by Charles McGuigan
Catherine Rose Brigid McGuigan, my only daughter, is suddenly a young woman, poised, yet natural, in all her actions, absolutely beautiful in every way. She goes off to college in the fall (right here in Richmond, thank God) and I still, for the life of me, don’t understand when she found the time to grow up, and how it could have all happened so quickly. She is a fine artist, has already had four of her works displayed in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Before she even enters college she’ll have almost a full year of college credits under her belt. KTR, as I have always called her, is a member of the National Honor Society, the Beta Club, the National Latin Society, was on the Battle of the Brains this past year representing her alma mater, ran cross-country, played lacrosse. All of these things and so much more. But what has always surprised me about this gifted girl—for she will always be my little girl—is the vastness of her heart, the kindness of her spirit. She will not judge anyone and looks upon all people as fellow travelers on a journey we all must take.
It’s almost four in the morning so I’ve got two full hours before the kids get up. Catherine attends high school at Monacon down in Chesterfield, twenty minutes each way, and she likes to get there just before seven which gives her almost a half-hour before school begins so she can get ready for the day. She’s a straight A, AP student and works hard at it, as hard as a college student, maybe even harder. Charles will have an hour or so at the house when we get back before I cart him off to school, so he’ll have time to prepare for the day in his own way. He might watch a DVD, or else draw. He loves to draw.
So there are still two hours before the day really begins and I sit before my laptop at the dining room table and look out the window in the living room, straight ahead of me, through two single-pane sashes that let the world in, uninterrupted by the cross hatching of muntins. In the orange-pink glow of the street light I can see a tangle of dogwood branches, each twig puffed up with buds that are about to unfold. By now, in years past, this tree would have already flowered out, but spring has come slowly this year, winter reluctant to give up its stronghold.
Shifting my gaze, just to the left, I look through the fifteen window panes that make up the front door and can see the branches of the saucer magnolia studded with tiny leaves, green as celery hearts, and a few pale fuchsia blossoms. I know beneath the tree there are hundreds of brown buds that perished during a mid-March cold spell; they look like insects that had swarmed and were sprayed by an insecticide, dead on the ground.
It’s the trees though that my eyes focus on. I planted both of them eighteen years ago, almost to the day, just after I learned the nature of real love.
My daughter was born on a frozen February afternoon when everything was sheathed in ice. I was there and held her, fresh from her mother’s womb, snipped the umbilical cord with a pair of stainless steel scissors and cradled her, then carried her over to a table with the aid of two nurses who cleaned her up. She wasn’t much bigger than a puppy, and in that moment, when I first held her, my life changed for good and all. Nothing would ever be the same.
There is nothing new in any of this, I know, and it is not a rare event. It happens 300,000 times a day to someone, somewhere in the world, yet I could not get over the magnitude of my daughter’s birth and never will. This baby was breathing and grabbing at the air with perfectly formed hands smaller than my thumb. She opened her eyes—wide, blue and staring—and looked directly at me as if to say, “Now, what?” I had no answer and still don’t.
The nurses swaddled her tightly in a blanket and pulled a skullcap down over her head then returned her to her mother for a few minutes before taking her down to the nursery. My eyes didn’t leave my daughter for an instant and I watched as a nurse laid her in a sort of Lucite bassinet among a hoard of other infants all behind a sheet of glass as big as a storefront. I studied her closely and knew I would never forget her, not for one second.
For the next three days, I couldn’t sleep a wink as Catherine Rose slept in our bed with us, between us, gurgling and sometimes crying. I would listen to her breathe throughout the night, sometimes lowering my head to within a fraction of an inch of her chest to hear in the darkness the rapid beating of her heart. I would close my eyes and imagine that heart, the size of her balled fist, clenching and unclenching, pumping blood along the dorsal aorta and forcing it through the branching network of successively smaller arteries into every recess of her tiny body. Miracle beyond belief; an engineering marvel of watchmaker refinement. Sometimes I would place my fingers just below her nostrils to feel the moist warmth of her breath.
