All Happy Families

He would never sit around waiting for someone to die, but his three daughters find themselves doing just that, waiting at his deathbed, trying to make sense of his past and their future.

Image of a deer with blood on it.

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His body is light.

For whatever reason, I imagine cardboard tubes under the blankets. Like the tubes at the center of a roll of paper towels or toilet paper. These tubes are stitched together to form his body. Tubes of different sizes: The largest link together to mold the long bones, his legs and arms; mid-size tubes are crumpled for the joints and are laid out into the long staccato of his spine; the smallest make up the blood vessels, shrinking toward capillaries, spreading like intricate cardboard blooms throughout his body.

His eyes are half-open, glazed with opiates. He stares at some point beyond his feet. Every once in a while, his lids droop and close for a number of seconds before opening. My sister is probably on a similar opioid. She cracks a joke, in bad taste, in her style:

“And we always thought you’d kill yourself.”

And I think: It’s the truth.

I never imagined him dying like this: flesh detaching from bone, skin and eyes bleaching out, everything shrinking like he was laid out and shriveling in the sun. Any other way seems more reasonable than this, more like him.

But maybe this is a form of karma? His unbreakable ego, an ego that would take its own life, has to face the indignity of becoming nothing but a decaying animal like the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he is being crushed down, made immobile, stripped of all the things that ego was built on. I’m sure if we brought a gun and he could manage it; he wouldn’t hesitate. I suppose I wouldn’t either.

Abigail waits for a reaction to the joke, her hands gripping the rails of the bed tightly, veins coiling close to bone just like in our father’s hands now. She gives up and looks at Crystal and me, forcing a smile.

“I thought it was funny,” she says.

Crystal breathes out loudly and her breath, all mint and what smells like used dryer sheet, passes by me. She starts moving toward the door.

“I need a break,” she says to me. “Coffee?”

I wave it off. Abigail says she’ll go with her, and I can tell by Crystal’s look that what she wanted was a break from our pilled-up sister. They leave the room and I use the time to sit for a while. The weight of the baby in me — seven months — sits heavy on my organs and bends my back, like I was pulling hard on ropes tied to something immovable on the ground. There’s a tight ball of pain in the small there, pulsing needles down into the base of my spine. Sometimes sitting helps, but I haven’t tried it this past hour or so, with my sisters. So I sit and it does help some and I think about taking up my father’s hand in mine, but it’s the arm with the IV and that thing they put on your finger with the red light. Why wouldn’t they put it in the other arm, on the other side? This is the only chair; they knew someone would be sitting here.

There are times when I realize how much like my father I am, but it isn’t until now — now that he’s so much unlike the father I knew or want to remember and we’re alone — that our similarity hardens into fact. He wouldn’t sit around like this waiting for someone to die, waiting bedside, and I have an overwhelming urge to leave, too, an impatience not to see any more of this. I was young when my grandfather died, but I remember how my dad acted like it wasn’t happening. He took no time off work, never returned his sister’s frantic calls, kept religiously to his routines. I remember my mother — they hadn’t split yet — asking if he was planning on going to the funeral, and he said No, not making eye contact with her, then, Why would I? in a harsh tone, as if my mother were an idiot. I’d had a boyfriend in college who’d grown up Evangelical. I told him about this and he said that Jesus had said: Let the dead bury the dead. But that wasn’t why my father ignored my grandfather’s death. It was this, this thing in me now telling me to flee, sitting taut in my chest like a knot pulling tighter into itself.

My sisters return before I even get a chance to catch my breath from them. I can tell things went badly, that they’ve been arguing. Abigail’s color is grapefruit, sloping down her cheeks in dabs like she’d rubbed dye on her face. Crystal acts pretend-happy, that slight twitch in her eye as she holds her practiced smile.

“He move at all? Anything?” Crystal lets down the smile, asking in the harsh tone she inherited from our Dad.

