By Deidre Reed
It’s Father’s Day, the first one since my dad passed six months ago. Tomorrow is my birthday. We’re in church, my mom and me.
I lit a candle for my dad, but by the time we got to the last row where my mom’s wheelchair fits, it had blown out. Being full of magical thinking and even more full of guilt, I spent a good while staring it down, willing it to spontaneously light up again. Certain the dud wick meant that my dad was still pissed at me from The Big Upstairs. Maybe I’m still a little pissed at him, too.
Halfway through the sermon, the family to our right – all five of them – doubled over with the giggles. That has to be one of the greatest feelings ever, when you get the giggles in church and just. cannot. stop. I nudged my mom and whispered that it reminded me of that Christmas Eve service, remember? Where we’d sat behind that lady with one roller left in her hair, right smack in the back of her head? We’d taken turns pretending to pluck it out in slow-motion while stifling snorts.
If you’ve ever known someone with dementia, you know that weird things can set off barking laughter, and that did it. But when my mom laughs now, it turns into something that sounds like she’s wailing and choking and possibly dying. It echoes, people sometimes shift and look away.
Even two years in, I’m not used to parenting my mother, or anyone. So when the wailing got worse, I froze. It took another painful howl and a couple of smiling glances before I realized that the thing to do was to take my mom to the glassed-in baby room. Where there’s sometimes a lounging dog or three.
Cindy was sprawled on the couch there, she’s an A-list nutter in a town chock full of them. Rumor has it that back in the day she spent too much time up the canyon with Timothy Leary. And this is what she did: she rubbed my mom’s head and shushed her.
This woman wearing a dirty wig of white dreads and a pair of Oakley’s, swaddled in layers of legwarmers and bracelets and about every other item of clothing known to man took her schizophrenia and put it on hold. I don’t know how things like that happen.
I don’t know why, when that final hymn began, the one where we all hold hands, Cindy scooted forward and held out her hands to us, lowering her Oakley’s and tilting her head at me. Cindy, for whom eye contact can unleash a tirade.
I sometimes can’t reconcile that though I was raised to be on my best behavior at church, with my mom being the organist, I can now just be myself. I can? Ok, let me think. Who is myself?
My mom is not her old self, but this new self who doesn’t get embarrassed about anything, who no longer cares what the neighbors or anyone else thinks. Who will sometimes pee when I lift her from the car. Who will forget my birthday tomorrow and refuse to talk once she’s been given a milkshake.
Oprah, or her editorial staff, seem to know a lot of things for sure. I used to really like that back-page column. Plucky and easy to wrap your head around: The One Thing I Know For Sure. And yet. A new one every month.
Then again, I used to think I knew a lot of things for sure. My list is much, much shorter now:
If you think it’s Thursday, check again, it might still be Wednesday.
In a pinch, you can blow your nose in your sock.
Always bring a sweater to a movie theater.
Don’t run from bees.
Don’t kick the police.
These are truths I know from experience. From being the gleaming-eyed daughter big on trial, age be damned. And I know – for sure – that we’re lucky we ended up in the baby room with Cindy.
I’d like to think that my Dad, looking down, finally has his ‘good answer’ to the insistent question he posed to me while visiting almost a year ago. ‘What is it that you get from this church, spiritually?’ It wasn’t so much the dig I’d interpreted it as at the time, as it was his way of digging to make sure I was thinking about the important stuff.
Staunchly analytical, even half-ravaged by pancreatic cancer and secretly seeking health remedies from shamans, he needed to know that I would continue to seek out my own truths, create my own future in the looming absence of any parental guidance. Because I would have to.
We get real life magic, Dad. Human, messy, barking-out-loud and being yourself magic. Even from back in the baby room. It feels good enough to light up every candle in the place. Yours first.
Deidre Reed is an advertising copywriter who lives in Laguna Beach. She races cars for fun (just like her dad) and is no longer allowed to play tennis with the local park district because of the flying f-bombs. Otherwise, she is quite professional.
Beautiful essay. Nice tribute to them both, and Happy Birthday!