Thursday, February 11, 2010

Waiting For Signs Too

So Bethany talked about signs in a post. And I loved that. What she said as well as the subject. I look for them. Even though I think that's the best way, for me, not to see one.

Maybe I'm just dense. Or maybe I need something that is so unequivocal that I won't be able to talk myself out of it, something that makes me go weak in the knees with certainty.

Like things that happened after my father died. Which I kept dismissing. Hearing him laugh, even though he wasn't there. Hearing his truck pull into the driveway. Even though it had not moved from its spot.

He died suddenly, in an accident. And I blamed my mind. Playing tricks, I thought. My mind was unable to accept that he was gone because I did not see him in the hospital bed hooked up to monitors and breathing equipment like my mother and siblings. I did not see them remove those horrible things.

And those things happened as I hurtled through the air for home, my body curled into the side of the plane, face pressed against the window, crying in silence. People stared, repelled by grief, but I was unable to stop or care.

When I got home, and the first visitors left, I could hear him in another room, laughing. He had an infectious laugh. When you heard it, you had to laugh too, even when you had no idea why he was laughing. He would laugh and slap his thighs, then that laughter would take over his entire body. The way I laugh.

But during those days, I thought I had lost my mind. Because I heard him so clearly. And would rush from the room I was in, looking for him. And my mother would be there, just her, no one else, and would look up in surprise because I was almost running. Looking for something. I couldn't tell her what. How could I?

It was so exhausting I ended up leaving sooner than I really had to, flying back to Virginia, because I was desperate for rest. I had slept with the lights blazing because I was certain that if I turned them off and closed my eyes for a few seconds that he would be there. And even with the lights on and my eyes closed I could feel him there. So I squeezed my eyes shut and thought long and hard, "Go away. Please go away." Because I was so afraid.

But he was determined to get through.

So, a few months later, I had a dream. My father called from a payphone. He was dressed in his summer suit, seersucker, and was holding his best cream-colored hat. I said, "Where in the world have you been? We have been looking everywhere for you, so worried." And he told me not to worry, that he was fine. And he talked about his travels, which I don't really remember much about. But we had a nice long chat. And he hung up and I felt better. So much better.

But, still, he wasn't done.

A couple of years later, I woke up at midnight. I was in labor. This was my first and only child. I had waited quite late in the game to become a mother. I had not thought this would happen. The pregnancy had gone fine and I was taking off a couple of weeks before the due date to rest and get ready.

So I called the doctor and he said it was early in the labor, yet, to wait until daybreak to come. So I told my husband to sleep, that I wanted to go into the basement to watch television, read, maybe doze by myself. I insisted on this, I needed him to be rested and strong.

I went downstairs and settled on the sofa. And over the next hour I became overwhelmed with terror at what was about to happen. What have I done? I can't do this. I change my mind. I did not want my husband. I felt no one could help me. I think I prayed, I was so terrified that I don't remember.

And then I looked in the dark corner of the room. I couldn't see him, but he was there. My father. I thought I smelled his scent, aftershave, something. I felt him as strongly as I have ever felt anything in my life. I calmed down. I settled back into the pillows and pulled up the covers. And I kept my eyes on that spot.

I felt him, hovering nearby, for the next 19 hours. Through my healthy son's uneventful birth. And then my father was gone.

I missed him so during the next few years. I thought about how much he would have loved my son, who was like him in so many ways. My father was an accomplished baseball and tennis player. And my son, when he could barely walk, would pick up little rocks and hit them with straws he pulled off juice boxes. He wasn't talking much when suddenly he was singing "Take me out to the ballgame..." swinging an imaginary bat the entire time. Where did he learn that song? We never knew. And tennis is his sport to this day.

And one day, a friend amazed me when she pointed out the way my son was walking onto the soccer field. "I love watching him walk. Look at him, he walks like such an athlete, chest first." My father walked exactly that way. Chest first, cock of the walk. My friend had never laid eyes on him.

Of course I talked about my father to my son. And my husband talked about his father too. My son didn't meet either of his grandfathers. They both died before he was born.

But it was my father my son was talking about when he wrote this poem. His teacher told me that, when she handed it to me, with tears gathering in her eyes.

"I never met my grandfather.
I wish I had
Sometimes I feel he is watching me."

My son was six when he wrote that. Six years old. You can think maybe I'm crazy, that I was so grief struck that I was hearing things right after my father died. And that people have dreams about the dead all the time to try to comfort themselves. And that the hormones of labor do all sorts of things to the mind.

But I did not feed notions to my son. I never talked about any of that to him. I was always very careful about not putting my ideas in my son's head. Besides, he has always been like his father, he is very literal, he wants proof. He's not one for signs. Show him.

But my son knew, back then. The way I knew. That my strong, larger-than-life father had given up his earthly form, yes. But that he was still here, too, for a while, anyway. That his huge spirit had things to do before going on ahead, without us.

He cheered us, with his laughter, which is mine now too. He comforted, with his strength. And he watched over us even when I could not see or feel him. But my son felt him. Fresh from that place beyond the veil, he knew.

Just in case, I'd like to say this out loud, in case he's listening. In case he wants to talk, or laugh out loud, or make his spirit's presence known somehow again.

