shares insights and lessons from self-spiritual path when appropriate, encourages others to find their own connection to the timeless, Cosmic view. Listens and dialogues about others’ questions and insights, learns from others’ unique perspectives, offers fellowship and participation in spiritual seeking.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: listening, inquiring, storytelling, artistic expression, rituals, wilderness trips, Fielding Questions about Santa and the Tooth Fairy
  • Continued Development: Recognizes that all listed duties are subject to change at any moment without notice, accepts continual evolution of physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies within the family, adapts assignments and delegates tasks as soon as possible, maintains health and energy reserves to handle any and all eventualities, including the ones that cause insomnia.
    • IMMINENT CHANGES: puberty, menopause, male-pattern baldness

QUALIFICATIONS:

  • Superior Communication Skills
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Ability to Clean Up Bodily Waste from Humans and Animals
  • Situational Focus
  • Internet Security
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Negotatiation
  • Selective Memory
  • Logic and Debate
  • Semantics
  • Photography
  • Eyes in Back of Head
  • Interrogation Techniques
  • Search and Rescue
  • Karaoke
  • Love

An Inventory Of My Mother’s Recipe Box

06-26-15 Recipe Box-1

My drawer of plastic storage containers recently reached maximum capacity and I had to make some hard decisions about what to toss. After I matched tops and bottoms, separated the Rubbermaid from the Tupperware, and accepted that I would never use the pastel bunny-face popsicle molds, I discovered a slightly rusty metal box with a hinged lid. My mother’s recipe holder.

This box lived in the drawer beneath our wall oven at my childhood home, along with all my mom’s cookbooks. When she moved out and got rid of most everything, I kept the box for sentimental reasons. I can’t remember my mother ever using the box when she cooked. In fact, I can barely remember her cooking.

Due to her declining health from Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.), family meals disappeared by the time I reached puberty. However, I learned to cook early, thanks to her encouragement – and benign neglect of my kitchen experiments.

Southern Living, Betty Crocker, and the Amana Touchmatic II Radarange Microwave Oven Cook Book were my early cooking instructors. On my own I figured out how to dispose of the evidence: muffins like hockey pucks, briquette brownies, and a confusing puddle of sugar syrup that was supposed to be microwave taffy.

My fondest memories in the kitchen are all at my grandmother’s house. At home, I blazed a solo trail of culinary inquiry because even before M.S. made cooking impossible for her my mother had a tenuous relationship with food.

She told me about starving herself all day in high school so she could have a plate of French Fries and a coke after class and still stay skinny. Smoking was a great way to stay thin, but she said she never liked it enough to keep going. She blamed growing up during World War II for malnutrition and told me that was probably why she had such bird bones. Indeed, old photos and dresses show that she didn’t eat much.

Mommy Bathing Suit

(This is not a physical trait I share with my mom. I couldn’t fit into her wedding dress when I was eight years old.)

Back when she did cook for the family, my mom’s rotation included lemon chicken, beef-and-rice, and liver-and-onions. I vividly recall her attempt at stuffing a whole head of cabbage. It freaked me out because it looked like a brain stewing on the stove.

My mother’s taste in food always seemed odd to me. She liked peanut butter and tomato sandwiches, crystallized ginger straight from the container, and liver-and-onions. If I ever wanted to give her a food gift, I’d just think about the last thing I’d ever want to eat and get her that.

The tin box of recipe cards, dishes my mother made a point of remembering, sat under the spare ice trays at the very back of my storage drawer. It escaped the trash can in past years because I promised myself I would find a recipe I liked and think of my mother as I made it. As long as I didn’t open the box, I imagined there was some wonderful meal with the aroma of her loving memory.

This time, the tin box couldn’t deflect my organization zeal with a nostalgic fantasy. A husband, a son, and a daughter all need copious containers to fill their lunch sacks. Storage in my kitchen is a high stakes Tetris game, and I can fit an entire sandwich kit in the space those old recipes occupy.

To purge any sentimentality, I took a calculating, clinical look at the box’s contents. Below is my Recipe Inventory. All recipe names are directly from the cards.

Drinks: 4

+ Mulled Wine
+ Unnamed Punch with Apple and Cranberry Juice
+ Instant Russian Tea
made with Tang 
+ Strawberry Tea Punch
recipe printed on a Lipton Tea Bag envelope

Sauces: 2

+ Hollaidaise (sic)
handwritten card with 11 drips obscuring words
+ White Sauce
handwritten card with 1 large brown drip

Bread: 1

+ Quick Family Dinner Rolls
total time to prepare rolls: 2 hours

Salads: 6

+ Congealed Salad
ingredients include orange Jell-O
+ Blueberry Salad
ingredients include Blackberry jello {A&P} (sic)
+ Fruit Cocktail ‘N Cottage Cheese Salad
recipe cut from a label of a Libby’s Fruit Cocktail in heavy syrup
ingredients include lime-flavored gelatin
+ Strawberry & Banana Salad
ingredients include 3 pks. strawberry & banana jello
+ Salad
ingredients include Marshmallows, crushed pineapple, mayonnaise, and lime Jello
+ Shrimp-and-Rice Salad Ring
ingredients include shrimp, green onions, rice, broth, mayonnaise, red food coloring, heavy cream, and gelatin

Casseroles: 8

+ Apple-Banana Casserole
+ Hamburger Casserole
+ Ham and Rice Casserole
+ Broccoli Casserole
handwritten
+ Broccoli Casserole
exact same recipe as above, but in a different handwriting
+ unnamed cornbread dressing casserole
+ Seven Seas Casserole
recipe cut from a box of Minute Rice
ingredients include 1 can tuna, condensed cream of celery soup, and cooked peas
+ unnamed chicken casserole
typed
ingredients include 4 chicken breasts, cream of mushroom soup, chipped beef, bacon, and sour cream
+ unnamed chicken casserole
handwritten written on back of State Employee’s Credit Union withdrawal slip
also written on slip is the number of someone named Dave

Dips: 2

+ Tomato Dip
+ CAL-O-RRIFIC DIP
recipe cut from a box of Wheat Thins Crackers

Spreads: 1

+ Beef Spread
ingredients include Smoked Chopped Beef, cream cheese, mayonnaise, sherry, and olives

Party Mix: 1

+ Toasted Party Mix
recipe cut from a magazine ad for Cheerios

Chicken Dishes: 7

+ Chicken Diable (sic)
+ Hungarian Chicken
handwritten on Tiki stationery, not my mother’s handwriting
+ Hungary
handwritten in my mother’s handwriting
+ Chicken Tahitian
+ Chicken Kiev
written on PARKS BUILDING SUPPLY COMPANY note paper
+ Boned Chicken Stuffed with Wild Rice Dressing
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Chicken Liver Saute Japanese Dish
recipe cut from newspaper
headline above recipe: “Japanese-accented liver dish is really delicious”

