By Lorna Reese
It was one of those steamy July days in Minnesota when hair expands to twice its normal size and clothes get damp and sticky right after you put them on. My dad’s stomach cancer surgery had been two months earlier. Now I was driving my folks to see the oncologist in Dad’s prized red Ford pick-up. During the eight short blocks to the clinic, he sat as unmoving as a stone. But his pain seemed to radiate out and interfere with my own energy field, and I felt like the starch had been sucked out of me as well as my shirt. Sitting in the middle of the truck, my mother leaned away from Dad with every jolt but he winced anyway.
“So, did Dr. Gustafson or Dr. Vaughn recommend this guy?” I have never been comfortable with long silences, which is what my parents’ life seemed mostly to consist of. “Dr. Vaughn,” my mother said, responding for both of them. She fiddled with the huge purse on her lap, as though more information might be inside.
My dad, stoop-shouldered now and reed-thin, just sat, a silent sentinel to his own life. The operation had left his body a ravaged ruin, so raw and sore that touching him anywhere, even if he had been a person who enjoyed touching, was impossible. His chest had been sliced open, parts of his stomach and esophagus cut out and his bowel hiked up. His abdomen, my mother told me, was criss-crossed with tiny scars from dozens of stitches. I saw them in my mind as miniature zippers, both holding him together and tearing him apart.
Then I hit a bump and could almost hear my dad’s bones screaming. He reached out a skeletal hand and pressed it against the window like a brake.
It had been a year since my last visit. I flew in for a few days from Boston, the last of their eight children to make the pilgrimage. Without saying so, my mother had made me understand my father was dying.
“Dad’s not doing too well, Linn,” she’d started. Everyone’s been to see him except you.” While she spoke, I remembered when I was little, wanting my younger sister’s spot on Dad’s lap. That place had never been mine, though I had yearned my whole childhood for it. I had stood nearby watching Jeannie play with the buttons on Dad’s work shirt and he glanced over at me and called me a bag of bones.
Driving to the oncologist, I couldn’t remember ten other words Dad ever said to me. Come to think of it, there weren’t really that many more from my mother either. Eight kids. A lot of noise but not much else. And now he was not much more than an empty bag of bones.
In the waiting room at the clinic, my parents sat stiffly, looking at the wall straight ahead, not talking. Everyone passing by looked Scandinavian. Broad flat faces, pale skin, blond hair, a little overweight. But nice, too. Everyone seemed nice.
I drifted off for a while, secretly hoping I might see Mark Roth, the boy I’d had a crush on all through high school. He’d gone to Columbia Medical School before returning to practice medicine here where he grew up. We were seated alphabetically in those days, so I sat next to him for four years of English, but he never noticed me. I wanted someone – why not him? – to see that I’d turned out OK, even pretty.
In those years, I was also in love with my girlfriend Marjorie’s father. Not because he was handsome or kind but because he was always there. When I ate supper at Marjorie’s, Mr. Gunderson always sat at the head of the table. He came to every one of Marjorie’s softball games and he and the entire family went to church together. Every Sunday.
” Ross, Bert Ross,” a nurse called, standing in the doorway with a chart in her hands. Dad maneuvered the cane he used now into a position to the right of his knees. He pushed down, his face twisting into a hollow grimace. My mother touched his elbow. Together, they followed the nurse into an examining room to wait some more for Dr. Johnson, a man they had never met. I went, too.
My parents sat again, next to each other on matching turquoise plastic chairs. For a moment, I looked at them as people I had always, yet never, known. Mom had on one of the shapeless cotton housedresses she wore. He was in a clean pair of the tan work pants that had been his uniform. They looked their age finally, and any passion there had once been between them had long ago been spent. There was no fierce determination either, not to live, certainly; but not to die either. Just acquiescence, and waiting for what was to come, whenever and wherever it came.
My dad’s wispy, uncombed pale hair stuck out in all directions. His shrunken face was covered with a grizzly beard of red mixed with gray. His eyes were a thin blue. He didn’t want to be there, but my mother had made the appointment, so here he was, looking thoroughly spent, used up, as though the surgeons had taken more than his organs away, as though he was completely empty inside. I stood on the other side of the tiny exam room, looking at anatomical drawings of chest cavities and the muscles of the shoulder. They were the same color as freshly-butchered meat.
