The Perfect Antidote for a Bad Day of Writing by Sallie Moffitt

by Matilda Butler on July 25, 2012

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #86 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

A Story of Inspiration for Memoir Writers

In Austin, Texas in the spring of 2010, I met Sallie Moffitt for the first time. She flattered me by saying that she had purchased our [Essential] Women’s Memoir Writing Workshop set of 21 videos and had already gone through them twice. She signed up for my coaching session at Story Circle Network’s Stories From the Heart Conference so that she could ask me some specific questions about her writing.

I was thrilled when Sallie again signed up for my coaching session at the 2012 SCN bi-annual writing conference. It was fun to see her and I was eager to learn how her writing was progressing. Following is the story she told me. I asked her to share it with you. Then below her article, you’ll get to read her workshop contest entry.

sallie moffitt, memoir, Mayborn Conference Contest Winner

The Perfect Antidote for a Bad Day of Writing

Sallie Moffitt

The first year I entered the Mayborn, I was a new writer and had no idea what to expect.

I had heard about The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, which is held in Grapevine, Texas. It sounded tempting. The best manuscript gets a book contract and the first, second, and third prize winners receive cash awards plus their manuscripts are published in Ten Spurs, the conference’s literary journal. It is sponsored by the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at the University of North Texas.

Although I didn’t know what to expect, I polished up a personal essay that I had been working on and mailed it in along with my $30 fee. Each year the top 50 entrants are selected to participate in the workshop. For the essays and narratives, there are 5 workshops with 10 participants and one workshop leader who is a published author. For that first year, I only wanted to be selected for the workshop. I had no idea what it took to win, or if I even qualified.

I walked on air for several day after being selected for that first workshop. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. One of the requirements for being in the workshop was to read and evaluate the nine other essays in my workshop. This proved to be a very eye-opening experience. Some of the essays intimidated me with their elegant prose and intriguing storytelling. Some had good beginnings, but got lost in the middle or end. For each essay, I had to complete a three-page form asking me to tell whether or not the essay’s theme was evident as well as questions about dialogue and lyrical prose.

At the first conference, I put forth some effort, but I was more amazed at the process. When the next year came, I questioned whether or not I should enter. My father had just passed away and I was exhausted. I decided to give it a shot because I had gained so much from the previous year’s workshop. My goal again was just to get into the workshop. So I entered, and was selected for the workshop.

That year, I bought a copy of the conference’s literary journal, Ten Spurs.

When I saw some of my friends from the previous conference, they asked how I was doing and I told them about the death of my father and all the drama from it. One person, Joan, suggested I write about that experience. So I began working on it.

Unfortunately, my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and I spent most of the next year accompanying my husband to the hospital, nursing home, or ICU unit. While I had worked on the essay about my father, it was still pretty rough. When the time came to submit my essay, I had polished it some, but I knew it wasn’t good enough to win. Again my goal was to be selected for the workshop.

After that year’s workshop, I was determined to write an essay worthy of winning. I had attended three workshops and learned quite a bit. I felt my writing had improved enough to win something. So I read and re-read all the past Ten Spurs journals I could get my hands on. I studied William Zinsser’s writing book from cover to cover. I read the 10 Best Essays of 2008 cover to cover. I studied the endings, beginnings, and middles. Then I sat down to polish my essay. I was determined to win.

I submitted my essay and was selected to participate in the workshop. Even though I had worked my butt off on this essay, Waterwheels, I still thought it could be better. In the workshop, I listened carefully to the critiques from the other nine writers in my sessions.

On Saturday night at the awards dinner, I hoped to win something, but I only thought it would be an honorable mention at best. When George Getshow announced the winners, he started with third place. I clapped. Then he announced the second place award, “And the winner is Waterwheels by Sallie Moffitt.” My friend Joan nudged me and whispered, “He called your name. Go get your award.” With my mouth hanging open, I walked onstage and accepted my award. I smiled the biggest smile for the entire night. It felt like I was walking on a cloud. I couldn’t believe I had won. Mitch Land, then the Regent in charge, saw the look on my face and said, “You weren’t expecting this were you?” All I could do was nod my head. I was still in shock.

Now whenever I’m having a bad day with my writing, I glance at my plaque and remember the night my heart skipped a beat and I was speechless.

