It has taken thirty years to put pen to paper, and those years have not been ones of abrupt starts and stops. It has taken me this long to find the words, some I’ve shared with friends and relatives, but most of which I’ve kept to myself because they were too difficult too express, too private, or because I was afraid of making my mother cry, of making her remember those days long ago that we have put behind us because they are simply part of life. The story about my father is not one to which others could not relate, or something that has not happened or will not happen to anyone else. It also is not one of mythological proportions, Shakespearean suffering, or of the need for any true psychological examination. “There’s not an answer for everything that goes on in this life, Sara DeLoney,” said my mother as we were discussing an unrelated subject in the late 1990s. “Some things just are.”
Some things just are, indeed. My father, Johnson, was born in 1939, the oldest of three boys. When he was thirteen, he was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (both his mother and two brothers were eventually diagnosed with some form, though not as severe). I once asked what prompted his need to go to the pediatrician to make this discovery. “I kept wetting the bed,” he said, with that Elvis-style upper lip smirk he’d get when saying something he thought my mother wouldn’t want his telling me, although in my 12-year-old mind I loved this bit of camaraderie we shared because I, too, wet the bed long past any acceptable stage. Two years after he was diagnosed, his father was found dead of an apparent heart attack in a Chicago hotel room while on a business trip. His mother, my Grandmother Terry, knew that Daddy needed the regimen of strict mealtimes and exercise that only a private institution could handle, and off he went to Battleground Academy in Frankin, Tennessee, where he thrived.
At The University of North Alabama, he majored in math and minored in history and chemistry. He loved chemistry, but with his illness he had a very real fear that he would go into insulin shock and cause an unmitigated disaster if he were to knock over smoking vials and test tubes. It was also at UNA, in 1958, that he met my mother. He walked up to her in the dining hall and said, “Ida, I’ve noticed you, and wondered if you’d like to go out sometime.” They dated and married two years later in Professor Cheney’s home; Curtis was born in 1966. He was, by all accounts, a wonderful and sweet baby (“We could put him in his little seat on a trip from Athens to the beach, and he’d sleep from start to finish,” remembers my mother). Daddy’s mother, my Grandmother Terry, was from the oldest of old schools. While never an unkind person, she was a lady who appreciated one’s proper background, with all its social airs and graces. My father, however, had no use for anything other than equality when it came to himself or anyone else (While I may be biased in my opinion, I’m backed up by my Aunt Ann: “If there’s anything I ever want you to know about your father, it’s that people were simply people to him. It didn’t matter where you came from, how much money you had, what color you were — everybody was on the same level.”). While I’ve inherited my mother’s love of reading, use of proper grammar, and Crane stationery, I’m equally proud of the things he was fond of and passed on to me: being respectful and saying “Yes, ma’am, no sir,” how to appreciate the precision and fine-tuning of the foreign-engineered automobile, and the occasional use of the salty tongue (which I’ve perfected and downright solidified in everyday use in the ensuing years, well in excess of anything that man could have ever said). In keeping with Aunt Ann’s observation, he also taught me that no man is better than another. Curtis’ birth was a perfect example of this: My mother (in her bathrobe and slippers), my father (in his suit), and my grandmother (in her element) were staring down at the first Terry grandson in the nursery of Decatur General Hospital. My grandmother said, “You realize, Johnson, that this child is a descendent of our French nobility…,” to which Daddy, chagrined, replied, “Aw, bullshit, Mother.” Ahem.
My birth in 1970 was probably met with “Why did we think we could get a second good one?” I screeched a lot, drew on the walls, and kicked in my share of parental shins. However, I once saw a picture of my scrunched-up, red face in the nursery, taken on the day of my birth. “I was an awful-looking baby, Daddy, didn’t you think so?”, to which he replied, “Not to me, you weren’t.”
Now, with two children (one good boy, and one devil child), the family was complete. I have always remembered their marriage as somewhat idyllic, though I now know that no marriage is. My mother’s favorite part of the day was when my father came home from work and the two of them would sit on the front porch on East Street and have a drink together. They loved each other, and, even more so, had tremendous respect for each other. What else does one need?
