I’d just turned thirteen. I was sitting in the hayloft. I liked sitting up there, looking. I’d toss a bale down to the cows. I liked to see them hustle to the feeder, liked to watch them chew, lifting their muzzles and blinking their lashes. I tried to imagine what, to them, the hay might taste like.
I was wearing jeans and a 4-H T-shirt with its logo that pledged my head, my heart, my hands, my health. My mother would be taking me and my sister Mindy and some friends to the nearby town for pizza, for my birthday party. I thought about the presents I’d be getting: makeup, lip gloss, those cool-looking combs you put in your back pocket. I wanted leather Nikes.
Danny was walking in the barn, where the cows would rest and roam. It was full of stanchions and the floor was of cement. Feeders, where the cows ate silage, stood in the middle of the building. Other feeders, ones below the hayloft, stood beside one wall. Other doors led to the milking parlor.
Danny’s rubber boots sloshed through manure, and he wore a brown checkered flannel shirt. He was seventeen. He wasn’t wearing his orange hat which he’d worn everywhere—the day before, I took it. I wanted to wear it to see what it would feel like. When he tried to grab it, it slipped and fell into the gutter. The hat was soaked in urine and manure. He threw it away.
He was cleaning out a stanchion, scraping manure into the gutter. He stopped, looked up, and I sat in the opening of the hayloft, waving down. He smiled and waved his right hand back at me, then went back to scraping. He was a good worker. Faster and stronger than Mindy and me put together.
My father was driving his little Bobcat tractor. He used it to clean the barn, shoving manure into this gutter. It was like a tiny snow plow. The cows had gone outside, roaming in the fenced-in pasture. My father moved the tractor back and forth, maneuvering it with grace and dedication. He worked with passion. Although over the last few days, he had not been sleeping. He paced the floors, paced the barn, paced up and down the driveway muttering, his arms stiffly at his sides. His hands were always shaking.
In the barn, my father darted the Bobcat in reverse, then back in forward, headed for the building’s far side. Danny continued. I sat quiet, watching. Danny kept on, and then the Bobcat passed the stanchion Danny was cleaning. My brother continued working, and my father moved the tractor up and down that aisle, as if he were pacing, like he had been doing in the driveway, his hands shaking, his boots crunching over stone and gravel. My brother moved to the next stanchion, cleaning that one. He worked diligently, not even looking at my father.
Then Danny stopped. He stepped into the middle aisle. He held his hand up, as if he were a cop directing traffic. I just sat there. Watching. And Danny stood, and my father kept on, not slowing down or redirecting the movements of his Bobcat. The next thing I remember was the shovel of the Bobcat touching Danny’s stomach. Danny moved his hands up, as if he were arrested. My father sat there, then he lurched the tractor. I closed my eyes, and my father shouted. Or maybe it was Danny. I don’t recall. I could hear the muffle of the tractor. I heard screaming, crying, sobbing. Shouting.
I knew something bad happened. I got up and ran away.
I went to the farthest pasture, by the creek, watching minnows swim and stir and gather at my feet. I was sitting on a stone, hugging my bent legs, my chin resting on my knees. I sang songs I’d learned at school like the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I moved my fingers as if I were practicing for my piano lesson, playing Bach or maybe Mozart. I recited Bible verses I’d memorized for religion classes. My feet were getting cold. I forgot about my party.
When it was dark, I walked the path and went home, but nobody was there, except a few policemen. They stood by the back door. They were talking. One looked like he was laughing. I looked to my left, at the streams of yellow bordering the barn and part of the pasture. Cows were bellowing. It was past their time for milking.
I rode in the police car. They took me to my grandma’s, telling me something terrible had happened.
I was sitting by the table and she was on the other side, and she put her hand up on the table. She said it was an accident, that my father hit him with his tractor. He didn’t mean to do it. She said: Your father’s really sick. He’ll be in an institution. She got a glass of water and put her hand up on my shoulder.
“My mother?” I said, looking up at her.
“At the funeral home, making arrangements.”
I went to the living room, where my sister was sitting on a sofa, watching Mr. Rogers. I sat right next to her. I pulled my knees up and put my head on her shoulder, and she put her arms around me. We rocked. We sat for a while. She started singing happy birthday. We both sang the song, just sitting there, together.
