War & Peace

William A. Balk, Jr.

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“My mother was 21 years old when she was released from her flight training. She had, painfully, already learned of war’s costs.” William A. Balk, Jr

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

My mother, in 1943.

My mother, in 1943.

William A. Balk, Jr.BEAUFORT South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—9/23/2013—Unlike Helen of Troy, for whom a terrible war was begun, my mother claims to have ended one.

She had been accepted into the WASPs—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—and begun training to fly various military aircraft, which were then to be flown across the Atlantic to use in the war effort in the European and African Theaters of the Second World War. But, in 1944, the program was ended as my mother neared completion of her training and before she had delivered her first plane. My mother declares that it was the possibility of her appearing in the skies over Europe that forced both sides to find terms to end the war in Europe. It was only four months before VE Day.

I have prepared for her a big breakfast of softly scrambled eggs, a toasted slice of homemade oatmeal bread, and apple slices. At 89, she still likes her coffee black and freshly brewed. I bring it to her as she sets up her morning bridge game on the computer.

Her desk is beside the east-facing window, streaming the early sunlight into the room and looking out onto the last of the camellia blooms and the furiously competing cardinals and finches and wrens at the hanging feeder. Another beautiful morning.

I bring her the carafe to refill her coffee; her half-eaten breakfast is getting cold. Her hand on the computer mouse is poised and still, and her study of the card game before her is unfocused.

“Are you stuck?” I ask. “Need to figure out which card to play?”

There is no response. I take her hand and try again. “Mama?” Her mouth barely moves. “Mama!” No response. And then, a convulsive sneeze, dislodging her dental plates, which I remove. Stroke, I think. She begins to vomit and, quickly, I lift her from her chair and lay her on the floor, turning her on her side. She vomits several more times.

I cradle her head, madly dialing 9-1-1, and calling my nearby sister, all the while stroking her face and softly saying comforting words.

My mother was 21 years old when she was released from her flight training. She had, painfully, already learned of war’s costs. The year before her own flight training, she had married her childhood sweetheart. Her husband, as young, handsome, adventurous and bright-eyed as she, began the training—such as it was—as a bomber pilot; she and her husband’s younger brother hurried to Pensacola, Florida, to see him off to join his squadron in southern Europe. My mother was to be left behind to settle into married life alone while her new husband set off on his own odyssey.

The three gathered for a hurried and emotional farewell; upon the extraction of a promise from his younger brother to make certain his wife would be taken care of, should anything happen to him, the warrior-pilot flew to engage the enemy.

A month later, in July of 1943, as the Allies invaded Sicily and began the assault on Italy, the young husband’s plane was shot down over the Mediterranean. Neither he, his crew, nor his plane, was ever recovered.

The emergency room doctors found no evidence of stroke. My mother awakened before the ambulance arrived; talking and moving about. At the hospital, test after test was run; a small number of minor problems were identifiedsome stenosis of the heart, arthritis, etc. She was moved into the hospital for further testing and observation. Days later, she was released to go home. The discharge papers recommended no new procedures nor care; no new diagnoses.

Her visit to her own doctor, however, brought things into far sharper detail. Mama’s aortic stenosis was advanced; her episode of syncope had been likely the first of others to come. Surgical procedures were available, but might not be appropriate for an 89-year-old. The prognosis without correction was likely further episodes of syncope, increased likelihood of stroke, kidney failure, and heart failure.

Mama’s cardiologist recommended surgical replacement of the calcifying valve. “I just did the procedure on a 90-year-old woman,” he said, “and she’s up and walking well.”

Lengthy discussions about the surgery and recovery processes ensued among Mama’s children; we explored the likely range of developments if her condition were not treated, as well as the near certainty of death from the untreated disease. All five of her children were intimately engaged in her decisionHER decision, finallyabout what action, if any, to take.

The young widow sought her own way to join the war effort, and she found the WASPs a seemingly perfect, and meaningful, channel for her energy and grief. Her brother-in-law had himself joined the Navy and trained as a torpedo pilot, but he had taken to heart his late brother’s admonition to see to the care and welfare of his brother’s widow.

