A young man is ushered from boyhood into manhood when forced to provide for his family.
|It was June, the middle of the Texas hot season and the drought that plagued the state wrapped around the farmers like a shroud of death. My father was one such farmer and unfortunately, he would not live to see next year, or a better day.
It has been over forty years now, but I remember the last half of that year like it was just yesterday. The sun gorged the unclouded sky like the tip of a colossal white sword, wielded by the master of Hades himself; his hot breath bowed the trees along the field we were plowing, and singed our nostrils with every intake of breath. That particular day was only half gone, and the driving inferno of the drought caught father at a feeble moment.
I was ahead of Jake, our plow horse, pulling the reins of his halter as father drove the blade that was attached to Jake’s body harness. Father and I were two sweat soaked bodies, pulling each other along through the trenches of an imagined vegetable war: our garden verses the drought…and the drought was winning. We were red from the sun, and dirt caked to our skins like the rice patties of some distant, future conflict: our enemy was the scarcity of rain and our troops were the columns of unarmed vegetables we so desperately tried to keep alive.
Jake whinnied and began to walk easier and with no amount of burden behind me. I looked back to see that the blade was no longer rooting up the dry earth but laying on its side, its wooden frame dragged across the ground behind Jake. My father lay about ten yards behind, crumpled on the parched earth and shaking uncontrollably; his eyes fastened, unfocused, to the sky.
The doctor told us that evening that father had had a heat stroke and not to worry and that father would need to just take it easier in this heat. But as we would soon find out, it wasn’t just heat stroke that tormented father that day, and again a week later, but something much worse.
July came, and as much as we loved them, there were no fireworks displays for the twins or I. Father was trying to work more days than not, but the intensity of his headaches would drive him to tears and into the darkness of his bedroom. I would often find him shielding his eyes from the sun with his hat as he sat under the shade of some tree, unable to even walk back to the house. I also noticed that every once in a while, one of his arms or legs would spasm uncontrollably.
Something was definitely wrong with father, and no matter how hard momma or I tried to persuade him, his stubbornness kept him from seeing the doctor again. Over time, he began eating less and less because he could not keep his food down. To top that off, he also began to have dizzy spells and ran into things around the house such as door jams, the kitchen table, and even his favorite chair; all of which have not been moved in years.
August came in like a fiery furnace, embracing the drought harder against us. Father was no longer able to work and his body began to drastically wither away. He spent most of his time in our darkened home, fanning himself with a hand-held fan. His eyes no longer reminded me of a hawk’s, quick and all-seeing, but now more like a frightened, wounded bird being stared down by a cat…they reflected the magnificent pain he was feeling behind that brow.
August left and September pounded into us like a left hook at a boxing match. Then the weather changed for the worse. The rains started with a fury, and the cold of winter followed the drought like a lonesome hitchhiker, along for the ride and killing the driving heat of summer. We had no fall that year…just hot and then cold; brutal cold.
Each day as the weather got colder, my father sunk deeper into his pain, the freezing air seemed to amplify it in his skull. While the snow began to fall in gradually building sheets, between breaks in the storms, the sun stabbed its rays through the clouds, revealing the magnificent blue of the sky and the sparkling white hills and the snow covered pines around the shallow valley in which we lived. Animals ventured about only to search for frozen berries or nuts in the white powder while other animals, brave from starvation, began to torment our chickens. It would end up being the most beautiful, peaceful, yet saddest winter I would ever see.
I finally found a job. It wasn’t something that I had planned to do, but with the drought and all, we didn’t have enough food stocked up to last the winter. I would like to tell you that I farmed cotton or peanuts or other vegetables like my father, but with the icy grip of winter setting in, those jobs were not to be had until next spring. I want to tell you that I worked anywhere but where I actually ended up that winter; but I cannot tell a lie. The local tavern was the only place in town that would hire a lanky fourteen-year-old bag of skin and bones like me. I never told my parents where I worked, and with father being ill, I guess they never really got around to getting curious enough to ask. All I told them was that I had found work in town and left it at that.
The trouble with working at the tavern was that I was a member of a dedicated Christian family and a Christian myself. Born and raised in the small church about a mile from our home, I did not want to blemish my name or the name of my family by being associated with the tavern. In my mind, whenever I reported to work I was working with the horned king himself, and accepting my own portion of the thirty pieces of silver that crucified my Savior.
My daily routine was to wake up an hour before dawn, feed the chickens in the barn and toss some hay to Jake. I would then kiss mother good-bye. If father was awake, I would kiss him also, otherwise I would not disturb him. I’d set out for town with Trusty, my shaggy mutt of a dog, trotting at Jakes heels, with his tongue flapping in the cold, ears laid back to the wind, and tail pointing to the sky like an exclamation point. Try as I might, I couldn’t see where he found his excitement…I guess dogs are just naturally like that.
As I rode to town on those early days of winter, I could feel Jake’s skin ripple between my legs as he snorted steam from his nostrils; he was cold too.