I just look back at her, because we both know — all three of us know — it’s a dumb question. Abigail, as if I’d made a precedent, settles gently on the corner of Dad’s bed, her thinness barely creasing the sheets there. The reddish flare on her face disappears, her features ashen as if the buzz from the pills has pulled the flush away like a wave. But it isn’t the pills at all — it’s our father that’s drained her. The sight of him.

He used to be what people used to call virile. Tall, though not as tall as Crystal, with thick, curly hair, and solid muscle threading over his body. I try to hold that image of him, all those years ago when he was like that and things were good, but it always fades to this brittle dying man in this bed. Though it had been coming long before this. Whatever it was he felt the world owed him he never received, so he let his life wane. Cancer was a formality. Our mother knows it. That’s why she’s not here. That’s why she left all those years ago.

For a brief moment, staring at his sunken, yellowed face, I remember. I see an image of them, my father and my mother. It’s summer and they are sitting on grass next to each other. He’s in a navy-blue T-shirt and his ever-present jeans — no matter how hot — and she’s in a cotton dress with pale lilacs on it. He’s tanned copper; she’s pinked with fresh sunburn. He squints; she shields her eyes despite the large O sunglasses covering them. She’s smiling; he smirks. Their hands are very near each other in the grass, but they don’t touch. I see them like this, happy, before he sank into himself and she left.

I’m pulled back into this room by Abigail, who I see has started crying. She speaks, looking at Dad, not at Crystal or me.

“You remember the story about the deer?” she says, sniffing up snot loudly.

“Yeah,” Crystal says, looking up from her phone and staring at him too.

And I think: How could we forget?

 

My father was nine when he’d seen the deer die. It was an old age considering the time, 1965, and the place, rural upstate New York. His father, my grandfather, wasn’t a hunter, just like my great-grandfather hadn’t been, so he never passed on the practice of killing things to his sons. Other boys my dad knew had been out hunting with their fathers since they could walk in the woods without holding someone’s hand. I’m sure they talked about it at school: the cold mornings laced in frost, the crunch of leaf under snow, the shot of the gun cutting through the dawn. I imagine my father pretending that he’d done the same with his father, exaggerating a turkey’s spray of feathers, or the size of a deer’s antlers.

It wasn’t hunting season the night it happened. My father would never remember where they were driving from, or why he was the only one in the truck with my grandfather. He would remember how the snow seemed to go unbroken from shoulder to shoulder, as if they weren’t on a road at all, just a convenient clear path through the woods and fields. He’d remember that Hank Williams came grainy from the radio, the tires pressing through the snow, a sound like ripping fabric. He’d remember his father’s deep hum that didn’t match the Hank Williams tune or the tires. The ever-present smell of the cigarettes his father smoked through a minute crack in the window and the beer he took sips out of.

My grandfather, whom I would never meet, had a Norman Mailer look to him; that sort of pompous but sad stare, perhaps coming from the unexpected blueness of the eyes amid the tanned skin. At that time he was around 30 and probably still had the curly chestnut hair my father and us daughters would inherit and grandfather would go on to dye a strange color that looked like wood stain. As was the fashion, he had sideburns, slightly darker in color than his hair. He was tall, thin, strong — what some might call ropey. Those old pictures show my father as the type of boy they’d put in a Lassie episode, with chubby cheeks and a head of blond curls that would suddenly darken — as mine would — when puberty came.

I can see them both. My grandfather peering through his cigarette smoke and the falling snow, trying to stay on the road and not drift off into a field. My Dad bundled up in a jacket, a hat, maybe a scarf, maybe mittens too, falling asleep in the warmth from the truck’s heater, now and then being jolted awake by the shudder from a pot hole.

