I flicked the razor on and brought it to the base of my dad’s scalp. Lifting a tuft of hair, I asked, “What’s this?”
A lump of flesh, the size of a golfball, sat at his neckline. My dad was perched in a chair in front of me and I watched his shoulders come up in a shrug.
The task of shearing him usually fell to me, but having lived in Oklahoma for the past two years, I had not been around to witness this new development in the terrain of his scalp.
“Have you seen a dermatologist?” I asked, buzzing the razor around it.
“Yeah. It’s not bad.” My dad is a 75 year old farmer. His hair is a white meadow that I don’t cut so much as mow, picking out bits of hay and wood chips so they don’t get caught in the razor. The first and last time I saw his legs was 30 years ago, when we went to the beach. Besides that day, he wears a flannel, jeans, and boots, regardless of weather. This is also what he sleeps in.
“What’s in it?” I asked, lightly tapping the top of the mound with one finger, testing for firmness. It had the give of a fresh muffin.
He shrugged again. “Meat.”
On Christmas I announced to my family I was pregnant by opening a staged gift from my husband: a shirt with a picture of a lumbering dinosaur that read Preggosaurus beneath it. The moment was robustly awkward for a family governed by my parents: two stone-cold emotion ninjas who both describe funerals as “excessive.” There was a beat of silence before my sister Rachel leaned forward in her chair and, widening her arms like a symphony conductor, prompted everyone with a clearly enunciated Yay! My mother, stunned, said, “We’re having another baby?” Her voice had taken on a deeper, unfamiliar tone, and my heart wrenched as I thought why did I make them endure this spectacle? “Yes,” I answered, calmly, like I was at a job interview. “I am pregnant.”
My dad assumed his natural pose as non-reactionary. Still, silent, no break in facial movements. To the untrained eye he could have been having a grand mal seizure. In six months we will find out that at some point in his life he had a silent heart attack. I have never heard him talk about it, and I never will, but I will always wonder when it happened. That night, after my pregnancy announcement, Rachel, assuming her role as the youngest sibling and probing our dad for thoughts, asked him how he “felt” about me having another baby. “We thought they might,” he said. “Now they are. It will be something to see.”
For my dad, this is borderline sentimental: three sentences in a row. I didn’t ask Rachel how long it took for him to say all three, but an integral part of his speech pattern is not only the general lack of it, but how much time it takes for a fully formed sentence to emerge. A more accurate depiction of his answer to Rachel would involve a heavy emphasis on the ellipsis between every couple of words. Newcomers who attempt to engage him in conversation often struggle in knowing when the conversation is beginning, or ending. Talking to him on the phone is even more difficult, as the listener, unable to gauge him for his mostly non-existent but highly essential body language, just has to listen for the dial tone to know that he hung up. Extended silence could mean he is either thinking, asleep, or dead. To me, living in a world where McDonald’s now comes with double drive-thru lanes, he is a stationary symbol of patience. He has told me that the solution to any math problem is time.
For my birthday, Rachel gave me a pair of latex gloves and told me we were going to drain the cyst on my dad’s neck. We folded down his collar and had him lean forward. Rachel held my phone up so we could video. I pressed my forefingers, hard, into the cyst, but nothing happened.
“Harder,” Rachel said.
“Does this hurt?” I asked him.
I pressed harder.
In the video, you can hear us gasping, laughing, shrieking as I press and squeeze while the cyst deflates. You can hear my mother in the background telling us to shove a dishtowel under his collar. You can hear the television in the background. You can hear the dog walking across the tile floor, toe nails clicking. That’s it. You don’t hear anyone else.
My dad’s best friend is another farmer who lives down the road we call Buddy. Buddy, however, doesn’t know that we call him Buddy because my dad doesn’t call him that. Actually, his real name is John, but since my dad’s name is also John and the idea, allegedly, is to avoid confusion, Buddy has always been Buddy. My dad probably doesn’t call him anything, and the phrase “best friend” is far too sentimental for my dad ever to invoke but he fits the bill because he has been a steady figure in our life, jovial and rotund, forever. In my first memory of him, he grabs a mouse with his bare hand as it runs up the microwave cord and then smashes it on the countertop with a frying pan. Most of the time, though, Buddy would just stand in the kitchen and regale us with stories of being young and poor, like we were, and we would laugh hysterically when he told us how he only had one glove, and had to trade it back and forth between hands when it was cold.
As he got older, he came in the house less and less, and would instead just pull slowly into the driveway, get out of his truck, and wait for my dad to come outside. Then he stopped getting out of his truck. Then he stopped coming over, and my dad had to drive to him. Eventually he had to get rid of his herd of dairy cows, and my mom told me that he cried as he watched them get hauled on the truck and taken away. He would have brief hospital stays, never for anything major, maybe a bout with diverticulosis, but for the most part he trundled on, like anyone would, his tight, round stomach bulging between his suspenders.
