(A memoir in progress)
by W. A. Smith
My father died as the sun rose on Easter morning, 1979. Months before, in a halting progression that reminded me of the lights in a house flickering out one by one, room by room, he had lost the ability to move under his own power or feed himself or speak a single syllable. Daddy loved to talk—with anyone anytime about anything; he had an abiding reverence for language and its proper use, and I suppose losing forever the ability to converse with those he most loved must have been for him the worst indignity of them all.
Those last months, I sensed—and wanted desperately to believe—that my father’s spirit, his deep-true heart and vitality and imagination and desire, still thundered and fired within him. But neither physicians nor family were able to assess his cognition; no one knew how much, if any, of what we said to him penetrated the wall that separated us.
The last communication between my dad and me was a month or so before he died. I was 28, home for my first extended stay since college days. My sister Helen, five years older, had sent a note a month before: “I go to see him every day,” she wrote, “but all he asks about is you.” She was angry with me. “Come home before it’s too late,” she said. “Daddy needs you.”
It was past midnight, the house was quiet. My mother was asleep in their bedroom down the hall; Dad was lying in the hospital bed we’d put in the TV room. It was his deathbed, we all knew it. I’d been out late and had consumed plenty of beer. I took his hand in mine and began to cry. I told him I loved him and respected him and thanked him for being my dad, for honoring and blessing me with his teaching and discipline and humor; I told him that his love, which he had shown me through countless gifts and unambiguous words and strong-arm hugs, was his greatest offering to me. I said that I did not want him to die, that his life was precious to me and to so many others. “Dad, we have so much more to say, now that I’m old enough to be your friend. Now that I can be a man beside you. Do you hear me? Dad, squeeze my hand if you understand.”
His eyes were open but unmoving, never blinking, gazing at the shadowy ceiling as if he stared at something beyond the boundaries of our house, something or someone only he could see. I held my breath and waited, wondering if my words were still in transit. He squeezed my hand the same way he had when he’d shown me years before what a man’s handshake should be. He squeezed firmly, then released—once, twice, three times: a perfectly measured response. I leaned over and kissed him, ran my hand across his forehead: last words and gestures between us. We were a kissing family, always had been. In greeting, departure, or the mundane goodnight, I had kissed my father on the lips since I was two.
For several months after he died, I dreamed of him every night. In those dreams Daddy was alive and well and seemed to be younger than I had ever known him: upright without his cane, dark-haired, square-shouldered. Unbowed. His face and arms and hands glowed with dreamed-up life-blood. He was in a new body and joyful at the transformation. Invariably he stood before me, usually at mid-distance, facing me as though I had just stepped off a plane or train or bus after some time away. He was not necessarily smiling, though he might be; he was always welcoming, every time, sometimes waving me forward. Come on, his hand said, come closer. Often he stood beneath a spreading oak with roots that grew and stretched and sung under the earth; sometimes in the middle of a freshly cut field; sometimes he was the only life in the midst of a flat forsaken moonscape. And in every dream he wore the clothes of a professional horseman: gleaming white shirt, crisp tan jodhpurs, high black boots, tweed jacket. Sometimes he held a crop, but seemed to me not to need or want it, casually concealing it behind his leg.
In the dreams there were no words: I did not hear his voice, never called to him. There was no need. The vision was of my father as I wished him to be. His voice had never been diseased or broken—only his renegade brain and body. In all those dreams his bearing was one of readiness and present strength and obvious, albeit undisclosed, purpose. I’ve come to believe his main mission was to show me that death had been a gift beyond measure, that he was finally whole. In every dream I wondered if he’d just been riding or was about to go. Where are the horses? I’d ask as I awoke. Did he want me to ride with him, or was he just telling me that there were strong, sure-footed mounts in Heaven, and endless sunlit trails, and there, unlike here, he could ride fast and forever and never fall.
When I was born in the summer of 1951, my father had been home from the war for six or seven years. He established a general medical practice, sharing offices with his father, perhaps already thinking about specializing in Neurology. He and my mother had two daughters, Helen and Tommie, five- and two-years old, and lived on Montague Street in Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of my father and his father before him.