……………………………………………………………..

Waterwheels

By Sallie Moffitt

I didn’t travel to the East Texas backwoods on Christmas Eve because I care about him. He never cared about me. That’s why I refer to him as Ted rather than as my father. I’m here to make certain he’s dying.

My younger sister, Lisa, saw him yesterday for the first time in five years. “If you want to see him before he dies, you need to come soon,” she told me, her voice distant and emotionless.
I stop our Buick sedan at a rusty iron gate locked open at the bottom by sand. “It looks like Ted still lives here,” I say to Brooke, my daughter.

Home from college for the holidays, she glances at me from the passenger seat. “Mom, are we going in?”

Even though I haven’t seen or talked to my father in ten years, the mere thought of seeing him again sends an icy chill flowing up my spine and I shiver. “Yes, I need to know if he’s really dying, even if it’s the last thing I do.”

Under no circumstances will I comfort the man who aimed his rifle and—BANG—killed Frisky, my favorite dog. I had stood beside him pleading for Frisky’s life, while my six-year-old brain realized that Ted would do anything to keep me under his control.

I steer the car along parallel ruts through a forest of stately red oaks and towering pines. Ted’s faded trailer peeks through the bare branches. It looks the same—far from the road and hidden from view. Ted moved here over twenty-five years ago, right after he divorced my mother. He was mastering the art of pushing everyone away, a madman seeking the freedom to sanitize his guilty conscience with Schlitz beer.

My older sister, Betty, is the only one of Ted’s three children still in contact with him. Since she and her husband live in Oregon, it’s easy for her to stay in denial because she talks to Ted only occasionally on the telephone.

I pull up and park beside a sweet gum tree, grasping the gearshift with a sweaty palm.
“Wait here until I know it’s safe,” I tell Brooke. Ted’s only grandchild, she hasn’t seen him in almost twelve years. As I open the car door and slink out a deep bark echoes through the woods—probably a large attack dog chained to a tree, I think. I cross the sandy yard to a small concrete porch and creep up the steps. Shaking with fear, I raise my hand and knock on the vinyl-clad door.

“Come in,” a frail voice calls from inside. Is this a set-up? Is Ted on the other side of the door with a rifle? He always kept a loaded firearm within reach. Will today be like the morning I awoke to find him standing over me, pointing a pistol at my head? I pull my cell phone from my handbag, fingers ready to dial.

The brass doorknob wobbles as I pray for the strength to turn it. The door creaks open. Inside a dark-paneled room I spot a bed folded out from the couch, and lying there is Ted, a skeleton of his former self. His bony hands pull the blankets around his neck to ward off the December air that blows through the open door. A wood-burning potbelly stove near the bed distributes heat and the aroma of smoke through the small room.

“Uh…hi, Daddy, remember me?”

“Yes, you’re Sallie.” His ghost-white face beams. “I’m glad to see you.”

I motion to Brooke that it’s safe to come inside and I look around for a place to sit. A small cloudy window above two chairs filters the winter sun, spotlighting a dark stain on the one closest to Ted. I sit in the stained chair, silently vowing to wash my jeans at least six times in the hottest water possible.

Ted tells us that he has congestive heart failure, his heart operating at eight percent. About six months ago, not long after his seventy-eighth birthday, he suffered his third heart attack. He had a defibrillator/pacemaker installed, but the procedure hasn’t helped.

“I had another heart attack last week,” he explains. “I was in the hospital for a couple of days, and then my doctor released me saying there is nothing more he can do.”

“He sent you home? Alone?”

“No, he sent me to a nursing home. I didn’t like it so I had one of my friends bring me back here.”
A baritone bark booms through the cramped room.

“Do you have a dog?” I ask.

“Yes, his name is Stump.” Brooke and I peer through the window and spot a long-eared basset hound sniffing the tires of our car.

“He’s cute. Does he bite?” Brooke asks.

“No, but he might lick you to death. You can try to pet him, except he’s real shy and will probably run from you.”

This man is not the father I remember, the man who flew into a frenzy every time my soda can rattled in the car’s cup holder.

