I try to avoid talking about personal stuff on here. I have a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” philosophy that may not be serving me well amongst the glut of options we now have for sharing much too much. I’m naturally an introvert, and sharing doesn’t come easily even with those closest to me, so the prospect of putting it all out there for the world to see is tantamount to living in a terrifying George Orwell/Aldous Huxley combo universe… which we kind of do. *shudder*
So I tend to keep personal things personal. But the personal affects the professional in many ways, and sometimes inspires it to a point where it is unavoidable to share, because it is the point.
My dad is a much older gent. He’s said that more than once, he was taken for my grandfather when he carried little me about in public. But it never occurred to me that my father was significantly older than the fathers of most kids my age. I didn’t really think about it until his age started to affect his life, and therefore, mine. He’s 90 years old now, and doing pretty well, considering. Considering such things as men of his age almost certainly have prostate cancer, which he does, and while it was fairly low risk for a few years, it’s suddenly become more aggressive. And the damage he suffered to his cognitive functions due to a stroke he had years ago is beginning to catch up with him again, so I’m overseeing more and more of his obligations. He’s past the point of no return, things will inevitably get worse and worse for him, and I’ll eventually lose him. I’m feeling quite realistic and rational about that aspect of life. I just hope, as we all do, that when his time comes, it’s quick, and painless. But for now, I worry about the time he has left.
Worrying about how the end may happen and how he’s conducting his daily life when I’m two states away is stressful. I’m grateful that he can still live on his own – it would devastate him to leave his house, but the separation is something we have to deal with, and one more thing to fret over.
My writing abilities have gone out the window. I can’t compartmentalize and get creative when these things are taking up so much of my energy. I can’t write, and that’s painful for me. It’s like being tied up, blindfolded, and left in a dark and silent room. I can’t move, can’t connect with that vital part of my headspace, and it’s killing me. I’ve been trying again and again to find a way to push out a few sentences, hoping it’ll trigger something for me. So far, no luck.
And then yesterday while I was thinking about this, while I was in fact contemplating posting about my dilemma to my fellow authors, I thought about what kind of advice they might give me. See? Any opportunity to communicate to others is always usurped by that do-it-yourself attitude of the introvert. I thought they might suggest that I write about my dad, since he is in the forefront of my mind. And then I remembered.
Years ago, I started writing a short story loosely based on his life, growing up in Mississippi during the depression. His mother had died when he was 12, his father was an alcoholic and somewhat a hermit, and so he lived with relatives, going from house to house between his grandmother and aunties. He was often left to his own devices, and spent lots of time living like a little wild thing, smoking and drinking and catching squirrels to eat, picking cotton for a few pennies, misbehaving and moving on to the next relative. It breaks my heart to think of him living like that, but it’s also fascinating. It’s one of those southern hard luck stories of poverty and lack told so eloquently by Faulkner and Lee and Capote. And there is an interesting twist that makes his story unique.
He served in the navy during World War II, on a destroyer near Iwo Jima. He was underage for signing up, so he had his father give written permission for him to enlist, or fudge his birth records, or something – I’m not sure what. So he was 17, and off to war. For as scrappy as he was eking it out as a kid in Mississippi, he was now a kid in a world ten times darker than he had ever inhabited before, with no family to turn to when things got rough, and no friends. Or maybe one very special, very good friend. A friend he still has a picture portrait of, and in the early days after his stroke when he was grasping at things to cling to that comforted him and reminded him of who he was, that picture was one of the first things he reached for.
I already knew from the time I was little that the sailor in the photo was special. He had pictures of other mates, but this one stood out, a 5×7 with cardboard backing in a slew of camera snaps. And he told me how this friend watched out for him, stood up for him, and meant a lot to him. My dad was a skinny little string bean of a thing in his youth, and this fellow, a Native American of about 20, was broad shouldered, meaty, and tough looking, with soft brown eyes. I was glad he had someone to depend on back in those scary days of war.
I don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, but I know from how my dad talked of him, and how he reached for him in his time of need, that it was a close one, and deeply meaningful to him. I also know that for a 90 year old man from rural Mississippi, he’s very liberal in his views, and was visibly happy to learn that marriage equality is now the law of the land. I don’t make conclusions, I don’t look for things when perhaps there is nothing to find, and I don’t dismiss the possibility that my dad hid things he felt he couldn’t act on, or have, or realize. If there is something unfulfilled in his life, I mourn for that, and I would have gladly traded the life he gave to me for an authentic life for himself.
Since my mother died, we’ve been able to enjoy a much different relationship. My mother, bless her, sat in the center of her universe like the regal sun, and we all revolved around her. We’ve had to adjust our orbits, and there was a rough ride for a while as my father, sisters, nieces and I found our places within the new space opened up by her death. I’ve learned things about my father I hadn’t known before, and have heard new stories from his past. If he ever decides to tell me more about his days as a sailor, I’ll gratefully listen to and support his truths.
And in the meantime I’ll retrieve a story I began a few years ago, and see if I can meet up with it again somehow. I don’t know if I’ll be able to have any more luck with it than with my other pieces waiting for attention. It seems like a good idea to at least try, and at the same time it seems nearly overwhelming, and possibly painful. But I need something, and maybe he needs me to create a memory dedicated to his life while we still have time to explore the past.
And so it begins:
I remember the cicada hot summers, air so thick and soupy it swarmed with the sound of them, and with the smell of tree bark and leaves roasting in the sun; molten ropes of moss that dripped off of branches, and puddled into dusty ground that singed little bare feet. You and I spent every day down by that lazy bend in the river. Stripped of our clothes, we’d swim and splash, chase each other with striders and little green water snakes. It was our oasis in the heat, our escape from obligations awaiting us in the world beyond; it was our shared youth.