Daddy was sick a lot when we were kids and doctors could not determine the problem. He spent the better part of four years going in and out of hospitals and Mother almost always stayed with him.
I was the youngest child, so she usually took me with her. I went so often that I still get a little nauseous when I enter a hospital. I remember sitting in Janes Clinic in Cooper, watching the door that led to the stairs, afraid that every footstep was someone coming to tell me that Daddy had died.
That scene was repeated so many times that I had nightmares about it. He lost about a quarter of his body weight during one particularly bad time, but only missed work when hospitalized. His face stayed contorted with pain a lot. He could not keep any food in his stomach long enough to gain nutrition.
Desperate, he and Mother decided to go through an extensive diagnostic program at a hospital in Dallas. They sold virtually everything we owned to pay the cost.
The day he was scheduled to leave, I hid in my usual spot underneath our tall front porch. The dirt was cool there and it was a good place to shoot outlaws through the cracks in the boards. I watched through those cracks as our driveway filled with cars. Nobody gave me details; I just sensed that something ominous was happening.
When the time came for Daddy and Mother to leave for Dallas, (which seemed like a foreign country to me), he asked all the relatives and well-wishers to give him a few minutes alone with his kids. They left the house and stood by their cars in the driveway, reminding me of a funeral procession. I know now that most thought he would never return.
Mother sent Eddy, my brother (six years older) to find me. Even when his calls became impatient, then threatening, I did not come out from under the porch. But my hiding place was well known.
He crawled under the porch and dragged me out. Everything I had dreaded waited for me in the living room of that old, drafty, leaking farm house we lived in. My whole family was standing in the living room. Mother’s eyes were red and held a look of desperation I had seen in hospitals before as she stood beside Daddy’s bed.
My sister Trish was sobbing. Daddy’s copper colored skin could never look pale, but it looked faded. He looked less powerful in his best khakis and shirt than he did in his usual overalls and brogans. The man I had looked to all my life for protection, a bastion of strength and authority, the man I wanted most to please in my short life, looked afraid.
Mother lined us up and I was sure this was the end. I bolted to return to the porch, but Eddy caught my shirt and held me. The line was oldest to youngest and Daddy hugged Trish first and told her he loved her. I should pause here to say that we were not a hugging family, nor did we express our love much in words. Somehow, however, our parents made sure it was never doubted. Not for a minute.
Hearing love expressed by my tough-as-nails daddy, the hug, were ominous signs for a small boy. I lost it when he hugged my brother and spoke of his love. I blubbered against his shoulder as he dropped to one knee to hug me and tell me he loved me.
He put a hand on each of my cheeks and told me he would be back. Things changed then. I believed him. He told me not to stay under the porch so much and to help my mother and my brother and sister. As I recall, he went through a list of my daily chores and told me he was counting on me to keep them done.
I had seen Daddy cry only a few days before when he came out of a doctor’s office. He waited until we were in the car and then whispered to Mother that the doctor said he probably had stomach cancer. His voice broke when he gave her the bad news.
I wasn’t supposed to hear, but I did. But on the day he left for Dallas, his were the only dry eyes on the place, the only smile.
Time has claimed many of the details of that day, but I will never forget the smell of him, the feel of his rough hands on my cheeks, the sound of his words, believing him when he said he would return.
It’s good that we did not know what heartaches were in our future that day, how much more suffering Daddy would have to endure. There was a lot.
The best doctors in Dallas were not able to diagnose what was wrong, but a few months later, Dr. Olen Janes in Cooper did. He performed surgery and Daddy’s pain and suffering appeared to be over. It was not cancer, just an abnormality in his digestive organs.
I was at a ballgame in the West Delta gym the day he came home after the surgery. I think Trish found me in the crowd and Aunt Hildred took us home. I was almost embarrassed as I walked into my own house. In the kitchen, I saw something I had not seen in a very long time—Daddy seated at the head of the table (though my memory says he was on the wrong end). He was eating a breakfast-supper, eggs and ham and homemade biscuits, food he had not been able to digest in years.
Daddy left us before he was sixty. More than three decades after his death, he returned as Rance Rivers in Rivers Flow. Jake saw Rance leaning against a cattle trailer, arms folded against his chest. When Jake looked at him, he unfolded his arms, put a finger and thumb on the brim of his hat, and tugged slightly. Jake took a deep breath. The Rivers’ Flow was back. Rance returned in Rivers Crossing, Rivers Ebb, and Go Down Looking. I think he would smile and tug on his hat brim at that.