Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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IN THE MORNING, Dad feels better. Ida praises him for what he ate: a boiled egg, a piece of toast, a glass of orange juice.
“Did you sleep, Dad?” I ask.
“I slept ok.”
“His color’s better this morning, isn’t it, Ida?”
Ida agrees his face has more color. Over coffee, the three of us watch the latest war news on CNN, complete with melodramatic drumrolls and commercial breaks for “Ford-tough” trucks. Afterward I smoke a cigarette in the garage and rustle into a pair of Dad’s coveralls, stiff from the cold and disuse. I warm them up by cleaning the eaves, sweeping the porches, and raking the front yard — there’s the back-breaker, digging the rake into the hard earth, opening the soil to the spring air to let it breathe. Exhausted, I rest against the budding maple and smoke another cigarette. April in northern Michigan — the morning sun is already hot against my face, yet there are still patches of snow in the shadows.
Later, showered and with a towel around my waist, I poke around Dad’s basement workshop. He can make and repair anything, always could. Above his tool rack, he’s hung a Ladies Keep Out sign and a woodcarving of an Indian paddling a canoe. “In the Indian world,” the caption reads, “squaws did the planting, cleaned the tepee, raised the children. The braves rode their horses around with other braves, hunted, fished. How did we think we could improve on that?”
Heap big macho, Dad. When he picks up bread and milk at the grocery, he invariably brings home a rose for Ida. “My better half,” he calls her, just like he used to call Mom. I put on one of his robes and head upstairs, where, in our dueling La-Z-Boys, we watch more television. The commentators are calling Milosevic a thug before they can even pronounce his name. Last year it was Osama bin Laden. Before that it was Saddam Hussein. When we were arming Saddam to fight Iran, it was the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Why would every NATO member be against this Milosevic guy if there wasn’t something wrong with him?” Dad says.
“Because they’re in our pocket. Look at Russia, how we’ve threatened forfeiture of their imf money if they take Serbia’s side.”
“Russia’s not in NATO,” he says.
“But the same principle applies to Spain, Hungary . . . to a slightly lesser degree.”
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Dad says. “That’s America.”
“You should have gotten a flu shot, Pop.”
“I got my flu shot, but it was for the wrong flu.”
“Ida’s not happy with your doctor up in Cadillac.”
“You and Ida.”
“My doctor’s got his medical degree. You can’t wait until you’re sick to change your doctor, Son.”
In the kitchen, I dial Rebecca. No answer. My own voice on the machine: “You’ve reached the home of Jamie and Rebecca. . . .” Now and then I get a busy signal, so I know she’s home. She’s hurt because I wanted to come to Marion alone. Had it been her father who was sick, she would have wanted me near.
After a failed attempt at supper, Dad’s labor begins anew. He sits up straight in his recliner. He can’t get enough air. His face pulsates from red to pallid to red. I help him to the half bathroom off the den, where, on his knees in front of the toilet, he throws up green bile and then dry-heaves until, at last, the adrenaline kicks in, and the hot flood of relief.
Dying looks a lot like being born, I think standing over him, my fingers resting gently on his broad back. The contractions come in waves. Each time they are more intense, start earlier, last longer. Only now the body itself is the womb you leave behind.
IN THE MORNING, Dad’s condition is improved. I help some more with the outdoor spring-cleaning. Ida shows me where to be careful raking the flower beds; her tulip bulbs haven’t opened yet. A tall, full-blooded Swede, she rakes beside me stroke for stroke, and I compliment her vigor at age eighty-one. She asks why Rebecca didn’t come with me.
“She had to work. She couldn’t get off,” I say, leaning on my rake. Ida knows I’m lying.
“Coax your father outside, Jamie. He just gets weaker sitting in there. I’m so worried about him.”
“Pop’s pretty sick,” I say. I’m on my hands and knees mending the wire fences around her roses, which the rabbits have been nibbling. “This is more than the flu. . . . It may be his heart, you know.”
“Do you think we should take him to the Mayo Clinic? Everybody tells me to get him away from these small-town doctors.”
“The Mayo Clinic is a long ways off, Ida. Minnesota. It’d be a huge undertaking.”
“What about Traverse City, then? They’ve got good doctors up there. Talk to him, Jamie. You’re a man. He’d listen to you.”
