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 Last Goodbye

Last Goodbye

I wanted to tell him before he left, now I may never get the chance. The thought kept replaying itself in my mind. So the trip had been to say goodbye to Dad, now ninety years old, and no longer in good health. Since my exit from that hell-hole of a town he lived in, I had allowed time and distance to erode our relationship. Slowly, age took away our means of communication — aches and pains made Dad turn away from typing or writing, hearing loss made phone conversations repetitious shouting matches, my job and kids took all my available free time. Before I knew it, months turned into years, and years into decades. Suddenly I realized we hadn’t seen each other for twenty years, and that at age ninety, he didn’t have the luxury of another couple of decades.

But sitting there, in his living room, looking at the crinkled old face, worn down by a lifetime of decisions, I wasn’t sure what to do. Instead, I could only manage, “Happy birthday dad.”

He glanced up from his paper and flashed me a brief smile.

I stood up and turned to face the door. I had every intention of making my exit, but instead walked over and knelt in front of him. He laid the paper down, looking at me with curiosity. I stared into his wizened gray eyes. “Dad,” I said with some urgency, “I am saying goodbye. I do not ever intend to come back here, except, perhaps, to bury you.”

His expression blurred before my eyes, moving between surprise and consternation. After all, it had been my idea to come back, perhaps my statement had taken him off guard.

But instead, his hand touched my forearm as his gaze bore into me. “I understand,” he said without further explanation.

Tact was never a valued commodity in my family, nor was sincerity or nostalgia, so my response felt tepid and somewhat unnatural. “I love you dad.  I just wanted you to know.”

A tear formed in the corner of his eye, “I understand,” he repeated with a small nod.

He sat quietly staring straight ahead, but when I moved to step away, he motioned for me to help him up. Slowly he rose off the sofa until we stood facing each other. What now? My mind spun in circles, but ultimately I pulled his bony shoulders to mine and hugged him.

He raised his hand to my face, “Take care of yourself.” The gentle admonishment washed over me as I let go. But as I turned, his hand caught my shoulder and I looked at him. His eyes stared into mine, as he gently squeezed my shoulder. Suddenly a smile crossed his features, “I’ve had a great life.”  Slowly, he drifted back into his chair, the ghost of a smile still on his face.

Tears appeared in my eyes, as I tried to reply but could not. I turned away, and walked out the door. Looking skyward, the sun bathed my face in warmth. My heart thumped in my chest. Closing my eyes I whispered, “Goodbye dad.”