A pile of dusty magazines, edges frayed yellow, sits on the bedside table. On top is a black-and-white photograph of Ted in his Army uniform, fresh out of boot camp, muscular arms bulging under a stiff wool shirt. A self-confident smirk stretches across his handsome schoolboy face. His mother stands beside him, eyes sparkling with pride as she looks up at the six-foot-two baby boy that towers over her. This is one of the last pictures of Ted’s mother. She died four years later of ovarian cancer.

Ted told me about his mother’s death once. When I was a child we developed a weird father-daughter relationship during weekends together at the family country house. Many times Ted grumbled to me about not wanting to die alone.

One day as I played in the shade of a century-old cedar tree, Ted sat nearby in a metal lawn chair. He popped open a can of Schlitz and said, “Momma’s doctor said he could have saved her life had she visited him six months earlier.” He sipped his beer. “I was sitting beside her hospital bed when she took her last breath. Everyone needs family with them when they die.”

The setting sun cast a glow on his scowling face––normally clean-shaven but that day shadowed with a day’s worth of stubble––as he gulped down the remaining brew. Vying for some leniency from his constant brutality, I promised then to be with him when his time came.

Now as we talk until late in the afternoon, I rethink that promise. I am not babysitting the man who locked me in a wooden shed for telling my cousin that sleeping in the country house scared me. Never in a million years.

“Do you need anything before we leave?” I ask.

“No, don’t worry about me,” Ted says. “Lisa is going to call me every few hours. If I don’t answer, she’ll call my neighbor to come check on me.”

#

About noon the next day, Christmas Day, Lisa calls to tell me that Ted didn’t answer the phone that morning. She called his neighbor, who hurried over and found him passed out on the floor by the stove, a piece of wood in his cold hand. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. Ted didn’t regain full consciousness and he was moved to a hospice center in Tyler, Texas, to live out his remaining days.

The next morning I awaken hours before the alarm buzzes. Lying in bed, I stare at the ceiling and revel in anticipation of my freedom. Never again will I drive home and feel a suffocating fear when I see a vehicle similar to Ted’s parked near my house. Never again will I scour dark corners for the silhouette of a man with a rifle. Never again will I wake at night in a cold sweat, sure that Ted or one of his drinking buddies has broken into my house to kidnap and murder me, to bury my body deep in the piney woods of East Texas.

The threat that Ted might hunt me down has hung over me my entire life. No matter how hard I try, a chain of fear shackles me to the past, to Ted. His death will unlock me.

I want to know the instant Ted is dead. I can’t rely on Lisa, because she might not tell me. Every morning she completes a crossword puzzle before taking a bite of her granola. She competes in mental decathlons with her brainy friends. Yet I remember the times Lisa forgot to tell me Ted was home drunk, looking for me to punch around.

No, I must witness Ted’s death for myself.

Once the sun rises I scurry around, getting ready, nagging Brooke to get dressed. We fly down the road and make the ninety-mile trip to the hospice in record time.

Trellised gardens and tall pines adorn a manicured lawn at the single-story red-brick center. A smiling volunteer leads us along green-carpeted hallways to Ted’s room. We pass a visitors’ area of overstuffed chairs, a long sofa and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of the White House rose garden.
The aroma of fresh lavender fills my nostrils as I enter his room. He lies in bed with his eyes closed, his mouth open and covered by an oxygen mask. Lisa sits in a chair by the bed, her thin lips pursed as she surfs the Internet on her laptop.

“Hi, Lisa,” I whisper.

“You don’t have to whisper. He won’t wake up,” she says, not lifting her marble-green eyes from the computer screen. “The doctor says he’s semiconscious.”

“He’s what?”

“That means he’s not completely unconscious,” Lisa explains. “He can hear people talk to him and sometimes responds to them. Like when the nurse told him to turn on his side, he did. But when she asked him how he was feeling, he didn’t reply.”

As we talk a doctor comes into the room and examines Ted. Then he calls us into the hall. Dr. Thomas introduces himself, nudging black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“I understand it has been a while since either of you has seen your father,” he says. Lisa and I both nod.

“When a family member is admitted into hospice, we ask that someone try to be present most of the time.” As he speaks his starched white coat crinkles with each word. “I understand from my conversations with Lisa that your father was an alcoholic and physically abusive. Being here may be hard, but these are his last days. You may find these difficult times easier if you concentrate on the good things about him.”