In the kitchen, I find Dad on the phone, making an appointment with his doctor in Cadillac. “I’m not going to Traverse City,” he tells me before I can even ask. Then I help him downstairs to shower.
“Why not just use the upstairs shower, Dad, so you don’t have to navigate these steps?”
“I’ve got to keep doing things,” he rasps, resting in a folding chair on the landing.
When I first came to visit Dad after he married Ida, it took some getting used to — the men’s shower, the women’s shower. “Use the downstairs,” he would tell me. On the farm, in the old days, we all used the same outhouse and took baths in a tin tub in the kitchen, and I remind him of this.
“The farm was a long time ago,” he says. “Not much left out there, last I looked. Some bare fields. Some falling-down buildings.”
“Lots of good memories, though.”
“You get awfully skinny trying to live on memories,” he says.
IT’S ALL IDA and I can do to get Dad into the van to take him to Cadillac. I drive; she sits behind him with her hand on his shoulder. We pass the Hillcrest Cemetery a mile east of town. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dad staring it down. Ida looks in the opposite direction. Mom’s buried there. Dad had his name carved in granite beside hers when she died: “Violet” and “Jim.” A mere stone’s throw away, “Ida” is carved next to “Lars.” Both stones were bought in that no man’s land between a spouse’s death and remarriage, where for a while they both thought they might live on memories.
In Cadillac, when Dad’s name is called, Ida decides to stay in the waiting room. With a slight tilt of her head, she implores me to find out what I can. I squeeze her hand as if to say, I’ll try. A heavyset nurse with a baby face weighs Dad and takes his pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. With a wink, he introduces me as his “younger brother.” He asks her if her day’s about done. “For job one,” she says. Then she’ll ride the ambulance until 2 a.m. She and her husband are trying to pay off their mortgage.
The nurse leaves Dad sitting on the end of the examination table with his shirt off. I’m shocked to see his ribs so well defined, this descending xylophone of bones and sagging skin where his proud girth used to be. He’s cold, and I drape my coat over his back. It almost fits him now. I get my build from Mom’s side: smaller-boned, wilder men; fiddlers, dancers, drinkers. Grandpa Cleve owned taverns at one time or another in Lakeview, Blanchard, and Wyman, and I’m supposed to be a dead ringer for my Uncle Virgil, who was killed in a barroom brawl before I was born.
“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Dad says, staring at the wall on which the doctor’s medical degree hangs. “They’ve got a spot open for me at Autumnwood right now.”
“You’re not going to Autumnwood, Dad. I won’t hear of it.”
“Of course I’m going to Autumnwood, if I have to. Ida can’t take care of me at this stage.”
“Then I’ll take care of you.”
“You? What about your job? What about Rebecca?”
“Rebecca’s ok. And I’ll take a leave of absence.”
“Rebecca may be ok, but you and Rebecca aren’t ok, or she’d be here with you.”
“Jesus, Dad. You and Ida. Are Rebecca and I manacled at the ankles or something? We can be apart for a few days now and then.”
“So you can run around with Finn, smoking stuff, getting all tanked up?”
“Finn’s not even home. He’s up in Petosky, building a house. . . . I came to see you, Dad.”
We wait in silence for a good half-hour before the doctor comes in: a man near my age with white hair and a pale face. He looks like he needs to go fishing for a couple of weeks, even if he doesn’t fish. He gives Dad a thorough going-over with the stethoscope. Knows why I’m here, too: the returned son, making sure the failing father isn’t getting shortchanged just because he’s old.
“Six weeks ago, Doc, I was a well man. Now I don’t know where this is going to end up. I’m not in pain, thank the good Lord, but I don’t have any energy.”
“No strength, either,” I say.
“He knows that,” Dad snaps.
“You may be experiencing a medication reaction,” the doctor says, leafing through his notes on his clipboard. “I see here you’re on two beta blockers, one for the glaucoma and one for your heart. I’m taking you off the one for glaucoma; then I want to see you back in one week.”
“You’re the boss, Doc.”
“And the Prozac? Are you still having bad dreams?” he asks, looking over the top of his glasses.
“I’m ok now.”
“We’ll keep the Prozac, then.”
For good measure, the doctor listens to Dad’s heart again and thumps on his back while the piped-in Muzak plays “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” I should have asked Rebecca to come, I suppose. The trouble is, if she had come with me, there would have been too much Rebecca. She would have been comforting me before I knew how badly I was hurt.