Once, when we were kids, driving down a country road, the car in front of us came to a halt. We didn’t know why, so we all sat there, waiting quietly. My dad at the wheel, he stared straight ahead, hands at 10 and 2, foot on the brake. A few seconds passed before the car behind us whipped around us and shot ahead. A mother skunk, leading her babies across the road had just emerged past the car in front of us, and we watched her get run over.
My dad went to a doctor about getting his little friend removed from his neck. The doctor said he would need surgery, and with that my dad was unwittingly ushered into modern America’s Byzantine healthcare system. The only statement I have ever heard him make about it is that he wished he never would have gone to that first appointment. And, actually, he didn’t even say that. My mom looked at him and said Don’t you wish you never would have gone? And he nodded.
I can’t see my dad in a doctor’s office, there in the world with everyone else, other people who drink water, wear shorts when it’s hot, and respond with more than one-word answers. I have a hard time seeing him anywhere besides a field, a barn, or a gas station buying cigarettes.
I can’t see him answering questions about his medical history, filling out a form, or holding a pen. I can’t see him in a waiting room, standing in front of a receptionist, knowing how to use a chip reader. On rare occasions, I have seen him slowly take out his wallet, and it is like watching someone unearth a relic. It feels like someone should be filming, or a team of scientists should be standing around him with small tools, ready to brush off the detritus since the cards in the wallet are usually held together with dust. I can’t see him putting on a gown. I can’t see him sitting down, not being able to drink coffee or listen to NPR through this headphones. What I can see, perfectly, is the doctor’s face as she realizes he hasn’t been to a doctor in 25 years, that he doesn’t take any medicine. I can imagine her notes. I can imagine her straining to hear his voice. I can imagine her curt nods. I can imagine my dad’s calm confusion as he is handed a printed list of instructions. I can see his thick hands, spotted purple and black and brown from the years spent driving a truck across the country, burned from the time he accidentally picked up a chain that had been resting in a fire, scarred from hefting a thousand bales of hay, worn from leading heifers into a trailer, reaching out and accepting the papers.
My husband went back to work a month after our daughter was born. On his first night back, he called me in tears.
“I got fired,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said, and I meant it. He was a server at Chili’s.
“I served a minor,” he said.
In Oklahoma, serving a minor could be considered a felony. Todd came home, clearly distraught. My dad, who happened to be visiting, looked at him and said, “It’ll be okay.”
I clung to his words, hoping he was right, but terrified of the possibilities. Well aware of the Bible Belt’s unforgiving attitude when it came to alcohol, I would sit up at night, nursing our baby, and weep.
Todd lost his job, had to take an online alcohol awareness course, pay $500, and do 40 hours of community service, but that was it. My dad was right. It was okay.
One morning, a text from my mom: Buddy died.
Over the years I have had to endure a bounty of conversations with friends who want to tell me how communication should happen in a family unit. I nod along. Sure, yes. I sit quietly, enduring comments like, “I know how your family is,” and, “That’s not right, Meg. They should have told you in a different way.”
From my parents I learned the calm subtext of love. They are the definition of implicit, and I became an English major because of them. All I did growing up was try to figure out what was going on by reading between the lines. That was the only choice available because nothing was ever made explicit. You had to read the mood of the house. You had to look at the sky, gauge the weather, figure out how it would impact the day.
I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen them touch each other. Conversations were, still are, tense and quick, and almost exclusively about the weather, cows, crops, or tractors. I know now, though, that the act of running a farm together makes you business partners, and the more concrete expressions of love are there, but you have to be quick to notice them. A pile of wildflowers left on the table, half buried under the newspapers and magazines. My mom watching him turn a ragged jumble of fencing wire into a calm, even circle, her voice softening as she says, “He was always good at rolling wire.”
They started looking at his heart because he would need surgery to take off the cyst and they wanted to make sure his body could handle it. The reason, I fear, that he wanted the cyst off is because we kept poking at it, prodding, talking about it, asking questions, comparing its size to varying fruits. Underneath his hair, it’s barely visible, and it poses no real threat, so the only reason to remove it is cosmetic.
I try to think that it’s a good thing. It’s good to go to the doctor and get checked up every few decades. Maybe they extended his life. Maybe they saved his life. He toyed briefly with quitting smoking, but within months I would see the outline of him in his truck parked outside my house, a cigarette in his mouth.
“I can smell the smoke, John,” my mother would say. “And I don’t like it.” This is how she deals with his smoking. She just hopes he will stop.