Then a jolt came that would keep him awake and make my grandfather lose control of the truck. I imagine, being the type of man I had always heard he was, that my grandfather swore when it happened, the whole thing occurring in that brief second of the curse. The loud thud of the impact passing through the skin of the truck, his foot reflexively compressing the brake, the tires’ lock and skid, and the final thump as the truck slid into a pile of snow on the shoulder next to a field, the pile of snow inexplicable, as if an entire cloud had condensed and fell there. And my blond-curled father holding himself tightly in the seat with his small arms, unsure of what was happening. Dad wouldn’t have said anything, of course. Out of fear, not only of the unknown event but also the anger and frustration he could sense emanating from his father as he burned through gears, back and forth, back and forth, getting the truck unstuck. The headlights lunging at and pulling away from the pile of snow, yellow in the light like tallow.

He did get the truck unstuck. He backed it onto the road and parked, left it running, said to the boy, Come on. That’s how my father told it. No preamble or explanation, just Come on, and opening his door and letting the boy open his own and dangle down to the snow and do his best not to slip and fall. And the truck seat folding forward and grandfather taking out the gun, checking to make sure it was loaded, and then pushing the seat back with a click and slamming his door. The boy pushing to close his but it not latching and my grandfather, maybe swearing again, coming around and slamming it. Maybe he said Come on again before walking back the way they’d come. Then my grandfather going back for the flashlight — my father remembered that part. Surely then he swore. Then the gruff walk back to the boy standing in the road, waiting. Shining the light in the boy’s eyes and walking on past him.

My father said it didn’t take grandfather long to find the blood. The burst on the ground where it had hit the truck, like a crimson palm leaf, a few yards off the pool where it had laid a moment, and then the drops dotting the snow where it had stumbled off. Not considering the boy, the depth of snow, the time of night, or the temperature, grandfather began trudging into the field, following the drops. Maybe he wanted the meat. Surely it couldn’t have been compassion, to put the deer out of its misery. Though that’s how my Dad always framed it. But it doesn’t make sense that way. It had to be something with enough power to keep grandfather from pulling out any more cigarettes or grabbing more beer. And it was 1965, and it was rural upstate. Such things as compassion from men were in short supply. That’s what mothers were for, and it was seldom even to be had there. My father never spoke of his mother or his father this way, but I gathered it from how he was with us girls. The way he’d turn stern, indifferent, whenever emotion was involved. So grandfather followed the blood because of his dented truck, because of getting stuck, because he’d been made scared.

Father always said the field was big, 80 acres or more. But I’ve been past it many times and it can’t be more than 40. He said it was different back then, even though the trees bordering the field today are at least 70 or more years old. I imagine that for his age and size, that cold, dark field must have seemed limitless, ice and snow spreading to the horizons under the spray of stars overhead. He never told how long he followed behind my grandfather, hopping into the holes the man’s boots made, calculating each leap, making a game of it despite his fatigue and chill. He only told us that he had had to catch up to his father, some 20 yards ahead, standing motionless in the field, silhouetted by the flashlight pointed at the ground. And then he saw the deer.

It lay on its side heaving, struggling for each breath. My father remembered its gulps for air sounded like someone rattling a plastic shopping bag deep in its chest. He remembered the blood flowing from its nose and mouth, bubbling and steaming before dripping onto the snow. Its eyes wide and terrified — black balls, he said, like marbles. One leg kicked out with no rhythm to it, sending sprays of snow a yard out from its body. Then he noticed the deer’s side, a large split across the ribcage. How it was strangely bloodless, and how he could see the pinks and yellows of organs peeking through the crack, steaming too like the blood. He never said whether he was scared or sad for the deer, but he was mesmerized enough to tell his three girls about it almost every single year in the winter, even after he’d become bitter, even after he’d become sick.

I know grandfather wouldn’t have told him not to look, or took him under his arm and said, Are you okay? Instead he raised the gun to his shoulder and told him to Turn around, but the boy didn’t. He just kept watching the deer’s eyes. And then the crack of the gun splintered everything.

I see my father, that little boy, jumping when it happens. The deer’s head dropping into its pool of blood in the snow, the last breath escaping, its steam dissipating as it rose into the air, its hoof locking mid-kick, the echo of the gun off in the distance, clacking its way across the countryside, until it is nothing but silence and the boy and the man and the dead deer.