AT NIGHTFALL, after yet another exhausting labor, Dad decides to spend the night in the La-Z-Boy. I make a bed for myself next to him on the couch, so Ida can get a good night’s rest for a change. She doesn’t protest too much.
We’re still watching “Bombs over Serbia.” “Are you feeling ok now?” I ask during a commercial break for a wax that makes your car so shiny you can shave in its reflection.
“I can breathe better sitting up.”
“You didn’t try to rake in the fall, did you? You should have called me if you needed help.”
“Oh, Jamie, it’s not like you live next door, you know. You’ve got your own life to take care of.”
“What do you want me to do with all that lawn trash?”
“Leave it. I’ll haul it to the dump when I’m back on my feet.”
“I can take it to the dump. Why leave you a mess?”
“That trailer can be tricky. The safety chains and all . . . especially if you have to back up.”
“Dad, I can back up the goddamn trailer. Let me do some things for you now.”
War, brought to you by new, advanced-formula pain relievers that go to work almost before you take them; advanced-formula sleep aids that give you the sleep (in your pajamas, beside your wife) of an innocent child, and with no morning hangover; automobile insurance coverage so good the smiling adjuster shows up at the scene of the wreck to write you out a generous check.
“I’m not in pain — thank God for that — but I don’t have any strength. Imagine if I was this weak and in pain.”
“What were those bad dreams about?” I ask.
“The doctor said —”
“Oh, they got that all fixed up,” he says.
“With Prozac? That’s a solution?”
“I didn’t know you had your medical degree. You and Ida both, and I didn’t even know it.”
They’re already comparing Milosevic to Hitler: exactly what we said about Ho Chi Minh, almost to the word. Then, forty years later: “Oops. Sorry. We had it all wrong.” And now a big black wall in Washington with fifty thousand names on it. Not to mention a million Vietnamese dead. “I could hate the United States,” I mutter at the television, hitting the mute button.
“Don’t say that, Jamie. Don’t ever say that.”
“Well, we deserve to be hated sometimes.”
“America is the best country in the world. Where would you rather live than here?”
“I could live in a lot of different places.”
“Do you want to live in Russia? Cuba?”
“I could live in either of those countries.”
“Why don’t you, then?”
“I have a right to criticize the United States. We’re not above criticism.”
“You have the privilege, better to say. Are you going to say you hate Cuba in Cuba?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t hate Cuba.”
“Then maybe you ought to live there.”
Dad falls asleep in the light of the flickering tv, which he wants left on, in case he needs to use “the privy.” His lips are moving. He’s having it out with someone, most likely me. Ida, in her pale blue nightgown, comes in to remove the untouched tray of crackers and Cheez Whiz from his lap. He jerks awake, his eyes gleaming, back from some land far stranger than Cuba. She pets his shoulder and turns her head to hide her tears. I slip out into the kitchen and try Rebecca again. No answer.
ASLEEP ONE THE COUCH, I dream that Dad and Mom are restoring the old farmhouse. Mom’s young, in the bloom of health, color in her cheeks, both her breasts intact. I’m fussing at her to sit down and take it easy, reminding her how sick she’s been — dead, really. I ask her what it’s like, death, and I see I’ve hurt her feelings. It’s a disadvantage, a minor humiliation, being dead. Down by the barn I hear hammering, and I ask her what Dad’s building. A second house, she says, with many rooms. Then I’m inside the new house, looking around a modern living room with couches of all shapes and sizes that turn into beds. For the grandkids, Dad tells me, handing me a hammer to help with the finishing work.
Half asleep, fumbling in the darkness, I call Rebecca, but I can’t get the number right and always misdial the last couple of digits. I give up, thinking it’s too late to call anyway. Or too early. I open the door and hear a rooster crow from a nearby farm. Looking closely, I can see the first faint streaks of dawn. I quietly dress and creep out of the house, careful not to wake Dad.
I walk through the sleeping village, past the Horseshoe Bar, Ben Franklin’s, the Corner Cafe, and Fleming’s Clothing, and out of town into a dream-pink sunrise. Along the brown country road, red-winged blackbirds and robins sing in the cool spring morning. Three and a quarter miles out of town I arrive at the old farmhouse, whose deterioration and return to the earth has fascinated me ever since its last tenants abandoned it two decades ago.
