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Dear Daddy
Dad and me reading, 1969

Dear Daddy,

It's raining today. It's been raining since last night, and it's supposed to rain through tomorrow. You'd hate it. Stuck in the house, unable to go play golf. It's cold too, but not so cold you need extra socks. My hair goes straight and stringy with all the humidity. It's a blessing though, this rain.

Right after you died, I used to imagine what it was like under the earth when it would rain. Did it feel like the womb again?

Your birthday came and went last week. You would have been 67. Instead, you've been dead 20 years. Everything that I have become, you never knew. Or maybe, I became it because you did know.

I sat in a coffee shop yesterday and watched Granite Creek bubble past the window. A tall amethyst crystal inhabits the window, catching the afternoon sun. I know the owner, and I knew two people who came and went during the three hours I was there. I love my town, Daddy. I can't say that I love Arizona. I can't say that I feel anything but barren when I see desert, but I do love my town.

I'm trying to write about our land now, Daddy. The land Melanie and I sold back to Catherine after Grandma died. I'm trying to write about it so I can show other people what it means to feel ripped from a place -- a very common state one can find oneself. I understand why you moved us out here, and I know you hoped that it would be better out here for you. I know it wasn't better for you, and it wasn't better for me, either. But here we both are -- you underground in a soggy cemetery in Glendale; me, above ground for today, on a soggy sheath of land in Prescott. I want you to know that at least I love my town.

I want you to know that I write because you saw the ghosts with me. I write because you told me I had to believe in them to see them and when I did that, you gave me a pen and told me to show you what I saw. And I did. I want so much today to sit with you in that coffee shop and talk to you about the ghosts you saw. What did you see floating over the iron-edged bed in the polio ward in 1948? What did you hear in the machines that ultimately stopped your life? What did you never talk about? Your ghosts are my ghosts, Daddy, and a conversation with you every now and then would be a welcome thing. I want to talk to you about this book I'm writing that is pulling me in a thousand directions, every direction ending up anchored back to the ghosts -- back to the presence of them, the absence of them, and the exorcism of them. Everything goes back to finding home.

I do love my town, Daddy, but it is not my home. Maybe we only get one of those in a lifetime. Maybe that search for the first womb is so strong that it drives novelists and musicians and scientists to keep seeking it out -- keep searching for the key to the door that created us. And maybe the whole point is that we never find it.

I know you were afraid I'd inherited your moodiness and your dissatisfaction with things as they are. I did. Both qualities make me write. I know you were afraid I attached to everything too much. I do. And though I'm getting better at detaching, it doesn't come so easily. I haven't detached from you yet, have I? And it's been 20 years.

I wonder what you would say about my books. You never saw any of them. I wonder what you would say about my job, about yoga (I can imagine what you'd say about yoga!), about Keith. I wonder if you'd be sad that I can't let go of the land we left, but I know because I watched your eyes when a golf tournament was played in North Carolina, and because I listened to your voice when you talked of Chapel Hill and of your buddies and the student union (it's gone now, you know -- at least the student union you knew) and "Stewball" on the jukebox that you couldn't let go of the land you left, even if you believed in why you left it.

The earth is slippery. We don't stake a claim on her; she claims us. There seems to be very little one can do about it. We drive into a place and we know in our cells if this earth will hold us or push us away. Phoenix pushed us both away. I'm sorry you're in that ground. I know there's a plot for you still at Masonboro Baptist Church's cemetery in the row of other Herrings -- -next to your mother, your father, your uncle, your cousins.

I'm writing about you now, in a way I haven't done before. What do you want me to say? What do you want me to leave out? I just looked through again a box of old photographs your sister sent to us after Grandmama died. From the time you were born until the very last picture in there, one of you and Mom out by Cave Creek in 1987 -- must have been just a few weeks before you died -- your eyes were haunted. They were haunted before the polio. Before the heart attack. Before. That's why you wrote. I'd sure like to talk to you about that. I'm going to have to make it up now. I'm going to have to make up my life so it can be truthful. I'm going to pretend you're sitting across the table, at the Wild Iris coffee shop, watching Granite Creek with me. I'm going to pretend you're holding the pen with me, just like I'm realizing I always do. I'm going to conjure you back so you can take me back to the places we left.

"I know this move was a mistake for you," you said to me one night after we went driving. "I know how much you miss North Carolina."

I couldn't speak. My throat closed every time we tried to talk in those last few years. I never wanted to cry with you because I was afraid I'd never stop. I was afraid you'd know you were dying, and that I knew it too, and then where would we be -- all our pretending that life in a flat, dry, hot town could make it better. Then where would we be?

"Everything changes, sugar. Not one thing is how it used to be, no matter how much you want it to be. Not one thing."

We parked in the driveway in front of the garage door. It was 9:00.

"People write stories so they can hang on to how it used to be. Or so they can figure out how it used to be. Or so they can make it better. When you know what you want your stories to be, you can write them. Just remember that everything changes. One day you're writing to hang on, the next day you're writing for some other reason. Let that be OK."

"It's so ugly here," I said. "It's so ugly."

"I'm dying here, Laraine," you said, looking decidedly away from me.

"I'm dying here too, Daddy."

"I'm sorry."

I pushed into your shoulder and sucked in air. One of the few moments of physical touch I can remember between us.I was 15 1/2. You were teaching me how to drive. I couldn't bear that you were unhappy too.

"Let's go back."

"We can't go back. Your mom has a job. Melanie is happy."

But of course, what I really meant was -- let's go back to before you got sick. Let's go back to the only eight years of my life I had a home. 1968-1976.

"I'm tired, Laraine."

And I knew. I knew you were done with the experimental drug treatments. Done with trying to get your golf game back. Done with finding God in the King James version. Done even with longing for home.

"So what do you think of Prescott, Daddy? It took me 20 years to get here."

"It's like Wilmington was. Long time ago."

"Yeah. It's not home though."

"I know." And you'll take my hand and we'll both hold the purple pen over the page. "You've got to go make it up now. That's as real as it ever was."

So I start today with...

The first voice I heard I was sure belonged to Jesus. I was only five years old and already preoccupied with whether or not Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam. I'd been praying for him to fill my open empty heart.

"Time to go to the sleepyhouse, Lanie,"

What?

Jesus was African American after all! And he was a she -- something I instinctively knew I needed to keep quiet. She sounded like a grandmother, but not as creaky as my grandmother. And my name was Laraine, not Lanie, but Jesus had a lot of names to keep track of. It was understandable he'd get confused from time to time. I was going to be a sunbeam after all. The fiery pits of hell weren't going to close in on me. My heart was worthy of the sweet salve of salvation. I wasn't afraid at all. Not one bit.

Maybe I can meet you here again tomorrow, Daddy? The creek will be really pretty after all this rain.

Love,
Laraine

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I understand this sentence too well...

"I never wanted to cry with you because I was afraid I'd never stop."