I wrote this January 21st and wanted to post it here.
I wanted to post just after Christmas about how full and grateful I felt. For the first time this past Thanksgiving, I got it, I understood the significance of it all. This is no small thing.
See, my childhood was, frankly, terrible. Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone has had it rough and yes, I understand that “terrible” for a child in American is nothing compared to the life of a little kid in a war zone or in a rain starved desert. Believe me, I feel that very deeply. I am hesitant to feel the grief and anger I need to feel over it all since, in the grand scheme, it seems so insignificant. But the fact remains, my early years were awful. A wild myriad of abuses, neglect, malnourishment, and a prevailing sense of meanness and malevolence defines what few memories I have in sharp relief. I feel dread, anger, fear, distrust, maliciousness when I think of being a child. That said, I never got Thanksgiving. As my mom and her boyfriend led us into our holiday standby – Ol*d Count*ry Bu*ffet – I didn’t see what there was to be grateful for. Sometimes, when we went to church, we’d have to go around the sunday school table and list what we were grateful for. Kids would gush about their parents, their beautiful houses, their caring teachers, the good food in their bellies. I would feel so shameful as I would think of my own life lived in a dark, decrepit, flimsy house that was originally built as a cheap brothel. The walls were bowing fake wood paneling, the floors ragged red carpeting that had never been cleaned. The ash trays on the tables were literal dinner plates and the heavy smoke through the house made sure they were never clean. I was homeschooled, which was essentially a cover for abuse. If we never went to school, no one had to know it happened. We survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for years – the closest thing to a homecooked meal was an occasional TV dinner served with much jubilance and fanfare. My mom was almost non-existent as she and her boyfriend holed up in the front room “working.” They did a great deal of planning, but I do not think they ever actually made any money from any of their ventures. We remained on welfare and food stamps and the bottom-of-the-barrel second hand clothes. Mostly my mom stayed just out of my reach, leaving my brother and I alone to beat the living shit out of each other as we tried to work through our frustrations.
Books I would read would glow with descriptions of home around the holidays – hugs and love, candy and presents, family that would come together and celebrate. Our celebrations were nothing of the like – a wild dash for the presents and then maybe a trip to Old Country Buffet and then the dust would resettle and everything returned to normal. No baking cookies, no ham roasting in the oven, no visits to grandmas or grandpas, no long cuddles while watching feel-good movies. The whole thing, the whole holiday season was lost on me. Why would anyone want to do it?
I became an adult and loathed the holidays. I would keep my shopping list as short as possible, I didn’t buy gifts for any of my biological family (and they didn’t buy any for me), my foster family drew names and thus I had one person to buy for, I made it clear to friends that I would like to just not do the gift thing thank-you-very-much. Often I would travel during the holidays to avoid the stress of where to be, which “family” to see and which to not see.
But this year was different. I, at the age of 27, finally felt some of the warmth and the fuzziness. I helped make a great deal of baked goods and delicious holiday food. I soaked in the warm aromas and settled into various family celebrations with a wine-induced haze and general delight. We spent Thanksgiving with Phil’s family and they welcomed me warmly and we dined indulgently. We relaxed mightily and I felt so full of peace and love it was unbearable. Christmas came and went without the usual angst and gnashing of teeth. I was thrilled to see how well gift-giving went over. I felt so utterly full and thankful and bursting with good things I didn’t know what to do with myself. I have a thoughtful and kind husband, gracious and generous inlaws, a full foster family that loves me to pieces, and a biological family that I got on well enough with as long I kept the water under the bridge. I did have a dad that adored me and that I loved to visit.
2009 looked so full of promise. There was a new president on the way – one I actually liked, Phil and I both have decent jobs that are solid for the time being, we had enough money saved and credit scores that put us in a great position to buy one of the thousands of houses saturating the market. And – to top it off – we were going on a long await vacation to Nicaragua during the coldest week of the year. I was delirious with happiness, even if it was sobered and tempered with all the awful news here and abroad.
I always had a suspicion my dad would go when I was least expecting it. I had also always thought that he’d go when he knew I was well taken care of. Now, I could take care of myself just fine, but he’s old-fashioned sometimes and he has always wanted to see me hitched up to a nice boy with a nice job.
My dad had his first heart attack when I was 10 or so. He did die, but was resurrected thanks to medical magic. Ever since then – for 17 or so years – I lived in fear he could go at anytime. When I stayed with him, I’d sit up outside of his door for hours, listening to his breathing, listening to him snore. I was an insomniac for years when I was away from him, worried he wouldn’t make the night. I’d face north – toward where he lived – and whisper my love and say a prayer so he’d make the night.
He moved into assisted living on August 1st, and that did wonders for him. The burdens of general housecleaning and cooking were removed and he could focus his energies on keeping his dozens of medications straight and socializing with the other residents. He loved being around people and knew so many within a few weeks. He regained about 20 pounds, plumping him back up after he’d lost so much weight before he got his digestive pacemaker. We visited him in October and I hadn’t seen him that well and happy in years. We painted the town red that weekend going out to eat, playing the penny slots at the casino, going shopping and running errands. We laughed, we showed him wedding pictures, we had a great time. For the first time in years I left feeling confident he was well cared for and I didn’t cry because I was sure I’d see him again. Phil and I talked on the way home how he might have another two or three years left, he seemed so healthy and lively. I still called about once a week, but I wasn’t as regular as I had been because I wasn’t nearly as worried.
We had planned to visit him before the end of the year, but we had the Nica trip coming up and and thought it best to postpone the trip until late January when we could show him pictures. I called him Wednesday, Jan. 7th but he sounded tired. He wasn’t feeling so well, he said, and he got a Charlie Horse so I let him go. I promised I’d call that weekend. The weekend came and we found a house we were really excited about. We visited it twice and got our ducks in a row to put in an offer before we left because it was a gem. The weekend passed, we continued to get things together for the trip. I thought about calling dad, but didn’t because it was never the right and and I’d call him from the airport before we left on Thursday, anyway.
I forgot the phone at home Tuesday and was all worried we’d hear from the realtor, so I kept calling Phil. No word. Brought it with me Wednesday and it rang at 10:30am. I stopped the trailer in the bitter cold thinking it might be Phil with word on the house. It was my aunt. Mi papa might not make it.
After a tough fight in which the odds only got taller and taller, we eventually let him go. He had told us all that if he got his ticket, we should let him take it. And we did. And it was hard, but it was right. He wouldn’t have liked being all hooked up like that and even if they pulled his body through the ARDS, and something else I can’t remember, then there was the pnemonia that had at least 6 weeks to heal and then there was the lukemia, which they couldn’t treat because he was too old and too weak. Better to let him go in peace.
The end of 2008 was a turning point for me, a new horizon, bright and promising. The beginning of 2009 left a deep, unexpected hole. But I think he was maybe waiting for that, waiting to know we’d be okay without him. We’ll miss him dearly, but we have a lot to look forward to, even though it feels a little hollow without him here.