Sir Walter Raleigh by Lee Guthrie

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pipe, tobacco, cutters and other supplies on table

We listen to my father’s footsteps creak lightly across the floorboards overhead with the forced casualness of parents with young children. Having tried without success to engage my father in some kind of dinner conversation, my husband and I sit at the dining room table in an exhausted silence, while he rummages around upstairs doing lord knows what. Dinner with Daddy: we say something cheerfully inconsequential; he ignores us, too focused on picking up small pieces of roast beef with his fingers and sticking them onto his fork. Despite my better intentions, I count to myself the number of hours until we drive him back to his Alzheimer’s facility. Fourteen.

He’s up in our bedroom, where I’ve arranged for him to sleep tonight because the bed isn’t too high. We clear the table and are about to start in on the dishes when I hear him race down the stairs with a jagged clomp that sounds like he could take a dive, head-first, at any moment. I rush around the corner and find him paused on the bottom step, staring out with that confused, dazed look that people with dementia get when they realize they don’t know what’s happening to them. He stands there, shaking, wearing nothing but a pair of my black tights. His boney ribs jut forward against the pale dry skin on his chest, his thin white hair flies wildly about his face, and his narrow feet stick out in two long points beneath the stretched knit fabric. He looks like a deranged, aged superhero.

“Daddy, what on earth?” I shout, running towards him. I can barely comprehend what I’m seeing; this is insane, horrific, grotesque.

He shouts back, “No! No! No!” and backs away from me, jabbing his ankle into the bottom step in the process. The wooden edge cuts into his tendon and he flinches with pain, refusing to cry out, which would be, in his mind, a reflection of some internal weakness. He flaps his hands to push me away— me and all the other dark, incomprehensible harms rushing at him, wanting something from him, trying to get him.

“Just…” I want to scream: Just stop it! Here is a man who has ordered dry Manhattans and “papillon en papillote” in fine restaurants, who has a sonorous baritone voice that can harmonize with anything, who was editor of his college paper and a successful businessman, who wears Harris Tweed like it was made for him, and is as comfortable in a Broadway theatre as he is in a stadium seat at the University of Tennessee. And I want to shake him and say: Get a grip. If you are strong enough to handle D-Day off the beaches of Normandy and the deaths of two wives, why can’t you please, for the love of God, just handle this one last thing?

I look down and take a breath. I begin again, more slowly this time, reaching one hand out towards him, careful not to touch him too soon. I try to lock into his eyes—I can’t bear to look at the rest of him—but they dart from side to side, frantic. His mouth hangs open and his breathing is quick, uneven. I put my fingers on his arm. It feels like ice. He allows me to take his elbow and, after a time, I lead him back upstairs and sit next to him on the bed, which sags beneath us.

I see that a drawer in the chest by the bed is open and my socks and t-shirts are hanging out. He must have been rooting around for pajamas. I fold my hands over his. His left hand has a tremor and quivers beneath my cupped palm like a hurt bird. Gradually, he becomes calm enough to put on his real pajamas, take his medicine, and climb under the covers.

I sit on the floor just outside the bedroom listening to him fall asleep, my head leaning against the door frame. I can see into the darkness. I can see the chest of drawers—an antique pine chest I brought from our family home when Daddy moved into an assisted living facility several years ago. It had been his dresser, which stood by his bed for the 40-some years he lived in the house that he and my mother built. He probably thought it still belonged to him and that these strange, ill-fitting pants must belong to him, too.

Next to the chest stands a smaller, miniature chest for keeping knick knacks and what-nots. It, too, had been by his bed at home. He used to store his Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco in the little drawers with their little, child-sized knobs. Always and only Sir Walter Raleigh—named for the adventurer, conqueror, and poet.

Daddy, like Popeye and Sherlock Holmes, constantly had a pipe in hand, no matter how incongruous the occasion: winding the tangled lights around our Christmas tree, calling out states and capitals while driving us to school, dancing with my mother to big band songs on the record player. To me, he was cool, smoking that pipe, in an urbane, swingin’ kind of way. I even remember him smoking it when he played with us in the ocean—or is that my imagination? People kidded him about his ever-present pipe, but I believe it made him feel strong, anchored and secure in his place. Like a talisman.

I don’t remember what happened to all of those pipes; I suppose we gave—or more likely threw—them away. He couldn’t smoke them once he became ill; the fire would be too dangerous. He kept them in a sort of pipe carousel, like a circle of outward-facing little soldiers, just waiting to be filled with deep fragrant tobacco and sparked to life. They’re all gone, now. But the two chests remain, standing side by side, keeping each other company, rickety sentries standing guard, over what I don’t know. I keep my jewelry in that little one. And even though I lined the drawers with green velvet, my necklaces and bracelets still retain the unmistakable sweet smell of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco. It probably isn’t noticeable to anyone else, but I can sense it—just a tiny bit, now and then.

I turn my head to get a closer look at my father. He lies on his back, motionless, with the sheets tucked under his chin exactly as I placed them. He has entered into another space and I wonder if it is forwards or backwards. Has he returned to the days of his childhood? Or of my childhood? Is he at peace, having made a kind of sense of all the hubbub swirling around him? Or is he in a place so distant that none of the rest of us can know it. Maybe it’s been too much, worn him out, all this living. Maybe it’s time to just give in, let go of the pipe, and turn bat-shit, stark-raving mad. Maybe right now he’s somewhere off Utah Beach on a 1,600 ton destroyer, blasting the hell out of German artillery, terrified by explosions that rattle the inside of his brains, whistle past his ears, and squeeze the breath from his lungs. Maybe his life now is a one-lane road of fear fueled by insanity—or insanity fueled by fear.

But not tonight. Tonight he will be safe. He has always been a good sleeper and he will not stir until the morning; I know this. No harm will come tonight. My legs have gotten stiff from being folded under me on the floor, and I stretch them out, steady myself, and stand up. I look into the bedroom; he hasn’t moved an inch. Sleep tight, I wish into the silence, and tip-toe downstairs.

Charles-Guthrie. with pip, author's father

The author’s father with his pipe.



Lee Guthrie is a writer and educator living in the Chicago area. She teaches marketing at the college level, and coaches business leaders on written and verbal communications. She was a professional actress for over ten years. Lee was born and raised in Tennessee, a place that continues to figure in her writing.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Trinitro Tolueno

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