In The Living Years
By Rus VanWestervelt
So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts
3 August 2006, 11:13 p.m.
I don’t want to be the one standing here right now.
The two boxes are dusty here, tucked behind the furnace. For eight years they have been in this same spot, untouched. Before the move in 1998, they remained in a similar, dark spot at our apartment in Towson, and before that, in our one-room stone schoolhouse just south of the Pennsylvania line.
Before that, Cockeysville, then Concord, Massachusetts. And in the beginning, they were boxed and sealed in Broomes Island, south of everywhere else, along the Patuxent River.
Hundreds of thousands of words. Sealed. Forgotten by choice.
It was in the spring of 1989 when I closed that red daybook for every reason that made sense to me. At least in the matters of my father, and of love, and of pain associated with such emotions and feelings and reasons to give up hugs, kisses, and the whole whatever that comes afterward.
Gone. Forgotten. Suppressed. Buried.
I place the two plain brown boxes on my desk and remove the tape around the flaps as delicately as if this were surgery. rvw personal, in meticulous maroon script, is printed on the top of each box. The print is painstakingly neat to an almost nauseating degree.
One flap open, then two, three.
The stale air of old, damp paper reaches me like an opened door on a humid day, and I know that I do not imagine the memories that cling to the scents. They are overwhelming, and I decide I just cannot do this.
I begin resealing the box, plotting out my every step to tuck them and all that is written on those pages behind the furnace for another 17 years. To hell with the whole thing.
But I stop. Hold my breath. Close my eyes.
I cannot abandon the reason I am here.
So. . . .
One flap reopened. Then two, three.
Inside the first box are bound, unlined journals. Most of them are cheap bargain books I had picked up at Waldenbooks for $2.99 a piece. Some black, purple, even green—all adorned with an original photo on the front cover, one that I thought captured where I was in my life at that particular time.
And this: my handwriting denoting the range of dates of the daybook entries inside each of them.
The red spiral notebook that I am looking for, the one with five sections and barely any entries written in it, is not in this box. I fold the flaps immediately and perform surgery on the second box.
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
More stale air. These memories are older, though. I adjust the desk lamp to look deeply inside this box. Old spirals and smaller bound journals are stuffed inside, and I pull out two similarly sized pink spirals before finding the coveted red notebook. It is the oldest one in either of these boxes.
I lift it up, out, and hold it in my hands for a few moments before putting it on the desk. I fold the cardboard flaps and tuck the box under my desk next to its partner. Both are safe, I think. At least for a day or so.
Still standing, I pick up the red spiral book and run my hand over its cover, brushing away imagined dirt from years in the box, now all at once caring for it out of neglect, love, even embarrassment. No original photo adorns this cover. Except for a few scribbles in the top right corner, the book is nothing more than a humble Mead spiral, wide-ruled, made in Dayton, Ohio in 1985. Hundreds of thousands of them were made, I am sure. Most have been discarded by now. A few recycled, but most forgotten. They have served their purpose, and they are no more.
I bring the book to my nose. The faintest hint of Eternity perfume still lingers from a love withdrawn, even after all these years.
I sit down, adjust the light. I feel the knots in my stomach tightening, throat going dry, eyes getting wet. I knew it would be like this, but things have gotten so bad, so unhealthy, that to continue to do nothing would certainly be the irreversible undoing of me.
It is time.
I open the red cover and begin reading the first entry.
19 April 1989, 1:07 p.m.
Fuck Fuck Fuck so much damn aggravation I hate this shit this feeling this feeling sucks.
Why am I feeling this? Is it lack of sleep, lack of understanding, WHAT THE FUCK IS IT? Everything is just pissing me off so much and I don’t know why.
I’ve tried to get out of this mood but I haven’t had much luck. I just feel so angry and I don’t know why. I don’t want to be around people, I don’t want to care about anything. I don’t want anything. It is times like these that I just want to be left alone.
I think part of it is that I don’t want to get out of this mood. I mean, I want to, but I feel like there is something inside of me that feeds off of this terrible feeling.
Maybe I’ll go down to the bay today and unleash some of this. . . .
The worst part of this is that I don’t want to be cheered up. I want to stay miserable.
I close the book after reading the last line. Close my eyes. I am unable to turn the page.
But I know I must. If I have learned anything in the past few years, it has been the power of the pen to heal, to bring me through the woods, or at least one step beyond the darkest depths of it. For 17 years I have boxed up this event, these emotions, and they have been eating away at me, a tumor growing, replacing healthy cells, replacing all that is good within me.
To open the journal and to turn the page is to send myself airborne, off the cliff, into life.
With my eyes still closed, I open the red spiral. Feel that first page
Fuck Fuck Fuck
and its corner, old, bent, worn from the lick of a finger and a quick flip to
Fuck Fuck Fuck
I open my eyes. A page filled with red ink, swirls of shaky handwriting written in this direction and that, a heavy handed indentation of loops and dashes. All of it fills me.
