LETTERS TO MARIE
My beloved Marie,
Let me tell you about my daddy, your great-grandpa. There are so many stories, happy ones and sad ones. But today, let me share this one with you, when I asked him to help me hang my huge mirror:
I hear my parent’s car and see my father pulling into the driveway. Finally, they are here!
I run out to meet them. It’s their first visit to my new home and I see the surprise in their face. Yes, this house is truly amazing. Landing an unexpected super-job with a generous salary allowed me to rent a house that stands in stark contrast to the 200-year-old family home of my parents.
Amazed, they keep looking at this lush neighborhood’s modern dwelling.
“Come in, come in, let me show you,” I hurry them on, dragging their weekend bag behind me. My father’s eyes widen as he enters the enormous living room. Blonde wooden floors stand in contrast to two walls of black, well-filled bookshelves. Sky-blue Italian leather chairs of outlandish design complement my black leather couch. I placed tall potted palms and a banana tree here and there to suggest a tropical feeling, which is enhanced today by sunlight streaming through large bay windows. My paintings adorn the few solid walls in between. I see my parents speechless.
We walk into the dining area and my father lets out a deep laugh, “Only you can combine this ultra-modern glass table with your grandma’s 100-year-old chairs. Now I understand why you picked them from our attic. I wasn’t sure what you’d be doing with these, but it looks fabulous.” I smile, hug him. My father was a furniture maker by trade and recognizes good design when he sees it. I am happy he likes what I’ve done with my new home, and glad that he wants to help me install the oversized mirror in my bedroom.
Mom came prepared too. She brought fresh ingredients from her garden to cook up a storm during this weekend. Walking into my sparkling white kitchen she gasps, “You are crazy. It looks fantastic but who’s gonna clean all this, every day, a white floor at that?”
“Don’t worry, I will. You know me.”
She nodded, “Do I know that.”
The two of us stand in stark contrast when it comes to cleaning house. She often lets things slide for the sake of reading or solving complicated math problems. I am the clean freak who wipes off any spot once I see it. We laugh, we hug. We accept each other as we are.
“Feel free to mess up my kitchen, I am sure the food will be delicious.”
With a grin I grab daddy by the arm and pull him into my bedroom. The huge mirror, custom-made, is laying on the carpet. With its wooden backing it’s super heavy and there’s no way I can install it by myself. That’s why daddy is here. Together, we’ll get this thing onto the wall, solidly fixed and perfectly straight.
“What’s your plan?” he asks. I explain that I want to use invisible fixings but need help to choose the right type and size. We discuss, measure, and–laughing–conclude we need to go to the hardware store. In truth, we both knew I could have bought the fixings beforehand myself. But we have shopped hardware together a thousand times since I was a little girl. Working together, sharing tools, fixing things, keeping our old family home in good order has been our weekend fun. I laid our garage floor when I was a wee bit over ten. My father taught me by laying the first two rows of brick stones onto the prepared, sandy underground, demonstrating how to level them and to set them straight. He then let me finish the bricklayer job. Together, we sanded and sealed it. Now, decades later, the floor is still intact.
“We’ll be back in a short while,” I stick my head into the kitchen where mom is already chopping her veggies. “Take your time, I know you two will get lost in the hardware store,” she laughs.
It’s not far and I chat away, telling dad about my new job. Glancing at him, I can see in his eyes that he’s proud of me. After a difficult time in the aftermath of Haiti’s violent revolution, I seem to have found new footing. At least for a while, until we can go back home to the tropics, whenever that may be.
I lock the car and wait for dad to walk up to me. He’s slow today, I find. Usually a fast walker, he lags behind. I slower my pace and then, see him trip. I grab his arm, “What was that?” I laugh. But get serious when I look into his face. He’s turned ashen.
“No, no, it’s nothing,” with a brush of his hand he sweeps away my question.
“No, it’s not nothing, you tripped, you walk slow, you were unsteady already at the house when you struggled to get up from measuring the mirror. What’s wrong?” I insist, looking at him.
He lowers his eyes. “It’s nothing.”
I feel like wanting to shake the truth out of him but knowing my father I’ll have to wait. If he doesn’t want to talk, he will not.