Catherine was not much of a crawler but as soon and we laid her out on the rug in our living room she wanted to get up on her legs and walk. She would navigate from couch to coffee table, gripping the edges of furniture to keep herself upright, and within a year was walking on her own. Yet, until the time she was seven she preferred to be carried. Early on I started calling her KTR and for years she rested on my shoulders and I would carry her around the neighborhood like that, up and down the alleys and along the familiar streets, her legs scissoring my neck as my hands clasped her calves and she gripped my forehead, at times slipping her fingers into the hollows of my eyes. Alternately, I held her tight against my chest and she would nod off, draped over my shoulder, two fingers tucked into her mouth.
Speech also came early to KTR. When she was just eleven months old, while we were at the pediatrician’s, the doctor dropped something on the floor and as she bent to pick it up, my daughter said, very plainly and with precise inflection, “Uh-oh.” KTR understood that when something fell, this was an appropriate verbal response. And she tried it out countless times, purposefully dropping her spoon as she sat in the high chair to eat. Joany and I were amazed. In short order, KTR could say mama and dewey (which was daddy) and bug. In the mornings she would stand on the couch and look out the two windows behind it, waiting and watching, until a city bus lumbered up the side street of this corner lot and then she would jump up and down, an animated ball of excitement, yelling, “Big bus, big bus,” as if she had discovered a rare animal. Nothing, at that time, thrilled her more.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night with a flash of understanding about my daughter when she was just about a year old. Our main function as parents is to make our children independent of us. We were already doing that with daycare and soon there would be school. Each time KTR moved closer to independence I would feel a tug in my chest because I knew we were preparing her to go out on her own, to loosen the bonds that held her to us. At a point those bonds would be all but severed and I didn’t relish that thought. It scared the hell out of me. To be a parent is to accept the simple biological fact that your primary reason for being is to instruct your offspring in the ways of the world so that they become equipped to handle things on their own. Your love must be so intense that you never lose sight of this. As much as you would love to keep them close to you throughout your life you must understand that to do so would deprive them of their own life. It took me years to fully digest this and it was never easy going down. Still isn’t.
From the time KTR was an infant, I would read to her every night. It started with shape books and then Dr. Seuss, “Left foot, left foot, Right foot, right, Feet in the morning, Feet at night . . .” It was part of our ritual. When Joany and I divorced, when KTR was just three years old, I would often read her six or seven books each night—sometimes more—before she would go to sleep. Her favorites were “The Giving Tree”, “Where The Wild Things Are”, “The Polar Express” and all the Madeline books. It got to the point that I had memorized each of these books and in time Catherine did the same and she would follow the words with me on the printed page and so began to read on her own, another move toward independence. Reading does that.
As time went on I would read chapter books to Catherine. We read a lot of Roald Dahl and then “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” and scores of other books along the way. That tradition of nightly reading continued until Catherine was sixteen and she still listens when I read Charles his books every night.
After the reading we would always say prayers (still do)—an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a prayer that Catherine herself composed, which goes like this:
“Dear God, take care of everyone we know and love, and everyone we don’t know, but still love, because they’re our brothers and sisters. Keep us free from all natural disasters, including George W. Bush. Keep us happy, happy, happy; safe, safe, safe; and have good, good, good dreams, or no dreams at all, and please, no scary dreams. And please take away all of our fears. Amen.” Then the Sign of the Cross, and Catherine was sleeping.
I would watch her as she slept and check on her several times throughout the night just to make sure she was okay. As I did this, the words from a poem by William Butler Yeats would form in my mind: “when sleep at last has come on limbs that had run wild.”
When you are a parent (for I suspect the same is true of mothers), there comes a moment when you realize that you would do anything to protect your child from harm–anything at all. I remember telling Joany, when Catherine was very young, that if anyone ever purposefully hurt our daughter in any way she should be prepared to raise Catherine on her own because I would be serving time for murder. You read things all too often about little children abducted by monsters who do the unthinkable. And in those reports you will read a quote from the mother or father, “I just turned around for a second and she was gone.” Or you might hear, in a TV interview, a parent saying of the perp, “We forgive him.” I honor such parents that, but I know I could never forgive such a thing. It is beyond my ken.