And I send myself off the cliff, into life, airborne.
Sunday, 23 April 1989, 12:40 a.m.
Two hours and 39 minutes ago, Dad passed away. Hmm. So this is what it feels like, huh? Actually, I’ve been quite strong through all of this (and so has Mom). I’m not trying to torture myself, but I think I’ll try to give an accurate account of the day’s sorrowful events.
8:20 a.m. Mom calls from the hospital that Dad’s having some troubles. If they are not home when I was to get home tonight, it’s because they are still at the hospital. All that she tells me is that his blood pressure has dropped. Here’s what actually happened.
Friday night, late (11:30 p.m.), Dad takes a bath, but he cannot get out of the tub. He has no energy whatsoever. Two hours later, he is in bed, and he has to go to the bathroom, but he cannot get up. He defecates, but it is all blood.
5:30 a.m. Mom finally calls Jim, and he comes to check Dad out. His blood pressure is 60. That’s it. Not good. He begins bloating as his body begins to fill with blood. The ambulance is called. He is taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital.
12 noon. I call the hospital, and I talk with Jim. He informs me of what I have written above, and then he tells me they removed 3 liters of blood from his stomach. Thinks look grave, and I should come as soon as possible as they are taking things hour by hour.
12:15 p.m. After much deliberation, I leave the school and drive straight to the hospital. Most everybody is there. Things seem worse than I thought.
2:00 p.m. Physician comes in and tells us that they lost him once, but they were able to resuscitate. His blood pressure is dropping, and the only chance to save him is by laser surgery to burn the holes in his stomach.
4:00 p.m. Doctor returns to tell us that he is bleeding behind his nose, all throughout his esophagus in his throat, not to mention his abdominal cavity. The doctor apologizes, but he says there is nothing else he can do. Mom leaves with Cindy to get some rest.
4:15 p.m. Doctor tells us that his kidneys have failed, and liver has quit too. It is his recommendation that the blood transfusion (he has already had over 10 pints) be stopped, and if he goes into cardiac arrest again, no effort be made to resuscitate him. After talking among the family, we call mom, and she agrees. 20 minutes later, she is back at the hospital.
9:00 p.m. Blood pressure drops to 38 / 0. We sit and wait.
9:45 p.m. Blood pressure drops to 28 / 0.
The last fifteen minutes, I watched his heart monitor. At 9:50 p.m., there is only one beat per line.
At 9:57 p.m., the line on the heart monitor goes bezerk.
10:01 p.m. Straight line. The monitor is turned off.
He is dead.
I place my finger on the page to hold my place, close the book, eyes to the sky, and bite down on my bottom lip.
When I taste blood, I stop and drop my eyes and see nothing in front of me. Inside of me is hell, reliving the moments, the seconds, that followed. He with Her, She with Him. Me with Me.
I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years
Maybe it was when my ex-fiance stopped by at the hospital while dad was still alive and she kept looking at her watch. She had a party to get to, after all. And it was getting late, you know.
Maybe that’s when, at the age of 24, I first felt my heart shut down and my mind grin, reveling in some twisted victory that wrapped itself tightly in the interweavings of grief, anger, shock.
As I comfort Little Jim in the lobby, Mom comes storming toward me, angry, yelling and sobbing that he promised he would never leave her. Absolutely promised her.
11:00 p.m. Back home. Whole family is here, and things go much better. Mom says that the greatest feeling in the world is looking back at her life and honestly saying that she lived her entire life with Dad with no regrets.
I was tired. But now I realize (so easily it all seems to come to me, as I am airborne, freefalling into all of this of then and how and–) that this was when it happened Better yet—This was when it all began.. I chose not to write about the ride home from the hospital. Nor did I write about what happened in the seconds that followed.
Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
When I finally got back from the hospital, the first thing I noticed was that my box of checks came. Out loud, to absolutely no one, I said: “Oh, good. Been waiting for these for a few days now.”
I felt the weight of the box in my hand, and I marveled at how something so small could seemingly weigh so much.
I debated about opening the box right there. Mom was in the bedroom with Jim. The others had pulled chairs out of the dining room and had placed them in the slightly larger living room, where nobody knew what to say, or how to say it.
I tossed the box of checks into the air and thought: Better find a safe place for these tonight. No telling what may happen here in the next few days…
And here we are now. We had to clean up all of the blood in the house. Not a pretty task. But things have quieted down.
I’m tired, but I have a few things to tell you. . . .
Dry. Objective. Factual.
It was in the car. On the ride home. Somewhere around 10:45, 10:50. On Putty Hill Avenue as the road swung sharply to the left and in front of a red light. In that swing, that sharp swing to the left.
That’s where I buried it.
