In June, I put a photo of some cards from my father up in the header (this one, here). And then I never explained the photo. I had intended to. But it became one of a couple dozen unfinished thoughts of this summer.
* * * * *
Once upon a time, when I was but eleven years old, I spent some time in a hospital, being treated for depression. I don’t think that in today’s world the hospitalization would have happened, but this was the late 1980s, when the protocols and medications used for treating children were vastly different from the standards of today. (This was also just a few years before a nationwide scandal came to light in which the owners and management of this particular hospital and the network in which it was housed, along with dozens of associated physicians, were investigated/fined/subjected to a variety of civil suits and expensive settlements for improperly and unnecessarily confining children to their psychiatric facilities. But anyway. Different times. Not the point of this post,
plus somewhere there’s a confidentiality agreement I need to not run afoul of, so moving on.)
By “spent some time” what I really mean is: December 28, 1988 to June 2, 1989.
That’s one hundred and fifty-seven days. One-five-seven. That’s a lot, you guys.
By eleven-year-old measurements it’s more like ONE-FIVE-SEVENTY-MILLION-BAGILLION-INFINITY. Especially when the
cover-up of the insurance fraud scheme treatment protocol called for not allowing parents to see or speak with their children except on weekends or occasional, brief weekday ‘family sessions.’ The length of the treatment depended on how much insurance coverage the patient had the consensus of the treating psychiatrist and the hospital administration. I had the misfortune of having really good insurance coverage an extremely thorough doctor and administration pairing. Ergo: 157 days.
My parents did their best to keep me connected with the daily life of our family. They left phone messages for me twice each day. The smell of the carbon paper the messages were transcribed on, its crinkly feel in my young hands–both are still very vivid. When I allow myself to reflect on such things, anyway. Which is almost never. Because that period of time was excruciating.
More than the phone messages, though, were the letters. Almost every single day, my parents wrote to me.
My mother sat down at some point in at least one-hundred-thirty-six of those days and penned a letter to me on notebook paper or stationary and once on the back of a bank deposit slip, describing the minutiae I was/wasn’t missing out on; encouraging me; reassuring me; loving me as best she could given the circumstances.
My father printed out cards on a dot-matrix printer. (Remember those printers?) He chose random grayscale images for the front, pictures that were perfect for crayon-ing on my end; tore the perforated strips from each side, folded the length of the sheet in half and then folded its length in half again; and on at least one-hundred-thirty-nine of those days, wrote a paragraph or two on the inside, sharing pieces of his day, his thoughts, his beliefs, his love.
I made it home with
136 letters from my mother; and
139 cards from my father.
Oh . . . and one adorable letter from my sister about her scooter, our dog, and how she was learning cursive.
Sometime just before or just after coming home I organized all of those cards and letters into a scrapbook. And then I packed the scrapbook away with other momentos from the time that were too painful to keep too close, but too special to part with entirely.
In the twenty-three years since then,
except for the time when I had to turn it over as an exhibit, I had not reopened that scrapbook. It moved, tucked away in a box unremarkable from all appearances, from workshop to closet to garage to attic to storage closet to garage to attic. The only times I ever really thought about that scrapbook were when we went through our ritualistic, moving-relating Purging of The Stuff and I came across its box. And during each of the nine moves I made during those years, at the purging moment where I came to that box, each time I quickly shut the lid, promising myself that I would deal with those things one day. Just not that day.
That scrapbook was a mixed-bag, emotionally. On the one hand, it contained a couple hundred tangible reminders of how much my parents loved me. But on the other, it contained just as many tangible reminders of a time that has never fully lost its painful tenderness.
But then Daddy died.
And even though I knew that time was coming, I didn’t know it was coming then. His passing was expected, I guess . . . but yet unexpected.
I struggled in the days just after his death with the things I still wanted to tell him, with the knowledge that I would not get to make really good and absolutely sure he knew exactly how much I love
And then, on the eve of the private farewell we had planned for him, as I was desperately grasping for the comfort of memories of when I had used a precious opportunity to remind him of my love, I remembered that somewhere in the attic was that scrapbook.
Suddenly, I had to have those cards in my hands.
And while home alone is not the time when a girl of my gracelessness should be climbing into and rummaging around in the attic (much less climbing and rummaging in pajamas and flip-flops), climb and rummage is exactly what I did until I finally located the correct box.
The cards and letters were taped inside the scrapbook in chronological order, first all of the cards from Daddy and then all of the letters from Mother. Each side of the pages in the front of the scrapbook held six cards, taped along the top and bottom edges of the card with what I quickly recognized to be the same about-an-inch strips of tape that had held the cards closed and up against the door and the wall in my hospital room. I had quickly colored the front of those cards and hung them up as I received them, surrounding myself in reminders of my father’s love. I had just as quickly tucked the letters from my mother into a special place where I could pull them out, see her handwriting, or hide them under my pillow at night.
