Author’s Note: I wrote the following entry in my journal on March 15, 1996 after walking across the lake on the bare ice. This may be the longest piece I have posted here. I hope the length does not discourage anyone. Though it needs some editing, I have decided to post the piece just as I wrote it back then.
Finally, this: I really miss you Grandfather. All of this—and so much more—is for you.
Backward but Still Walking
Why are the lights flexing brightest behind us those marking tragedies? What cruel and certain sovereignty, what fuel, what necessity holds our memory against misfortune for a lifetime, but sets free the joke that doubled us over only a week ago?
Walking today’s frozen lake, my thoughts turned back on me once again, grim lights come calling, the trainman’s lamp waving at the point on the line where the cars of the train leapt off track and plunged down a ravine. I thought about my grandfather and how he lived his final days in silent defeat, most of his loved ones having near the end sprinted to reach death before him. His wife. His child. A brother who, heartbroken because his grown children disapproved of his new love, shoved a hose from the exhaust into his car window and idled out of this existence while sitting still.
Even before that his mind began to fail him, his thoughts sinking like hapless beasts into a kind of quicksand from which they but occasionally dragged themselves free. And he had become so frail. I sometimes got him out of the house and brought him out to the lake to fish from the dock. It would not take much to convince me that taking him fishing in those fading days was the best thing I have done in my life so far. He loved fishing. On those days when I promised to take him fishing, Grandmother told me that he often rose from bed before five in the morning, dressed, ate breakfast, gathered his rod and gear, and then sat in his chair on the front porch patiently waiting for my arrival. Sometimes he sat there for three or four hours. “George!” she carped at him, leaning out the door, “What are you doing out there? Mitch said he would pick you up at nine!” He just grinned at her, his small, furry dog wagging furious approval at his feet. Nothing but happy critters flailing atop the quicksand.
Out on the lake, backward but still walking, I glanced to my dock, now distant and stilted through a foot-and-a-half of ice, drifts of snow dragged overtop it. For some reason that silly song started up inside me...“Raindrops keep falling on my head...just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed...nothing seems to fit.” I continued shuffling backward, thinking about what Voltaire said: “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.” And I remembered clutching my wobbly old grandfather the last time I guided him onto that dock, his dog playfully nipping at his slip-on shoes, as she often did when he ambled about. I thought about how he kept a shoehorn atop the night stand beside his bed, how he and grandmother slept in separate beds with three foot between them. How, before the doctor made us take away his truck, he tended to nose the vehicle off the road in whatever direction he was looking.
I didn’t really do any fishing myself the last time out with him. Once I had plunked him down in chair, I fixed him up with gear and pitched the hook out into the lake just a few feet off the end of the planks. The late spring sun stood right overtop us. And the perch happened to be voracious that day. He must have caught thirty of them. One after another, he reeled them in, flopped them onto the dock at my feet so I could remove them from his line. “Take that thing off,” he would say to me. His dog, meanwhile, bounced all over the place, plowed into me every time I knelt to bait his hook with another nightcrawler.
Forward, but no longer walking, I listened as a crack advanced from one shore of the lake to the other. During especially harsh winters, the ice here might reach a depth of two feet. Stories of pressure ridges aside, lake ice, though inconsistent and brittle, has fantastic structural strength, easily capable of holding a runt like me once it reaches a few inches in depth. Inch for inch in depth, I was told it will support more weight than concrete. I have been told by someone else that you could safely run a freight train over a lake frozen over with only six inches of ice. I am somewhat suspicious of the last claim, but I know for a fact that as water freezes, the molecular structure alters dramatically, creating durable tetrahedrally coordinated lattices and hexagonal crystals of uncanny strength. The density of ice is actually less than the water from which it formed because in freezing the hydrogen bonding increases, forcing the molecules to clasp more of their neighbors and align—this rigid alignment actually frees up a little space between them on some sides.
Grandfather was the first grown man I ever heard utter the word “fuck.” My father did not swear. I never once heard my father say that word—maybe another symptom of his seeming lack of most normal human passion. We were bouncing high across the Big Belt Mountains in my Father’s old pickup when my grandfather, pointing to a fence crossing an incline beside us, said: “Someone got one of those fuckin’ coyotes.” I might have been six at that time. And I looked over to see a coyote’s carcass draped over the strands of the barbed-wire like a tattered stole.
I recall those moments in time as vividly as I recall any others of import. Until then, I had foolishly imagined “fuck” a word invented and used by the older boys in our town. They swung that word around as if it were a club or knife—something meant to inflict damage or startle. And after hearing my grandfather say it, I glanced over at my Father to gauge his reaction. I saw none. A kind of taboo lifted just then. I understand that words are just words. We inject them with false and imagined meanings as is our wont.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, Grandfather drove me and my oldest sister down to the southeastern corner of Montana. He wanted to show us the highways he helped to construct in the last years of his career as a heavy-equipment operator. I suspect a certain pride filled him as we sailed over the macadam ribbons of his making, much the same as the one I feel entering a well-lighted building I have helped wire. I captured a horny toad in some badlands near where the Battle of Little Bighorn cost Custer his life. From out the window of our room in Hardin, late at night, I watched a couple of drunken locals fist-fight in the street, both men too drunk to inflict any serious damage.
But by the end of his days, Grandfather could hardly fling his bait off the dock. The transition from constructing the wide interstate highways that feed goods and people to a prospering nation to a weak old man who requires his grandson to take him fishing is not an easy one. But Grandfather really came alive as I drove him through the wide valley we call home, pointing out new homes, game animals when he saw them. He took in everything. “There’s the Merritt place,” he’d say every time we drove past one of the ranches near Lake Helena. “I knew that old Merritt. Quite a bird, that man.”
