by Noah Kirby
Water would be nice, you think. But the nurse wasn’t asking you, she was asking your father. He lies there dying of cancer, but all you can think of is how thirsty you are; how nice it would be to drink anything, especially water. Your dad croaks no, and the nurse leaves. He doesn’t have much strength, and so your family doesn’t speak much. You’re all worried that the simple act of hearing may be too hard for him. Him, your father, the farmer. Him, weak? Your family must not know him. He wants to hear his family talking and being normal. This is normal he seems to plead from his deathbed. The hum of machines fills the silence the family perpetuates.
The hum reminds you of farm equipment, but especially the little crophopper you owned. You would fantasize flying it as it droned over your fields. Your dad would always chuckle and say, Ain’t that somethin’.
He said the same thing when the doctor gave him his diagnosis. “Stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” the doctor said. Ain’t that somethin’.
He said, you imagine, the same thing every time your mother gave him the news that she was pregnant, the same thing when the doctor told him the gender. Ain’t that somethin’.
You decide you need a drink. You ask your mother if she wants anything, and she says no. Your siblings respond similarly. Your dad moves his head from to left to right, what surely felt like a Sisyphean task for him, but in reality was barely noticeable. You pull the heavy wooden hydraulic door and make your way to the brightly lit, dully humming vending machines in the waiting room. You make up your mind as you walk: Sprite. Maybe some Twizzlers as well, if there are any. Skittles if not. It doesn’t matter.
Loud screams come from down the hall. It’s a small hospital – rural communities rarely have large ones. You hear screams and instinctively follow them, like a horror movie. You know it’s a birthing room. What else could it be? From outside the door, you hear the chants of “Push! Push! Push!” “You’re doing great honey! You’re doing great babe!” “Almost there! Almost there!”
When you’re swimming, when anyone is swimming, inevitably you will see how long you can hold your breath underwater. After a deep, powerful breath wherein you feel your lungs fill up much more than they actually do, you throw your head under. Water fills your ears and nose, and even though you of course can’t smell underwater, you smell everything. You smell the chlorine of the pool, or the murky water and all the fish. The sound of water rushes by like a running back on his way to the endzone, all noise muffled by the roar of the aquatic crowd: a quiet, velvety scream. After thirty seconds that feel like an eternity in that new world, you burst from your watery womb and take a large gulping breath, your lungs going from crunchy autumn leaves to regular old lungs. It’s orgasmic. One big release ripples down you like the water you’re in; you inhale and allow the pulsating breathing to return to normal. With that thought in your head, you hear the baby’s first cry, the ecstatic and agonizing gasping of the mother, and you find yourself sobbing like the baby, breathing like you just came up out of the water like that baby just did. This is water, you think.
Water, you remember. You are thirsty, and this thinking of pools and lakes and wombs and the water leaking from your face, these thoughts and actions send you back towards the waiting room. “It’s a boy!” you hear as you retreat. If your father was dead and if you believed in reincarnation, you’d have found some solace in that. Perhaps you would have burst into the room to name him after your father. But he isn’t dead, you don’t believe in reincarnation, and you find your hope in the Lord, like a good farm family should. You feel like you should pray. You know where your hope lies, but it’s hard to hope in Him, even with knowing that your father is going to hear “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” How will your dad respond? How else? That thought gives you hope, because you know your dad will say it with a big smile as he meets his Lord and Savior and receives those crowns of glory.
In the waiting room, you see an older couple sleeping in two of the chairs, her gray head resting on his red polo, his hand lounging on her white capris, his body slowly slipping down the green fabric of the chair; you assume they are grandparents for the baby that was just born. There’s a young family, three kids and a mother, sitting in the corner. There is a little plastic table that has a red top, green bench, and yellow legs: you had one just like it when you were a kid. Coloring books are sprawled across it, and it provides a good view of a box TV. The kids need a distraction. You don’t see an adult male, so you assume their father must be in one of the rooms resting, or getting surgery, or perhaps maybe even dying. Disney actors talk over each other on the TVs as the kids sit enraptured by the colors and sounds, oblivious to the dying people just rooms away, oblivious to their own mortality; here they sit in a mausoleum of hope, hopeful and fine.
The lights hum lightly. You turn to the vending machines and pull out your wallet and a few crisp bills. Briefly, you stare at the picture in your wallet, the one of you and your dad sitting on a tractor when you were just a little kid. One of the young boys from the family walks up behind you, ostensibly wanting a snack as well. He looks up at you, big wet eyes searching your thoughts. “My dad is sick,” he says. “Mine too, buddy,” you say. “Mine too.”
“Is he going to be okay?” he asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Maybe he will be. Lightning McQueen wasn’t supposed to win his race, but he did. Maybe your dad will win too!”
God bless children, you think. You buy him a candy bar.
You put in your bill and get a water, not a Sprite. You get yourself some Skittles. You hear the boy’s mom telling to him to come back, to stop bothering you. You tell her it’s fine, that you appreciate it, that you needed a nice conversation. As you say this, a nurse comes in and summons the family. Their father is awake. Apparently he just had an infection. Nothing too serious, thankfully. They go to see him. Immediately after that your suspicion about the two older people is proven correct. The new father comes in and wakes them up and gives them the news. They leave the room.
You sit down alone – you haven’t been alone all day. You pour handfuls of Skittles into your mouth and watch the Disney channel. The remote is next to you. Quickly, you turn on ESPN and watch for a bit; tune out. Go numb for a second; don’t think. ESPN shows a basketball clip, your dad’s favorite sport. All the times you played in the driveway, how happy he was when he watched you play in high school, countless hours spent watching the game together, analyzing why the zone defense is only beneficial in spurts and not as a main defensive strategy. Somewhere in your mind, you draw a connection between his love for defense in sports and the lack of defense his body is now providing him; in a way you never have before you begin to understand why defense is so important. Your moment of respite from thinking is as brief as a weaver’s shuttle as you remember, fondly, all the good times with your dad. You don’t want your lasting image to be his frail body on his deathbed. While his body turns into the dirt he worked for so long, you will remember him as he was, not as he is. Awake earlier than any human should be up, drinking coffee, black, while it’s still black out. Going to the diner at five in the morning to eat a farmer’s breakfast with his friends, all wearing denim overalls. Sowing ideas and beliefs in his children, reaping the work as they become adults. A true farmer. His roots run deep.
You pray as you walk back to his room, water in hand. You feel peace, and are excited to share memories with your dad. The buzzer-beater you hit to win that high school tournament, and the hug you shared afterwards. Or maybe the Christmas when you got him tickets to see his favorite team for the first time, and the smile on his face when he walked into the gym. Or perhaps even just talk about the farm.
Walking into the room, you see your family surrounding his bed like so many stalks of corn. Your dad is fading. He can’t get words out, and neither can anyone in your family. He goes quick. It’s silent as he takes his last breath. The hum of machines fills the silence the family perpetuates. It’s your mom who first speaks, finally, after a few beats. “He’s at peace.” Then your siblings chime in with similar clichés, some of them even true. All you know is that he’s dead. You speak.
Ain’t that somethin’.