Around Y2K, the not-so-cataclysmic millennial turn, both of my parents moved past their 80th birthdays. In January 2003 Susan and I visited them at the big concrete house in Jackson, Mississippi. Shortly afterward I wrote a letter to her parents in Texas describing that visit:
Despite the e-mails from siblings about roaches, mouse droppings (problems that seem to have been solved), and the multitude of donation requests (stacks and stacks) that Mama answers unthinkingly…despite all of that, I was impressed that the house as well as Mama and Daddy were in pretty good condition. Of course Mama now weighs only 97 lbs, Daddy 120 lbs, down from 135 and 160, respectively. We found them in relatively good spirits. Daddy’s depressed mood from the past year was not in evidence at all. Mama was not scolding him, and he was expressing gratitude to her as well as to us.
They keep the heat turned up to a sweltering level, a chief reason that Susan and I decided to sleep at a hotel, and they were disappointed at our decision, but after stating their disappointment once each, both expressed the joy they felt in having us there for 2 days. Both have always liked Susan, and Mama privately praised her again to me.
Almost all of Daddy’s transfers from wheelchair to bed, chair, bath, and car, and vice versa, are now mechanized. He had guided Steve in mounting electric hoist number 4 in the carport to lift himself from the wheelchair into the minivan, and back again. His left shoulder, which lacks muscle entirely, is stretched way out of joint by the hoist, but somehow the ligaments hold and his face shows no pain at all.
I did a few small jobs for Daddy the second afternoon. In a nationally published book, I read an interview someone did with him last year. He recognized some benefit in his crippling polio, he said, because it gave him close relationships with his children, whose muscles he relied upon to perform a multitude of tasks for home maintenance, instrument building, and recreational activities such as sailing. After reading that interview, I enjoyed the jobs.
They still get up around 7 a.m. each weekday, and she takes him to the medical school entrance about 9 or 10 a.m. A kind security guard at the hospital takes the wheelchair down from the back of the van and holds it for him as he steps out and drops into it. When Mama picks him up at noon, the same security guard grabs his belt and pants in back to push him upright from the wheelchair, so that he can sit down in the car, right hand side. The guard then lifts the wheelchair into the back of the minivan, and he ties it down with a bungee cord,
On the first day of our visit, Mama wanted to go driving – to take a trip. Vicksburg was suggested; it would have been our 5th or 6th visit to Vicksburg together. We settled on Natchez as a new destination. Almost the entire drive was along the Natchez Trace Parkway, restful and picturesque even in the brown winter. The two-lane road is not overly busy, and the posted speed limit is only 50 mph. We saw two raccoons, several hawks flying, and two buzzards resting beside the road.
Then a sight I shall never forget. Daddy told me, “Slow down!” and I actually stopped the minivan. A flock of 30 to 40 wild turkeys walked across the road immediately in front of us. It was as if our human world paused to catch a glimpse of a simpler, wilder earth. The birds marched past us unheeding, intent on some purpose of their own. In a flash of longing, I wished I might join them. Within 2 minutes they were disappearing into the woods on our right. We were all silent until Mama said, “What a wondrous sight!” and we all agreed.
Close to Natchez on the parkway a marker pointed toward Emerald Mound, and we turned down a country road to go see it. It resembles an earthen replica of the temples you see in pictures from Mexico. Emerald Mound is the second largest temple mound in the United States. It rises about 80 feet at its peak, by my guess. Its surface is rectangular and flat, comprising 8 acres according to the only sign at the site (it is much larger than a football field), with secondary elevations at either end. It was a main ceremonial and governmental center for a tribal group known as the Mississippians, who built it between 1300 and 1600, and who later diminished and were absorbed or replaced by the Natchez tribe.
Mama and Daddy could not manage the steps, but stayed with the car and encouraged Susan and me to go up. It felt like climbing into a sacred place, trying to imagine the sense of reverence, awe, and joy of people who scaled the height over hundreds of years, attempting in their own way to meet the divine and find guidance for their lives. As I stood upon the higher terminal peak, heaven seemed to beckon.
