Never the Same

Early in 1976, Daddy came home and said to Mama, “I bought something today.”

“Uh oh.”

“It’s not for us. It’s for our grandkids.” (His daughters were 10, 16, and 19.)

“Uh oh.”

“I bought that lake cabin.”

He had a wooden sign made that said, “The King’s Inn” and hung it over the fireplace (the placement of the apostrophe bothers me), and he and Mama set about teaching our friends to ski. He drove the boat, and Mama floated with a ski belt and held the skis together. They were patient. They were relentless. Mama would nag a reluctant kid to try until the kid’s only choice was to make an attempt just to hush her. And you might as well get up, because there was no quitting, even if you cried. Especially if you cried.

“How are you, Phil?”

“Man, if things get any better, I’m gonna grow hair!”

Daddy worked in the family business building church pews from the time he was yay-high until 1972 or 73. There was family drama that I was too young to understand, and Daddy left to start his own business with Mama as his secretary, office manager, Girl Friday: Phillip King Church Interiors. He was the middle man for pew cushions, baptisteries, stain glass windows, etc. His CB handle was Circle City Steeple Man. Most of his business was in Birmingham and Mobile. He received a letter from a pastor in Mobile asking for some literature. At the bottom of the letter, the man hand wrote “P.S. Are you the Phillip King from Pinckard? I used to pastor there.” As a matter of fact, he was. This man was the preacher who baptized Daddy when he was a 16-year-old new believer.

“How are you, Phil?”

“Man, if things get any better, the Lord’s gonna have to take me Home!”

Sometime in the afternoon on Wednesday, April 5, 1978, Daddy met with the preacher and his wife at the pastoream in Mobile about redecorating their church. They caught up on Pinckard gossip, conducted their meeting, and said their goodbyes. Daddy walked to his Suburban then came back and rang the doorbell. He told the preacher, “Call an ambulance. I think I’m having a heart attack.” Daddy died in the arms of the man who baptized him all those years before.

He was 43. The King Girls were 12, 19, and 21.

Mrs. Lynn finally found me with my girlfriends in the bathroom at church, skipping whatever activity we were supposed to be participating in. Obviously flustered, she said, “You’ve got to go home; there’s something wrong with your daddy.” Angie was there, so we rode home together. Starla was in Auburn, and her roommate drove her to Dothan that night. Our preacher announced it at prayer meeting, and for the entire service, they wept together and prayed for our family.

The Dothan High School Concert Choir that Mama and Daddy adored sang the Hallelujah Chorus at his funeral. Dr. Driggers played the brand new piano in the sanctuary publicly for the first time. Always composed, Dr. Marsh choked on his words once and stopped speaking for a few seconds to catch his breath. At the graveside, we sang, “Let’s just praise the Lord, praise the Lord. Let’s just lift our hearts toward Heaven and praise the Lord.”

Back at the house, Mrs. Andrews tore up the piano, and everybody sang and laughed. The frivolity angered Little Granny.

It was the most significant day of my life; not to diminish my wedding or the births of my children, but you’re "supposed to" get married and have babies. Actually, day-to-day life didn’t change that much. Mama continued to dabble in church furnishings. I went to the college of my choice and even spent a semester in London. I had a big ole church wedding. My BFF Earl Pitman walked me down the aisle, and Daddy King “stood up with me,” as he said. We still own the lake cabin that my children and my sisters’ children like to point out was bought for them in the first place, and the King’s Inn sign still hangs over the fireplace . . . . However, life has always had an underlying sadness to it. Mama was never the same. She grieved for the next 22 years. I have no doubt that her perpetual grief contributed to her confusion and early death at 65 years old.

I am beyond grateful that I had a great daddy for 12 years. I get that. I grasp that some people crave to have for a few minutes what I had from conception. Knowing that doesn’t erase the sadness—that, of course, has eased—yet is always lurking. Chuck had to ask Mama for her blessing on our marriage. Daddy is not here to teach my Phillip to fish or to whisper to my girls separately, as he did to his own daughters, that each is prettier than the other and his favorite.

I have lived back in Dothan since 1999. Not a year has gone by that I have not heard, “Your parents taught me to ski!” My family lives in the house that Daddy built. (When I say built, I don’t mean called the contractor. I mean, he took 6 months or so off of work and poured the concrete and hammered the nails and laid the brick. Mr. Chapman and Shuck from King Church Furniture Manufacturing Company helped him, and a one-armed man built the stone fireplace.) We moved in to take care of Mama after she got confused. Mama was an only child, and Granny was still living. She moved in with Starla and her family for 3 years. She spent one year in a nursing home. She died days after her 89th birthday, 10 months after her daughter.

I enjoy something about every day. I let my children cry to me about a bad day, and then I say, “Tell me something good about it.” I can always find a silver lining. Maybe it’s an inherent gift. Maybe it’s my birth order. Maybe it’s because I learned about the preciousness and the fragility of life while still so very young.

April 5th never sneaks up on me. I always know it's coming. But the azaleas and the dogwoods are blooming.

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