Beef Dishes: 13

+ Teriyaki Steak (Island Favorite from Japan)
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Braised Short Ribs of Beef for a Crowd
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Grenadin of Beef Tenderloin
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Filet Steak Diane
recipe cut from newspaper

+ Chuckwagon Beef on a Skewer
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Beef Burger Barbecue
recipe cut from newspaper

+ Marinated Steaks
recipe cut from newspaper
+ 30 Second Pan Fried Steak
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Steak San Marco
handwritten
+ Chinese Beef
handwritten
+ Chinese Beef and Rice
handwritten
+ NGO YuK Fan Kay (Beef Tomato)
handwritten
+ Ris de Veau Braised au Jus
recipe cut from a magazine

Specialty Dishes: 10

+ Egg Fried Rice
+ Shrimp Eloise
+ Asparagus Venetian
+ Fondue for Every Taste
recipe page cut from TV Guide, October 7, 1971
includes recipes for Cheese Fondue, Chocolate Fondue, Fondue Bourguinonne, and Fondue Orientale (made with only chicken broth and white wine)
+ Chile Rellenos
+ Taco Pie
handwritten
ingredients include canned “creasant” (sic) rolls, Fritos, burger, sour cream, american cheese, more Fritos, and “sreaded” (sic) lettuce
+ Beefy Quiche
+ Surprise Tuna Quiche
recipe cut from a magazine
last line of directions reads, “This quiche is unique in that it has its own ‘surprise’ cheese sauce.”

Sweets: 26

+ Butter-Cinnamon Delight
+ Butterballs
+ Congo Cookies
+ Marshmallow Treats
recipe cut from a Rice Krispies box
+ Cinnamon Coffee Cake
+ Glaze
made with sugar, butter, and rum
+ Icing
made with 1 can Baker’s coconut
+Quick Trick Fruitcake
recipe cut from Betty Crocker Date Bar Mix box
+ Carnation Five Minute Fudge
recipe cut from a can of Carnation milk
+ 24 Min. Chocolate Cake
+ Pillsbury Create-a-Cake Mix Recipe Booklet
+ Fresh Strawberry Pie
recipe cut from magazine ad for Cool Whip

+ Lemon Ice Box Whipped Cream Pie
+ Cherry Topped Cheese Pie
ingredients include cream cheese
+ Lemon Cheese Cake with Lemon Cheese Filling
ingredients do NOT include cheese of any kind
+ Coconut Pie
+ Candy Apples
2 copies of same recipe
+ Coca-Cola Cake
2 copies of same recipe
+ Orange Kiss-Me Cake
+ Orange Candy Cake
ingredients include a 14 oz. box of dates and 1 lb. orange candy slices
+ Carrot Cake
the only recipe she wrote her name on
+ Banana Nut Bread
+ Pineapple Nut Bread
+ Strawberry Nut Bread
handwritten in my sister’s handwriting
+ Brownies
handwritten by me, around age 10, on notebook paper
ingredients include “shorting” (sic) and “baking power” (sic)
corner of recipe page burned

 

You couldn’t pay me to prepare or eat the vast majority of these recipes. How can a person have SIX salads, all gelatin-based, and nary a one featuring lettuce? A casserole with chicken, beef, AND bacon is just pandering to the barnyard. My surprise about the Surprise Tuna Quiche is that anyone would think canned tuna and American cheese quiche would be a good idea. TV Guide simply isn’t a source I trust for fondue. Popular cuisine from the late 60’s and early 70’s just didn’t have legs, like a lot of culture from that time.

Nostalgia looks best with movie lighting, and very little analysis. Under the harsh glare of retrospect, many things that were special in the past become grotesque, outdated, and revolting. I think it’s time to let go of those wistful dreams of reliving good old days that never were.

At the same time, opening that box released a flood of laughter, and nausea, and happy memories. Each recipe took me back to church potlucks, neighborhood barbecues, family gatherings, and ordinary weekdays after school when my mother would talk with me for hours. While we didn’t have gourmet meals, we had delicious conversations and shared juicy stories about our lives.

Even if the recipes are ready to be retired from active duty, they still have value. I can use them to tell my kids about the grandmother they didn’t get a chance to know – and how lucky they are to have me in the kitchen instead.

This is why my house is cluttered. This is why I’ll never achieve the modern minimalist decor that looks so exquisitely clean and child-free in the magazines. This is why the storage drawer is always at maximum capacity. Family history is the reason I live in Dirty House Beautiful.

***

In all of the box, there is one recipe that I’ll keep in the kitchen – the one written in my sister’s handwriting.
Strawberry Nut Bread is a heroic treat.

According to my sister’s testimony, one day she pulled into the parking lot of the fabric store and saw an older woman lying on the ground, and another woman helping her get up. Then my sister noticed a man running away with a purse in his hand. So, she revved the engine on her Toyota Celica and drove after him, even jumping the curb in her little red two-seater and pursuing him down the sidewalk. The snatcher finally threw the purse back at the car’s windshield to get my sister off his tail.

My sister carried the purse back to the woman. Then, they came to discover that the victim was a close friend of my grandmother. A few days later, my sister received a fresh baked loaf of Strawberry Nut Bread, with the recipe attached, and a lovely handwritten thank you note.

I’ll save you from the Chicken Liver Saute Japanese Dish, even though it bears the headline, “Japanese-accented liver dish is really delicious”. Instead, take some U-pick strawberries out of the freezer and give this a try.

06-26-15 Strawberry Nut Bread 1 06-26-15 Strawberry Nut Bread 2

 

Sunday School Squadron

05-25-15 F-8 Collage-1

My dad taught my Sunday School class for a brief time when I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have gone if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have gone if my mother didn’t make him. He wasn’t the Bible study type; he was in alcohol recovery for the second time, at the age of forty-five. Redemption was on the line.

The high school class never had many attendees. On the first day, when only two other students showed up, my dad took out his wallet and counted his cash. Then he pulled out his car keys and said, “How about a field trip?”

He drove us to McDonald’s. After we got pancakes and sandwiches, he sat down at the booth with a small black coffee and an aluminum ashtray. He lit a cigarette and admitted he didn’t know how to teach Sunday school. But, he knew the Bible was mostly stories to help you live your life. Since he couldn’t think of any Bible stories, he said he’d tell us a story from his life, from his days in the Navy.

