Friday, December 3, 2010

Love Stories

My dad is on the right, mom and her brother in the middle, mom's mother on the left.
My parent's marriage was a real love story, but like most real love stories it ended badly. They made three kids, and at the time of this photograph all of us are still waiting in the wings. (My dad is on the right, mom and her brother in the middle, mom's mother on the left.) My brother and I are still alive but the firstborn, my sister Sarah, was killed in the early 1970s, when she was 16; while I see my parents' youth and vigor and innocence, I also see the road ahead. And I also see my own old age, as these photos underline so clearly that time is gone and it is not coming back. I can't help seeing my dad's death two years ago in a New Mexico canyon. (He fell from the path onto the rocks.) I see the circles of life, patiently looping over our heads like buzzards. When we are kids we just think they're birds. Now that I'm old I know different.

My name is Ward and my father's father was also named Ward. My dad and his grandfather were named John. My grandmother Tizzie was my grandfather's second wife and he was 25 years her senior. When he was a young man, he married a woman and they had a daughter, who they named Sarah. When she was a toddler, they lost her to the flu epidemic. He too was lost though, he to his grief. For years he lived at her grave, eating from cans and sleeping under a tarp. He lost his weight, and his clothes, rags, hung on his bones. His wife gave him up and moved on and he lingered in that gray state for another decade.

Tizzie was a frolicking young bird who found him as he was and would not settle for such a thing and set to the tasks of reviving him. She cleaned him up nice and bore him some children, but the clouds never parted in his soul. Grandma knew it too. After work he would drive his car into the garage and wait there, sitting in the car in the dark until someone fetched him. Grandma used to tell my aunt Bette, "Go out there and see if your dad's hung himself yet. If he hasn't, tell him to come for supper." Bette told me years later that they all knew it was only a little bit joke and was mostly true apprehension. She was ten years old and peeked around the corner each day, braced to see her dad hanging from the neck.

My dad always struggled ferociously both to win his father and to break from him. He named his first child Sarah, after his father's first child, and named his second child Ward, after the old man. He didn't expect his Sarah to die too, but she did. She was hit by a car.

The old man lived to be 88 years old. On his death bed, he told the three kids, "You all been as good as three kids could be but you was never my little Sarah." I don't think I was ever my dad's little Sarah either.

A year before my dad died, my brother went to visit him in New Mexico. They were looking through a scrap book, more of a box, really, that he had started to compile. In it was a photograph of the three of them, mom, dad and Sarah, taken about a month after I was born, though I am not in the picture. His voice broke and he turned past the photo very quickly. "I still can't bear to see it," he said.

There are no more children named Sarah in our family, and dad died from the same massive head injuries that killed his daughter. The two daughters left early and the two old men took their unfathomable pain with them to their graves. We have the closest thing to closure we are going to get, except that I have trouble looking at the photographs too.

One day the angels will come and lick away my memories, and then we'll be done.