On a New Year’s Day, some years back, the Harvey family—a mother and a father and their two children, nine and four years old—were murdered in their home, butchered like livestock. Those two children just happened to be the same ages as my children.
That night, my daughter and my son, neither of whom knew anything about the Harvey slayings, had fallen asleep on the couch, watching “Elf”, a Christmas gift for Charles. I watched them in their slumber, arms and legs splayed out, the slight heaving of small bird cage chests, angelic faces supported by delicate necks. When I saw the beauty of their throats, thin, smooth, unblemished, a tick of vein pulsing blood, I wept. And then I carried them to their bedroom where they slept soundly till morning. I also tucked a buck knife under my pillow. The blade was drawn.
Catherine always loved getting dirty and she would work side by side with me, down on her knees, in the garden in our backyard—an ambitious project that never quite got finished. I would point out the perennials that we would preserve and the weeds that we would rip out of the soil. She worked methodically at this task and with her small fingers was able to get to the tiniest plants, plucking them at the base so she could extract the entire root.
She would also take the pewter Jefferson cups from the kitchen and use them as digging tools. They worked well for this purpose, and years later, digging in a flower bed, the blade of my shovel would strike metal with an unmistakable grating sound and I would reach down and pick up a deformed Jefferson cup, oxidized and encrusted with clay as if it had been buried in that spot for a hundred years.
Throughout the backyard, particularly near the small circular pond ringed with cobblestones, there are the remains of many animals, most of them reptiles or amphibians, tiny skeletons brittle as dried leaves. At Christmas or for her birthday I would often get Catherine pets. One year it was newts and frogs, which sometimes devoured one another; the next year it was geckos, one of which was sociopathic and killed five other little lizards. We set up an aquarium on at least three occasions and filled it with tropical fish from Fin & Feather or mosquito fish and crayfish we would net in streams out in Hanover County. Except for the local fish, which we later released in Youngs Pond, the other fish, in time, all died by the tankful—alga, overfeeding, ick and the thousand other mortal shocks that gilled flesh is heir to.
Then on Valentine’s Day when she was ten years old KTR would finally get the pet that would last. We visited the SPCA that morning and looked at many kittens, all adorable. The woman who walked beside us would open the doors on the cages and pass the kittens to KTR, who would hold them for a few minutes, petting them, listening to them purr, before returning them to the woman. We must have looked at fifteen kittens and each one was cute and playful, but none of them struck my daughter. We were on our way out, standing in the lobby, when KTR noticed a tall free-standing cage with a piece of driftwood in its center. Near the top of that little tree was a lean black cat. “That’s the one,” KTR said.
So Sophie came home with us and has been here ever since. She is wise as her name implies and vocal only when she needs something. Sophie would do this weird thing when she was perched on the couch, her back to us as she stared out the window. There would be music playing and KTR noticed how Sophie would keep perfect time to that music with the back and forth flicking of her tail just like a metronome. Sophie could also climb the ladder, up the rounded rungs, to the top bunk bed where Catherine has always slept. And this two: Sophie could slide her inverted paw in the gap between the threshold and door and pull it open, and then close it behind her. Sophie has always slept with KTR and listens contentedly as we say our prayers and read in the evenings. She begins to purr as soon as we speak.
Catherine has always been an easy traveler, ready to go wherever the road might lead us. We made it a point to go somewhere every weekend, out of town when we could, but without any formal destination. Exploration was the point of these trips and so we might hunt for prehistoric whale bones and shark teeth along the Potomac in Westmoreland County one weekend and fish the rich waters of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge the next weekend or sometimes just drift in the car from one village to another in hopes of finding something none of us had seen before, which would invariably happen. And we always met people and sampled food out of local restaurants, steering away from the fast food route. Or we packed lunches and drinks and ate on picnic tables in state parks.
