A walk home in this afternoon light, holding my husband’s hand. Glory floats in the air; chimes chant the hour.Calling my father from the early porch dark. More is lost, his world even smaller now. Closing in.Packing to leave for Bangkok in the morning, for work, and life, and what I love. My world larger than ever with praise.Going out. Going in. We move in two directions. Both swimming in the same light.this, to you, dear father, as I go on my way ~No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.~ Wendell Berry ~(The Sabbath Poems, 1993, I)
Twelve minutes before the wedding ceremony, my nephew Andrew emerged from a victorious Tennessee TV huddle – now a groom with a satisfied gleam behind his orange-rimmed sunglasses. He had waited for this: to show me what he had created out of the sari borders I gave him after my last trip to India. And there he was, striding up to me in sartorial splendor. Silk brocade that once floated through the lovely homes of Mumbai now fitted his lapels, lined his jacket, shaped itself even into a neck tie. He had envisioned it all, down to the Tennessee-orange socks, his own unique fusion of the Vols and the Vedic.
After the ceremony, the lovely meal, a dance with my brother who had officiated the nuptials- I walked out on the sprawling lawn in the early light of evening and called my father who was so palpably not there. My brother had ended the ceremony with my father’s words – ones the family knows by heart – and conjured his presence there in quiet benediction on the day. But now, as I heard my father on the other end of the phone, the golden tongue sounded disturbingly like a shovel chomping through gravel. I reported on the wedding, his son and grandson and great-grandson all taking their places in the circle of life. He tried to calm my fear about the chomping sound in his voice. I hung up and sat under the darkening sky.
Inside, the dance music was really kicking in now. Bridesmaids were flinging off their heels. Andrew and Sarah did dips and swings to Luckenbach Texas in their finery; he picked up the guitar and began to sing his own song. The littlest Hull pranced in the center of all the moving parts – at 10 months old he stole the floor.
I watched the last light crawl down into the wooded distance. In the wide-open evening, the chilling air, there on the spongy grass, I felt the turning.
The great wheel of life moved solidly on.
my dear father,
It has been a year, today, since you held Mother’s hand as her life slipped out of your reach. You have taken that empty hand, in the year since, and applied it to the pen, writing down to the the last word your 7th book in these five long years of crumbling health, calling it your last. That right hand is the only portion of your body that still can articulate itself, which I find a grace, for it delivers words which your tongue can not. Your fingers cannot make it up to the bridge of your nose to adjust your glasses, or across the plexiglass to turn a page of a book. But if a pen is laid across their crib, you still can press a word into the paper, like you pressed your aching heart into her hand.
It is an amazement to see how much life is squeezed into what little you have left. When voice and movement and conversation are taken away, then, it seems, even more life comes flowing through the flesh of your palm. It ruffles the fur of a frisky friend, it strokes a baby’s leg, it empties the mind of its words onto paper, or sinks its feelings into another hand.
When I think of all the channels still open to me – legs that can fly down my stairs, a voice that bellows in the car, hands that snap and clap - I feel as though a mighty river is over-running the sluices. And then I look at you, that one right hand left to carry all the force of being, and I am in wonder. How much it still has to say. How far it reaches. How deeply it has learned to love.
always your daughter,
I didn’t know you had it in you! The neighbor’s daughter sprinted over to my father’s outdoor deck in her running clothes, a two year old perched on her hip, after hearing cooing and commotion coming from under the maple trees. She was laughing with my nephew, Andrew, with whom she played as a child on his occasional visit to his grandparents.
Andrew – caregiver to my father, romancer of ladies of all ages who flock to his charms - is getting married. And I understand why. He has found the most luminous soul to orbit his sky. He has found Sarah, and finally stopped to look no more.
This is not Sarah’s wedding dress I’m publishing, heaven forbid. I was lucky enough to be a part of her dress shopping day, along with her mother and sister and friends. But she stole my heart with her blushing bridal beauty, out-glaming herself with each new dress she slipped on.
Since my father will not have the strength to make it to their North Carolina wedding in September, Andrew and Sarah brought the festivities to my father. On Sunday, both families gathered on my father’s deck to celebrate their engagement and commitment. Andrew’s first lady, blond dog Stella, sprawled out lazily in the thick of things, babies squirmed, Sarah’s grandfather led a charge, my father wheeled out and drank in the moment with a grin. I adore her, he says of Sarah, forming the words emphatically with his recalcitrant tongue. She brings music to his house, tenderness to his day, grace to his grandson.
I take my father’s hand and slowly reach it toward Stella’s fur, or place it gently on little Liam’s leg, his 8 month old great-grand. He cannot get there on his own, that long stretch of a few inches. He cannot wrap his arms around Sarah and welcome her into the family. But his heart is clear – that muscle moves toward her with joy.
For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. The words we daily live upon like the ground beneath us rise up in these moments with a crackling force. I think of what my father knows of these timeless words, knows them sixty years in the bones. He knows now both the better and the worse. Both the richer and the poorer. Both the sickness and the years of health. Marriage, his presence announces, loves and cherishes the all of it. And now these two young ones are ready to walk into those words.
Sarah bends to kiss my father’s face, where sadness also dwells. Love is there, just there, in his face, in her gesture, in the long path of a few inches. In the long road backward and forward sixty years each way. Love, even with a recalcitrant tongue, says Yes, Yes. To all of it. And would again, and will yet, over and over again.
Decoration Day they called it here in the South, and did so in Appalachia even before the Civil War – a time for families to gather at cemeteries and honor the dead; later, it evolved into a Memorial Day for those who died in service. Yet, here I am on my porch on a breezy beauty of a Memorial Day, thinking of one who has not died; one whose service in the battle continues. My father’s birthday is tomorrow, and that seems somehow also heroic, a day worthy of decoration.
