a dark house, a dirty sink
blinking against 2:47 am
harrowed eyes in my bed
--no. that's too soon.
Rewind to before the end of the summer semester, when I rose at 4:30 in vain efforts to calm my frantic soul-body, fraught with knots that only a cocktail of stimulants and evasive instruction could plot--so calculated and deep that even when I lay down on my frigid concrete floors, I could feel my back contort against the even surface. I often found myself at the foot of my makeshift desk, rummaged from the nearby dumpster, cheek and temple making contact with cool stone.
Respite only called in Calloway, home to Matt's family farm. Mary would always ask how things were going and with a knowing, compassionate smile, pull fresh sheets out of the dryer for the guest room. She is a reserved, 4"11-tall pillar of wisdom and faith. She knew I'd be staying the night, again.
"Oh, hullo, Sam."
Signature plaid shirt, cap emblazoned with a deer or tractor, a deep stoop in his posture.
Years of hard work, many of which involved sitting in poorly-designed, delivery-truck seats not made for extended sitting, I was told.
"How's Samson? How's your grandma?"
Paul always opened with the same questions.
"You need...any more sweet potatoes?"
"Did you see our raspberries growing?"
"Ya ever ride in a four by four, Sam?"
"Is pie a big deal in Canada?"
Paul loved sweets. He loved ice cream. I always brought some over to impress, and in efforts to win the family over.
When we would sit down to eat family dinners, I observed. Two semesters of anatomy and physiology of the speech mechanism will make you a creep at the dining table. You stare at people. Swallowing. Masticating. Wondering. Bolus squeezing past the faucial pillars, larynx pulling up. Paul often coughed as he was swallowing. It bothered me, but I know it is common for older individuals to aspirate. Peristalsis slows down. Things degenerate. This I knew, but for some reason, I couldn't stop fixating on Paul coughing. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but Mary never aspirated food. She never coughed. How old were they? Aspirating food into the airway can be a sign of neurological dysfunction. But I didn't ask.
What did I know? I had no professional opinion developed as of yet. I was just here, by some miracle of God and friendship, at this Missouri dining table, thinking of the journey of our garlic red potatoes made, from a patch of land just outside the sliding doors, expanding against the snug earth, dug up by hard hands, sheared of their skin, shimmying in oil, and finally bursting into energy upon meeting everyone's roaring tummy.
"We're out of eggs, Paul."
We'd already eaten breakfast. Mary wakes up early and normally fries sausage patties, potatoes for herself and Matt; eggs with the works for me and Paul. They had a system worked out--I didn't know what. She does almost all of the cooking in the house. Her sons grill every week, but Mary always takes care of meals. Mary was a caterer for over 20 years--Matt teases me about how my cooking will never match up to his mom's. It makes me angry, but truth be told, what I have shown off of my cooking abilities have been less than impressive. I blame it on the vegan blueberry muffins I tried to make for him that exploded in the oven. Yes. EXPLODED.
Paul was outside, perhaps getting produce ready for the market. I had always meant to go with them to help, but coursework was simply overwhelming.
I reached into a cookie jar to help myself to Mary's vegan coconut-oat cookies. Coconut crack, simply addictive. Her wink and nod of approval was cut off by a commotion--she ran outside, Paul was clutching his foot. She scurried back inside and called for Matt. He was showering. She turned to me and said, "Would you mind driving Paul down the road to get eggs from the neighbor? Something stung him." It was the first time I'd seen her anywhere near worked up about anything. Paul was also undergoing treatment for colon cancer, and treatments had been making him tired. I understood why she was worried.
"I'll be FINE!" I could hear Paul fuming from the door. I looked back at Mary.
"He doesn't seem to--"
"You should GO with him."
Never having seen a stern look on her face, I grabbed my keys and moved fast.
But Paul was already in his truck, revving up the engine. I stuck my head in the passenger window.
"Paul, I've never seen real chickens before!" I blurted out. "Can I go with you anyway?"
His furrowed brow melted into the smug look the rural only have reserved for the urban.
I hopped into the dusty truck, and we chatted as the old pick-up ambled down the road.
He pointed out the old post office. The old bank. Who lived there now. How long they had been there for. Whether he realized it or not, Paul loved sharing stories of his upbringing. I liked to listen. He knew everyone who lived on either side of the gravel roads, and I heard all of their stories.
We finally turned into the driveway of a gorgeous property. It looked like something right out of Martha Stewart--but no, whoa, whoa. This was the real thing. Fuck Martha Stewart.
I waited for Paul to get out of the truck. I hung back, waiting for him to make his way up the pristine white steps of his neighbor's veranda. He never complained of pain, but he was limping noticeably.
He greeted his neighbor, and I peeked into the house. A neat, clean kitchen. Copper pots gleamed from their nooks on the walls. Painted hens and roosters everywhere--and it was tasteful. Not kitschy.