The head wounds Daddy sustained in Czechoslovakia had several months before begun to yield scar tissue and epilepsy. He wasn’t worried: he was young and alive and victorious; he was in love with his wife and his children and his work; he had risked all, and the future stretched out miraculously, bright before him. He was home. A new, different mission was in full swing.
I was named after my father’s father, who was known as Dr. Billy to his patients and colleagues and as Big Bill to our family once my christening created the need for such a distinction. Big Bill had preceded his son in the arts of war and healing (he was a pioneer in the treatment and control of tuberculosis) and had taught Daddy one or two classes in medical school. They were close, as many Southern fathers and sons are, one following in the other’s steps almost stride for stride, bound tight and carried together by the currents of blood and river and pride and history. Except that my grandfather had been in the cavalry in the First World War, my dad in Patton’s 62nd Armored Battalion in the Second one; and my grandfather had not been wounded.
Some years later, my father was asked to write an introduction to a small book called The Story of the 62nd. He was genuinely surprised and honored by the request. He addressed his note “To the Men of the Sixty-Second,” speaking directly to the comrades who had meant so much to him. In part, he wrote:
“Since returning to civilian life, I have talked with many of my doctor friends who were either in hospitals or with outfits similar to ours. Each of them wished that he had had any job except the one to which he had been assigned. I should like for you to know, collectively and individually, that to have served with you has been one of the finest, most gratifying experiences that I could have had in a life time, and the fullest privilege that has ever been accorded me….”
I never asked Dad what it was that first drew him to Neurology. Now I suspect his natural curiosity regarding the depthless mysteries of brain form and function may have been augmented by the questions that flooded in after enemy bullets penetrated the white cross on his helmet and struck his skull and he lived to tell about it. He sensed something of his destiny before the scar tissue developed and the seizures began. The irony has not escaped me: the Neurologist reading his own EEG—watching the enemy coming over the hill, recognizing its face, knowing its name.
In 1956 Dr. Charles Capers Smith was awarded a fellowship to study Neurology at Queens Square Hospital in London, and the family went to England for a year. My father went ahead of us; my mother, sisters and I followed by ocean liner. The ship was called Ryndam—Danish, I think; we left from New York and landed in Southhampton, England after nine days at sea. I watched whatever movies they had onboard and must have seen “Designing Woman” with Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck ten times—I remember it to this day; we were invited to sit at the Captain’s table for supper one evening; my sisters and I ran around the ship as if we owned it and became fast friends with the stewards; and it was the last time I was seasick: I threw up on my new mac.
I was five for most of our English year and remember very little. As with much of my childhood, my memories of Europe are prodded by the photographs we have from that time: standing at attention, deadly serious, behind the stone-faced guard at Buckingham Palace; feeding the bold multitude of pigeons in Trafalgar Square; riding the red double-decker buses, looking around to find Big Ben on the horizon, seemingly from anywhere in the city; watching the fog descend like evening in time-lapse, one time so thick we couldn’t see the row houses across the street; Helen, Tommie and I bundled up against the cold, standing with a ruddy Beefeater in front of the Tower of London; taking wonderful family walks around our neighborhood and parts of greater London: unless we had a specific destination in mind, Daddy would let us kids take turns flipping a coin at each corner to determine the next direction—heads, right, tails, left; standing with a throng of well-wishers to watch Queen Elizabeth pass in her carriage on her way to open Parliament; and the excursions, by combinations of train, automobile and ferry, to the south of England, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Holland—my sisters and I clomping around in our new wooden shoes: undisguised Americans disturbing the peace in another, older country.
We attended Carroll School, only a block or two from the house we rented on Gutterstone Road, London. I was in first grade, perhaps the youngest. The black-and-white photograph in my study is of only the first grade class, I think, so none of us was over seven, but there is one boy who looks as I imagine T.S. Eliot might have at that age: the countenance, posture and mature hairstyle of a somber 39-year-old. There are three teachers and twenty-three children, kneeling, sitting and standing in the walled garden behind the school, arranged on the flagstone tile courtyard beside the high brick walls; in the background are the stairs that lead up to the first floor of the school.
