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Faith Family Grief

Sympathetic Ink

On October 23rd, my father would have been 100 years old. Last year for his 99th, I flew to San Antonio with a suitcase full of pictures and mementos to give him a special birthday lunch. I spread photographs across the floor of the apartment I’d rented, choosing which ones to take to make into posters to display. One poster focused on his time in the war, one on his life with my mother, and one captured my relationship with him. The last was an intergenerational collage that showed him with his brothers on barren prairie and then with my children. At the party, I set up a table with telegrams he sent to my mother when he passed the bar exam, graduation programs, and other keepsakes of a lifetime. Toward the end of the event, he toasted the group saying, “Let’s do it again next year!”  Little did we know…

In late February or March, as I read and listened to news stories like this, I broke down in my kitchen, consumed by dread. I had envisioned his 100th with a great slideshow, a menu with everything he loved to eat, and even his favorite pianist playing “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By” as people raised a glass to toast his long and interesting life. Looking back, I knew we would not get through to the other side of the pandemic, that somehow my father and I would have a front row seat to the tragedy of this virus and would likely be called to take the stage. In a novel, this experience would be foreshadowing, my response a kind of premonition. 

My father’s family was populated with deeply devout churchgoers. His mother played the piano and the organ every Sunday in their small Baptist church. His father never “took a drink” in his 102 years. My father’s grandfather knitted his deeply divided community back together through public service and the church after the civil war. His great-grandfather was inclined to visions, one of which warned him of imminent capture by the Kansas Jayhawks. (He woke up and made an exit to Texas; the Jayhawks were, as it turns out, in hot pursuit.) Among the men on that side of the family, at least in hindsight, there was a clarity about how to handle uncertainty and hardship. Use both your faith and your education as a guide, take decisive action, do your duty however hard, and don’t give up on your community. 

My mother’s family held a few more secrets. Many years ago, I found my maternal great grandmother’s book of spells, with a red, faded cover, entitled “The Secrets of Life Unveiled.” In it are instructions for reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, along with the intricacies of palmistry. The book provides incantations to perform in the light of the three-quarter moon to attract a new love. There are herbal potions to ward off a cough or improve the skin. One chapter is called “Sympathetic Inks” and provides options for writing letters that cannot be read unless some sort of chemical treatment is used to make the writing appear. You can even choose your color!  

Once my father went into lockdown, I felt like I was reading tea leaves myself, scouring the Texas press, various state government websites, and the communications that came out from his assisted living facility to see if there were policies, procedures, or updates that would facilitate a visit. Perhaps in another month something would change? Maybe, because of his age, I could sneak in under the guise of an end-of-life visit, even if he wasn’t imminently at life’s end? Perhaps there was some way of writing to the Texas Governor that might indeed induce his sympathy and convince him that a World War II veteran should be able to see his only daughter? Full moon, half moon, crescent moon–for months I tried them all to no avail. I created my own ritual with the nightly phone call, modern day amulets of flowers, candy, new shirts or slippers, whatever tokens or talisman I could send to keep his spirits up. His friends and caregivers did too. Tomatoes from a garden, cans of popcorn, and fresh peaches, looking for the alchemy that would keep him going.  

Although no believer in the occult, my dad, in his own way, was full of a whimsical magic. He was the one who first introduced me to his version of sympathetic ink during Saturday treasure hunts. He could always find a nickel behind my sons’ ears and utter a few magic words to make a stoplight change. He could find common ground with anyone and was a spellbinding storyteller. But as the months wore on, I think he knew there was no magic that could save us. He let that 100th birthday go; he knew, or at least believed, there could be no celebration with his family and friends, no holidays together, just ongoing isolation. And, although he could not give it voice, surely he knew the awful toll not being able to see him was taking on me. I believe he decided that his duty was to let go, to give up the ghost, and head to new land.  

I’m still working on knowing what my duty was and whether I executed it as I should. The peace I seek is complicated by guilt, anger, wishes, and love. Joan Didion wrote about the first year after a death as “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And, indeed, for the last four months I’ve kept a sort of altar in our house that has kept my dad alive, including the three hats he wore regularly, one for winter, one for summer, and one that was part of his Navy uniform. When I came home from attending to his death, I hung two of them in my closet and kept one sitting with his picture on a chest in our living room. After his 100th birthday had passed, my husband added a nail and we hung up his last hat. 

This weekend, the President-Elect quoted from a hymn we sang at my father’s funeral. As I listened, I thought perhaps the terrible spell will soon be broken and that once again through faith and science, decisive action, devotion to duty, and hard work, we will get to the other side of this pandemic. It is too late for my father and me, but I write this in “sympathetic ink” for other families that still wait to reunite. 

By Mimi Chapman: Writing about the intersection of personal and professional life

Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started this blog because I enjoy reflecting on different parts of life and work and sharing that with others.

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