I'll never forget that early Sunday morning in August. The sky was a drooping gray canvas over Baltimore City. The birds had just begun to sing a counterpoint of notes as if to break through the sky. Suddenly the telephone's rude ring cut into my reverie. It was my brother Jim, and I knew instantly something was wrong. Jim rarely called me. Then I heard those dreaded words: "Our Dad died last night."
My first reaction was disbelief. How could Iver be gone (I called my father by his first name in his later years, for we were such close friends), Iver, who had always been so strong, who comforted me even when Alzheimer's Disease raged through his body and mind like a merciless midwestern storm?
My father had started a dairy in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1930 it was a small business with only three workers and one milk route. Gradually, he built it up to a huge milk processing plant serving all of Iowa. As a child, I walked carefully through the dairy, where water slid in rivers over the tile floors. I was fascinated by the roar of the machinery, milk gushing like gossip. There were rainbows of tulips surrounding the plant in spring, and people came from miles around to take pictures. I was in awe of Iver for building something so big -- I was so proud of my Dad.
Now, in Baltimore on that Sunday morning, I felt like a mechanical doll as I got dressed, made plane reservations to Des Moines for Iver's funeral. There was a tight fist in my chest. I must cancel my turn to play the piano for the morning service at church today, I thought. But Iver seemed to be talking to me, comforting me, telling me not to grieve for him, to go ahead and do what I had planned. So I played piano at church, then took the long rough flight to Des Moines. The fist in me grew tighter, harder. I was still a mechanical doll in a dream.
On the night that Iver's body was to be viewed at the funeral home, I arrived early. I was alone in the room with my father, who seemed to rest peacefully in his casket. His face, though, was strangely pale and waxen. The electronic organ pumped "Sweet Hour of Prayer" through the speakers. Gradually the people began to come, hundreds of them over a four-hour period -- dairy employees, people from church, neighbors -- all to pay tribute to my Dad. They stood in little groups and chatted -- a cacophony of words and laughter -- while Iver lay lifeless, silent in his casket.
The large church was packed for the funeral. Again, I was a mechanical doll walking with my family down the aisle. At the end of the service the whole congregation sang the hymn, "Jesus Is Coming Again," a tune that Mother and I sung with Iver many times in his nursing-home room.
Now, there was nothing to do but go home. But where was home? My mother lived in a retirement home cottage. My plane for Baltimore didn't leave until the next day. The only place that was home in Iowa was the large white house on John Patterson Road where I grew up. It stood fully furnished but empty of people. It was waiting for me.
Inside, the rooms were filled with dramas. The reflections in the windows were eyes in the past. Memories stepped out of every photograph. My piano was still where it always had been, the one where I played Mozart, Brahms, my own compositions. Iver grew to love my original pieces in his later years. I sank down into my father's favorite chair and suddenly flood gates let loose the tears. The fist in my chest slowly unclenched. I must have cried for hours.
"Daddy, the lie I told . . . "
You sit on the edge of my bed,
telling me God forgives
as far as the east is from the west . . .
Our walks at dusk, the sun's
burning face peering through the weeds . . .
At the top of the hill I turn and wave to you
and you wave back, your silver hair a crown. . . .
My mind drifted. In the late '60s, there was distance between us: my hours of piano practice every day, the metronome swinging in lonely arcs, Iver's time on church boards, the late-night clash of TV with piano scales. Then came my long illness of over two years.
My mind landed me for a moment in 1978. I had just been released from the hospital, and I had a feeling of renaissance, of beginning anew. Iver and I became very close during that time and he had given me a new bright blue Toyota to celebrate my recovery and my ability to drive again. I drove it proudly.
One day a boyfriend and I had a quarrel. A few hours after he had left, I went out to drive my new Toyota, still very upset. Clouds had gathered in a dark purple wound in the north. I was fascinated by the sky, and had always loved summer storms in Iowa. I began to drive straight north toward the storm. Wild flowers grew in clusters along the rough narrow highway. I hummed to the radio.