My parents hadn’t invited me to join them and I hadn’t asked. But they hadn’t said no and I wanted to do something, be useful somehow. We all waited wordlessly for some doctor we didn’t know to pronounce a judgment on Dad. The yellow fluorescent lights made him look even more deathly.
Dr. Johnson finally strode in, like some kind of god, tall and tan, brisk and efficient, with a chart in his hands. He called my dad Mr. Ross — something I have never heard him called before. His voice was kind and gentle, and he had a tiny lisp. His starched white coat was still pressed, five hours into the day. I trusted him immediately.
“There’s a chemotherapy we can try for cases like yours, Mr. Ross.” he told my parents without any preamble. “It’s called 5FU.”
God, what an awful name, I told my husband later. It sounded like fuck you to the fifth power. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. As a child, I’d said that to Dad in my head millions of times, furious at his total lack of interest in me, wanting to shock him into noticing. Dr. Johnson told my parents they should think about whether they wanted to proceed and then waited.
My mother sat with her back straight, her massive, black pocketbook still balanced on her lap. She pursed her lips, looked at Dad and then murmured her approval. My dad didn’t say a word. He just kept on looking at his feet. On the other side of the room, I kept quiet. Dr. Johnson glanced over at me but it wasn’t my place to say anything. Still unsure about why I was there, I waited for their questions, too. But my parents just sat there, not saying anything.
“Well, think about it,” Dr. Johnson repeated, “and call me when you make a decision.” Then we all went home, none of us saying much of anything. I helped Dad into the bedroom to rest, gingerly getting him into bed. I felt sick myself, like I’d been dragged through a keyhole.
Thinking food would help, I made a sandwich and sat on the shady concrete stoop outside the kitchen door, looking out toward the end of the yard where there used to be apple trees. I thought about how Dr. Johnson had stood there, expectantly it seemed, waiting for my parents to say something. He seemed more disappointed than I at what must have looked like apathy about the treatment he suggested. But his words had dropped into a deep pool of silence with hardly a ripple and now I wanted to scream. I smoothed the small scar on my knee, over and over. I’d wanted something from my dad my whole life and now he was dying. I’d run out of time. The afternoon was unnaturally quiet.
I thought about all that silence. I couldn’t remember ever hearing my parents have a conversation. Their exchanges when I lived at home twenty years earlier had mostly been late-night shouting matches, my mother railing at my dad for spending their money at the VFW bar, Dad mostly standing there, pretty drunk, just taking it. Once though, when I was little, I remembered seeing him taunt my mother, throwing lit matches at her across the oilcloth-covered kitchen table.
And there was that time, when I was nine and woke up in the middle of the night. Mom was yelling at Dad in the kitchen below the bedroom where Jeannie, Phyllis and I were sleeping. The boys were dead to the world across the hall. They slept through all the nighttime battles.
This fight sounded like a big one. I’d seen an ugly purple bruise on my mother’s arm once. This time, instead of cowering under the blankets, softly reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over to block out the yelling, this time, I would save my mother from whatever Dad regularly dealt out when he came home smelling of dirt, cigarettes and cheap whisky.
I crept down the stairs and poked my head around the corner to the kitchen at the very moment a plate thrown by Mom sailed over the table, crashing into the refrigerator instead of Dad’s head. Dad lurched forward, a mean look on his grizzled red face. Mom grabbed a shiny knife from the rack on the counter and moved nimbly around the table. Her robe had fallen open and I saw her almost naked body beneath. “Don’t you touch me, Bert. I’ll use this. Don’t think I won’t.”
But my dad kept coming and she kept moving. They were playing a deadly game of tag, and my heart was beating fast and loud, and I heard myself shout out, “leave her alone.”
My words seemed to carom off the walls of the brightly-lit room. Mom and Dad stopped where they were, at opposite ends of the broad wooden table. Dad’s mouth dropped open. Mom froze.
I felt strong and brave for a moment. I had averted disaster. Then my dad dropped his head to his chest and put his hands in his pockets. Mom pulled her robe close, dropped the knife and said, “Go back to bed, Linn. Right now.”
Her face had been tight, her eyes shining, and I hadn’t argued. Climbing the stairs, I caught my knee on a small nail sticking out of the railing. It had torn through my pajamas and cut into my leg. My folks’ voices mounted again in rage as I got back to bed and put my fingers in my ears. “Our father who art in heaven…”
A mosquito hovered in the air before my eyes and then dropped down to settle on the scar on my knee. I watched for a moment and then swatted him, smearing my own blood, again, on my leg.