My dad never talked much about life in the military. He was a Navy fighter pilot stationed in Hawaii during the Vietnam War. That sentence pretty much summed up all he ever told me. His photos shared more words.

Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father's Message on the Back
Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father’s Message on the Back

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My dad would say “Fighter Pilot” like that was all I needed to know, like that title was beginning, middle, end. Before our McDonald’s breakfast, the closest he got to sharing Navy stories was when he tried to explain the flight simulator program on our new home computer.

I ate my Egg McMuffin, elbow to elbow with my fellow fast-food acolytes, while my Dad smoked and looked in the direction of the Mayor McCheese playground with a faraway gaze. He knew how to use the dramatic pause. I wondered which amazing adventure he was going to share.

Almost everything I knew about my dad I heard from my mom. My mother talked about his service more than he did. When he wasn’t around – which was most of the time – she told me how much he loved flying, to explain his manic depression.”Once you go supersonic, how is anything else in life going to match that?”

She told me how everyone in his squadron had alcohol problems, not just my dad. “Was it the men who became pilots or what being a pilot did to the men?” The planes he flew were notoriously difficult, earning the name “ensign killer”. My mom told me a friend of my dad’s was killed during take-off from a carrier’s flight deck – the jet just flew straight into the ocean.

My mother also told me my dad never seemed to recover from the trauma of his Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training. It was POW training, required of all pilots. She said he came back different, that the experiences left him shaken for years. The training is what he told us about in McDonald’s.

That Sunday, he was a long way from his high flying F-8 glory days. After three years sober, he fell off the wagon a couple weeks before my sister’s wedding. He lost his job at the car dealership. He had nothing better to do than accept my mother’s Sunday School enlistment.

The thrill and honor of his piloting was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he remembered the pain, the fear, all the things I never heard about from him. He said he had a hard time thinking of a story he could share with kids our age, but he thought he’d tell us what changed him most during his service.

In one part of the training, my dad learned to find food in the wilderness. He told us how an officer held up a dove. My dad said it was the most beautiful bird, coo’ing softly as the officer pet its head. The officer talked about the importance of getting the most nutrition from every meal, that they should cook the whole bird body, no plucking or dressing. Then he ripped the bird’s head off and tossed the whole thing into a pot. My dad said that probably upset him more than anything that was to come.

Once they had their survival skills, his group was released in the woods and told to evade capture while crossing to a check point. He saw some soldiers just hide out, opting to wait till the training was over to emerge. Even though he tried to run, my dad said he got caught. His captors took him to a building where he was given a cigarette and a water. Then he was interrogated and a couple burly guys beat the mess out of him.

Once he was released into a cell, he found the other guys who hid out during the exercise. Evidently, they were picked up when the all-clear was given. Officers took them to a building where they were given cigarettes and water, then they were interrogated and got the mess beaten out of them.

He finally looked back at us Sunday Schoolers, across the pile of empty wrappers on the table. He said, “See? Either way, same ending. You can try to hide out, try to play it safe, but you don’t learn anything along the way. I mean, if you’re just gonna get a cigarette and a beating when it’s all over, why not try to get the most out of it you can before you get caught?”

Being only fifteen, I was still struggling to get past the dove decapitation, and the terror of imagining his training, and the brand-new awareness that my dad had an interior landscape totally foreign to me. I couldn’t begin to understand what his POW story meant to me, or even to him. I excused myself to get a refill of sweet tea.

My dad “taught” a couple more classes. Two more McDonald’s trips, but no stories. Just coffee and cigarettes and greasy biscuits. Then he told my mom he couldn’t do it anymore.

Soon after, he opened a consignment store. Then, he took up acting for the first time. My mom said it had always been a dream, but lifelong stage fright held him back. He decided he could finally face that fear.

I wish I could say that was the start of a whole new life, and a happy ending. It wasn’t. There were DUIs and mental commitments and the wild swinging of bipolar disorder still on his flight path. But, for a few more years, my dad got back into the pilot seat and took life for another spin.

Looking back, I could define my dad’s life by his failures, but I would only be cheating myself. I’m almost the same age my dad was in that McDonald’s, and I have debacles of my own.

I didn’t join the military, haven’t seen combat, I’ve avoided ever getting pummeled, and I can’t begin to understand the ways that his service during the Vietnam War affected his life. Despite his Sunday School lesson, I tried to play it safe, to hide out, to avoid getting caught. And I ended up having the proverbial mess beaten out of me all the same.

When I was fifteen, my dad’s advice to “get the most out of it you can before you get caught” seemed kind of obvious. (It’s easy to be smart before you actually learn anything.) I now see my dad’s advice is about having the courage to get back out there and play the game again. Even though you know exactly how much it’s gonna hurt at the end, and how little that affects the final outcome, you might squeeze a bit more learning out of life.

As resonant as his ‘get back out there’ message is, though, what means the most to me now is that when he was at his rock bottom it wasn’t old glories that got him through. It was the tough times. Remembering his POW lessons, that’s what gave him hope when his high flying days were over – not the promotional photographs.

That gives me hope because while I don’t have any dazzling achievements, I have plenty of painful lessons. Rather than letting those failures bury me, I might be able to use them – even if it’s just to pass on a little wisdom to kids who are still too young to use it.

Official Photo U.S. Navy
Official Photo U.S. Navy

Saving The Family Tree

11-02-08 Family Tree Skull

Moments after I gave birth to my daughter, my second child, I felt as though a heavy blanket of grief lifted from me. My daughter was born in June 2008, exactly a week before the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death.

The closeness of those two dates held even greater meaning for me because my son had been born in February 2005, just four days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. It seemed like the start of my kids’ lives filled the voids left by my parents.

Holding my newborn daughter in my arms, the sudden sense of completeness gave me confidence that my family wasn’t lost forever. That thought was a relief because the intervening five years felt like living in a black hole.

A few months later, on the Day of the Dead, I made a tribute to my parents at a community event at the Tacoma Art Museum. It was the first time I made a formal effort to honor their passing. Before that, I don’t think I’d been able to accept they were gone.

In the community art space I painted my parents’ initials on a sugar skull and wrapped it in scarlet tissue paper. When I was done, it was mine to take – but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really a mantlepiece object and I didn’t have a grave to place it on. So I stuffed it in my purse and took it home.

As I pulled up to my house, I saw the red Japanese Maple in my side yard. It had been a tiny sapling when we first moved in, but grew into a beautiful tree over the years. Its leaves were just starting to fall, and I noticed they matched the color of the tissue paper.

When I took the photo above, I half-jokingly named the maple “The Family Tree”.

