✧ Finalist for the 2020 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest ✧
Selected by Gilbert King
“Well, this is the shittiest outcome I can imagine,” I say, deadpanning as I push my way into the hospital room. I drop my backpack, containing my laptop and a USB microphone for recording, and catch my mom’s eye, giving her two exhausted eyebrows up. My dad, in the bed closer to the window, turns his head in my direction and snorts. Jackpot. It’s my job to break ice, distract, be funny. “Don’t be so serious,” he told me once about something I wrote in college. “Your funny stuff is better.” But there’s no punchline for the past twenty-four hours, since my dad has been reclassified from a guy living with cancer to a guy who will die of it. I’m here to help move him home, into hospice care. He is sixty-three.
Home. That’s what I’ve come to record. Not the house where he sleeps fitfully now, but the eighty acres and family that raised him. Straight-arrow county roads connecting black-dirt Minnesota farmsteads, each equipped to make a good living in his time: cow barn, horse barn, granary, chicken coop, pig shed, house organized around the warmth of a chimney. I know a lot already, like: where a shotgun always stood behind the kitchen door, below the fuse box, for woodchucks, and, how to tell when the horse chestnuts are ripe, the nut a mahogany shooter marble. I was raised here, summers and many weekends, Independence Day church socials and Christmas Eves, too. I was the last person each of my dad’s parents, Marlin and Verna, spoke to before their breathing slowed to nothing. I can’t let this rest. Already their house stands empty, five harvests now. The pinstriped wallpaper of my then-bedroom upstairs peels in chunks with the plaster, and the surrounding farmland is unpeopled by those with my maiden name—or any name, as bigger and bigger machines and lines of credit are required to make the living once afforded so earnestly by much, much less. When my dad Keith was born in a snowstorm, February 1952, thirteen of my grandparents’ siblings and their young families were settled—or would be—within a few miles of each other here. My dad and his older brother Russ and their gang of cousins became third- generation Norwegian Americans, with grandparents who still swore at them, though rarely, in their round-voweled mother tongue, and who knew how to do most everything by hand, from skimming cream to digging a grave. The Confirmation picture directory in the anteroom of Old Westbrook Lutheran Church has a sibling from both my grandparents’ families in nearly every somber class, year upon year. Then, their children begin to appear, allowed lopsided grins and collars with ruffles and thin ties. My dad is curly-blond and blue-eyed, with porcelain skin that quickly freckled, and thin, chiseled lips, ears that stuck out. They are farm kids, hardly scrubbed clean enough to hide their joy in life outdoors. Work, their grubby hands and thin pant-knees suggest, is a virtue. It seems pure fantasy that the span of one lifetime—mine—can erase all that my great-great-grandparents crossed oceans for, gave thanks for, tended and weathered and valued enough. There is something here, something about learning what to love that my dad wanted me to see, to know, even as he left the farm behind. He would instead invest forty- nine years teaching children to play instruments, to press and release keys and valves, and to move air, steady, transforming black on the page into something ethereal, together. I am a farmer now, too. Or, I married a man who became one, and I make my living telling the story of farming with as much at stake as the bullet that pierces the brainstem at the kill plant. But all that is long after I became my father’s daughter. Our tether is thinning, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do.
When he’s gone, I’ll be almost alone in remembering.
Easter 1988 I dry my hair, on my knees, my head to the furnace blower in my grandparents’ dining room, where the staticky, over-hot air presses away the chill of April and bakes the little hairs in my nose. Next to curling my too-long legs into my grandfather’s lap, requesting that he sing ballad after grisly cowboy ballad, it’s my favorite ritual here. I slide the thermostat trigger on the wall farther, and again, to keep the air coming. Sunrise service, and the foyer smells of scrambled eggs. We shuffle into the worn pew behind my grandpa’s youngest brother and his wife, the one known to pick up the party line shared with my grandparents’ house and eavesdrop, before the phones had private extensions. “Marion, hang up!” my grandfather would bark into the receiver whenever he made or received a call. I know my great aunts and uncles better by their married names: Roger-and-Marion, Floyd-and-Eldora, Butch-and-Shirley, Truman-and- Alfie, and so on. They are, on my grandpa’s side anyway, paired exactly as they were in the ’30s and ’40s, most of them married here at this altar, with the Crucifixion scene inset in the chancel behind them. Dark rivulets stream from the body: temples, ribs, palms, feet. “Jesus, the sinner’s friend” is stenciled in lavender high above us, along the arch of the ceiling. The narthex has been repainted several times, but this remains their creed.
