This fall I've been waking around four each morning. A naturopath once told me that waking in the middle of the night between three and five means you're dealing with grief. Yesterday, while driving into town through autumn's changing leaves, I found myself crying. Am I grieving for my seventy-four year old father? He's frail from open-heart surgery. But lively enough to still carry on with me like he does. My latest challenge: persuading him and my mother to visit my husband and me in North Carolina this winter.
"Get out of the snow of upstate New York," I've said.
My mother's reply is always the same, "It's up to your father."
But Dad sets conditions, "Only if you go to Mass with me every day."
"I can't go every morning, Dad. I work in the studio."
"Well then, I'm not coming."
I've told him time and time again that I don't go to Mass every day. I've asked if any of my other seven siblings attend daily Mass when he visits. He usually changes the subject.
The last time he said, "Don't bring them into it. This is between you and me."
Two winters ago, my parents went to Los Angeles to visit my brother, Anthony, and his family.
"Your brother took me to church every day," my father told me on the phone after returning home to Syracuse.
"Every day?" I asked.
"He drove your mother and me to St. Monica's every morning."
"Did he go in, Dad?"
"What do you think?"
I knew better. My brother had called me the minute he returned home from putting my parents on the plane.
"He couldn't help himself," my brother blurted out when I answered the phone.
"What did Dad do?" I said, knowing exactly who the "he" was.
Anthony told me how just as the plane was loading my father looked at him and said, "You know you could go to church once in a while."
I groaned into the phone, "What did you say?"
"Dad, you had only five minutes. Five more minutes and you would have made it, Dad."
That was when Anthony explained how he'd driven my parents to church every morning and dropped them off. My father had spent almost three weeks there without having said a word about how he wished my brother would attend church, at least on Sundays. This past August, my parents left the hot humidity of upstate New York to vacation in Maine with my sister JoAnne and her family. My father, raised near the Mediterranean Sea in a small Sicilian village, loves the ocean. After he and my mother returned home, I tried again.
"Dad, come to Charlotte this winter. It's warmer here. You and Mom can golf. We'll do dinner in the evenings and go to a Carolina Beach a weekend or two. I'll take some time off from working in the studio."
He repeated his chant, "Only if you go to Mass with me every day."
"Did JoAnne go?" I asked, trying not to raise my voice in agitation.
"She's much too busy," he said, "she has two little children to take care of. I wouldn't expect that of her."
"Dad," I said firmly, "I work in the studio."
"What do you do there anyway?" he asked.
When I've tried to explain the angels that I draw, he repeats the same old question: How much money do you make? When he snickered at the amount once, I told him that I would not discuss money with him again.
"Dad, I've told you before what I do in the studio. Now, would you like to come visit this winter?"
"Only if you go to Mass with me."
My parents visited three years ago. They flew in early on a Sunday morning. My husband and I drove them into downtown Charlotte to St. Peter's Catholic. It's thirty minutes from our house, but it's as liberal a Catholic church as I can find for myself. On Monday I decided to handle my father's daily Mass routine by driving him to St. Theresa's, ten minutes away. I thought that once he saw the route, he could drive himself; except that the Mass was held in a small room off of the sanctuary. So, the next morning, Dad asked me to drive him back to St. Peter's where he could attend Mass in an "actual church."
My father also admitted that he was afraid he'd get lost driving into town without me. I felt moved by his vulnerability. He's always been strong, assertive, bossy most days, but still my first protector. Even though I didn't want to go to Mass every day, I gave up studio time and decided driving to St. Peter's was the least I could do.
But after walking out of Mass, I felt frustrated when my father began reliving the sermon. My mother quickly positioned herself between the two of us before I dove into my rebuttal about the lack of a feminine perspective. That was it. The bantering we've done many times before launched back and forth over my mother's head.
Within days I was dropping my parents off in front of the church claiming I had errands to run. I looked for any place to go - the post office, the main library. I even drove through the centre of town to see if they'd changed the seasonal fabric stretched over a circular sculpture installed in a concrete road divider.
On the way home, my father elaborated on the sermon, but at least I heard it only once. I caught a glimpse of my mother in the back seat rolling her eyes.
The day before their departure, my mother finally spoke up, "It seems to me that your father could have made a sacrifice and gone to the church near you."
"What else does she have to do?" my father retorted.
"Dad, I work in the studio. Remember?"