My eyes roll. The good things? And just what might they be? I put the nice doctor’s suggestion out of my mind because it looks as though Ted won’t be around much longer. No need to dredge up good memories of him––as if they existed!

Dr. Thomas recommends turning off Ted’s defibrillator/pacemaker, and hands us some paperwork. We sign and the doctor leaves.

“Have you talked to Betty about coming to help?” I ask Lisa. “Since she’s the oldest, shouldn’t she be here?”

“Yes, she should, and she’s making her flight arrangements. Unfortunately, Betty can’t get here until New Year’s Day, so I’ll be staying with Ted until she arrives.”

“Lisa, you don’t have to do this by yourself. I’ll stay tonight, and we can alternate the days we stay with him.”

“I didn’t think you would want to, you know, after what Ted did to you.”

“Well, it’s been empowering for me to see Ted helpless and half-dead. Besides, Betty will be here next week—if he lives that long.”

Lisa and I don’t believe Ted will live even through the night without his defibrillator/pacemaker, so I volunteer to stay with him during his final hours. I ask Brooke, “Do you want to stay here with me or go back to Dallas with Lisa?”

Brooke stares at the grandfather she never knew, the man who never attended her birthday parties, dance recitals, or high-school graduation. She twirls a strand of her curly cocoa-brown hair. “Do you really think he’s going to die tonight?”

“Of course he will, just look at him,” I point to his black fingernails. “He won’t last much longer.”

Brooke’s slender fingers brush against my shoulder. “Mom, I don’t want you to be alone when he dies.”

We arrange some pillows and blankets into makeshift beds. We try to sleep despite the stream of nurses checking blood pressure and dispensing meds. Early the next morning I tiptoe over to Ted. The blanket has moved, leaving his right foot exposed. I grab the blanket and begin to cover his foot.

“I’m awake,” Ted says.

I leap into the air, dropping the blanket.

“Yeah. You’re awake,” I say in disbelief.

“Where am I?” Ted stares at his surroundings. Since I’m the only one awake, I explain. All the while, I can feel my spirit sinking, trapped in the family quicksand.

With each day Ted’s health improves. He begins eating and drinking on his own. Soon he is sitting in a wheelchair while I push him through the green-carpeted halls. With each step my stomach quivers. Shouldn’t he be dead by now?

As I drive home from the center late New Year’s Eve, I look across the countryside at the exploding fireworks. A red star shoots over the highway and pops, painting the sky with a rosy glow. White, pink, and yellow sparkles burst, cascading like waterfalls across the dark. Everyone seems to be celebrating New Year’s Eve––everyone but me.

Yes, I enjoyed seeing my abusive father frail and feeble. The man who once threw my thirteen-year-old body against the wall with enough force to crack both my molars now signs an “X” for his name. Yet each day he spends in hospice he grows stronger. He’s not dying. He’s coming back to life!

The dark highway, now familiar territory, stretches on and on with no end in sight, a black snake slithering over hills and ravines, coiling around the countryside preparing to strike. I remember Dr. Thomas’ words: “You may find these difficult times easier if you concentrate on the good things about him.”

Over the past six years, I have written more than a hundred short stories about my time with Ted at the family country house. Only one depicts a happy time.

When I was a baby, my family traveled each weekend from our Dallas house to our country house. After Lisa’s birth, my mother stopped going, complaining that Ted drank too much. Soon Betty stopped going as well. Ted hated to go alone. Someone had to go with him, and Momma chose me.
Once I asked her why she picked me. She stared at me with coal-black eyes, blazing, and screamed, “Because you’re just like your father! You act just like him, you talk just like him, and you’re always causing trouble––just like him.” She stomped away leaving me alone, whimpering for her love.

I have no pleasant memories of the country house itself, a place haunted by secrets. At night Ted and I shared a bed, his special bed with a mattress that sagged toward the heavier person. I would cling to the side of the mattress so tight my knuckles turned white––until I fell asleep, loosened my grip, and rolled down onto Ted. The pine walls echoed my shrieks into the isolated woods. No one heard, no one came.

But daytime was different. Ted would grab a fresh can of Schlitz and rest his rifle on his shoulder like a soldier marching to war, and off we went through the woods, chasing rabbits through the golden rye grass and picking prairie phlox along the fence line.

