In memoriam

My father died after a long hospitalization. He was 91, and up until the end of 2013, had led an active, independent life, enjoying the fruits of retirement after a 30+ year stint in the US Army.

To say that he will be missed is an understatement, particularly for me. When Mom died (in 1975), he, along with my step-mother Carolyn, took over the chore of raising and guiding me through adolescence.

I was an unexpected challenge. When I was born, the youngest of four kids, he was already old, at 41. In fact, I’ve never seen him without gray hair.

He was not a perfect man, and he knew it. Sometimes he could be painfully blunt, and completely tactless, but he always meant what he said, and said what he meant. For example, I once asked him why he and mom decided to have me so late in life. His answer: “You were a mistake, son. A slipped diaphragm.” I quickly learned only to ask questions for which I truly wanted an honest answer.

Usually stoic, and unperturbed, I only saw Dad cry once in my life, and that was when he came to tell me that Mom had died. I remember wrapping my 11 year old body around him; he was my anchor against the storm of emotions that rippled through me.

Yet, for years I resented that fact that he wasn’t what I expected in a father. It took awhile, but I finally realized he wasn’t going to change and that I needed to get over myself. After that, I began to appreciate him for who he was.

He was a storyteller, with a fine voice for spinning a yarn, providing enough detail to keep you enthralled, but with a sufficient lack of clarity to make you wonder how much of what he said was completely accurate. Not that it mattered, he was always entertaining.

Being a true Miller, he had a high boiling point, and was very slow to anger, but when he did blow a fuse, he could be frightening.

As a father, he tended to be stand-offish, delegating parenting to my mother. I’m not sure if he meant for it to be that way, but with his poor hearing, engaging in conversation sometimes left both parties confused as to what was said, and why.

For most my childhood, he was a silent enigma, working all day, every work day, and smoking his pipe and tinkering all weekend. He was also the disciplinarian, not because he had rules and expected us to follow them, but because that was what my mom required of him. So it was that when he came home, one of his first chores was to beat his children for all the crimes they had committed (real or imagined) that my mom had meticulously documented during the day. His approach was very matter-of-fact, and usually punctuated with an attitude of “let’s get this over with.” Even so, I came to fear him, and cringe every time I heard his car come up the driveway.

He had little use for religion, no doubt influenced by watching the KKK have rallies on the steps of the Baptist churches in St. Albans. The irony in this is that, in the Army, he was considered a Baptist, but only because he had to pick a denomination, and Baptist was at the top of the list. Overall, he cared little for church, though he did tolerate it, when he had to. In the absence of spirituality, he cultivated a philosophy based on pragmatism and interest. If something had no tangible use, nor held his interest, he simply didn’t think about or worry with it.

One interest he had was sailing. He loved being on the water, though not necessarily in the water as he had almost no interest in swimming. But, plying the water with a sailboat was a true love. He was never happier than sitting at the rudder, listening (I would presume if he wore his hearing aids) to the wind rippling through the sails. I always wondered how this hillbilly son of West Virginia ended up with a love of sailing. It never quite made sense to me, but it didn’t have to, it made sense to Dad.

His opinions were solidly formed, and for the most part unchanging, but Dad never felt so chained to a moral hitching post, that, if circumstances dictated, he couldn’t break away from it.

He was a veteran, but a quiet one. Sometimes I could weasel a story out of him based on his experiences, but more often than not, he simply couldn’t or wouldn’t remember. I know he had seen things that bothered him, and dredging up the past, particularly as he got older, did not interest him even for sentimental reasons. He once hinted at the difficulty of leaving experiences behind, how when he came back from Europe after WWII, all he wanted to do was sit on a mountain with a rifle and be left alone.

He was a self-admitted hillbilly, an ex-patriot of West Virginia, and he loved the mountain state. He often visited his sister Lillian and brother George in St. Albans. But when they passed away, he lost interest in traveling.

When I moved away to live my own life, I tried to stay in touch, but time and the elements worked against us. Family and work demands left me no time or money to travel. Dad’s hands curled, making writing and typing too much of a chore, and his hearing, always bad, got worse, and his refusal to consistently wear or use a complete set of hearing aids, made for tiresome shouting over the phone. He’d occasionally write, usually on an index card, or scribbled onto a newspaper clipping, about something that caught his eye. He also sent cards in celebration of Wyatt Earp’s birthday. Why? Who knows…?

During our years apart, he remained healthy and active. But old age catches up with everyone, and my father was no exception. He collapsed Dec 31 and went to the hospital. Had the Thrombocytopenia been the only problem he had to deal with, he might have recovered, but he also contracted MRSA and a skin fungus which caused him severe pain, and ultimately made surgery impossible. Even so, the fact remains, he was 91, and, as it was, the margin of error for health related issues was extremely limited.

