The call came on a Friday evening just before dinner. “It’s official. We’re engaged!” My son Will had raced home ahead of his beloved to spread a cloth over the bar, light a couple of candles, and open a bottle of champagne before she arrived from work. It wasn’t a surprise engagement—after all, she had helped him pick out the ring—but the timing of and setting for the occasion fell on him.
“We’re happy!” she called from the background. I was happy too, in the semi-sweet way that comes from knowing his devotion to her meant he was shifting it away from me. She’d be the go-to person now.
I like her. She’s an Aries like me, which means she’s hardheaded and ambitious. And she’s smart. Since high school, he’s wanted a girlfriend he could have real conversations with, and she can more than hold up her end of any discussion. He is my only son, and through the years, my love for him has been so strong it has overwhelmed me at times. Sharing him with another woman who would, rightfully, now be his Number One, would not be easy. But the wedding signaled the beginning of a new life for him, and as hard as I knew it would be, it was time for me to let him go.
We mark our days by either anticipation or recollection. In short, we look forward, and we look back. We use expectation to help us shape a day into what we want it to be. We use memory to make it so.
The one day that would define almost every moment of the rest of my life is a day I didn’t expect and a day I barely remember. Somehow, I think the two are connected.
Scenes from this day and the days before and after play through my head like old black and white home movies, but like those 35 mm versions of childhood that have corrupted with age or mildewed after too many years in a damp basement, my recollection jerks forward and backward, soundless and awkward.
The day was Friday, March 7, 1969, and I was 14 years old. My father was admitted to Randolph Hospital on Wednesday, March 5, for surgery on an ulcerated stomach. He was a smoker, and I remember my mother telling us that even from his hospital bed, he reached to the nightstand drawer for a cigarette. For the thousandth time, she urged him to stop, “Can’t you see what it’s doing to you?” I imagine her saying. “To the children?” He was a two-pack a day man, a habit acquired, as with many men of his generation, in the Army during the war. He was never without those Winstons in his front shirt pocket.
From there, my recollections cover a three-day period, and I’m not sure what I actually recall or what has been repeated so many times by others that it’s become legend.
On Wednesday night post-surgery, I think he had a heart attack, although he may have gone into kidney failure or contracted pneumonia. At any rate, something unexpected happened in his body.
My mother, sleeping restlessly if she was sleeping at all, was called to the hospital. He’d fallen into a coma, was not responding to medications, and the numbers on his machines were declining rapidly. My grandfather woke my sister and me Thursday morning and told us that before we headed to school, we were going to the hospital to see him.
Or it could have been Friday when he woke us. Maybe my mother came for us on that Thursday morning, or maybe when she headed to the hospital before dawn, we went with her. Or maybe his coma began the night before and she never came home at all.
What I am certain I remember is my grandfather, there by my bed when I opened my eyes. My older sister Ellen, sleepy and crying just a little—it’s possible that he urged her not to cry, for my sake—was dressing in her room across the hallway. I don’t remember if we ate breakfast.
This scene makes sense. My mother would not have left my father’s side. My grandmother, a nurse and a woman who gave orders and did not take them, would have sent my grandfather. “Bring them here, and then get them to school,” I can hear her saying. “They may as well be in class.”
My brother Edwin was a student at Clemson University in the spring of 1969. In some ways, I remember his story more than I remember my own, possibly because at that time, I worshipped him as though he were the hero in one of the novels I was devouring during those years.
My mother hadn’t told him about my father’s surgery because she didn’t want to complicate, even for a day, his fragile academic life. He’d flunked out after his first year, because he partied more than he studied. He sat out fall semester the next year, hauling equipment and running errands for a surveying company. My parents sent him back to school that spring with a laundry list of “you will or else” expectations, and he was struggling.
When he got the call that Thursday morning in his dorm room, he was shocked, surprised, and angry—an anger that would stay with him well into adulthood. He should have been told. He should have been there.
He threw a duffle bag of clothes together and hurried to the nearest highway to hitch a ride home. He was at the hospital by mid afternoon, by my mother’s side and my father’s bed. Already he had assumed the role of man of the house, a role he was not ready for and never did fully accept, though at certain moments, he gave it a valiant try.