In our case, it would be a miracle. It was when I was five, before we moved into the house that I will always call my home, that the first inklings of trouble began to surface. He had laser surgery to repair the damaged nerves in his eyes. I vaguely remember the procedure, but was too young to pick up on any portent of what was to come. My mother told me, years after he died, that it was the beginning of his end. “If the nerves in his eyes are damaged, we can believe that there is other bodily damage as well,” a doctor told her.
Curtis and I, however, were blessed with the ignorance of children, and it would proceed that way for another five years. My parents, of course, never let on that anything was amiss, not only in their need to let us live our childhoods as carefree little ones but, possibly, to do the same themselves. Family was extremely important to the two of them. On no summer until his last one were we allowed to take friends with us on vacations. My mother, a teacher, had AEA week and summers off with us, and Daddy’s two weeks of vacation from CSC (and later Intergraph) began on a Friday. On Saturday morning at four o’clock, sharp, he would burst into my room and say, “Wake up, ‘Loney, it’s time for the beach.” He was so excited that it wound Curtis and me into a state of near hysteria that lasted all the way until we hit I-65, at which point we got sleepy again. True to our natures, Curtis slept and read Spider-Man comic books, while I demanded bathroom breaks and food and yelled “Are we there yet?” Finally the Atlantic Ocean came into view, and the first thing we did after unpacking was to go to Delchamps so that we could stock up on steaks to grill and especially any foods he might need in case his blood sugar were to drop. It was on one of these two-week vacations to the beach (Saturday to Saturday, from my infancy until 1983), that he taught me how to draw up his daily insulin (“You inject the air of the amount you need, ‘Loney, then pull the units back into the syringe.”) He never let me give him the shot –the man was no fool– but it was then that I think the interest in nursing began to trickle into my tiny brain. To this day, however, insulin is the one drug that I cannot bear to administer without triple-checking with two other nurses.
Looking back, these were halcyon days. When we weren’t at the beach, we were at home as a family. Daddy grilled the best filet mignons and cheeseburgers in the world (he poured just a touch of beer on them), and he encouraged us to try food (“Just scoop a little sour cream and cheese into your mother’s chili. If you don’t like it, we’ll get you a plain bowl.”) He found Schlotsky’s in Huntsville and loved it, and we did too. Terry’s Pizza was a favorite. I think Mother and Daddy may have gotten a slice apiece before Curtis and I devoured the rest of it. After he became truly ill, one of my favorite memories was being at the beach and going to a shopping center that served the best ice cream, a scoop of mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone. Daddy and I would be sitting in the car while Curtis and Mother were finishing their shopping, and Daddy would ask me for a lick of my treat. “Okay,” I’d say, and hand it over. He then proceeded to eat the whole thing, cone and all, even thought it was, for his diet, verboten. It worked out well, however: I’d cry, Mother would buy me another another one, and he was in a pure sugar bliss. Well after his death, my mother would say: “I hope he enjoyed every last bite.”.
I was in Margie Walker’s fourth grade class at Julian Newman when his spiral began. To call it a “spiral” does not do it justice. He, and our family as we knew it, were on a runaway train.
He went into a diabetic coma that spring. The word coma was daunting enough, but my mother assured Curtis and me that he would come out of it, and emerge he did. He lacked some of his energy, some of his playfulness, but he rallied. He took us that summer, not to the beach, but to a Braves game. He got a kick out of “‘Loney’s attention to the game!” He was proud that his daughter, a girl, would be so into baseball. I can’t remember if Atlanta or Houston won, but I do remember my mother waking up in the hotel room to find me looking out the window “at all the lights and cars, Mommy!”
I also remember his wanting me to love football the way he did. He and I were Alabama fans, Curtis and Mother were Auburn fans. Though I now love to watch football, at the time I couldn’t didn’t know pigskin from pork rinds. He loved to turn on whatever college or NFL game was on, then tell me I needed to sit on the den floor while he took a nap on the sofa and to fill him in on what happened during the quarters. The second he starting snoring, I flipped it to Fraggle Rock. Some fathers know immediately when a child adjusts the thermostat. My father knew within 0.18 seconds if I’d changed the station to HBO to see if the Jodie Foster version of Freaky Friday, my favorite movie at the time, was on. He’d immediately snap awake. “What happened?” he’d ask, and I’d say “Oh, they threw the ball, piled onto one another, and number 32 got hurt,” lying through my cranked-up Dr. Keahey braces. “Oh, okay,” he’d say, and conk right back out. I had this.
