How to Live, How to Work, and How to Die
Or, “Everything I Learned From My Dad But Can’t Possibly Put Into Words.”
A knock wakes me up, and Dad’s voice says it’s time to get up. I get dressed. It’s cold in the kitchen, dark outside the windows. I stare inside the open refrigerator. I know I should eat, but I can’t think what. In the next room, Dad’s electric razor buzzes. Just as I pick up the orange juice, he walks in. “We better hustle.”
I put the carton back. Find my shoes, find my coat. In the driveway, Dad’s truck is running and he’s scraping the windshield. Exhaust and Dad’s breath and my breath make smoke in the frozen air. The smoke’s lit by brakelights and headlights.
Then we’re in the truck with country music on the radio and the defog fan blasting. The headlights carve a path through the dark. The road carves a path through the evergreens. Fenceposts flip past, sometimes a mailbox. Dad watches the road. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t say anything, either.
At the ferry dock, we stand outside and wait. The sky’s a purple-blue backdrop for the treetops. The ocean is purple-blue, too. “That’s a pretty view,” Dad says.
Then we’re on the ferry, and it’s warm, and islands slide past the windows. Dad buys a breakfast sandwich for him and a coffee for him, and a breakfast sandwich for me and an orange juice for me. I pick a table by a window.
Today, Dad’s taking me to work with him. Today, he’s going all the way to Seattle, and he’s taking me so I can see a skyscraper. He finishes his sandwich, crumples the foil wrapper, and takes out his briefcase. He asks me if I’d like to draw. I nod. Dad slides a notebook and pen across the table. I’m gonna draw something he’ll be proud of.
Static and crowd-sounds and the Seahawks’ announcer’s voice come out of the battery-powered radio. Dad inspects the wet concrete at the base of our new basketball hoop. “Looks good,” he says. “Want to find a signing stick?”
I run into the woods beside the driveway. I need a straight branch, not too long, not too thick. No. No. Yes, just right! I bring it back. Careful as I can, I write a J and then a K. The cement is like grainy gray Play-doh. Dad takes the stick when I’m done. Beside my initials, he writes EHK. Then ’88. Dad and I worked on this together.
“Someday you’ll show that to your kids,” Dad says.
But that could only happen if 1988 was a long time ago, not right now, like it really is. That could only happen if I was a grownup, and that’s so long from now that you could fly a spaceship to Alpha Centauri.
I slammed my finger in the car door this morning. I know, duh! How does a person slam their own finger in the door? Idiot. So now it’s, like, pounding with pain and it’s turned black and red and purple.
It was an away game today. On the ferry, Chris dogged me about being skinny for like the millionth time. And so what? I know. Who cares. But I got mad and everybody could tell I was mad… and… ugh.
Dad left work early to come to the game. I wish I’d played better. Dad always comes to every game, but I’ve hardly scored any points, and we’ve lost almost all our games. Today I got zero points and zero rebounds. The one rebound I really should have had jammed my busted finger.
He asked if I’d rather ride with him back to the ferry, but I said I’d take the bus. And things were better on the bus. Chris had the funniest burn on the ref, and we all laughed. I played Game Boy till the screen got dim cause the battery was wearing out, and I didn’t have any spares.
The bus stops at McDonald’s. It’s mass windy outside! I see Dad at the door. But he gave me money this morning, so I don’t have to ask in front of everybody.
Now we’re on the ferry and it’s taking the longest time ever. It’s a real storm tonight. I’m sitting with the team, and when the waves rock the boat we’re like, “Whoooooah!” all at the same time, and then “Whoooooah!” back the other way and it’s super funny.
But the big waves don’t stop. Instead they get stronger, and there’s spray on the windows. We’ve been going for an hour and a half already and we haven’t even come to the first stop. We should’ve been home by now. It’s pitch black night and you can see a light somewhere on the shore, and when we dip all the way down, the light disappears off the top of the window, and we tip up, it disappears off the bottom. The ferry crew are talking to each other weird. A newspaper machine falls over, SMACK! And it slides on the floor. A couple of seventh-graders from the girls’ team are crying and the girls’ coach is telling them it’s alright. I look at my watch. It’s 11 o’clock already. We should’ve been home an hour ago. We still haven’t come to the first stop.
Dad’s sitting by himself, reading. Not close to the team but close enough I can see him. He looks up when I sit down beside him. “Pretty wild ride,” he says.
“The ferry’s not gonna flip over, right?”
“Nope.” Dad’s brought up a blanket from the car, just in case I wanted to get some rest. And I guess I do want some rest. I lay down on the bench beside him.