If you knew my son Will when he was little, you might describe him as a mama’s boy. Like many mothers and their only children, we explored, we built, we read, and we played together. A squeeze of the hand—his or mine—meant, “I love you.” For years, he believed that whatever he needed, I could provide, whether it was help with homework, comfort after a nightmare, or a rescue from any danger at all, no matter how big or threatening.
After all, I shared my name with Barbara, patron saint of thunderstorms, a character we came to know when we visited the California city of the same name, and like Saint Barbara, I would protect him from everything. I knew I could, too, like a big Mama Bear so filled with love it empowers her with extraordinary ability.
Back then, I also told him and his friends that I once was a pirate. I regaled them with stories of my adventures with Blackbeard and Captain Jack Rackham. Their eyes were big as doubloons as I filled the boys with tales of the high seas.
But he grew up and realized that I was just an ordinary mom, that I was neither a saint nor a pirate and not even I could protect him from life’s hardest moments. Nor could I provide for him the lifelong partnership we all hope to find.
I have a clear recollection of standing by my father’s bed. Hooked up to machines that pumped and hissed, he was pale, his eyes closed, his skin cold when I touched his hand. Was I alone when I talked to his unresponsive body, or was the rest of my family there? I have the feeling I was alone, though it doesn’t seem likely. I remember telling him he needed to get well because I’d found a new pond for us to fish. During the years prior to his death, we’d take off on most Saturdays and some Sundays with our cane poles lashed to the side of the Chevrolet, and spend several hours sliding bloodworms onto hooks we’d toss in the water, getting eaten up by chiggers, and catching nothing. I loved it.
Of course, he didn’t answer. Uncertainty asks its own ridiculous questions, and mine in the days that followed were, “Doesn’t he care about me? If he did, he would want to fish that pond as much as I do. Doesn’t he like being with me on those Saturdays as much as I like being with him?” The answer, I told myself, was clearly no.
Ellen and I went on to school. By then, our teachers had learned that our father was critical, and they were to accept us back into class without question or tardy slip. Somehow, my classmates had gotten the word too. I remember walking into algebra—my teacher was Mrs. Craven, and she and my mother shared rides every week to Greensboro for graduate school courses—and the entire class hushed. I remember that for the rest of the day, nobody talked to me.
My husband, Bill, a journalist, was often off chasing a story or huddled over a computer in his office shaping the words on the page for the morning’s edition. That meant a growing Will and I continued spending time together—after school, in the evenings, throughout the summer. In a co-op garden, we grew sunflowers so high he had to sit on my shoulders to reach the petals. We learned to play cricket from consulting a library book. We curled together on his bed as I read aloud Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Misty of Chincoteague, and every Berenstain Bear book ever written.
I showed him how to thread a worm onto the end of a hook. We planted things in the yard, filling holes with fertilizer and peat. We built things together, fixed broken things, painted, dug, explored, just as I had learned to do as a child.
As he grew, instead of the towheaded boy and the easy years I expected, what I got was a brown-haired young man and a mother-son relationship as tangled as a web. Complex emotions were caught in that web—times when my anger overcame me and I lashed out or when his teenage rebellion and exploration disrupted any sense of order. But tender threads wove through it as well—long car rides together as the family transitioned from Kentucky to North Carolina, mother-scout campouts in cold tents, and, later, occasions such as the evening we spent together during his first semester in college when we devoured shrimp and grits in a restaurant tucked in a quiet Chapel Hill neighborhood, sharing struggles and dreams and missing each other in a new way.
I imagined a future with him of continued adventure. We’d repair houses, take on landscaping projects, travel over long weekends and summers. I wouldn’t bug him the way mothers of only children often do. He’d grow up to be an individual with his own values and interests. Still, I knew with certainty that our time together was shaping him into the man he would be, and I liked the man who began to emerge.
Friday, 4 a.m., and again my grandfather was shaking my shoulder. “Get up. You need to come to the hospital.” Again, my sister, snuffing up her soft tears, was dressing quickly. I don’t remember seeing my father that morning. We found my mother sitting in a chapel with our minister.
From there, I remember only snippets. It must have been 6 a.m. when we rode back to our house. I have a vague recollection of a house crowded with people, of food collecting in the kitchen. Edwin poured coffee for guests, tried to comfort me and Ellen with promises he ultimately couldn’t keep, helped my mother with funeral arrangements.