***

Since that day, I watch the tree every morning while I drink my coffee. I thought of the roots I put down here in the Northwest, far from my North Carolina home, as it grew tall enough to reach the attic windows of my house. The tree even inspired me to draw, despite the fact that I’m not so good.

 

7-25-11 Japanese Maple

The previous homeowner planted the tree just before selling to us. It sits closer to the house than it should. On top of that, the trunk divided very close to the ground. It looked like two trees joined together.

According to my tree book, those two factors put the tree at a serious disadvantage.  For years I wondered if it could continue to support both main branches. I fretted over its viability in such tight quarters. Every Spring I would stand in front of the Family Tree and try to carefully, modestly, prudently prune the branches to keep it happy.

***

Last summer we installed new siding on our home and the tree’s placement made the job harder. The siders wanted to remove it to get easier access to the job. I said no.

For three days I listened to the two men yelling at each other in their native language as they wedged scaffolding in the narrow space between the house and tree, bumping into branches and badly scraping the trunk. I couldn’t understand their words, but I guessed there were plenty of curses being tossed in the tree’s direction.

Before Fall hit last year, most of the Family Tree’s leaves turned dark, curled up, and fell to the ground. While the neighboring green Japanese Maple still fluttered in the breeze, the red maple bared its branches.

05-15-15 Family Tree-2

***

This Spring the Family Tree looks sad. Few branches have leaves, most of them are dry and splitting. My research tells me that there’s not a lot I can do to make it come back to life. It will or it won’t, depending on how strong it is.

05-15-15 Family Tree-4

Last week on Mother’s Day my husband tackled a few jobs for me. First, he took the hand saw to one of the Family Tree’s main trunks. It was dead beyond recovery. Once it was cut off, the remaining tree looked fragile. Only a few living leaves clung to the tips of the branches.

Although I shouldn’t read so  much into landscaping, I sat in the yard looking at the tree and wondered what its death would mean for my own extended family. When I left North Carolina back in 1999 I didn’t think it would be forever. I thought I’d go back in a few years.

I tried to hold on to my connections down South, but the physical distance crept into familial distance. It’s not easy to keep a family together, especially once everyone has kids of their own. At some point, I suppose, we have to focus our energy on growing our own little saplings. Still, as I looked at the drastically diminished Family Tree, I felt the loss of my lineage all over again.

Then, my husband did one more job for me on Mother’s Day. He painted my weary, ragged kitchen cabinets so they could be used as chalkboards. Until we get the money to overhaul the whole room, we figured we could have fun “arting” up the kitchen.

Knowing there’s nothing physical I can do for my Family Tree, I picked up the chalk and created an artistic tribute to it. My daughter saw me drawing and asked what I was doing. I told her the Japanese Maple was in bad shape and I hoped that maybe imagining it coming back to life might help.

That evening I walked into the kitchen to discover a companion drawing on the cabinet. My daughter told me she decided to draw her own picture, “but with the sun, because trees like sunshine, too.” She also told me she put her own message on the drawing, so the tree would know what she meant.

"Please come back to life. You so pretty when you are alive." My daughter's message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).
“Please come back to life. You are so pretty when you are alive.” My daughter’s message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).

My daughter has a better grasp of the spiritual than me. All my years of school and science and journalism leave me a little embarrassed about fully committing to prayer – or even positive thinking. Just shy of seven-years-old, though, my daughter has an innocent confidence in the power of intention.

***

This morning I went out to check on my garden and braced myself as I walked up to the Family Tree, afraid I’d see even more branches failing. Instead, I saw something on a part of the tree I thought was long gone. A teensy-tiny leaf pushed its way out of the bark.

05-15-15 Family Tree-3

The rational part of me can’t credit this new growth to the drawings my daughter and I made. But, thinking back to how my daughter’s birth, her emergence into this world, helped a long-dormant part of me come back to life, I can hope it’s a sign that my Family Tree isn’t yet a goner.

***

Luckily, I’m not the only one to find inspiration among the trees. Here’s a playlist of songs that fuel my flights of forestry fancy.

Something To Talk About

Love ya Tricia

 

The Destiny City Film Festival invited me to tell a story about how I was transformed by compassion for an event called “Story Alchemy”. It wasn’t hard to think of what to tell.

My mother drilled compassion into my head. Whenever we would talk – and we talked a lot – she would always lead me to consider the other people in my life. What challenges did they face? What would motivate them to act the way they did? How did they feel about the things I said or did? Looking back, she gave me some of my best writing and acting lessons.

A couple months ago, though, I had the chance to apply that compassion to her life. I discovered a secret about my parents and wanted desperately to share the story. But first, I had to weigh the rules my mother lived by against her last request to me. It was a transformative process.

The event wasn’t taped, but crafting the story for performance created a lot of documentation, including this recording of my home rehearsal. Inspiration hits at weird times, and I was in the middle of doing laundry when I grabbed the mic and recorded this. It’s pretty close to how I told it on stage.

 

Although the idea for the story came easily, actually crafting the story took time. I wanted to take the audience inside the experience, but I had to figure out a way to do it in an interesting way – and without talking for hours. Writing for the eye is very different from developing an oral story.

In my work as a producer, workshop leader and consultant I offer other people an array of tools that can help them wrestle a collection of interesting events into a coherent, compelling story. Frequently, people resist spending too much time story-crafting and I always understand. I resist the development work myself – it seems like it should be easier to just tell a story about something that happened.
But, it isn’t.

Tools Of Oral Storytelling: A Story Circle, Narrative Breakdown, Once Upon A Time And A Recording Kit
Tools Of Oral Storytelling: A Story Circle, Narrative Breakdown, Once Upon A Time And A Recording Kit

 

I spent days trying to tell the story off the top of my head, never succeeding, often losing track of my point. Finally I had to break down and practice what I preach. That meant writing the story, charting the action, interviewing myself about my intentions, and nailing down the essential points.

Then, I had to let myself just spill out the story on tape and let my ears be the editor. The audio above is edited down from close to thirty minutes of me trying to tell the story, getting stuck, reworking phrases and pausing for long periods of time to figure out the most true way to express how I felt. I loaded the audio file into Adobe Audition and cut it back in the same way I did as a radio editor. Instead of looking at sentences to adjust, I used my ears to listen for plot and tension, timing, phrasing and tone.

Using a digital editor helps me "see" the story and edit with my ears.
Using a digital editor helps me “see” the story and edit with my ears.

The payoff for all that work was two-fold. One, I ended up with a story that I felt confident sharing on a stage in front of a crowd – without any notes. Two, I gained insights into my past that I never would have gotten if I hadn’t looked at the events in so many ways. The process forced me to question my own motivations and verbalize why the whole experience mattered enough to share it with an audiene.

