Our Fathers at Sea
The night before we load you into the crate and watch as the helicopter carries you off to the undisclosed location to drop you into the Atlantic Ocean, we eat dinner as a family. I roll your wheelchair to the head of the table, which has always been a little too small for five, so that it's clear to everyone who's being honored. I'd hoped to grill up a few of those rib eyes we've got in the garage freezer-it seemed the right occasion for it-but then Avery recalled how you'd always loved Rosemary's braised chicken back when you were still on solid food, and so, in honor of you, even though you aren't eating, that's what we eat.
We try conversation for a little while. I think about going around the table and having everyone share their favorite memories with Grandpa, but I know in order to do that I'll need a really good memory, which I don't know if I have. As I try to come up with something, Ernest turns on the little TV we keep on the kitchen counter. I assume Rosemary will object, but she's busy checking the drip on your IV and I'm busy remembering, so we let it go.
As we eat we watch Little Winston, part of the wholesome black-and-white hour of family programming that usually rounds out our dinnertime. They're airing the Father's Day episode, which we've seen a hundred times, but I think we all realize the importance of watching it again today, especially for the boys.
Little Winston and his father, Big Al, sit on the front stoop of Big Al's Gas 'n Fixit. They've just returned from watching Chester, Big Al's father and Little Winston's grandfather, get crated away. Their untouched glasses of lemonade sweat in the afternoon heat. Little Winston is folding and unfolding his sausagey fingers on the lap of his blue overalls, which he always does when he's upset, and Big Al is trying to console him.
"It makes me scared," Little Winston says, tears poised to roll on the edges of his cheeks, "to think that one day they'll carry you off in one of those big crates, Big Al. That one day they'll drop you into the sea at the undisclosed location with a bunch of strangers. That I'll never see you again."
"I know, son," Big Al says. His thick mechanic's arms, normally crossed over his grimy blue work shirt in stoic disapproval of Little Winston's comic hijinks, are now on the boy's shoulders, his rough, greasy hands straightening Winston's cowlicked hair in one of the series' rare moments of paternal tenderness. "When you get to be my age, you'll understand."
"I'm not gonna be able to do it, Big Al," Little Winston sniffs. "I'm not gonna know when or how."
"You will," Big Al assures him, his hand on the boy's back. "You will. Just follow your heart."
"I love you," Little Winston mutters.
"Just follow your heart," says Big Al. "That's all I'm doing here."
"I love you, Big Al," Little Winston repeats.
"I love you, too, little buddy," says Big Al. "I love you, too."
Gurdy Bills, the actor who played Little Winston, is an old man now, and kind of a local celebrity. He retired to an enormous house up in the north foothills, and resurfaces from time to time for little events and fund-raisers. I'm always surprised that people still come out to see him, since he never did another show after Little Winston. I remember once, not long after we crated Mom, we took you and the kids down to Ainsdale to watch him cut the ribbon on the new Pine Pleasant Mall. It was some crowd.
I ask Rosemary when she expects we'll read they've crated Gurdy Bills. I even smirk a little, thinking this is a bit ironic, considering what we've just watched, and would have enjoyed a brief discussion about how the years catch up with all of us eventually, how we should take the time to savor its fleeting preciousness, etc. I think maybe this is something the boys ought to hear, that the time is right, but Rosemary is in no mood. This episode always makes her well up, and she's especially tearful tonight. She tells Avery to sit on her lap so that she can stroke his downy arm hair and make small, popping kisses against his ear. Avery knows his mother needs him, and though he's old enough to sense that being babied is something he should resist, he doesn't. At the other end of the table, Ernest has gathered the bones from our plates and is attempting to reconstruct the entire chicken.
When Rosemary's done mothering him, Avery asks if he can be excused from the table.
"Kiss your grandfather good night," I say.
"Gross," Ernest says, but Avery understands. He rounds the table to you, leans over the tray of your wheelchair, and kisses your cheek the way he kissed mine back in the days when he used to kiss me, as young boys sometimes do before their fathers put a stop to it. But it means something to me in this moment, watching my son give you, my father, this sincere kiss good-bye, which is why I think you and everyone else will forgive me when I say that he is the good one and, of my two sons, the one I prefer.
Then you start having one of your fits.
It's a shame that Avery is so close, and he's just finished such a sweet thing, such a gentle act of affection, because your fits terrify him. Right away, his chin rumples like a raisin to lock down incoming tears. I try to steady you so that Rosemary can secure the straps to your head and arms. Avery disappears upstairs to cry out of sight, no doubt assuming that his act of love has somehow caused your spasm. You pull against the straps like a weightlifter, drool snaking down your chin in little fingers. As I force your shoulders against the back of the chair, I can't help blaming you a little for ruining what had been a really beautiful moment, because a chance like that doesn't come again, and now Avery, who is already extremely sensitive, will always have this crappy memory attached to kissing his grandfather the night before he was crated.
Hours later, while Rosemary readies the boys for bed, I put a couple bottles of good beer in my coat and wheel you out onto the porch so that we can enjoy the lake at night. ItÕs our lake, yours and mine, and now mine and my sonsÕ. For all the fighting, all the hurt feelings, the years of not talking even before you lost the ability to speak, we still end up here, you and I, looking at a lake full of stars.
For some reason, one of the beers is much warmer than the other, almost room temperature, but rather than spoiling the moment by running back in for another, I suck it up and decide to just drink a warm beer. I put a straw in the colder one and set it on your tray, then lift my warm one and say, "Well, here's to you, Dad. We sure will miss ya."
