Father in law

The Reverend Carl Wrenn Haley Nov 27 1912/Sept 30/2008

Posted by on Sep 7, 2008 in Father in law | 0 comments

This morning I turn through the pages of the two books my father in law presented to us for Christmas 1997, his labor of love for his children and grandchildren. They are bound, but printed on one side only, stuffed with afterthoughts of memorabilia and pictures of varying qualities, some blurs of what must be people, others brilliant and vivid. The endearing, frustrating, overriding impression of the book is the mish mash of truth and fiction, history written from an egocentric and narrow point of view. It is however the unwavering vision of a man of God, one whose faith sustained him through many dark times. As far as I know, none of his flesh and blood have given more than a cursory look at the volumes, but my curiosity drove me directly to read non stop for many days.

I try to reconcile the man who lives on these pages with the frail shell I saw when we entered his room yesterday at the Methodist home in Roanoke. His appearance is shocking, mouth agape and gasping for air, eyes open, unblinking, but seeing nothing as far as I could tell. Margaret, his wife of 45 years, snores in the chair beside him. I step out to the nurse’s station through the line up of wheelchairs. I speak my hellos to the occupants but they all stare west to end of the hall like they are awaiting the second coming. I introduce myself to a cheerful woman and ask her if Mr. Haley is awake. She walks back with us, perhaps thinking him already dead, and seems relieved to assure me that all is well. Every instinct tells me that the man has fled but is hovering nearby; waiting for us to come so he can move on. I arrange chairs close to his bedside and encourage my reluctant husband to sit. Margaret is having trouble with her hearing aide, so we screech a conversation across the room as loud and as accurate as cannon ball shots, rarely connecting with a target, and often wounding innocent bystanders

Realizing my husband’s discomfort I suggest he go to the car and get the memory chip he has brought to fix Margaret’s computer. He comes back shortly smelling of cigarette smoke and takes her down the hall to her room. I turn to the faded remembrance of a man and start to talk to him. I try to hold his hand but he is posturing, lifting his arms suddenly into the air and dropping them, looking for all intents like he is emphasizing a point in a sermon. I start to sing his favorite hymn. “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight.” I stumble over the words of the refrain but get the part where “turn, turn, will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come out right.” It’s a sweet tune, one of the few where I like the music more than the words. Finished, I start on one we both know, Amazing Grace.

It is an easy song for every voice, the octave range narrow. It sounds sweet in the room and his breathing calms a little. I adjust his pillow and find he is damp with sweat. Lifting his head eases his breathing, but he pushes back against my hand as if he were uncomfortable. I go back to singing. “Will the circle be unbroken”, “I’ll fly away”, “A child of the king”, “Just as I am”; I dig deep back into my Baptist roots for all the words. “I come to the garden alone”, “the Old Rugged Cross”, “My eternal home”; I sing for over an hour and between times I talk to him. I tell him I love him. I kiss the baldhead, the stubbly cheek. I tell him it’s okay to go now, that his struggle is over, that we will watch over Margaret. Facing death I become a believer, or rather I suspend my disbelief and I ask him to say hello to my mother, my father. I remind him of the glorious reunion he will have soon with his beloved Eva, the mother of his children, and with Russell, the son who died in 1967, his father and mother, the three brothers and one sister that went before him. I want it to be true.

His minister comes by and finds me dry eyed and singing. He speaks a few words and tears start trailing down my cheek. I tell him about the letter Pop wrote me when my mother died and how it touched my heart. It was not written by the minister but by the real human being that lived inside my father in law. With that letter I realized for the first time I loved him and that he loved me. The kind pastor leaves me and I go back to singing, digging around in my brain I come up with “Circuit Rider”, the song about a minister at the turn of the century riding his horse through the night, bringing the church to the people in the hills, just as Pop’s own father did in the early days of his ministry. Old gospel hymns long forgotten spring to my lips, “I am weary, let me rest”, “Carry me off on your snow white wings”, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad”, “Far side banks of Jordon”, I don’t know all the titles, just the words learned in revival meetings in my childhood.

My husband and Margaret come back into the room and he smiles and kisses me and tells me he heard me singing when he was coming down the hall. Margaret’s dinner is here and she sits and eats. Neither Wrenn nor I have had anything substantial since breakfast so I decide to go pick up something. The phone call comes while I’m in line at Kroger. “He’s left.” No drama, just one breath he was here and then he stopped. My husband says Margaret talked through it and he had to yell the news across the room. When I come back my eyes go first to the body , skin as yellow as a spring jonquil, mouth still open, but no struggle, only stillness. Margaret is still eating dinner. I hug my husband and kiss Pop a last goodbye. We chat for a while and I go over to sit on the bed beside Margaret. Her face is flushed and she cries as she eats the chocolate cookie from her tray. I put my arm around her and tell her she is not alone. I tell her I love her. In that moment I’m not lying. She is as frail as mortals come, argumentative and always contentious, but I am mortal too and have no stones left to throw.