In the end, the biggest reason I shared this story is because I don’t believe it’s a rare thing. I think most of us have tales just waiting to be discovered and share. While the story-crafting process is personal, sharing stories publicly helps pass on wisdom that would otherwise be lost.

 

Speaking of lost messages, the picture of my mother that tops this post sits beside my computer all the time. She still helps me practice compassion in everything I do. But, in order to scan the photo for this blog post I had to remove the photo from its frame. I guess I’ve never done that before because when I looked on the back of the photo I found a note on the back – for whoever she sent it to.

I have my hair cut now but I thought you might enjoy seeing how I looked at the first of this year. Anyway if you don't  you can send the picture back.
“I have my hair cut now but I thought you might enjoy seeing how I looked at the first of this year. Anyway if you don’t you can send the picture back.”

 

I don’t know if the picture made it’s way to my possession because the recipient didn’t like seeing how she looked, but it reminds me that great stories can be hiding in plain sight.

 

 

 

 

A Secret from Beyond the Grave

Daddy and Megan, 1978 - ish

-Father’s Day 1978-

Having been sternly warned by my mother, I run to my father and whisper in his ear, “Daddy, we got you a present and it’s underwear, but it’s a secret so I’m not supposed to tell you.”

-Father’s Day 2014-

I’m still terrible at keeping secrets.

My big mouth is probably not hereditary, though. Yesterday, just when I thought it would be safe to dig into old papers again, I discovered a secret that both my parents took to their graves.

The secret has been in my possession from the moment my parents divorced, back in the Fall of 1998. In the midst of a chaotic and tragic separation, in a desperate bid to save family heirlooms from my father’s resale shop, my sisters and I split up all my mother’s keepsakes: the china, silver, grand mirror, dining set, chippendale furniture and also two letter boxes.

Two 1960's vinyl letter boxes

My mother said, “Oh, just throw those away.” When I resisted, she said, “They’re MY letters. I say throw them away.” I didn’t.

The aged vinyl of the boxes told me they were probably from the 1960’s, when my parents’ lives were golden. Since then, our lives had become a weepy melodrama and I wasn’t going to lose any evidence of a better time. I carried them to my home in Rocky Mount, NC, moved them out to Tacoma, WA and kept them in an airtight box, out of sight and out of mind, never even opening them.

About three years later, my mother accused me of throwing away all her souvenirs during the divorce. She thought I followed her instructions about the letters. (Kids, here’s why it’s okay to disobey your parents.) I told her they were safe, that I knew they were something special.

My mother told me the boxes held all the letters my father wrote her while in flight school to be a Navy fighter pilot. She told me I should read them because he wrote about the challenges he faced in training, how hard it was. She said it would be an interesting document of Naval life. I told her I would read them when I got home. I didn’t. (Kids, the rest of this story is why you should obey your parents.)

In 2003, my father died on February 5th. My mother died June 19. Thinking it would help my grief, I finally opened up the boxes and sorted the letters in chronological order by postmark date. I started reading them in order and got as far as January 9, 1965.

My dad had just started flight school in Pensacola, Florida. My mother was in her junior year at East Carolina University, studying to be a teacher. I was shocked by how young he sounded, how in love. And then, I read this:

image of letter, text follows

“Tricia,
If the Earth is ever invaded, it will probably be on a Sunday night. It is such a depressing time that no one could retaliate.”

 

I laughed and then cried. I knew just what he meant. It made me miss him more than ever in my life. I closed the boxes, put them back on the shelf, and only managed to read another two or three letters over the next eleven years.

Yesterday, with Father’s Day coming on, I thought I might try one more time to make it through a few of his letters. He felt so alive when I read them. I picked up where I left off, February 15, 1965.

I committed to reading them in order, just as my mother would have received them. I wanted to feel like she did, getting those air mail envelopes at the Kappa Delta sorority house.

envelope addressed to Kappa Delta sorority house

 

But, my eyes began to glaze as letter after letter recounted his sleepless nights, inspections, exams, hops, cruel officers and endless efforts to see my mother for just a few days. Even though I knew they found a way to be together long enough to drive each other certifiably crazy, I couldn’t stand the drawn-out suspense of their courtship. I started jumping forward in time, until I got to December 2, 1965.

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 2

“Won’t it be wonderful if I can get leave starting the 18th? That will give us three weeks to be together. That will be an eternity compared with what we’ve been used to.”

 

When I read this letter, I decided to step back into the blow-by-blow action. But, there was a long break in the letters after that, during the time they must have spent together over Christmas. The correspondence picked back up with a letter postmarked January 17, 1966.

It reads exactly like earlier letters, painful pining and punishing piloting, but after six pages he ended with this:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 3

“Here’s one more joke for you.
Q. – Do you know the difference between a pick-pocket and a peeping tom?
A. – A pick-pocket snatches watches!
(That’s dirty if you can’t figure it out.)”

 

My dad always loved a stupid, dirty joke. I never knew my mom did, too. I kept reading

As I opened the next several envelopes, I caught a whiff of my mother’s perfume. I don’t know if the scent was trapped from when she first read it, or from years in her bedroom, but I could vividly imagine her reading them.

My dad was stationed in Kingsville, Texas, another stage of flight training, more than a year after he first started. I knew they married in September 1966, that they had to change the wedding date because storms prevented him from making the final aircraft carrier landing he need to complete his training. So, I hoped I might read something about their wedding plans. Then, I read this in a letter postmarked April 4, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 4

“I just wish you were coming to stay with me forever. I do love you so much, and I need you with me to be complete. Why can’t the Navy realize that a man 23 years old would be worth so much more if he could live with his wife.”

 

To me, that sounded like a hint that they must have gotten engaged. I thought he was probably just talking ‘as though’ they were married. But then, in a letter dated April 12, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 5

“My Darling Wife, “

 

Wife? I still guessed it was just a loving term, anticipation for their September wedding.

But then there was a letter postmarked April 18, 1966. He had a cyst removed from his ankle, I don’t know why, but he complained that he didn’t get a letter from her all week, just the insurance company,

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 6

“saying I owe them $120. It will be nice when we can admit being married so the insurance will go down.”

 

The April 18 letter is written over several days. Later he says:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 7

“I’m so glad your mother feels okay about you coming down here in June. That will be so great. If we do have to miss you having a wedding, it will be worth it .”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 8

“I’d like to spend every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night of my life doing something with you.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 9

“No man could be as lucky as I am. All my life I’ve dreamed of someone even halfway approaching the standards you represent. And now – you are my wife. I certainly must have a guardian angel.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 10

“Just how much does your mother know about me? To agree to let you work in Corpus, it sounds like she knows we’re already married. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she did.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 11

“Of course, when you come down, there’s still going to be people we have to keep our marriage a secret from. Too many people would like to be able to spread something like that around, and get me kicked out of the program.”

