By Casey Gauntt
“I just can’t buy Christianity; that Jesus Christ and the religion founded upon his miraculous birth and resurrection is the only path to heaven. All I know is this—here—right now—this moment with you, this meal, this conversation. This is what I believe: When I talk to my friends Pat Nottke and Jeanne West—all of us turning 90 this year— those conversations—that’s what’s real to me. That is what’s important to me. Just like you are discovering Casey by getting back in touch with your old friends from Itasca, Lake Park and USC—that is wonderful.”
– Barbara C. Gauntt, February 2011, Bentley’s restaurant Encinitas, CA.
One year later, a Saturday evening in February, 2012, Hilary, Laura, Brittany, Ryan, Wyatt and I spent the evening with Mom, Barbara, at her townhome in High Country Villas. That night and the next morning I made this entry in the journal I’ve been keeping the past three-plus years. There was so much that had been said and revealed; so much that needed to be remembered.
(Casey’s journal entry, February, 2012) It’s been six weeks since life as my mother knew it was turned upside down. First, the fall in her house two days before the new year, where we are gathered this evening, three trips to the emergency room, two stays in the hospital, a broken arm, a broken clavicle, skilled nursing, assisted living, pneumonia, congestive heart failure, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease- Mom made me look that one up), every possible test invented by mankind, more blood drawn than she has the capacity to make— wary (me) of the next phone call and the great unknown. I may or may not write about all of that later, but this night was a good night.
My mother—Barbara or ‘Barb’ as we affectionately refer to her— is back in her home for now. Her daughter, my kid sister Laura, arrived a week ago from her home in Switzerland and has pitched in to help my wife Hilary and me care for her. A thirty foot long umbilical cord runs from the oxygen concentrator wheezing in the hallway and into my mother’s 90 year old nostrils. She sags into one of the ancient high back chairs in the living room, its faded wings, those of a bird or perhaps an angel, yearn to wrap themselves around her frail—once 5’-9”—frame that struggles to support 109 pounds. I am firmly anchored in its twin, my back and shoulders defiantly pressed into his frame. Hilary and Laura are each perched on a dining chair placed north and west of us around the dark mahogany coffee table. The sun set an hour ago and the steady stream of golfers have ceased flowing past her single story townhome nestled along the fifth hole of the executive golf course that meanders through the seniors-only community of High Country Villas in Encinitas, California.
Our daughter Brittany, son-in-law Ryan and Barb’s 21 month old great-grandson, Wyatt, came for a couple of hours and left before dinner. Barb was still high from the hit of new life—the shear energy, joy and smell of Wyatt James spread throughout her house but would not make a lasting dent from the smoke of two packs a day of cigarettes and other signatures of hers that have long since captured every crevice of this abode. Even as her shell abandons her, my mother is more alive, alert and focused in this moment than I can ever before recall. We of course couldn’t know, tonight, that she will be 911’d back into the emergency room early tomorrow morning to reengage in a valiant struggle for a breath and a heartbeat. That was the unknown and this was now. And now was when she began to talk about Dad, his death in December of 1970 and the brutal aftermath.
She first reflected upon how grateful she was that Laura, our older brother Grover and I had survived, in varying degrees and timetables, those dark, painful days, months and years after Dad’s death. She knew only too well how hard it was on us kids and Hilary, too. Hilary recalled how she had met me only a few months after his death and, although she knew he committed suicide, “You never would have known Casey was suffering or in pain. He always had a smile on his face and rarely, if ever, talked about it.”
Barb countered, “When people asked me what happened to Grover, Jr., I said ‘Suicide.’ I never hesitated—I put it right out there. I didn’t want people talking behind my back about ‘I wonder what really happened?'”
Laura said she was never angry. “I accepted it.”
I was silent.
Mom talked about how her younger brother, Stan, and his wife, Joan, were saviors for her and Laura right after Dad’s death, looked after them and helped them resettle from suburban Chicago to their town of Los Altos in northern California. “My mother, Henrietta, was a savior, too.” And then she made the first of several revelations that I’d not heard before.