One time Ted led the way to a bramble of ripe, juicy dewberries. My tiny hands searched through tangled thorny vines for the plumpest berry, the fresh taste dripping from my mouth, turning my fingertips bright purple.

In my favorite memory, we hiked deep into the woods to a pool of crystal water gurgling out of the sandy soil. The water overflowed its leafy banks, and a tiny stream flowed down into a small pond.
“Hey, let me show you a waterwheel,” Ted said. He rested his .22 rifle against a tree and set his can nestled in a Styrofoam koozie next to it. Then his fingers fished a tortoise-shell Swiss Army knife out of his black trousers. Flipping open the blade with his thumb, he sliced several small branches off a cedar tree. He bent two of the branches into circles, then laced another branch around until he had created a miniature waterwheel like the big ones used to mill corn and wheat. He placed the axis of his little wheel on two Y-shaped sticks he stuck into the ground, and we watched the tiny wheel spin round and round in the shallow stream. Ted said he had learned how to make these mini-wheels from his uncle, who operated a gristmill near his childhood home in North Carolina.
I sat spellbound, watching the twig contraptions whirl, while Ted stood nearby, beer in his hand, a grin on his face.

I think the memory of those waterwheels qualifies as one of the “good things” Dr. Thomas suggested I concentrate on.

#

The next morning Lisa calls to say our sister will be arriving later that day.

“I don’t think Betty will be as helpful as I originally believed,” Lisa adds. “The multiple sclerosis has impaired her reflexes and caused her to lose her driver’s license.”

Betty has lived with MS for twelve years, but the last time we were together, almost eight years ago, the disease had barely affected her.

“I’ll understand if you don’t want to help care for Ted anymore,” Lisa says.

“That’s okay. I’m in too far now,” I respond. “Besides, there’s no way Ted can live much longer.”
We agree that Lisa will take Betty to the hospice on her day there, and I will bring her home with me on my day. It sounds great in theory, yet when I see Betty sitting beside Ted’s bed, my feet freeze in the doorway. Memories flood my head. What if Betty finds out where I’m living and tells Ted, like she did eight years ago? She might give him my telephone number or mention what kind of car I drive.

Then I remind myself that Ted’s dying. Casting my fear aside, I march through the doorway.

“Hi, Betty,” I say, grinning cautiously.

Her golden brown hair is now frosted with gray highlights. Otherwise my older sister looks the same. She smiles at me, and we reestablish our sisterly bond with a silent hug and talk nonstop about the changes in our lives. She seems to be the same fun sister she always was.

After awhile, she leaves to go to the bathroom. Several minutes later she still hasn’t returned.

“You might want to check on her,” Ted says. “She doesn’t remember things as well as she used to.”

I search through the maze of hallways for Betty––the older sister who let me ride in her car when she got her driver’s license, who helped me sneak out of the house when Ted came home drunk. I find her reading a plaque on the wall.

“Betty, are you all right?”

“Did you know this wing of the hospice is named after Alfred Nix?” she asks.

“No. Who is he?”

Betty caresses the wooden plaque, her fingertips touching each indented letter like a person reading Braille.

“I wonder how much money he had to give to have a wing named after him?” she muses.

“I don’t know, but I bet it was a lot.”

I smile trying to conceal the tears in the corners of my eyes. Gently I wrap my arm around Betty’s waist and guide her back to Ted’s room.

A couple of weeks later Betty begins to miss her husband and wants to go home. Lisa and I agree it is best for her to return to Oregon.

After a month in the hospice, Ted continues to improve and is moved to a nearby nursing home. When I visit there, I find his room empty.

“C’mon Ted, you can do it,” a man in the hallway shouts. “Just a few more feet to your room.” I peek out the door and see Ted sitting in a wheelchair, his frail arms struggling to roll the chair down the hall.

A male nurse’s aide standing behind Ted shouts to me, “Aren’t you proud of him? He’s rolled down the hall all by himself.”

“Yes, that’s great,” I say, gritting my teeth behind a smile.

I watch Ted’s arms strain to roll the chair into his room. The nurse’s aide lifts him into his bed and leaves.

“I’m really tired,” he says. He turns toward the wall and shuts his eyes. “I need some rest.”