In this church, Handel’s Alleluia Chorus is the Easter anthem, and when we rise to sing, no one holds books. Directing is Anna Margaret of Earle-and-Anna Margaret, the youngest Kopperud sister. I stare, then don’t stare, at her too-thin right leg, the one she drags a little. Polio. That winter, when she was a young bride, Mar—Marlin, my grandfather—and her four other brothers took turns moving her prone body through physical therapy each night. Her husband, a big man and a bully, didn’t believe in the therapy, wouldn’t do it. Mar said once it was the closest to blows he’d come since his days as catcher on the county field team. This husband, the one no one likes, doesn’t sing. Or, he won’t be directed by his wife. At the organ’s keyboard, my dad’s cousin Shirley peers into the tiny mirror above her shoulder. I follow her refracted gaze past my music- teacher parents, all of us watching Anna Margaret’s slight-wristed right hand for the downbeat. Then the rafters ring.
My dad has two types of lymphoma, the morbid one swelling the lining of his stomach to the size of a basketball. A few months ago, an airhead hematologist breezed into the exam room where I waited with my parents, all of us in a row on the upholstered bench to one side. This was my dad’s 100-day checkup, when we got the thumbs up or down on whether his cancer had returned after his last treatment, the last ditch. Dad was optimistic. He was all bones under his leaf-green fleece and sagging jeans, but he was getting around better, eating again. I had already given him his Christmas present weeks early: tickets to a holiday concert chock-full of brassy arrangements. We would eat whatever five- star food he could stomach and stay in a hotel with fireplaces. In other words, stakes were high. My dad had just spent nearly four months in quarantine for stem cell transfusion, a process in which his body gave its own blood so the stem cells could be spun out of it. After he and his remaining cancer had been blasted by the one of the most aggressive chemo and radiation therapies used on humans, the stem cells were reinfused, forcing a reboot of his immune system. These cells and their descendants, theory held, would have no memory of cancer or how to propagate it. “How are you feeling?” this doctor asks, on autopilot. I haven’t liked him from the moment he domineered conversation some appointments ago. Finding my dad liked cars, he had launched into his passion for Mercedes. He trades jabs with a fellow physician, he says, who maintains that BMW makes the superior machine. My dad, he would never pause to discover, gets off on near-to-new Buicks and Toyotas. It’s textbook socioeconomic divide, and as my parents wait patiently in silence, I am biting my lip to keep from mentioning my Beemer X5, parked down the street. I built a farm and a local-food brand that was purchased by the largest meat company on Earth, putting my tax liability on par with this doctor’s, for a few years anyway. Today, as he patters on, my parents and I are riveted to the screen of his computer, where the MRI results will pop up. Blood work is good, he says. Low T count, which means my dad’s white blood cells are not in panic mode. The outline of a body appears. Even without ID, I could probably pick it out, so like mine: broad shoulders, long torso, the 30-inch inseam of his stocky Norwegian legs. Brilliant red orbs pulse everywhere, a whole galaxy radiating from his stomach. In his intestines. Lymph zones in his armpits, groin, neck. Spots in his lungs, his brain. We see it first, and the doctor sees us before turning to look at it himself.
