December 21, 2012.
A significant day for me. If he were still alive, my father would be 100 years old today. And tomorrow marks the 59th anniversary of his death.
From the beginning I planned to dedicate Zinovy’s Journey to my father, if only as a way to preserve his name.
Walter Fred Saumert.
The only son of the only Saumert living in the western hemisphere. My father had only daughters. When we married, and our mother died, the name died as well, so I preserved it on the dedication page of my book.
The name is worth preserving.
I have only a few memories of my father, but they are vivid. They’ve grown more vivid over the years, the details being absorbed, and gloriously transformed, I’m sure, from the jumble of vague impressions left in my childish heart the day he died.
I remember that day well. I remember sitting with my sister and a babysitting neighbor in the car outside the field hospital at the army depot where he worked, watching the door my mother had walked through, waiting for her to come back to us, wondering what news she would bring. Even at the age of seven, I knew it would not be good.
It seemed like hours before the door finally opened and my mother stepped out. She turned back to speak to someone in the entryway and I saw what she carried in her arms. I can still see it. A brown bundle in the crook of one elbow, and my father’s work boots in her hand.
“Daddy’s dead,” I said to my sister.
She wailed, flailing out at the harshness of the statement. But I knew. He would never walk away from that hospital. The boots in my mother’s hands were proof.
Many times I heard the story of what happened in the hospital that day. They'd taken her to the room where his crushed body lay. She'd leaned over him, overcome with her shock and grief.
Then she heard a voice say, "Why are you standing here crying? The angels are singing."
The question was so powerful it stopped her tears. She straightened and turned to tell the doctor standing behind her what she'd just heard. When she turned she discovered that the doctor was gone, but she wasn't alone. She said the room behind her was flooded with the brightest light she'd ever seen.
Skeptics will say what she really saw was the play of the hospital lights on her tear-filled eyes, but my mother insisted it was something more. And I believe she was right.
That vision comforted us all. It lifted our eyes from the cold darkness of that snowy December day to the eternally bright realm where my father had gone. The place where the angels sing.
Yet it was still hard, for all of us. The many re-tellings of the story by my grief-stricken mother burned the details into my memory, the immediate, tragic history all but erasing what few recollections I had of the seven happy years of my life before that day. Gradually, over the years, I’ve remembered some things, fleeting moments or impressions.
When I step out of the bath I remember that he’s the one who taught me how to sling the towel across my back and pull it back and forth to dry the places I can't reach.
I remember the 50-gallon barrel of water that sat above our shower shed in the front yard, warmed by the sun in summer, so we could bathe in relative comfort, two of us at a time, one parent and one child, to conserve water.
I can still feel the trickle of tepid water falling on my hair and running down my back, and how we turned the spigot off while we soaped, then on again to rinse, because our water had to be hauled from a spring down the road.
I remember being tossed up in the air, laughing, carefree in the intuitive knowledge that daddy would always catch me when I came back down.
But I also remember the dreams I had soon after his death. The one of him clambering over the low roof of the back room he had just added onto the cabin that had been our rural family home for the last five years. A bear clawed the eaves, reaching up for him. He moved everywhere, trying to escape, but the bear followed.
The dream ended before the claws came close, but I knew the bear would win in the end. My childhood ended as well, with this newly dawning realization that fathers are not invincible.
In the days that followed I dreamed of walking along the highway at night, digging up graves in the ditch, one by one, looking for him. Finally seeing him in our local town, from a distance, crossing the street, going away from me, deaf to my calling as I ran after him.
It was years later I had the last dream, the one that finally allowed me to put the vestiges of my grief away. The vision was a simple one, another grave, open at my feet, with dust motes floating up into the sunlight. They seemed to glisten with the reflection of the glory that had filled the room where my father's body lay that day. The day when the world, as we knew it, came to an end.
"Precious [of great value; highly esteemed or cherished]
in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."