Mattie's story #2 - The beginning
In 1946, my father diagnosed himself with a death sentence. He was a physician – well, a psychiatrist actually – but he was in the medical corps in Japan during the Occupation. He had been noticing odd symptoms: weakness in the hands and lack of dexterity, trouble in swallowing. I’m not sure if tripping was a symptom because years later he would still be standing upright and able to walk into the ocean. As he sat in the doctor’s waiting room, he scanned the medical texts that must have sat there on the shelves. Motor neuron dysfunctions…degenerative muscle diseases…and suddenly he had it: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gherig’s Disease. He was twenty-five years old.
He drowned on a beautiful beach on a sunny day – typical for summer on Cape Cod. A normal person wouldn’t have gone under at that beach on that day with the waves gently rolling into shore wetting my almost 4 year old bottom as I dug in the sand for clams with my plastic pail and shovel. But tossed under by the light foamy breakers and unable to corral his musculature to recover his balance and cough out any swallowed water, he struggled in a depth of just a few feet no more than four yards from where I played.
“I’m just going in the water a little deeper,” he had said to me, interrupting what was a most fine activity of repeatedly plunging our hands into the cold wet sand and extracting what seemed to be an endless quantity of perfect Cape Cod clams, slowly filling the pail.
“Daddy, don’t go,” I had responded. I didn’t see what was so inviting about going in swimming when we were having such a delightful time with our clam project.
“I’ll be right back,” he reassured me. I returned my attention to my very important task.
I was such a good little girl and always faithfully obeyed my parents. But what if I’d been a little brattier? What if I’d whined or cried or stamped my feet, or raised any audible fuss? Would my mother have seen him and prevented what happened next?
My mother, sitting safely on her beach blanket on dry sand, wearing her summer plaid shorts and white sleeveless blouse with her long black hair pulled back in a saucy ponytail, paid no attention to us. She didn't like the water and never went swimming. Instead, she focused on her needlepoint. I wonder if she ever finished that needlepoint, and what it was supposed to be. Minutes later I would see her, disheveled and distraught, her clothes wet, her ponytail now askew and loaded with sand and saltwater. She was leading what seemed to my child’s eyes a clump of humanity struggling through the water, yelling “help” in a rhythmic beat to their lumbering steps weighted down with their load: the dead weight of my dead or dying daddy. Whisked away by I never found out whom, I glanced back at the scene over my shoulder. As they laid out on the blanket the person that was the cause of this chaotic event, I saw the peaceful, closed eyes of my father for the last time. I didn’t catch sight of my mother again as I was hurried away to “safety.” My next memory is of looking down at my sandled feet walking very fast and away from the beach with someone holding on tightly and so importantly to my hand that I didn't think to question why. And I don’t remember anything else until days later.