The roof has collapsed since Thanksgiving, my last visit home. What remains looks like a heap of broken bones. The barn’s still standing, though a little slanted, rising out of a morning fog that hugs the ground. There is still a trace of a path between the barn and the house from the thousands of times Dad and I trod it when I was a boy. I squeeze through the big barn doors and hoist myself into the empty haymow, as if my body automatically remembers that the first order of business for a boy is to see what can be climbed and then to climb it.
One of my jobs was to throw down bales of hay to feed the cows while Dad got a jump on the milking. The cow stanchions and the horse stalls look exactly as they did in the forties and fifties, when this was my second house, especially in winter, when the animals were being sheltered and it was basketball season. No matter how far below zero it got, you could always warm up by bouncing a basketball in the midst of all that packed hay and animal heat. Finn would ride his bike from town, and we’d make believe we were on the high-school varsity team while the cows chewed their cud and the horses, excited by our energy, let out the occasional whinny. All that visible breath exhaled out of nostrils, as if we were all one thing; as if the best of life were just waiting for me to grow into it. An iron hoop Dad forged for us at the town blacksmith’s still hangs, slightly crooked, on an upright beam. Forty years later, I can still smell Queenie and Pal in the boards of their stalls.
Finn and I have been fantasizing for years about buying back a piece of the old farm and building a house on it. His latest scheme is to reconstruct the barn into a house. People do it all the time, he says, and it wouldn’t take that much money, because we could do all the work ourselves. Finn’s got the tools, the know-how, and the enthusiasm. In certain moods I think, What an opportunity: To finish my life where it started. Make a full circle. Return to the dirt out of which I was shaped. Finn, Rebecca, and I could create for ourselves a grandparents’ farm, where our broken-home kids could one day bring their kids to pet the cows and ride the horses and quench their thirst with a cup of water from the outdoor pump.
Finn points out how important clean water is going to be in the twenty-first century, that the next world war will be fought over water. Backwards is forwards now, he’s convinced. He shows me how we could build in such a way as to block the view of the ugly microwave towers. Several of the apple trees in the orchard beside the house could still be saved, with severe pruning. He reminds me of the prolific garden that once grew in this soil and points out the swampy area behind the barn, where we could make a pond. The barn itself is structurally sound, in spite of its downwind tilt, which could be straightened out with winches. It needs hay in the mows, Finn says. An empty barn can’t withstand the westerly winds over the years.
BACK HOME, Dad’s awake, wearing a white dress shirt and sitting in a straight-backed chair instead of the recliner. The late-morning sun shines through the window on him, and there’s a Bible lying open on his lap. The tv’s on: some hokey reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. I don’t tell him I’ve been traipsing around the farm, because he’s always half annoyed by my fascination with it.
“Going to church?” I ask him with a wink. “I didn’t know it was Sunday.”
“Church came to me. Reverend Parker just called. You missed him by five minutes.”
“And what did you and Reverend Parker talk about?”
“You know what ministers like to talk about.”
“Your color’s much better, Dad,” I tell him. “I’m sure the doc is right about those beta blockers.”
He wants to discuss his will. Ida will get a share, and Tony and Sophia — my late sister Jane’s kids — will get Jane’s share. The house that he and Ida bought for rental income belongs half to her, he reminds me. “Ida and I have had a good marriage,” he says. “I had my family with your mom, and Ida had her family with Lars. But we’ve had a good marriage. She’s a good woman.”
It irritates me when he reduces Mom to the woman he had his family with. I know it’s a habit he’s developed in deference to Ida, but it’s as if he can’t remember Mom, just because she’s dead.
He asks if Bert and Andrea, my children from my first marriage, are attending a church. I can guess where this is headed.
“They were so little when you and Susan split up,” he says. “They’ve turned out to be good kids — I’m not saying they haven’t. But there’s one area where you and Susan just haven’t done right.”
“I know where you’re going with this, Dad.”
“I wouldn’t care what church they went to. Jane became a Catholic, for Giulio. I didn’t mind.”
“Ah, pardon me, but you minded a little.”
“Oh, I didn’t like that ritual stuff at her funeral. Shaking smoke over her coffin. . . . But the Catholic Church is a legitimate Christian church, Jamie. You and your sisters were raised Methodist, and I was raised Church of the Brethren, and my mother was raised Congregational — all legitimate Christian churches. Why wouldn’t you want the same for Bert and Andrea?”