That’s it. I remember nothing else from Friday to the funeral on Sunday, and I don’t remember much of the funeral. I do remember that the First Methodist Church was packed, the balcony filled, and people standing along the back wall. My sister’s friends, the McCauley sisters, sat on the first row of the balcony. My Girl Scout troop squeezed together on the front pew of the sanctuary.
I remember the years I had with my living father also in small black and white home movies. I see him coming in the back door after work, sitting in a lawn chair in the un-air-conditioned summer evenings with Joe, our neighbor, and my uncle Tom, talking about the war or listening to American legion baseball. I see him standing outside the church in his gray suit, his hands clasped behind his back.
In a rare 3-D memory, I am standing behind him at the supper table, running my hands through his thin, soft hair, a cottony, mix of gray and light brown. He didn’t mind my playing with it, though it must have been annoying, especially because I did it so much.
I have come to understand that his being my father is not what mattered. It was his death. It was finishing junior high and high school without him. It was my mother, asking Mr. Atkins, the high school biology teacher, to help me learn to operate her high-powered station wagon. It was Mr. Atkins transporting my sister and me back to college when it was snowing and my mother was afraid to drive. It was sitting across the table with my college roommate’s father who’d come “just to see” his daughter, and he let me tag along.
It was years too difficult to remember. It was my own wedding to a man who shared my father’s first name. It was all the years that have followed when, through my writing, I have tried so hard to find my father, to bring him back.
It’s been 46 years since that vague Friday in March. Sure, the years have fogged my memory, but you’d think I’d have the whole thing etched across my brain. You’d think I’d remember it. I don’t. Maybe that’s what memory is—a shield, a protector. Maybe there’s a reason I remember only the brief snapshots that I do.
It was early spring, 1986. Our Somerset, Kentucky, home perched on the top of a hill that slanted towards our neighbor’s garage. My husband Bill, who was not a farmer at heart or in practice, agreed to till a square of yard so I could plant tomatoes, beans, acorn squash, and kale. I remember sitting on the back porch, facing the lush square of land that would be my garden, watching Bill in his overalls as he gripped the rented tiller, turning the ground over and over beneath the tines. Behind me, through the open back door, baby Will played with pots and pans he’d pulled from the lower cabinets.
I remember sun settling on the step next to me, warm, visible, and so embodied I could touch it. I did touch it. I reached out and held my father’s hand as he pressed his shoulder against mine. He was as I remembered him, thin hair spread across his bald head, clear, green eyes looking out at the garden where the other Bill sweated and worked. He wore the brown plaid shirt he always wore on Saturdays when we headed to fishing ponds in the country. Around his wrist was the leather-banded Timex watch I’ve kept in my nightstand drawer since 1969.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Together we looked toward the yard ahead of us, now and then our eyes casting backward to the baby banging pans behind us.
In a few minutes, as sun fell behind the side of the house, the body of warmth beside me lifted and was gone.
The sun emerged just after lunch on the chilly Monday afternoon of the wedding ceremony. We were in Edinburgh, Scotland, where my daughter-in-law had just finished graduate school. Will and his best man-father Bill looked handsome in their tartan cummerbunds. The women in their fascinators added a dash of royal pageantry to this American affair. The father of the bride and a cousin wore kilts, and a bagpiper played outside the Canongate Kirk.
The minister in his stunning red robe and with his Scottish accent recited 1 Corinthians 13, so familiar I could almost recite with him: “If I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal...” The bride’s sister approached the pulpit to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” Her voice was clear and confident. “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds... O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests, and is never shaken...”
When she finished, the organist played “Morning is Broken” at a fast clip that left us American singers breathless. The minister pronounced the couple husband and wife, and they kissed—something their friends had made them practice in a pub a couple of evenings earlier.
The afternoon before, the entire wedding party hiked to the top of a hill called Arthur’s Seat that looks out over all of Edinburgh. It was a steep and rocky ascent, and I stumbled more than once.
“You know I’m afraid of heights,” I said to Will near the end of the hike when he questioned my hesitation to climb all the way to the summit. As we began our descent, he left the side of his bride, and he took my hand and held it, guiding me down embankments until we reached level ground. At the bottom, when he was certain I was steady, he rejoined her. Where his hand had pressed into mine, I felt the imprint of another, a small one, gripping my own, something tangible, permanent, belonging to time, belonging to me.