Watercolor on paper w/ ink by Sydney Chaney Thomas
In recent months I’ve been thinking and writing about bravery and courage and the hero’s journey (read PacCup Race to Hawaii
). I also wrote about how I had been given the gift of being misdiagnosed with a terminal illness only to find that I would eventually fully recover* (read Misdiagnosed
The summer I thought I was dying was one of the most profound periods of my life and during that time I wrote a collection of short stories, titled NINE. The nine stories are like the spokes of a wheel that touch on the events of that year and how each would define and inform the trajectory of the wheel (e.g.my life).
As luck would have it, a friend of mine was aquatinted with the famous writer, Adair Lara, and I was able to meet with her and have her read my work. Adair was very encouraging, calling my writing “lyrical”, a term that I cherished, since she is friends with Amy Tan who wrote the beautiful novel, The Joy Luck Club and if any work is lyrical it is hers. I worked tirelessly for nine months, but in the end I couldn’t finish the project as it was deeply personal in nature and required things from me that I was not yet ready to give. In many ways I was simply too terrified to put myself out there as a writer, so instead of calling on my courage and doing the fine tuning and hard work necessary to publish this book, I decided to take the safer route. I shelved it, and wrote my cookbook Real Food for Real People (available on Amazon) which includes recipes and stories from the years my children were small.
Then, as I began thinking about my next book, which I hope will be the story of my race to Hawaii, I remembered this work and felt compelled to breath life back into it since this would require an equal amount of bravery.
As you will see, the themes in NINE are quite serious; and after my near death experience I felt compelled to enjoy the light hearted years of my children’s childhood since my own childhood had been very different. But we can never really escape from our roots for it was this farm, where we grew and raised most of the food we ate, that continues to inspire me to be the cook, mother and person that I am today.
Below is the central story, or the hub of the wheel that begins the series of nine stories that rotate around the year that my father died and I lived on a beautiful farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
It is with bravery that I put this on my blog as it is so different from my usual topics: the recipes inspired from this farm and childhood.
Once again, thank you to all of you who have helped me along the way and have encouraged me to continue to write and be my authentic self.
* I was eventually diagnosed with Sarcadosis by UCSF and was cured by an acupuncturist and violin maker in Berkeley.
by Sydney Ann Chaney Thomas
I lie in bed with him for hours and he talks to me. He tells me stories about when he was a pilot in the war, he teaches me how to predict the weather by the shape of the clouds. He teaches me their names, cumulus, stratus, cirrus, he tells me these are their Latin names as he lay, slowly dying. I pronounce them as best I can and commit his words to memory.
Transported to and from the hospital in a military helicopter, the police in our small farming community are concerned. They think he is trafficking drugs. My mother laughs at this, but is livid, maybe even beyond livid. She loses much of her good humor in the years my father spends dying.
We pray for him, kneeling in the pews of the Catholic Church, never has there been more futile an activity than this. Nevertheless, we continue this practice every Sunday, the three of us, my mother dressed impeccably, my sister and I with our shiny hair pulled back, matching dresses and black patent leather shoes. Together we kneel, stand and kneel. We cross ourselves with holy water as we leave. My mother holds my hand, white knuckled, through the parking lot.
On our way home, I watch the orchards disappear as we pass: pear, apple and walnut. As the car speeds up they pass in patterns that make me dizzy to watch. We stop in town and my mother buys us each a black berry milk shake. This is our treat for being quiet in church. We sit outside on metal benches in the weak sunshine watching the cars go by. My mother stares at us while she smokes a cigarette. We look back at her and say nothing. There’s not much to say at this point.
My mother begins drinking all of the wine my father has been making from the small vineyard on our property. The barrels sit aging by the back door in our kitchen and my mother siphons the liquid out with a turkey baster, but who can blame her? My sister and I are vacuuming and ironing clothes. The ironing board hits me at the clavicle. I am ironing polyester. I am ironing her polyester muumuu. I am ironing her polyester bedspread. It is slippery and I try to keep it on the board. My mother walks by me without comment. She is losing not only her good humor now, but her judgment as well.
The summer days are cool on the farm, the rains have continued into June and now we await the arrival of my grandmother. My mother spends days cleaning and baking for her mother, she tells us Nana is selfish, but you can tell my mother loves her and seeks her approval. When my grandmother does arrive, she walks around in a purple satin negligee and ignores us. She buys our younger cousins candy, but not my sister and I, she says she just got a little something for the little ones. And my mother, well, she simply goes berserk.
They think it is Agent Orange, a pesticide used in Vietnam to clear the vegetation from the jungle, which is causing my father’s lungs to disintegrate, but they can’t be sure, they just don’t know. There is no cure, no treatment. We can only wait and see what will happen.
Men die on battlefields all the time; soldiers slaughtered, bombs explode, guns are fired – it happens all the time. For thousands of years, more even, men are lost to war.
It took a thousand days for his body to disintegrate, literally. Agent Orange, Vietnam – not everyone survives Vietnam, least of all the frontline of De Nang. If they can kill an entire jungle, how should one man survive? Then again, other men were there who did survive, what of those that didn’t die? It was just one of those things. No ones fault, everyone’s fault, war.
He left Vietnam with the chemicals in his lungs – lodged deep inside, the chemicals that kill jungles can kill men too, it appears, sometimes, but only slowly.
He had volunteered to go there. Volunteered. It seems so hard to understand why someone would do that, but he did.
For a thousand days I watch him die. Later when asked where my father was, I would say, “My father died when I was nine.”
Sometimes, people would say, “Oh, you didn’t know him then,” but the opposite is true, my brain is infused with him because of it.
But, how could I explain? So, I would just stand there and say nothing.
It was clear he was dying; it wasn’t something someone would need to tell you or something that could be withheld. I understood easily by observation, that our days together were numbered, and I took note of them as they passed.
Even now, I can close my eyes and remember what it was like to lay beside his skeletal body at night, watching the horses graze in the moonlight. I remember the white moon in the sky, the dark blue shadows of the horses bodies as they grazed, his fragile thin frame next to mine, still warm. Just thinking this, I can hear my mother’s voice, scolding me, “Don’t be so dramatic,” she would say, a warning not to indulge my sorrow, not to name it or speak of it. I was not allowed that extravagance, it was too big of a luxury then and the same is true now.
One man. One soldier. He is just one casualty of war.
But, I never stop thinking of him as if my growth was stunted, at the age of nine, by loving him. A part of me remains forever nine – living in that house – on that land – in that valley.
Later, I waited patiently for my own daughter to turn nine so I could watch her. I wanted to see what a girl of nine was, both intellectually and emotionally. I wanted to gage that age through her. See how sophisticated she was, how child like, understand what I had been when I had lost everything that was dear to me.
My mother left us at a pig farm the day they put him in the ground. We missed his twenty one gun salute. The hogs were neatly penned in their long open barns, the white house stood alone at the end of the road. I sat watching the gravel drive, waiting for her. The sky turned lavender, and then, the sun went down. It was January. She pulled up and took us back to the farm.