Most of the children are wearing blazers with flat buttons and CS in gold on a circular crimson patch sewn onto the breast pocket. Of course black and white makes crimson only a concept. Black and white is perfect for pictures of the England I remember. Some of us, myself included, have cast the school jacket aside and chosen the more informal sweater look. All the boys have ties with knots slightly askew, shorts and gray socks with sandals. I’m sitting on one of the teachers’ laps—a kindly graying woman in clear-framed glasses who I thought must be 100 years old if she was a day and whom my sisters and I called Cotton Tummy, though not, of course, to her face. I think she is glad to have me on her lap; she considered the three American children exotic and good publicity for the little school. On Cotton Tummy’s left are two other teachers, neither of whom I remember clearly—the one with the bun and round spectacles appears fresh and eager, the other slightly less so. A faint schoolmarm smile plays at Cotton Tummy’s lips, but the small unsmiling child on her lap looks for all the world like a boy who is contemplating suicide, soon as this stupid photograph is done.
I do not know why I am so morose here; I don’t know why I look as if I’ve not slept in days—how does a five-year-old who is loved and read to and offered a decent meal on a regular basis get bags under his eyes? In truth, on second look (or six thousandth), the bags must be either a trick of the light that day or a stark revelation of what that year was really like: everyone in the picture has bags under their eyes. I don’t remember whether I liked school or not; I would bet not. Except for my parents and my sisters, no one I know—neither my wife nor my closest friends—can identify me in this photograph. Though evidently mentally unbalanced, I look like myself to me, but those who know me do not recognize the me they know in that drawn-out boy on the teacher’s lap. Strangely, when trying to find me most people point to the boy right beside me, who, while he does not seem to have annihilation on his mind, does look disoriented and as though he would rather be anywhere but there.
In my family we still refer to the deadly monotonous consistency of English cuisine, and our school lunches in particular, with one phrase: meat, potatoes and cabbage. It was the same every day that year, except for the addition of vaguely green peas from time to time. The children from the American state of South Carolina were puzzled by the numbing regularity and blandness; everything had been beaten, boiled, cooked to within an inch of its life. Where we came from, everything was fried into crispy submission, which we naturally preferred.
Although the majority of the kids at school were locals, there were a few other foreigners along with the Smith kids. As a boy who had until that year traveled no farther than Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was enthralled by the variety of accents I heard around me. One girl in particular I remember, the only one in the photograph whose face rings any bell at all: a black-haired dark-skinned Indian girl whose wide brown eyes glinted like treasure and whose name I remember as Tutti-Frutti. I think she was even shyer than I—I can see her diffidently bowing her head and looking up through those doe’s eyelashes of hers—but I do not remember her voice. In the picture Tutti-Frutti seems perfectly at ease, content with her current situation: she is smiling like Gandhi.
When my mother came to visit one day, Cotton Tummy gave her the tour: here, as you can see, the children are studying their alphabet; and at this table they are working on such-and-such a competency; and here the children are doing whatever they want to do. As my mother might say, I’ll give you three guesses which table was mine. Once back in the states, I repeated first grade, apparently having done whatever I wanted to do for most of the year at Carroll School.
My mother loved everything about England and didn’t want to come home at the end of our year there. She would have stayed forever, intrigued to be an expatriate. She prized the omnipresent aroma of history merged with fish & chips, the museums and monarchy, the neighborhoods, the lilt of language and dry wit; even the constantly inclement weather was okay with her.
My father had fairly regular hours at Queens Square, and we all spent time together—perhaps more frequently than ever again. He was there in the evenings before we went to bed, hoisting me up onto his lap to read my favorite Ant and Bee books, the travels and triumphs of two English insect buddies. Daddy rendered the main narrative, pausing for me to read the few primer words highlighted in red on each page, helping me with pronunciations, long and short vowel sounds. He read dramatically, and I was sure he took as much pleasure in Ant and Bee’s adventures as I did. We must have read those little books fifty times.
Not long after our arrival in London, my parents hired a young Danish woman named Tov? to be our governess, though it is only now that I choose that word; I don’t think we ever referred to Tov? as our governess. And only now does it occur to me—why would it take so long?—that Tov? was another principal reason my mother enjoyed her stay in England so much. We were never to have anything quite so sensational as a governess again. Tov? was a wonderful, light-hearted companion, in her early twenties, easy to play with and to amuse. I remember her sparkling, slightly mischievous eyes and her vivid, wide smile.
