By Lise Liddell © 2014
When I was a child my father, Frank, relished reciting poetry to my two bothers, Frank Jr. and Robert, and me. Despite having lost most of the use of his legs at age 26 as the result of an airplane crash while training for the Korean War (before he married and had children) Dad was an absurdly accomplished man. He was a lawyer, an entrepreneurial investor, a wine connoisseur, a guitar player, a singer songwriter, and a romantic and passionate poetry reciter. He memorized and recited hundreds of poems in his lifetime including The “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” which consists of 75 quatrains of heady lyrical English translated from Persian.
My brothers and I dreaded it when Dad spontaneously burst into one of his recitals. We knew it was going to be long, boring, and that we’d be expected to sit and at least pretend to listen attentively like miniature military soldiers.
One of Dad’s favorite poems was “Even This Shall Pass Away,” by Theodore Tilton. (When we were forced to listen, we could only hope that poem would pass away at the speed of sound.) The poem is about a king who wears a ring with the words, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” engraved in the gold. The ring serves as a mnemonic of the fleetingness of every situation in life so that the king will not become attached to good fortune or despair during difficult times.
My father had his own symbolic ring. At 16 his father sent him to Virginia Military Institute (VMI), hoping the school would toughen up his sensitive and only child. Upon graduation Dad received his VMI ring. He wore it every day until the last year of his life at age 81 when he’d become so thin that the ring slipped from his finger.
The top of this ring was dome shaped and three quarters of an inch in diameter. At the pinnacle of the dome a blood red round shiny garnet a quarter of an inch wide was inlayed into 14 karat gold. My father slept in this ring, worked in it, played in it, and played with it. At dinner each night, after having watched Walter Cronkite on the nightly news, he’d set the ring on the thin part that raps underneath the finger and spin it like a top on our kitchen table as he pontificated aloud.
“This country’s going to hell. Those long-haired-marijuana-cigarette-smoking punks protesting the Vietnam War and screaming about rights for women and blacks outta be shot.”
We’d pig out on Mom’s pork chops and rice or Cajun shrimp and eggplant while Dad plowed through his furious ramble. The only thing fun about dinner was the food, and sometimes the food wasn’t worth it. Before we were allowed to dig in, Dad would say a prayer that was a spontaneous poem of his own. He’d thank God for our food, and then pray for every psychologically ravaged member of our extended family, including his mother who, despite having the energy to butt into my parents’ marriage on a daily basis, was getting ready to die any second for as long as I’d been alive, a distant cousin in her 40’s with schizophrenia who’s first name was our family’s surname, Dad’s first cousin who weighed 400 lbs. and has suffered multiple heart attacks, and that cousin’s daughter who’d graduated valedictorian in her high school class at the number one private high school in Houston, but had forgone several full scholarships to Ivy League colleges to run away with an escaped mental patient and live in a trailer park.
Once, at the end of one of these prayers my mother said, “God, Frank, does the Goddamned prayer always have to be so long?” We kids concurred internally with wild wide eyes and fluttering hearts.
“Listen,” he said pointing his finger at my mom across the table, his face suddenly red and swelling with anger, shaking his ring in our faces, “I paid for this food and you will sit here and pretend to be grateful even if you aren’t. I’ll pray as long as I goddamned well feel like it.”
My father’s ring was the only jewelry he ever wore, save a cheap calculator watch he used for business deals and calculating tips in restaurants. He was married twice and never wore a wedding ring. VMI was his bride. He’d learned a lot about survival there, and when he broke his spinal cord, survive is what he did. For six months he lay in full traction in the hospital, the doctors flipping his body every twelve hours. They gave him morphine sparingly for fear of his becoming addicted. He’d beg for it through tears of agony to no avail. (Now it is common knowledge that morphine is not addictive, as long as it has some pain to kill.) When he was finally released, the doctors told him he’d never have children and most likely not live to be 35. Nevertheless, he entered law school one year after the accident. He worked out daily, and within two years was bench pressing 350 lbs., and walking on crutches with the help of braces that he strapped on to his atrophied legs with leather and Velcro straps. The braces were attached to black men’s dress shoes, and when my dad slipped his business suit pants over the braces there was little detection of what lay beneath them.
Before his accident, my father had been a golden boy: smart, gifted in music and sports, handsome, funny, and as the child of a powerful Houston lawyer and a mother who doted on him – privileged. Before that fateful day, I don’t believe my father expected anything could go wrong in his life. A year before his accident while earning a Masters Degree in Chemistry at The University of Texas at Austin my father went to see a movie titled “The Men” in downtown Austin at The Paramount Theater. Marlon Brando stars in the film as a WWII lieutenant who is shot in combat and becomes a paraplegic. Over time he comes to adapt to and accept his situation. My dad told me that upon leaving that theater he thought if something like that happened to him he would not have the strength to continue living.
