Nestled snugly between sleep and consciousness, I listened through our bedroom window to birds singing in backyard trees, dreamily wondering if the morning’s chorus included the two blue jays that I had spied late yesterday afternoon by the birdbath, or the red-breasted finches that granted occasional appearances or the rarest of all winged royalty to this backyard choir—the cardinal. Surely, the gray sparrows were present in force this morning—this first day of spring.
Our cat Mittens moaned from the bedroom window, seeming frustrated, tapping his claws lightly against the pane of glass that separated him from all the backyard merriment. With a sudden thud against the carpet, he jumped to the floor beside the bed. My wife of fourteen years stirred for a moment next to me, then settled.
The shuffling footsteps of my mother in her slippers over a creaking kitchen floor could be heard faintly through the wall that divided our bedroom from the kitchen. The wooden screen door between the kitchen and the pantry area of the garage opened, then closed, slapping four times against the door jamb before its reverse crescendo into silence. The screen door opened again, then closed, slapping the wood four more times, again falling silent. The footsteps returned. I heard water running in the kitchen sink and then my mother’s hacking cough, chronic, seemingly lording its power over her costly prescriptions.
My father, unaware that he had less than four months to live, made his way into the kitchen. He pulled himself forward in his wheelchair using one foot, the one not paralyzed, against the kitchen floor. His foot went down—thump! He pulled himself forward. His foot went down again—thump! He pulled himself forward. With his right side paralyzed from a 1979 stroke, he had learned to use his foot against the floor along with his good hand on the wheel to guide himself forward. He stopped at the breakfast table. I could see him there, even with my eyes closed and the wall of wood and plaster between us.
The aroma of fresh coffee and bacon drifted under the bedroom door, enticing me toward consciousness. I pushed myself out of bed and headed for the shower. Mittens passed me along the way, moving on a mission toward the freshly vacated, warm bedsheets, as if toward a bed of freshly cut, backyard grass, toasty warm from the morning sun. One might have had the mistaken impression that he was visiting his parents here in the Panhandle of Texas.
When the various rites of morning had passed, and noon drew closer, the four of us loaded into a light-brown, eighty-four Buick Le Sabre that belonged to my parents. The car was large enough so that my father’s wheelchair fit in the trunk and he in the front. I drove. The ladies sat in the back. It was fourteen miles to Spearman, where the only Catholic Church in Hansford County offered their annual spaghetti luncheon as a fundraiser. It was important to my mother that we attend.
Driving through the scarred and barren landscape, home to the Comanches little more than a century ago, I asked about Ed, my best friend in high school. Still divorced, forty-one, and raising two of his three daughters in Perryton, Ed repaired roads and city vehicles. His ex-wife Donna had their youngest daughter. Howard, his father, had half his right foot amputated last December. A diabetic, he had apparently stepped on a nail in his garage. Not realizing the seriousness of the situation until too much time had passed, an infection developed, then gangrene. Doctors were forced to cut his toes off. Later, after no improvement, they cut farther.
For most of his life, Howard designed and repaired wooden, antique clocks. He worked with other wooden antiques as well, but mostly, people wanted their clocks fixed. He could have continued with his work despite the operations if his eyes had not gone bad as well. For a while, his son, Ed, would use his good eyes and hands to do the repairs while Howard stood nearby, instructing him along the way. Howard finally retired from work to relax and enjoy the time that remained with his family.
At the spaghetti luncheon, I recognized a handful of people, all very old now except for Cecilia. I hadn’t seen her in more than twenty years. A practicing nurse, specializing in respiratory care at a nearby hospital, she recently turned thirty-nine.
Cecilia, her cousin Kim, my friend Donnie and I often flirted with trouble. She remembered clearly the times when we drove ninety miles to Liberal, Kansas. Donnie was eighteen then and could buy beer. In Texas, the legal age was twenty-one. We drove back to Hansford County with Budweiser “Tall Boys,” which we drank, children that we were, sometimes drinking beneath flickering Christmas tree lights of the Panhandle night sky—so much light amid so much darkness.
Cecilia’s sparkling eyes stirred ghosts from their long slumber. I introduced her to my wife. Cecilia had never married. She informed me that Donnie had divorced and moved to Oklahoma City. He managed some Wal-Mart kind of store, she thought. Her cousin Kim was still married, working as a county clerk at the Court House. We talked for only ten or fifteen minutes, then said our goodbyes.
From the luncheon, we drove to Hansford Manor. My Great-Uncle Ralph, ninety-eight years old last December, paralyzed from cancer around his spine, welcomed us there with his glowing smile and stories of life in the old Panhandle days, cattle ventures, wheat harvests and fruitful days in the banking business.