For a second, all I see is my mom in profile, her head hanging, hands in her lap; my dad has his back to me, still staring at the screen, his shoulders slumped, chin lifted, a posture I recognize from black-and-white photos of him in his Sunday clothes, awestruck, listening to his older brother Russ, age nine maybe, my daughter’s age now. So like a kid he looks, with the tendons of his neck standing out below his occiput. It’s the way a child’s body says what he’s thinking and he doesn’t know to hide. “Oh, this is not good. Not good,” the doctor says, clicking, clicking through the slides. There’s some talk about options. They’ll call us right away if we’re eligible for Trial A or Q. The doctor shakes our hands, distressed, then leaves the room. I’m glad he feels incompetent just now. “I’m so sorry,” I manage, wrapping my arms around my dad as he shuffles to get his windbreaker off the hook behind the door. When I hug him, he chokes out two sobs, but then they’re gone. “Stiney, Stiney, Stiney,” is all he says, my nickname, running his hand up and down my back. We are so alike, greeting each other with one-armed hugs, faces turned away. It’s not that the love runs thin. It’s just enough.
From the age his hand could close around a cow’s teat, my dad milked Holsteins twice a day alongside his dad in their six-stanchion barn. Milk for sale stayed in stainless-steel canisters in a cooler under the big haymow, where the local creamery’s truck could back in and pick it up every other day. The milk they drank, my grandfather carried in five-gallon cans back across the yard, into the kitchen, and down a flight of wooden stairs so narrow he probably had to twist at the shoulder, forward and back, with each step. There in the cellar, a round-bellied strainer sat atop yet another can, to catch the lint of drinking another creature’s milk: downy hairs from the udder, flecks of dead skin, specks of dirt. “That warm milk, before it sat up for cream, was the best,” my dad told me once. He remembered it seeming funny to drink milk cold, because they never did. Instead, they ate heavy whip over fruit. Light cream on toast. Butter, on everything. “Gave me the strongest hands in the 7th grade,” my dad bragged of milking. He also relished being near his father, who would whistle Wagner and Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, low and sweet, as much to the cows as to him. But when my dad left for college, a talented baritone horn player, he left for good.
All over the Midwest, massive efficiencies made possible by equipment, seed genetics, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers ensured that farming on his family’s scale, with church and a cousin’s birthday each Sunday, would never happen again. My father was hell-bent on a clean break, my uncle Russ says, wouldn’t even fill his car’s tank from the farm gas barrel when he was home from college. “I think that hurt my Dad’s feelings,” Russ tells me. We’re standing in the shade of my grandparents’ covered porch, and he’s looking to where the barrel stood, by the granary, shaded by linty, benevolent cottonwoods. A steel basketball rim hangs, net-less, above the granary’s sliding door. “I think Keith—I mean, your dad,” he says, remembering that I am the one listening, “just didn’t know how to take any help.”
I am Keith, my dad wrote in school, maybe third grade.
I have Blue eyus I have whiteshbrown hair. I found the half-sheet of wide-ruled paper, pencil-marked, in a scrapbook I didn’t know my grandmother kept, or that my mother had. I have ferkles. I am skeny. I am not to tall. I live on a farm. I do chores. That is kind of fun But not to much. I do calf chores and pig chores too. I did them the last two nights by myself. then dad did the calf chores. The letters are large and deliberate, each ‘a’ like a tiny ‘d,’ listing to its side, a little half-note. He will make this shape his entire writing life, wherever my middle name, Kay, was required. Signing the last card I kept, “Dad.” It’s very possible my grandmother saved his narrative for the turning point it marked in his young life. “Don’t let him see,” his dad had said, as he had run to the truck. Rarely did his broad, steady father run—swatting the screen door wide. It wasn’t even four o’clock, too early for chores, and Dad was in from the fields. After dark, he lies awake next to Russ, who helped him get the cows in. There’s no breeze, and wondering smothers him. Finally, headlights crawl up the driveway. He hears the porch door creep open and shut. In the morning, Dad doesn’t call him to milk, and when he gets downstairs—my dad says to me, when he entrusts me with this memory—my grandfather Marlin is still at the kitchen table, one thumb resting on the rim of a coffee cup, staring out the window. “The Allis dropped a tire off a field access and rolled,” he said, tu