Natchez itself, a beautiful, historic town spared by the Union Army in the Civil War, would have stirred our interest, had we not been captured by the spell of what we saw along the Trace. We made the obligatory crossing of the great river, ate a country lunch buffet at Shoney’s, and barely glimpsed some of the antebellum mansions – but saw a number of small houses dated 1830s-1840s downtown.
Back in Jackson, Daddy came to listen to my cholesterol talk to physicians, nurse practitioners, and pharmacists at a fancy steakhouse Tuesday evening. At times he was sitting by himself, an unusual situation for him. He couldn’t hear well with his $40 hearing aid, and he was miffed that they asked me to speak while the waiters served and people ate their dinners, but he enjoyed the evening nonetheless. I told him I customarily spoke during dinner. In that way I can speak longer and cover more, and the audience can still get home to have some family time. I took Daddy home.
Mama, Daddy, and I watched the post-speech discussions of “W’s” State of the Union message. Mama likes Bush. Daddy is against the impending Iraqi war, as I am. At 10 p.m., I shook Daddy’s hand and gave Mama a hug, then got into the rental car to drive back to the hotel. As I began to drive away, Mama hollered quite loudly and unexpectedly, “I love you!” and of course I hollered back, “I love you, too.” She seems less reserved than she once was. Deep feelings, long kept below the surface, are bubbling up now as she gets younger.
On April 3rd, 2003, my siblings and I got word that our parents, Arthur and Ruth Guyton, had been in a car accident. She had tapped the accelerator to move their minivan from a side road onto U.S. Highway 49 without noticing an oncoming car. He died instantly. She was comatose in intensive care.
They had left home for their usual afternoon drive west on County Line Road, all the way up Highway 49 to Pocahontas, then winding back home through a peaceful web of rural neighborhoods. That day they simply left the house in which they had spent 46 years and didn’t come back. It was okay.
We children and spouses gathered in a room next to the ICU at the University Medical Center. Robert, second oldest, told us how his wife Beth had been struck with a feeling something terrible had happened, and phoned him just at the time of the accident. As a family we slowly came to terms with the idea of letting Mama go.
While Cathy sat next to her bed, Mama woke up. Her lungs and heart and kidneys were injured badly, as blood loss and trauma added their effects to her chronic illnesses. She told us one by one how much she loved us, and we responded as best we could. As she began to comprehend, she asked inevitably, “Did Arthur survive?” “No, Mama, he’s gone.” In other words, he didn’t need her any more. She found herself expendable. She could rest, and she did.
The funerals were one week apart in Oxford. Cathy stayed with Mama at the ICU through Daddy’s funeral. I recall how much it meant that cousins traveled across the country to be with us, also Daddy’s beloved sister, Aunt Ruth, from Maryland. Katie Mae Wilson, who kept house and cared for Dr. Billy Guyton as he aged, hugged us warmly, representing Oxford to me and hope for a better world.
Among the reminiscences at the funerals, I recall best a story from Greg, the youngest, and a declaration from David, the oldest. As a bonus baby, Greg lived alone with our parents much longer than any other sibling. He remembered his spine-tingling chill as Daddy spoke once again the words, “I think there’s something wrong with the sewer system.” That day Greg could not find the block in the line. Daddy would have to go down into “the hole” himself. He asked Greg to lower him into the crawl space beneath the house, and he slowly dragged himself along the clay pipe, tapping carefully, until he found the suspicious spot. With a heavy steel hammer, he broke into the pipe, which exploded and rained feces, toilet paper, and urine over both of them. Fluid poured from the pipe in front of them, at least marginally clear under the flashlight. Daddy dipped his hand into the fluid and began to wipe off his face. “Daddy, what are you doing?!” exclaimed Greg. Arthur smiled and said, “It’s better than the other stuff.” Then they both burst out laughing. Make the best of it, whatever the circumstances.