 

Some of the words are a little smudged. It looks like tear drops fell on the ink.

And then, when my mother was student teaching in Havelock, North Carolina – not living at the sorority house, he addressed a letter postmarked April 21, 1966, to:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 12

“Miss Patricia Rouse (J.)”

 

I noted that this letter arrived “POSTAGE DUE 5 CENTS”.

 

Inside the letter, he begins, “Dear Mrs.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 13

“I got to thinking the other day that it would be nice to wait and have a big wedding, but immediately decided it’s much more important for you to be down here. Maybe we could have a big reception in Fayetteville after we’re through down here. That wouldn’t be funny or anything, would it?”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 14

“Well, Mrs. Jackson, I’d better study for these two hops [flights] in the morning
….
Your loving husband, Elbert”

 

They secretly eloped! When? How? It must have been over the long Christmas break, when there were no letters. But, he hadn’t said anything about the event in January. Had they even kept it secret in correspondence?

Then I opened the letter postmarked April 26, 1966:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 15

“Tomorrow we will have been married four months. I wish it were four years, and we didn’t have to worry about everyone finding out.”

 

My parents married in secret at the end of December, 1965. I never, ever suspected they had a secret like that. Never. Ever.

Then I remembered a phone call with my mother when I was in college. It was so weird and awkward that I often joke about it with friends.

I had been dating a guy for about seven months and was telling her about a trip we took to Nashville. She got very quiet and then asked me in a low whisper, “Megan, are you two… married?”

I said, “What?! No. I think I would tell you about that.”

She was silent for another space of time and then sounded perturbed, “You know what I’m talking about. Are you two married?

I didn’t know. “Mom, we didn’t run off to Dillon, South Carolina to get hitched. No. What’s wrong with you?”

The conversation led us to talk about the sin of intimate premarital relations.

She asked me point blank about the status of our consummation. I made the case for being a college student in the early 90’s.

She bemoaned her sinful daughter. I told her not to ask questions she didn’t want to know the answer to.

She wailed. I asked her if she would prefer that I lied, that I kept my life secret from her.

She said, “No. I want to know about your life. I just… I guess I have a hard time with the way you young people live these days. Why can’t you just wait till you get married?”

 

Those vinyl boxes contain no letters from my mother, only my father’s responses to her actions, to unmentioned quarrels, to vaguely defined trouble with parents. If I fill in the gaps with what I know of my mother’s personality, of anecdotes from old friends and of the culture of North Carolina in the mid-60’s, I can see her feeling troubled about the limbo of being just a girlfriend. His pilot training dragged on and on and he had to do what the Navy told him. I can see her being willing to elope just to make their union legitimate. They were 22 and 21 when they got hitched, not kids, but they still had parents and social expectations.

When the rest of American culture shifted during the late 60’s, and then more in the 70’s, then the 80’s, and even further in the 90’s, my mother didn’t accept that social standards could change. That’s a big reason why she resisted getting a divorce from my dad, even when his drinking made him emotionally abusive and physically unpredictable. She would tell me over and over that she made a promise to God, she wouldn’t break it.

I thought it was because of guilt that my mother kept accepting his late-night phone calls, kept trying to solve his problems, years after the divorce. And, our conversation about my college relationship seemed to justify that. But, after reading my dad’s letters yesterday, seeing it through his eyes, I don’t think it was just stubborn morality.

 

Back in 1966, there was only one more letter from my father before he left for a summer on the aircraft carrier, postmarked May 4, 1966.

It included this check:

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 16

“Everyday of our life, 19-forever, No. 1 and only
PAY TO THE ORDER OF Mrs. Patricia Rouse Jackson
$1,000,000 worth
All the love and affection, care and protection possible
FOR Being so wonderful”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 17

“Dearest,
I miss you terribly. When will these horrible cadet days ever be over? My one goal now is to finish as quickly as possible so that we may properly be man and wife, living together.”

06-14-14 Daddy Letter 18

“I’m sorry I sounded so depressed when I called you. It’s just that talking to you and not being able to be with you is terrifically maddening. My temper will definitely improve after I finish. Well, Mrs. Jackson, your husband has a link, a hop and a lecture to study for tomorrow, so au revoir.
I love you,
Elbert”

 

My parents didn’t live another five years after they divorced. They couldn’t leave each other alone. My mother died just four months after my father. Even though they lived hours apart and had nothing but volatile encounters, she seemed to lose the will to live once he was gone. She told me she was furious that he went first, that he left her alone. At the time, it sounded like madness. I understand a little better today.

Wedding 4

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My parents, and possibly their mothers, took the secret of their early wedding to their graves. I couldn’t keep the secret for 24 hours. Why?

Because it doesn’t seem like a shameful secret. There’s got to be a statute of limitations on young love.
Because I’ve been berating myself for not reading those letters right away. If I had, I might have been more compassionate about my parents’ tortured love.
Because I wish for everything that I could hear the story of their first wedding. I’d love to hear how they snuck off, why they did it, what they thought.

 

In my career as a radio interviewer and producer, I heard hundreds of stories about the pain of secrets. I’m currently producing a storytelling show where many of the tales revolve around hiding love. But, in every instance, when the secret is set free, the truth acknowledged, forgiveness allowed, a miraculous transformation occurred.

Some secrets, like the contents of a Father’s Day gift, make for a fun surprise. Other secrets need to be told. Early. Often. And when you have the chance.

 

The Last Debacle

My father’s autopsy was filed under “Birth Certificates” in my box of important papers. I ran across it accidentally during a start-of-the-year organization flurry a couple weeks ago. He died eleven years ago today.

photo collage of my father and his autopsy

There’s a post-it note on the autopsy from my sister telling me that “my veterinarian explained ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’. An inflammation of the lining around the heart, for some unknown reason, triggers an immune response against the heart itself.”

That’s the best medical explanation for why he died, but the summary and interpretation at the end of the report reveals why I never tell people my dad died from ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’.

Coroner's report of my father's death

“Alcohol use” is my usual response to, “How did your father die?” I also add, “Plus he was bipolar.”

He was drinking heavily in those last months before his death. Drinking heavily, and then stopping abruptly without the proper detox, drying out, and then drinking heavily again. While my father was in ICU in “an unconscious state”, a friend of his from Alcoholics Anonymous stopped my two sisters and me to tell us how bad things had been during that time. My father was despondent and no one was able to give him the help he wanted, and he wouldn’t take the help he needed.