By early 1945, this brother-in-law had joined a squadron of TBM Avengers aboard the carrier escort USS Marcus Island, had participated in the largest naval battle in history at Leyte Gulf, as well as the attack on Luzon, had won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and had “saved Rear Admiral Sample’s ass—literally” ( he was the pilot; Jim Edinger, his radioman). The squadron’s return Stateside before the Marcus Island inspired my mother to travel to the West Coast to welcome her late husband’s brother home.

With my mother returned home, we have each adapted, in his or her way, to her new situation. She is very clear: “I don’t want to die on the operating table. I don’t want to endure a horrendously difficult months-long rehab; I’m already crippled by this arthritis, and this’ll do nothing to make that better. When I die, I want to be at home, in my bed, with my family nearby. I have lived a full, rich life. No surgery!”

All five of her children are active participants in her care; some live at a significant distance from the homeplace, and their visits over weekends provide very welcome relief for the others nearer-by who provide daily care. Our mother loves seeing her children and grandchildren, who interrupt her now quiet and constrained daily routine.

She is in her own home. The 200-year-old farmhouse is hardly ideal for an infirm patient with a tendency to fall, one whose own age is nearly half the age of the house itself. Nevertheless, it was the hands-on exertions of my father, my mother, and their children and grandchildren that brought this old structure back to its present welcoming warmth. It is home to us all.

The younger brother in 1944, not yet married.

The younger brother in 1944, not yet married.

In that spring of 1945, the war was ending, my young mother was in love with her rock of support, and marriage and a family would mean a new beginning. The couple set out on a cross-country tour, visiting families of squadron members, along with the natural wonders of the country. They saw the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave, and Niagara Falls before returning to Georgia. My father completed college on the GI Bill. They began a family, embarking on a journey at least as challenging as any either had faced before.

She seems stronger now, in some ways. Physically, I mean. There was a time when the effort to stand and walk with her walker was more than she could muster. Now, she can stand on her ownalthough I am compelled to assist every such attemptand she walks with her walker to the porch, to the dinner table, to her bed.

There is a lot of assisting. I help her with intimate requirements; I help her with dressing each morning. I love being able to cook for her. Occasionally, friends come to call on her. She enjoys such visits enormously, although she will be completely exhausted by them and sometimes barely remembers the visit afterward.

Bedtime has becomefor me, anyway, her eldest sona particularly poignant ritual. I help her walk to her bedroom, where she sits on the large bed she shared for a half century with my father. I’ve pulled back the covers, and she sits and begins undressing. I am needed to get her top off, either because the buttons are too difficult or because getting the pullover blouse over her head is sometimes too challenging to do herself. I’ve discovered that rubbing her entire back with Bag Balm provides her with exquisite pleasure, so she patiently waits until I do that.

She lies back, I cover her, eye drops go in, and she’s almost ready for sleep.

But I have found I, myself, require a small additional ritual.

I sit beside her bed for a while, holding her hand. We talk a little bit about the day just passed; about the day ahead. If there’s something that has left her a little confused, we try to get that straightened out. I ask her if it’s OK for me to wipe her face, and I get a soft washcloth; wet it with very warm water. I lean over her, both of us smiling, and gently stroke her beautiful face, still without wrinkles after nine decades of living fully.

I ask if she’s ready for me to turn off her lamp. She is. Then she says, very softly, very quietly, “Thank you, Darlin’, for all the things you do. And Peggy and Libby, and Erwin and Ted. You all are so good to me.” And I thank her for all she’s done for us over the years.

I turn off her light, and we each say, “Good night.”

Four generations, ‘at home,’ in 2011.

Four generations, ‘at home,’ in 2011.

 

William A. Balk, Jr.

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state's namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation's capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for "The Lowcountry Weekly " newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk's aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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28 Responses to War & Peace

  1. Avatar Lesly Livengood says:

    How beautiful. How loving. What an example you all have set. Peace be with you.