David’s talk was more classically spiritual. As a teenager David at least for a while had embraced his father’s agnosticism. His views have modified over the years. He spoke about Daddy’s disability from paralyzed limbs, how unfair it seemed in a child’s eyes, and yet how it created an opportunity to model and teach the overcoming of obstacles by strength of will, and by joy shared in working closely together. He spoke of the debt of gratitude all of us felt to our father, of how polio magnified that debt. He talked about grace and fortitude our father had shown especially in his declining years, his return to the swimming pool via a shallow ramp for exercise, the motorized hoists he used to keep himself mobile. Then he mentioned the fatal accident, and to my surprise he said, “I believe that Daddy is standing up right now – without crutches!”
Here the story ends concerning my actual recollection of what happened when our parents died. But I can’t leave it here without a brief further thought, a postscript, a glance at part of the huge puzzle that remains to be explored.
“In all memory is implicit loss” says a Chinese proverb. From early childhood I have viewed time as a robber. Yet only the passing of time can make life into a story. Time takes away, but it also gives.
So I would like to construct a fantasy, bending time and death in accordance not with truth nor with any facts at all, but only with wishes taking flight. It’s just a fantasy to help me and maybe some others cope with loss. I shall never try to defend it. And it’s not a closing argument to this series, but perhaps a glimpse at something new that I hope to write someday.
If there were a movie of my parents’ life, the imaginary scenes described below would come as tag-ons, like bloopers and re-takes I’ve seen a few times after the credits have ended. Just a few viewers, lingering in a daydream before re-engaging the world, might find a bit of resonance.
After the accident Arthur Guyton found himself somehow alive. He moved in familiar dimensions of space, but in a different kind of time. Unsure of reality, he pinched his thigh until it hurt and held the pinch until he gained confidence. He rose to his feet unaided by crutches. He jumped and ran until out of breath, then did it again.
He found the minivan and drove it from the junkyard to the hospital where he knew Ruth would be waiting. The front door of the hospital swung open to an easy push. He walked past security people, visitors, cleaners, and even his children and their family members as if they were locked in a different part of time.
Their gazes met. Their smiles betrayed none of the wrinkles of age. “Are you ready, Ruthie?” he asked. She nodded, “Of course I am.” They walked past statues of their loved ones not in a careless way, but simply knowing there would be plenty of time to appreciate each thought of love and loss.
The car had not been disturbed. He took the wheel, and they drove through Jackson in the cool clear afternoon toward the Natchez Trace.
Near the town of Natchez the minivan turned down the road toward Emerald Mound. A crowd of people occupied the site. Near the base of the stairs a large delegation awaited.
The first to greet them were their mothers, then their fathers. A brother and his first love.
They moved steadily through the greeters, but Arthur suddenly stopped and said, “I never thought I would meet you here.”
Jesus said, “No man comes to the Father but by me,” and embraced him.
Next in line a swarthy, kind-eyed man with white hair and full beard exclaimed “And I welcome you also!”
He counseled Ruth and Arthur, “I am able to love my God because He gives me freedom to deny Him.”
A farmwife in that area interrupted her evening chores, her eyes attracted toward Emerald Mound by the movement of large birds rising and circling in the distance. “Look over there,” she called to a child, “Something’s got the turkeys stirred up again.”
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Header Images: Header, wild turkeys in morning light. I believe this comes from Dreamstime or Fotolia, but did not record the photographer. Emerald Mound, from the National Park Service. The author on Emerald Mound in January 2003, family photo.
 This was the book Heart to Heart by Allen Weisse, published in 2002. I must have found it lying on the coffee table or beside Daddy’s chair in the living room. A previous blog and another one quote segments from the interview.
Quotes at the end of blog are from the Bible, John 14:6, and from “Fireflies” by Rabindranath Tagore. The most profound exploration of spiritual freedom ever written came from a poet of Edom, who wrote the Book of Job incorporated by the Israelites into their canon, as explained in this previous blog. The natural world and animals pursuing their lives in a wilderness, described in God’s own words, depict freedom for us.