Saying Goodbye to Dad

by Kate Fetherston

Feature image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Near the Lake, 1879-1880. The Art Institute of Chicago.

My dad died alone in a VA hospital
as July sun beat without mercy into the raw

seesaw of breath busting seams between
each cell. Third spacing doctors call it

when cell walls no longer sustain
boundaries with integrity, fluid

sluices into interstitial no-man’s
land and overpowers whatever little

plans were made for a garden and some
trees. When my brothers and I got

the news and flew in from the various
places to which we’d fled, I’d just split

on my first lover after years of her
threatened suicide, bouts of drunken

depression, and refusals to take
her medicine too numerous

to recount. Her view: I’d been trained
strictly for fixer-uppers, too stupid

or stubborn to leave, but, waxing
romantic, she’d croon, “You’ll do me

for a rough old mate.” The day she smashed
my stuff into the carpet and poured

ten pounds of flour over
everything, I might have stayed for

more of the same, but I threw
crumpled clothing into my pack,

startled when she whispered, “I’m
just like your crazy

old man, aren’t I?” I didn’t
answer because we both knew

how I’d cried into my fists, waving
goodbye to my dad for what

I thought was the last
time while he’d punched air

screaming, “You’re nothing but
a fucking cunt just like your

mother.” I’d have liked to say
it was just cancer corroding good

intentions, but those had derailed
years ago, driven off the edge

behind gallon jugs of Dago
Red at lunch followed by conga

lines of Manhattans with Librium
chasers meant to numb the shrapnel

knifing throughout his body
and the yelling, the cold

shoulder he and mom passed
back and forth. On visits after

their divorce, I’d watch him berate
juncos through a one-way

window installed for privacy. Next,
he’d offer a Coke, then time to go.

But once, clouds heavy with
summer rain, he beckoned me

outside and recited names
of plants used to living with thirst:

piñon, prickly pear, yucca,
then, casually he said, “You’ll be

a writer, kid.” For a moment
he seemed almost happy, then

we got back to being silently
at odds. “But there were good

times, weren’t there?” he blurted
through sobs, after cancer

kicked in. To my shame, I said
nothing. So my brothers and I

returned to find our dad no more
present than a calculation of flat

New Mexico light hammering a beat- up arroyo. In lieu of a memorial

service, my brother Tom and I
stumbled noon-blind into a fake

Spanish-style stucco, where
a sallow boy, tripping on his

daddy’s suit cuffs, mumbled
condolences, his tongue at a loss

in a mouth of bad teeth. “Let’s get
the fuck out of here,” Tom gunned

Dad’s car past vacant lots where
exhausted junipers squatted in sad

shadows, taking it up on two
wheels by Roosevelt Park, our

childhood oasis, now just bent
cottonwoods on pee-spotted

Bermuda grass. “Come on, floor it,” I egged
Tom on, picturing Dad’s ghost seeing

red. “This’ll get him,” Tom choked as he
jumped a curb and skidded into the parking

lot of that novelty shop where we
scored a rubber chicken and red fuzzy

dice for Dad’s rearview. Tom hollered
out his rolled-down window, swerving

over double yellow lines until we hit
mesa dirt where the sun bled

naked into our backs, spending its last
on sagebrush and coyote bones. By nightfall

Dad’s car ran out of gas. Stars poked
holes in the sky over Sandia Mountain

and into the front seat where we sat—
gourd-hollow, gutted, lost.

Kate Fetherston’s second book of poems, This Far from Perfect, was published in 2021 by Longleaf Press. She’s the author of Until Nothing More Can Break, Antrim House, 2012. Kate co-edited Open Book, an anthology of craft essays, and Manthology, poems on the male experience. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including Nimrod, North American Review, and Hunger Mountain. Kate’s received numerous Pushcart nominations, Vermont Artist Fund grants, and residencies at Vermont Studio Center.

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