  2. Avatar Ann Courmouzis says:

    What a lovely, poignant story – just the right details, just the right length – you are indeed an accomplished writer. This makes me want to read a biography of your Mother. I also loved the way you switched back and forth in time – again, great timing – each segment made me long for the next. Waiting for more…

  3. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Lesly, you make me blush…but you are right. We in the family feel astonishingly blessed to be able to offer loving care to one who has given – and continues to give – so much to us. Thank you.
    And Ann – mercy! Thank you so very much. A close reader – especially one who is willing to comment – is invaluable to a writer who’s trying to learn how to write. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. It is the mark of a great writer to be able to convey such deep emotion without the manipulation of melodrama. It is the mark of a great soul to give such perfect are to his mother’s needs.

  5. HI WILL:

    A TOAST WILL BE MADE TO YOUR FAMILY, TONIGHT.

    YOURS,

    ALAN

  6. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    My god! Dana Wildsmith, one of the most adept and humble poets I’ve known or read, can humble even my inflated ego with such fulsome praise. I ASPIRE, dear one, to what you credit me with…there is enormous distance yet actually to achieve it. Or to match the pure beauty and care of your own lines. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful look into your life. I admire your writing and the enormous gift you give to your Mother every day

  8. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Alan Ichiyasu, I’m honored and touched that you saw fit to read my little essay, even more to comment so generously. I see why our worshipful Editrix holds you in such high esteem.
    And Chris…thank you so much for so much! You’ve also taught me a great deal over the years, and my gratitude and admiration for you will be with me all my days. I’m so pleased you found the piece enjoyable. Thank you.

  9. Oh, Will,
    Your writing is as poignant as your loving care of your mother. Thank you for what you do and for allowing your readers to share your experience. Your skill in weaving her past with your mutual present is remarkable and unsurprising. I am proud of you on so many levels and grateful at the same time.

  10. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Karen Peluso, these generous words coming from an artist/photographer of your skills are praise indeed. Thank you so much!

  11. Avatar Debbie Hayes says:

    Thank you again for allowing us to enter into your special world. How blessed you are to be able to tend to your Mother in these, her final years. It is enchanting to follow the story from now and then. Admittedly, I cried. The varied pieces of life spun together much like a quilt which is sewn with love, but gathered with the remnants of the past and present, and resulting in a culminant product of beauty. It is with great anticipation that we await another essay about your life with your Mother.

  12. Avatar alice says:

    We were right there in the room with you and your mom Will. Just amazing, warm, poignant, beautiful writing.

  13. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Somehow Debbie Hayes has become a regular reader and a particularly encouraging commenter. Debbie, you can’t imagine how valuable comments are (even critical ones!) to someone like me, who is learning some of the ins and outs of writing for readers other than oneself. Thank you so much for your encouragement!
    And dear, wonderful Alice. You’re always right there with the right word, the supportive gesture, the instructive suggestion. I do thank you.

  14. Avatar Teresa Bruce says:

    Will, I just now found the time to read this. The photo of your beautiful mother made me put it off, until the right time. So I sat this afternoon, next to a vase of roses from my sister and remembered why love stories are all that matter. Yours and your mother’s. Your mother and your father’s. Byrne and Duncan’s. As Byrne always said “love is more disarming than logic.”

  15. Avatar Linda Christine says:

    I am a dear friend of Jenks and Gloria Farmer and Tom Hall…I see your comments on Jenks post and I want you to know what a wonderful story you just posted…My 92 yr. old Mother was in an Assisted Living in Anderson for 10 1/2 yrs. and just this past May moved her to one in Aiken only a few miles from me and I am so glad to finally have her closer…I had begged her for yrs. to move but she just did not want to.. I, too am a gardening authority (ha) and love all the garden articles that face book offers.

