Monday, March 19, 2012
The Words I Meant to Say
December 30, 2009
After following the winding cemetery road for what seemed like half an hour, I parked the Trailblazer and stepped out, hoping to remember the location of the grave. On the day of the funeral, my only depth perception had been the six feet of endless hole five inches from my toes. Now, almost a year later, despite my lack of orientation, I seemed to remember the plot being close to the oak tree about ten feet away. My boots made the first tracks in the two inch carpet of snow as I approached a marker decorated with a small Christmas tree. Taking a chance, I knelt and, with both hands, erased enough snow to reveal the name on the marker. This was it—Pappy’s grave.
Embraced by the dull cold and hovering stillness of the cemetery, I stared at the chiseled name. A towering concrete statue of Christ stood not far behind me, peering over my shoulder, as if ready to grant comfort. But I needed no closure, harbored no lingering questions, stifled no hot tears of anger. I had come to tell Pappy the words I meant to say nearly a year earlier.
February 9, 2009 around 9 p.m.
I opened the Valentine’s Day card from Mamaw and Pappy, guiltily tucking the enclosed ten dollar bill in my purse. I hadn’t called my grandparents in months. But with Mamaw’s tendency to ramble juxtaposed against my overflowing stacks of papers to grade, I once again attempted to reason my way out of dialing the number my fingers had tapped out like a cadence since I was six years old.
But no matter how I tried to concentrate on my to-do list, that night the call wouldn’t be postponed. More demanding than duty or propriety or even guilt, the insistent prodding felt much like one of the imperceptible yet compelling intuitions we obey regularly without understanding why, intuitions such as “wait another minute before walking out of the room,” “take another route to your destination,” “rethink that sentence before you say it.” In this case it prompted, “call your grandparents and thank them for the Valentine’s Day card.”
Obediently, I dialed the number and waited to hear Mamaw’s familiar greeting. Instead the voice that answered surprised me. “Hello.”
“Hey, Pappy.” I smiled, remembering the last time I saw him in August, when he had come back to life after being dead for years.
A stroke had changed Pappy in 2003 from a vigorous 64 year old owner of a construction company, to a lethargic senior, dwindling under depression, forced to delegate his work responsibilities to my uncles. Blaming the stroke for his despondency, the doctors offered explanations of imbalanced chemicals and damaged nerve endings. But I secretly suspected that the stroke merely activated the side-effects of many other disorders that had afflicted Pappy most all his life: pride, bitterness toward hypocritical fellow church goers, and perhaps, worst of all, mistakes from his youth that he had been making restitution for over forty years later. The physical restrictions of the stroke had severed his vivacity and halted his constant activity, forcing him to confront those darker corners of his mind. For six years the ghosts he wrestled with in the darkness had pulled Pappy down, nearly to the grave.
Then, just months before my grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2008, something happened. Whether by medicine or miracle, Pappy broke free of despondency’s grasp. I saw it for myself during my visit for the anniversary party. The spicy smell of his aftershave stung my nose, and his piercing whistle laced its way through my heart, summonsing happy memories of before his stroke. We shared a box of Hostess cakes at midnight, laughing together well after the bedtime he’d kept only months before. His break-of-dawn energy enlivened the house as he hurried out to his carpentry shop only to return a few hours later speckled with sawdust and toting a new piece of furniture for Mamaw. Throughout the house he had wound his collection of antique clocks, offsetting them to chime one after another each hour. With the clocks, it seemed, he had rewound his life.
At the restaurant where we held the anniversary party, Pappy walked from table to table, greeting guests and radiating the fervor of a man who’d finally accepted forgiveness from God and himself. After we finished eating, he burst into a speech, loud and shameless, telling us of the perils he’d faced in his journey through the darkness. “So many times I laid awake at night making plans to end my life. But thinking of you all, I just couldn’t do it. I love you so much.” He punctuated the entire display with a noisy kiss on my grandmother’s cheek.
