It’s not a good day. Halloween never is. On a day when you’re sad someone you care about is gone, everyone is running around expressing sentiments like, “You know what I love? Dead people!”
This year is the 24th I’ve been through, but it is the first one without Mom. Throw in a long week filled with stress, sleep deprivation, and the exhaustion that comes with the endless stream of thoughts in my head like perpetual, crippling self-doubt and long hours spent wondering how anyone could like those horrible Fraggles, who let those Doozers work their tails off all day building, only to crassly come by and eat their progress as an afternoon snack (What a terrible existence, Doozers. Like Sysiphus) and I hit the predictably high level of malaise and depression that comes with this festive holiday
This year though, I didn’t have to go it alone. I talked to my dad. One of the benefits of being the daughter of the earliest of early technological adopters is you started using the internet in 1990. Daddy sat me down to explain we could write letters to Grandma and Grandpa over the telephone.
“Why wouldn’t we just call them?”
I had no idea what a gift the idea of the internet was.
Back in the day, early email providers like Prodigy charged based on how many messages you sent per month. In order to keep track of messages and not go over, my dad printed out each message on dot-matrix paper and set them by his desk to keep count. When he died in 1992, my godfather Uncle Randy logged into his email and printed out those final few notes, written in the time spanning between my ninth birthday and his death roughly three weeks later.
I knew these emails existed, but I had avoided them. As a teenager, we found them and I read with a self-centeredness that focused only on emails about me. Some were hard to take. He was tired after my eighth birthday and vented to my grandma about what a handful I could be. I read that one and stopped. My idea of Dad was so fragile, so unshaped with so little time to get to know him that I couldn’t handle the idea of ripping it apart with every comment about his bratty daughter, who, I will be honest, was very bratty.
When I moved in with my family as my mother was dying, I found the emails with Mom’s help. In those late nights by her bed, I would pore over them, filing them in chronological order, reading each message and response dating back to before his diagnosis. I was relieved to find nice stories, like the time I saw my mother’s father give my dad his crucifix, a necklace I had never seen him without. Unaware it was one of many identical ones he owned, I apparently drew Grandpa one and gave it to him before he left town because I didn’t want him to be without it.
Dad was pleasantly surprised. He told his own mother he didn’t think I wanted to talk about what was happening since I didn’t ask many questions, but after seeing this, he realized his little girl was processing more than he realized. His mother wrote back and assured him he was right.
I cried, relieved to know he saw a glimpse of the type of person I was turning into, one always perceiving but often internalizing, but also so distraught that the only other person who really understood how much I didn’t talk about when things bothered me was on her way out the door too.
Mom saw how happy these emails made me. I would come to her with revelations and discoveries and she would nod with a tight-lipped grin. She seemed sad, which I thought was about her own longing to have her husband by her side for the scary process of dying.
One day though, in one of our final lunches out together, she looked at me after my latest email story and said, “I am glad you have those emails. I’m sorry I can’t give you something like that.”
Dad always did the writing. It is generally assumed engineers are typically not great writers, but my dad didn’t just only have much prettier penmanship than my mother, he had a surprising way with words for a math genius and computer whiz.
Dad wrote the cards, especially for occasions of importance like First Communion. He won over my mother with wonderful love letters written from Georgia Tech while she was in Memphis. Letters so personal and open and emotional our mom spent her last mobile days desperately searching the house to find them, not to share them, but to destroy them. She was willing to share pretty much everything our father did with us, but these were her letters and hers alone.
I didn’t understand her unwillingness to share at first, but the more I read from Dad, the more I understood. For two years, he sent nearly daily correspondence to his mother and father as well as to my Uncle Randy, who was not his biological brother, but more than just a brother-in-law. Uncle Randy called him his best friend. My Dad was ill and Uncle Randy was away from his family training to be an anesthetic nurse in Nashville. My dad filled a lot of the loneliness for him, a family man with three children who, in order to follow his dreams and provide them the kind of life he wanted to give them, sacrificed time with them.
I knew he had gone to Nashville. Even as a kid, I understood it was hard, but what I didn’t know was he had something I have spent almost a quarter of a century longing for: advice from Glenn Welman. Sure, plenty of his emails were rundowns of what we had been doing (I swear he documented every single solitary movie he saw via Prodigy mail), but he had a penchant for veering into discussions that felt more like my blog entries than the letters I had seen my mother write her folks, which read like reports rather than thoughtful conversations.
Mom wasn’t expressive. She could listen until the cows came home, but she rarely had much but practical advice. She was melancholy at our lunch because she knew how desperately I had wanted that in my life. Then she saw how much my dad’s words brought her comfort. I think part of her was happy, the way she was always happy for me when I did things far out of her own comfort zone, like a person who can perceive someone is feeling something but can’t understand why, but that was obviously not her prevailing sentiment.
