Editor’s Note: It’s Memorial Day weekend, and I hope you’ll indulge Answer Line as I take a little break from our usual programming. Keep sending your questions. I’ll be back at it next week, but I’ve had someone on my mind for the past 10 years, and I want to tell y’all about her ...
I’m thinking about a little girl named Joline today, only she must not be so little anymore.
Ten years ago, Joline was 8 years old. That’s how she signed a picture she colored for me on what turned out to be the last day I spent with my father. I think the picture was out of some kind of Disney princess coloring book. As a boy mom, I’m not up on princess names. But she gave this particular princess blue eye shadow and blue hair.
It’s lovely, and it’s been hanging on my refrigerator for 10 years. It’s a little faded now, but I can still read the note down one side, accented by sweet little hearts: “To Jolee from Joline a little girl that’s 8 years old.”
That means she must be 18 years old now, and I wish I knew where she is and how she’s doing.
On the day she colored that picture — June 5, 2009 — I had taken my father to the Veterans Affairs clinic in Longview, at its original location on Marshall Avenue. My dad, Clarence Hammer, was a Vietnam veteran who had been seriously injured in combat. He struggled with mental illness for the rest of his life. We went to the clinic that day because he had fallen and injured his hand. It was swollen, and we were afraid it was broken.
It ended up being a long, frustrating day that took us from the clinic in Longview to the VA hospital in Shreveport and home again early in the morning the next day. My father died a day later, at home.
But first, there was this perfect morning at the clinic in Longview — perfect because it was just me, my dad, my then 6-month-old son Elijah and a little girl named Joline.
We were in the waiting room at the clinic, my dad holding and playing with Elijah. Joline, I found out, was waiting for her father and stepmother, who had been called from the waiting room to see one of the medical professionals at the clinic. Joline liked babies and came up to us while we waited so she, too, could play with Elijah.
Her father had been in the Navy, she told me. He had somehow hurt his back, and that’s why they were at the clinic that day. She loved her daddy so much. That much was evident as she told me about how her father would cuddle up and watch cartoons with her, even though he was in pain.
Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene” was released in 1973, not too long before I was born in 1974. People have been singing that song to me my whole life, even though my first and middle name have no “n” in them. Sweet, 8-year-old Joline understood even at that young age that our names were similar, but not the same — I remember her asking how to spell my name.
The similarities didn’t stop there. Jo Lee at age 8 had long, slightly wavy, brown hair that was always a little messy. So did Joline on that day. She had a spray of freckles, just like I did as a child.
As we sat there talking, clinic staff wheeled her father in a wheelchair from the exam area at the back of the building into the waiting room. In that moment, I saw Joline pause and look up at her father across the room. Her eyes were suddenly serious, a little crease formed in her brow, and her lips pursed together slightly in worry.
It’s a facial expression I recognized, one I think I must have made many times as a child, if not outwardly, certainly internally.
My father was not a perfect man, but he was a good father. He worked hard, laughed hard and had a big heart, but he and my mom were always open about the mental illness he struggled with after his return from Vietnam. Things were sometimes “off,” for lack of a better word. It sometimes made me uneasy, even if I didn’t always understand why. The year I got married, 1998, my dad had his last great mental breakdown. My larger-than-life father was never the same again, and I miss him every day.
These days, when my thoughts turn to my father, they usually end with Joline. I see the picture she colored for me every day on my refrigerator. I pray for her. I wonder if her father’s better. I wonder where she is, if she’s graduating from high school this year, if she’s going to college, maybe joining the military herself, or maybe working.
I’ve replayed that morning over and over in my head for the past 10 years, what my father said, his face while he played with Elijah, this little girl holding Elijah’s hand.
I remember watching Joline walk up to her father as he sat in the wheelchair that day, and I’m always struck by the last and most important similarity between us: Just like me, she was just a girl who loved her dad.