Doctors looked at my father plainly, five years ago, and said you have three to five years to live. Yet onward he marches past their predictions, not on legs, but on the mental stamina of a soldier. Through the fields of lost limbs, the trenches of what must sometimes be despair, through the long dark, tented nights, he marches on with an even temper, a disciplined and grateful heart, a humor that dismisses decorations, laughing as he can. His tour of duty is not yet done.
This past week, his well-loved first cousin, Robert Hull, fell ill and died. Younger by a few years and a loyal friend, Robert and Doris drove me to the airport when I came to visit, brought love and meals, tended my parents with a kindness perhaps known only to those also crippled by pain, as was Robert. A surprise, still, for my father to wheel into his friend’s Memorial Service, and struggle, as he does now, to hold his head aloft, while another of his anchors unmoors and drifts from shore.
Today, wreathes are added to graves. Bunting is draped from windows. The dead are joined and remembered.
And tomorrow, my father will march on through another birthday; decorated, as always, with a faithful heart for all whom he has loved, an unstoppable hope for the world he cannot save, and a love that, through all battles, mightily endures.
Duke and Marguerite took us water-skiing on Kentucky’s Cumberland Lake, where, as a child, I watched my father rise from the wake and rule the waters, my shivering hand waving through the spray from my plump orange vest. After dinner at Duke and Marguerite’s house, I played Kick the Can with their older, crush-inducing sons, and caught fireflies in the dark. When Mother went in the hospital, my brother and I were invited for dinner in their palatial home. I dressed in a best frilly dress, David in a coat and clip tie, and we held hands to knock at their tall imposing doors.
Duke was my father’s boss, mentor, colleague, and finally, always, friend. He died this week at the age of 98.
Separated for years after their teamwork as President and Provost of a seminary, they still found their way toward each other in yearly meetings, voluminous correspondence, intellectual pursuits. After my father’s diagnosis five years ago, Duke was too old to travel, and my father no longer enjoyed the freedom of the road; they simply couldn’t see each other for a final gathering up of their shared life. So, Duke took to calling once a week. Even after my father’s voice gave out, Duke called to talk to Mother, and let his voice reach over the phone and grab my father by the shoulder in an embrace.
I wonder how my father takes this loss into himself. So many of his lifelong friends have now gone on, leaving him here to witness their lives as a whole. The ones to whom he might have whispered doubts or fears, or conjured the past, or sighed about what is gone. Grady, John, Tom, Duke, not to mention his dear wife of sixty years. Others he loves are far away, and no longer able to travel, and the phone is a weak link for one who cannot speak.
I think that we all long for a witness to our lives. Marriage does that, offers a lens which makes it possible, as Rilke put it, for each to see the other whole against the sky. Friendship that endures does that. Gives the gift of seeing your life whole, flawed and unfinished, but somehow complete. It is a gift, indeed: to be not alone in knowing ourselves, but to be seen, beginning and end, and in that seeing, loved.
So, I wonder what it is like to lose your witnesses. Difficult, I am wagering. And so I write to my father, in hearing of Duke’s death: I will be your witness. Younger, yes, and not carrying the whole of you, and yet, I can witness you witnessing your friends – the arc of their lives, rising from the wake and ruling the waters, and then sinking back into their depths. I can do that. And remember with you. The fireflies caught. The dinners blessed. The night skies.
Sally Field crumples down into her own hoop skirt, melting into an inconsolable circle on her bedroom floor. She rides in the presidential carriage, Mrs.Lincoln does, carrying her love and depression in colors that sting; she attends her husband’s fateful death in her home, shattered into fragile pieces. My father sits next to me in the cinema, his wheelchair nestled into the handicap niche. I remember, as a child, Carl Sandburg’s huge biographical tome on Abraham Lincoln by my father’s chair; how he followed this fellow Kentuckian’s life and political strategy for its honor, efficacy, leadership. Now, watching the end of his hero’s life, my father can hardly breathe, he is almost choking on tears. I wonder if I should be concerned, but he is not. So, I lean back and move into the story with him – the long marriage, the accomplishments and failures of this man who came from nothing and made something large of it, this heart-wrenching death. Long after others leave the theater, we remain. The story holds us there.
Since my father’s words have gone, rather completely now, we must find other ways to weave the day-to-day connection between us. Conversation is difficult, to say the least, and rather one-sided, with me the loser there. So, we watch movies together. We enter a larger story, feel our way down to the nub of it; we steep in its brew.
On my last visit, my father broke his bedtime schedule for the first time I can remember in order to watch the next installment of Downton Abbey with me. I put him onto the show a year ago; he consumed all the past episodes on his ipad with fancy headphones that make the music swell, the world go away. Now that he is caught up, we jump into the stream together with Carson and Mrs. Patmore, Mary and Bates and Robert all struggling to face the changes set upon them. And then, right there in my father’s family room, dear Sybil gives birth to a new little life and, in doing so, gives up her own. I am there for the blame, the oceanic grief, a father’s helplessness.
Conversation with my father was often a heady affair. So, it surprises us both, I think, to let story take over. Story takes us behind another theater curtain, one where we don’t have to understand but simply feel life happening between and among us. A new and unpredictable conversation of the heart.
On my last phone call, my father asked if I had seen the final episode of Downton Abbey. Our cable connection had inconveniently gone out that night and we missed the conclusion to the season, I had to report. Ahhh… he said. And then, in slow carefully enunciated slurs, It will break your heart.
This is how it is these days. We live with a larger world, with an imagination embracing a vivid past and yet hopeful future, seamlessly braiding life and death, the tragic and the fair. Not many words are needed. Our hearts are broken, and held.