UB MFA candidate Oakley Julian’s graduate thesis, Words and Silence, tells a true family story — the good, the bad, the foreign, the familiar. Read two micro-chapters below.
He was the first to make Van Gogh references and bar-brawl jokes after half of his ear was removed in 2003. Beyond those jokes and keeping folks more or less up-to-date on upcoming scans and procedures, there wasn’t much else added to the melanoma discussion for nearly 10 years. As his wife Joy told me, “Walter’s attitude towards this whole thing is that it’s chronic, not terminal. When something pops up, we handle it and then go on.”
Joy called in August 2012 to tell me they were waiting for him to have emergency surgery for a perforated bowel, a possible side effect of a treatment he had recently finished. I sat on my couch for a moment and tried to figure out what to do with this information. How serious was this? Would I be overreacting if I jumped in the car and drove the 561 miles from Baltimore to Lexington, South Carolina? Would I be under-reacting if I didn’t? What about work? I only had nine hours of leave. How “routine” was something like a “perforated bowel?”
I haphazardly packed a small suitcase, forgetting underwear and all toiletries and the mate to one of my shoes. On my way out of town I stopped by the bank to withdraw cash for the trip; I knew it would eventually lead to my account being overdrawn by close to $500, but it was just money. The finances would work themselves out eventually.
As I drove south on I-95, I could feel the thought bubble carrying the idea of Daddy dying as it tried to push its way in, interrupt, and distract my attention from the humorous audio book I was listening to. Every time the thought tried to intrude, I literally shook it out, while trying to be mindful of keeping my car in my lane.
Daddy and I needed more time. To me it seemed that our relationship had finally started to bloom over the last few years; we weren’t done yet.
After 10 hours on the road, I finally got to the hospital a little after midnight. When I got to his ICU room at Lexington Medical Center, Daddy was awake and surprised to see me.
“You didn’t need to come all the way down here.”
As I pulled a chair up next to his bed I responded matter-of-factly, “I do lots of things I don’t need to do.”
We talked a little baseball and about my drive down. He told me about the anniversary gift he and Joy were giving each other: a new stove top and refrigerator. He also told me that he had started making both me and Meredith knife blocks for Christmas.
He chuckled a little and said, “So there. I’ve ruined your Christmas present.”
Three days later, Daddy was in a regular hospital room and had walked two laps around the 6th floor with Meredith, my sister. By the following night he was a happy man; because his intestines were starting to work again, he was now allowed to have chocolate ice cream. That night he said, “I’m going to spend the next two days getting stronger so I can get out of here.”
That night the infection set in and his kidneys began to fail.
Granddaddy and I were very close, partially because I am the oldest of his 15 grandchildren. “You’re the one who made me a granddaddy,” he would remind me, as if the position came with great responsibility.
My grandparents lived about four hours away in Florence, South Carolina, a place I’m convinced only exists because folks wanted a pit stop between the state capital of Columbia and Myrtle Beach. I stayed there with my grandparents for a week every summer until I was 14.
While riding in the backseat of the Oldsmobile heading towards Florence, I would listen to my grandfather talk over his shoulder to me about my mother’s most recent weekend visit. After we arrived, I would lie on the twin bed in the guestroom and think about how I was sharing the same space and sleeping in the same bed my mother had been in only the weekend before. I’d then look around the room in an unsuccessful search for more evidence of her presence.
Oakley Julian is a writer and book maker currently living in Baltimore, Maryland. She has written for The Savannah Morning News and Savannah Magazine. Words and Silence is her first book and can be purchased at faunawisemarket.com.
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