He was stronger than he knew, and believed his training at VMI was responsible. He became dedicated to the school. He was on its Board of Visitors and provided money for several dozen scholarships to young cadets. He frequently entertained VMI people traveling through Texas in our home: no expense or effort was withheld when his VMI family showed up. And he always wore the ring. I believe for him, it symbolized his determination to not only endure, but also thrive.
As much as Dad loved VMI, as a child I resented it. I felt he was more dedicated to his school and his comrades than he was to his children. He wanted us to act like soldiers rather than kids. It struck me as well that if he hadn’t gone to a military school in the first place, he wouldn’t have entered the Air Force and gone down in that plane. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been such a fan of corporeal punishment either. If we transgressed for example by saying “yes” to an adult rather than “yes sir,” Dad would yank us by an arm over his lap as he was sitting in his wheelchair and beat the “the living daylight” out of us (as he liked to put it) with his hand. His legs didn’t work, but his arms were weapons that we feared. He once beat Frank Jr. with a coat hanger for making a farting noise, and he bent my mother over his knees and spanked her in the middle of a party while 40 people watched. All of us tiptoed through life so as not to set him off, but his standards were so high that inevitably each of us triggered his rage.
VMI, the very thing that gave him the strength to survive the loss of the use of his legs was the thing that I believed put him on the path to the accident that would create rage in his heart. He was dedicated to that school because it represented love of, service to, and sacrifice for The United States of America. It gave meaning to his tragic loss. He doted on the school, while taking his unresolved anger out on his children and wife. Therapy was not an option – only the weak and the crazy sought counsel. Mom was in therapy the whole time we were growing up, and eventually all three of his children would be as well.
When I was in my early thirties, I sat across from my Dad at his mammoth mahogany desk in his office as he grumbled about his relationship with Frank Jr. while rummaging through a junk-stuffed drawer in search of his extra large bottle of mint flavored Rolaids.
“Dad,” I said, “your relationship would be better if you’d stop being so hard on him, and if you’d apologize for how you treated him as a child.”
“Listen, I don’t wanna hear any bunk about how I shouldn’t have disciplined my children for fear of wounding their little psyches,” he said, shoving a fistful of Rolaids in his mouth.
“I’m not trying to ream you out, Dad. You were a paraplegic with a horrible marriage and three children. Of course you were angry. But you took it out on Frank.”
“Hey,” he said, hammering his fist on the desk. “It never bothered me to be a paraplegic.”
Oh Daddy, methinks thou dost protest too much.
On my 26th birthday my father took me to lunch at The Houston Club in downtown Houston, the business lunch club where he served on the board. I had walked from my job as credit analyst at the now defunct MBank a few blocks away to meet him. I had earned a Masters in Business Administration at The University of Texas at Austin upon my father’s command and was now working in the same downtown metropolis where he’s spent the last 30 years building his legal and business careers. I hated every second of banking, though, and in just a few years would disappoint and embarrass my dad when I would exit the business world to join a local theater, write songs and perform in wine bars and beer joints. Playing guitar and singing songs was supposed to be a hobby, not a profession.
But for now I was my father’s golden child, as he had been his mother’s. My brother Frank was working in the music publishing business in Nashville, Tennessee (my father referred to Frank Jr.’s career as “That screwy job your brother’s got.”) and my brother Robert was doing what my father referred to as “goofing off” at the University of Houston. Both of them had refused to go to VMI. Fortunately for me, at the time of my college aged years the school did not accept women. My brothers infuriated my father on a regular basis – I was the child he could count on to do everything he said. What he didn’t understand was that I did so because I was afraid of him. I wasn’t the good daughter – I was the scared daughter.
However, on this day Dad had something to reward me with for 26 years of unyielding service to him. After I grazed over a shrimp cocktail and he wolfed down a hamburger, Dad pulled out a small cubed shaped brown leather box and placed it on the table. I knew that box had a ring in it, and I sensed it was going to be special. Nervous and thrilled, I picked up the box and flipped open the lid. In it lay a heavy gold ring, the band about a quarter of an inch thick all the way around. On top of the ring lay two smooth surfaced eye-shaped Cabochan rubies sitting side by side. They stared at me from their golden bed. They looked so much like real eyes I half expected them to blink.
It was an antique ring Dad had found it on a business trip to New York. He was unsure if I would like it, as it was so unusual and not exactly dainty. I loved it. Years later it would occur to me what an unusual choice he’d made in that ring. He was such a traditionalist, and this ring was hardly traditional. Perhaps even before I broke loose of his control, he sensed uniqueness in my spirit that at the time, so dedicated to him, I had not attended to. I put the ring on my right ring finger, and went back to work.
