Father: a man who has begotten a child. Webster’s online dictionary, probably
I searched Wendy’s home for anything I’d like to bring to San Diego, and in my search I stumbled upon a small wooden box engraved “Angel,” the tiny little fluffy dog Wendy had rescued and fostered, her first one with the Humane Society. As she fostered more dogs, she had searched for a permanent home for her Angel; but, in fourteen years she never found a home that would love her Angel as much as she did, and Angel had died in her lap the year before. I opened the box and saw a tiny black velvet bag filled with Angel’s ashes and embroidered in eloquent gold thread with Wendy’s final thoughts of her Angel: “Until we meet at the Rainbow Bridge.” She had once told me that the Rainbow Bridge was a mythical place where humans and their pets reunite in the afterlife. In Angel’s box, Wendy had carefully placded two tiny purple and gold hair ribbons that Angel wore when they watched LSU football on television together. Wendy had priorities, and had recently mentioned that the 2019 drafts would make LSU a top ranked team that fall, and I knew she would have liked to watch them with her Angel again. I put the bag with Angel’s ashes beside Wendy’s and continued searching to take home.
I had packed hastily and only had a small, carry-on backpack full of clothes. I would leave the clothes if I found something worthwhile, or pack whatever I found in a larger bag or have it shipped. But, in Wendy’s jewelry bow I found something small that spoke to me and that I could carry it in my pocket, Granny’s gold retirement watch, a battery powered Seiko engraved by her employer. It was tiny, because Granny had also been petite, and the gold band would barely fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl. It was so small that the inscription had to be abbreviated. Instead of her full name, Joyce Hicks Rothdram, her employer had said: “To J. Rothdram, 25 yrs service. CoPolymer.”
She had been proud of that watch and her service at CoPolymer, a chemical plant adjacent to where Wendy worked at Exxon along chemical alley between the airport and Saint Francisville. I put it in my bag and glanced around again, and then I remembered the war medals near the photos in her office, but I didn’t smile at the war pun as I put them in my bag with Granny’s gold watch. I felt I had seured the things I most cherished from Wendy’s home. As Uncle Bob had told us near his end, you can’t take it with you. But, at least I’d try to take home Granny’s watch and my medals from Desert Storm that she had cherished, proud of her son; they, and my photo, had been on her desk at Exxon for almost 20 years.
I prepared for Wendy’s ceremony the next morning. I had scheduled it in time to catch flight home, back to the people I loved and who were still alive, and where I had a bed I felt I desperately needed and would have dreamed of, had I been sleeping well that week.
Three days before, I had unlocked Wendy’s phone and contacted her three closest friends and Mike, my former stepfather, and told them where I was holding her ceremony. Mike was fifteen years her senior, and had been LSU’s valedictorian some time in the 1970’s and an engineering manager at Exxon. He was a good man, and always had been. He quit Exxon when we all lived together, and became entrepreneurial as a real estate investor and designer of custom homes in West Feliciana Parish, near Saint Francisville and the bluffs along Thompson Creek. Wendy and I had learned a lot from him, and she loved Saint Francisville.
Mike’s Catholic family was so large that several parish phone books are filled half way with his family name, Richard, pronounced in the Cajun accent as Ree-Chard, and they included many Michael Richards, especially in the towns and parishes along the River Road communities between Saint Francisiville and New Orleans. Wendy had joked that the Richards had a family tree with branches like a giant stately oak, and that she and I were a family stick, a straight line of single parent after single parent rather than the dozens and dozens of cousins Mike had grown up with. But I lied, sort of, even to the retired volunteers who kept asking how he and I knew each other when he was helping us make small repairs on Wendy’s home before selling it. He wasn’t really my stepfather, because they had never married, but we had all lived together for a few years only lived together and had adopted the same word to avoid people prying too deeply, probably similar to how Wendy had felt when she told people I was her little brother. No matter what word I used, I know Wendy would have been happy to see him there. He had always been a good man in the thirty years I had known him.
