Eula’s stardust—spirit—has been waiting for her father to return to their old farmhouse so she can learn why he didn’t rescue her, her brother, and their mother.
Dying of cancer, her father Duane, finally returns. He wants to pass away with his guilt and remorse of not being able to rescue his family and, more importantly, his secret shame over the way he dealt with his mixed race relationship.
Retha, a nurse specializing in end of life care, works to help him overcome his regrets. In the process, each realize their secrets and their families are intertwined. In this touching and deeply layered story of race, prejudice and love, an Eastern white pine tree—named Memory—presides over the front yard and proves to be a generational refuge.
Monday, January 7, 2019
I hear yelling outside. Someone’s on the porch. Retha opens the kitchen door and says, “Welcome.” She holds the door wide, but no one comes in. I see three people. One of them is an old man using a walker. Is that Dad? One of the women says, “Give us a few more moments. Dad wants to look at that tree.” The old man—Dad?—yells, “Damn straight. That’s why I came back here.” I see one of the women shrug, turn and look at Retha. She smiles. The two women help the old man squeeze through the door, like they all wanted to get through at the same time. It’s Dad. His hair is all white and stringy and greasy-looking. There’s a bald spot. He humps over, looks like he can’t walk without the walker. I remember Granny’s neighbor using one. His eyes are the reason I can tell he’s my dad. Mommy always said they were hazel and that’s why she fell in love with him. His voice, it sounds weaker, but still the same. Deep and careful, like he thinks through each word. I know it’s him. I’d like to hear him laugh or see him smile. He hasn’t done either. He gave Retha, the lady nurse waiting for him, a mean look. Retha introduces herself to him and the two other women. Dad looks at her, all strange. “You from Fair Haven?” Mommy would have said he barked his words. She didn’t like it when he barked, which wasn’t very often. The two women look at him funny, as if they never heard of Fair Haven. I have. I used to go there lots with Mommy and Jimmy to visit Granny. Dad went, too, when he was around. Retha smiles at him. “I live in Riverside and drove up yesterday. Now let’s go through your medications.” He looks grumpy at her, I’m not sure why. She and the women go through his pills and she arranges them on the buffet in the dining room near his bed. The two women talk with her while Dad rests on the couch in the living room. They tell her about him getting sick and hiding it from them when they talked on the phone. How they couldn’t spend the time with him in the U.P. because their jobs were a long way away. Oregon, on the ocean. The Pacific. Before the bad day, I could show you where on a globe or big map. Dad rouses up and motions the two women over. “You’ve been good daughters. Better daughters than I was a father. Thanks for all you did to get me down here.” “Dad, yes, it would have been easier for you to go into a nursing home in Houghton, but we realize you want to die here,” says the lady who is a little taller than the other one. The shorter one says, “We’re glad all the arrangements are made. We’ll come back in warm weather to make sure your ashes are spread by the lake down the hill. Wherever that is. Everything is woods and snow right now.” Dad wipes his eyes and tries to stand, but they won’t let him. “Dad, stay seated. We’ll sit next to you for hugs and goodbyes,” the shorter one says. Both start crying, not loud, just sad. The taller one says, “Dad, we just want you to die in peace. We have no idea why this place means so much to you, what peace it will bring, nor why you are so insistent on dying here.” “I—I know. I’ve been a distant father, but I still loved you.” Dad sniffles and blows his nose. “Now, you best get to Riverside to catch your plane. I want you to remember me alive and not in a casket surrounded by lilies. Goodbye.” The women cry some more and hug him. Retha says she has their phone numbers and gives them hers. She tells them she will update them daily. They thank her for coming to care for Dad, hug her, and leave. Daughters? Dad? He had another family after us? He was a distant father? Did that mean he was gone a lot, too? He traveled all over, helping people with the forests, telling them which trees to cut, where to plant more, how to keep the trees healthy. Is that what he meant by distant? Would he talk with Retha? He seemed upset with her. I can’t tell why. If he won’t talk, how will I know he remembers us? I watch Retha bring him a glass of water and some pills. He shakes his head at her. He looks mean. “Why do I need these?” He closes his hands into fists, so he can’t take the pills. “For your pain. That’s all. For your pain.” Retha stands there like Mommy used to stand in front of me when I was sick and didn’t like the medicine. Finally, he holds out his hand and takes them. She sits down on the couch. He tries to move over, but he seems too weak. “I won’t bite,” she says. “Why do you think I’m here? What do you think you want from me?” Her questions seem to surprise Dad. He shakes his head a little. “I guess you’re here to take care of me till I die. You know, feed me, clean me up when I can’t, get me to the john, check with the doctors, though that probably won’t make much difference…” She waits a few minutes while Dad seems to think. “Yes, I agree with all that, but what do you want from me? You’re dying. You’ve chosen to move back to this place, to not have any family around. To die alone. No visitors from the community. In fact, no visitors other than delivery people. Why?” Dad looks around the room. I hope he doesn’t bark at her again. He looks like he might. She doesn’t seem to want to wait for him to talk and starts asking him questions. “Are you afraid to die? Worried about heaven and hell? Some type of afterlife? You didn’t mention your daughters’ mother. Where is she? Are there people you should make amends to?” She stands up and looks at him till he looks up at her. “Yes, I’m here to meet your physical needs, but I’m also here to help you with your inner needs.” Dad looks confused now, and grumpy. “My inner needs? You sure ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” Retha just smiles at his snippy voice. “Why don’t I help you onto the bed and you take a nap while I start dinner. The girls listed brown-gravy swiss steak with mashed potatoes and cream corn as one of your favorite meals. Is that right?” “It was one of my wife’s favorite meals. I’d like macaroni and cheese with polish sausage a whole lot more. Was that on the list?” “Let me check. It wasn’t on the list of your favorite meals the girls listed, but I see the ingredients to make mac and cheese and, look, here’s some sausage. Looks processed as hell, but it will work. How about a salad?” Dad sort of laughs—his first laugh, it was definitely Dad’s—and says, “Do I have to eat healthy stuff? Will salad prolong my life or get rid of the cancer?” I love Retha’s laugh, it’s like Granny’s, even Mommy’s, all clear and loud, from inside you, the kind that makes everyone around them laugh, too. Dad looks like he wants to laugh. Instead, he frowns at her.
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