Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.
Meeting a Memory
When my mom was eleven, her dad left for a medical conference in Little Rock, Arkansas and never came back. He was sitting in a meeting when he fell – hitting the floor hard, clutching the left side of his chest. The room was full of doctors, but it was already too late.
The phone call came at the house later that night; it was a Friday, May 20, 1972. I try to imagine what it was like: the fireflies flickering to life in the settling dark, the air swathed in the scent of summer nights in East Texas.
The youngest ones were already in bed, my mom’s spindly legs curling into her sticky covers as she slipped into the shallow end of dreaming. Polly was in the living room with a boyfriend, home after a date, perhaps swishing the long ribbon of her hair, their hands pressed together on the couch. Anne, the oldest, was the one who picked up the phone.
“Is this Mrs. Halbrooks?” A strange voice, formal, stiff.
Anne found Caca, my mom’s mom, Grandpa Norman’s wife, on the other side of the house. She didn’t leave, but stayed in the doorway as Caca held the phone close to her skin. Caca hardly talked, just stood there and listened, and then she slowly put the phone down, her legs folding to sit on the bed. Anne knew with that collapse in the cave of her stomach that something unspeakably terrible had happened.
Did it even feel real to say, to hear, the words dad and died in the same sentence? Afterwards, they stared at each other for a moment. There was nothing more to be said. And for that moment they sat, the only ones in the dark slumber of their home who knew that it would never be the same again.
Mom jolted awake to Caca’s hand shaking her shoulder. Blinking sleep from their eyes, they gathered in the living room to find their pastor standing there at eleven o’clock on a Friday night. That’s when they knew that something wasn’t right. Dragged from sleep, only eleven, Mom says it felt like a dream that you think you’ll wake up from. But then it hits you later: you’re already awake.
The boyfriend was sent home to his own family. And then perhaps our family talked, prayed, held each other. I can’t imagine any tears that night; my mom’s shown me that the Halbrooks don’t cry often. And when there was nothing more to talk about, they went back to bed – my mom to the cocoon in her covers still bearing the imprint of innocent, ignorant sleep. ***
I pick up the framed picture on the kitchen counter and run my fingers over the glass. I’m struck by how young he is, and how handsome: eyes penetrating through a filmy sheen, staring confidently into the camera, hair gelled in a gentle swoop, chin creased in the middle.
“He looks like your dad!” I tell my cousins. “He looks so much like Aunt Polly – see that chin,” Amanda points out. “And maybe a little bit like Uncle Gary,” I squint, holding the picture at arm’s length.
We huddle around the face beneath the glass and search for the familiar – Uncle Ron’s eyes, Aunt’s Polly’s chin, Uncle Gary’s hair – but we don’t find anything familiar of Grandpa Norman. In his face I can only see what I see in others, because I’ve never known him.
In Uncle Ron’s office I run my fingers over the pile of papery surgical masks in gaudy colors, the stethoscope lying coiled like a sleeping snake, the medic flags. Once the bright yellow, red, and blue raised in the Pacific jungles, they are now unraveling on the edges and rolled up in the corner. I touch them reverently, fingering the fabric that Grandpa Norman touched with his own hands. He was only nineteen when he went to the Pacific: my age.
Who was he at nineteen? At twenty-nine? At thirty-nine? All I know of Grandpa Norman is a face beneath the glass and the always there but rarely spoken of presence of death. All the memory I have of him is what others want me to remember.
Norman Halbrooks grew up in the 20s and 30s in Bryan, Texas, where his dad owned Shorty’s Cleaners. Everyone called William Halbrooks “Shorty”; Grandpa Norman himself was only 5’3’’.
Shorty wasn’t a gentle man, and he wasn’t well. He had severe depression, and for months would stay in the mental hospital back when they still did shock treatments. When he was sick, they didn’t have a lot of food.
Grandpa Norman, just a teenager, worked at a pharmacy, and he would bring home Hershey bars he’d dug out of the trashcan, half nibbled on by rats, for his sisters to eat. The oldest and only son, he had to learn to be a man before most.
He started at Texas A&M studying medicine until the early morning of December 7th, 1941 when the red suns burst over Pearl Harbor. And at seventeen years old, he had no choice but to join the fight.
He was to be a medic, but when the time came for him to leave a year later, they lost his papers and couldn’t send him. But his best friend Frederick and the rest of the men he’d trained with left Norman waiting for six months on the shores of the Pacific as they died in the waters of that same ocean.
He was finally sent out six months later and spent a year on Guam. It wasn’t all war as you might imagine it. In his free time he read books and ran a Boy Scout camp for the local kids. But he was also a medic – in turn a healer, savior, chaplain, gravedigger – and perhaps because of that he saw death up close more than many others. He was there on Okinawa, and had they not dropped the bombs, he would have been part of the final offensive onto the mainland of Japan.