Even ill, his love of sports remained. My mother still laughs — though I don’t think she was amused at the time — about his obsession with golf. He was not an inconsiderate man, especially when it involved his wife, but golf was another story entirely. They’d have have plans to go a dinner party at 6:30, “…and he’d walk into the house at 6:15 with those clubs swung over his arm after being at Burningtree all day.” she said. I think her pride over his hole-in-one and later winning a tournament in which he was awarded a silver service for her dining room made up for any irritation she may have had for arriving late for dinner at the Joneses. He had become, as do many golfers, absolutely entranced by the game. When he took me trick-or-treating, out in the dark in the Historical District, he’d stand in people’s yards with a stick, practicing his swing.
He also continued to love the foreign cars. He came home with two Audis, a convertible Fiat, a bronze Volkswagen truck, and a couple of VW Bugs. He’d bang and whomp on the engine for days (do all men do this?). Once, I remember his tinkering on the blue Bug. After he was completely sure he had everything underneath the hood to his complete specifications, the four of us piled in so he could show off his new toy. We pulled out of the driveway and came to the first stop sign; he hit the brakes, and the radio and headlights blew out simultaneously.
It was not to last, however. He became seriously ill in September of my fifth grade year. His blood sugar was now uncontrollable, and I began to hear the term brittle diabetic when we would make many, many trips to Birmingham, first to the Boshell Clinic, then to Baptist Princeton, UAB, and Lakeshore Rehabilitation. Regardless of the effort my mother made in her cooking — she had diabetic cookbooks and guides from which I can remember her measuring green beans so he’d have exactly the right amount — his glucose was all over the place. At one point it reached 1400, and even the specialists in Birmingham said he was the first, and only, patient they’d had to survive at that level. It was that September, on a Thursday night, that Mother told Curtis and me that we’d be taking the day off from school to drive down to see Daddy. If anyone knows my mother, they know she doesn’t subscribe to any kind of hooey, which makes what I’m about to write even more a testament to how close she and my father were. After she, Curtis and I were all asleep that evening before our trek to Birmingham the next day, she was awakened in the middle of the night. Someone was calling repeatedly: “Mrs. Terry, Mrs. Terry.” She came upstairs to check on her children, and we were fine. She went outside, thinking the house was on fire. It was not.
It was not until we arrived the next day in Birmingham to see my father that her answer was provided. A nurse had erred in programming his insulin pump, and the poor man had a stroke. Years later, she finally told me this story. “It was,” she said, “as if someone were trying to get to me, to let me know he was in trouble, and that he needed me.” It has always been my belief that maybe he, too, was trying to get a message to her. As much as he loved his mother, brothers, friends and children, when things were rough, it was my mother he wanted.
It was a frightening day, but Daddy made it better. As they were wheeling him out on a gurney to a CT scan, lying flat on his back, he turned his head to the left, saw me, and stuck out his tongue.
We made it to Lakeshore after he was stabilized. He was to be rehabilitated, and that was that. I had no more fear. He’d come home, maybe with a cane for a while, and then he’d be okay.
It is said that God protects fools and children. The runaway train began to gather speed.
After his stroke, he fell and broke his hip. His kidneys failed, and he became the first person in Limestone County to start home peritoneal dialysis. It was at this point that we first came into contact with Dr. Qureshi, who would stay with us until the end.
The glucose swings then began in earnest. Coming home from my orthodontist appointment one day, his sugar dropped, his mind went blank, and our car wound up in someone’s yard (people were honking at us because the tail end was halfway into the street, and, almost comically, he’d yell “Hey, how you doing?”, thinking it was a friend of his). At one point during my sixth grade year, I had the flu. He had retired by then, and was home in bed as well. Feverish and shaking, I went downstairs and crawled into bed with him. I awakened shortly afterward to find him flopping around, yelling gibberish. I tried to get him to drink orange juice, which he proceeded to knock out of my hand. Same with the yucky pinkish-red tube of glucose gel I tried to squeeze into his mouth, telling him it was Aquafresh. It was then I knew I needed to call Bo Russell, whose work and home numbers my mother had posted in the kitchen in case of emergencies (Bo and Peggye had been supportive and good friends for years, with Bo coming to visit with Daddy at home so that Peggye could take Mother to dinner, get her out and away for a few hours to relieve some caretaker stress). Bo had very kindly became a willing and wonderful go-to man in moments such as these. He arrived quickly, I took him into the bedroom, and almost immediately the two of them fell into giggles and well-intentioned threats of whose rear end was going to get kicked if the juice was or was not drunk. Bo always won. Amidst the sadness of his decline, one story I’ve always loved was the night Daddy awakened having a fish-flop-gibberish moment, clearly in need of some OJ. Mother was trying to get him to drink it, and he focused on her nightgown. “What’s that?” he said, pointing. “What’s what, Johnson?,” she said, wondering what he was talking about. “THAT, that thing on your gown!” Mother replied, “It’s nothing, it’s a bow on my nightgown. Just a tied bow,” to which my father replied, “Bo? BO? Oh, Good Lord, don’t call that son-of-a-bitch! I’ll drink the damn juice.” When she recounted this story for him later, Bo howled.