“Okay, I’ll come back another day.” I say. I bolt out of the nursing home.

A dark cloud continues to hover over me. I drive to Ted’s place and hope some time in the woods will whisk it away. Tears fill my eyes as I hike.

“Why is he getting better?” I yell to the trees. “He’s supposed to be dying!” My feet move faster and faster through the dead leaves. I fall to the ground under a lone pine.

“I hate him! I hate him!” I scream, my fist pounding the blanket of pine needles. “It’s not fair! He’s supposed to be dying, not cruising around the nursing home in a wheelchair.”

My body shakes with each word. Scared by the image of Ted improving, I pour my tears onto a bed of prickly pine leaves, emptying my soul of its pain. Then exhausted, I simply lie there.

A cow lows in a distant field. A squirrel scampers across the bark of a hickory tree. The sound of a spring trickling across sand reaches my ears. It reminds me of the spring near our country house. How I loved running through that shallow stream, bare feet splashing and wet white sand oozing between my toes.

I rise and follow the sound to a tiny stream that flows between the thin, speckled trunks of poplar trees. I sit on its bank. My mind wanders back to the many times I watched Ted weave small waterwheels out of sticks. Sometimes the wheels broke.

A calming peace comes over me. I understand that I’m going to miss those stick waterwheels. Watching them spin in the stream brought me joy and delight. The last time he made one, I was almost twelve and bored by their simple beauty. Now I wish I would’ve put aside my pride and learned to make them.

Hours turn into days, days into weeks, and before long I have been looking after Ted for over two months. My weary body makes the trips by rote memory, my car driving itself in the same lane over and over, on the same road, at the same speed. Surely I have worn a rut from my house to the nursing home.

One day when I arrive to visit Ted the nurse catches me in the hall.

“Your father didn’t touch his lunch. Will you see if he’ll eat something for dinner?” I agree, and wake Ted when dinner is served.

“I’m not hungry,” he mumbles, without opening his eyes.

“But, Daddy, you need to eat something.”

“I’m not hungry.” He rolls over and goes back to sleep, so I leave.

Once I’m home, the telephone rings.

“I’m calling to remind you that I’m leaving to go on a cruise this Saturday,” Lisa says. She’d mentioned it to me last month, but I promptly put it out of my mind. I didn’t think Ted would live this long. Now I hesitate, not knowing where to begin.

“You know Ted isn’t doing well,” I tell her.

“Yes, but there’s nothing else I can do for him.”

“Are you sure about this?” I ask. With Lisa gone I’ll be the family there when he dies. Why am I always the one who has to be with Ted? As a child, I pleaded with my mother not to send me with him to our country house.

“Your sisters and I have already made plans, and they don’t include you,” Momma would say, her alabaster face staring into space, never seeing my tears. Ted offered me toys, trinkets, and money to be around him, yet I wanted something far more valuable — a mother’s protective love. Momma never offered that to me, and that shadows our relationship to this day. I’ve seen her only twice in the past six years: at my maternal grandmother’s funeral and Brooke’s high-school graduation.

“I’m certain,” Lisa continues, “unless you don’t want me to go.”

“No, go and have a good time,” I reply. “I’ll take care of Ted.”

Maybe I do have to be there when he dies. Perhaps life has to come full circle—back to only me and Ted before he is able to pass on from this life. Does he remember my promise to be with him at the end? Is he waiting for me to fulfill it?

Lisa leaves on her vacation and I make my regular trip to the nursing home on Tuesday. Ted sleeps during the visit and nothing I do awakens him.

Late Thursday afternoon a social worker from the home calls me. “We’re having trouble finding your father’s pulse. He’s restless and seems agitated. I think he would do better if a family member were here. Can you come down tomorrow morning?”

My shoulders slump and I say, “Okay, I’ll be there first thing in the morning.”

When I arrive, a nurse’s aide tells me that she has rolled Ted’s bed into the visitor’s area because he felt lonely. The large room reeks with the mixed smell of urine and the daily food special. The clatter of pots and pans escapes from the door to the kitchen as orderlies dart in and out, making lunch preparations.