I stopped trying to force these conversations with her and retreated to the seven-inch tall pile of paper with fading ink where my other parent, the one I thought from his discussions of me as a kid he only realized late in the game that I was processing, internalizing, constantly thinking, the one I thought didn’t understand who I was, was there to tell me exactly what I needed to hear.
“He was The Quiet Man,” Uncle Randy said of Dad. “He wouldn’t say a lot at family things..but you can tell he thought a lot!”
I was far from quiet, but I presented a chipper, energetic girl who wanted to talk and entertain. Like Dad, I saved the version of me scared at what was happening and distraught that her life, which had always been dictated by fairness and was now so far from fair, for Dolores Welman. The Quiet Woman who listened plenty, but was mercifully blessed with a disposition that didn’t include the constant racing thoughts of her husband and youngest daughter.
Late last night…early this morning really, I dug up this email from Dad to Uncle Randy. I take it out when I know things are getting tough. I read it and marvel at what a silly optimist he could be, but I also see that though I may never match him in the optimism department, I managed to develop the “survivor’s mentality” he often spoke of and saw in Uncle Randy too. I take a deep breath, sometimes I cry, and I am grateful to have hundreds of Prodigy emails to give me insight into my dad, so he was at last a person, a confidant, a parent and not just the computer prodigy, the genius, the legend.
Mostly though, I cry with a sense of solace that these words from Dad which speak so strongly to me as an adult had to have sunk in to that bratty eight-year-old somehow, even if she kept mum about it. Relieved I didn’t become this way because my dad died. I became this way because he lived long enough to instill them in me.
So, I share with you a letter from my father, dated 8/4/91. Written less than a month after being diagnosed with cancer, my dad instead focuses on fixing my uncle’s jumpy monitor and his new year at school. He encourages, he problem solves, and then he delivers the kind of optimism I thought only existed in PG-rated uplifting movies “based on a true story”:
Dear Randy and family,
Hmmm, that’s a good question as to why Prodigy is jumpy sometimes. How jumpy is it? A little twitch every once in a while or constantly jumping? Of course, once you answer all of the questions, I probably still won’t know what it is! It could be Prodigy is just using a video mode that no other programs use and your monitor is just a little jumpy in that one mode. If there are any controls on your monitor, you may want to try adjusting them. It just depends on how jumpy it is. You also didn’t say which monitor it is.
I bet you are probably really getting excited about school by now. Especially since you are getting ready to move some furniture that way. I know that you will do well. I guess it is my basic nature to treat people with the “you can do it” attitude. We all probably don’t live up to our true capabilities. I’m as guilty as everyone else. Or maybe I have known all along that attitude is everything. Both with your schooling and with life in general. Basically, that is one of the premises in one of the books I mentioned. Attitude makes a world of difference. If you think you can do it, you probably can. If you don’t think you can do it, then you probably can’t. Lucky for me that I have a good attitude. I believe that I can lick this melanoma. The book also talks about dreams and visualization. I had a dream before my surgery. we saw a tornado coming at us and so we found shelter. The tornado missed us. Then afterward, I went outside and my car wasn’t where I left it. So I went looking for it and found that it was OK but in a totally different place. So I interpreted my dream to mean that even though a bad situation was headed my way, I was going to be OK. However, things were going to be different from now on. I know that everything will turn out OK. I hope that I didn’t misinterpret my dream.
We sometimes have to take what life throws at us. But we don’t have to sit by and not do anything about it. Those that can meet life head on are the ones that are the real survivors. Maybe that is why I encourage you so much. I guess I can see some of those same survivor’s qualities in you.
Oh well, so much for all the rambling. I guess I better close this letter down. I really appreciate all of the prayers going out for me. I know that everything will turn out just fine, whatever the outcome is.
We love Y’all and we’ll be praying for you as you get started in your new career Randy. And also for you too, Kathleen, that the job works out for the best.
Glenn, Dolores, and girls
One thought on “A 25-Year-Old Email From My Father, The Quiet Man”
Dear Jessica, I just read the blog about you and your Dad and how you were getting to know the man just as your Mom was dying. I’m so grateful that you found those emails. What a precious gift.
I remember your Mom as always patient with you, knowing that you had a unique personality, even as a child. She was able to “GO” with your needs and preferences. She wanted you to develop as you were, with as little interference from her as possible. At least that’s what I think. Your Dad, such a quiet, thinking man, didn’t always know how to take your always speaking up (many times, loudly [put a smiley face here], but you were not a brat, use only good words about yourself, okay?) But both of your parents loved you dearly and continue to love you more than ever. In your depressed times, try to take a drink of your Dad’s cup of optimism; it may prevent the depression from ever becoming crippling.
I was so touched that you included an email from your Dad to Uncle Randy. You showed me a side of your Dad that I never had the privilege to know. Thank you for that gift.
Halloween has to be an especially difficult time for you. Now, on the other side of it, I am so happy that you survived it again. I love you! Aunt Rebecca