Mar 02 2018

Pushing Up Daisies

Published by at 1:00 pm under Writing

I just finished taking two writing classes at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which offers courses for retired people under the auspices of UC Berkeley). One class was in memoir, and the other in children’s picture books. Here’s something I wrote for the former. The assignment was to describe a setting. Here ’tis:

With wood-paneled walls a dark shade of honey, the bedroom was just big enough for a couple of bureaus and the queen-sized bed that Mom and Dad still shared. Around the perimeter, about a foot below the ceiling, Dad had rigged a narrow wooden shelf running along three of the four walls. It held a row of thick hardbound books: his “trophies.” He had never been a big pleasure-reader, but now that he had so much free time, his shelf had started to sprout with works ranging from Charles Dickens to Patrick O’Brien to Stephen King. Next to the novels came a stretch of black plastic VHS cases with white labels on which Dad had, in his careful block print, headlined the contents: mostly children’s movies and reruns of I Dream of Jeannie. Lying on its weathered side, a textured black leather notebook held a catalog of all the videos, each annotated with date, duration, cast, and any other vital information. And at the very end of the shelf, in the corner above the door, slumped a deteriorating green-faded-to-yellow beanbag frog named Deedeewuz, beloved apparently since Dad’s childhood.

It was September 2003 and I had flown back East to spend a week with my parents in West Virginia. Their house perched on a hilltop two-and-a-half miles back from the nearest paved road. Mom greeted me in the kitchen, where she was just starting to cook dinner. I put my bags down and made my way to my parents’ room. Dad was propped up on two white pillows, with a sweating glass of pinot grigio resting on his thigh. The early evening autumn light slanted across the bed, up and over his raised knees. The resident mockingbird took its cue from the setting sun and chirruped its ever-varying string of tunes.

Straight ahead and a little to the right of the bed, there was a TV, usually turned off, suspended by thick gold-colored chains from the white-painted, knotty pine ceiling. Beneath, there hung an oil painting by Dad’s mother, of a chicken pecking in the dry dirt in front of a henhouse in the woods. And on the bureau below lay the things that had once been in Dad’s pockets before his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease three months before: the pliers and the Swiss army knife, the loose change, the comb and the calendar, no longer needed.

Behind the headboard, a rectangular window framed the mountain vista that had called Dad to build on this spot thirty years before. Now he couldn’t even raise himself up see the view. A sliding glass door off to the right was his only glimpse of the world beyond: dense woods, with shagbark hickory, dogwood, white pine, black walnut.

It was as if, for my father, there were two worlds. There was the immediate and tangible environment of this room and what he could see from it, and then the world beyond, which now existed only in his memory. Even the deck off the living room only twenty feet away, with its panoramic views of endlessly unfolding blue and purple ridges, was no longer within his range of vision. Imprisoned in that small, unremarkable room, he endured the indignity of the rapidly wasting disease: a fallen giant who had a hard time swallowing but no problem smiling.

One of Dad’s favorite things to do had been to explore his beloved farm on foot. He knew every inch of the rocky, barely arable land: remote hollows and limestone caves and steep ridges. And so, each morning of my visit, I would head out, digital camera in hand, and hike to what I knew were Dad’s favorite places in that thousand-acre wilderness. Each afternoon, I’d climb onto the bed and show the pictures to Dad on my laptop. “Where’s this?” I’d challenge him. Every time, no matter how obscure the locale, he knew the answer.

The visit came to a close too quickly. In the last minutes, I went to sit on his bed. I told him I wanted to come back and see him again. “Absolutely not. I don’t want you to remember me like this.” I pleaded, but he held firm. “If you respect me, you’ll do what I say and not come back.”

What’s the last thing a person should say to one’s father? “I’m so sorry you have to go through this,” I said. Did I tell him I loved him? I don’t remember.

“You know, I wish I was just pushing up daisies,” he said.

“And I wish I could help you. I wish I could put a pillow over your head and put you out of your misery.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

My ride to the airport, Old Man Jackie, appeared at the door of the bedroom. “It’s time to go,” Jackie said. I leaned over and flopped down next to Dad, burrowing my face into his neck, feeling his solidness and warmth: his life. I inhaled deeply.

I nuzzled Dad’s cheek for what I knew would be the last time. “Make me another promise,” Dad said. “Be sure you get your mother to keep up the scrapbooks.”

I stood up and walked to the doorway. I turned around. “Goodbye, Daddy.” I hadn’t called him “Daddy” for years.

He smiled at me absently, and then looked away, out the window into the sun-shadowed forest.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Pushing Up Daisies”

  1. Syd says:

    Oh Ginna! This is lovely! I just read it out loud to Jesse, and it was all I could do to make it through without blubbering like a baby. You are such a keen observer, and beautiful writer. Your observations and daughterly offers are so you! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Ninna says:

    My Syd: Do you have any idea how much your kind comment means to me? I’ve reread it multiple times and I treasure it. I wasn’t sure I should post this vignette but now I’m glad I did, thanks to you.

  3. Molly says:

    Oh JOY! I couldn’t believe my bonny wee eyes when I saw that there was a new post from you.

    I still love this piece of writing. More, please.

  4. marianna says:

    your words leave me with no words.
    you have found your superpower: writing!
    my superpower is picking the slowest check-out line at the grocery store.
    i encourage you to indulge in yours!

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