I’m veering away from bookly goodness this week to talk a little about my life beyond the page.
This weekend, I’m leaving the Sunshine State to drive north–a little further than normal. Next week I’ll be at the United States Military Academy at West Point as a guest at my father’s 50th class reunion.
When the planners of the reunion contacted me a few years ago, inviting my sister and me to attend in place of our father, I was glad to say I’d be there. After all, 2015 seemed a very long time away. But as the time has crept up on us, and the reunion is more reality than it was, I have to admit to a little emotional panic.
I was close to my dad, and our bonds were built around books, a love for history and nostalgia, a passion for popular music and a shared enjoyment of football and baseball. Army football was the pinnacle for us; I can’t remember a time when I didn’t fully understand and fervently believe the phrase “Go Army, Beat Navy!” My father was a ’65 grad (Strength and Drive!), and for me, West Point, the old gray home in the mountains of New York, was always a touchpoint, no matter where we lived.
My mother and father dated all through his years at the Academy, so she always claimed to be part of the class, too. And she was.
We watched the Army-Navy game every year, mostly together, but sometimes only together in spirit, depending on travels and where we lived. I remember the last game we watched together; I’d stopped to drop something off at my parents’ house, and the game was just beginning. We sat in the dwindling light of a December afternoon, glum witnesses to the Army loss.
The following June, my father left this life on the 41st anniversary of his USMA commencement. That was not a coincidental date. It was a different sort of graduation.
The next year, my mother was fighting leukemia and about to go into the hospital for a stem cell transplant. My father’s class invited both my mother and me to be their guests at the game. My mother was thrilled, even though it was a bittersweet day for us both.
The following June, her funeral was held on the first anniversary of my father’s death, 42 years after his West Point graduation.
Next week will be the first time I’ll be at West Point since losing my parents. I’m looking forward to being there, to seeing places that are memorable to my husband (class of ’87 grad) and to meeting my parents’ friends. But I’m also dreading it. In a very real, I’ll be saying goodbye again.
We use our pain as writers. We use the grief, and we channel it into our stories. Even now, as I’m growing anxious about next week, what am I doing? I’m writing about it.
I had more than one person tell me that they thought I’d modeled Michael from The King Series after my dad. I didn’t do it consciously, but perhaps. There have been goodbye scenes that have come from painful days. And the dialogue between Ava and her mother, before her brother’s wedding, was directly from my own experience.
With everyone pitching in, clean up didn’t take long. My mother and I were leaving the restaurant, heading home, before I knew it.
“I thought Daddy was coming with us.” I climbed in as my mother turned the ignition.
“He’s riding home with your brothers. I wanted to have this time with just us.”
My heart flipped over. “Oh.” I struggled for something to say, anything to keep her from talking about Liam and me. “I’m sorry the rehearsal was such a disaster.”
“Not me! Bad rehearsal, good wedding. Trust me, it never fails.”
She backed out of the parking lot and turned onto the road. “I’m happy for your brother. I love Angela like she’s one of my own. She practically is, as long as she and Carl have been a couple. This is a happy day. Tomorrow will be even better. But you know. . .” Her voice trailed off, and a sob caught in her throat. “Every happy day from now until forever will always have some sadness, because our Antonia should be here with us.”
Tears blinded me, and I put my fist to my mouth. My sister had been on my mind all day: she should have been cutting onions with me at the table, making faces at the rehearsal, fussing over her daughter’s dress for tomorrow. But she wasn’t. All the places she should have been were empty.
“I miss her every day.” My mother dashed at the tears running down her face. “Every day, I talk to her while I’m getting up, getting ready. When I go over to open the restaurant. When I drop Frankie at pre-school. But it’s worse on days like this, when everyone’s together.”
“I miss her too, Ma.” I sniffed. “So much.”
“I know you do. That’s why I wanted this time with you. My sisters, my mother, of course your father and the boys, they miss her. But not like us. And I needed to just be with you, and cry a little. Remember.”
I reached across the seat and gripped my mother’s hand. “Wouldn’t she have loved all the family together today?”
“She would have. But I’ll tell you something, she would have hated those pink dresses Angela picked out for all of you. Can you just hear her now?”
And so we drove home, laughing through our tears, remembering, and somehow it brought Antonia closer to us again. I could almost hear her giggle and smell her perfume.
When I climbed out of the car, still wiping away tears, my mother gripped me and pulled me to her for a hug.
“I’m proud of you, Ava. Proud of your hard work and what you’re doing.” She stood back and patted my cheek. “Don’t think I don’t know things are hot and heavy with you and Liam. I don’t like it. . .but I like him. And I understand. I remember what it was like to be young. It makes me lighter to know you have someone who loves you like that.”
“Ma, it’s not like that. Not yet. It’s new.” I glanced up to the light in my bedroom, where Liam was probably getting ready for bed.
“Don’t tell me what I don’t know. He looks at you with love. When you know, you know.” She took my hand. “All right now, let’s go in, and watch your father and the boys pretend they don’t see our wet faces. Because don’t think they weren’t doing the same thing all the way home.”
Next week, while I’m getting through this time of remembering, part of me will be tucking away the sadness and feelings. They’ll show up in one book or another. They always do.