how i found you

February 14, 2014, 1:07 pm
Filed under: myself

Three months before the terrible losing, I drove to Austin to deliver two large, potted plants of sprawling cherry tomatoes and spearmint for my stepfather’s 74th birthday. It was the spring of ’91 and he had continued to be a father, even though he was no longer embroiled with my mother. The ravages of depression had been a sorrowful companion for both of us and he had become a welcome assist in my clumsy attempts to weed delusion from the truth. In the fall of ’93 he would be found at rest on a pile of unopened mail shortly after his heart drowned.
        He had been diagnosed two years before with a swiftly advancing congestive heart failure. He had wept as he reveled his hard truth, and my sisters and I had wept as we clumsily folded and re-folded the checks he had passed to us before we slipped them in our purses.
    It was during this visit that he told us of his desire to have a bag piper play at his funeral. As he fleshed out his plan, I was catapulted back to the weirding age of ten when he took me to see a bagpipe troupe that was touring the country. They were going to be performing in the ancient UT gymnasium filled with wooden risers and smelling of heart pine and sweat. He had gotten tickets for the front row, center court, feet flat on the floor, prime. I know there was a front band, but I’m loath to remember who. As we settled back after the break, I heard a faint sound coming from far, far away behind the massive double doors at the end of the court. It was more of a vibration – one long, sonorous note that grew and grew and grew until the doors burst open and the Black Watch Pipers marched into the gymnasium, kilts flying, sporran swinging, their silver daggers flashing. When the long singular note blossomed into a swelling blaze of chords, I experienced a memory so deep, so distant and primal that every cell in my being sang and danced and held me utterly transfixed. I looked at my Dad and tears were streaming down his face. We sat paralyzed, saturated with sound, joined by a memory deeper and more real than any ten-year-old could know.
    His birthday was on such a languid spring day that as I drove through the familiar streets of Austin, I could feel the past slide in through the windows. When I stepped through their door, his wife greeted me and then quickly excused herself to see a friend so as to let us have some father-daughter time. I had arrived around noon and his first words after a hug and fussing with the plants to find the hottest spot on the patio were, “Let’s get some lunch. You hungry?” He was a large man and dangerously addicted to the comforts of the table.
    We passed through the kitchen door to the car parked in the attached garage. I slid into the passenger side, he the driver’s, and he playfully punched the remote to raise the garage door. As it rumbled and squealed open, he turned to me and said, “I’m so glad to see you.  You can’t know how much I miss seeing you.” I laughed and said, “I’m glad to see you, too. I really need to come up more often.” Then his voice strangely shifted, lowered, “I love you so much.” I felt a fear match start to strike across my chest. He suddenly leaned over and pressed his mouth on mine, my head trapped between his tongue and the headrest. Time began to bend and tilt in a nauseating way and I found I was clinging to the ceiling of the car watching. He pulled away and I heard myself stammer, “Uh well, I love you, too. You’ve always been there for me. You . . .” He said, “No, really, you don’t understand, I love you as a person.” He leaned over and kissed my clamped-shut mouth again. The car became muddy and dark and a sound like the parting of the red sea was roaring in my ears. He moved away, turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the garage brightly whistling the “Wabash Cannonball.” I stared unseeing straight ahead, my hand in a white-knuckle grip on the car door handle. Not in a million years could I wrap my head around what had just happened.
    That lunch became one of the most surreal hours of my life. He chatted happily, tipped generously and we left. I couldn’t stop my teeth from clattering. I was freezing. When we got back to house, I ran to the phone, called a friend I had not seen in ten years and flew out of there. I didn’t leave her house until long after midnight. We talked and talked and I shook and shook. I found myself almost giddy, but could not stop shaking. It was a languid spring evening and I had become a singular shard of ice.
    The year that followed was one of loss, of dis-integration. I became a skin-bag of wheels and gears, a nothing. Knowing that to survive I would have to confront, I decided I would aim a benevolent stone of fear right for his heart and if it didn’t kill him, then I might be able to bear his presence. I would hire a friend to play the pipes for what would become my father’s last birthday on this earth.
   I arranged for Richard to follow me to Austin. He stopped a block away from Dad’s house so he could prepare the costume and pipes and warm up. The plan was that he would give me half an hour to set it up and then he would come forward. I went in the house and all were there: my sisters, Dad’s wife’s sons, all knowing except him what was to come. After what seemed like an eternity, I could finally hear the faint strains of a long, lamenting note. I watched Dad’s face for a sign. When the sound grew closer, I watched him slowly drop out of the conversation and begin to listen. The closer the music, the more puzzled he looked until I began to see a rising fear and finally a dread come over his face.  When at last Richard was at the front door, Dad’s wife leaned over and whispered, “There’s someone here to see you.” For a split second I felt regret. His terror and bewilderment were so hard to witness. By the time she had walked him to the front hall and the door had flown open and the full magnificence of the music flooded into the house, he was shaking,completely disarmed and as it continued, he wept and cried out, “O god, O my god.”
    He excused himself and left the room. When he returned, he told us what he thought to be true.  He believed he was dying and the piper had come to take him to that cold grave he fitted into every night as he lay down to sleep.
    Richard played a few reels and then we decided it best that he take the pipes outside because we were all fast becoming deaf. He played, marching up and down the drive, while Dad followed behind laughing and weeping in rapturous, absolving awe.
    His funeral took place a short seven months later and as he wished, it began with a solitary piper’s long, slow march up the center aisle. The pipe was playing that achingly sweet standard, his favorite refrain. O yes, at last, grace, amazing grace.


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