“What about Grandpa Roy? He didn’t go to church, and there wasn’t a finer man that ever lived.”
Dad shakes his head. “Everybody knows my dad was a good man. That’s beside the point. But he’d have been a better man if he’d gone to church. He knew that, too.”
“Why didn’t he go, then?”
“If you really want to know, he couldn’t suffer an hour without a smoke. A bit like you.”
“Maybe Grandpa didn’t need a church. Maybe his store was his church.”
Dad waves his hand in front of his face, as if to fan away a bad smell. He’s heard this before: how generous Roy was to the poor kids in town, the migrant workers, all that; how he lived his religion.
“Ah, Jamie, a little bit of learning is a dangerous thing. If you studied your Bible, you’d know that being a good person doesn’t get ole Saint Peter to open up the Pearly Gates for you. You’ve got to be a Christian, too.”
“So, you figure Grandpa’s not in heaven right now because he didn’t go to church?”
“I hope he’s in heaven, because I want to see him again one day. And I want to see you, too. And my grandkids. But I don’t get to decide, and neither do you.”
IN THE AFTERNOON, the weather shifts out of the east, and I do some more yardwork in a cold gray sprinkle. As I dig the rake into the soil, my breathing sounds like Dad’s when I’m walking him to the bathroom. A few years ago, I could have raked this entire yard, no sweat; now I’m wheezing. Down on my knees, scooping up a pile of leaves, twigs, and dead grass into Dad’s wheelbarrow, I think of the story I was teaching when Finn called to tell me Dad was looking bad: Jack London’s “The Law of Life,” about an old Eskimo named Koskoosh who, blind and weak with age, can’t make the spring migration. As the tribe breaks camp, he listens to them packing the sleds. When the caravan begins to slide away behind the howling huskies, he wonders if his son has forgotten to tell him goodbye. Then Koskoosh hears feet crunching toward him in the snow. The old man and his son talk about the weather a bit, briefly reminisce about the past. Finally the son asks, “Is it well with you, Father?” And Koskoosh says, “It is well.” The son assures him that his granddaughter has provided him with a good stack of wood, and then the son walks back to the caravan, which waits for him at a respectful distance. He’s the chief of the tribe now, as Koskoosh had been the chief before him.
I rest and smoke, then begin to alternate raking with some less strenuous work: sweeping the garage, washing Dad’s Astro van, hooking up the trailer again and driving another load of leaves and grass out to the dump. The van engine is misfiring a little. From the convenience-store pay phone, I give Rebecca a call, but the line is busy. A few minutes later, there’s no answer.
At seven o’clock, I stop at the Horseshoe Bar for a shot and a beer. “Lonesome Town,” by Ricky Nelson, is playing on the jukebox, and the lonely men are starting to gather to put a little shine on the gathering darkness. Dad fears I’ll end up one of them. He and Ida had such hopes for me and Rebecca at the beginning. They thought maybe she had changed me. They don’t understand any better than I do why I can’t make this “two-become-one” thing work.
Last Thanksgiving, Rebecca and I came to Marion together, and Finn and I took a boys’ night out. Dad met me at the door in his boxer shorts at 2 a.m., demanding to know what the hell I was up to, leaving Rebecca all alone.
“Am I supposed to abandon my friends now that I’m married?” I asked.
“You call them friends — those guys who hang around at the Horseshoe? Are any of those friends going to come to your funeral someday? I’ll tell you: no. They’ll be sitting on their bar stools, and maybe five or six weeks after you’ve croaked, one of them will lean over, spit into the spittoon, and say, ‘Didja hear ole Jamie died? Yah, ole Jamie took the big wink, maybe five or six weeks ago.’ ”
It was impossible for me not to smile in Dad’s face. To think that, in his mind’s eye, taverns still had spittoons, or that I would live my life worrying about who might come to my funeral. When he saw the corners of my lips turn up, his eyes gleamed with a dark fire.
“You’re going to lose that girl one day,” he said, “and when you do, don’t come crying home to me.”
BY THE TIME I pull into the driveway, it’s half past eight. Under the outside light, I sit in the car a few minutes to smoke and survey, sadly, the work I’ve been doing on the yard. It’s starting to look much better now, but is it all just in preparation for a big family gathering here in the near future? In any case, Dad would want the place to look cared for.