When it was time for her to return home to Soro, Denmark, all the Smiths went with her and stayed for a few days with her parents. During that trip, we visited Copenhagen; we had not yet been to Disneyland, so the amusement park called Tivoli was gigantic, I thought, delightfully overwhelming. We slid down long winding metal ramps on pads that looked like the doormats we would have wiped our feet on before going into someone’s house back home.
And at Tov?’s house in Soro we were served chocolate for breakfast. There was a plate stacked with thin Monopoly-money-shaped slices of rich dark chocolate, there in front of me, within easy reach; I was certain an extraordinary error had been made—a once-in-a-lifetime oversight that would be noticed and put right at any moment—did Tov?’s mother and father understand that this was chocolate, this was breakfast?—but I knew it was not my place, it would be impolite after all, to inform the grownups. I held my tongue, attempting nonchalance, and filled both hands.
One night in our London living room, as Daddy and I were reading together and Helen and Tommie were occupied with some sister-play in front of the fire, Tov? came in complaining miserably of something in her eye. We children were alarmed, never having seen her in such pain. My father sat her down in a chair next to a lamp, tilted her head back and examined the eye. “Okay, I see it,” he told her. “A sliver of something, looks like coal.”
“From the stove,” Tov? suggested.
“Yes,” he said. “That old stove has a mind of its own.” He asked me to get him a wooden match from a nearby box and gently whispered to Tov?, “Hold still now, take a deep breath. It’s going to be fine.” With my sisters and me crowded around him, his patient in the chair beside the lamp holding her breath, he tenderly pulled the eyelid away from her eye and used the match to roll the lid back, inside-out, like the top of a sardine tin; holding the eyelid and matchstick deftly with his left hand he pulled his handkerchief from a pocket with his right and used the linen to coax the splinter to the edge of her eye and remove it. The whole operation took fifteen or twenty seconds. Tov? was immediately relieved and impressed with Dr. Smith’s self-assurance and flair. I had never observed an eyelid from that perspective before, and it was certainly more of anyone’s eyeball than my sisters ever wanted to see.
Later that night Daddy showed me how to flip my eyelids inside-out and make them stick that way with a quick lift-and-curl between my thumb and index finger. “You can make girls scream with this one,” he said, winking at me.
I can still flip my lids, and the girls still scream.
My maternal grandmother, whom we called Mom, was in and out through the year, using our London house as her base, traveling all over Europe. Mom stayed with us children after Christmas, allowing my parents to take a trip to Germany, France and Italy. It was during that time with our grandmother that my sisters chose to hang me from the third-floor stair railing in our house. I do not recall if I had committed a crime—I’m certain there was no trial. And while it was never intended as a homicide—I pretty much volunteered, and Helen and Tommie left my hands untied so that I could get a firm purchase on the rope around my neck—Mom was not pleased at all when she came into the hallway, looked up and saw her grandson tracing a wide arc in the air high above her, her granddaughters’ merry faces poking through the railing on either side.
Mom shouted, “Get that child down from there this instant!” and they did, though I cannot remember how.
In a recent email, my mother told me: From the tales we heard on returning home, you all had a great time—at least you children did; I’m not sure about Mom!
It was during that year abroad that I first learned my father was sick. Capers’ initial seizure had occurred five years earlier, when my mother was pregnant with me. In fact so early in the pregnancy that she didn’t know she was with child until Daddy told her. He had experienced a petit seizure one otherwise regular day at his office on Ashley Avenue in Charleston, and later that day or the next had gone to Roper Hospital for tests to determine the cause of the convulsion. Though he never said so, I imagine he connected the incident with the war right away. My mother, Anne, joined him in the hospital room that afternoon. He looked at her and was quiet a moment. Then he cocked his head and smiled. “Sweetheart, you think it’s a girl or a boy?”
“He always knew I was pregnant before I did,” my mother tells me now.
So by the time we spent that year in England, the onslaught was underway and the hunt for the precise medication and adequate dosage had commenced. The seizures could sneak up at any time, often petit, sometimes grand mal. My father became adept at knowing one was coming seconds before it hit. Perhaps that evening in England he had just had a seizure—I don’t know—the event itself is gone from memory; I probably did not witness one, but simply came into the room just as it was over; maybe I knew something was wrong and asked about it, and he and my mother tried to explain it. I don’t know what they said. What I remember is the feeling that my daddy was diminished, or beginning to be diminished, in some peculiar way I did not comprehend, even after their explanation; and that he had no control over the thing taking hold of him.