I had another scar, too, hidden under my wristwatch. As a toddler, I was severely burned when I got stuck between the wall and a space heater that should have been child-proofed, something you’d think a dad would have done. There were first-degree burns on my face and down the whole left side of my body and third-degree burns on my wrist and forearm. I hadn’t cried, Mom told me years later when I asked about the puckered skin on my left arm, so Dad hadn’t wanted her to take me to the doctor. It would be expensive. Mom took me anyway. Old Dr. Frost told her I’d been in shock and that was why I hadn’t cried.
Wiping the mosquito blood away, I went inside and phoned the clinic from the kitchen while my mother picked through the mail. “Would you please ask Dr. Johnson to call Linn Ross, Bert Ross’s daughter, before he leaves today?” I asked the receptionist. My mother’s left eyebrow went up and then down again. Yes, she was going to just stand there.
I got a ruled pad, sat at the dining room table and put together ten questions in pencil. I even titled it, “Everything you want to know about when your father will die but are afraid to ask.”
I paged through TV Guide and the newspaper while I waited. Dad was resting in the bedroom and my mother bustled around the kitchen preparing dinner. I heard the refrigerator open and close, the gas stove ignite and then the splat of cold meat hitting a hot pan. She was making spaghetti and meatballs, which she thought I’d loved as a child. According to my sisters, more frequent visitors, Mom often made childhood favorites for whoever was visiting. But I had liked pork chops. Jeannie was the one who loved spaghetti. Who could eat anyway?
I turned around and saw her standing quietly at her work, her back turned, framed in the door to the kitchen and in the window over the stove. She was still, her head cocked. Listening, I decided, for any tiny sound from Dad in the bedroom. In her apron and housedress, she looked like a 1950s print ad in Redbook or McCall’s. She turned then and saw me. The dark red lipstick from Avon, the same shade she’d worn since I was a child, stood out like a neon sign on her aging face.
It was almost six and still steamy when Dr. Johnson returned my call. I sat in the dining room, writing down his answers to my questions. My legs stuck to the wooden chairs even though Mom had pulled the shades days ago to keep the house cool. “If your father responds to the chemo, the 5FU generally adds a few months,” he said. “Without it, the most he’s got is four to six months. But if the goal is comfort, you should refer him right away to hospice.” It came out sounding like hothpith. “You know,” he added, kindly, I thought, “it really should be his decision.”
Mom was opening a can of crushed tomatoes when I told her what Dr. Johnson had said. She frowned while pouring the pulpy mess into a saucepan, saying nothing. How had she always gotten everyone to do exactly what she had wanted without saying anything? I had tried unsuccessfully to duplicate this skill with my own husband and wondered why my mother hadn’t taught me something useful, like that, instead of how to make a tuna noodle casserole.
“Dr. Johnson says it’s really important that Dad decide,” I said. I figured she would see Dr. Johnson as an authority figure and just give in to what he said. “What do you think, Mom?”
She turned to me. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she looked tired. Then she went back to stirring. “You and your dad never had anything to do with each other before, Linn,” she said, words clipped and low. “You don’t even live here anymore. This isn’t your business. It’s between him and me.”
My head jerked back involuntarily, as though I had been slapped. My hand flew up toward my face. Maybe you just like being the victim, I thought. Or maybe she just wanted to do whatever was humanly possible to prolong the life she knew. Which was one with my dad in it. Then she wiped her eyes and resumed stirring and biting the lipstick off her lower lip.
We ate supper in the kitchen while Dad lay in the bedroom. The orange spaghetti sauce, flecked with bits of green pepper and translucent onion, spattered across the white plates. A green canister of grated parmesan stood in the center of the table, iceberg lettuce in a wooden bowl at the side. I had wine in a jelly glass and Mom had Coke. The only sounds were my fork clacking against the plate, the sucking sound of the noodles disappearing behind my mother’s lipsticked mouth and the kitchen clock’s interminable ticking.
I remembered another time at this very same table when I was ten. I had sat on my knees on the chair pushing the food around on my plate. Canned asparagus. That’s all that was left. And I was the only one sitting there. The shouts of my brothers and sisters playing statue in the back yard occasionally drifted in, lifting above the whir of the fan that pushed the humid August air around. My mother busied herself behind me, cleaning up, then putting down a plate of scraps for Lucky whose toenails clicked against the linoleum floor as he scurried over for his supper.