Inside, I find Ida crying and Dad laboring to breathe, dry-heaving, his eyes bulging. “Oh, Jamie,” he greets me, gasping. “Thank God you’re home. This may be an eventful evening.”
I bring him a bucket and hold it under his chin. With my free hand I rub his shoulders gently, knowing how I loathe being touched when I have the dry heaves. I assure him that they will pass in a minute. “Relief is on the way,” I whisper, kissing his bald dome.
After a few minutes the heaves do let up. Exhausted, Dad rests his chin against his chest, the death angels having once again released their grip. He has to pee. My arm around his back and my side firmly pressed against his, I help him to the toilet. “Where would we be without family at a time like this?” he says.
© Doug Rhinehart
THE NEXT MORNING, Dad feels a little better. In a light rain, I clear another section of the yard, pile another load of leaves and debris onto the trailer. Before I drive off, I check in on him. He’s in the full recline position in his La-Z-Boy, his hand resting on the lever.
“All’s well with you, Father?” I ask.
“All’s well,” he says. “I wish I could be out there helping you.”
“I wish I could be in here helping you,” I say.
“You’re helping me just fine. . . . You know I like the place looking right.”
“Ida’s making you a hot breakfast.”
“Tell her no, Jamie. I don’t have any appetite.”
“You gotta eat, Dad.”
I try to leave, but I have an awful feeling. “Look, Dad,” I say, halfway out the door, “the van’s running a little rough when I pull the trailer.”
“That van can pull a load of leaves. Why don’t you take it down to Berry’s and have George take a look at it.”
“Might just need a new set of plugs.”
“George’ll know. . . . What is it, Son?”
“Are you all right?” he asks.
“I’m all right.”
“Are you sure? How’s your Chevy running, anyway?”
“It’s running ok.”
“You’re not forgetting to check your oil, are you?”
“I change my oil every three thousand miles, Dad.”
“But you still got to check it in between, Son. You know that.”
When the last of the raked leaves are deposited at the dump, I try Rebecca again from Berry’s Garage. At last she picks up, the first time we’ve talked in four days. Her voice is like a shot of morphine: I’m more attached to her than I’ll admit. She asks about Dad. I tell her he’s got a hell of a lot of fight in him for a man who can’t make it to the bathroom.
“Is he dying?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. He’s not in pain. His mind’s as sharp as ever. But he’s got no strength.”
“Your poor dad. Do you talk about it?”
“What do you talk about?”
“The weather. The war. How the car’s running. . . . Yah, we talk about it, I guess, in our eyes.”
“I should be there,” she says. “My place is beside you right now.”
“I’m coming, then. . . . I want you to ask me to come.”
“How are you going to get here without a car?”
LATER THAT AFTERNOON, I sit with Dad and hold his hand the way he would never let me hold it when he was well. Ida holds his other hand. My heart aches for him like a lover’s, and the pain merges with the guilt I feel for hurting Rebecca on the phone. He thanks me again for spiffing up the place. He asks how it’s going with Rebecca. I tell him he doesn’t want to know.
“Rebecca’s a beautiful girl,” he says. “Isn’t she, Ida?”
“She’s a wonderful girl.”
“I know,” I say.
“She’s intelligent,” Dad continues. “She has a pleasant personality.”
“I know, Dad. I know. I love her to death.”
“What do you want, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it another woman? Are you going through all that again?”
“Does she have another man?” asks Ida.
“No, nothing like that. We don’t see life the same way, that’s all.”
“Ah, Jamie,” Dad says, “so what?”
“ ‘So what,’ Dad? Isn’t that finally everything?”
“It’s finally nothing; that’s what it is. Don’t you know you’re going to get old someday?”
He sighs and turns his head toward the window and falls asleep. It’s stopped raining, and the sun has come out between some low-hanging clouds and the horizon. Softly, I remove my hand from his and take advantage of the remaining hour of daylight to take a walk. Starting at the mill pond, I meander through the woods along the Middle Branch of the Muskegon. The pines and cedars beside the river still have the scent of winter in their boughs. Standing on an old country bridge, I see a skim of ice over the deep pools. In another direction, the meadows are speckled with spring flowers.
Walking home by way of Hillcrest Cemetery, I pause first at Lars’s grave. Lars waits for his Ida as if their gravestone were the headboard of an eternal marriage bed. Twenty yards away, Violet patiently waits for her Jim. Vi and Jim. Ida and Lars. Now Jim and Ida.