My father told how grandfather stood awhile. I imagine my grandfather pulling a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it, the gun — father never said rifle or shotgun, but I picture rifle — leaning against his shoulder like a soldier in formation, or resting on his boot, the still-warm barrel in his free hand. Deciding, estimating. First, whether it’s worth the fuss. Second, the distance to the truck. Third, how much energy he has to pull it there over the snow. Lastly, the boy.

Whatever the sum of the estimates, he decides to take the deer, giving the boy the flashlight and the gun to carry, telling him to keep the light trained in front of his steps so he doesn’t trip.

It must have been the longest walk of my father’s life. My grandfather dragging the deer and Dad trying to balance the heavy gun and shine the light in front of grandfather without losing his own footing. But he did it — they both did it — and that was when the estimating he had forgotten to do must have struck my grandfather: how to get the deer into the bed of the truck. Again, he looked to the boy, this time calculating his height, his weight, how strong he thinks his son is. But my grandfather knows. He’s lugged the damn thing already and knows it has to be almost two hundred pounds, if not more. Like with his prior estimations, he decides to go ahead despite the obvious odds against success. He tells the boy to get the head, the shoulder. My Dad puts his hands under the shoulder and looks at the deer’s face. Where the blood had been bubbling out there is a scrim of pink snow like a growth of crystals; the eye he can see is still open, a black ball with no focus. He smells the musky scent of the fur, an acrid and earthy smell, like vinegar mixed with clay. Grandfather told him, Ready, didn’t ask it, and then he lifted it off the ground.

This part was always hard, and still is hard, for me to imagine, but I try. The man pulling up the back of the body quickly, like a weightlifter pulling a bar off the ground in one swift motion, the boy starting a second late, then trying to do the same and only getting the head and shoulder a foot or so off the ground, the cold, stiffening body looking like a distorted capital M: the butt on the tailgate, the back sloping down to the boy’s hands where he raised up the shoulder, then from there the neck bending back down and the head touching the ground. How they got it in from there, I’m not sure. Maybe my father somehow managed to push the shoulder up to the level of the tailgate. Maybe my grandfather shuffled over to help the boy lift it up and in. Their hands close together on the fur as they pushed. Whatever happened, it was done. Then my grandfather climbed up and slid the deer all the way into the bed, hopped down, and closed the tailgate. Maybe he said, Come on, to the boy again, not saying thank you or acknowledging the extraordinary effort just made by a boy of nine, but just assuming it the way one expects a knife to be sharp.

They went back to the house then, and that’s where my father always ended the story. But I go on with it, and I do it now with my sisters.

That snowy drive again, this time with the radio off, only the rip of the tires, my father falling fully asleep, the jolts from potholes having no effect, and my grandfather popping a beer again, smoking through a crack in the window, again. Then getting home and leaving the deer in the back of the truck to preserve in the cold. And my grandfather scooping my father out of the cab and carrying him in, taking him into the dark house and trying to go quietly up the stairs, going to the room my Dad shared with one of his older brothers and laying him on his small bed. Pulling his boots off and getting him out of his jacket, hat, and mittens, pulling a blanket over him against the chill. Then he went downstairs and sat in the kitchen, drinking another beer or two or three, thinking about who he could get to gut and butcher the deer for the cheapest price, where he was going to store all the meat. Then maybe he considered his son.

But maybe I have the story wrong, have misunderstood the grandfather I’ve never known, and by extension this man lying here half-dead. Maybe the whole time all my grandfather was thinking about was my father. Maybe that’s why he was angry, because of the injury that could’ve come to the small boy. Maybe he followed its blood trail for the meat, because they were poor and he had to feed my father and his siblings. Each step along the way, my grandfather caring for the boy above all else.