Every summer and over winter break and spring break we would set out for more distant destinations. Sometimes we might rent a cottage for a week in a far-flung village like Corea Harbor, Maine or just a cabin on a quiet key midway between the mainland and Key West. We would explore these areas on foot or bike and get to know as many as the locals as possible. Other times we’d wing it with camping gear or find cheap motels along the road, creeping and meandering up the coastline to Prince Edward Island, or slipping south to Florida, along her panhandle and over to Louisiana.
Once, when we were snorkeling off the tip of Key West at the gleaming white, crushed coral beach of Fort Zachary Taylor, we found entire schools of damselfish and blue tangs and butterfly fish colored like gems and we followed them all the way back to what could have been a prairie, an enormous field of seagrass, emerald green and two-feet high, that swayed back and forth with the current like winter rye in the wind.
This is an utterly singular patch of water, the only place in the United States where you can swim in three separate bodies of water simultaneously: to the left the Atlantic Ocean; to the right the Gulf of Mexico; and straight ahead, the Caribbean Sea. This is the point where these waters converge and it’s one of the reasons the variety of fish here is so prodigious.
We surfaced at the edge of this underwater prairie, filled our lungs and dove again, about twenty feet down. These grasslands were filled with at least twenty different types of tropical fish and as we moved into the thicket of green strands I saw one fish staring directly at us, a large fish with needle-like teeth, and massive gold-rimmed eyes. I looked to Catherine, whose back was to me, touched her shoulder and gave her the signal to head in. She swam off toward the shore and broke the surface in the shallows where the depth was under four feet, and then I followed.
Great Barracudas are intelligent fish, you can tell that by their eyes, and curious as cats, and though I knew they rarely attack people I didn’t want to take a chance. When I joined Catherine on the shore she asked what kind of fish that was. I told her I thought it was a king mackerel. I didn’t want her to be afraid and refused to show any fear whatsoever because fear is contagious and once it infects someone it can cripple them for life. Years later I told her it was a barracuda.
“Were we in any real danger?” Catherine asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m glad we saw it,” she said.
“So am I.”
“We went swimming with a barracuda,” she said. “How many people can say that?”
“None that I know of.”
Over the years we have visited countless beaches and about fifteen years ago I began scooping a handful of sand from every beach we visited. I would put the sand in plastic bags or plastic water bottles and record the name of each beach. Eventually I built test tube racks of golden oak. Each one can hold twenty-four test tubes. Then I would pour the sand into the test tubes, cork them, write the name of the beach and where it was on each test tube with a special Sharpie made for writing on glass. I lined the test tubes in descending order from Prince Edward Island all the way down the coast to Florida and out the Gulf to Louisiana. There are now about eighty test tubes filled with sand, each transparent rod a distinctive color from the sugar white sand of Topsail Hill Beach on Florida’s panhandle to the rust red sand of Cavendish Beach on Prince Edward Island.
“I can remember every beach when I look at those test tubes,” Catherine told me and I knew this project had not been in vain.
When she was just six years old a grownup told my daughter that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. That was around Thanksgiving and every night as I put her down I would tell her stories about Santa Claus and Christmases from my boyhood when I had actually seen him. Bit by bit she began to believe again, but it wasn’t the kind of belief she had owned two months before. This grownup had perverted her faith and fractured her innocence. So I wrote an article on Saint Nicholas, visited him myself at the North Pole in a cave of ice that was blue and sunlit. And it was convincing enough that my daughter began to believe again, believe with all her heart and soul. St. Nick drank rum, had lived in the Caribbean until Columbus came and then headed north to the polar ice cap, not a place he particularly liked.
“You really went there?” KTR asked
“And was it cold?”
“Bitter cold. Colder than I’ve ever felt it.”
“And did he really say all those things.”
“Sure did. I recorded them.”
“Can I listen some time?”