Daddy was strong and dark-haired and handsome; he seemed to know everything worth knowing; yet even as I watched him shine and heard his confident voice, riding his shoulders to the lion’s cage at London Zoo, a seed was planted. In the years soon to come, it would split open and grow and reach down and remind me every time I looked at him. It was the seed of the certain knowledge of my father’s mortality.
When we returned to Charleston, my sisters and I brought professional English accents back with us. Tommie and I discarded ours quickly, eager to reintegrate, but Helen held onto hers awhile. I suspect she thought it lent her an air of breeding and sophistication that she found sadly lacking in most of the citizenry of the South Carolina lowcountry. Helen may have wanted to stay in Europe as much as Mother did.
Charleston was a small town in 1957 and proud to be. My paternal grandparents, Big Bill and Mamoo, had been there before the century turned. Only the residents of nearby Savannah, Georgia rivaled us in their isolationist attitudes and fierce instincts for cultural preservation. In 1931 Charleston had adopted a Planning and Zoning Ordinance establishing the “Old and Historic District” to protect approximately 400 residential properties in a 23-block area south of Broad Street. In 1947 the Historic Charleston Foundation was instituted to oversee a revolving fund with which to purchase threatened historic properties, restore them, and sell them with protective covenants.
For generations Charlestonians had called it “The Holy City,” due to the plethora of churches and synagogues, but for years I did not know the real reason for the epithet and didn’t wonder about it either. If asked, I would have explained confidently that our city was called holy because the people who lived there understood that the maker of all good things had imagined and spoken Charleston into being in the same way He had the sun, moon and sea: singular, set apart. God said, “Let there be Charleston and its harbor and its blue fish-abundant water and its surrounding sea islands and its sea birds and its sand dunes and its sky,” and there was Charleston, and He saw that it was very good.
Famous for our Southern hospitality, Charlestonians nevertheless steadfastly preferred that foreigners visit briefly, invest liberally in the local economy, properly admire the city’s flawless intertwining of past and present, then get the hell out and go back where they came from. Save for the heritage carried in blood and baggage across the ocean by our founding fathers—architectural styles and human slavery chief among them—Charleston and her people much preferred export to import. The Civil War, variously known by most young- and old-timers as The Recent Unpleasantness and The War of Northern Aggression, had at least in part been fought to preserve a way of life that born-and-bred Charlestonians considered superior in every way to the Yankee variety of civilization. There was very little Charleston wanted or needed from the outside.
Strom Thurmond had been elected a United States Senator from South Carolina the year my family left for England; knowing nothing of my state’s history and possessing the nonlinear reasoning of a five-year-old, I thought Thurmond had been elected to fill the seat left vacant by John C. Calhoun. Thurmond was a senator when I entered high school in 1966 and a senator when I left for college in 1970; he continued to be a senator from South Carolina when I worked for three years on Capitol Hill after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1974. He was still breathing, still ambulatory and still senator when my father died in 1979 and when I was married in 1993.
In 1957 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 28 years old and the president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It had been two years since Rosa Parks stood up to be counted in Montgomery, Alabama.
I knew nothing of these people or events. This was the time and the town to which we returned.
My family moved back to Montague Street, which in those days was on the southwestern edge of the old city. There was marsh behind our house; we could take a boat out at high tide and get back easily as long as we returned while the water was still up. Mayor Palmer Gaillard lived with his family across the street; Paul and Della Jo Hass lived next door with their daughters, Marsha and Jane, who were my sisters’ ages; Fricky Marchink, a buddy in my earliest days, lived on Beaufain Street, just a few small-city blocks away. Blount Ellison, my oldest friend, lived on South Battery for a few years, before his family moved to Sullivans Island.
Charleston was my size. It seemed all I needed was right in front of me or only minutes away. For that first Christmas the family was back, Santa brought me a cherry red 21-inch bicycle. As soon as I learned to ride and proved my knowledge of the essential safety rules, I was at liberty to move around, visit friends, head over to East Bay Playground and pick up a game of football or play ping-pong or bumper pool or cards. My friends and I knew all the back- and side-alleys, the short-cuts, the trees and brick walls best for climbing. We were all well acquainted with Old Lady Charlotte, whose Christian name I never knew and who lurked in her dark sedan and took sadistic pleasure in scaring us out of our wits—blasting her horn, swerving toward us—whenever she was loose on Broad Street or East Bay and saw us riding our bikes.