 

Crystal is the first to leave. Her phone has been vibrating all night. She takes it from her purse. I have to go, she says, and expects us to understand, maybe even feel bad for her. But we don’t understand. We’re indifferent. She kisses Dad on the forehead, gives Abigail a one-armed embrace, and comes around to me for the same, bending down so I don’t have to get up. I thank her for this, but she thinks I’m thanking her for her presence here, for staying as long as she has for this man she never liked and possibly doesn’t even love. When she’s gone, Abigail opens up, speaking to me but keeping her eyes trained on our father.

“Sometimes I wonder if it even happened. That deer,” she says.

“Who knows,” I say, tired, my back seamed with pain.

“Maybe he made it all up and we made it all up.” She turns and smiles at me, tears in her eyes.

She’s right. How can she not be? From our father’s end, the memory of a nine-year-old, spoken to us girls with dramatic flair. On our end, all the imagining and filling-in. Abigail’s version, when I’ve heard it, is much different than Crystal’s or mine. Some parts come from movies, other parts from books, others from the dumb psychology articles she always shares on Facebook. And mine? Who the hell knows where my version comes from.

“Dad,” Abigail says to him, at that register just before screaming, “did you make it up?”

“Abigail,” I say.

“No,” she says, still too loud, “I need to know.” She starts crying again. “I need to know before he fucking dies.”

She crumples on the corner of the bed by his feet. Our father remains mute, there and not there. I consider getting up to rub her back, but I don’t. Instead, I think, My little sister, amazed at the bare fact of it. By the bare fact of all of us.

We are silent for a long time before a nurse comes in to check on Dad. She’s thin, even thinner than Abigail. Barely a wisp of a person, with rich red hair pulled back into a large knot at the back of her skull. She moves as if we were asleep. The loudest noise is the scratch of her pen on the clipboard. I think for a second that it’s so odd she hasn’t said anything to us, anything to him, but then I wonder whether I’m wrong, whether she’d said hello to me and Abigail and my father but I’d somehow blocked it out.

As the nurse leaves she smiles at me: a tired, obligatory smile, a sad one she must give to several people a day. Just before the woman is out the door, Abigail calls to her:

“He’s going to die tonight, isn’t he?”

The nurse smiles at her with that smile, spidering lines throughout her face, and she shrugs. It could be offensive, but I find it honest, and Abigail must too, because she says nothing back. When the nurse closes the door gently, without the slightest click, Abigail poses the question to me:

“He’s going to die tonight, isn’t he?”

And I think: He will.

And he did.

 

I think, or I thought, I’d have left that night before Abigail, but I don’t. My husband, who I am sure will come to take me home before 10 p.m., doesn’t show until close to 11, slightly drunk. Abigail after her question to me — maybe more a statement — becomes even more insubstantial in the silence, gets up eventually and says, I’m leaving; I can’t do it anymore; not today. This time I do get up from the chair and embrace this sister. It is tight and sincere. She sobs in the crook between my shoulder and neck, holding on to me until the tears pass. When she straightens up I feel the spot where the tears went into the sweater cool like menthol rub. Abigail points to my stomach, to the baby:

“Take care of my niece or nephew,” she says. I nod and hold her hand to the door.

In two days, the night of our father’s memorial service, she will overdose on fentanyl, be discovered blue in the bathroom by her boyfriend. He will rush her to the hospital where, after some uncertainty, she will be stabilized and, when she awakes, will decide to go to rehab. Crystal will begrudge her this and stop speaking to her. Even 10 years later when Crystal has her uterus removed — cancer too — and a sober Abigail comes to her in the hospital room, there will be silence, a silence only broken five years later when Crystal’s cancer returns.

But now, with my father, I sit once more in the chair. I rub my distended belly, even rolling up the sweater and T-shirt beneath it to expose the stretched skin there, my belly button spread into a crop circle ring. I take my father’s IV’ed hand and place it on my stomach. It’s surprisingly warm and soft.

The baby will be a boy. He will have blond curls like his mother, like his grandfather. These curls will turn dark too. When he is nine there will be no truck, no gun, no deer. He will grow up tall, thin, strong — ropey.

He will be happy.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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