We win. And we win again. And we win again. We’re going to Spokane, the first time our school’s ever gone to State in boy’s basketball. In the first game I can’t believe how big the stadium is. The lights are so bright, and the ceiling’s so far away. Coach tells us it’s just like Hoosiers. We’ve all seen Hoosiers. We know the court’s the same size. But still? The stadium’s huge.
It’s not like Hoosiers because we lose the first game. We’re not gonna be state champs. The second game is the loser’s bracket, to try to place. We fall behind. We go on a run, we catch up, we fall behind again. Less than a minute left at the end of the fourth quarter. We’re fouling in desperation, but we’re not really close enough unless there’s a miracle. There’s no miracle. I foul out. Thirty seconds, ten. Buzzer.
It’s over. I feel worse than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m all sweaty and I’m in no mood for it when Dad comes over. He gives me a hug, anyway. The bristles on his cheek scrape my face, just like they always have. Dad smells like mint gum, just like he always has.
“I’m proud of you.” He says it in my ear, so nobody can hear but me. Then he leaves me to my teammates.
When Holly first meets him, Dad’s just burned off his eyebrows and the top of his hair. “It happened last weekend,” he says. “I was doing a burn pile.”
“He means, like, a bonfire to clear brush,” I say. “On the farm.”
Holly grins. “Yeah, I figured.”
Dad keeps going. “And a gust of wind came along…” He starts chuckling. “And, WHOOSH!” He makes a motion over the top of his forehead. “And I didn’t have much hair to begin with.”
“Maybe no eyebrows suits you,” says Holly. “You look really… alert.”
Dad laughs and Holly laughs and I laugh. I can tell Dad likes her. And I can tell that she likes him.
Dad and Luke are sitting on the rug. Luke has just turned three years old, and Mom’s bought him a little plastic farm set for his birthday. Now Luke’s bossing Dad around, telling him where to put the horse and where to put the cow. Dad does what Luke says. His eyes are bright. He looks at Luke, and he doesn’t stop looking at him.
I’m standing beside Dad in the field. He’s fixing a fence where a horse pushed through. One look at the misshapen wire and you can tell that horses are pretty strong.
I don’t know how to fix fences, but I can hold things (wire, fasteners, pliers) and hand them over when requested. I’m not really here to fix the fence, anyway. If you’re going to get any conversation out of Dad, the field is your best bet. There’s plenty of time and plenty of quiet. He’s not a real talker, and he’s not one to hurry.
“What do you think about us moving?” I say.
“Well.” He’s clamping a wire. “I think it’s pretty neat.”
“I’m going to see you less.”
“Well.” He stands up and wipes his nose with a handkerchief. For as long as I or any of my brothers and sisters can remember, Dad has had a runny nose when he works in the field. Some mild and undiagnosed allergy. Dad looks at me. “I’ll miss you. But you’ll visit. And young people should go to where the action is.”
Dad was 47 years old when I was born. He has always seemed old to me. But now he is 78. His mustache has gone white and his skin looks worn and thin in a way I don’t remember. He is healthy, by all accounts, but there is something…
“Dad.” This stupid question has been on my mind, and now I can’t help but ask it. “Are you afraid to die? Or, I mean… are you sorry that…”
“That I’m old?” He laughs and his eyes smile. “Well, no matter what I think about it, there’s not much I can do about it!” He stops laughing. “No. I’m not sorry. Dying is part of life. I’ve been lucky. Lucky to be married to your mother and to live here in this beautiful place. Lucky to be a father to you and your brothers and sisters.”
He wipes his nose again, and smiles again. “I am very satisfied with my life.”
I’m running. Down the road Dad and I drove down a hundred times, a thousand times. Fenceposts, fields, treetops and sky. They’re still here. I run as hard as I can.
We’ve been lucky. Lucky he remained so gentle and kind. Lucky he stayed happy, right up till the end. Lucky his decade-old medical directive is so specific that we don’t have to wonder. Lucky he’s dying at home.
Here’s the park Dad worked so hard to preserve, and I turn off the road and run down the trail. Deep in the woods is a bench and I stop and I sit. Nobody is around. There is nothing to hear but the breeze. It ruffles leaves and creaks branches.
I hear it.
I’ll listen, I tell him. I’ll notice.
I’ll use my time well.
I’ll try to do work that matters.
I’ll sit on the floor and play with my children and grandchildren.
I’ll pay attention to this world you gave me, like you paid attention. Like you paid attention to me.