Monday, July 06, 2009

Being there

Twenty-nine years ago this morning at 6 am I was awakened by my mother telling my brother that my father was dead.

"Larry, your dad's dead." Her tone was plaintive and quiet. I don't know how long she had been at my father's bedside before she decided to tell her children. I do know why she called out to my brother, however. In the fog of finding her husband had finally succumbed to the cancer that had been slowly consuming him until he was literally nothing but skin and bones, she called out to my brother because she had always identified the same qualities of patience, fearlessness, and strength in my brother that my father had.

My brother was 5 years old than me and aside from working a full-time job, also ran the farm now, since my father had been far too ill. I'd just finished my freshman year in high school and was spending my summer vacation at my typewriter writing about people who lost things at a terrible price and avoiding my father.

I lay in bed that morning trapped under the covers by fear while my brother went to my parents bedroom to do whatever it was that he could do. I was afraid of the dead man in the room next door, as I'd been afraid of the dying man for the last 9 months. Since school had let out a month before, I'd been trapped in my room at my typewriter by fear of his dying. All I wanted was for the pain of watching someone waste away in agony to go away.

It took me a good hour to unstick myself from my bed. My parent's bedroom was quiet when I peeked in through the doorway. My father was lying in bed his arm cradled over the top of his head in his usual manner, and in the manner that I and my brother share when we sleep. I could only look at him for a moment, as my eyes caught his cold, dark, unblinking eyes. All I wanted to do was run.

And I did run: out of the house, across the farmyard, out behind the haystack. I sat there, hunched against sweet-smelling bales and cried. Even then I knew I was crying more for myself than I was for his pain and suffering. I was feeling adrift--but a relieved adrift. My father's illness that had been slung around my family like sacks of wheat, had suddenly fallen way. All his pain and watching him suffer was gone. Now there was nothing left but the unmoving shell of the man. Now there was nothing left but my pain and suffering and guilt.

I climbed the haystack to watch the undertaker come and haul my father's body away. I started to realize then, but wouldn't really learn until years later that taking the body away would not remove the guilt and emptiness. No coffin would seal that up for eternity. No amount of earth would keep it quiet beneath the ground.

I awoke this morning at 6:00 am, as usual, still a bit tired from the long holiday weekend, and caught myself wondering, yet again, what my life would have been like if he'd never had gotten sick. Some losses do come at a terrible price, I fear.


  1. Both my parents are still alive. Your story makes it clearer how easy it is to be oblivious to the ways that that fact has utterly shaped my life. So thank you for telling this, thank you for the reminder.

  2. I am sorry for your loss, and the way it continues to haunt you. I am moved to have you share a memory that cuts so close and deep.

  3. Thank you for sharing this Clint. My dad just had surgery last weekend, the first in what has thus far been a very healthy life. It was a sudden reminder of his mortality. I can't imagine such a loss so young.

  4. Sad story...

    beautifully written.