During the winter, the roughnecks began drinking early most mornings, which justified me having to get to work so early. I’d arrive, don my apron and set to work sweeping the floors. I guess you could call me the janitor, but no janitor I ever knew had to clean up vomit and tobacco spatter every single day of the week. If ever there was a fight, I would crouch down behind the bar with a sawed-off shotgun in my hands, ever the ready to defend the precious bottles of liquor behind the bar. Thank goodness I never had to fire that gun. I’m sure my ninety pound body would have been thrown backwards into the very thing I was protecting. When the fighting was over, I had to clean up the blood before it set into the wood floor and on a couple occasions I had to help remove a couple of bodies of those unlucky enough to be hit by gunfire. Don’t get me wrong, the Jolly Joy was usually full of laughing men and women, having a good time drinking and making complete fools of themselves, so the fights were few and far between…but they did happen from time to time.
I guess the only thing good about working there were the tips. Most of the patrons, men and women alike, left in such a drunken stupor that they wouldn’t know the amount they were tipping me. Where they thought that they were giving me a couple of pennies, they were in actuality passing silver nickels or quarters to my hand. During the time I worked there, I was able to buy more groceries for the house than daddy could ever provide from farming. There is definitely profit to be made in sin, and, reluctantly, I made my share.
During October, after a good long and completely unexpected freeze, father started taking a definite turn for the worse. His color was pale, like death itself, and his eyes had sunken into his skull which made him look like a bird. His soft black hair had turned silver before its time and his body shook and twitched repeatedly as the tumor tightened its grip on his brain. And mother, kind mother, sat at his side constantly, praying diligently…for healing or relief, I don’t know which.
It was during these days, when father was at his worst that I had no trouble leaving for work…not because I didn’t love him, but because I was torn apart whenever I saw him this way and I couldn’t bear the sight of his suffering. I personally prayed that he would somehow find relief.
Trotter quit following me to work through the single digit weather that November brought. About this same time I had to start walking to work when one morning I went out to saddle Jake and found him lying on his side in the barn, frozen stiff. My tears for him froze to my face.
Christmas was coming and I wanted to get father a special gift, a parting gift because, by now, we knew that he wouldn’t make it much longer. I had first seen the gift I wanted to get him on the day of the big freeze, the same day I found Jake dead in the barn. I had been walking along the main street, along the boardwalk that connected many of the business establishments, when I could no longer stand the cold wind. I ducked inside the small entryway of the thrift store to thaw out. While I worked the stiffness out of my joints, a small sparkle caught my eye from inside a wooden framed glass showcase in the front display window of the store.
In my mind I saw my father’s saddened face as it turned to joy and happiness as I give father that wonderful gift. The gift I had my heart set on getting was a beautiful pocket watch. The face was white ivory, the numbers were replaced by diamonds, and the hands were small, delicate, golden leaves. The case and chain were of sparkling yellow gold. Why a watch? Looking back on that moment I think that deep down inside me the watch stood for everything we humans do not have a lot of on this earth; time. And my father was out of time.
The price was very expensive but the one habit I’d formed while working at the Jolly Joy was to save my money. Every penny that didn’t go for food went into a large glass mason jar that I kept under my bed. I counted the money that very night and was a little over five dollars short. It was December and Christmas would be here before I knew it. I was determined to make that extra five dollars before Christmas, so I put in extra time at the tavern.
One afternoon, a few days before Christmas, I took a break from work to go home and visit father. His voice was soft and low, quiet, like it was booming in his own head. I saw something in his eyes that frightened me, yet relieved me at the same time. What I saw in those eyes was the realization that death was coming soon and those eyes reflected a happiness that I didn’t expect. I didn’t want to accept what I saw. Father was going to die! And he was happy about it?
Christmas Eve morning came and I sat down on my bed, counting the money I had saved over the last couple of months. I knew I had enough but I wanted to be sure. I wanted to get an accurate count so I took my time, my small fingers thumbing through the bills, then separating the change in their different denominations.
I bounded out of the house, my pockets jingling and heavy with money. I didn’t even wait for the rest of the house to awaken, I just left, knowing I would be in town well before the thrift store opened, but I wanted to be the first one there. It was the fastest I had ever run in my life and on that particular day I didn’t notice the cold of December’s icy fist.
As I stood before the store doors, tears streamed down my face and froze to my skin for the second time that year. I looked through the hazy cold blur of the glass doors at the red, hand lettered sign that read; closed till New Year. I turned on my heel and ran home sobbing.
The cold filled me inside and out and I wanted it to freeze my heart and soul, to take it in its icy grip and just let the world end, let it end now. How could I face my father and tell him that I didn’t have a present for him? Would he feel hurt because of my lack of foresight in knowing that most of the stores in town would not open for Christmas Eve? What would he think of me?
On top of the questions that rattled through my mind, I had to listen to the horrible jingling of loose change in my pockets as I ran…it was the worse sound in the world.
I stormed into the house, upset and torn up inside. I threw the loose wad of money and change onto the kitchen table; most of it spilling onto the floor then ran to father’s room to find him wide awake.
“Where have you been?” he asked quietly, slowly. He noticed my disheveled appearance and the tracks of tears down my dirty cheeks. “Something happen at work?”