I pull a chair close to Ted’s bed. He stares at the fluorescent lights overhead, his sea-blue eyes half-open because his muscles are too weak to close them. Nurses in comfy shoes and a rainbow of uniforms cruise the halls, stethoscopes dangling from their necks and clipboards pressed against their chests. One in a blue uniform nears my father’s bed. She grabs his wrist and asks, “How are you feeling today, Mr. Moffitt? Are you in any pain?”

“I’m fine,” Ted’s wispy voice murmurs.

The nurse looks at me. “He never complains. He’s such a good patient.”

If that’s true, why am I the only one here? Ted’s siblings have preceded him in death, but he has nieces and nephews who could be here. But Ted pushed his family away many years ago when they dared question him about his drinking. Even his ex-wife, my mother, could stand seeing him only for five minutes—just long enough to walk Betty to his room and say hi.

The nurse listens to Ted’s heart through her stethoscope.

“Okay, I’m done for now. Let me know if you need anything.” She writes some numbers on his chart and leaves.

Ted twists to one side and then the other, unable to find a comfortable position. He continues to stare at the overhead lights, his pupils growing larger. His breathing has become erratic, irregular.
I call Betty in Oregon on my cell phone. We chat for hours, discussing the flowers we plan to grow in our gardens, talking about Brooke’s major in college, laughing at the current celebrity scandal. When I speak, Ted appears to be listening. The conversational tone of my voice, interrupted by an occasional laugh at one of Betty’s stale jokes, seems to reassure him that he isn’t alone. After a while, Betty seems to be getting tired, so I tell her I need to go.

Ted continues to toss and turn. His arms wheel through the air like he’s falling backward trying to grab something to stop his fall. His hands grasp at the empty air and then hit the bed with a thud. Labored breaths spurt from his mouth. He sounds like a long-distance swimmer coming up for air.
His arms windmill again, trying to hold onto something. One hand lands on the bed near me. I reach out to hold it, but stop. Those are the hands I’ve learned to fear. Those pasty white hands, now withered with age, were once the monstrous appendages that terrorized every day of my childhood. They beat me down into a frightened little girl who hid from life.

Daddy, why did you waste your life getting drunk, terrorizing your wife and daughters? Did you never recover from your mother’s death when you were twenty-three? Did you resent your father for not insisting she visit the doctor sooner? Did you decide to rebel by getting drunk until you were too deep in evil to come clean?

It’s too late to change the horrible things you did. Your life has been lived and the damage done, but I can change the way I react to you. I will never be afraid of you again.

Restless, Ted jerks from side to side. His hand reaches for the ceiling, but falls near me. Once again my hand moves toward his, but stops.

You know something, Daddy? I could leave you to die alone and no one would care. But I’m not going to do that. No one deserves to die alone, not even you. Besides, I made a promise as a child to be with you when you died, and I will honor my promise.

I place my hand on top of his—just touching it, holding his hand down on the bed. It’s the best I can do. But I know I must do it. As our hands connect Ted bolts upright. His tearing eyes, half-open, look at me.

“It’s just me, Daddy.”

“Oh,” he murmurs and lies back down. He nestles his head into the pillow and smiles.

As my hand rests on his, Ted’s breathing calms. His navy-blue shirt rises and falls in a gentle rhythm and his arms rest comfortably at his sides. His eyelids close a little, leaving only a sliver of white.

Evening comes. A wife visiting her husband walks him back to his room before leaving. I decide to go home, too. I tell the nurse I’ll return in the morning.

“Okay, we’ll take your father back to his room.”

As I pull out of the nursing home parking lot, I call Betty.

“I’m leaving now. Can I call you tomorrow morning if I need to?”

“Yes, you can call me whenever you want. I’ll be here for you.”

The long two-hour drive to Dallas seems to pass in five minutes that night. Once home, I lumber up to the back door. As I turn the doorknob, the telephone rings. Someone from the nursing home is on the line.

“Your father passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep.”

I feel my way to the kitchen table and sit. Today was hard, but sometimes a difficult task is needed to break the chains of traumatic memories.

I breathe in the sweet aroma of liberty. My fears scatter into the night, whirling round and round, like Daddy’s waterwheels in an East Texas stream.

Sallie Moffitt, “Waterwheels”, Ten Spurs, Vol 5, 2011, pp 58-69 (reprinted with permission from Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, University of North Texas)

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