Patricia Milligan’s Story Speaks of the Poignancy of Facing Life’s Passages

by Memoir Mentor on March 5, 2011

My mother recently told me she didn’t think she’d be driving much longer. Her health has declined, and I’ve worried about her safety behind the wheel, but I’ve been reluctant to broach this sensitive subject with her. It’s difficult to acknowledge that we can no longer do what we once found easy. My mother complains that her back and knee and hearing issues make her life more narrow and less interesting. “There’s nothing to look forward to anymore,” she tells me from time to time. I try to encourage her as best I can, but I can see that age is taking a toll on this once healthy, vibrant woman who loved to drive as much as I do.

This week’s story, “Giving Up the Boat,” by long-time student Patricia Milligan, captures the poignancy of letting go when the reality of life’s circumstances makes holding on no longer tenable. Pat enhances the wistful tone of her story by framing it with her own lovely poetry. Her memoir PAT’ch-Work Essays, a combination of narrative, personal essay, and poetry, was published in 2009.

by Patricia Milligan

Life is a winding river with no visible beginning or end. As I travel homeward I have no idea of its length, for it is uncharted. All humans navigate their way as best they can, some enjoying the adventure, others not. It is not the end of the river I fear, but the indignities and deprivation to be endured before my voyage is complete.

As I sail the seas of life,
I hear the Sirens’ song.
Lord, please lash me to the mast,
And keep me safe and strong.

On this third day of the vacation we called our “sentimental journey,” John and I returned to the house on Winding Way to have an early dinner in a local restaurant with my sister Gwen and her husband George. We planned to go out for tomato-pies. Tomato-pies are a treat John and I remembered as being available in Trenton, but not attainable elsewhere. In California, pizza replaces pies. On tomato-pies tomatoes, cheeses and oil top thin crust. The warm mozzarella cheese stretches out in long strands, juicy tomatoes contain pulp, and the fragrant olive oil drips on your fingers and runs down your chin when you take a delicious bite. I enjoyed the memory.

My brother-in-law, George, faced a dilemma. He had been released from the Fox Chase Cancer Hospital in Philadelphia, but he remained weak and unable to make the preparations his boat required each spring before he put it into the water. George loved his boat, acquired after several upgrades. He knew well the difficulties in maintaining it. Rather than sell the boat in a bad economy, he had decided to give it to his older son, Gary. Some things in life we must give up, even when we want to keep them.

We saw our nephew Gary’s pick-up truck in the driveway. He had come to assemble the tools he would need to get the boat out of dry-dock and into the water. While my sister talked to John, I retreated to the back yard where George sat on a bench with his legs crossed and his head in his hands. Diagnosed with lymphoma, George, always so strong and healthy, had many things to consider. He sat up alertly when he heard me close the screen door. “George,” I said quietly, “am I disturbing you?”

“It’s OK, Pat,” he replied. “Come on out.” Sadness blurred his blue-gray eyes, but his voice was cheerful.

I walked around the pretty yard, admiring the rhododendrons, beautifully pink, shining in the late afternoon sun; then I sat on a chair across from him.

“How are you holding up?” I asked, before realizing he would not give me an answer. Men rarely describe their pain or suffering.

“I’m fine. Gary is getting the things he will need to put the boat in the water.”

“I know. He’s in the crawl space under the house,” I said. “I saw him when I came out. He’s taking a lot of stuff. It’s good he has a truck.”

“Sailing a boat is complicated.” George smiled, lifting his eyebrows. “Gary’s up to it, and I’m not. I decided the best thing to do is give him the boat. I won’t be able to go out by myself for a while anyway. My boat will be in good hands.” He rubbed his empty hands together and glanced at his watch.

Sometimes, I thought, we are defined by our possessions. John is defined by his golf clubs, I, by my books, and George has been defined by his boat. Losing or having to give up our possessions is a disaster. Our possessions contribute to our identity. Without them we feel exposed or naked. I saw in George’s face what he could never express in words.

Gwen did not share George’s love of boating. “Too much work, and too much money,” she declared. Together they spent summers at the Jersey shore where they kept a small summer home. George worked on or sailed his boat, while Gwen made friends with neighbors or read a book. Escaping the worst of Trenton’s heat, both enjoyed the scent of aromatic scrub-pines and the murmur of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Gary seems to have inherited your love of boats,” I said.

“I guess,” he admitted. “He will take good care of it, and we will go fishing together when I am well again.” George smiled again, determined to be pragmatic.

Gary’s life experiences differed from his father, I thought. Unlike George, married 54 years to my sister (and I know Dorsett girls are not easy to live with, for John occasionally reminds me), Gary was divorced by his first wife, but now seems happily married to a beautiful woman and has two handsome children. As a special education teacher, Gary does not earn a lot of money, but he has many interests and hobbies, and seems happy enough. Happiness is not a condition easily worn or displayed by my family. We suspect joy is a precursor to misery, and showing joy tempts the devil. Gary would regret his father’s need to give up his boat, but he would appreciate and care for it. He knows his father worked hard to afford the boat he is being given.

We heard Gwen calling us to come inside, and George held the screen-door open for me. Inside Gary continued to pull equipment from the open crawl space. “Do I need this, Dad?” he questioned, holding up a gadget I could not name.

“I’ve used it several times, so you might as well take it,” George replied.

Gary put the tool with a pile of other instruments he was taking to his truck. After he finished and had loaded the truck, Gary reported to the living room where we were assembled. George handed him the keys and papers needed to get the boat out of storage.

“You will be going out in the boat with me before you know it, Dad,” Gary said.

“Sure,” said George, remembering he had at least six weeks of chemo-therapy ahead of him. Thinking about the future was painful. Reminiscing about the past was futile. One must live in the present and adapt to existing circumstances. George has much to think about, but he will make the best of whatever a loving God expects from him.

“We’re going out for tomato-pies, Gary. Do you want to come with us?” Gwen asked.

“Can’t. I’ve got school tomorrow.” Gary replied. Removing his car keys, he put the boat keys in his pocket. “Thanks, Dad,” he said as he waved goodbye to us.

The emptiness in the room seemed palpable. We had witnessed the end of an era in a man’s life, and we could not know what was around the next bend of the winding river. We will all have to surrender something and eventually everything, for we know, “… we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” (Timothy 6:7)

Meanwhile, I enjoy the pleasures of my possessions, family, and friends.

Lord, don’t let storms rock my boat.
Keep it sturdy and afloat.
But if it should get lost at sea,
Please dear Lord, hang on to me.

I believe my brother-in-law may have had similar thoughts as we left the house on Winding Way for tomato pies.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nancy Peralta March 5, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Well done. Very poignant. Brings back memories of my dad in his last year of life
having to give up driving. Driving was his independence. We did not take his license away and occasionally he sneaked out with the car at 89 years old until he sold it. Amazing how we are identified by our “things”. You said it well. “We are defined by our possessions…. Our possessions contribute to our identity. Without them we feel exposed or naked.”

2 Sally Ramer March 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I loved your story, so full of nostalgia for a happier past, yet laced with hope, too. I admired your use of dialogue; it seemed very realistic., I also found the name of the street George lives on (Winding Way) a marvelous symbol you were able to tie in to the winding river theme and the winding, changing course of George’s life.

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