I spoke with Mike for the first time in a long time as we repaired a few small things in Wendy’s home. He was happily married to another family when I left, and when I asked him what was different now he replied from a place of love so obviously truthful that I couldn’t help but feel happy for him. He said, without hesitating and with a joyful sparkle in his aging and wrinkled eyes, still wet with tears for Wendy’s loss: the love for his wife’s little girl that he had adopted long ago – he had loved for her and she had loved him, but people make mistakes or fall in love with a neighbor and her children and make changes – and he removed his phone and showed me photos of his daughter’s recent wedding and spoke of her few moments. I simultaneously felt happy for him, but I was sad and surprisingly jealous; I must still be part the little boy who had hoped for more. I listened silently, sad and simultaneous happy for him, and didn’t tell him what the little boy in me had felt. Some secrets are okay.
We all stood on the tallest bluffs of Thompson Creek, a meager 10 foot slope but remarkable in the otherwise flat areas marked by swamps and bayous draining into the nearby Mississippi River and near Wendy’s home. The slight elevation drop makes it a clear stream compared to the murky and slow moving waters of southern Louisiana. Mike and I helped each other walk down the slippery, muddy bank, both of us old men now and mindfully taking steps down what we had practically skipped down decades ago. He rested his hand on my shoulder as I knelt in the mud beside the water and slowly poured Wendy and Angel’s ashes into the clear stream, mindlessly mumbling to Mike something about “mud” being a Sufi word that combines you and I, and that Wendy and Angel would mix into mud, as she would have wanted. But I was crying so much he didn’t understand what I was saying.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and it’s water flows slowly. The ashes settled onto the smooth clay bottom and gradually began to break apart and drift towards the center of the stream, where water flows more quickly. We watched pieces of Wendy and Angel break away and mix into a muddy and meandering serpintine stream in the center of the creek and move towards Saint Francisville and its small port on the Mississippi, where they would join the world’s fourth largest river and drift past Baton Rouge and New Orleans and reach the Gulf of Mexico, and then pieces of them would mix with the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and eventually make their way all over the world. Wendy would finally travel with her Angel, and they would meet at the Rainbow Bridge and be together happily ever after.
Tears too thick to leave my eyes clogged my vision, and my body bent over and my chest clutched tightly and my asthma wheezed from the pollen of azeleas and pine trees and my body’s inflammation from lack of rest, and I gasped for breath as Mike gently held my shoulder and patiently waited for me to lift myself up from the mud. When I finally stood, we rested our hands on each others shoulders and silently watched the stream of Wendy and Angel a few more moments, then helped each other scramble back up the slippery slope and joined the others to say our final words. I dind’t know what to say, and I collapsed on my knees again and cried almost intelligibly between sobs and gasps for breath and asked, again and again, why Wendy hadn’t told me. “I tried!” I cried. “Honor thy mother and father,” I bawled. “How?” I asked. “Just be happy,” I replied, seeing the words spoken but not the speaker. I cried some things I don’t recall, and then it was time to leave.
Mike dropped me off at the Baton Rouge Airport, and as the plane left the runway I saw Granny’s house directly under the flight path. It was a small, 680 square foot house that was modest by almost anyone’s standards, but it had a large yard with majestic stately oak trees that both Wendy and I had climbed as children, and a small, murky stream where we had played and caught crawfish and minnows. Granny had been able to afford it in the 1960’s because of it’s undesirable location under the flight path and the loud jet engines that passed overhead. But, despite it’s location and size, she had been proud of it, like her watch, because she had earned it.
The plane continued to ascend and I saw my dad’s grandmother’s house a few block’s from Granny’s, and in my mind’s eye I saw the path between them that my parents met as teenagers and where my life began half a century before. In the distance, I saw the mighty Mississippi flowing by the Baton Rouge Centroplex and LSU’s Tiger Stadium, and my mind knew that Wendy and Angel were just now passing under the Mississippi Bridge connecting Baton Rouge to Plaquemine. I shuddered, and said goodbye again and closed my eyes and lowered my LSU baseball cap and allowed my tears to flow silently on the long flight home.