After an hour the nurse arrives to pronounce him, kisses us all, and tells him to rest in peace. Then the funeral home comes with a red velour covered gurney and the kind man in a suit puts a pillow under Pop’s head after he moves him, a sweet touch my husband appreciates. Then, there in the empty room surrounded by the stench of death, Margaret tests my resolve to be kind by deciding everything must be moved out this evening to prevent people from stealing. I puzzle over who would want his underwear and socks, his old man sweaters, his jaunty hats, the last of a tube of toothpaste, the stacks of adult diapers sorted in plastic bags and labeled with a jagged cursive “size medium”, “extra absorbent”, “too small”, but I pack them uncomplaining. She tells me I walk too fast as we go down the hall at a snails pace. I slow down to accommodate her walker.

At 8:30 when we stop at Sheets for food and gas Pop has been dead two hours and forty minutes. All the relatives have been called by myself or my husband, the obit written 20 years ago by Pop has been located on the computer, and Margaret sits alone in a 12 by 12 room surrounded by boxes and bags and a lifetime of memories. It is midnight when we arrive home, and worn from the day I have the blessed relief of sleep. I hear the insomniacs, my husband and my daughter, talking loudly and laughing in the kitchen around 4 am. It is their time like the morning is mine, and tomorrow will be here soon enough, so peacefully, I go back to sleep.

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Hello, Goodbye

Posted by on Aug 31, 2008 in Death and renewal, Father in law | 0 comments

I wrote my father in law’s obituary this week. A lady from the Richmond Times Dispatch called us asking if they could do a feature article on him. I listened to my husband speak on the phone about how dedicated his Dad was to the church. “Sometimes we would go for a week with out seeing him for dinner except on Sunday.” I wonder if the woman on the phone heard between the lines as clearly as I did? My husband loved and admired his father but he knew always that he came in second to the family business. It’s hard for a child to compete with God for his Dad’s attention.

I must give my husband credit for reinventing fatherhood. With no example to go from he managed to let the children know that they were the most important people in his life. I turned through pictures on Thursday trying to find ones to show at my father-in-law’s memorial. As I scanned through the children’s birthdays, holidays, concerts, special awards at scouts and school, I note that their grandfather appears in only the Christmas photos and a few random shots when they stopped by, usually unannounced, and scooped the children up to have their picture taken together. I found a few where the children visited him at his birthday, but mostly the pictures are ones of him and other preachers.

My daughter and I were talking in the car earlier in the week and she stumbled around for a description of her grandparents. “They just never look at themselves,” she says definitively. I give her the quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and we talk about Thoreau and living deliberately. She asks again if she had to come to the memorial service and I tell her again, yes, you need to be there. She went to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to visit a new friend. She called me Friday morning when we were halfway to Roanoke and told me that I was going to be mad at her, but she couldn’t make it to the funeral. She told me a long complicated story about why her alarm didn’t go off but well, it’s her choice.

My middle son, the peacemaker, flew in from Seattle to attend the memorial. The preacher from Pop’s church asked me if one of the grandchildren would read something at the service. I should have said no, my children are all agnostics and atheists so they wouldn’t feel comfortable standing in the pulpit, but instead I volunteered the flesh of my flesh without his consent. As we drove over Afton mountain for the third time this week, my son sat in the front with his Dad studying the piece from Romans he will read. He was dressed in the new clothes I bought for him the day before, black blazer, soft blue shirt, gray pants with a subtle stripe, and a tie borrowed from his father. When he stood up in the church he was so handsome and he spoke in a clear strong masculine voice, like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Even knowing all that I do, I believe him for a few seconds. In the face of all the amazing men who speak today, godly and intelligent men, men who have spent their lives believing something I was taught but cannot accept, I stumble briefly over my incredulity. It is all so comforting. I smile as I imagine Pop’s ghostly presence standing in the pulpit smiling down like Luke’s father from Star Wars.