At one point, my father drove his late model Jaguar down to Pensacola, Florida, where he went through flight school to be a fighter pilot. While he was there, the car got stolen, so the story goes, and he hitchhiked back to Fayetteville.

When my dad collapsed he was in line at the bank waiting to deposit a large check from his mother. He started having seizures in the bank and was rushed to the Emergency Room. Evidently, he wasn’t strapped to the bed in the E/R and got up to leave, fell, hit his head and died. The E/R staff spent twenty minutes resuscitating him. They got a heartbeat – he was technically alive – but he never regained consciousness.

My sister called me here in Tacoma to tell me what happened the same day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. She told me no one was certain whether he would ever wake up or if he might need to be put into a care facility in a vegetative state.

The one thing I knew for certain at that moment was that my father wanted to be dead. As his mental illness got worse, he would occasionally call me at work, frantic to speak to me “while my head is clear”. He’d tell me he loved me and then he would tell me over and over that if he should ever end up on life support, he wanted to be allowed to die. He told both my sisters and me that he had a living will and he expected us to enact it. However, with Daddy lying in limbo the living will was nowhere to be found.

My sister scoured his apartment. He lived a few blocks from his mother in a historic brick building. His family paid the rent. They even bought him a couch and lamps to decorate, but he never took the price tags off. It was immaculately clean and reeked of cigarette smoke.

Even though his behavior was erratic, he kept precise records of everything. When my sister checked his file cabinet for the living will, she found documents of his volatile relationships with banks, being fired from doctors, tirades with various companies about unfair treatment. Each encounter was in its own folder with handwritten labels that said “The Triangle Bank Disaster”, “The Fiasco with Dr. So-and-So”, “The Diamond Services Debacle”. Never fully understanding his illness, things like that always made me think he was faking, that he was playing some elaborate hoax.

The living will wasn’t in the file cabinet, though, and my sister couldn’t find it in the safe on the floor of his closet. Finally, she called me to talk over our options if we couldn’t find it. I said, “Well, I know he doesn’t want to be in that state. I mean, are we not allowed to kill our father?” Dark humor is a hallmark of our family and a gift I inherited from my dad.

In fact, we did have the right to make the call about leaving him on life support. My father’s mother and sisters supported us in making the decision. Talking to me on the phone, though, my sister said she’d feel a whole lot better if she had his official paperwork.

I suggested she sit at his desk and think like him, “He was so persistent in telling us about it, he had to put it somewhere obvious.” My sister sat in his rolling arm chair and spun around as we talked, then she said, “AHA!” From the angle where she was sitting, she could see that my dad’s closet safe had a thin shelf at the very top. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t see if you were standing up and looking into it, but it was, indeed, obvious when you put yourself in my dad’s place.

Our family life had been on the decline for a while. I like to think it’s a William Faulkner kind of downfall, but it’s probably better suited for a Pat Conroy paperback. Before my parents got divorced in 1998, I would wait for the phone call to tell me they died in a murder-suicide. I could never decide who would do which part.

My dad, the bipolar alcoholic, and my mother, the three decade Multiple Sclerosis patient, had a relationship built on biting comments, sarcastic comebacks and tragic misunderstandings. Even though they got divorced, my mother and father could never let each other go. In those last five years of their lives, they still fought on the phone regularly and my dad would occasionally drive the three hours from his place to my mother’s apartment in Columbia, South Carolina, just to knock on her door, say something nasty, and drive back home again. I think that was how they loved each other.

I got a flight on Monday, February 3 and met my sisters in Fayetteville. My mother was too sick to make the trip, so we updated her by phone.

On Tuesday, we went to the hospital with the living will in hand and weren’t afraid to use it. In fact, I think our casual jokes about the whole situation disturbed one of his doctors, the one from India. The doctor from Fayetteville, though, the one who knew Daddy, gave us a compassionate smile when we laughed and said, “Good news! We’re gonna let him die!”

There was time for us to sit with my father, for his mother to sit with him, for his sisters to sit with him. One of his sisters recounted their father’s last days. He was a tyrant of a business man, successful, generous, but with a vicious temper. She said she asked him why he never told his children they did a good job at anything. My grandfather told her, “Because I thought that would make you stop trying.”

My grandmother sat in the room, but only by the door. I never saw her touch him. She looked down and said, “You think you’re doing the right thing…” It was the same day that President Bush spoke at the Space Shuttle Challenger memorial. She said she thought the President’s words were so kind – and then she started to cry. I went over to comfort her, which was the total wrong thing to do. She dried up, picked up her chin, and left.

It was Wednesday afternoon by the time we had everything cleared for my father to be taken off life support. The hospital set him up in a private room and let us know it might be hours, days, even weeks. There was no telling how long he’d live because at that time we weren’t even sure why he was dying. We had the account of his fall in the E/R, but no clear sense of what was really wrong. He had no brain function, but his reflexes remained strong. We hoped the final autopsy would answer the question.

Once he was off the ventilator, my father’s breathing got more labored. He had been a smoker since he was twelve, so it didn’t sound that different than usual.

My sisters and I planned on taking turns sitting by his side. We knew that he could hear us, if he was alive enough to understand it, so we tried talking to him even though it felt like we were just pretending he was listening.

My dad wasn’t always such a mess. He was wickedly smart, a Mensa member, a pilot, a businessman, a salesman, a City Councilman, a church choir member, an actor in community theatre and military training movies. He had a rich, booming voice and loved to dance and tell jokes. Looking at him in the bed I was mostly angry that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. So much of his life had been like a movie, but in the end we didn’t get the cinema farewell, the chance to make peace. It didn’t seem a fitting end for his life.

Before we even had the chance to take shifts, though, it became clear my father wasn’t going to live for days or even hours. His breathing got weaker and his breaths farther apart. My sisters and I held tight and one of his sisters showed up in the room. The four of us held hands and stood around his bed.

I timed his breaths by the sweeping second hand on the clock. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, his breaths got farther apart. Then his chest was still. We waited, but he didn’t breathe again. It was so subtle, the transition from life to death. There was no dramatic moment, just a slow slipping into the ever after. He was gone.

The door to my dad’s room was open, but we didn’t think about closing it. We were too focused on him, shocked into stillness by what happened. So, it was a surprise when a woman walked past, stopped and poked her head in the doorway. She said, “I’m just down the hall visiting with a friend and the Lord called me to come and be with you ladies.” I think we all wanted to close the door, but this being the South we simply couldn’t. That would be rude. Even in death, hospitality rules.