Paul introduced me, but his neighbor was tight-lipped. I grinned, nodded hello, and took my cue to back off.
I stood on the porch as Paul made smalltalk.
I looked out onto the land. A wide plot of land was designated for the chickens. I was dazlled by the sight of regal birds pecking at sun-dappled grass. So clean, so expansive. I reached for my pocket to take a picture. It's empty. A surge of disappointment electrifies my body.
This was purely idyllic.
"Can she go out and look at the chickens?"
I whirled around as I heard Paul's request. The lady was still wary of me. I have been told that southern hospitality is a joke.
"Sam's from the city. You know, she ain't never seen any real chickens before and she really wanted to come see them. She's from Canada, you know. Real far away."
She reluctantly agreed, and Paul hobbled down the steps, and pushed the gate open for me as if to say, "Don't mind her." I stepped out onto the grass, relishing in the sight of the multicolored hens jolting forward and back. The sun was warm and streamed in soft rays through the large chicken coops.
Back in the truck, Paul laughed. I craddled the cartons of eggs in my lap.
"One more thing to cross off your bucket list, huh, Sam?"
Fast forward to Montreal. I'm having trouble adjusting to being back home. Matt calls--Paul has pneumonia. I don't understand. It is later revealed that he's been aspirating, which caused the pneumonia. I still don't understand. Why pneumonia now? He'd always aspirated food.
One evening, Matt's voice shakes. He's calling from the hospital. It's a brain tumor.
But where is it? I press.
Near the right ear.
I come up with dozens of possibilities. There's a benign tumor that grows on the hearing nerve. That is likely it, I say confidently. "Has your dad been dizzy?" Hard to tell, the chemo injections had been making him nauseous. I knew the answer to that. I was in denial myself.
I'm relieved to come home to Missouri. It's odd, but that's exactly how I worded it in my head. My loft with my cuddly cat. A loving family that led me rediscover the simple goodness of meat and potatoes. A good man who serves me and sits next to me while I do my homework.
Matt greets me at the airport, I try to make him laugh. I have 2 huge bags, not to mention overflowing carryons. My flight was delayed, it's almost 1 am. We make the drive to his cousin's place near the airport. Matt's quiet. I tell him I've missed every inch of him. I try to distract him. He has dark bags under his eyes. We plan on leaving early in the morning to see his dad at a local hospital. He's had surgery, but hasn't really been responsive in the last week.
We get a call from Matt's mom at 4 am. "You need to come now." Matt is distressed and his voice breaks with exhaustion. I jump to volunteer and drive the two-hour route. Adrenaline gets us there safely.
Matt's sister-in-law envelops me in a big hug when she sees me. I've always liked her. She's spunky and sarcastic and lives next door on the farm. Her eyes are bloodshot.
Matt's eldest sister is also happy to see me. She runs multiple veterinarian offices with her husband. She always brings Samson his special cat food and never asks for anything in return.
"Dad was asking about you, Sam. He said, 'Is Sam back yet from Canada?'"
Matt's dad has been transferred to another hospital. Just after lunch, his oxygen levels are dangerously low. The floor lobby is flooded with family members.
By mid-afternoon, the hospital staff puts up a laminated picture of a rose on his door.
I am disgusted by the gesture.
"We're not helpless here. We've got arsenal." An eloquent nurse reassures that they are doing all they can to make him comfortable.
An in-law says, "I just hope it's fast. My grandma hung on for TWO WEEKS breathing."
The nurse doesn't think it will be much longer until he passes.
The priest comes by to pray. I am outside holding an inconsolable granddaughter. She doesn't know if she wants to see her grandpa like this, but is torn thinking she may regret not seeing him one last time.
It's getting late. I offer to get food for everyone. 22 people, to be exact.
At the grocery store, I pick up ready-made foods that I normally would not have eaten in that combination. Coleslaw, overcooked green beans, cheesy potato casserole. I pick out dessert--he would have liked that.
Paul, this isn't the right time. What if Matt and I get married? Please. Please hang in there.
Everyone is ready. But Paul defies everyone, and keeps breathing throughout the night and into the next morning.
He is taken home. He breathes for another two weeks.
My expectation is but a memory. I am haunted thinking of everything left behind. A tractor he won't drive. A coat he won't wear. A cap that will stay on the shelf. Confused dogs that wander in search of their owner.
A thought crosses my mind as a I step out of my car. Does Paul only exists in memories now? In pictures, videos?
I know this is wrong. I know Paul exists outside of the material world.
But nothing moves the same way on the farm anymore. Not the flowers, the animals, or even the water.
"Hey love, can I get leeks from the farm when they're done growing?"
"I don't think my dad planted leeks this year."
"You had them last year."
"You know, my dad only planted them last year because you told him you liked leeks. And you ran a website about leeks."
"Well, whatever. They don't typically do well at the market, but he planted them because he knew you liked them."