“Yeah, but it’s late now. You’ve got to go to sleep, sweetie.”
And that night I pulled out a copy of North of the James and read the quotes I had attributed to St. Nick into the built-in condenser mic of a crappy little Panasonic recorder I had at the time. I gave myself a basso voice and a Jamaican accent. When Catherine heard it, following the printed words in the magazine, her face lit up.
I further cemented her belief by giving her a silver sleigh bell for her birthday that Santa had given me when I was at the North Pole.
“Just like the Polar Express,” she said.
I had gotten the bell at an after-Christmas sale at Macy’s. That one action, coupled with the story about St. Nick, bought another two years of belief and wonder for my daughter.
When she finally figured it out on her own, she asked me if I’d made the story up. I nodded.
“Was it a lie?”
“No,” I told her. “It was a tale.” And then I paraphrased Mark Twain, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
I looked at her and she gave me one of her crooked smiles that meant she was on to something. “To get at a great truth,” I said. “A writer, at times, has to twist a mundane truth, reshape it.”
She thought on this for a while and then said: “So, is the great truth the spirit of Christmas.”
“Yes. And that spirit is hope and faith and love.”
To this day, Catherine keeps that sleigh bell, still in its small red velvet bag with a drawstring, in her bed as if it were a stuffed animal—something she could believe in if the nightmares of life ever haunted her.
We have often talked about belief in the Other and from a very early age I began getting Catherine books on mythology—Classical, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian—and she devoured them all. I told her the following when she was eleven years old: “God reveals himself to different people at different times in different guises, but he is the same God.”
We attend Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart or at St. Paul’s Catholic Church where Catherine received her First Holy Communion. Two years ago she was confirmed there and chose as her Confirmation name Brigid, Ireland’s other patron saint, whose feast day is celebrated on February 1, my birthday, and also the most important feast day among the ancient Celts—Inbolc, which commemorated the lactation of the ewe, an important component of the early Irish diet during the long winter months. It’s interesting to note that Brigid was also the name of the Celtic goddess of poetry, fire and wisdom.
Like me, Catherine loves the ritual of the Church, its history, diversity of thought, writers and artists, along with the simplicity of the essential teachings of Christ. I have told her that this tradition of ours goes back 1,500 years on the Irish side; 1,800 years or more on the Polish side. Tradition means a lot to my daughter.
Catherine’s favorite holiday is Vigilia, which is Christmas Eve the way Poles have celebrated it for more than a millennia. We follow their traditions, breaking the apwotek (which is basically unconsecrated Host) and wishing one another well gathered around the table, then reading those words from Luke in their synoptic purity, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . . “ We serve up at least five kinds of seafood—shrimp, scallops, blue crabs, smoked salmon, clams or oysters. So much of this holiday, or holy day, is in the preparation. I smoke at least four sides of salmon, sometimes more, with a simple bourbon glaze. Most of the salmon we give to friends a day or two before Vigilia.
But what we also do is scatter, throughout the house, about sixty candles, votives and tea lights, each one illuminating, serving as a star, a different Nativity. In all there are over fifty Nativities, each one handmade by artisans from all over the world who are paid fair trade. It’s a tradition we started years ago, when Catherine was just a toddler. Each year I will get both Catherine and Charles a Nativity from 10,000 Villages over in Carytown.
“It’s my favorite night of the year,” Catherine has told me on more than one occasion.
Books are a big part of our household. There are bookcases in every room—save the bathroom—filled to the brim with books, over four thousand at last count. There are another three thousand in storage at a friend’s office garage here in Bellevue. Catherine calls it the other library and frequently goes there to sift through the books, coming away with a dozen new titles and they end up on her bookcases and this always delights me.
I have always gotten KTR books, along with art supplies, toys, jewelry, and CDs and DVDs, for her birthday or at Christmas or on occasions without particular occasion. She reads voraciously and widely, has tapped into things that I wouldn’t read until I was in my late twenties. Catherine has a gift for writing as well and has been recognized for it in scholastic competitions. We have often talked at length about good writing and the machineries of a great story. We talk about books she has read or I have read and she too gets me books for my birthday or at Christmas, and each one of them I treasure.