We all gave her weak smiles, but couldn’t say anything. She stepped into our circle, took our hands, closed her eyes and began to pray with passion and no concern for her volume, “LORD, comfort these women at this time of sadness. Let them know that this is YOUR plan, that YOU know what we need and what is right. Don’t let them worry about this man who they love so much, let them know that YOU will take him now, that YOU are the ALMIGHTY and that YOU love every one of us…” She went on and on and mostly what I remember is peeking through the prayer and exchanging glances with my sisters, holding back giggles.

The woman went on for several minutes before concluding and giving each of us long, hard hugs. We barely hug each other in my family, we were not prepared for this stranger. She held our hands again before backing out the door, glancing down the hall and quickly walking in the other direction.

There was nothing left to do but alert the staff and get the final preparations started. As we filed out of the room, though, my younger sister said, “Wait. Just wait. Just stand here for a minute.” So we did. We stood, looking at each other, glancing back at my dad’s body, waiting for her to say something. After about ten seconds she said, “Okay. We can leave. I just didn’t want that woman to be my last memory of Daddy.”

If asked, we wouldn’t have chosen to have that woman’s prayer at my father’s final moment. However, I think it’s what he wanted. He loved the outrageous display, the dramatic flair. He had no problem making a scene. For him, bigger was always better.

We planned a fitting funeral for my dad with a bagpipe player and an organ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Friends who had witnessed his decline came to try to remember who he used to be. My mother’s mother came, even though he had been especially nasty to her, and told me, “I didn’t realize your father was so sick. I just didn’t know that he was really that sick.” She spoke the confusion that had been in the back of my mind as well. Mental illness is an illness, but it’s not always clear what that means until someone dies from it.

After the funeral, we waited more than two weeks for the autopsy, hoping it would reveal something about my father’s death, some hidden something that would explain everything. Perhaps the coroner would discover the reason he fell apart. Instead, we got the report that I quickly filed away in my important papers, a report I didn’t look at again  until a couple weeks ago.

Eleven years later, ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’ tells me nothing about what made such a gifted, big-hearted man spiral into such a mess. In all this time, I’ve looked at photos and remembered the good and bad times, but I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfying reason for why he had to die. So, today I dug deeper into the memories from that time that I locked away out of grief. I found the eulogy I gave for my dad.

I remember desperately wanting to be the one to give the eulogy. I didn’t want anyone else to get up there and apologize for him or lament everything he wasted or talk about how God would forgive him. I had been mourning the loss of my father for more than ten years by the time he died and I wanted to find something positive to say about his whole life.

I also remember feeling woefully under-equipped to put a positive spin on his death. Reading it now, I see how much my early training in speech and debate influenced my script. But, eleven years later, I think it may finally be time to take my own advice from 2003.

Here’s what I said:

DADDY WAS USUALLY THE ONE TALKING.

 AND THAT WAS THE GREATEST GIFT HE WOULD GIVE – TALKING TO YOU.

WHEN HE SAID, “UH. LEMME TELL YOU SOMETHING” – YOU KNEW IT WOULD PROBABLY BE WORTH YOUR TIME.

 YOU ASK ANYONE ABOUT ELBERT, OUR DAD, AND THEY WILL LEAN THEIR HEAD BACK, CLOSE THEIR EYES AND SMILE. THAT MEANS A STORY’S COMIN’. DADDY HAD A LOT OF STORIES AND THEY ARE ALL PRETTY REMARKABLE. YOU SEE, DADDY STEPPED OUT OF THE PAGES OF A GREAT NOVEL, ONE THAT HE WROTE THROUGH LIVING. AND WE SHARE IT WITH OTHERS BY TELLING HIS STORIES.

 WE ALL KNOW THAT HE WAS PROUD OF SERVING AS AN F-8 FIGHTER PILOT. THEY DON’T LET JUST ANYONE TOOL AROUND WITH A SUPERSONIC JET AND THEN LAND IT ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. SOME OF YOU HERE TODAY KNOW THE ADVENTURES FROM THOSE DAYS.

 PLEASE, SHARE THOSE STORIES.

•   HE ONCE HITCHIKED AROUND THE COUNTRY

•   HE COULD LOOK ANYONE IN THE EYE AND SELL HIM A MATTRESS, A CAR, AN ANTIQUE COUCH, A WATCH

•   HE WAS A VERY GOOD GOLF PLAYER, A PHOTOGRAPHER AND A FISHER

•   HE HAD THE WORLD’S LARGEST VOCABULARY AND COULD DO THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE – IN PEN

•   HE TOOK UP ACTING AT THE AGE OF 46. NO PART WAS TOO SMALL FOR HIM TO HAM IT UP. HE WAS MARK TWAIN, THE BUTLER WHO DIDN’T DO IT, JUST A GUY ON THE TRAIN… IF YOU NEEDED A MEMORABLE ENTRANCE OR A ONE-LINE ZINGER TIMED JUST RIGHT – HE WAS YOUR MAN.

IF YOU KNEW ELBERT THE ACTOR, THE SALESMAN, THE PILOT… SHARE THOSE STORIES.

BECAUSE THAT’S REALLY WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO – SHARING THOSE REMARKABLE TALES.

WE LOOK BACK ON DADDY’S LIFE, AND IT IS A KALEIDOSCOPE OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND ESCAPADES – NOT A ONE OF THEM SMALL, TENTATIVE OR BORING.

IF ELBERT WANTED TO DO IT, HE DID IT WITH GUSTO. WE HONOR HIM BY SHARING THOSE STORIES.

WE CELEBRATE HIM BY SHARING THE TALES OF DADDY, ELBERT, ELBERT CURTIS, MR. JACKSON.

HOW DO WE MAKE SENSE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN LIFE?

HOW DO WE ARRANGE THE JUMBLED FRAGMENTS?

BY REMEMBERING THE DETAILS.

I SEE HIM STANDING IN THE SUN, BESIDE HIS CONVERTIBLE FIAT, VIVALDI BLARING OUT OF THE STEREO, AVIATOR SUNGLASSES, BERMUDA SHORTS AND KNEE SOCKS.

IT’S A DETAIL, A MOMENT.

WHAT’S YOUR PICTURE?

NO ONE PERSON CAN SUM UP HIS LIFE. IT’S UP TO ALL OF US TO SHARE THE ELBERT WE KNEW WITH ONE ANOTHER.

OUR LEGACY IN LIFE COMES FROM WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OTHERS,
AND ELBERT DID WONDERFUL THINGS.

LET’S HOLD DEAR THE GOOD TIMES WE HAD WITH HIM AND SHARE THOSE TIMES AND KNOW THAT ELBERT WAS A GOOD MAN AND WE LOVED HIM – ALL OF US.

Fayetteville's Prince Charles Hotel, 1990