He was the first of our family to move to this county, in 1926. He worked for the Spearman Bank until breaking off with a partner and forming the Gruver State Bank. He had lived the most financially towering life of all among our family.
He bragged up a storm about his daughter Peggy, honored recently in San Francisco as “Volunteer of the Year” with a hundred and twenty-five dollar-a-plate dinner. “One hundred and sixty-four people showed up,” he said with shining eyes—“a hundred and sixty-four!” He had bronchitis, his nurse informed us, but sounded much better today than yesterday. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes with him, then headed for home, allowing him his rest. Before parting, as always, he kissed my mother’s hand and then my wife’s hand.
The early part of the week had stayed cold and windy. Mid-week passed, and the wind turned calmer. The temperature rose. The road from my parents’ driveway to the gate of the Gruver Cemetery stretched just shy of two miles. From the cemetery, the town of Gruver appeared in a distant haze across several fenced fields to the west. While there, I hoped to revive some of the stories hidden behind the names that had been carved in stone—stories of people I once knew when they were alive and kicking.
A disturbing sight greeted me. Bird feathers lay scattered over the ground. At first, I thought the wind had blown them in from nearby fields, but there were so many—literally, they covered the ground. Walking further, I saw bird heads with hollow eyes and opened beaks, as if silenced in the midst of cries. Whole wings, black with red centers, indicated that they were red-winged blackbirds. The numerous bushes and hedges appeared freshly manicured. Having nested in the shrubbery, the birds must have flown in a panic into the noisy, hedge trimmers. Bird parts had fallen like leaves about the grave markers, casting a remarkable rudeness about this place of respect. The grass had dried almost white with green sprouts of new grass poking out here and there. Cottontails hopped from out of bushes, paused to look around, then hopped away. I saw only one ground squirrel dashing about.
The grave markers faced east and west with the north-side highway running east and west as well. Fields of dry grass bordered the cemetery on the remaining three sides. I recognized more than half of the names on the stones.
Diana, a school friend of my sister’s, and Mark, who I mostly lost to at the town pool hall, share the same day of death: March 10, 1973. They had planned to spend that day together in Amarillo, but died instantly along the way in a head-on collision with another vehicle. “Thy God Has Claimed Thee As Thy Own” was carved into both of their stones. She was one month away from her sixteenth birthday. He was twenty.
Mike, whose family lived across the street from ours, was returning to town with his wife on August 29, 1981 for a Thanksgiving weekend visit when his wife fell asleep at the wheel. His neck snapped. He was twenty-seven, and his wife survived.
Van, my brother’s best friend in high school, was leaving for college in New Mexico when he accidentally veered his Corvette off the road and into an embankment. He died April 2, 1970, two months before reaching age twenty-one. Buddy, his father, whose lawn I used to mow as a boy, died of cancer exactly three months ago yesterday, December 21, 1995. He was three days away from his seventy-fifth birthday. A small, oval photograph of a prize-winning steer had been permanently fixed upon his stone, where a picture of the deceased sometimes appears. The dirt was still fresh and piled high.
Christian and Emma, my great-grandparents, rest next to my grandparents, Cuma and Arthur, near the center of the cemetery.
Walking there, among the stones, the timeless question came to me that when a tree falls in a forest . . . is there only sound if someone is there, to hear it fall . . . if someone is there, to speak of the sound to others?
That evening, my dad retired to bed early. My mother fell asleep in the living room recliner with the television still on. For a while, I watched her closed eyes and her slightly opened mouth. I listened to her relaxed breathing and the ticking wall clock, and I stirred within like a child in a womb, resenting time and the decay that it brings. Turning off the television and lights, my wife and I then stepped quietly through the darkness to our room, with Mittens, leaving my mother to her restful dreams.
by Stephen Bort / 30 July 2013 (9 May 1996)
photo by S.A. Bort
I was living in Denver, Colorado when originally writing this essay. I entered it in a contest sponsored by the Denver Women’s Press Club. The reader kindly rejected it from the winners circle, commenting, “You write well, with good narrative descriptions. This piece reminds me of a chapter from one of those family epic novels, which sets backgrounds for the characters and their relationships. . . . I got the sense that I was reading stream-of-consciousness rather than a good, compact piece with a purpose. . . . I found myself wondering what the purpose of the piece was. Who are all these people mentioned? What do they have to teach me or show me that I care about? What would the audience be outside your own family.” She concluded with, “Your style shows great promise.”