Several years ago, starting in November, we painted Catherine’s room and I built her a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. She had chosen a deep aqua for the walls with accents painted a coral orange. Not long after the job was completed, Catherine began drawing on the walls and hanging scraps of art and pictures clipped from magazines. She also began to write passages on the walls and ceiling. Radiating from the ceiling light fixture is a spiral of text that she penned, the words of Picasso: “Art is what washes away the dust of everyday life.” Next to it are the words of Mark Twain: “Classic: A book which people praise, but never read.” There are hundreds of inscriptions on the wall now, along with the art work and the murals.
I remember sitting with her in the living room on a cold February day between my birthday and her birthday (we’re both Aquarians), and reciting from memory for her the words of the 16th century mystic writer, Saint Theresa d-Avilla: “Words lead to deeds. They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.”
“They really do, don’t they?” KTR said.
“Yes, they do.”
In his great novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera wrote the following words: “We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” I suspect this is why we all make so many mistakes, sometimes the same ones over and over again. It’s such a human thing to do. In the end, the point of it all is in the struggling itself to discover what we really want, to find our bliss. So whenever my daughter made a mistake of any kind I wouldn’t reprimand her for it. I’d let her figure it out on her own, all the while reminding her that she houses a singular soul that is moving her always to become who she really is.
My daughter possesses an eye that is informed by the heart and the head; an eye that guides, with invisible tendrils, the hands. She remembers her Moving On Ceremony at Westminster Canterbury Child Development Center when she was just five. They presented her with a bracelet that bore a single charm describing an artist’s palette. It meant a lot to KTR to be recognized for her art, which she worked at constantly. In the summer we frequently enrolled Catherine in art classes at the VMFA, Pine Camp, or the Visual Arts Center.
And she has always excelled. Over the years she has won one award after another, recognizing her talent. To date, four of her works have graced the walls of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This past spring she received two gold keys awards and one silver key award from the National Scholastic Art and Writing Program (this same foundation has presented laurels to luminaries from Andy Warhol to Truman Capote, so my daughter is in good company.)
Undoubtedly, some of her talent must be genetically inspired. Catherine’s mom is an artist, my grandfather painted in oils, my brother Chris is a sculptor, my brother Bruce is a painter, my sister Fran an interior designer and my Aunt Kosh has worked all her life in assorted media. But Catherine struggles with it, wrestles with it, lets an idea or a feeling settle deep into her being before she begins. She stews over it, not knowing what will come of it, and she continues this battle out of a blind faith that in the end always gives her sight and sensibility. Our home is filled with her art, hung alongside the works of her brother, Charles.
One of the pieces that won a gold key award is a straightforward pen and ink. It stuns the viewer and begs closer inspection. There are about fifty people—women, men and children—plodding slowly to some vanishing point, and you can sense there are thousands in front of them and thousands behind them. They are all naked with their backs are to us. They are being herded, many of them slumped forward, just outlines of their bodies in black lines on stark white paper. When you look closely you see a child, without the benefit of a parent’s hand, holding a stuffed animal—it is the only part of the drawing done in solid black. The piece is called “The Dispossessed” and it does what art is supposed to do; it moves you outside of yourself and into another’s experience.
My daughter’s alarm goes off and the streetlight pulses, growing more and more faint, until the sun, coming up over Fauquier Avenue, extinguishes it altogether. I can now see those trees clearly with the first sunlight of the day. When I planted them they were literally twigs, two upright branches not more than a foot tall. They required watering, fertile soil to put down roots, a padding of mulch to protect those roots and retain water, and stakes that ran parallel to them, secured by twine, to keep them upright, to help them grow straight and tall. Now those twigs are mature trees, and when I look at them, particularly in the summer when they have leafed out, l am stunned by the thickness of their limbs, and the complexity of the network of their branches. They have grown up.