This story is by Rob De Lauter and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The walk up the path took more effort than last week. The man topped the hill and took in the view. He had only begun to think about the view a few weeks ago. He scanned the pastures, an old bank barn, and a raspberry patch he started when his children were young. He turned and walked back to his childhood home, a log structure sagging under the weight of time. He was born in that house, and with luck, he would die in it.
He had lived with his oldest son Geoff during his six months of treatment. But when the doctors said there was nothing more they could do, he moved back to the family farm. The sacrifices Geoff and his family had made hurt more than the physical pain of dying. He wished Geoff lived closer. He wanted to spend his remaining time with his son and grandson. He had so much to make up for, and time was growing short. The latest report from the doctors gave him weeks to live, not months.
He took the deepest breath his chest would allow, the cool fresh air filling his lungs, the scent of honeysuckle filling his nose. As a lifelong farmer, spring held a special place in his heart. It was a new start to life. The young entered the world and crops sprang to life. He thought it ironic his life would end in the spring.
What he enjoyed most was the raspberries. He had started with just a few canes and every year transplanted the offshoots until he had more than an acre. Planted in neat rows, every spring, last year’s dead canes cut out and the new ones tied up and trimmed uniformly.
He stopped for a second and looked back toward the raspberry field. Would this be the last time he saw them? He closed his eyes and remembered when the kids were young, before the field became overgrown with weeds, the dead canes tangled in with the new ones. The kids were grown now with families of their own, and he was in no shape to work in a field.
The memories sucked the air from his chest the way the cold lake water did when plunging in after a hot day in the fields. The lake they didn’t visit often enough because work was a priority. He hadn’t allowed his kids to be kids. They never enjoyed long lazy summer days. They toiled like men, including his daughter. Waking at daylight to prepare for the day, when the dew dried, they began the real work, fighting the bugs and the heat.
He didn’t regret teaching them to work hard. It was his short temper that brought him shame. If they slowed down or complained, he yelled. Sometimes berating them, telling them they would never amount to anything if they went through life whining.. That was his true regret.
Just last week he overhead his sons talking about how no drill instructor could scare them after growing up with their father. There was nothing scarier than their old man bearing down on them. Hearing those words hurt like being rammed by a bull, not only knocking the air from your lungs, but crushing your ribs. The pain lasted for days and each breath a reminder of initial insult.
It was Friday and Geoff would be by. He lived two hours away, but every Friday he packed up his young family and made the drive to spend the weekend with him. All of them cramped into a four-room log farmhouse.
He wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to talk. His room, a sun porch converted into bedroom, looked like a pharmacy. Each day he needed more of the painkilling drugs, each day the effort of breathing required more work. Walking was nearly impossible; each step required a pause to catch his breath. Talking required more effort than it should, which was a problem. He had to talk to his son. He needed Geoff to understand he was not the father he should have been. He made too many mistakes. He had witnessed the sins of the father on his child, the violent anger outbursts, the yelling, the nasty comments to his wife. That was not the way to raise your children, not the way to treat your wife. Anger was a cancer, eating away the good times. He had to make him understand; Geoff still had time to change his ways.
Maybe that was his punishment for treating his family the way he had. The doctors told him it was exposure to asbestos, but he couldn’t shake the thought that it was God’s punishment. The cancer of anger would take his life months before his fiftieth birthday. He was going to miss so much of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives.
He turned and started back toward the house, the cart holding his oxygen bottle doubling as a walker. Two steps , stop for a breath. He didn’t mind the slow pace; he had nowhere to be.
He made the front porch short of breath and wet from sweat. He collapsed in a seat in an old rocker and gazed over the old garden. His mother was too frail to keep the weeds at bay so it was planted in grass. He could still see the neat rows of vegetables from his childhood, his mother’s sanctuary. She had spent hours working that small plot while the men worked the farm. It was a hard life, farming, but his anger had made it harder still.
Tears formed in his eyes as he thought back over the years of wasted time. He realized too late what was important in life. The question haunting him now was did he have time to correct it for his son?
A low grumble in his belly let him know he was hungry. Soon he would need help with eating, and then going to the bathroom. The thought brought a steady stream of tears. How unfair was it that his children would need to take a vacation to wipe his ass. He dried his eyes on his sleeve, opened the door, and shuffled into the house.
He lay down on the bed for a nap. Geoff would arrive soon and he needed his strength to get through the conversation. Apologizing for being a failure as a father, for not modeling what a strong man was, but instead a scared, weak one. This would be the hardest thing he had ever done. He closed his eyes and drifted off.
A hand on his shoulder gently shook him awake.
“Dad, you should try to drink some water and take your meds.”
“Geoff, oh Geoff, I need to tell you something. Tell you how I failed!”
“Dad we already talked about this. You did the best you could. There’s nothing to apologize for.” The more he talked the harder it got. The words tumbled out in chunks, between sobs, not in a coherent stream.
“No, it’s important you understand.” he said as tears formed in his eyes. He started to cough and struggled for air, the panic in his face scaring his son. He quickly scooped up the syringe of morphine and dripped it into his father’s mouth.
As the drug began to take hold, he thought of the cycle of life. Our parents take care of us, keep us safe, help us transition to the next phase. We then take care of them, help them transition to whatever comes next.
As his father slept, Geoff thought back to when he would fake sleep after long car rides so his father would carry him to bed. The hawk of a man he had known his whole life had faded to the gray frail body lying before him. The tears streamed down his face and he realized it was the first time he had cried in 15 years. The tears were sad, yet cleansing and restoring. They brought a clarity he had not experienced before. He understood what his father was saying. He would work to change his ways, to be a better father, better husband.
“I do understand Dad, I really do.” He whispered. His father squeezed his hand and smiled as he drifted off to sleep. The last smile he would ever show.