“But, I can’t say the same about my father [Vern Case]. I put some blame for your Dad’s death at my father’s feet—for running out of Chicago to Springville [California] and leaving your Dad behind holding the bag. After Grover, Jr. died, whenever I talked with others about my parents, I would mention Henrietta five times to Vern’s one.”
I joined the fray. “Hilary was my savior—she was my angel. I don’t think I could have gotten through it without her.” Hilary burst into tears. I’ve said this before to her—I know I’ve written to her about it—but this may have been the first time I’ve said it out loud to her or with others present.
“Were you angry?” my mother asked me. “I could certainly understand how you would be.”
I told the story, the one Hilary knows only too well, of what happened a few days before I got that call in November of 2008 from Emily Buckberry telling me she had the letter Dad had written to me when I was in Coalwood. Brittany had come over for dinner and she gave us some more details about what happened with Jimmy and the young shaman from Oxford during the Bearing Witness Retreat in Poland that Grover lead in November of 2005. The shaman had told Jimmy that the spirit of his fraternal grandfather, Dad, had attached itself to him and was “influencing his decisions.” The shaman, also named James, offered to perform a “detachment” ceremony, which Jimmy agreed to. A few months before he died, Jimmy told Brittany that the ceremony didn’t seem to have any effect and that over the last year he felt a strange—almost compulsive—obsession to find out more about his grandfather. He spent a lot of time in the attic of our house, where we store my mother’s scrapbooks and photo albums, looking at photos of his grandfather and reading letters he had written to Barb and his parents during World War II. After Brittany left, I went up to the attic, where I had not been in quite a while, and there, on a small desk where Jimmy liked to write, was a stack of photos of Dad and letters Dad had written that Jimmy had carefully put aside. For me to find?
I came back down from the attic and sat with Hilary in the living room. Hilary vividly recalled the next moment.
“The look in Casey’s eyes frightened the hell out of me. I’ve never seen him so mad, and with a shaking voice he said ‘Why the hell did my father attach himself to Jimmy!!! If he had anything to do with Jimmy’s death, I don’t think I can live with that.'”
I was losing my mind and I was dangling on a ledge above an abyss unlike anything I’d ever confronted.
And then two days later Emily Sue Buckberry called. Dad had come through to me. He took me in his arms, turned me away from the cliff’s edge and made sure that I absolutely knew he only had love for me and Jimmy—and it was going to be OK.
“So, yeah,” I said, “I was plenty angry, and I realized I’d been angry for the previous 38 years—I just had not realized until that moment how much.”
And then the conversation went deep—deeper than it had ever gone before with us—with Barb in the lead.
“The three of us had gone to a movie—Laura, me and your Dad. It was no more than two weeks before he died. Laura, you were thirteen. I think he walked out of the movie.”
Laura interjected, “I’m pretty sure it was the movie Patton [General George Patton, starring George C. Scott]. Dad had known one of Patton’s top staff officers who was killed in the war, and he did walk out after about an hour into the movie. There were a lot of battle scenes and those must have dredged up bad memories for him.”
Barb continued, “When we got back home, your Dad and I went into our bedroom and shut the door. He was really down, and at some point he said “I just want to get in the car by myself and drive it off the road into a tree.” I’d not heard that before.
Laura nodded her head “That’s exactly what he said. I had my ear pressed to the door and was listening.” Barb had not heard that before.
Barb pushed forward, “I said to him ‘Let’s pack one suitcase and go—anywhere you want—let’s just go, you and me, right now. Let’s get away from all this.”
