on strawberries and the paths takenhistorywritingdad

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October 11, 2003

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my dad's death...I think I've said most of the things I needed to in what I wrote on the day when I had been without him for as long as I had been with him, but here are two things I'd like to post, a recent anecdote from my mom and an essay I wrote over ten years ago, that I just rekeyed in.

Anecdote of the Moment
"Had a funny incident too, that I think Dad would have enjoyed. I had my friend Wendy over for dinner last Saturday, and mentioned about Friday being the 15th anniversary of Dad's death. Wendy and I sit usually sit with a group of about eight for lunch in the canteen. On Friday the subject of October birthdays had come up, and Wendy just looked across the table at me, and in a very kind voice said, 'I really did mean to get you a card.' I knew what she was talking about, but the rest of the group immediately started wishing me 'Happy Birthday!'. Wendy look horrified for a moment, and then the two of us just burst out laughing. We did explain it once we got our breath back."
--Heheheh. That e-mailed anecdote from my mom is just a lovely bit of macabre humor.

On Strawberries and the Paths Taken
I walk down the dark path at my great uncle's farm with Dad. The path is deeply ridged with tractor treads and covered with armies of rocks. There is a storage building hugging a hill, and on the hill side the roof is so low I can climb to the top and survey the strawberry fields. I don't, though. Dad and I come to a small brook and cross the wooden bridge. A sign here reads "CAUTION - STEEP BANKS, DEEP WATER". Dad warns me not to get too close. We turn right and walk past the storage house, next to the now brown fields. We pause in the chilly November night and look west. An airplane is rising, though all we can see are the three lights on the bottom. To my hyperactive eight-year-old imagination, it's a UFO riding into the inky cold of space. I tell Dad that. We laugh, hug, and slowly walk back to the welcoming farmhouse.
I walked down the sterile path of the hospital corridor with m mom. She had prepared me for what was to come. Dad had experienced seizures, and he had been diagnosed as having spinal meningitis. My mom said we were lucky; it hadn't touched his mind. However, he had lost almost all of his hand-eye coordination. He couldn't even feed himself. He was almost blind. He couldn't really see me, or my mom, but he knew our voices. His speech was slurred, almost incomprehensible. We both struggled so that I could understand him. The shock of seeing him this way banged against my mind. I really didn't feel that this was my dad, this unshaven man who needed assistance in completing the most essential tasks of life.

When my dad's seizures had first started, I had visited him in the hospital, and he was still basically well. Then, reassured that everything was going to be right, I took my planned trip to New York to visit friends. But then, after the grand-mail seizures, I did not know how to act. I hugged him stiffly, and he hugged me back, as best he could. We began to cry. I did not know how to act. What he missed most, he explained through half-spoken words and rough hand motions, were the kinds of things his father had done for him that he wanted to do for me, like giving me money out of his wallet when I needed it, with no assistance. Only now do I realize what he meant. He felt so helpless, and I was so unable to do anything to make it better. After this first visit, I went to the waiting room, trying to forget and ignore.
Finally, my dad, though still essentially bed-ridden, was able to come back home. We moved his bed into the dining room, next to the kitchen. It was my habit to pick a path downstairs to the kitchen in the dark before school every morning. One morning, as I hunted for breakfast, my dad, a very light sleeper, asked me to make him a bologna sandwich (by this time his speech had become clearer and we had become more adept at understanding him). It was a simple task. Just toast the bread and get a piece of bologna out of the fridge. Dad, although he was now able to walk with a walker, still was not able to do this himself. So every morning for a few weeks, I would offer him a bologna sandwich, a favorite of his ever since he was a boy. And then, for a reason that I cannot fully remember, I stopped. I would try to be very quiet when making my breakfast and would not offer to make his. If he asked me to make his sandwich, I would, of course, but only if he asked. Maybe I was just so stupidly lazy that I thought I couldn't wait for the time it took to make the toast. Or maybe I didn't like the constant reminder of his vulnerability, and therefore my own. I wonder if he noticed the change.
It has been eight years since we walked down the path at my great uncle's farm and two years since my dad's death. I think back to the year of slow recovery. He learned to walk with a walker, then a cane, and then unassisted. His speech was understandable, and his phone with the giant push-buttons was a prized possession. Near the end, he had relearned to read via large-print books and supermagnifying glasses. But then, tumor treatments plus pneumonia proved to be too much for him. Maybe it was too much for my mom and me, too.

At the farm, the dangerous brooks is still there. On my way down to it, I see the storage building with the low roof. Now I feel that I'm much too mature for climbing buildings. An interesting rock catches my attention. I dust it and put it in my pocket. After the bridge, I turn right instead of left and follow the brook to its other end, a small pond with ducks. Then I retrace the path we took that night eight years ago, and I squint at the setting sun. A lone strawberry lies waiting in the twilight covered path for me. On my way back, I'll throw it into the brook as a sacrifice for me and for Dad.
--An essay that I wrote during eleventh grade in high school, for Mrs. McLaughlin's class. (Later it was part of what got me recognition in the NCTE writing competition.) The writing seems clumsy to me now, but at least it is pretty forthright about what sometimes strikes me as one my bigger moral failings.