Thank you, Daddy, for everything. My eyes are wide open and they'll stay that way. And I'm not afraid. I promise, I won't ever be afraid to see again.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Boat and the Weeping Willow

The weeping willow is my favorite tree. I have good reason for that.

I put flame to candle just now. As I watched the wick burn, I saw it, four of us in a small boat gliding on a pond in late spring. The willow was just ahead, branches dripping into the water at one end.

We all needed refuge. T., J. and their little brother lived in a lovely new house that shuddered with the fighting and rage inside. And in my home, for years the alternating chill and warmth felt like menace because it was unpredictable.

The woods behind my house offered easy solace. But escape was not so simple at T.'s. We had to stay inside most of the time, for one reason or another. Still, the girls were allowed weekend guests sometimes.

T.'s beautiful mother was always glad to see us. Her father was courteous until my parents left, then his cold silences returned and he disappeared into his bedroom or den. He worked odd hours at the airport nearby, so when he left, we took off as fast as we could, out the side door, through the garage, out. Into freedom.

Somehow, I can smell water. So it didn't take long to sniff out the pond. They had no idea it was there. They had moved to a new house in a development built on cleared farmland and had not ventured far from home.

We found the pond one beautiful day in late spring.

I remember the light. It scattered diamonds on the water's surface as we jostled and pushed each other while running over the grassy hill that had concealed the pond from the road. It was even more beautiful than the two ponds in the woods behind my house. Because bushes, wildflowers and grasses surrounded nearly every inch of water. And a huge weeping willow dripped branches into the water on the far end.

I fell in love that day. With a setting. And it had only just begun.

I saw it first. Something was underneath the shadowy surface at the shallow end. A piece of wood, an old box, maybe. I felt it with my hands, then started pulling. I yelled for help. We pulled and pushed and I am sure began to scream when I realized what we had.

A boat! A boat!

It was small, a little rowboat that someone had used once to float on that pond. We dragged it to the banks. And to our astonishment, it seemed largely intact, with a hole at one end. Then we found an oar, I don't remember where. But it was intact too.

The next thing I remember is getting buckets. We must have gone back to the house, a sneak mission. Because we were bailing water out of the boat. And then I found a long branch suitable for steering. Then I launched, testing whether the craft was seaworthy.

It started sinking. But I was living an old dream long lodged in my young heart and I was not giving up. I had a boat!!!

So T., who was sweet and girly, my opposite and my best friend, was assigned to bail along with my little sister/loyal assistant. They were the easy ones. T.'s younger sister J. was wild and prone to sass just like me, so I'm sure she argued for the pole position. But I had found the boat, I reasoned, and therefore was in charge. I also was the oldest, by one month, and certainly the bossiest. So she rowed.

We were wet and muddy by then and should have been freezing cold. But we had fallen into the arms of a bliss that transcends physical discomfort, then shelters in the heart for a lifetime. So we held onto the boat sides and pushed into the water and jumped in -- launched!

I know we were loud and raucous as we figured out how to stay afloat on that pond. But we managed. Eventually, we were balancing the boat with our weight to keep the hole out of the water, or mostly, so the bailers could take a break.

At first, I took us around the shallow edges of the pond to make sure we could stay afloat. My sister and I swam like fish, thanks to Mother for introducing us early to the lively waters of rivers and creeks. Then finally to my father's method of taking us into the middle of Flint River and releasing us, standing just short of our flailing arms, forcing us to "stop fooling around and swim." And we did!

Once established, we found a rhythm. We moved around the edges, through the middle, around again and then through the willow branches. That was the part I liked best. I will never forget those moments.

We fell silent as we approached the weeping willow, moving from clear bright spring sunlight into a deep green curtain that I pushed aside first with the pole, then my hands and arms. Suddenly inside the veil, the air was cooler and so still and quiet that we did not speak. If someone whispered, another shushed. Something ancient and mysterious was at work within the shadows of that tree. We did not understand it, but we clearly fell under the spell.

It calmed us. We spent hours at that pond, quietly rowing, then sitting, drifting, letting the wind gently blow the small boat through the water. Four little girls, two rarely quiet, sat in silence, suspended in time and space until the twilight began to steal through the cracks in the trees bracing the sky.

But then T.'s mother found us. And we were banned from the pond.

We slipped back once or twice and the boat was gone. I'm sure T.'s father removed it. T.'s mother was upset with herself for letting us be gone for so long. She was terrified from then on, worried we would go back and drown in that pond. I protested that little sister/loyal assistant and I would never drown.

But her children never learned to swim like that. Or roam. Or discover what the world held for them. Held tightly, encapsulated in a prism of fury not of their own making, they each in their own way stand apart in some way even today.

Which is why, not that long ago, I made T. come with me one day when I was visiting home. Ignoring her questions, I walked her through my sister's field to the pond and made her climb into the little flat boat. And I pushed us into the water despite the mosquitoes and the little snakes she kept looking for warily. And I paddled us into the middle of the water.

And we laughed about the old pond and the sunken boat and the willow tree. At a distance, I could see my little sister/loyal assistant, now all grown up, watching me as she has done her entire life. And then T. and I sat in silence, letting the twilight flow over the huge oaks onto our skin and into our lungs like a sweet cool wind.

And just under the orange sun dipping low, I swore I could see it. The weeping willow tree. It's still there. It is always still there.