I am like my father in that I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but I wear this ring almost every day. It has significant meaning in my life. A recurring dream I had for decades was that my ring was lost at the bottom of the sea and I had to dive down and search for it among the haziness of the almost black water and the muddy sea floor. If I did find it, to my horror the rubies would be corroded and crumbling. These dreams ceased when he died, making me believe they had to do with my fear of losing my father physically as his health was always precarious, and my fear of losing his love if I screwed up. Dad could crush my heart with a single disapproving glance.
When I was in my mid thirties and well into my music career my father’s bowels were punctured and he ended up in emergency exploratory surgery. Before he went into the operating room, the surgeon told us he didn’t expect him to make it through the surgery. Then he allowed us to go into the ICU to see him before they wheeled him into the OR. I knew this might be my last time to see Daddy, which is what I still called him. I was aghast when I saw his bright red, shirtless body bloated to twice his normal size. He looked like a balloon that was getting ready to pop from over inflation. The doctors had pumped him with fluids to get his blood pressure up for the operation – it had dropped to zero twice. But what grabbed my attention most were my father’s eyes. They were swollen with buckets of tears threatening to flood the entire hospital. In them I saw an innocent, overwhelmed, confused, fear stricken child not knowing what was happening to him in the hands of strangers. He must have felt like that many times since his plane crash, but in his militaristic distain for emotional weakness had abstained from confession, preferring to drag that colossal, cumbersome cross through decades of life, all alone. The sight of him reduced to the fragile child within him, made me instantaneously weep. I grabbed on to the rails of the hospital bed and through them said, “I love you, Daddy” repeatedly for the ten seconds allowed until someone began wheeling the bed out the door and my hands were pried from the rails.
I’m not sure why I picked the middle of the waiting room, but I lay down on the floor on my side, closed my eyes and began to pray with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed. I begged whatever beings lay across this physical barrier to attend to my father’s soul – to make him know that whether he came or went, he was safe and loved. I couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving this earth in a state of terror.
I was wearing my ring, twisting it back and forth on my finger, caressing it like a rosary. I did this non-stop for four hours. People stepped over me without saying a word or asking me to move. Anyone in an OR waiting room knows that the paradigms for what is considered bizarre behavior become redefined.
Between fevered prayers I kept thinking back to the words that frequently passed through my father’s lips, “Even this shall pass away,” as I inwardly rolled my child’s eyes – wanting him to finish his performance ASAP so I could go outside to play kick the can or let my gerbil out of his cage to run all over my bedroom while I played with my Barbie dolls or watched The Flintstones. Lying on the floor that day I’d have given anything to hear my father speak those words that eerily I knew could pertain to his own passing from this earth at any moment as he lay on an operating table in a room just down the hall from me.
When the surgeon came in to speak to us, all three of his children sprang up to assume full military stance as he explained that Dad had made it through the operation. We should all go home and come back to visit him in the intensive care unit tomorrow.
Exhausted from having squeezed every last prayer out of my spiritually racked soul, I started to leave when a nurse came through the door and handed me my father’s VMI ring. “Take this home,” she said, “It could get stolen here.” I held the ring in my hand and looked at the ring on my own. For the first time it occurred to me that they were similar. His was much larger, but both were made of heavy gold and blood red stones - a single stone for my dad, two stones for me. In numerology, odd numbers are said to be masculine, even numbers - feminine. I smiled inwardly as I held the ring in my hand, turning it over and over, and said one last prayer that Dad would be wearing it again soon. My prayer was answered a month later when he was released from the hospital and I went to visit him at his apartment. I handed him the ring and his face lit up. “Oh – I was worried I’d lost it,” he said. A surge of guilt raced through my heart center. I wish I’d told him I had the ring.
My dad lived another dozen years after this particular hospitalization (he had over 30 surgeries during his life) working, singing, playing the guitar, drinking wine, reading books, freaking out about the stock market, railing about whatever the politicians were doing in Washington DC, and of course reciting poetry. He went on a cruise to Russia with some friends knowing full well how difficult it is to travel as a paraplegic – especially in a country that has no wheelchair ramps or bathrooms for the disabled. He went to his VMI reunion in Alexandria, Virginia every year until his last year of life. He gave money to The University of Texas in Galveston for stem cell research that suggests that in the future people with spinal chord injuries will fully recover, and people who lose a limb will be able to grow it back.
The years were mellowing him and while he had once told me that he, “didn’t give a damn about winning any popularity contest,” with his kids, it seemed now that he couldn’t get enough of us. If he hadn’t seen one of us in a while, he complained like a baby and triggered our guilt complexes. We could, after all, walk and he couldn’t. When we did show up he’d still give us hell about how we were a lazy pack of wacked out artists. He was addicted to reaming us out even if he was happy to see us.