I slipped into the bed beside him and he brushed away the hair from my eyes. “I was going to buy you a present for tomorrow, but the store is closed till New Years.” I said this through a voice that stuttered and broke with emotion.
He pointed toward the kitchen, the table with the money visible through the doorway. “Where’d you get all that money, are the tips that good?” he asked. Apparently he and mom knew all along where it was I had been working. Who had I been trying to fool?
It was then that I realized this would be the last time I ever saw my father alive. I knew it right then and there. He appeared stronger and more alert. His eyes were focused and no longer strained. I don’t know if the pain was still there or not, or if his body had just pushed beyond the pain, I just know that he was almost the dad I recognized from earlier in the year. And I realized too that he was trying, in his own way, to tell me how proud he was of the sacrifices I had made as a kid and what I had done for the family. The way he talked, the look in his eyes…I could see that he knew as well that his time was short.
“Yes, sir. I saved the extra money,” I said after a long pause of sniffling and snorting. What is wrong with me? I’m fourteen years old and I shouldn’t be crying like a baby, but I was and it was no longer about the gift. I was already beginning to grieve over the loss of my father and he wasn’t even gone yet. What kind of person was I to think like that?
“Good,” he said simply, and it was a long while before he spoke again. I sat watching him as he closed his eyes to rest. The veins in his temples pulsed rhythmically and I knew his headaches were worse than ever before, even if he wasn’t showing it. He finally spoke: “about the present?” he prompted, eyes still shut.
“Yes?” I asked, urging him to continue. My voice sounded not unlike a croaking frog.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he said with a smile that bloomed across his face. I knew that that smile, through his pain, was the hardest expression he had ever had to make.
“You’re going to die soon, aren’t you?” the question came out of my mouth before I had thought twice about asking it. I had to know for sure even though I already knew the answer. I needed, wanted, the confirmation, yet I didn’t too. I didn’t want to hear the word he was about to utter…
“Yes,” he said as tears of his own began to squeeze through his closed eyes and slide down his cheek. Laying that close to him those tears looked like glass boulders. “Yes, I am. The pain is still there but I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer feel it very much.” I could tell he was lying to me to ease my mind, but my grief must have been showing on my face because he continued to talk, to console me. “Son, I am getting the most wonderful gift for Christmas that anybody could ever receive.”
The way I looked at him must have been funny, for a little laugh escaped from those thin, pale, aristocratic lips.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You think that it’s crazy to say that death is a ‘good’ gift; but the gift isn’t death, son, the gift is heaven.”
As I watched him talk, it seemed that a new strength started to flow through him; and that strength began to pass through me too. He told me the story of Jesus again, and of his salvation through Jesus’ blood sacrifice, the riches of heaven, and the glory he’ll be a part of once he arrives. “Best of all,” he exclaimed, “I know I’ll get to see you, momma, and the twins again!”
I looked at him for a long while, fresh tears flowing from both of us as I reached across him and hugged him to me tightly.
“I’m going to miss you, Daddy.” I kissed his temple which pulsed with sweat and fever.
“I’m going to miss you too, Greg.”
Those were the last words I heard from my father. While we cried together, I felt him shudder and his body went into another series of spasms.
Then he was still.
His last breath seeped up out from his lips and I knew that he was finally passing beyond the confines of that broken and tormented fleshly body.
I stared at his profile for a long, long time, watching the peacefulness that had overtaken him with his dying breath. The pain was over.
Sometime during all this, my mother and my twin sisters had entered the room. They stood just inside the doorway, all of them crying silently. I did not turn to see them there, but I knew where they were. Love has a way of doing that, surrounding us like a hot bath; refreshing, soothing, calming. All I had to do was turn over in the bed and I’d find that love and support emanating from them, and right then, at that very moment, that’s all that I needed from them, just to know that they were there if I needed them.
Caressing my father’s face with the tips of my fingers, I kissed the side of his cheek and closed his eyes for him. He looked so peaceful now…happy. He looked as if he were merely resting comfortably, something that he hadn’t been able to do in almost six long months. His pain was finally gone.
“Merry Christmas, father,” I whispered and rose to join my surviving loved ones.
I bought that pocket watch that following January. Forty years later, I still carry it with me. On the back of that watch was a smooth, polished, clear space that I had engraved. And now, I sit here remembering those early years as my own son is about to become a father; and me a grandfather. I plan on giving him the watch on the day of his child’s birth with the hopes that a tradition will begin that will last from now until the Return. I hope he’ll take care of it like I did and cherish it even after I’m gone. And I know he will. I raised him well and am very proud of him. I hope that the words engraved on the back of the watch will remind him of the father who loved him through life, and of the other Father, the one that waits above.
I sit here, turning the watch over and over in my shaking hands. They don’t shake from arthritis, I’m not quite that old thank you very much, but they shake from emotion…the remembrance of something that many do not have the privilege of doing, of seeing a loved one into eternity. I smile at the memory of my father as my fingers run across those engraved words…“A Gift for Father.”