I remember taking a walk with Rebecca last spring. From the top of a hill, we overlooked a country cemetery designed — maybe by accident — in the shape of a heart. From that height, we could see the shape clearly, and Rebecca squeezed my hand and said that she wanted to be buried next to me one day. I thought it an odd thing to desire, and yet she declared it so tenderly and unambiguously that for a minute I wanted to be buried next to her, too. Nothing seemed better than that, as far as love went. There was a robin in front of us on the path, scratching for a worm and singing, “Cheer up, cheer up.”
Back in town I call Rebecca again. She’s been crying. “The world looks too lonely,” she says, and I promise to try harder. I remind her that we still have our good times, especially in the morning, when one of us — usually me — will reach over to touch the other. The touch won’t be refused. At least, not on the second try.
“Maybe we need our little mini separations to bring us closer,” I say, and she seems to draw comfort from my words.
A few minutes later, standing on the downtown bridge and looking into the Middle Branch, where the water is running high from the spring melt, I feel momentarily assured that those morning reconciliations are who we really are, even if by midday we’re quarreling again because I’m not paying enough attention to her. It’s not like it was in the beginning. She feels lonely, frightened, sick, the way she did in her first marriage. And by nightfall we are silent and sleep on opposite sides of the bed.
No, I’m three-quarters of a heart sure we have a death to go through. We’re just having trouble letting go.
THAT NIGHT, Dad’s labor intensifies, and Ida and I try to get him admitted to the hospital, but we can’t reach his doctor. His answering service provides us with the number of the doctor on call, who speaks rudely to Ida. “It’s not so easy to get into the hospital, you know,” he says. “It’s not like checking into a hotel.”
I break in on the other line: “If he were your father, I suppose he’d get into the hospital. I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored,” I say, borrowing one of Dad’s favorite sayings.
Dad starts to throw up, and I hurry to get him his pail. Again it’s mostly dry heaves, a little greenish-gray spittle. I put my free hand on his shoulder and tell him relief is coming. Each convulsion is more consuming than the last. This may be it, I think. Then, once again, the labor eases. His breathing relaxes. His color returns. Since he’s been sleeping in the La-Z-Boy, Dad hasn’t been wearing underwear; rather, he sits on a towel, because he can’t entirely control his bowels or his bladder. I walk him to the bathroom, and Ida walks on his other side, protecting his modesty with his shirttail.
“There’s no pride in times like these,” he says, his arm linked with mine.
I settle him back into his recliner and kiss his forehead. Ida makes herself a bed on the couch, and I tell her I’m going to bed, too, but I’ll leave my door open just in case I’m needed. I undress, crawl under the covers, and listen to Ida at the other end of the long hallway, insisting to Dad that they still have some options.
“We could take you to the Mayo Clinic,” she says.
“Idy, how can I go in an airplane in a state like this?”
“We could take you in an ambulance.”
“Oh, Idy, an ambulance all the way to Minnesota?”
“What are we going to do, then? Just give up?”
“It’s not giving up. Everybody’s got to die, you know. It’s nature. It’s God’s plan. Who are we —”
“You got to die, I got to die, Jamie there in the bedroom has got to die. We all got to die sometime.”
“Don’t give up, Jim. You’re a fighter. That’s why I fell in love with you. We can get you to the Mayo Clinic. You just have to say the word.”
“OK, Idy,” Dad says. “We’ll call in the morning.”
“It’s up to you, honey. Tell me what to do, and we’ll do it. I’ll listen to what you say.”
“Just keep talking so I can hear you.”
I feel as if I weigh a thousand pounds. I switch on the little black-and-white tv beside the bed and turn the sound down to almost zero — for a night light, in case I have to use the privy. The bombardment of Serbian positions continues. War and rumors of war. Behind and above the tv, on an heirloom dresser that I remember from Grandma Hazel’s house, there’s a picture of Grandpa Roy and Great-grandpa Gideon holding Dad between them when he was maybe five or six, all three of them looking squarely into the camera, Dad leaning intently forward. That’s how he’s lived his whole life: on a forward incline.