Over these years, his solo musical performances transformed into family and friend song jams. Frank and I would play, as would musical friends of ours that we’d met from working in the music world. Those nights the wine would seep into my father’s heart and his true spirit would shine through all his scar tissue. He’d sing and play an array of songs he’d written over the years. Funny one’s like “The Boy Debutant” about a young man who does nothing in life except go to debutant parties, (perhaps part of dad wished he could have been that carefree, irresponsible young man) and tender songs such as “Tiny Potlett” that he’d written about me when I was a toddler. On one of these nights when he was especially sloshed he confided in me, “I don’t know why all of my kids want to be artists. I can only figure it’s because that’s what I wanted to be when I was young.” Perhaps Dad’s distain for hippies drew from the repressed flower child within him.
My dad died four years ago at the age of 81. Despite having spent so much of his life in and out of hospitals often in physical agony, Dad passed peacefully and pain free at home with his family around him. His VMI ring sat on his bedside table. My brothers, my father’s girl friend of 10 years, his secretary of 30 years, three nurses who had grown to love my father deeply from caring for him for four years, and my father’s doctor who both loved and admired my dad were there. After Dad’s last breath, we walked outside in silence to his front lawn on a hot June afternoon and lowered the American flag to half-mast. The doctor lit a cigarette and I smiled at him for his dedication to prolonging life and for his resignation to the fleetingness of it.
They took my father’s body just hours later, and hospice immediately retrieved their hospital bed from the house. My brother Robert took my father’s ring.
That night, instead of going home, Frank and I decided to spend one last night in Dad’s house. After drinking several bottles of Dad’s wine in his honor, we retired to the king sized bed in the guest room. After a few hours of staring into the darkness, listening to the soft breathing of my brother lying next to me, I got up and took a blanket and pillow into my father’s bedroom. I lay down and curled up on the floor where his bed had been. I was wearing the ring he’d given me over two decades ago and was acutely aware that his hands had touched that ring when he chose it just for me. As tears seeped through my softly closed eyelids, I heard my father whisper to me, “Even this shall pass away.”
In June of 2013 on the crest of the third anniversary of my father’s death I had the following dream:
I am wearing my father’s VMI ring. I trip and fall flat to the ground. The ring is too big for me and so slips from my finger. I look up to see the smooth red garnet is dislodged from its heavy gold encasement and is broken into a dozen or so jagged stones of different colors. I am mortified that I have hurt my father’s soul by breaking the stone. I rush to pick up the pieces and am surprised to see how beautiful they are. They are stones in the rough – not yet polished by time and wisdom. They are the raw fire that lives in all of us. They are the jewels that materialize from the mysterious human mine if we are brave enough to go digging. They are another gift from my father – this one transcending life and death.
EVEN THIS SHALL PASS AWAY
Once in Persia reigned a king,
Who upon his signet ring
Graved a maxim true and wise,
Which, if held before his eyes,
Gave him counsel at a glance
Fit for every change and chance.
Solemn words, and these are they;
“Even this shall pass away.”
Trains of camels through the sand
Brought him gems from Samarcand;
Fleets of galleys through the seas
Brought him pearls to match with these;
But he counted not his gain
Treasures of the mine or main;
“What is wealth?” the king would say;
“Even this shall pass away.”
‘Mid the revels of his court,
At the zenith of his sport,
When the palms of all his guests
Burned with clapping at his jests,
He amid his figs and wine,
Cried, “O loving friends of mine;
Pleasures come, but not to stay;
‘Even this shall pass away.’”
Lady, fairest ever seen,
Was the bride he crowned his queen.
Pillowed on his marriage bed,
Softly to his soul he said:
“Though no bridegroom ever pressed
Fairer bosom to his breast,
Mortal flesh must come to clay-
‘Even this shall pass away.’”
Fighting on a furious field,
Once a javelin pierced his shield;
Soldiers, with a loud lament,
Bore him bleeding to his tent.
Groaning from his tortured side,
“Pain is hard to bear,” he cried;
“But with patience, day by day,
‘Even this shall pass away.’”
Towering in the public square,
Twenty cubits in the air,
Rose his statue, carved in stone.
Then the king, disguised, unknown,
Stood before his sculptured name,
Musing meekly: “What is fame?
Fame is but a slow decay;
‘Even this shall pass away.’”
Struck with palsy, sore and old,
Waiting at the Gates of Gold,
Said he with his dying breath,
“Life is done, but what is Death?”
Then, in answer to the king,
Fell a sunbeam on his ring,
Showing by a heavenly ray,
“Even this shall pass away.”
Theodore Tilton (1835 – 1907)