Each of us on the front row have our own private grief. The widow cries for a lifelong companion, but the rest of us, son, grandson, and myself, we mourn for a relationship that could have been. The important man in the pulpit talks about how children loved Carl and flocked to him for hugs. I think back through my children’s life and cannot recall even one time when they went spontaneously to their grandfather for a hug. The man they talk about is not the man my family knew. The man we knew could never divide himself from the role he played. As I watch my son interact so patiently with the grandmother he drew in this flawed family, I realize that he gave his grandparents the unconditional love they could not give him. I know he is able to do that because he got that same kind of love from us, an exasperating love evidently. He explains it to me in the kitchen last night. “Why do you always tell me everything is fine? Why don’t you just tell me I fucked up sometimes? Why do you always blame yourself?” Of course, I immediately accept the blame for that and apologize, and the boy shakes his head in dismay. Laughing now, I promise I will try to be more critical, but I know I’m lying.

My failure is in seeing my children as they will be, as they have the potential to be, but not giving them the constructive criticism they may need to achieve that potential. Perhaps because I was reared without praise of any kind, I have erred in the opposite direction. The boy will be 30 this year and I’m thinking he may just have to learn to accept the fact that I’m the mother he got. My daughter tells me always that I’m the perfect mom, but then, she knows what sells. My oldest forgives me all my sins just as I forgive his and he always holds part of my soul within his own. I love them all with a primal animal instinct that would send me rushing into the path of an oncoming tornado to protect them, however that is something that is rarely required of parents.

What they need and what I give them does not always coincide, but if I learned one lesson from the life and death of their grandfather it should be to listen. On one rare occasion my father in law touched my heart and made me love him in spite of all his flaws. It was when my mother died and he wrote me a letter from his real heart, the heart of a man who cherished his mother. In it he said, “The loss of one’s mother is the most wracking experiences life can bring us. All the nerve ends of the soul are centered there.” It’s strange to me that although I know how gigantic a figure my mother was in my life that I cannot see myself being the same in my children’s eyes. I suppose I won’t really understand until they have my funeral, and damn, I hate that I’m going to miss that.

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The End of Days

Posted by on Nov 7, 2007 in Death and renewal, Father in law | 0 comments

Eva Gantt Haley – 6/1914 to 1/1962

Carl Wrenn Haley -11/1912 to

Did I give you my secret for losing weight? Lean near to the screen and I will impart my wisdom. It’s a simple three-part formula.

1. Eat less
2. Exercise more
3. Don’t take any crap off of anyone.

See, I told you it was easy. So, having followed these rules faithfully for over a year and knowing that my mother in law is the evil nemesis of my life, why did I decide to visit her the day after Thanksgiving? Did I think pigs had perhaps learned to fly? That bears had suddenly found an alternative latrine? My husband would say we were not visiting his wicked stepmother at all, but his father whose body resides in the room with her at the extended care facility. Sadly he seems to have fled into hallucinations interspersed with naps and meals. Margaret tells us he time travels, but instead of picking some happy childhood or adult memory to visit, he lives again the terror of the depression years, eating every crumb off his plate, constantly asking the price of things and being shocked by the squandering of his money. She wastes no time telling us how awful her life is, how she is a slave to this incontinent old man who not only provides her no companionship but fights with her when she tries to dress him. I would have sympathy for her if she left any space in her own tales of martyrdom for me to insert a bit.

When Pop tells us about the police car he sees in the hallway we listen with interest. It is a much superior conversation than the one with Margaret, and certainly better than hearing about his elimination problems. I sent Wrenn outside to get my medication from the car and as soon as he left the room Margaret pounced. “Well, I have no idea what’s going on with you since you swore Wrenn to secrecy” says the troll.

“Margaret, whatever Wrenn told you or did not tell you had nothing to do with my instruction.” I reply. I give her details of my surgery quickly and honestly to show my openness.

“You’re going to have to learn to have some self control” came her rejoinder. We go on for some time with these “when did you stop beating your wife” statements. Pop sits oblivious in the chair, missing in action, watching the fantasy that entertains him. Finally I remember my third rule, the most important one, and I said forcefully.

“Margaret, I really don’t need this. You have no idea who I am or what my life has been like. The fact that my husband is still alive and I’m still with him proves my self-control beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

“Well,” she snips, “I know other people who had had that surgery and they just go back to eating like they did before.”

I rejoined immediately. “The way I lost the weight was by changing my life style. I will never be tempted by that old way of living. I did not have weight loss surgery. (I did not add you are an idiot here you will note.) The doctor just removed the extra skin left over after my loss.” About this time my husband returns and Margaret, carefully not to have a witness to her attact, flees to the other room. She returns shortly and fires a parting shot.