Bizarrely, he wanted to go to an acupuncturist. In a move that I can’t tell is perfectly logical or robustly non-sensical, my parents both approve of non-Western medical practices. They both like chiropractors, even though they have never been to one, because a fellow farmer went to one and now her hips don’t hurt.
I became emotionally invested in my dad’s acupuncturist appointment. I was weirdly proud of him for taking the initiative to set it up and go on his own. He said he liked the experience and found it helpful.
He never went back.
The day Buddy died happened to be the day Rachel had planned for her future in-laws to have dinner with our parents.
“We should cancel, right?” Rachel said to me over the phone. “We should cancel.”
After I got my master’s degree, I applied to over a hundred teaching jobs across the country. I was offered one job in St. Joseph, Missouri, and I took it. As I was getting in my car one evening to leave my parents, my dad, walking down the driveway turned around and called out, “You did good, Meg.” It is the only compliment he has ever given me, and by far the most outward and overwhelming verbal expression of emotion he has ever shown me.
“No,” I told Rachel. “Don’t cancel. Just get it over with.”
My mother had been agonizing over the dinner, discussing it with me daily, “I bought a 2-liter of Sprite,” she said. “I don’t know what people drink.” My dad, also not looking forward to it, had stared at me from across the couch and said, “You have to come.” I knew, after the initial awkwardness had passed, they would both flourish. Though they deny it, they both love showing off their old farmhouse and the acreage. Rachel’s fiancee’s parents, Kevin and Mary Ellen, could not have been more non-threatening, standing in the kitchen with garlic bread and an apple cake, and the night quickly turned to another favorite past-time of my parents: answering agriculture-related questions. What breed of cow is all white? How many cows do you have, John? At one point, trying to provide a detailed explanation of combines, my dad picked up one of his magazines and paged through it until he found a picture. He handed it to Kevin, pointing, and I’m not sure he realized that this was my dad, trying his hardest to make something accessible. Later, wanting to show his guests a picture of our barn that fell down a few years ago, he retrieved a handsaw that had been painted with an image of the barn. He handed it to Kevin, saying, “This is all we got.”
But my favorite part of the night was when Kevin, taking the stage, started talking about fishing. He smiled as he talked about it, his voice lifting, and you could tell how much he loved the sport. This was his attempt at trying to identify with his audience. As if to say See? I’m pretty down home myself. He likes to go to Alaska for the salmon, and he comes back with enough to stock his freezer. He was animated, gesturing wide with his arms, and beaming.
“We eat a lot of fish,” he said, still smiling. “What about you, John? You like fish?”
A beat. A few more beats. The kitchen was silent, and my dad sat still in his chair.
“No,” he said.
I had a pink Nalgene full of water in our refrigerator. My dad opened the door to the refrigerator and, upon seeing it, stared at it for a moment, then cocked his head to the right, like he does when he is thinking about something. He picked up the Nalgene.
“What is this?” he asked. “A…jar? A colored…jar?”
They kept looking at his heart. They noticed that at some point in his life, the heart decided, without telling anyone, enough was enough. Now my dad has a cardiologist and a prescription. He has appointments. He has to get a heart cath. He has my anxious mother, sitting in the waiting room with her arms folded across her chest, remembering how her own mother died, 25 years ago, because the heart medicine they gave her chipped away at the blockages and caused a stroke. She is annoyed because it is hay season and they should be in the field, not the Cleveland Clinic, but here she is, now, just like everyone else. She paces the halls so much the nurses ask her if she is all right, if she needs any help, which just makes her more angry.
Neither one of them fits here, but we all look to our mother to guide him through it. Let them fix him, I silently plead, though I wonder what it is that my parents both want. I know at my core that if they were told he was sick, he would just go home and wait quietly to die in his chair, his dog’s head resting on his leg.
When they were trying to schedule his heart cath, my mother, visibly annoyed, looked at him and said, “You wouldn’t do this for me, would you?”
My dad shook his head.
There wasn’t a funeral for Buddy, just a showing. No one in our family went.
When they looked at his heart during the cath, my mom was convinced they would find bad things. Awful things. There would be follow ups, and more bad things. We made plans for how we would manage the farm, and my brother’s baby, Riley, who my parents babysat three times a week. We feared the worst because my dad’s diet is notoriously bad. He refers to all vegetables collectively as “green stuff” and claims his teeth aren’t able to chew lettuce. He once told my husband that he has never had a better cheeseburger than the Wendy’s Baconater. A few years ago, I saw him eat half a banana, which is the only fruit I have ever seen him hold.
Amazingly, he emerged victorious. They looked at his heart, and found nothing wrong. It was just quiet.