My stepbrother Todd and I sit on the deck in his back yard. It’s almost dark and bugs sound in a chorus. He looks across the lake. He talks about his father. “At four,” he says. “I was in a coma. He didn’t come once.”
I’ve heard this before. I am sitting on a rail. I hear fish jumping in the water.
“Your dad’s been good to me,” I say. When I visit Bill my stepdad in Wisconsin, we sit on the balcony, watching ducks circle the pond. He tells me about his fishing days, about how he caught a perch and tossed it back. He asks if there’s anything I need, and I tell him no, but he hands me a twenty, saying to keep it for luck. When I leave his apartment, he tells me to watch out for deer when I drive. I wonder what life would have been like if he’d always been my father.
Todd lives in Missouri, I lived in New Orleans, and I am on my way up to Wisconsin. Todd is thirty-eight. He reminds me of Danny.
I get to the hospital after midnight. It reminds me of the hospitals where I used to work. It reminds me of a lot.
I teach hematology. I know about blasts and metamylocytes, what cells look like when they spread cancer. I know about the condition of my stepfather. He has leukemia. I don’t know the answers to my father’s illness.
My mother is on a pullout sofa. She sleeps lightly. “Katie,” she says. She’s wearing sweatpants. Her hair is in a bundle, loosely piled on her head.
“You look terrible,” I say.
She turns on the light.
I’ve been getting weekly emails from my mother. She mentions my stepdad’s status very curtly, saying maybe he went bowling, made a perfect score. Or maybe he was sitting in his chair and moaning. Maybe he was starved for solid rest. Maybe he was sleeping.
My mother and I go to the cafeteria for breakfast. We choose a booth. She picks at her muffin. I drink coffee. My mother says she needs to go to Piggly Wiggly to get refreshments for visitors.
“Todd has work,” I say. “Kids have soccer practice.”
“Your sister’s coming.” My mother puts her hand down on her napkin. I look across the cafeteria, at the line, where people in scrubs and white jackets stand waiting, paying for their breakfasts. A man in a wheelchair is at the end, putting sugar packets in his pajama pocket.
A woman in blue scrubs with dolphins on them almost trips and spills coffee. I look back at my mother: bags under her dark eyes, her skin white and blotchy. She looks old.
“Bill,” I say. I put my fingers on his arm. I hold his hand. He smiles, saying, “Katie.”
I remember the last time I saw him. Six months before—he had an infection, all bones, puny, vomiting every twenty seconds. Now I can tell he’s put on weight, there’s life back in his eyes that are green and glowing, always reminding me of colored diamonds. I tell him that I love him.
He points to the table, saying something I can’t understand. I lift his cup. He nods, and I hand it to him. His hands shake and he almost spills the fruit juice on his blanket. I hold it steady, and he sucks his straw. He nods, pushes the drink away, and I set it on the table. He calls out in pain, so I press the button, giving him more morphine.
I smile at him, sit in the chair facing him. He looks up at the TV, where Tiger Woods is fingering a golf ball.
I watch my sister in the hospice room. Her hair is short and dark. She’s taller, one year older. She watches football on TV.
When we were children, we played dolls and school and she pretended to be the history teacher. She would tell me I was her favorite pupil, scolding at imaginary children for being stupid, for not following directions. We slept in the same bed and whispered under our covers.
On TV, someone scores a touchdown.
“Todd’s coming,” I say.
“How’s he?” she says.
“Meet our dad,” she says.
The next night, I sleep by Bill’s side. I tell him I’ll never leave him.
I have dreams of Danny. He still wears that same orange hat, sixteen. He smiles all the time and gives me things like bread and milk and oranges, little papers with smiley faces on them.
Bill keeps calling out for Penny, his first wife of thirty years. She died two years before. He keeps calling my mother Penny, and she responds as if it doesn’t affect her, getting him exactly what he needs.
Bill sees elephants and giraffes on the ceiling. He talks about the zoo, mumbling. I can only make out elephant, giraffe, and maybe dinosaur? He tells me he has to get up and use the bathroom, trying to grab onto the rail, but I tell him he has to stay in bed. He looks at me like asking a question. He points his finger at me, laughing.
