A short story
I rouse myself, still lethargic, from my light slumber in the warmth of the sun. My father and I sit side by side in zero gravity beach chairs that recline to support our legs as well as our backs. In front of us is the blue-green pool and beyond that a pedestal holds a bust of the god called Mercury, the messenger who moves between the heavens, the earth, and the world beneath. Behind Mercury is a bit of lawn, then a wooden fence covered with morning glories whose white-blue blooms have vanished now in the afternoon. Large forsythia bushes whose blooms have long since fallen are on the far side of the fence, then comes a country road, pines and maples on the road’s far side, and beyond that a giant field where each day for such a long time my father has walked a mile and more. We took a walk on my last visit, my father holding my arm for balance, stopping every so often for him to breathe and gather strength. We didn’t walk a mile, but at least we walked.
This summer afternoon, the umbrella above us for shade, we sit with the arms of our chairs together. Sometimes we talk, but for the most part we’re at peace with the quiet. For a while I hold my father’s hand. The birds are winging from branches with needles to branches with leaves. My father drowses from time to time, waking to speak a fragment of some sentence imagined in his sleep. We have nothing to accomplish today. I haven’t the excuse of his age or his cancer, but at times I feel myself pulled under some wave of sleep, my eyelids flutter until at last I allow them to seal shut. My father admits that he sleeps a great deal now, and I find myself freed from the polite inhibition that would keep me awake. I drift in and out of consciousness with him.
“What do you remember of me,” he asks, “from your childhood?”
Here he’s seeking reassurance that I remember him before he left my mother and me. I gather fragments that I hope will please him. After the flood, that long ago day, he and I walked the rocky bank of the stream and found a brown and a rainbow trout trapped in a bowl of rock and pulled apart the rocks to free them. How I watched when with muscles taut on his lean physique he leveraged the large, flat stones from the stream to build a patio that came to the edge of the flowing water.
“How did your mother tell you that I had left?” he asks.
“She didn’t tell me,” I answer, “She said you had to stay overnight for your job. Maybe she was hoping you’d come back. Finally, she did tell me.”
“Did she tell you about the other man?”
“Yes, not then, but much later.”
I look at his wrinkled face, the skin like ancient parchment. His flesh has wasted. Easily I imagine the skull beneath that wrapping of flesh that makes him who he is to me. Even his eyes are strange, beautiful, contemplative now that he sees only outlines, colors, distortions. I’m uncertain whether these eyes look out or in. My mother imagined that she could tell him about the other man and try to save the marriage. It’s such old history. I’m so much older than they were when they married or when they divorced. Looking back, I no longer feel that sorrowful anger that took me over as a child. I have my own marriage, my own son. I don’t dwell on that long ago childhood.
He drifts, forgets what he has been talking about, responds to my prompt, finds another topic that for reasons beyond understanding has surfaced again in his memory, loses a word that he wants to say, is finally able to speak the word and flesh out the memory.
“I keep remembering my younger brother. Alan must have been four and I was six. We were walking in a field that had recently been ploughed. Between the furrows there were large clumps of earth. I picked one up and began whirling around and around until I let it fly. It hit Alan in the forehead. He fell down and he was bleeding. I felt so bad, so guilty.”
“Did you mean to hit him?” I ask. There are stories that I’ve heard repeatedly, and my father must think of them far more than he speaks of them to me, but this story is new.
“No, it was an accident.”
“He was all right?”
“Yes, yes he was.”
“He must have died soon after that.”
“He died when he was ten.”
“No,” I correct him gently, “Your mother died when you were ten. Alan died when he was four.”
My father takes a moment to recollect. His eyes are opaque, green-gray.
“Of course, you’re right. Alan died of diptheria. My father blamed the doctor. He cleaned Alan’s throat so completely there was nothing left to swab for testing. It could have been treated if they knew what it was.”
I heard this story from my grandfather before he died at nearly the age my father is now. All those years had passed, but my grandfather still raged against the doctor who let his son die. My father doesn’t seem to have grief or rage, but I wonder what was lost in that life cut so short. What did my father lose in the brother who was his so briefly? What kind of uncle might Alan have been to me? When my father is gone, only I will remember these stories about Alan. Only I will remember my grandfather’s fury and sorrow that lasted a lifetime. I am like a repository, but after me who will recall any of this? Why gather and keep what will ultimately disperse like ashes flung high to sift and filter down to earth?
“It’s . . .”
He has vanished into sleep while I drifted with my thoughts. Now he returns with an image, a thought that has to cross from that dreaming world to ours.
“It’s so beautiful,” he says.
I wait a moment and finally ask, “What?”
He raises his right hand and forearm and gestures vaguely toward everything in front of us from the pool to the pines and maples to the sky where the clouds have been restlessly shifting between sun and shadow.
“It’s so beautiful, it’s terrifying.”
I know that he means all of creation. I’ve heard this or something like it so many times that I don’t have to respond, but I want to.
“Yes,” I affirm.
We can go on like this for the rest of the afternoon, speaking, drowsing, remembering so much that we have remembered before. His illness has been a long one. I’ve felt the withering of his body in our embraces on greeting and parting. The cancer has been slow, but in this final procession I wonder if its slowness will be kind or cruel. At least I’ve been a faithful pilgrim, coming once a week since the doctors warned us that the end had come near. Only that was half a year ago and I wonder at the love that brings me to him time and again. How long can I bear witness to his disease, the infinitely minute steps by which he deteriorates? If I hold his hand, as I often do when we sit here side by side, the smell of his medicine permeates my skin. When I leave, no matter how many times I scrub my hands with soap and hot water, the odor has penetrated too deeply to be rooted out.
At some point he stirs, lifts his lolling head, collects his thoughts.
“My father died in his sleep. He lay down for a nap and never woke up. I hope that I die like that. I don’t want to struggle and try to hold on.”
“Yes, Dad,” I agree, resting my hand on his and thinking that the little we hope for in the end is still hope, “that would be a blessing.”
Photo of Morning Glories by Jacopo Werther 2008, reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.