When I hear this, I whisper a guilty prayer of thanks – if he had died then, my mom would never have been born, and there would be no me. I don’t know what’s right or what should have been, but I whisper my thanks anyways.
When he came back to America he met my grandmother, and Norman Earl Halbrooks and Carolyn Sue Miller were married in the First Baptist Church in Kewanna, Indiana when Grandpa Norman was 27 and Caca 20. He always wanted lots of kids, and ten years later, they had six.
Grandpa Norman took the whole family on road trips across the country, all eight piled into the station wagon with the stuffed luggage container teetering on its top. My mom, almost the youngest and the smallest, would kick up her legs doing handstands in the backwards-facing seats before the days of seatbelts. When they stopped for meals, Grandpa Norman always ordered the same thing for everyone. No “I don’t know what to get” or “Her meal is better than mine!” – just eight spaghettis.
Ignoring the whining of his kids, Grandpa Norman stopped at every museum along the way and laboriously pored over each exhibit. My mom remembers walking in one museum, little fingers encased in his firm palm.
Grandpa Norman’s mind was sharp, and he wanted the minds of his kids to be sharp too. He bought them kits to learn how to speed-read, although my mom was the only one who got any good at it. He wanted them all to do well in school and so paid them for getting A’s. My mom always got a lot of money.
Grandpa Norman was the second anesthesiologist in Tyler, Texas when they moved there in 1957. And ten years later, compelled by a faith reckless to some, he traveled across the world to share his knowledge. For a month at a time he taught anesthesia to doctors in Southeast Asia, South Africa, Yemen, India, the Middle East.
He was in Jordan on June 5th, 1967 when the Gaza Strip erupted. For six days he hunkered down inside the hospital as bombs burst overhead and thousands of men died fighting over the lines of land. He fled on an old WW11 aircraft to Tehran, Iran (what then was a safe location) and days later, made it to Rome where Caca was waiting for him.
His last trip, to Kenya, was the year he died. He was driving with a missionary doctor through thick darkness when the blinding light of a construction barrier burst before them; he slammed the brakes, jerked the wheel, but they were already smashing into the concrete. He was seriously injured, and only two weeks later could he find the strength to fly back home – for what would be the last time. Caca and my uncle Gary, eleven at the time, drove to the airport to pick him up; Grandpa Norman lay, eyes closed, body limp, in the back of the station wagon the two-hour drive home.
On May 20th that same year Grandpa Norman was gone. Gary, who in the dark silence of the speeding car had stared at his father, closer to death than he’d ever been, thinks that he died because of that injury. We’ll never know.
I don’t know how to say it.
“Mom, I don’t want to ask you anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.” I lean towards her face on the computer screen as I sit in the half-dark. The air is muggy, the skin on my bare shoulders sticky, cheeks flushed from the sun.
“Well I know it might be hard for you to talk about…” I trail off. Death, unspoken, hangs in the space between us. “You don’t have to answer anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”
“I know.” Mom waits.
And then I hear myself saying what I’ve always wanted to say: “Mom what was it like when he died?”
The Saturday morning after, Ron drove my mom and Gary over to their regular tennis lesson. Caca wanted everything to be as normal as it could be. But how could it? People kept showing up at the house, carrying covered casseroles and somber faces painted with pity.
Strangers were everywhere. My mom remembers walking in on someone she didn’t know making her bed.
The funeral was Sunday afternoon and Monday morning they were all back at school as though nothing had happened. My mom tells me that Caca didn’t want their lives to change. It was just a weekend after all – just three days that wouldn’t let anything be the same again. It was the last week of school, and Wednesday the 25th was Anne’s graduation from high school and her eighteenth birthday.
When he died, I just knew life had to go on, Caca told me. And it did.
“How do I want you to remember him?” Mom repeats my question slowly, eyes searching for a second. “On his tombstone are four symbols in the corners,” she begins. “There’s an etched cross, joined wedding rings turned up and down to form an eight”, she makes her fingers into interlocking rings to show me, “because there were eight of us in our family, a staff with a snake around it – that’s a symbol for medicine – and a candle for his passion for missions.”
I don’t know if Mom can see the wet prickling my eyes, but I’m trying not to let it show. I don’t even know if you can feel the absence of someone who was never there for you. What am I mourning: the loss of who he was, or not knowing what I’ve lost?
All I know of Grandpa Norman is what I hear from others – snippets of dates and stories and pictures patched together to make a life. I can recount his story, but can I ever really understand who he was? For what memory I have is not my own.
The other day my mom was talking to Caca on the phone, and I heard her call him “Daddy.” Daddy. I sometimes forget she was only eleven, just a girl with spindly legs and a firm-set jaw. Until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever really realized the full weight of what losing him meant.
Because I didn’t just lose my Grandpa Norman, but my mom lost her Daddy. It’s now more than ever that I wish I knew him, but it’s now more than ever that I realize: all I can truly know of Grandpa Norman is my loss of who he was.