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and then i knew
Dancing with Wolves
I worshipped the man.
Like a puppy, I waited expectantly his daily homecoming, ever eager to ask a child’s question: “What kind of day did you have?” “Oh, I had a good day,” he might say. Other times his face and his words told a different story: “It was a rough day.” If it had been a “rough day,” sometimes I’d ask why, but he never divulged much.
I worshipped the man. Even so there was a great chasm of silence between us, and when the silence was broken, his words were often harsh: “What happened here?” fingering the lone B on a report card of A’s.
Dad made his living as a physician, a career not conducive to backyard softball, or basement father-son projects, or patient help with homework. What time medicine left him, it contaminated. Constantly preoccupied, Dad lived in some remote place. Only on vacations did I see him relax and turn playful. Looking back, most of the moments we had together were in the car, him taking me to school on his way to early hospital rounds. And of these moments, what I remember most is deafening silence.
Dad’s mom, Grandma Sheila, died in September 1991, just shy of her eighty-second birthday. What transpired before her death was eerie. What happened afterwards was beautiful—at least to me—by its giving shape to that silence.
In the small hours of a Sunday morning in April 1991, I dreamt an intensely vivid dream. In it I walked down the center of the single lane of a high bridge. The bridge spanned the chasm between precipitous tree-covered hillsides. Wide enough only for a single car, the bridge was too delicate for vehicular traffic. Even on foot, I felt its flimsiness, and its height spooked me.
At first I walked alone, others far ahead. Midway across the span, I sensed someone walking behind, near the bridge’s threshold. Turning, I saw an old woman, shawl-covered, bent and wrinkled. I did not then recognize her. Curious, I waited for her to catch up. Hobbling to within steps of me, she veered abruptly to her left, lost balance, and fell over the railing. Shocked, I ran to peer over the side. Astoundingly, she clung to a sloping drain pipe several stories beneath the bridge’s deck, where I stood paralyzed, helpless to reach her.
For quite some time she held on. Then she fell into the water. I scrambled down the superstructure to the river, but upon my arrival, the river had become a wooden floor. And there a man indicated without words that the woman, whom we both knew, was now beneath the floor where he knelt. She was unreachable to either of us.
Later that Sunday morning, but still relatively early, Dad called. Grandma had suffered a stroke during the night and was hospitalized. Having already endured several heart attacks and congestive heart failure, this seemed a final blow. Grandma was alert, Dad reported, but her blood gases were terrible, and he wasn’t sure she’d make it. Still, he recommended against my coming home. “We might need you more later.”
Against the odds, Grandma held on. Uncertain what to do, I waited.
After three weeks of indecision, I flew home. Still hospitalized and feeble, Grandma seemed to be holding on for a reason. For several years I’d gathered stories from her recollections, and on this visit, I picked up real gems. I learned about the whole-life policy she’d borrowed against to send Dad to Emory and Henry, and how the Dale Carnegie course had given her, with only an eighth-grade education, enough confidence to become the principal buyer for Cox’s Department Store. I learned of “Pot” the dog, named by Dad when he was too little to articulate “Spot,” and of Grandma’s shame at hording eggs during hard times, when Dad, as a three-year-old, found the stash and broke them all.
Eventually Grandma left the hospital and returned to her modest apartment, where she required round-the-clock care and a constant flow of oxygen. In August, I saw her one last time. She lay in her robe on the couch, weak and gasping for each breath. In remarkably good spirits, she stated matter-of-factly that she didn’t want to live beyond the point when she became a burden to others.
Shortly thereafter, my once-fleshy, now wispy Grandma broke her hip in a fall. She survived the surgery and lived another two days. She died alert in the presence of Dad, her son, the first in our family to attain a college education, much less a medical degree.
In May the following spring, my parents came for a visit. Dad was pushing seventy, and although retired, he’d kept his medical license, which necessitated a continuing-Ed class now and then. Fortunately, this one was in Williamsburg, where Suzanne and I lived. Mom and Dad drove up in their big green Lincoln Town Car, the Mafia-car I called it. During his years of active medical practice, Dad had denied himself an expensive car, having overheard one too many comments about “them rich doctors” who drove Mercedes and Jaguars. Never of the Country Club set, Dad grew up poor and got educated on Grandma and Granddaddy’s insurance policy and the GI Bill, supplemented by a summer driving a taxi-cab in Durham, North Carolina, when he was a med student at Duke. Dad was always more comfortable with the plain folks he doctored and with the hospital staff (whom, with genuine affection, he called the “little people”) than with his more pretentious colleagues.
