by Thomas Elson
“Tell me some more about my boys.” His code words for his grandsons.
His daughter stood in the kitchen hearing – but not listening to – her widowed father hunched over the south end of the kitchen table.
He knew what she’d say next, and continued to talk over her voice. “Be careful with that stuff, dad.” He looked at her and smiled while pouring eight blue packets into his coffee mug.
“Go easy on the Equal.” Her tone not unlike that of his mother.
He rubbed the left side of his jaw and wondered if this was how his own father had felt, and if he had known, then reached for his coffee.
She heard him sip, pour in two more blue packets, then slurp. She hated his ritual: slurping coffee, stabbing at his vegetarian sausage, then – fork still in – pushing it aside – scraping the plate past the placemat and against her walnut table.
She heard something else, assumed he dropped his mug. She grabbed a dishrag, rapidly rehearsed her reaction – Stay calm. He’s eighty-one – then turned toward the table.
“Dad?” Unable to move, she uttered the family’s standard response to a problem. “What the hell.”
He had prepared her for this day – ever since his second cancer diagnosis and stomach surgery. And, just as her father had when his own mother died, she forgot it all in an instant. She felt for his pulse, wasn’t sure what, if anything, she felt, and gently pried open his left eye. She knew. She refused to admit it, but she knew.
Unaware of what her father had done twenty-one years earlier after his mother died, she walked into the garage, opened the car door on the driver’s side, sat, closed the door, and cried. And, as her father had done, she pounded the head restraint on the passenger’s side. Within moments, she was back in the house. She yanked open a kitchen cabinet door, grabbed the checklist he had taped inside. Thought for a moment her spine had buckled.
- Call the funeral home. They will make the other calls.
- Call my boys.
- Call my cousin, Maryanne. She’ll call everyone else in the family.
- Call Fr. Mike – my old pastor. You’ve met him.
- Call my new pastor.
- Pull my medical file so the police know I was well taken care of.
- Don’t touch anything until after the hearse leaves.
She will soon learn about the items not on the list:
- How to say, “My dad died.”
- How to say it without crying.
- Then how to say it without choking
- Learn how to accept the “Oh, I’m so sorry” response whenever she says, “My dad’s dead.”
- Learn how not to call or text him about the big events in her life.
- Learn how not to look at her phone to see his daily text, “I love you, Little Bear, and I am very proud of you.”
- Learn how not to be angry at him for dying.
- Learn how to adjust to the silence he left.
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Thomas Elson’s stories appear in numerous venues, including Ellipsis, Cirque, Better Than Starbucks, Bull, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, El Portal, Ginosko, Short Édition, North Dakota Quarterly, Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.