This is a strange blog, so I decided to start with a little levity. This is our family portrait from Christmas 2017. Happy New Year.
Now, back to business.
Friday morning a voice woke me up.
The voice annunciated, “Your dad died today.”
And, yes, the voice was inside my head.
I am familiar with the voice inside my head that is me. The one that I argue with. The one that encourages me some days and disparages me on other days. I know the voice that is myself and this was not my voice.
The last time I heard this voice concerning my father, I also thought he had died. He had only had a heart attack.
The first time I heard this voice I was in college. David and I were studying for finals when I burst into tears. I told him I thought my middle Sunday School was dead. David told me to call home and find out. (Calling home was long distant back in the 80s.) No, I told him it was finals week and since I could not get out of finals to attend a friend’s funeral I would wait.
After my last test, I stopped by a friend’s apartment. It was a procrastination move to avoid finding out what I already knew. I told her the story and she asked my Sunday School teacher’s name. Claudia. Yes, she told me, she had died and the funeral was that day. Erika knew because she was in a bible study with a student from my hometown church. The funeral was that afternoon.
Another time it was my Grammie Hannan. I missed it that time. She did not die for another 12 hours. But I got to call her on the phone and we had a lovely visit.
I missed it with my Grandaddy Simpson, too. I was seven months pregnant with Roy when I woke up in the wee hours of the morning crying because Grammie was dead. I got up and prayed. Then I cleaned the house. and prayed some more. When David woke up for work around 6:30 in the morning I told him my fear. Since he had been with me twice prior he called into work and by 7:00 we had loaded Ruth, Forrest, and Josiah into the van and were headed to Goldthwaite, a two and a half, three-hour drive.
We arrived to find an ambulance in their front yard. Grammie was fine, but Grandaddy had broken a hip. If we had stopped to call before we left or even halfway, we would have found them both fine.
The paramedics were wheeling Grandaddy out of the house on the gurney and as they lifted him into the ambulance he told me, “Gwen, you have the worst timing.”
I knew better. I had been praying since 3 that morning. What we learned after they took Grandaddy away (there was no hospital in Goldthwaite so they took him to Brownwood) was that Grandaddy had been covering for Grammie. She was further into Alzheimer’s than any of us realized. She could not hold in her mind what had happened. We were able to spend the day with Grammie so she was not alone. I wrote down what happened and where Grandaddy was and we kept it on a pad in her apron pocket. When she could not remember, she would pull out the pad and read it. She stayed calm and safe with us until Aunt Jimmie arrived from Midland, Texas.
I beat myself up for years for being “wrong”.
Another time I woke up very early crying over Brenda’s newborn baby, my niece, Chloe. I was crying because she died. I tried calling Brenda, but I did not know which hospital they were in. I knew Austin, but there are a lot of hospitals in Austin. I started calling them. I found her in the fourth hospital. The nurse told me Brenda was awake and asked if I wanted to talk to her.
It was a strange pre-dawn phone call, “Hi, how you doing? I just was thinking about you so I decided to call (at 4:30 a.m.!)” We had a nice, slightly awkward chat and hung up. Brenda turned to her husband, Dave, and said, “Get to the nursery, you know how weird Gwen is.”
David arrived at the nursery and they had just revived Chloe who had stopped breathing. Brenda kept her in her arms the rest of the hospital stay and now Chloe is a beautiful, VIBRANT teenager oozing with talent and personality.
There is a pattern. A pattern that does not fit my Southern Baptist tradition. I don’t know if it fits an Episcopalian tradition we now embrace. But it fits me. When I hear this insistent voice I start praying. Then I clean house to avoid what I know hoping that maybe it will go away.
Sometimes I cut my bangs. That SELDOM goes well.
Today I started writing. Tomorrow a friend of 30 years will be buried. I don’t have time to pretend that the voice is not there. If it is too much for you, that is okay.
Before I got out of the van in front of Grammie Simpson’s house, David said, “If you ever have a dream about me, don’t tell me.”
If this is too much for you, it is okay. We can follow my family tradition and pretend it did not happen.
But for me, today, now I wait.
I wait and wonder. Dead or alive.
Last I heard from my dad December 2015. My nephew, Kade, moved in with us in January 2016, just for a season. My father did not approve of the season so he cut us off. He did not say we were cut off. He just ended communication and did not respond to mine. Me. David. Grandkids. Nothing. This month marks two years. My dad has always been that kind of person. Vengeful. But he is still my dad and I love him.
I have wondered how I would feel when he died. I wondered if anyone would tell me when he died.
These two years of not speaking to me are not new. He did not talk to me for two years after David and I were married. He was mad about my wedding dress! He did not talk to me for four years after Peter was born. He stopped talking to me for various chunks of time my entire adult life.
It is amazing what one grows accustomed to. I would not be shocked if he called tomorrow and pretended that nothing had transpired. That is how my birth family rolls. I always go along with the pretense thinking something is better than nothing, Something is better than nothing but the yo-yo does tend to numb one’s emotions. Compartmentalization comes in handy.
I wondered if I had any feelings left. I wondered if I would receive the news of his death with a shrug of the shoulders, he is quite elderly after all. I wondered if I would be sad or just relieved that the game was over.
I know now.
My first reaction was, “Huh. Interesting. I have not heard that voice in a while.”
I did pray for my dad and I prayed for those who he still loves/loved. I sent a relative a note asking to let me know if she heard anything.
My sister told her son that he was not to tell me if she died. I am fairly certain she will not tell me when either of our parents died.
I will keep googling obituaries.
Roy, one of my sons, was in the kitchen making breakfast. He greeted me and asked me how I was doing. I told him about the voice and in the telling my voice became shaky with emotion I was unaware of.
Thirty minutes later, driving to Salon District for Laura Valles to cut and color my hair purple and blue, the tears started flowing and I cried. I cried and sang an old gospel song, “Because He Lives.”
The “He” in the title refers to Jesus and it goes on to say that because (Jesus) lives, “I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone.” It is a song about the confidence the Christian faith tradition offers in an eternal future. A future free of sorrow, pain, and fear. A future, regardless of life’s circumstances, has a beautiful ending.
That faith tradition of hope is foundational in my life and my art. I endeavor to make beautiful art that honors and acknowledges the harsh reality of the journey. Beautiful paintings that do not dismiss the hurt, the loss, the pain.
It is a lot to ask of substrate and pigment. It is a lot to ask of the viewer. It is a lot to ask of myself, but I ask it.
I wrestle with the paintings until the beauty of hope makes itself present. (Wrestling is also part of the tradition.)
My father might or might not be alive.
Eventually, I will find out.
Eventually, he will die.
Eventually, I will process emotions that have handily been tucked away.
And eventually, the ending roll the unnecessary pain of the journey into the big picture and beauty will win.
Peace out. Gwen