“I’m going down to get your Christmas present from last year since you never picked it up.” As soon as she is out of sight I tell Wrenn we have to go. Pop, who can’t see his hand in front of his face because of vision loss, is still staring at the police car he believes is in the tiny hallway. He raises bleary eyes to his son and asks,

“Did you have a citation on your car?”
Wrenn, humoring him says, “No Dad, they didn’t ticket me.”
Pop continues, “I lived in fear of the police all my life.” I am frankly intrigued by this statement. I’m trying to imagine the mild mannered minister living his life in fear of the police. I get a wild hope that he is ready to confess some previously undetected youthful escapade, perhaps involving underage sorority girls and a Model-T Ford.
“Pop,” I asked, “Did you ever get a ticket?”
“No,” came the reply, “But I was always afraid I might.”
“Pop,” I solicit, as if I were talking to a logical person, “Did you ever speed?”
“Oh, no, not one time,” came the answer. He mumbles something that sounds paranoid about them being out to get him, and then he nods off again.

I turn to my husband, who has waited patiently to find out what happened when he was out of the room, and I give him a brief rundown. When Margaret comes back she is toting one of the annoying pieces of crap that she has been secreting in the basement storage room these 15 years.
“Now I want you to respect these because they are family heirlooms that belonged to the Haley’s” Margaret has on her best scowling schoolmarm attitude. Her, “children never appreciate the things we give them” speech was just getting warmed up when Wrenn rose to leave.
“Elaine’s not feeling well, so we have to go” he states definitively. Margaret is non-pulsed, unsurprised. She taps the bubble wrapped set of picture frames, trying to determine which side is glass so we can use caution. We escape after brief goodbyes, phony hugs and kisses, promises we plan to break.

My husband listens to my rant until we reach the interstate, then I relax briefly. We drive in silence for a time. Finally I ask him. “What band is playing at E*nzo’s tonight?
“Janet Martin” came the reply.
“Let’s go,” I suggest. I know I shouldn’t ask. The day has been trying and he still has three more hours on the road before we reach home. He knows I shouldn’t go out this soon after surgery. He knows I over did it on Thanksgiving and I’m under emotional stress today, but he is a sweetheart and indulges me. It turns out it was just what we needed. We spend a lovely evening eating excellent food, dancing, and visiting with friends.

The impact of the visit on us both is muted until the next day. I wake with unsettled dreams and the realization that I was not talking to my father in law and that my husband was not talking to his Dad. I realized that in all likelihood we never shall again. I think about all the words we have exchanged over the years and also know his father will forever remain a mystery to us all. I recall a few times when he has sincerely touched my heart, like when my mother died and he gave me words that were not from his stash of ministerial flash cards, but personal, sharing the pain of losing his own mother years ago. I remember when my ectopic pregnancy took the first child Wrenn and I conceived. We were his only possibility for grandchildren, but he surprised me by telling me not to try again because my life was too precious to risk. Thank God I ignored him, but still, it was sweet and sincere in contrast to so many conversations that have been conducted at arm’s length. Like many parents of his generation, that distance was deemed the proper place for a man to conduct fatherhood duties. Added to that is the public persona of preacher, for as years went by he lost his ability to slip from the public to the private man. Even his long winded autobiography skips deftly over any picture of the real person, replacing reality with fantasy as required to get to the next chapter. A life fraught with the tragedy of losing a wife he loved dearly and depended on completely, a son who took his own life in the aftermath of his mother’s death and his father’s rush to remarry, and a difficult and rebellious adopted daughter who spent her life blackmailing him, were somehow “oh, by the way” incidents in his own version of history.

I know I was not there and I do not really have the right to judge. But you have only to read the scarred palms of the victims to know the pain they were forced to seal inside themselves. His role model for his family was inward stoicism and outward pretense. His relationship with his second wife floundered in the early years according to my husband’s account. He clung to the contract made in haste and grief, and like a man taken hostage, learned to love what was in his eyes an inescapable trap. He seems to have found a way out finally, the only way acceptable in his philosophy. I pulled up the picture of him in the springtime of his life, the woman he loved all his life holding his hand, and I can imagine talking to the man in the picture. I have a brief urge to step into that frame and warn him, but knowing that none of us in that season of life would ever believe how our days might end. I only know I have been warned to walk cautiously as I negotiate the next 30 or 40 years.

My dear friend C.J. says writing is “ a way to leave something behind that says, I was here, this was me”. I think about my father-in-law’s attempt to mark the place he leaves when he’s gone and about my own effort. The essential difference between us is I want my mark to ring true. I want people to read and feel the pain and delight of living. Even if they are made uncomfortable by my honesty, scandalized by my behavior, shocked by my attitudes, they will walk away knowing the secrets of their own soul are not so different from my own. They will know that I have been here and that I have been foolish and wise, responsible and derelict, merciful and ruthless in turn, just like all humans. They can forgive me or not, but they will know who I am, and ultimately who I was

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Let Us Hear the Conclusion of the Whole Matter

Posted by on May 8, 2007 in Father in law, Great grandmother | 0 comments

I have been told I have a keen analytical mind, but I never really took to the bean counting aspects of programming, even though I have an IT degree and grade point average that states otherwise. Taking a leap based on insufficient information and actually solving the problem in half the time would be my strength. A number of years ago my husband and son went to the computer to labor over the reason why my father in law’s files seemed to have disappeared. I sat down and talked to him while they worked.