It’s Saturday. Mother is vacuuming the living room; I’m in the playroom watching cartoons on TV. On the screen a giggling chicken sporting a tall brown hat is being chased by a goofy hound dog. It’s obvious to me that the chicken is much smarter and will never be caught. The telephone rings: it’s Blount and he asks me if I can come over and spend the night. It’s okay with his mom. I tell him the chances are slim since my mother caught us playing with matches yesterday. “I’ll try though,” I say.
I move past my mother silently, like Daniel Boone. She is facing away from me, bending over like a prospector, cleaning under the sofa. I know she doesn’t particularly like vacuuming and will not go for Blount’s idea because of the thing with the matches. Daddy will likely be better for this one.
He’s shaving and humming in the bathroom when I walk in. He catches me in the corner of his eye, leaning his head back to shave his neck. I know what he’s humming—he taught me almost as soon as I could talk—so I start singing, and he joins me on the chorus:
For it’s hi-hi-hee in the field artillery
Shout out those numbers loud and strong
— Hut Two! —
For where ‘ere we go you will always know
That the caissons go rollin’ along.
He’s beaming as we finish with a flourish. I may have a chance. I snap to attention. “Sergeant Smith reporting, sir. All men present and accounted for.” I salute and he returns it, switching the razor to his other hand for a moment. “Very good, Sergeant,” he says. He switches the razor back to his right and continues shaving.
“How’s it goin’, Daddy?”
“Fine, man. Saturday mornin’ and I believe I’ve got the day off.” He rinses the razor in hot running water and starts on his right cheek. “How’s it going with you? Wanna toss the football when I’m through here?”
This is before his body made it impossible for him to throw the ball with me. There’s a numbness that comes and goes on his left side, but it’s not up to its worst tricks yet. I can see the muscles in his arm arch when the razor pulls at his face. I tell him, “I’d like to, but the reason I came up was to ask you if I can go over to Blount’s and spend the night.”
“How’s my godson doin’?” he asks me, dancing the razor under the water again, tapping it against the sink. There is a lot of steam in the bathroom.
“Fine,” I reply automatically. “Can I go, please?”
“Well, I know you’re capable of going.” He flicks his head toward me and grins.
“May I go?”
He looks at me while he dries his face with a blue towel. “I hear your mother downstairs. How come you didn’t ask her?”
Oh,” stalling, “I didn’t want to bother her.”
“That’s a novel approach for you, Son. Why didn’t you think she’d let you go?”
I’m pretty sure my mother has not told him about the incident with the matches, but I can see this plan is not playing out as I had hoped. He’s looking at me, waiting for an answer he can believe. The hair on his chest is very dark. My eyes suddenly cloud over and feel like I’m going to cry. I want to go to Blount’s because I figure we can sneak out and shoot at street lights with the pellet gun like we did last time.
My father says, “You came to me because for some reason you thought I might say yes and your mother wouldn’t.”
I nod, calling on last-ditch honesty to pull this one out.
“That isn’t going to work around here, Bill. You cannot expect to play your mother and me against each other. I won’t tolerate it.” He walks past me into their bedroom and starts to pull on a pair of pants.
I might cry now. The vacuum cleaner is humming and bumping in the distance. I follow him into the bedroom and shout at him: “What’s a little guy like me supposed to do against two big people like you!” It’s almost a rage, and my unsuspecting mother, downstairs looking for gold under the sofa, has been included in the conspiracy.
“You’re supposed to play it straight with us,” he says. “Supposed to tell the truth.” He looks at me. The beginning of a smile is pulling at his lips. He liked the bit about “a little guy like me”. His smile has steam around it, like everything else, and I feel as though my father knows all my secrets and I know none of his.
“Come on, pardner,” he coaxes, buttoning up his shirt. He wants to put this behind us. He feels good today. “Let’s you and I go outside and throw the ball. Don’t you want to?”
I look at his powdered, expectant face with all its energy poised for this Saturday morning. “No,” I lie to him.