I arrived in San Diego and went straight home to my condo on Balboa Park, only two miles near the airport and in one of the most desirable places on Earth, and was greeted by an eight year old girl who jumped up and hugged me and told me she was sorry my mommy had died. She gave me a shiny gold keychain with a cute bootle opener built in that she had bought for me while I was gone, and I gave her Granny’s gold watch and showed her the engraving and told her that “J” stood for Joy, a slight lie because Granny went by Joyce, but it was how I felt at that moment and therefore true to me. She beamed and said it was beautiful and asked for my help in putting it on, and as I strapped the old gold watch around her tiny wrist I smiled and realized that Mike was right, and I was as happy for him as I was for myself at that moment.
As I had suspected, Granny’s watch fit her perfectly. She had never owned an analog watch, and though the battery had long since died I showed her how to set the time. I looked my Rolex, still set to San Diego’s time, and I rotated the dial on her watch until the hands showed 2:20pm and told another of Uncle Bob’s jokes, that even a broken watch is right twice a day. She didn’t understand the joke, but laughed with me and that was fine. I asked her what time it was, and she exclaimed, “Time to play!” and she was right, and we went outside and played in the park for a long while.
Later that evening, Cristi and I sat on our balcony overlooking Balboa Park, relaxing silently and appreciating the view across 3,800 acres of what we felt was our version of paradise, listening to palm leaves rustle and the subtle sound of Pacific ocean waves and the din of downtown traffic. “It really is America’s Finest City,” I said. “We’re lucky.”
She rested her hand on mine and remained silent. We said the same thing so often that it was more of a feeling shared between us than a comment leading to conversation. I finally felt like talking about the previous week, surprised that so much had happened and I had remembered so many things and gone through such strong waves of emotions in such a short time days. I told her a few things that had happened and that I was surprised about feeling jealousy for Mike’s happiness; I had thought the little boy inside of me was gone, but I was mistaken, and I wondered out loud how many other old memories lurked in the depths of my past, maybe even preventing me from appreciating the present as much as I could. But, for then, I avoided mentioning what I mumbled on the banks of Thompson Creek about “Honor thy mother and father” and “Just be happy.” I hadn’t processed that yet.
I didn’t want to speak prematurely. I’ve always taken a long time to understand things, and sometimes I spoke without thinking, especially when I was tired, and I rarely knew why I said what I said. But, those words had been echoing in my mind ever since I mumbled them, and how to honor my mother and father had been one of the first, and last, things Cristi and I had discussed about religion decades ago.
Almost 25 years ago, I had decided to never discuss religious beliefs with people, because by then I had seen so much death and had held the hand of so many people during their final breaths that I had learned, or come to believe, that beliefs and opinions rarely benefit anyone. And I believe that every word we see or hear lingers in our memories, even if only subconsciously, and that no one alive that I know knows what happens after we die. I’ve seen hundreds of people terrified by imenent death, or fear of the unknown or feel regret. All words resurface at some time, and I’ve never seen feelings of doubt, worry, or anxiety benefit anyone. The only words I try to offer are kind and what I know to be true.
Of all written words, I most adhere to the right to remain silent, a right protected by our constitution and eternalized in our Miranda Rights. If I had an opinion to share, it would be that I’d be happier if more people practiced their Miranda Rights; and if I I quoted a spiritual text, I would quip from Tao Te Ching: more words count less.
“I’d like to write that book,” I said.
For decades, close friends and family had encouraged me to share my family history, but I hadn’t, partially because so many other things seemed to demand my attention and partially out of respect for Wendy’s privacy.
I chuckled and said, “Wendy would laugh if I called it ‘A part in history’.” I smiled for a genuine, fleeting, blessed moment.
Cristi smiled and said I could talk about my small part in his story.
“I think it would help people,” she said. “You’d regret it if you didn’t try.”
She was probably right, but I was too exhausted to reply.
We stood up from our seats on the balcony and she held my hand and led us inside. We paused and looked at all that we loved and knew we were in our version of Heaven, here and now, and didn’t wish for anything more for ourselves. But we felt that when we first met, too.
“We’re lucky,” I mumbled.
My eyes were drooping and my breath was shallow and I collapsed one last time that week, depleted, like a wave that had crashed ashore, craving the proverbial day of rest. I fell asleep immediately and slept peacefully and arose the next morning and began writing a book, for posterity’s sake, and dedicated to my mother, with hope for peace.
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