I went through all of my other daybooks that I started right after his death, and none of them discuss the ride home. Or, more specifically, what happened at that swing to the left and the short straightaway before hitting the light by Towson Marketplace.
Of course none of the journals would cover these 4 or so minutes in my life. After all, it’s a sore subject for me, even now. How can you discuss what you’ve been avoiding all these years?
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye
Right before I turned the bend, that sharp swing to the left, “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics came on the radio. For weeks that song had haunted me. Some line or another toward the end about not being there when your father passed away. During those weeks and then days leading up to dad’s death, I had learned the first few beats of that song well enough to turn it off as soon as it started playing. I don’t know if it was guilt from working a good 80 miles from home and spending most of the time during the week at a farm owned by a family of one of my students. Probably.
When it came on that night, just before that sharp swing to the left, I let it play. In fact, I turned up the volume to an almost unbearable level, where the bass vibrated the back speakers so much it distorted the music. I didn’t care, though. As some sort of slow, torturous, painful punishment, I let the music play in and around me, those words, swirling, over and over and over.
I wasn’t there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say
I had been gone for the entire week before he died. I knew that his end was near, very near, and I ran. I escaped. I fled south to the sanctuary of Fairhaven Cliffs and all it had to offer.
I pulled the car over in the Towson Marketplace parking lot across the street from Calvert Hall College and let the words inflict their damage on to me, one note at a time, pumping the guilt beat by beat as the song played on.
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye
Not only had I run far from his dying in those last few days, I could not bring myself to be with him
It’s too late when we die
in his last remaining hours at the hospital. And without even realizing it, I know now that it was then, in those four minutes while Mike and the Mechanics reminded me over and over what happens when it gets too late, that I made the unconscious decision to sabotage any remaining self-love I may have had for myself. There would be no more taking care of myself or doing what I thought was best for me; obviously, I judged, I did enough of that when I made the decision to spend Dad’s last week away from the house.
Indeed, it was decided, however subconsciously it had been, to hate myself for such a selfish and cowardly act.
And it worked. Since that time, I have put on excessive weight, struggled with defining my spiritual core, and put my finances in jeopardy. These past 17 years have been tragic, all self-inflicted, but all rather in-the-dark regarding the reasons for it. I have run the gamut of emotions, asking myself the critical questions of my own moral standing, my mental state, my overall wellness. But in all that pondering and self-reflection, not once did I find any resolution, and never did I find myself at that sharp bend to the left on Putty Hill Avenue.
That is, of course, until now.
I close the red spiral journal, put it back in its home, close the flaps one by one, and tuck the box under the desk.
So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be o.k.
* * *
Weeks later, after I took the time to write draft after draft in my daybook about those four minutes spent with Mike and the Mechanics, I found myself in a Friendly’s restaurant waiting for my carry-out order to wrap up. I brought my daybook with me, as a matter of routine more than anything else, and while I waited, I studied the picture of an abandoned stone house on the front cover – A picture I took many years ago – and then thumbed through over 200 pages that were already filled with my writing.
Without warning, and in the most unlikely of places sitting behind a couple half my age who made it clear to everyone in sight just how in love they really are, I realized that I was ready to forgive myself. To move on. To begin living again.
I know that the beginning of my healing was due to working on this very piece. In writing directly about Dad’s death and about those four minutes, I was able to confront directly the demons that I had placed within me – unknowingly – so long ago.
I scribbled the date at the top of the next blank page
15 August 2006, 9:38 p.m.
and wrote rather benign snippets about making money through writing, exploring the genre of the romantic thriller, and then, out of the blue, this:
Stop writing from your illnesses and begin writing from your passions.
Just like that. In the restaurant, waiting for a grilled turkey supermelt and a ton of fries.
I put my pen down and grinned at the lovers in front of me. I could see her eyes as they held his, and in them she said how she wanted so much more from him than a quick fling or a casual romance. She wanted something deeper, something that would transcend a single night of passion, regardless of how great the sex might be.
I smiled and looked back at my daybook. I wanted the same thing, now. This thrill of life, of love. Of possibility.
And for the first time in so many years, it seemed so genuinely in reach.
Two days later, the swirls of romantic thrillers and lovers in restaurants wanting more than one-night-stands found their way on the pages of my daybook.
Not to mention, into my own heart as well.
17 August 2006, 10:37 p.m.
Beyond the Moment.
His lips on her back. At first, just the hint of small kisses, where the moisture of his mouth barely met her soft skin. And when his flesh melted with hers, the feeling washed over her once again. This was more than just the moments of passion building and building, climbing to that ever-eventual climax. This feeling was so much more – for beyond each of those moments that would follow in the minutes and hours to come, she would remember this particular moment, where flesh met flesh, and the warm, sweet swirl of his tongue working slowly, slowly down her lower back stirred within her the greater desire for love, safety, eternity.
She closed her eyes and nearly prayed.
Oh, God. Please let him be The One. . . .