After 23 years, I don’t know what I expected to find in those cards and letters. I don’t know that I expected anything. I just wanted to see my dad’s block printing.
I wanted, in the middle of another excruciatingly difficult time, to be surrounded in reminders of his love.
I carefully pulled each card free of the scrapbook, peeling away the decades-old tape, finally ready to let loose and let go all of the negative emotion bound up in the time period associated with that book.
I stacked the cards from Daddy up in one pile, the letters from Mom in another. And I began reading.
I made it though exactly nine of the ten sentences in the first card before the dam broke.
“. . . . I better go for now, see you ASAP.
I love you,
By the time my family came home that evening I had read from December through February 2, 1989, had blown my nose 417 times, and my eyes were so swollen I could barely see. Blubbering mess doesn’t even begin, y’all.
My dad, he was not a particularly verbally expressive type–definitely not a feelings-talker. Those cards are 139 instances of uncharacteristic expressiveness.
But what grabbed hold of my heart so acutely was that so many of his messages ended with a variation of ‘better go for now – I love you.”
The same words that I clung to twenty-three years ago–the temporary nature of his separating from me ‘for now’ and the direct statement of his love–were the same things I was so desperately searching for in the wake of his death.
But I couldn’t read any more of them that evening.
So after a short breather wherein I oscillated my body back and forth in perfect pace with a fan in an effort to dry my face, I picked up the first letter from my mother. Ten sentences in:
“One of my favorite Statler songs is ‘One Less Day To Go.’ I’m not going to measure time by how
many days you are away, I’m going to count the days as ‘one less day to go’ till you’re home.”
No amount of oscillating was going to enable me to go any further that evening. So I placed all of the cards and letters in a smallish black box and moved the box to the corner of my nightstand, intending that I would work my way through the rest of the cards and letters a few at a time over the summer.
But I haven’t yet managed to do that.
In June I scattered the cards on the kitchen counter to take the photo for the header. But then I couldn’t even get past the lump of seeing his handwritten ‘better go for now’ in the header to write about the substance behind the photo.
It wasn’t until I swapped out the headers yesterday, until I’d resigned myself to just not saying anything about the cards, that I could find any words. Strange.
Probably I should have used a photo of this old cassette tape I found as the header for August, so that I can tell you about it in October . . . .
* * * * *
I ended up speaking at Daddy’s farewell. Briefly. I had told Mom that I would and even though I know she would have understood had I decided not to, I still felt like I needed to. For her. For me. For my sister, too.
It was nothing particularly poignant that I said, just a mention of the cards from Dad I’d been reading the night before and the one letter from Mom I’d sampled, that maybe as we try to adjust to our new ‘normal’ without Dad, instead of counting the days as the amount of time he has been away we should count them as one less day to go until we’re home, too. I don’t know exactly what else–it wasn’t profound. The important thing for me at the time was just that I found some words and I didn’t blubber. (I set the bar low enough and I catapulted myself right over it. I should like to claim my medal now, thank you.)
Afterward, as my mother and sister and I milled about Mom’s kitchen looking for something to do with our hands in the quiet that followed the departure of the day’s company, the topic of those cards came up again.
My sister said something to the effect of not having anything like that from Daddy. To which I may have too quickly replied “well, that’s the price you pay for being mentally healthy as a child.”
Weird. As a child-to-teenager I struggled mightily with jealousy at how my sister had been at home with out parents while I was trapped in an institution; at how her normalcy, even when she was at her worst, was presumed, but mine was questioned and evaluated and examined at great length; at how she just didn’t have to suffer through the same horrendous experiences that I did. It wasn’t that I wanted her to suffer, but that I wanted to be on her side of “normal,” with her. That envy created a lot of friction in our relationship as teenagers. I was many times unkind and unfair to her and I have no doubt that the meanness I showed to her had roots in my jealousy of what I perceived to be her unmarked-by-trauma childhood.
I was completely unprepared for the idea that maybe there was something from that time that she envied: the attention my illness had demanded from our parents.
The purposeful writing out of 275 pieces of mail evidencing their love.
Setting aside my adult impulse to protect a loved one and reflecting only on the immature, emotional response I had to the experience as a child: now is the first time ever in my life that I have stopped to consider that maybe I wouldn’t actually want to trade places with my sister from December 28, 1988 to June 2, 1989 after all.
Because now there is a box on my nightstand.
Full of my Daddy’s block printing and surprisingly bubble-like exclamation marks. (I never knew he was a bubble-exclamationer. I’d have bet you an espresso he was a stick-over-dot kind of guy. Not so.)
Even if I can’t yet reopen that box without bringing on Bawlapalooza.
Just . . . not today.