In the fifties we were the second family in all of Marion to own a television. To get better reception, Dad erected a huge aerial that towered over the house. At the base of it, he welded a piece of pipe with pulleys and ropes attached to a wheel that he installed on the living-room wall. From his easy chair, like the captain of a great ship, he would crank the antenna toward Grand Rapids for the Friday Night Fights and Boston Blackie, or toward Lansing for Gunsmoke and Superman. Our screen was eight inches wide, but already, in the Sears & Roebuck catalog, Dad would show us screens more than twice as big. There was no end to improvement, he told us. America was going to just get bigger and better. We would go to the moon one day. Maybe he wouldn’t live to see it, but we would, and his grandkids — we would see the unimaginable.
As my trunk and limbs slowly sink into the bed like heavy stones, my mind races faster than a speeding bullet through early tv jingles and theme songs for Philip Morris and Wyatt Earp: “Wyatt Earp, / brave, courageous, and bold. / Long live his name / and long live his glory / and long may his story be told.” After one episode of Wyatt Earp, I remember Dad looking at me and my sisters and Finn with misty eyes and saying we couldn’t have done better than that downtown at the Sun Theater.
Dad was a paradox, content with his lot while at the same time always enlarging it, making improvements: buying a horse or a secondhand saddle, or seeds for the garden, or a plow for the tractor, or a tube tester so he could replace blown tv tubes, or tar to patch the roof, or lumber to enclose the porch, or insulation to cut down on the draft, or porcelain for the indoor plumbing that he’d installed himself, or hardwood to lay down a stronger floor in my little bedroom at the top of the stairs. . . . My bedroom at the top of the stairs: really no more than a walkway between my sister’s bedroom and the attic. Today’s householder would find it too small even for a walk-in closet. I never wanted more.
My mind feels strangely light and airy while my body continues to grow rocklike, compresses, sinks. All this talk about Finn and me buying back a piece of the old farm and building something on it is never going to come to anything. It’s like those reenactments of Civil War battles. The Civil War is over. The farm is gone. Some bare fields and falling-down buildings are all that’s left. In the far future, something might be built on its dust and ashes, but one thing is sure: there can be no unbroken connection between the past and now. Old wine went in old bottles. New wine goes in new bottles. All you ever have is the present.
I turn off the tv, and my thousand-pound body turns suddenly, frighteningly weightless. I float to the ceiling on the magic carpet of darkness, then down the hall to the living room, where I land in Dad’s La-Z-Boy with no strength in me even to lift a hand. Rebecca sits where Ida now sits, spoon-feeding me chicken broth, wiping my chin. “Why can’t you be more like your father?” she asks.
I muster up my last reserve to snap at her: “Because he doesn’t want me to be.”
A minute, a year, a lifetime passes before I open my eyes again. The house is unearthly quiet: there’s no clock ticking, no tv chattering, not even a refrigerator hum. Then, in the distance, from what seems another world, I hear Ida softly keening, and I think perhaps Dad has died while I was asleep. But, no, I hear him telling her that he loves her, and then her telling him the same. They say it, again, softly and slowly.
“I love you, Ida.”
“I love you, Jim.”
In a nearby universe, I drive Dad’s Astro van in reverse, pushing his trailer filled with last year’s leaves and dead grass backward through the fields and woods around the old farm, searching high and low for a place to bury them. I’m backing up perfectly, with the safety chains unfastened and dragging the ground. Between the woods and the frozen swamp, I come upon a rectangular hole looking very much like an empty grave. I slam on the brakes. The abrupt stop empties the trailer’s contents into the hole, filling it to the brim and over. Exhausted, I open the Astro’s door, stagger to the hole, and fall backward on top of the pile. It starts out warm, like a bed, but soon I feel it growing cold and stiff with frost. I see Rebecca standing on a distant autumnal hill with her back to me, her shoulders slumped, yet looking bravely determined to walk away. As her head disappears over the crest, I sit bolt upright and shout for her not to leave me, but instead of her name I cry out, “Dad!”
I have read many extraordinary short stories in The Sun, but I was particularly moved by Jim Ralston’s “Don’t Come Crying Home to Me” [March 2003]. I teared up as I read about Ida and her ailing husband exchanging I love you’s over and over again. And the dream at the end captured the strangeness and vulnerability of the human condition.
I also loved the simplicity and profound mundanity of Cortney Davis’s poem “God and the Blueberries.” The way the image of the blueberries was reinvented in each line reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It was like reading some odd sort of prayer.