The TV is always on. I sit with him, cheering on the Packers and the Badgers. They’re his favorite teams. He sleeps, then calls out in pain, then calls for water, and I go to the tray by his side and lift his cup and put the straw in his mouth, telling him to suck and when he’s done to hold his hand up. With labored breathing he takes a break, water spilling down his chin and he looks at me, staring right at me, at my eyes, and I try smiling sympathetically, but not too sympathetically. He hates being helpless. After a few days of this, he isn’t even calling out for water, and I hold the cup up to his chin and put the straw up to his mouth, figuring if he’s thirsty and has energy, he’ll take in what he can. He breathes shallow breaths with his mouth wide open, and his lips and tongue and the inside of his mouth are chapped and cracking. I put ointment on my finger and dab his lips and the inside of his mouth. He doesn’t respond. He looks at me, his eyes staring back in my direction.
When Mindy and I were kids, our family ate every meal together, praying before and after eating. We ate quietly and carefully, always with politeness. Sometimes I watched my father when he wasn’t looking, and he would stare down at his plate. If he asked for something, like another glass of milk, my mother fetched it right away, as if she were his servant. If there was a disruption, like one day I spilled the Kool-Aid, my father would yell at me because of my mistake. I wondered what I’d have to do to get him to show me that he loved me. I knew one day, if I just did something right that things would change, and he would look up from his meat and his potatoes and he would smile at me. He would tell me that he loved me.
Todd finally comes. He stays in the next room. I hear Todd talking to Mindy about his mother, saying that only a couple years ago, she’d been through this same thing. He sometimes peeks around the corner, into his father’s room and I motion for him to come in, but he turns away.
On a Saturday, I am sitting in the hospice room with Todd and his two kids, working on a puzzle of an ocean.
“How is he?” Todd says to me.
“Needing you,” I say.
“He doesn’t know I’m here,” he says.
“Why’d you come?” I say.
Todd shows his daughter where a piece goes. Fish swim in the bottom, dodging rocks.
“He’s my dad,” he says, working on a palm tree. There’s a long silence. I hear the shuffle of the puzzle pieces on the table. His daughter’s stomach growls. Todd gives her his slice of pepperoni pizza.
“He’s been calling for you.” I put a piece in place. I say, “Saying that he loves you.”
It starts around midnight, his narrow, shallow breathing. It’s been two weeks. His blood pressure decreases and his heart rate has been soaring. His hands and feet are cold, and his eyes are halfway open, watery, as if he’s crying, staring. His lips and mouth are purplish and scabbed. His skin is pallid with a hint of greenish-yellow. The nurse comes in every few minutes to check if he’s alive, though she doesn’t come out and say it. We are standing all around him. The children are sleeping. We don’t say much, just look at him, waiting for his final breath. Every few minutes, you can hear somebody sniffle. People shift.
At the hospital, my father lay there, his hands strapped to the bed. Mindy and I looked out the window. There was nothing, just another building. On his table, a bouquet sat: daisies, roses, and I think there were carnations. I studied each stem, the distinctness of each plant, and each day when I went back, I saw bright petals opening and blooming. The smell, the look of them, the fragrance and the odor, the vibrancy and dullness, they were always changing. Throughout my father’s hospital duration, I watched them wilt away.
We eat breakfast at my mother’s. Todd reads the paper, sitting in the chair, where Bill slept the last weeks of his life, since lying in his bed was painful. Mindy is in the kitchen, rearranging bagels and cream cheese on a tray. My mother is sleeping. I sit on the floor and play with Todd’s children, arranging pieces of a Disney puzzle.
“Dad’ll call,” Mindy says, calling from the kitchen.
“How?” Todd says, looking up from the Sunday paper.
“He reads the paper,” she says. She brings the tray in, sits it on the center table. I get a blueberry bagel and spread it with honey walnut cream cheese, then cut it and give pieces to the children.
Todd puts down the paper and reaches for a plain bagel. He turns on the TV, watching bowling.
“He’s really nuts,” she says.
Getting ready for the service. In my mother’s room. The phone rings. I pick up the receiver. Todd’s on the other end.
“Janet there?” the man says.
“Wrong number,” Todd says.
“Oh,” he says. “Sorry.”
“Mindy there,” he says.
“Try another number,” Todd says even louder.
For a minute there’s silence.
“Dad,” I interrupt.
“Your mother’s husband’s dead,” he says. I hear a click, Todd hanging up the other end.
“You watched him die,” he says.
For a minute there’s nothing.