We all burst into tears—even Mom, which she is not prone to do. I had never heard any of this—forty one years since Dad’s death and this was the first time. I can’t begin to tell you what a revelation this was for me. All these years I’ve had a nagging feeling that Mom was a little cold and aloof about Dad’s death—with her ‘we have to move on and not look back’ attitude— and I’d always wanted to ask her, but never had the guts, ‘couldn’t you have done something? Said something to him? Why didn’t you do more?’ I never knew until right now how much she had reached out to him, as he was sinking deeper and deeper into his despair, and tried to throw him a life-line. ‘Let’s pack one suitcase, and just go.’ Unfortunately he didn’t grab it. But she damn well tried! And thirteen year old Laura silently bore witness to the whole thing.
Laura shared another couple of remembrances that were news to me, and that also took place within a couple of weeks before Dad’s death.
“I was at cheerleading practice at Itasca North. I was in the 8th grade. I looked up and Dad was standing by the door. I was a bit startled. ‘What is he doing here?’ I wondered to myself. He rarely came to any of my events at school. He waved. I waved back. And then he left. A few days after he showed up at school—the day he left for a business trip to the company’s offices in Panama—I think he went to Panama—he came to my bedroom door. Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five’s new song, I’ll Be There, was playing on my record player. I loved that song and was playing the little 45 record over and over. Daddy smiled and said ‘You know I’ll always love you, don’t you?’ I said ‘Of course I do, Daddy.’ He kissed me. And that was the last time I saw him—I think.
“A week later, the night before he was to return home from Panama, Mom and I were decorating the Christmas tree that was in front of our living room window facing Greenview Rd. It was around eight o’clock—a light snow was falling. I saw a yellow Volkswagen Bug turn the corner from North Street onto Greenview. As the tiny, yellow car drove by our house it slowed down—it never stopped—and then continued on. I thought then, and now, that was Daddy—that was his goodbye.“
“I know it was him,” Barb quickly chipped in. I’d never heard her say that before.
Dad had given me his 1968 Cadillac Sedan DeVille four months earlier. The ‘deal’ he had made with my brother and me was that we couldn’t have a car until we were juniors in college, and then he’d give us one. Dad decided to downsize—and perhaps save some money—and bought a yellow VW Bug.
I had come home from college earlier that day. I must have been out with friends when the VW drove by the house.
We were getting it all out—41 years later—we were finally able to talk it all out.
Laura and Hilary went into the kitchen to get dinner ready, and for a few minutes it was just Mom and me. I quietly said “You have no idea how healing this is for me—for us—to talk like this—to hear and share these things.” I grabbed her hand. “I’m so grateful to have you as my mother. For all of these years you have never stopped being my mother and helping me and showing me the way. I love you so much.”
We had our moment—actually several moments that night. Each time she shared a revelation that night she gave me a look—with her head pressed back into the enveloping chair, one eye cocked and locked onto mine—and a question, with the words unspoken, but yet crystal clear ‘Are you getting this?’ ‘Are you OK with this?’ And each time I met her stare and silently answered her questions, ‘Yes, I’m more than good with this. I want to hear it all.’
I think she couldn’t quite believe she was finally telling us all of this—and getting it all out.
Her look—I’ll never forget the look—head back—eye cocked—wary of our reaction?—a look I had not seen before tonight. So many firsts tonight.
I told Mom of the dream I had of Dad a few nights earlier.
“We were together somewhere and he appeared to be in his 40s. He looked good—fit. We were talking about shoulders. He was complaining of his right shoulder. I put my hand in his armpit and pushed up into the shoulder. ‘Is this where it hurts?’ ‘Yeah, right there,’ he said. ‘It’s probably your rotator cuff,’ I diagnosed. And then I woke up.”
I told my Mom there some interesting things about this dream. One was that he hadn’t been around in my dreams for awhile. “The thing that really got my attention about this particular dream is that although we’ve talked before in my dreams—but that only started to happen a couple of days before Emily sent me The Letter, and any dreams I can recall having of him before that he was always silent—I don’t believe I’ve ever touched him or had any physical contact with him in a dream—at least not that I can remember.”
My Mom smiled—she didn’t say anything—just a smile.
I said, “I think he’s around—he’s driving by—and this time he’s going stop and pick you up.
He’s got a place all picked out.”