When it became obvious he was not going home, he decided (being the pragmatist that he was) to “check out.” I got to visit him one last time before he went; he looked at me and said “I love you.” He also winked at me just before I left, as if to say, “You’ll be fine, sport.”
So now he is gone, and despite the long lead up to his passing, the loss still hurts terribly. But maybe that is as it should be, as hinted at by none other than Nanny McPhee:

There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.


Water ripplesPrelude

My wife and I both work, and have raised two daughters. This may not sound particularly noteworthy, except that my daughters are as different as the sun and moon. My oldest is mentally and physically challenged, which requires constant attention and monitoring. Since my wife’s job demands leave very little leeway or flexibility for time off, it fell to me to handle this chore. I did so without question or complaint – just as I had been raised to treat every obligation and requirement. So, every day I woke, washed, dressed and fed my oldest, cleansed her messes and did what was expected of a parent and primary care provider. When our youngest was born, we happily found her to be fully capable, but even so, because of her age I inherited additional burdens, which I – at least in theory anyway – thought I could handle. But just when you have life figured out, and set your eyes firmly on the horizon, things change. In my case, the storm clouds gathered quickly.

 Act I – The Rain Falls

Exhausted from my usual morning routine, I entered my office and immediately saw the note saying “staff meeting at 9am.” A few minutes of foolish hope passed until the appointed hour. I sat in the staff meeting, staring at the faux-wood tabletop, quietly hoping and passively willing that the rumors weren’t true. But alas, our funding had been cut. Starting next week we would go to sixty percent pay and time. That night, as I attempted to gain a few hours rest, the curtain went up.

Water stretched in every direction, disappearing into a gray haze, and lapped at the eaves of the house. I sat upon the peak of the first floor roof, my arms hooked around my daughters. Slowly, inexorably, the water crept up, submerging the first floor completely. I dragged the children up onto the second story. For the youngest, this was easy; she was young, small and fully capable. But for my oldest, in her twenties, her infirmities made doing so a challenge in terms of size, compliance and cognition. Yet, I managed to do it, only to watch as the water reached the second story, and crawl closer. As the water reached us, I clutched my ears, a painful buzzing echoing in them.

I woke, sweating and breathing hard, my heart racing to the beep-beep of my alarm clock. With dull movements, I fought to clear my head of the cobwebs of sleep, and make sense of my dream, but a sudden rush of reality swept in and hammered away those thoughts replacing them with a checklist of duties and chores to perform.

The loss of pay necessitated painful cuts in our accustomed lifestyle, yet the changes resulted in more free-time, though much of it taken by chores, looking for work, and transitioning to work at home.

 Act II – The Water Rises

Another staff meeting. Unsurprisingly, the axe fell. No funding – no work – no company. After mid-March everyone will be let go, and the office will close by end of May. Despite this news, I get offered the opportunity to help close the office, for which I will be paid on an hourly basis. As the whole IT department, I now get to purge the company of the assets I labored to acquire and maintain for the last few years.

For a time, my unwanted mental stage play stayed away, but it lurked behind the curtains waiting for the second act. So inevitably, the curtain rose again.

 We scrambled up as far onto the peak as we could, yet the water continued its inexorable march, until lapping against our feet. Though I could feel it touch my skin, it had no sensation, being neither warm nor cold. The girls did not cry as it lapped at their ankles. I pulled them to the chimney, the only part of the house still visible. Once the water reached my chest, I used my feet to gain a foothold on the brick sides. When it reached my chin, I slipped, my face plunging under the dark water.

With a gasp I popped up, the alarm resounding in my head, my lungs sucking in gobs of air. Brushing the sweat off my forehead, I swing my feet onto the floor. Though thankful to be awake, I shivered with uncertainty.

Colleen’s case manager called; a group home spot had opened up. Would I be interested? I hesitated, and scheduled a visit on my free time, but by the time I did, the spot had been filled. Despite this, the case manager assured me she’d call if another opening became available.

 Act III – Sink or Swim

Furniture and other assets disappear, some discarded, donated, or picked over by those with money, jobs, and a future. The list shortens as the deadline approaches; the nearly empty office now echoes with silence. Staff slip out the door, leaving their keys behind, the click of the door lock their only goodbye.

 Water reached my chin, as I stood on the top of the chimney. All evidence of the house now lay beneath the surface. The girls hung listlessly from my arms as I kept their heads up, but still the water rose. I tipped my head back, catching breaths when I could, but soon, I was treading water. As I did so, the girls began taking in water; I kicked harder, but my legs grew tired. I lifted one child, then the other, until the pain numbed my limbs and my breath grew short. Anne began to cry, but this stopped quickly when she took in a mouthful of water.