I take a drink while you let the straw find your mouth. You manage a few sips and seem pleased with them. We look out on the lake, admiring the way its stillness makes everything around it seem not as quiet. I suddenly remember the memory I should have remembered at dinner, the day you taught me to catch tadpoles, which we used to keep in an old mason jar with a few inches of water. You showed me how controlling the water level prevented them from maturing into frogs, and how nice it was to keep tadpoles as they were, blindly swimming around until they died and we replaced them with new ones. It's a practice I've passed on to the boys, who've lived their whole lives with jars of black blobs sitting on their windowsills, never imagining they should grow to be anything more than what they are.
That night I dream that Mom and I are standing on the small dock just beyond the house. SheÕs the age she was when I was in high school, still decades away from crating. She tells me that you died in your sleep. In the dream she calls you ÒDaddy,Ó which she never did in life. ÒDaddyÕs gone,Ó she says, and I feel the relief whistle out of me like an untied balloon. YouÕre gone. I donÕt have to crate you. IÕm so happy I dive into the lake, where the dream lets me breathe freely, the warm water hugging me close until I wake up.
I go to your room to check on you, the way Rosemary will on the boys after she's had a bad dream about them, or a bad feeling, or just wants to know that they're safe. Like you, I've never put much stock in dreams. I'm not checking on you because I think mine has come true, though it would definitely make things easier on everyone.
You have enough blankets to keep you warm, and your IV bag is full and dripping properly thanks to Rosemary, who always puts you to bed, and again I realize how lucky I am to have a wife who treats you like her own. As I get closer I can see that some of the sheets are twisted around you, which means you've been fitting in your sleep. I consider strapping you to the bed for the rest of the night like we sometimes do, but I can always tell from the looks you give me in the morning that you've slept badly, and I don't want to get one of those looks tomorrow, so I leave you be.
I realize now that we could have made the room a little nicer for you. The curtains are old and faded, and there isn't much on the walls except for a print of a sandpiper-ridden beach that's been hanging there since we moved in. It's nothing like the boys' room, which we've always tried to keep comfortable and cheerful to make up for the fact that they share.
The other day I caught Ernest standing in your doorway, sizing up the place. At first I thought he might be mustering the courage to come in and spend some time with you, to talk to you or hold your hand for once in his life, but then I remembered that Rosemary and Avery had taken you for one last stroll on the little boardwalk that circles the water. We've promised Ernest your room after you're gone, but the sight of him mentally replacing your things with his made me uneasy as a parent. Yesterday he showed me a floor plan he'd drawn. He pointed to where his TV will go, and described the loft he wants to build to free up more floor space. Whenever he looks at you now with that cool, unsmiling stare of his, I worry that maybe he isn't turning out the way I'd like him to.
On the dresser are some of your old photos. There's a close-up of Mom when she was the age I am now, and one of you and your brothers as kids on a first day of school. They're too far from the bed for you to see, which means you probably haven't seen them in a while.
I get an idea. I take the photos downstairs and tape them to the tray of your chair, so that tomorrow in the crate, when you look down, you'll see them, Mom and your family and everyone looking up at you. I add one of you and me from that trip to the Kenner River when I was eleven, just a few months after we crated your dad, which is probably why you planned it. We took our time canoeing the river, with Mom driving ahead each day to lay out a picnic at the spot where we'd break for lunch. The picture, which she must have taken from the shore, is of the two of us on the water, our toes dragging in the lazy current. I also tape down the photo from the mantel that we used for this year's Christmas card. We're at the state fair, huddled around a pumpkin that's shaped like a pig. Sure, Avery's ruining it a little with that ridiculous pig face he's making, but we all seem pretty happy, even you, in your chair with Rosemary's hands clasped around your neck in an adoring way. I head back to bed, but I'm so pleased about the photo idea that it's hard to drift off.
That morning at breakfast Avery gives you a picture heÕs drawn. It shows a crate, one of the modern titanium models with a wide pressure-resistant window, through which we can see a man waving. Avery says this is you. The crate is set against a background of deep blue, suggesting that itÕs already been dropped at the undisclosed location. Outside the crate, walking along an ocean floor next to a single starfish and a lone hermit crab, is another figure wearing a kind of space suit, waving back. Avery says this is him. I want to ask him why he didnÕt draw the crate before the drop, so that we could all be waving together, but for a moment I think the way Rosemary encourages me to think-that is, with patience, with understanding-and I donÕt ask. Instead I tell him itÕs a great drawing. I tell him that you like it, though youÕre not looking at it. YouÕre looking at him, but in a cross-eyed way that I can tell is making him uncomfortable, and IÕm mad at you all over again, because this is your chance to make up for last night and youÕre blowing it.
As we head to the car, Ernest calls shotgun. I tell him we're giving you the front seat today so that you can get a good view of the lake one last time before you leave. He asks if he can have shotgun on the way back. I pretend not to hear him and wheel you around to face the house.
"There's the house, Dad," I say.
It doesn't look great. I've been meaning to repaint, especially the shutters and trim, which have shed pretty much every trace of their original blue. Half the porch balusters are missing, kicked out by Ernest during one tantrum or another. I honestly don't know if you have any sentimental attachment to this place, and suddenly it occurs to me to drive you up to see the old family home in Clark County where you grew up. I don't even know if the house is still there. The drive is forty-five minutes each way, and crating check-in is at eleven on the dot.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Andreasen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.