56: The Final Gift

56: The Final Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

The Final Gift

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

~Kahlil Gibran

Today started like any other weekday. I got up at 5:30 AM, dressed, showered and drove to work. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I settled into my chair to begin my day. I wasn’t prepared to be thrown into the past by an e-mail.

My cousin had forwarded a photograph of my father from 1944. In it he is twenty-two years young, cocky and handsome in his Army uniform on his way to serve his country in France and Germany. Like many men headed to war, he had married before he boarded the ship to Europe, and there was a baby on the way. I looked at the photograph, one I had never seen before, and I felt the tears sting my eyes. I wondered why this was hitting me so hard. Then I realized his birthday was the next day. I always think the grieving is behind me, but there it is, creeping up silently before I am even aware of it.

My father came home from the war to a wife he really did not know. Two weeks of courtship, and then a wedding at the courthouse before he boarded his ship, didn’t leave much time to discover who my mother was. He did not discover that she had a mental illness until he was struggling hard to support a young family and build a home for his baby daughter. My mother had “episodes” and in 1946 people did not acknowledge mental health issues, let alone talk about them. So my parents struggled along, presenting a happy face to the world. But behind closed doors the severe nature of my mother’s mental state was impossible to hide.

My mother became pregnant with my twin sister and me in 1952. While I was born healthy and able to go home, my sister, Diane, was rushed to an incubator where she spent the first month of her life. My father worked the graveyard shift at a local newspaper setting type, but he always ended his day sitting with my twin sister in the hospital. My mother never went. A special bond grew between my father and Diane. He often talked about holding her tiny hand and watching her struggle to breathe. He knew he would care for her better than anyone, so he went every single day.

When we finally were all at home under my mother’s care, things began to fall apart. My father would go to work and come home to chaos, with children unfed, dirty and crying and my mother out of touch with reality. My older sister, Connie, tried to be the mother while he was gone. Eventually, my father had to place my mother in a hospital. During this time, we moved back and forth between home and my grandmother’s house. My father was like a ghost, flitting in and out of our lives as he tried to take care of our mother while keeping us from being taken from him. Whenever he could, he would give us our baths, dress us in our pajamas and tuck us into bed. He was the one constant in our lives and we loved him.

When Diane and I were ten, my father moved us to California. My mother got treatment and was able to function but was never really a mother to us. She struggled every day simply to stay connected to reality. Even though as children we knew she was sick, the true nature of her mental health was finally revealed to us at the age of sixteen after a disturbing visit to the hospital. There was a disconnection that happened that day. We realized we would never have a normal family life. My mother would always be like this. We could not talk about it to anyone and we could not have friends over to the house in case something happened.

We struggled to understand why my father stayed in a marriage with our mother when she was not capable of loving him back. We presented a united front to our father, as we demanded to know why he was putting us through this horror. He sat us down and told us how he had met our mother. “I loved your mother the moment I first saw her. She wasn’t like this then. I thought we would be together forever, and when you were born, I thought if I just tried hard enough, I could fix it for her and for you. I took a vow I cannot break, for better or for worse. Someday you will understand.”

So it continued into our adult lives. We left home, married and had children of our own. We stayed connected to our parents because of my father. We tried to make him proud of the women we had become. My father was never an affectionate man. The special bond that connected Diane to my father was always evident because he would whisper into her ear that he loved her. For me, the stronger twin, those words were never murmured. In my way, I understood. He looked to me to take care of Diane and to be the solid rock she could cling to when he was not there, but I always longed for the words that were not spoken.

The week before my father’s seventy-fourth birthday, I called home and my dad picked up the phone. I asked if my mother was there and Dad said she’d gone shopping. When I told him I’d call back later, there was a silence on the other end of the line. Then he said, “Marsha, I love you.” Startled, I replied, “Well, Daddy, I love you too.” I ended the call and stared at the phone in disbelief.

The next morning I was at work when I got the call that my father had stopped breathing. I rushed to my parents’ house. Diane stepped out of the door in tears and right away I knew he was gone. In the days that followed I wondered why, of all the times I had talked to my father, he had chosen that day to tell me he loved me.

Even in the most dysfunctional families, there is that bond that connects children to their parents. As children we look for love and acceptance, and even as adults, the need is always there. Going through my father’s things we found bits and pieces of the man he once was. His war diaries were in the bottom drawer of his dresser and Diane and I poured through them, reading them aloud to each other, laughing and crying and mourning the man who was our father. As we scattered his ashes, we remembered his words from years ago, that someday we would understand. My father did the best he could to love his daughters and take care of the woman he had vowed to love for better or worse. To me, the stronger twin, he left his final gift with four words. “I love you, Marsha.” As his daughter, that is what I needed to hear and with it I have found peace.

~Marsha D. Teeling

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