What I remember without qualification is the dark.

What I remember is being pulled from the dark of sleep by my grandfather—I can just see the wide, shadowing brim of his gray felt hat—and placed gently in the sheepskin-lined backseat of my grandparents’ Oldsmobile. What I remember is my little brother, his small, warm body next to me, and beside him my straight-backed, unsmiling older sister. My sister, who is thirteen and understands what this is all about and has buried now her face in her hands. What I remember is being pulled from the dark of sleep and into the dark of deep winter midnight in eastern Montana.

What I remember are the Oldsmobile’s headlights carving out the dark, hollowing the space before us: two-lane highway, arms of winter cottonwood, quick flash of a sandrock ridge and the Bull Mountains beyond. Does my grandfather tap the break as we slip around the ess curves above the river? What yellow eyes are those near the culvert? Jackrabbit? Skunk? Maybe coyote? Is my brother crying now too? I don’t know, I don’t know—I can see some way into the dark, but no farther.

What I remember is a priest in a black smock. Dry-eyed, the priest holds my crying mother. Why is this priest holding my mother? Did we go then into another room? Or was my father wheeled in? I don’t know, I don’t remember, but anyway here he is—my father, still and cool, on a metal table. The priest bends over him, thin lips moving in prayer. Some part of me wants to say the priest dips his two fingers in a squat, wide-mouthed glass bottle and traces a cross of oil on my father’s forehead. In the florescent hospital lights, some part of me wants to say I can see the oil shine.

What I remember is my mother touching my father, her hands all over his chemical-yellow body: his stick arms and bloated face, his bald head and sunken chest. What I remember is the lot of us crying, even my grandfather. What I remember is it is all too much. We leave. Or maybe my father is taken away. Anyway, we are not where my father is, or where his body is, and we are collapsed into plastic hospital chairs and are still weeping, though more quietly now, our hands useless and strange as wings in this too-bright room. We are there a few minutes or a few hours. I don’t know. But whether he was wheeled away or was always in some other room, after those minutes or hours everyone gets up to see him one more time—even my little brother, whose sodding breath sounds now like small, sad bells—and I don’t stand up, I don’t rise from my chair to go with them. I don’t go to see my father. Everyone else goes. I don’t go. I am sad and afraid, and they leave me this way. Am I alone then? I seem to be alone, I see myself alone. Do they really leave me in that anonymous hospital room? Does maybe the priest stay with me? Or one of the thin, busy nurses? I don’t remember.

There is so much I do not remember. And part of me wants to say, what of it? What does it mean, anyway, to remember? If a coyote clacks its yellow teeth in the night, if a cross of oil breaks and scatters the light, if I am alone or not alone—what does it matter? The light broke one way or another. That coyote must be dust. My father is in Montana still and is dust. And me? I am no longer that sad, round-headed boy. No longer, if I ever was, scared and alone. Though I did not rise to see my father, I tell myself it does not matter.

Or do I , like a boy, pretend? It goes like this: my wife and I are on our way home from visiting friends in Chicago. My wife is driving. It is evening, our headlights hollowing the dark along this flat, straight, Midwestern freeway. And I am resting in the passenger seat, my forehead on the cool window glass. Just out of Moline, I see beyond the fence line the quick blink and turn of yellow eyes—and like that I am a small boat drifting back a muddy, snow-melt river of miles and years; like that I am a brokenhearted, fatherless boy in the lonely-making distances of the interior; like that I want more than anything to rise and look again on my father. We leave and never leave. We grow up and never grow up. We grieve and grieve and grieve. But sometimes, we remember too, we turn and face that grief. Remembering is the opposite of pretending, it is the beginning of telling the truth to yourself about yourself. Yet I know too—why did my grandfather, gentle cowboy that he was, have his hat on inside? Why the anointing then, when my father was already hours dead?—memory is never enough. Memory spins and skitters, winks in the dark. Like an oil slick, memory fails and rainbows the light. It is in the currents of story that the boy begins to understand. That the boy becomes a man. Becomes a better man. In story we learn to live like human beings in the dark houses of our bodies. For beyond anything we can do we are alone in there. And we rightly spite that lonesome darkness. We reach out with what it is we have, fumble for the hand of the other—mother, brother, sister, lover, son—give to them our heart, our story.

There is one last thing I remember: my grandfather takes me in his hard arms. He pulls me up and out of my wool blankets and patch quilt. He sets me, gently, on the edge of the old Army bunk I share with my brother. He tells me I must get dressed, but I am sleepy and do not want to wake and get dressed. I try to lie down and curl again beneath the covers. My grandfather does not shake or reprimand me. He simply takes me again in his arms. “Your father needs you,” he says. “You need to go to your father.”

 

 

 

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