  16. Avatar Bob Waites says:

    It’s raining here in Columbia- a downpour really. And I remember how mom was so afraid of storms. When we were young , she would scurry around the house and unplug EVERYTHING, and God forbid, the telephone should ring, because you simply could not talk on the phone during a storm. I mean, the lightening could come straight through that wire!
    She died on July 19, at the age of 93, and every morning I would be there to feed her breakfast and help her get dressed. When you heard of her death, you wrote the most beautiful note- knowing, perhaps, that your own mother’s time would come before long. Thank you, my friend, for acknowledging my mother’s passing and for the care and compassion you exhibit every day for your dear, sweet, mother.

  17. Avatar donnamiller says:

    Okay. I have the tears. That was glorious.
    Donna

  18. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Teresa, that you found even a second in the whirlwind to sit and read anything is amazing. Thank you for your encouragement, support, pushes…and for Byrnes’ story. Linda, I can tell in your writing how much it means to you to have your mother now close by to be with her. We both know how much richer our lives are for the experience we’re going through.

  19. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Dear, kind Bob. I remember perhaps too well the months after my father died in 2010; speaking of him – even somewhat abstractly, in casual conversation with friends – I would weep, choke up, unable to talk. I don’t know how you could face such a personal piece of writing like this after your beloved mother’s passing so recently. And I certainly cannot fathom your mustering the grace and generosity to comment so warmly here after having read the piece. I am deeply grateful for your kindness.

  20. Avatar Judy says:

    Dear Will,
    I knew when I first spoke with you about what authors you liked that I had found a special, caring person, and each time I saw you it brightened my day. What I did not know is what a gifted writer you are. The story of your family, and the loving relationships you have, truly moved me. Keep writing Will, you have so much love and insight to share it brings hope and faith that anything is possible.

    Judy

  21. Avatar diana says:

    Will, thanks so much for letting us into your life with your mother and her own story, which as others have written here certainly whets our appetite for more. You have given us such a beautiful tender portrait of love and I guess I’m jealous of that closeness that you, your mother and the rest of your family share. Both my parents died in other countries. You are all so lucky to have had each other for so long, held in such a gentle, caring embrace.

  22. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Now I’M the one moved to tears….Thank you, dear Judy and wonderful Diana. Having reached my dotage at last, I’m free to explore some things I’ve been too frightened of exploring before. One is learning how to write. Encouragement such as you both and others have offered is incentive. Critical comments have been really helpful. But perhaps most effective in the sense of making a difference in how the writing works has been the critical editorial input from the incomparable Elizabeth Boleman-Hering. Having her look at what I write instantly makes it better. Do you not find it so, Diana? You, of course, have rich experience with writing for others, for publication, and you make your writing sing and sizzle. I’ll learn.

  23. Avatar Jeni Cecil Feeser says:

    Will, I just noticed an email Lolita had sent me with a link to your essay. Now I know I’ll be scouring the web looking for other marks you’ve left! Bless you and your family as you share this special time of life.
    (I loved to rub my grandmother’s gnarled fingers ever so gently with lotion. She couldn’t always talk, but would nod her head in appreciation. It’s those shared moments of intimacy and care that helped me attempt to give back the smallest little portion of so much she gave me through our years together)

  24. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Oh, Jeni! You are so very kind to comment here – thank you. As consuming as the “now” part is, this caring for our elders, I wanted to make sure to keep in mind intensely a long rich ongoing life, full of history and mysteries, which certainly direct our lives even now. And which will direct lives long after she’s gone. And Lolita, bless her, has been a wonderful champion – she knows whereof this story comes!

  25. Avatar Skip says:

    Will, We have a lot in common–how about a lunch together? Skip

  26. Avatar Susan Balk says:

    Thank you, dear cousin for sharing such a beautiful, personal story about an incredibly special woman. Aunt Betty has always been one of the people I most admire in this world.

  27. Avatar Will Balk, Jr says:

    Thank you, Susan. She is all you say – and more!

  28. Avatar Helen Fellers says:

    unreal so heartwarming so dear I almost wept..this is perfect.

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