“Pop” I asked, “What did you name the last chapter of your book.”

“Memoirs” came the reply.

“…and what about the chapter before” I speculated, sensing I might be on to something. Sure enough, ”memoirs” was the next word out of his mouth. I told the men in the other room to stop, and then I explained to Pop in very simple terms how files work. The light dawned at last when I told him that if he had a file cabinet, and he put everything in one folder, he would have trouble locating the bit he needed again. It was a big “Aha” moment for him. The men hovering over the screen were astounded. They knew so much about how computers work that they assumed the problem would be found in the machine. My analysis started at the most likely flaw in the process, the human who was operating a machine he considered an advanced typewriter.

An intelligent man, Pop was born in 1914 when the newest technology included the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and the airplane. Earth shaking stuff, but all things that he could touch and feel. The innovations of today are below the surface, subtle, and full of mystery for those born in at the dawn of the First World War. We settled on a easy and understandable file naming system, chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, etc, and the men recovered as much of the big book as possible. Pop eventually finished the text, a considerably stylized and romanticized version of his life, and presented to us as a Christmas present some years later. Of all the members of his family. I am the only one who actually read it, because I still find the human mind more intriguing than any electronic one.

I am not one of those people always looking back to a simpler era. I embrace changes eagerly, am delighted with the newest gadget, and intrigued with innovations that are on the horizon. I am hopeful this will keep my mind keen, and that as technology advances I will continue to be able to grasp the concepts and revel in the changes. Time travel, a consistent theme in our literary traditions even before the modern technological era, often addresses the confusion of a brain unprepared for new knowledge. In truth we are all time travelers, moving at an increasingly faster pace toward a world that threatens to become incomprehensible. My husband’s grandmother was born in 1891, and lived to age 94. She had a third grade education, more than many women of her era, but woefully inadequate for the circle into which she moved in her adult life. She sent all her children to college, entertained the “best” people in her home in Durham, NC, and had a native intelligence and cunning that I found amazing. Thinking to help her with her accounts, I brought a calculator one weekend and attempted to explain to her how it operated. This bright lively woman had no more grasp of the function or use of the device than a cave man. I took it back home sadly, realizing it would be no more than a paperweight for her desk while she ciphered painstakingly with her yellow pencil.

I have a horror not of growing older in body, but growing older in my mental attitude. I have been making a study of this lately and find that there is far more information available on keeping the body healthy than for keeping the brain at its prime. With the information that I have found, and my own analytical mind, I have come up with theories on how to slow the ravages of time. First, and most importantly is attitude, the belief that the brain may change, but does not have to lose its edge. That is supported by a number of studies. 

Next I will trot out that familiar litany that the things we do to keep the body healthy also serve to keep the mind sharp. Sorry folks, but daily exercise and a sensible diet are right up there at the top of the list of things sharp older people say are essential. Because you don’t want your six pack attached to a vacuous stare, you must also exercise your brain. Reading, writing, and playing games that provide a challenge all seem to keep mental facilities sharp, but whatever you do don’t stop exercising your imagination. Perhaps I should have put this one at the top of the list; don’t take life too seriously. What does it matter if we live to 100 if we find no joy in the living? A day without laughter is a wasted day, and it is rare that life is so grim we cannot find ourselves at least chuckling at the cosmic joke that is humanity.

My last bit of advice is to keep a wide circle of friends of all ages. In the retirement home where they live, my in laws are surrounded almost exclusively by people age 70 and older. The life they have there would be my worst nightmare. To be only with people who have the same mind set as your own soon makes one think that that is the only world view possible. They have nothing to talk about except their health and that has become the focus of their life. A conversation with them starts with the recent death report and ends with what Pop used to jokingly call “an organ recital”, as in, my heart, my lungs, my liver etc. That brings me around again to the reason for this post. I think the preacher said it best in Ecclesiastes, my favorite book of the Bible. Forgive me God if I paraphrase slightly; If a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all…and whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your strength, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you are going. Live long and prosper. That last bit would have been in the Bible if the preacher had thought of it, and hadn’t been in such a black mood when he wrote. It also goes a long way toward proving he was wrong when he said “there is nothing new under the sun”.

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