Late bloomers, my wife and I had just bought our first house, and I was admittedly anxious about my parents’ inaugural visit to our turf. Worse, my mother could drive me nuts, and I feared she’d expect to be entertained by a committee of one, myself, while Dad attended his meetings. This I resolved not to do.
The first break in the family dynamic came when we began to get genuine compliments from my folks about our new home. It was a simple rancher, but we loved it, and so did they, especially the deck out back. In didn’t hurt that our azaleas, which they didn’t have in the mountains, were not far past their glory.
During their visit, I intuited a subtle change in my father. Suzanne noticed it too. She’d received several heartfelt compliments from him. It was well into their visit before I saw it: the ring on the little finger of his right hand. When I inquired, Dad looked a bit sheepish before admitting that it was Grandma’s wedding band. I was both touched by his tender remembrance of his mother and humored, knowing that it probably galled Mom, who never could stand Grandma.
The final evening of their visit, we drove the Colonial Parkway to Nick’s Seafood Pavilion, the grand culmination of several evenings of sampling our favorite eateries. Seafood—as well as azaleas—is hard to come by in the mountains, and Dad loved to make up for lost opportunity when he was near the coast.
It had been a glorious day. The sun streamed warmly and obliquely in the late afternoon, rendering translucent the tender leaves of spring. We arrived at Nick’s early for our 5:30 reservation and passed the time wandering around the wharf.
I’m a glass-half-empty person. But as we entered the restaurant to be seated, I had the rare sense that everything in the world was exactly as it should be: the day, the waitress, the gaudy elegance of Nick’s, and the people at the table.
The meal was wonderful, our treat to my parents, which Dad uncharacteristically accepted. The conversation too was unusual. Mom typically dominated, sometimes to the point that no one could slip a word in edgewise. But she was on good behavior, and Dad and Suzanne did most of the talking, much of it on political issues, typically best avoided in our family. There too I sensed a new openness and awareness in Dad, a sea change for a man who still thought Nixon got a bad rap.
Contributing to the evening’s aura, half a century earlier, my parents had honeymooned in Yorktown, and there also Suzanne and I had experienced two magical evenings, this one shortly to become the third.
I drove home. Mom and Dad sat in back, with Dad directly behind me. Our topics at dinner had ranged widely. For some unfathomable reason, I followed up by asking my parents if they’d seen Dances with Wolves, the 1990 Academy Award winner by Kevin Costner. Suzanne and I had seen the film six months previously, thunderstruck by its beauty and power. In case you don’t know, it’s a three-hour drama about the demise of the plains Indians in the late 1800s, told sympathetically through the eyes of John Dunbar, a lone army officer at a remote outpost, who, as they say, “turns injun.”
Dad responded that Mom hadn’t seen the film, but that he’d watched it on HBO. “How’d you like it,” I asked, clueless as to how he’d respond. “I loved it,” he said, and followed with a riddle:
“Do you know who John Dunbar reminded me of?” I had no idea.
“You, Davey,” he said.
Upon those two words, something strange and warm began to flow through my soul. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, uncertain how it was meant. “I meant it as one,” Dad said. “The whole time I watched that movie I thought of you.”
And then I knew. I knew and understood the dove and the angel’s message at Christ’s baptism: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,” and all the years of silence before this moment were swallowed in a great Halleluiah Chorus.
Back home we spent the rest of the evening watching TV; I don’t remember what, and it doesn’t matter. Mom sat in the rocker and I sat on the couch between Dad and Suzanne. Dad had his arm on my shoulder and occasionally stroked my head. The TV flickered and made its noise, and there was occasional chatter among us, but I was oblivious of everything except the strokes and the blessing for which I had waited half a lifetime, the puppy at the door. Against that evening, every other experience in my life to that point paled in comparison: first sex, hiking the Matterhorn, or the blue-green pools of Havasu Falls at the Grand Canyon.
Later that evening, preparing for bed, Suzanne gently proffered, “Davey, your Dad gave you quite a compliment today.” “I know, Suz,” I said. “I know.”
Author’s Note: This reflection was written initially in 1993 as “Father’s Blessing” and extensively revised as “Dancing with Wolves” in 2017. Dr. Danny Pruett, a World War II veteran who helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, passed away at 90 years of age in early January 2014, surrounded by his three children.