That visit I had with my dad on Sunday? That was a good trip to Jackson. When I got there, his room was crowded with three visitors–a family who had been bringing their cats to him for 15 years. We told some cat stories. Daddy told about the little kitten who chewed a hole in the sofa cushion so she could sit under the sofa in peace and stick her head out if anything interesting happened. I told the one about when we were picking on Little Gay about being a bad driver and she got so mad that she stomped outside…and ran over the cat’s tail. He told about Rufus, the last kitty he talked me into and how a few days after I brought him home he ended up covered in ringworm and Vivi lost a hank of hair right before picture day. Annie, Baby, Slick, Nashville, Puff, Mama Kitty, Mouse, Janie, Mr. Kitty, Mr. A Hole, Rufus and Jinx. So many cats.
When his visitors left, I noticed that the mom walked with a limp and hadn’t said anything. I asked him, “Was that the lady who wrote the letter?” He nodded. One of his favorite clients. She has cerebral palsy and a lot of people only see her differences. She wrote him a letter once to thank him for always being kind to her and treating her with respect, even if she can’t speak. He cherishes that letter.
I told him the good news about Carlos, and what books Vivi’s reading this week. He asked me about my writing. We talked and talked. He scooted his wheelchair over to the drawer and pulled out a pack of gum. Offered me a piece and I declined. He chewed four pieces then complained about the bitterness of the peppermint. He asked me what I thought of the cheap paintings on the wall opposite his bed. We agreed–every time I visited–that they looked like wet cardboard and had probably been purchased at a gas station.
That was Sunday.
Now he’s in hospice.
He crashed on Monday and had to go to the hospital. By midnight, he was in hospice care. I drove down on Tuesday in the rain.
My brother had been there overnight. He and Big Gay and I were coordinating what needed to happen. One of the jobs was to retrieve Daddy’s things from the rehab place in Jackson. I volunteered since it was right on my way.
On that long drive, I was listening to NPR and the news turned to the story of Kelly Gissendaner, the only Georgia woman on death row. She was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. That night. In Jackson, Georgia.
I listened to person after person talk about how their own lives had been changed for having met Kelly in prison. How she told them they had value and they could redeem themselves. That very day, her own children had to make the choice between seeing their mother one last time and going before the appeals board to beg for clemency. They begged for her life.
The text from Joe said, “Get the cards and the poster and bring them here. Don’t forget the vase.”
I took a few grocery bags out of the back of my car and walked through the rain to the entrance. Definitely not the baby anymore. Not today. As I made my way down the long hallway, I tried not to make eye contact with the nurse who had been so kind to him on Sunday. I just couldn’t do it.
The top of every surface was covered in cards. Every one of them had a cat or a dog on it. I couldn’t look at the names and addresses. Just made a neat stack and put them in a bag along with the poster from the people at the clinic he built. I took the tired oranges and apples out of a hand-turned bowl he made on his lathe. I tucked the slender glass vase with the giant red rose that Big Gay had cut for him in between the cards. As I bumped the petals, they released a sweet fragrance. She grows antique roses that still smell like roses instead of those new varieties that smell like refrigerators.
I left most of the toiletries, but I took the half bottle of Canoe and the black plastic comb. When we were kids, Daddy relaxed every night by sitting in his chair with a book and combing his hair mindlessly. I still remember how we laughed the time he combed it all straight up and looked like an onion.
I got the suitcase out of the closet and filled it with books. Spy thrillers, history sagas, right wing politics…and Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book.” I liked that one, too.
I opened the drawer and put the half-open pack of gum in my purse.
Just like Big Gay had told me to, I left a note on top of the dresser that said, “Please share his clothes with anyone who needs them. Thank you–The Garretts”
He’s always been the kind of man that would give you the shirt off his back.
Two visits ago, he told me that he was anxious about dying. He worried “that he hadn’t been a good enough Christian.” I was so horrified at the thought that I couldn’t respond. I’ve told him many times what I think–It’s this life that’s heaven or hell, and we make it so for each other.
Clemency. Forgiveness for what we have done. Mercy. The gift of life when we have been handed a death sentence. Standing in the rain and holding out hope, even when you know it’s running out. We all hope for mercy, right there in Jackson, Georgia.