There were other moments of true thoughtfulness from friends in Athens as well. In the seventh grade, Missy (Wassum) Greenhaw asked me if I’d be home that evening, because she knew that Mother and Daddy were once again at the hospital in Birmingham. I said yes, and nothing else was mentioned. What she didn’t tell me was that her mother, Lanell, had organized something that would stay with me the rest of my life. That night, the mothers of my friends — amongst them Ervin, Anderson, Littrell, Johnson, Blizzard, Ward, Heery, Evans, Sexton, and Davis — poured into the house, one after another, with homemade casseroles, breads, and desserts, all so my mother wouldn’t have to worry about putting together a meal for many days. It remains one of the kindest acts I have ever known.
It was during this time that I believe he came to face the reality of his situation. He had a conversation with my mother’s mother, my sweet Grandmother Brownie, that truly moved him. Never concerned for himself, he told his mother-in-law that he hated to see my mother go through this with him, that she was too young. “Johnson,” she said, “she may be my daughter, but she is your wife, and this is her responsibility to you.”
It was on the Thursday before Easter of 1984 that Curtis and I were to discover Daddy’s reality as well. He was at Athens Hospital, and my brother and I had gone to respective medical appointments that day in Decatur. When we got home, Mother called us into the den. Softly, she said, “I need to talk to you. Dr. Qureshi asked to speak to me. When we went into a private room, he said that he felt ‘….that Mr. Terry is slipping.'” We knew what she meant, and after that the truth could be avoided no more, no matter my age or need for denial. We were near the end.
She took me that afternoon to buy an Easter dress, the dress I would wear to his funeral. Trying to absorb the news about my father was accompanied by what I can only describe as sheer terror. It manifested in my body, and I can remember absolute physical pain as I tried to lift my arms in the dressing room. I finally gave up and leaned against a wall. My mother, without a word, came in, slipped the dress over my head, nodded, and we left.
On Good Friday he was moved into the ICU because his lungs had begun to fill. It was getting late, so I kissed him on the cheek, told him that I loved him and that I’d see him tomorrow. We’d been home less than thirty minutes when the operator broke in on the phone call my mother had made to her sister.
Dr. Qureshi met us outside of the ICU, where he quietly told us that Daddy had gone into cardiac arrest. He was now unable to survive without life support, and we had very little time left. I went in to see him on Saturday afternoon, leaned over, and kissed the same cheek I’d kissed the evening before, whispering in his ear how much I loved him and how much I would miss him.
And in the end, the end came quickly. He passed away, mercifully, on Easter Sunday. He was 45 years old, and had fought with that wretched disease for more than thirty years, years of pain, tests and fear that he kept to himself. Two days later he was buried next to his mother. Margie and Carl Evans gathered all of my friends into their Suburban to bring them to the service in Leighton. My mother remembers very little of the funeral, but what she does remember is “those tiny little faces, all lined up in pretty dresses.” Barry Anderson quoted from When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I broke a rose off of the casket and took it home, where it remained in the secretary drawer until it, too, was gone.
He was a good man. He was also very intelligent. He had to have known on some level that he would not live a long life, and I believe he wanted a wife who would be able to engineer his children through the loss, which she did. He knew what he was doing.
I was thirteen when he had to leave us, and though I sometimes selfishly lament not having had more time with him, I realize now I was lucky to have known him at all.
Curtis Johnson Terry, Sr. 1939-1984
Until next time.