It was a resurrection worth celebrating. But my family, as if suspicious of his recovery, only edged their chairs back or rearranged the leftover scallops on their plates to avoid embracing the sentimental moment. As an emotionally retentive family, most of us were embarrassed by Pappy’s display of elation, acting as if resurrections happened every day and we could afford to ignore his and wait to appreciate the next.
Seemingly unaware of our discomfort, Pappy went about, scooping up the youngest of his fifteen grandchildren, tickling them, loving them. “I’m ready,” he proclaimed, “for the next fifty years of my life.”
So only six months later on that February night, my heart fell to hear not his lively voice on the phone, but the all too familiar tone of despair. I knew he’d been dragged back into the darkness by the draining effects of his stroke and a lack of support from his family. We chatted half-heartedly for a minute, neither of us exerting the energy to hide our emotions, me my disappointment and him his despair. When his voice grew raspy, he said, “Here’s your grandmother,” and handed over the phone.
My fear of Mamaw’s rambling didn’t come true; her heavy tone revealed the gravity of Pappy’s returned condition. As our brief conversation ended she asked, “Do you want to talk to your grandfather again?”
The unexpected question made me grip the phone tighter as the same quiet urgency that insisted I call in the first place again prodded, Tell him that you love him. Shaken by his returned depression and scared of an awkward situation, I considered my answer for five seconds. Finally, I decided, “No, I don’t guess so. Good night.”
The phone in my hand felt as heavy as the regret in my heart. In the darkness of my bedroom, the clock glared 10:00—too late to call back. Next time, I promised myself, I’ll tell him. Pressing my face into the pillow, I sobbed, fighting against the dread of what I somehow knew, beyond a doubt, would happen.
At noon the next day, my cell phone vibrated. For the second time in two days the voice on the other end surprised me as I stiffened to hear my father’s troubled tone. “Sweetie, I want you to sit down.”
With the previous night’s feeling of premonition fresh on my heart, I ignored Dad’s gentle command and remained on my feet. What I already knew couldn’t shock me. “It’s Pappy, isn’t it? How did he do it?”
Surprised at my confident assumption, he paused before replying, “Shot himself. They found him in his workshop.”
As we discussed the details of my travel arrangements to the funeral, my mind filled with questions; “why,” however, was not among them. Of all people, I felt most prepared for the tragedy since I had neglected one of the final opportunities to prevent it.
At my grandmother’s house, preparing for the funeral, I found a stack of pictures in Pappy’s office, dated just weeks before his death. In the glossy prints, it was evident that the darkness had already consumed most of him. Staring directly into the camera, he appeared spent, as if the effort to produce the weak smile on his lips had drained his energy. His eyes gazed blankly, as if he were too depleted to continue fighting, too weary to plead for light or hope. But even if he had mustered the strength to fight or plead, I wondered if any of us would have come to his rescue. My thoughts went immediately to memories of that last time I saw Pappy alive, when my family had disregarded his unbridled exuberance for life.
At the restaurant the night of the anniversary party, our family had pushed past one another without the common decency of strangers. Armed with pickaxes of petty differences, they silently began gouging away at a sliver-sized dispute that would later break into a chasm, splitting our family down the middle. Pappy’s rousing display of love and restoration, rather than bolstering a move toward repair, only seemed to accelerate the family’s excavation. We sat there fostering our pride and vendettas, ignoring the chance to rejoice with Pappy.
Consumed with ourselves, which one of us had absorbed the love he poured out with his recovery and had watered his soul with it when the dry times returned? Which of us did anything more than whisper our fear and suspicions behind his back or wring our hands, worrying over the inevitable? Which of us reached out to help him when the darkness started closing back in?
For nearly a year after his death, I waited, each day expecting to finally feel the crushing guilt for my own part in watching Pappy slip away without reaching to pull him back toward the light.
But in the cemetery that December morning, tracing his name on the stone marker, I whispered, “I love you, Pappy.”
The wind snatched the words from my mouth like an eager messenger, carrying the white wisps away from the frozen marker, up toward the waiting azure sky.