When my mother called yesterday from Sewanee, Tennessee to tell me that my father may be dying, Julia and I jumped in our car and drove the twelve hours. He was in a morphine-induced sleep when we arrived. I write this at the end of a long day and am feeling at the moment as though I’ve been bludgeoned.
This summer has seemed like a reprieve and a special gift. Although it began with my father slipping into dementia following a bladder infection, he then regained his faculties, and I spent two precious months listening to him recount World War II and Civil Rights era stories and talk about literature. Although I then had to return to Maryland, I stayed in almost daily contact and knew him to be as sharp as ever. Just two days ago he was working with my mother to find their weekly literary contribution to The Mountain Messenger, Sewanee’s weekly newspaper. And now this.
The passage they found had to do with rain since it’s been raining all summer in Sewanee, with rainfall 22 inches above normal. I share it here because the description of the rising flood waters in A. A Milne’s “Surrounded by Water” chapter in Winnie-the-Pooh also captures my sense that we are all about to be submerged:
It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness how old—three, or was it four?—never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days…
[I]t was rather exciting. The little dry ditches in which Piglet had nosed about so often had become streams, the little streams across which he had splashed were rivers, and the river, between whose steep banks they had played so happily, had sprawled out of its own bed and was taking up so much room everywhere, that Piglet was beginning to wonder whether it would be coming into his bed soon.
At the end of the chapter, of course, there’s a miraculous rescue as Christopher Robin and Pooh turn an umbrella into a boat and save Piglet. I’m pessimistic that there will be any miraculous rescue here. This feels more like William Cowper’s “Castaway,” about sailors looking on helpless as a fellow crew member drowns before their eyes:
He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.
Some succour yet they could afford;
And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.
The hospital is doing all it can and yesterday intervened as my father’s pulse started racing. But it feels is though the medical staff are just postponing the inevitable.
In the end, it may be our own metaphorical immersion in depression that we fear the most:
No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.
Pray for us.
Added note: There’s another reason why my father turning to the Pooh books hits me hard. As I wrote a while back, he named me after Christopher Robin because, he said, he envisioned having the kind of relationship with his firstborn that Milne’s character has with Pooh. I look back with gratitude at the adventures we have had together.
The “Surrounded by Water” chapter comes right before the final chapter, “We Say Good-Bye.” Although my father read the Pooh books to my brothers and me over and over, he would never read the final pages of that chapter, where Pooh says farewell to Christopher Robin and walks off into the sunset. He found it too sad.