"What do you do there all day anyway?" he asked again.
I've tried many times to explain my work. I suppose that was one of many reasons I found myself crying about my father on the way into town. Some day he'll die. That will be painful enough without knowing that he found my life as an artist difficult to accept. But like his ritual of attending Mass each morning, my practice is to get into the studio and thumb through Medieval and Renaissance art books. The richness of the celestial forms, shapes of wings, depth of colour inspires drawings of angels that I love to do.
In early October a woman from Charleston, South Carolina, called after seeing some of the angel drawings. Debbie, thirty-two years old and married with two small children, had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
"I want to give my family something for Christmas to remember me by, since I don't know if I'll be here next year," Debbie said.
She needed thirteen pieces of art. I wasn't sure I could complete them in two-and-a-half months. She wanted angels for her immediate and extended family members. I told her about my portfolio of angels. Each drawing had been colour-copied into a limited edition of twenty-five. I then individually hand tinted the angels and embellished the background surface with gold leaf. I suggested she choose from that selection. I sent her pictures, and she sent family photos. We discussed which images fit each person. She chose eleven of the existing angels, and I did two new pieces. One was for her two-year-old son. Another, for her and her husband, was of two angels - a couple holding their hands and facing each other. I spent the rest of the fall through Advent working on Debbie's angels. "Why aren't you coming for Thanksgiving?" my father asked.
"Dad, we don't come up for Thanksgiving. We'll be with you for Christmas."
"What are you going to do that weekend, anyway?" he said.
"I have that big commission."
"Dad, I told you about it the last time we spoke. Did you get the magazine I sent?"
I'd sent my parents a copy of a new arts magazine. One of my angels had been featured on the front cover of their holiday issue. Included was an article about the work and the commission.
"Did you read the article, Dad?"
"Yeah, I read it."
"What did you think?"
"Well, it was interesting, and I guess it means something in your world. But I don't understand it."
I felt let down. But then again, it was the first time he was able to admit that he couldn't understand what I do.
"At least I never stopped you from going to college for art," he said.
In the background I heard my mother's voice, "I read it. Remind her that I read it."
"How much do you get for those angels anyway?" Dad said.
Having felt tenderness over his confession, I almost answered him before a voice inside me cried, STOP!
"I don't discuss money with you any more, Dad, remember?"
"Why not?" he asked.
"You know why."
"Well you must not get that much then," he said.
The day I was applying the final piece of gold leaf, the phone rang. Debbie was calling to say that she and her husband would be driving through Charlotte to the mountains for a weekend getaway. She wanted to know if I could meet her somewhere on Sunday so that she could pick up the angels. I was excited to finally be meeting Debbie in person, but was sad when I heard the reason. An X-ray had detected a small growth on her brain. Her doctor needed to remove it immediately. Debbie wanted the angels so that she could wrap her Christmas presents before going into the hospital on Tuesday.
We met at a Wendy's fast food on 1-85 outside Charlotte. This time she talked about the cancer and how her illness had not only taught her to enjoy each and every moment in her life, but to enjoy the people in it, too.
"Even if the kids are cranky and tired, I just love being with them," she said.
As Debbie continued to talk, I realized that even though she'd hired me to create her presents, it was Debbie who was giving me the gift. She was teaching me the importance of loving each moment and each person no matter what I thought of my father. Maybe it was time for me to love and accept him for exactly who he is.
My husband and I drove north for Christmas as we've always done. It was the first time my parent's left Syracuse for the holidays. They travelled by train on Christmas Eve day to my sister Fran's in Connecticut. We didn't arrive until two in the morning. Everyone was asleep.
"You didn't go to Midnight Mass?" my father asked, Christmas morning.
"No, Dad, we planned on going to Mass with you."
"Well, you better hurry and get ready. I don't want to be late."
I chuckled instead of groaned. Dad and Mom climbed into the back seat of our car, and we followed my sister and her family over to the church.
"I want to go to Mass tomorrow morning, too," my father announced.
I caught my mother's eye, "That's your father for you."
My father ignored the comment. It didn't really matter. He was going to Mass the day after Christmas and every day no matter what any of us thought.
"And," he said, tapping me on the shoulder, "I want you to go with me."
Gilda Morina Syverson is a first-generation Sicilian-American writer and artist living in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2003, her story won First Prize in Nonfiction in the second annual contest of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers.