Saving Grace - A Story of Adoption has about 20 chapters written--about 1/3 done, not edited yet, but written. I had shared an excerpt which was originally going to be the first chapter - but as the story developed, it seemed more fitting as the ending, and I wished to further flesh it out--in closure. So it turned into two new chapters to conclude the story. There is a new first chapter which I will share another day.
Second to Last Chapter
The veil between this world and the next is a thin one they say. I don't consciously think of it all the time but there are moments when all is falling apart around me, tears getting the best of me and my mind goes upwards. In those moments, I wonder if Mom, Big Bro and my old black lab Barkley are looking down on me. In those moments, the veil is rendered with one cutting edge of a scalpel, a clean bloodless cut, as if the blade severed not flesh, but a sob, restoring to this small place, this moment, to peace.
Sometimes it takes a while after a loss to get to that quiet spot. For it is not just the battlefield that has to be conquered but the silence that remains when the field is cleared--that silence in which the person left alone has time to remember and in that mute aftermath, make the decision to move forward, knowing their only guide may be a heavenly one.
I'd like to think that it's that heavenly presence watching from above that restores me, not the thought of a long hot bath when I get home, or the Midol kicking in. On such occasions I say a quiet prayer of thanks, and hope that Mom didn't see what mayhem erupted when I attempted to make her cereal/pretzel/nut party mix recipe in a 70 year old gas oven after three glasses of wine.
We tried to behave, for we learned early that the punishment was often swift and appropriate, none of this "oh, you're having a tantrum, let me buy you that toy" that seems to pass for parenting today for too many people.But we were kids. I still recall the story where Big Bro, three years or so old, dropped dirt in the open can of paint for the new house, as he apparently didn't like the original color, preferring brown. And if you open the bathroom drawer at Dad's you can still see the swirls of Mom's red lipstick where I decided to do a little "drawing". Still, in our adventures and misadventures, he was my best friend.
I remember evenings in a 1960's kitchen, Mom washing the dishes as Big Bro brings that last platter in from the dining room. Dad is having a cup of coffee after dinner, then he will make sure the knives are sharpened and put away, the dishes dried. Dinner was steelhead trout, caught with Dad's own hands, there in a tireless morning of gossamer threads and mist.
There is much talking, the sound a steady hum, interspersed with the metallic clink of utensils together, like small machinery working away. Outside it is dark; there is a war ongoing somewhere, there is crime, there is evil. It's all out there somewhere, as is the darkness, pressing against the house, like water does a dam, not with obvious movement, just that steady pressure that is the desire to break through. But inside, as children, we do not sense it, for us, there is only the light that seeps outward through the cracks between the curtains, so much of it here, it can be shared with the darkness.
I remember all the Sundays we went to Church, even those earliest memories of Service on Easter Sunday. I'm sitting as still and as tall as I can, but I can only see the backs of heads. When I was really little, Mom would give me a tiny little bag of cheerios, so if I got hungry and fidgety I could eat a few, one at a time. My feet hurt and my new dress itches but I know mostly to behave, acting up only earning a brisk march outside for a swat on the bottom, as even Jesus looked down from the wall in the vestibule with an expression that said "you shouldn't lob a Cheerio at your brother".
I didn't much like the early hour or wearing a dress on those Easter Sundays. But even to a child, there was something magical about the music, the organ straining with the sonorous tone of a parent, while the choir, voices freed from parental caution to play quietly, rose up in in a flurry of joy, heartfelt in their gathering volume, assuming the shapes of angels to my small form below. I'd actually sit still for that, as the their voices faded away into the still air, as clear and delicate as struck glass.
He didn't look at all scared.
But somehow the play always evolved into us being on the same side even if all we had to be the "bad guy" was the neighbor's cat or a menacing shrub. I took more than one "bullet" for my big brother, even if I could barely keep up with him on my little legs. More than one knee was bloodied in my battle to save him. the scabs a Bactine infused mark of my sacrifice.
But it's hard for kids as they grow up, to keep the cohesion we had living in the same house. We are bound together by family, but often scattered by distance, dealing with our own tragedies, things much worse than a failed model contest, keeping it in and not saying much. But, as it is inevitable, we did grow up, he leaving for Submarine Service when I was still in school
"I don't want you to go" was all I could say, as I stood there in the fading light, sounding very small and alone.
When he got married I was there at his wedding near the Naval base in California, wearing a lime green bridesmaid dress with a tutleneck that I would not have worn for the Pope, The Queen of England or Marshall Dillon (though given how Miss Kitty dressed, Marshall Dillon would have liked it). But I wore it for him.
Though those early gun battles among siblings and friends were only child's play, they will be played out years later for many of us. For there will come times of fighting, of blood and prayer, of plunges into the deepest waters and ascents into unknown skies. Moments where we approach nearest of all to God, just as on Sunday we drew nearer to Him, there in the peace and the fury that is both the promise and end of all faith.
With my Big Bro no longer living under the same roof, but always looking out after me, we charged ahead, mindful only of our duty, to protect, to uphold, minds and hearts purged then of sins that lay behind, summed and absolved by the formal fury of a ministers intonation from the pulpit, moving forward, sacrificing ourselves as need be, so that somewhere, someone can live for a little while beneath the safe, warm exhalation of faith and trust.
Dad was welcome to live with any of us in the family, but he refused, not willing to leave that house in which he outlived two beloved wives and his first born daughter. I understand, I was raised in that house after they adopted both Big Bro and I, not to replace that child that they lost, but simply to find an outlet for the love they held so deeply.
The house hasn't changed much, fresh paint, new flowers. The marks of children raised here after they left Montana, a small playhouse out back, the marks on a door where we grew and grew. On the table in the dining room where he and my brother last held hands to say grace, a photo, of a pair of blue eyes in which his whole world achieved its value by the response he could draw from them. This was a woman who was completely necessary to him, and will remain so even as her actual presence is but the sheen of an old sewing machine forever stilled, the rose petals in her garden, long since gone to dust.
When I'd go home to visit, there would be a note for me. Some were notes for friends. He might mention the rain, or remind his country what is right, as if they could read, but each day was an affirmation that life was being lived, and hearts were being cared for. He never said anything about the cancer coming back in force, hiding the truth from Dad, though he couldn't from me. For he was dying and his days were dwindling. Still, each day, there was that smiley bull face and a little note, for whomever came to the door.
Though he denied there was anything wrong, I knew, and I went and took another visit, just to spend some time with him. There was little resemblance to the photos of the handsome redheaded man in the Naval Uniform. His once red hair was gone, the beard, the round rosy cheeks that I might have suggested would have made for a good Santa Claus if he didn't have dirt on me about the Arc Welder incident, were sunken. Only his eyes looked the same, those light blue orbs which neither the defeat of years or this battle could dim. Picturing his gaunt form as he slept, it was as if all if him were evaporating, muscle, flesh, like water vanishing, til little remained but those deep blue pools. But what remained still saw with what pride upholds when the body fails, a frail hand held up briefly as he drifts to sleep, a not forgotten flag above a ravaged citadel.
The last note was April 4, 2014. It was a Friday, his favorite day of the week as evidenced by all of these little notes. But this one contained another note at the bottom and another little smile, a message from his daughter, who he would not see again. He died without warning exactly two weeks later, collapsing in the driveway after bringing Dad's trash bins up from the curb. It was Good Friday. He had to be carried into the house, 100 pounds gone from his large frame, held up like a child, his feet remembering the earth, even as they no longer touched it.
As I desperately tried to get to the airport to get a flight West to see him, I physically felt him leave me. We'd been through foster care, adoption, the whole "mom caught us taking the TV apart", to an adult life spent serving our country, still as bonded as we were as small children, flung out to the wolves together before being saved. Minutes after I felt his leaving, a trembling in my chest like a released harp string, there and gone, the phone rang. It was Dad's next door neighbor and friend, letting me know he had passed, there in that minute I felt him. I could only lift one hand up from the steering wheel for a moment towards the sky, a toast in tears.
No regrets, no anger. From the very beginning we left it in His hands, one way or the other. That time comes for all of us where we cease to be, where "is" becomes "was", where those we love must weigh our empty body down under stone, as what we "are" is lifted up to Heaven. That wooden box that calls for all of us is too small to catch all of the memory of courage and love and so it spills out upon the ground to be gathered up like golden leaves. But that box is still big enough to be a shadow over what remains if we let it. As I looked at those little scrape of paper, to be gathered up and brought home from Dad's, I remember a man who refused to stand under that shadow, even as I struggled to feel him watching over me.
That last night there was a quiet one, preparing a meal for Dad, getting trounced at cribbage, then doing the dishes as he fell asleep watching football.
Outside, the darkness lapped at the house, but it is not truly dark, here on the river, a bright light bobs somewhere out on the water. It was more than a light for the river pilot, it was a beacon of safe harbor itself and all that remained to him of a difficult journey is the shortening space between that brilliant light and his own motion forward.
As I finished up the dishes, I kept my movements quiet, so Dad could sleep undisturbed. In his dreams, he is still a young man, setting up a home post WWII with Mom, his high school sweetheart. It was a town full of music and dreams and tall hills covered with ceaseless timber, the rain, not a grey blanket but a sound, a rising and swelling with the gusts of emotion, and passion that was worth waiting for. That place is still alive for him, threads of silken light unwinding from whirring spools, the sound of his children laughing in an old house near the water, in dreams of steelhead trout that never grow old, never tire.
We said our goodbyes the next day, never knowing if we'd see each other again, After landing back home, driving back with that little clipboard with the scraps of blue paper upon it, I finally felt my brother near me, over me, watching, a sailor never actually leaving his watch. It was a sad, but comforting feeling, and I talked to him as I drove, as if he could hear. I talked through the chartless latitude of my loss, and even in silence, he comforted, with a muted murmuring that was as comforting as the roar of an enduring sea.
From within my bag I draw out a small clipboard on which rests some scraps of blue paper. I hold it up as I get out of the vehicle, as an orchestra conductor holds up that slender baton that conveys within its weightless gleam all of the fierce fire and yearning and heartache that can be contained in one moment of history.
My husband takes it from me and holds me close, as the music starts