The last time I’d eaten canned asparagus, I’d thrown up. I tried to remind Mom but all she said in that emphatic tone of hers was “Nonsense. Now clean up your plate so you can go outside.” The spears were cold and extra mushy from being squashed with a fork, pushed into a green mound in the center of the plate, then off to each quarter again and again.
Dad worked construction away from home during the week but this evening he was in the living room smoking a cigarette and reading the paper. That meant it was Saturday, and that soon he would quietly collect his cap and slip out for the usual night of drinking. Because I was still sitting at the table with my asparagus, he would have to walk past me to get his cap from the back door closet. I could smell the musky scent of his unshowered body behind me. When I heard him stop, I stared even harder at the green sculpture on my plate. “I suppose you’re going out again,” my mother sneered. “Why can’t you stay home for a change?”
I looked up then and she said, “Finish up, Linn. This is none of your business.”
“Aw, let the kid be,” my father said. “Go on. Go outside.”
I felt glued to the chair. Who was I supposed to listen to? Who was in charge?
“Get going,” my father said again, gruffly, and I went, slamming the screen door against my mother’s sigh. Outside, the shadows were lengthy, elongating the forms of my brothers and sisters, and the neighborhood had that stillness that seems to fall when day gives itself over to evening.
After supper, I went to the bedroom to check on Dad. Lying on his side in the fetal position, he was so gaunt and frail now, it was impossible to see, even to remember, the tall, taciturn man who had always been on the periphery of our lives. It was hard to be angry, to hold a grudge against this shell of a person, this non-person, this invalid. That’s exactly what he was, I realized, an invalid — not valid anymore. He shivered involuntarily and I leaned over to pull a worn blanket gently over his bony frame.
Later, I took a small glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast into the bedroom. Dad leaned there against pillows stained with sweat and drool. Occasionally, he twitched in pain. Even if he didn’t have the chemo, Mom hoped he would keep something down or he would perish anyway, of starvation. He was so puny now she had bought new clothes for him. He was, I realized, better dressed now than he had ever been in his life. I stood next to him, hoping, like she did, that he would be able to swallow a few mouthfuls.
“I don’t have to do it, do I?” my father asked suddenly, looking up at me, his voice husky and raspy, like sandpaper. His thin, pale mouth tightened slightly, puckering the tiny vertical lines in his upper lip.
“No,” I said to my father, after a moment, “No, you don’t.” Then I slipped the glass into his folded hands and guided them to his mouth. He took a sip and grimaced and I took the glass away. It’s enough, I thought. It’s enough.
That night, I lay in bed in the room I’d shared with my sisters when I was a kid, the double bed my parents had slept in when they were newly-married. The next day, I flew home to my husband, not knowing whether my mother or father would win their final contest. The truth was I was glad to be out of it.
Two months later, deeply asleep in Paul’s arms, I woke abruptly from the bottom of a dream; the phone was ringing. Reaching for it, I came fully awake. A slight breeze ruffled the leaves on the huge oak outside our room and Paul snuffled as he tried to wake up. The blackness outside was tangible.
“It’s Dave,” my brother said. I knew why he was calling but something made me wait for him to say it. ”Dad died,” he said finally. “Dad died?” I repeated, as though I had mis-heard, as though it was a big surprise.
When Paul and I arrived back at my folks’ house, it was oddly filled with life in the form of my brothers and sisters and their families. We sat in the dining room at my grandmother’s claw-footed table, drinking coffee and working our way through the casseroles, cakes and pan cookies that covered the table in the kitchen. Eventually, everyone gathered together and began lining up cars to go to the viewing. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I had read through two articles in Readers Digest and one in Family Circle magazine when I heard scratching on the door and then Paul’s whisper. “C’mon, honey. Did you think they wouldn’t notice? Everyone’s waiting for you.”
I opened the door and Paul slid in. “Jeeze, Paul, I don’t want to go and look at my dad lying in a coffin. It’s barbaric. It’s ghoulish. It was hard enough seeing him here when he was like the walking dead. It’s not like he’s going to notice and he certainly wouldn’t care if he could notice. I’m not going.”
“Suit yourself. As long as you’re not sorry later that you didn’t.”
“Why would I be sorry?” I grabbed a tissue. He ran his big hand across my forehead, pushing away a stray strand of hair. Then he pulled me to him and held me against his chest. The rough weave of his sweater scratched my cheek, the way a whisker rub greeting from Mr. Gunderson had one Saturday morning when I was a kid.