We keep walking towards the store. I observe his imbalance but don’t say anything. He knows I am watching him. At the entrance door he stops, turns to me. “Rupsack–he uses his pet name for me–if one of these days I drop dead, don’t be upset. I had a good life; I’ve done well, and you are doing visibly ok too. If I have to go, I am ready. Just take care of your mother.”
Tears shoot into my eyes. “Daddy?? What’s wrong with you? Why would you think you’d suddenly die?” I step aside to let other shoppers into the door, pulling him with me. “What’s wrong?”
“I keep tripping, losing my balance. My legs often hurt, they don’t want to obey, and I have painful cramps. I don’t know what it is. I saw a doctor, he cannot find the reason, but it doesn’t go away. I think it’s getting worse. I fear…” he left the rest hanging.
Speechless, I look at him. My strong dad, my hero, my solid rock. I don’t know what to say and want to hug him, but he turns away, walks into the store. Before we enter the aisle with the fixings he turns, “Don’t tell your mother, you hear. Not a word, I don’t want her to worry about me.” I nod, walk behind him in a daze. I can feel that this is not some little health hick-up. Since a long time, I haven’t seen him this serious, and this worried.
We find what we need, pay, walk slowly back to the car, and drive home. In silence.
“Ha, that was a quick trip. What happened? This time you didn’t buy half the store?” Mom greets us with a laugh. We pretend all is good and disappear in my bedroom to install the mirror.
I observe my father drilling holes into the concrete wall. My handyman is struggling but he wouldn’t say a word or ask for help. Stepping up to him, I tap on his shoulder. “Let me do some too.” Without objecting he hands me the drill and I finish the rest. Hanging the mirror into these fixings, though, is another story. My agile dad, who always lifts heavy loads despite his small frame, has to use all his concentration to fight his imbalance to help me lift the mirror. We struggle, we wiggle, we curse, but finally it hangs. Straight. And looks great.
Stepping back, we see each other in this huge mirror. The father-daughter handyman team, as always. But something has shifted. We hug. The two in the mirror hug too.
“Don’t worry, I will stand by you always, daddy.”
“I know,” he replies with a hoarse voice.
“Lunch is ready.”
“We are coming, mom.”
She cooked delicious food, but I have an aftertaste in my mouth. My thoughts are racing at a thousand miles an hour. Mom happily chats away during lunch and I make a plan.
“Mom and I will clean up. Why don’t you try out my new lounge chair on the terrace, daddy?” I point outside to my gorgeous terrace with a view to the lush, well-kept garden surrounded by tall fir and chestnut trees. The large windows seem to invite the garden into the house but it’s sunny and warm on the terrace. A beautiful spot to rest and listen to the host of birds living in the bushes. “There’s a variety of birds. You’ll enjoy them,” I cajole. He adores birds, knows all their names and identifies them by song. He obeys, walks out and stretches on the lounge chair.
I love open spaces, but now I close the bay window behind him.
Mom and I wash the dishes. From time to time I glance to the terrace. When I see that dad, who never naps, has dozed off I stop her in her tracks.
“Is dad ok?” I venture out.
“What happened? Did he trip?” she replies. We look at each other. She knows. I tell her what happened, including his remark that she’s not to be told.
“I know he has a problem. He tries to hide it but it’s obvious. He was at the doctor’s but thinks I don’t know. When I ask if he’s ok, he pretends all is well but when I walk with him…” she doesn’t continue. Both of us have tears in our eyes. We decide that things have to be put to the table to get him the help he needs. We hug tight to seal the deal.
“What’s going on?”
We didn’t hear him coming.
“You talked about me!”
He understood right away that his happy girls don’t cry because washing dishes is such a sad task. “Let’s sit down and make a plan,” I suggest and drag them to the table.
And so it began, Marie. The odyssey of countless doctor’s visits, tests, and hospital stays until finally a neurosurgeon spoke the verdict. ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. A long road to the cross. A painful road that led to my new life. But that, little Marie, is a story I’ll tell you in another letter.
I love you, always, my sweet grand-kiddo. Give a hug to those who are with you.