One of the reasons I married my husband was because he was loud. During the first Christmas I spent with his family, I stood in their garage and listened while they all screamed at each other in the kitchen. I was enthralled, completely drawn to the outward, volcanic frustrations that had boiled over. Was it better than what my family did when we all got annoyed with each other, which was to just walk away and seethe on our own? Maybe, maybe not. A good, well-adjusted family would all sit down together, use “we” statements, and take turns sharing their truths. But I pushed that television family away long ago, and I mock it ceaselessly in my mind.
Todd never hides anything from me, but I am always hiding myself from him. He knows how to pull it out of me, how to unlock the knots of worry that pulse in my neck and shoulders. And when I am not ready, he lets me walk away from him.
A favorite past time includes asking our dad if he knows our middle names, our birthdays, or his own birthday. He usually only remembers my sister Amy’s birthday because it is March 14, or pi day. He rolls his eyes at the idea of a day being more important than another. I can only imagine his expression if I were to explain the phrase “self-care” to him.
I was drinking a bottled of sparkling water when I noticed my dad staring at it.
“What?” I asked.
“How much,” he gestured at the bottle. “How much does that…cost.”
“Maybe a dollar.”
He looked surprised. “A dollar?”
I almost said yes, that’s all, but then I realized he thought that was a lot. Too much. Way too much.
After they looked at his heart, they told him not to work too hard. They told him during the hot, summer months, he should sit in the air-conditioning. The only air-conditioner my parents have is in their RV, so they drove it up to the house, parked it in the drive-way, and fired up the AC. The only person to take advantage of it was Rachel, however, who would sit in the cool air and study for her nursing exams. He is the squarest peg, unable to fit anywhere, including, more so each day, the field of agriculture, which is storming ahead with tractors that drive themselves and collect data. He is, for the record, the only person I have heard say “application” instead of “app.” He is annoyed with computers because he argues that they don’t actually “compute.” While he is more informed on current events than anyone else I know due to his constant streaming of NPR through his headphones, he remains baffled by the progression of technology. Every once in a while, he will make a painfully succinct comment, like, “We can’t keep up,” and that will be the end of it.
When I think about his hushed, little heart that didn’t want to bother anyone, didn’t want to cause a stir, my love for him comes in swells. My sisters and I asked him once what he was most afraid of. Without one of his traditional pauses, he said, “If something were to happen to one of you.”
He has never told us that he loves us, and I bristle when people tell me he should. I have never doubted his love, his commitment to his family, the unending joy that fills that soundless heart.
I have spent years of my life in a hay loft with my three sisters, staring down the next bale rumbling up the hay elevator, which is just a conveyor belt for hay bales. Our dad would stand on the wagon and fling the bales onto the elevator while my sisters and I formed a haphazard assembly line in the loft to pierce the bale with the hay hook, drag it across the floor, and stack it. It was a demanding job so we took a lot of breaks. On one of those breaks, we placed the hay hook down on the elevator after our dad shut it off. When he turned it back on, my sisters and I instantly started screaming and reaching for the hook, trying to pick it up before it got mangled. My dad, seeing all of his daughters shrieking and flailing, ripped the extension cord out of the wall and came barreling up the elevator, a silverback gorilla in a flannel. I can still hear the hay elevator clanging under his weight, hear him mumbling Jesus fucking Christ under his breath. I see his eyes wide open, looking up at us and coming closer, eyes so blue that a woman once came up to him at an auction and said I bet you were a devil when you were young. It was the fastest I have ever seen him move. Our terror swelled, certain we were in trouble for ruining his hay hook and his elevator. He was also terrified, certain one of us had gotten our hands stuck in the elevator. Looking back on this, now that I have children of my own, I can only imagine his fear. I wonder if his mind was blank, propelled only in the moment by a raw drive to save us. I wonder if he saw the day unfolding before him, what he would have to do, what he would tell our mother. I don’t remember anything that happened after he got to the top and realized that our hands were fine, attached, unscathed.
I would bet my life that he just turned around, walked back down the elevator, and we finished unloading the bales.
When my daughter was born, my dad drove through the night from Ohio to Oklahoma to see her, his first grandchild. During the day he would rock her in the chair, holding her as they both slept. When he was getting ready to leave and drive back, he bent over her napping body and opened his flip phone. Holding it close to her face, he took a series of pictures. “For Buddy,” he said.
Meg Thompson’s work has appeared in Best of the Net, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and MUTHA magazine. Her chapbook of poems, Farmer, was published by Kattywompus Press. This summer she attended the Martha Vineyard’s Institute of Creative Writing as a parent-writer fellow. She is a work-from-home mom teaching in an online prison outreach program for Ashland University. She lives in Wellington, Ohio with her partner and their two children where she tweets two to three times a year @flannelmother.