 The rational part of my mind spoke up, telling me I had to choose – one or the other – as there was no way to survive together. I mulled the unpleasant options. As I looked into Colleen’s big beautiful blue eyes, full of unconditional love and trust, I slipped my arm from under her – her eyes widened, and with pursed lips she muttered, “papa” and slipped beneath the water. My heart thudded, every beat sending waves of pain through my limbs. Closing my tear filled eyes to shut out the reality of what I have done, I grab hold of Anne, and kick harder. She wraps her little arms around my neck, as I nearly choke on the decision I’d made.

I lay awake – out of breath – drenched in sweat, my body aching as if I’d run a marathon. With leaden limbs I rolled upright, only to be startled by the alarm going off. I slapped it off, wishing I could do the same with my dreams.

Act IV — Endings

The end of May came sooner than expected. My ex-boss left his now empty office, and I am the only one left. I gather the last box of items and stand at the door. The bare white walls and dark blue carpet stare back at me. With some measure of regret, and relief, I flick off the light switch and step out the door. It snaps shut with a click, locked. Goodbye.

The case manager called, an opening came available at a group home in our county. Did I want it? Yes, I said, immediately. The transition took some time, but within a few months Colleen is gone. No, not gone. She has reached higher ground, as have I, and Anne too.

Now I sleep untroubled by the dream. The water has fallen, gone back into the shadows of fear from whence it came.

The curtain is down and the play is over.

The Legend of the Toy Monster

My daughter Rachel has more toys than she knows what to do with. For the longest time, my wife and I picked up after her. However, we eventually expected her to pick them up herself. At first, she tried, but it became easier to kick toys under the bed, into the closet, or pile them up unceremoniously in corners of her bedroom.

One day I pulled her aside. “Honey, you need to keep your toys off the floor.”

“I don’t want to,” Rachel whined. “It’s too hard.”

“You must,” I replied, my voice a low growl, “or else . . ..”

Rachel pursed her lips. “Or else what?”

I scratched my head. “Uh, or you will lose them.”

Eyes wide and her lips quivering she asked, “Are you going to take them away?”

I stared past her when an idea sprang into my fevered mind. A notion so horrible and twisted, I had to use it. “No, but the toy monster might get them.”

Her mouth dropped open. “The what?”

“Oh yes,” I replied. “The toy monster loves messy toy-filled bedrooms. They attract him like raw meat attracts lions. He will start small, eating one or two a night, until they are all gone. Of course by then, he might decide he’s had enough of toys . . ..”

“And eat my clothes?” she asked trembling.

“That,” I smiled crookedly, “Or what wears them.” Muhahahahah.

Shrieks followed me out the door as I smugly walked downstairs to finish the paper. But even the threat of nocturnal doll munching couldn’t convince Rachel to keep her room tidy. Finally, after removing sharp, nearly microscopic doll shoes from the soles of my bare feet, I decided to release the beast.

“Dad, did you see my Holiday Barbie? I left her next to my dresser.”

I’m going to hell for this. Oh well. “Sorry honey, I haven’t seen her. How long was she lying on the floor?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe two days.”

Shaking my head, I said, “Just as I feared.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember when I told you about the toy monster?”

“You mean he . . ..”

“Yup, after two days he figures you won’t notice, so he eats it.”

“That was my favorite dolly!”

“Well, next time you should keep your toys off the floor.” Sniffles followed. Oh, I am a bad parent. Muhahahaha.

Even the loss of a favorite toy did not change her behavior, so as the days followed, more toys disappeared, until finally . . ..

“DADDY,” came the unearthly howl.

“Yes dear,” I said as I appeared in Rachel’s doorway.

She stood in the center of the bedroom, hands in her hair. “MY TOYS! THEY ARE ALL GONE!”

Sure enough, the room had been surgically scrubbed of toys.

“Uh oh,” I replied. “He’s eaten everything that means . . ..”

Face the picture of terror, she stared at me. “HE’S GOING TO EAT ME!”

“Not necessarily, there is something we can do.”

Hope painted her face. “What?”

“The toy monster hates being read to; it makes him sick.”

“Oh, I’ve got lots of books.”

Yes, and most of them covered in dust from lack of use. “Okay, read a book out loud each night, and he should stay away.”

Her shoulders slumped. “But reading is so hard,” Rachel said.

“I can help you, but you will need to do some of it yourself.”

“Ooooooohkaaaaaay,” she groused.

So for the next few weeks, she read her books, and most of her toys reappeared. Found, I said, outside her door in a gooey pile. It seems reading stories aloud made the toy monster so sick he spit up the toys, and now they were (after being cleaned, courtesy of her loving father) suitable for her to take back.

A few weeks later, I was putting Rachel to bed. “Daddy, is the toy monster real?”

“What do you think?”

She fixed me with a serious stare. “No. The other kids said there’s no such thing.”

Oh well. I suppressed a bemused grin as I nodded, but when I turned to go, something stuck to my foot. “Rachel?”

“Yes, Daddy?”

“Did you ever hear of the dirty underwear monster?”