Blackjack

It’s been twenty-one years. 

Twenty-one years since I looked at the x-rays, white as a blizzard.

…beep, beep, beep, beep…

Whiteout. 

Washed in the blood of the Lamb. 

Looking at blood in all the wrong places. 

Twenty-one years and the image of my mother, sitting in the corner of the room. 

Resigned, not resolute.

…beep, beep, beep…

Limbo. 

Deal another card. 

…beep, beep…

The Decision.

Stop it all, all but the necessary (and what was necessary at that point anyway?).

Deal another card. 

It’s okay, Dad, you can go now. It’s okay.

Death is never okay. 

Deal another card.

…beep…

Is he here?

Is He here?

Is He in heaven?

Is he in heaven?

Do you want one more card?

Hit me

Nothing is permanent.

Time is precious.

Love means everything.

Blessed be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love.

When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain

But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again. 

Hit me.

…………..beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep…………………..

The house always wins.

Wailing

 

Image

I was dressed, had my briefcase in hand and was ready to walk out the door of my apartment. I heard a rising and swelling and eerie sound coming from outside the door. One of those directionless, piercing, annoying, frightening sounds that makes you wonder if someone is hurt, in pain, being attacked or just kidding someone by uttering disturbing sounds for sport. At seven thirty in the morning, it just sounds odd and oddly  unnerving. 

I opened the door, stepped out and immediately startled a youngish Hispanic woman who was walking by. 

“Are you all right? I’m sorry. I…” I began, trying to lock my door and apologize to her at the same time.

“Yes, yes,” she stammered, her eyes softening almost at once when she saw that I was harmless. 

“Do you know who that is?” I asked. The wailing continued, louder now that I was outside in the common area. 

She looked back over her shoulder, toward the stairwell leading down to the next floor.

“She lost her dog, her puppy, last night. She is…she is very sad.”

“Oh, no! I am so sorry. Is someone with her?” I said, fumbling for anything that didn’t sound either trite or intrusive. I did not know this woman. 

“Yes, yes,” she nodded, a small, sad smile on her lips now. 

“Good, then, that’s good. I hope things are going to be okay for her,” I said, moving towards the opposite stairwell leading down one flight to my car. 

She walked a few steps and turned towards her own apartment door. 

The wailing continued, rising up like tendrils of smoky sound, lingering on the air, then floating away. I get gooseflesh thinking about it as I write this. Sad. Moaning. Injured. Plaintive. Wrenching. 

Grieving.

Happy Birthday, Dad

Happy birthday, Dad.

You would have been eighty one today.

An old man, but I doubt if the number alone would have phased you or slowed you down much.

You would still have driven us all crazy by jingling the spare change in your pocket.

You would still have cared about the little details in everyone’s life. The kids, the grandkids, the jobs, their schedules (though you could never seem to keep up with mine-that would be no different today, I’m afraid). You always had a memory for the details. I wish you’d passed that one along to me.

You would have continued to do the jobs that nobody else wanted to do, just because you knew they needed to be done.

You would have laughed, always laughed, and smiled your sort of weird, crooked smile that now sits hazy in my memory, hovering there as if deciding to dissolve.

You might be proud of me today.

I work as hard as you taught me to. Sometimes too hard, but you know I got that straight from you. A work ethic is not easily shed.

I never saw you make too many mistakes in your sixty two years. I’ve made plenty, Dad. Some of them life changers.

I hope you would forgive me for those, as I’m trying to forgive myself.

When I get stiff and sore, I think of you.

When something makes me itch, I think of you.

Genes are funny postcards from beyond the grave, powerful in their ability to pass along both good and bad.

I miss you every day.

I think about you every day.

It amazes me, but I’m still learning from you. Did you know that would happen? Did you ever imagine that you would continue to inform, cajole, encourage, scold, and affirm, long after my ability to see the details of your face has waned?

I try my very best to live the way you taught me to.

I don’t try to be you.

No.

But Dad, I try very hard to be like you.

Every day.

Childless

ImageApril 20, 1965.

A day like any other day, I suppose, but not for my parents. 

I was seven years old, and I remember nothing of it. Nothing at all. 

Isn’t that odd? An event that could change the dynamics of my entire family forever would not even be a part of my conscious mind as I moved forward in time every April 20th after that? Odd, but true. I don’t know exactly how it happened, how it affected my folks, how they processed it, who was there with them and for them. 

She didn’t even have a name. Infant daughter of…was all the simple gravestone says. She rests in the bright middle Georgia sunshine at my father’s feet, no doubt where she would have spent many happy hours if he’d lived longer. If she’d lived at all.

I often wonder what she would have been like. Dainty and feminine? Rough and tumble? Smart and searching? Ready to change the world? Loving, caring, feeling, giving? The apple of her older sibling’s eye, I’m sure of that. Someone to be protected by a bragging, proud brother, I’m sure. Someone to be a protector too, somehow, for a brother who even now needs a buffer between him and the big, wide, harsh world some days when it gets to be just a little too much. 

I might have done that for her. She might have done that for me. 

How sad for a gravestone to have but one date inscribed on it. One date. Birth and death all at once. No dash. 

 

Oh, I don’t know. Thank you for asking. 

Maybe because we just passed through another Memorial Day with its row upon row of white crosses and the thousands of kids that lie there, motherless in the ground. 

Maybe because of what my grandmother said to me, in her grief, as she waited, slumped over in the parlor before my father’s funeral. “It’s not right. No parent should have to outlive their own child.” 

Maybe it’s because one of my friends has been dealing with a very sick child. “She’s never been this sick.” The quietly frantic pleading and praying and busyness that goes with that, with the knowledge that you will do anything, everything in your power to make sure that child gets well and lives. There is no higher calling for a parent than to be totally focused on the need of their offspring, until whatever is assaulting them is totally annihilated. 

Maybe it’s because she came to see me the other day, wrapped in grief so raw, so tangible, so real that you could see it in the bathrobe, pajamas and house slippers she wore to my office. It didn’t matter one whit to her what she wore that day. I didn’t matter that her red, tear-stained face hadn’t seen eye shadow or rouge or powder in days, maybe weeks. None of that mattered.

She shared her grief with me. She shared what it must have been like for my own mother on April 20, 1965, and every April 20th after that-every day after that. In her brokenness, she still got out of her house, trudged the distance to my office, and tried to help me understand what she was going through. 

Like so many patient encounters, this one was good for both patient and doctor. This one showed me how very real the connection between us is, the tiny thread of communication that persists even through the darkest hours, the most blinding pain, the most raw, aching, devastating grief. I felt it, but I could not put it into words. 

I didn’t have to.

Sometimes it’s best for the doctor just to be present and say nothing. She did it for both of us. I just sat there with her, feeling it, letting her feel it, knowing that eventually, it will get better. It will never go away, no never, never, never, but it will get better. She was not convinced. 

She looked up at me and made direct eye contact once in that session, only once, and summarized her grief.

“There is no pain, I mean no pain in this world, that is worse than this pain.”

At that moment, I believed her.