“All right. I’m coming. I’m coming.”
When we arrived, I hung back, watching the crowd at the far end of the room. Dad was no longer there, not really, and I didn’t want his wasted dead body to be my final memory of him. I didn’t want to close my eyes and see that on the inside of my eyelids. And it would make it real — I had no more chances to make things right between us.
My youngest brother, Jim, who flew in from Colorado, finally took my arm and walked with me to the casket. We peered down at my father’s body in the satin-lined coffin and I found myself wondering where his suit had come from. The jacket looked a lot like the one he wore in their 1942 wedding photo. He’d lost enough weight for it to fit again. I forced myself to look at his head. His face was, as usual, expressionless and had a yellow cast. The stubble of his beard had been shaved and his hair was, for once, combed. But he looked awful. Empty and consumed at the same time. This pitiful man was the one I had needed to love me.
Paul brought me a Styrofoam cup of tepid coffee and I told him what I’d been thinking. “At least he didn’t leave you,” he said. “At least he brought home what he didn’t drink out of his paycheck. You’ve got to give him that.”
I didn’t want to be mad anymore. “Yes, I’ll give him that,” I said.
The funeral was the next day, the church full of relatives and people who knew my mother. “My dad wasn’t much of a church-goer,” I whispered to Paul. “Some of these old men in their silly wide ties are the same guys he used to get drunk with at the VFW. He knew them better than he knew us.”
At the cemetery, my anger seemed to evaporate in the perfection of the day. I stood with my family under a deep blue bowl of autumn sky. A soft breeze ruffled the leaves on nearby elms and chased the water on the lake to the other side. High above, ducks flew in formation on their southward journey. Finally it was over.
I was chatting with Aunt May in the church basement after the burial, leaning in to her wizened, almost deaf ear, when I saw my mother, in her vivid red dress, carry a nearly-empty plate of cookies to the kitchen. She wore red, I heard her tell my sister, because Dad had always liked her in red. With both hands, she turned the platter over to an aproned woman about her own age, one of the women from the Ladies Aid Society. They exchanged a few words, my mother smiling, and then my mother moved deeper into the kitchen and, through the open door, I saw her quietly slip out the back door.
Making my excuses to Aunt May, giving back the plate of treats I held for her, I wove my way through relatives and family friends, into the kitchen and out the same door. My mother’s red dress was easy to spot among the trees and shrubs crowding the churchyard. She was heading for the small pond at the edge of the cemetery. I followed as quietly as I could. She stopped at the water’s edge and I wondered for a faint moment if she was thinking about jumping in. Instead, she reached up to push an errant hair off her face. It was silent. No birds. Not even a breeze whistling through the elms and oaks, thoroughly resplendent this time of year.
I stepped on a twig and she turned to me with a vacant look. I wondered for a moment if it registered who I was. She turned away again toward the pond and I took another step forward. I stopped just behind her right shoulder. “Mom,” I said.
“I heard what you told him. That day before you left. But it wasn’t you.
I told him it was all right, that I’d be ok,” she said to the water. “I told him I’d get his Social Security payments and that I’d bought a plot here for us both, not too far from his dad’s. I told him all this on Thursday. And then he died. That night. Later.”
She shifted her feet and looked at her shoes, urging a small fleck of grass off the toe with the heel of her other shoe. “So it wasn’t you at all. I don’t want you thinking that.” She kept her eyes on her shoes. They were red, too.
“In the old days, people used to send away kids they didn’t get along with, usually to live with relatives. Remember I told you my sister Alice lived with the Tollefsons for a few years? That’s why. In our family, you were the one we would have sent away.”
Instantly, I felt tightly rooted to the bright green grass beneath my feet. Red, gold, yellow leaves had made a pattern there but I couldn’t figure out what it was. My chest suddenly seemed too small for my heart and my lungs were being squeezed, too. I couldn’t breathe. It was as though an elephant was sitting on my chest. I leaned over and put my hands on my knees, pushing up and out with my ribs, as though I might be able to find some space in my chest, swallow some air and keep it down. I thought I was going to faint.
“But your dad said no and we didn’t,” I heard from some faraway place, like an echo but different. My body resumed its normal size. When I looked up again, Mom was gone. I turned around and saw her red dress fading off into the distance behind me. Eventually, she disappeared and I watched Paul coming my way. My legs buckled and this time I did go down. Paul started to run.