Then everyone started dying around Grandfather. I have never managed to fully shake from my head the memories of that morning we drove home from the hospital to tell Grandfather that Grandmother had passed on late in the night. Three of us were in the room with her when she went—me, my sister, Debbie, her husband, Norm. Stupid with grief, we just sat there in her room for a while, uncertain of what we should do next. When one of the nurses asked me if we had any final arrangements made for Grandmother, I replied, “We are going to incinerate her.”
My sister had to laugh. “You mean cremate her,” she corrected.
I didn’t know what I meant.
After a while we drove home to tell Grandfather. How do you tell someone that their love of over fifty years has escaped without them? What good words might dull the blow? We just walked in and told him, then watched as he collapsed, slumped down as if instantly his bones had dissolved into the flesh around them.
I saw my Grandparents kiss only one time in all my life, but I know they loved each other in the same standoffish way as most of their generation. They shared many hard times, including the Great Depression. They kicked around all the Western states before settling here in Montana to give Mother a more stable childhood. They drank heavily, fished the streams for trout; Grandfather brought down a bull elk nearly every fall. Grandmother learned to drive a car while in her mid-fifties and soon became “Granny Go-Go” for all her traveling with her diminutive friend Dorothy, a onetime dancing partner for the actor Gary Cooper before he left Helena for fame. I remember all of us kids gathering at the picture window of our house to watch her drive up in her first car, a brand new Ford Falcon. She took up oil painting. Grandfather worked at a thousand hard jobs. He nearly lost his life near Townsend when a rock crusher captured his arm and dragged him into a churning belt that did not recognize grease from blood. He clung to his life for many touch-and-go days, refusing to allow the doctors to remove his mangled arm, which they wished to do. For the rest of his life, that Frankenstein arm hung crooked at his side, more for show than work.
When the sound of a big jet descending from the clouds pulled me from within my own thoughts, I realized that I had tromped nearly a mile down the smooth surface of the ice, to the place where the painted shale hills very nearly pinch the lake in two. The air smelled of snowmelt and sky resting a little too heavily on pine. Reversing my direction, I started for home again, carrying the sun on my back as did the Navajo Sun god. According to their mythology, he crossed the sky packing the Sun every day, and then hung it on a peg in his house at night. I do not like the summer Sun, the heat. But on winter days I enjoy nothing more than a warm poultice of sunlight held against my flesh, my clothing. I would gladly pack it up the steepest incline around me.
Still, sun or no, I could not manage to shake my grim thoughts. Some people live most of their lives as part of a couple, their marriage defining them in most all aspects of their days. This could be said of my Grandparents. I cannot remember one without remembering the other. And the thing is, Grandfather just plain shutdown after Grandmother died. His life ended with hers. He didn’t last long.
If Grandfather’s death left us kids despondent, it absolutely crushed Dallas, his dog. I tried taking her to my house, but she whimpered and slunk around the place and refused her food. Thinking she might be okay at her own home, I had a friend move into Grandfather’s house to live with her while we tried to sort out the estate. I let him stay there for free as payment for sitting the dog. Dallas drove him crazy. She spent every waking moment hunting the house for Grandfather. Every new sound sent her running with tail wagging hopefully. Round and round the house she went. In her own brand of protest, she began dropping stools on the floor. After much debate, my sister and I decided that we would have to put her to sleep—a deed which sounds much nicer than it should.
I foolishly thought I might take an active role in this. We made arrangements with a local veterinarian, and, on the day in which we chose to end the dog’s life, shoved the poor creature into my car and drove to the veterinarian’s office in Helena. Dallas was pretty excited about taking a ride, which got to me right from the start.
Things turned hideous when we reached our destination. The dog began to quiver the moment we pulled into the parking lot. She stiffened, as if turned to wood, when I scooped her up and carried her inside.
“Are you sure you can’t find some way to keep the dog?” the veterinarian assistant quizzed, having seen too many healthy dogs put to death in the name of sloth and indifference by people too busy to give a damn. Dallas kept looking at me with those big wet and bulbous eyes of hers. Never one to pocket an emotion, my sister, in a dangerously low voice, said, “Do you think this is something we want to do? Do you?”
The assistant, a young woman who, by the looks of her wide frame, had not missed too many meals in the last dozen years, wisely changed her line of questioning. After a short wait, the vet came out from the back rooms. He asked if one of us would care to be present when he administered the death-giving injection. That is about the time when I began to shake. My sister looked at me. I looked at the dog. “No way,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll do it.” Cradling the dog in her arms, Debbie followed the vet into a room in back. Tears escaped my eyes even before I made it back outside. I could imagine that dog looking up at me as the cruel trick that is death poured through its body when the vet injected his mean potion. I imagined the dull horror.
Outside, I stood below a pair of Russian olive trees. A strong wind kicked shed leaves around their gnarled trunks. I wept like a schoolchild. A long time later, my sister came outside. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m too weak.”
“She went fast. She was shaking, so I held her. She just went to sleep.”
We held each other for a while, the dead leaves running and jumping at us there below the trees. I felt as if we had just killed everyone in the family.
To this day, thinking about that brings me to tears.
Reaching my dock, I jumped onto the planks and booted holes in the drifts. I drank in the good air, the sun. In spite of it all, I am dumb enough to be happy most of the time. Sometimes, driving across the wide valley, I look out at the passing homes and alfalfa fields, and say, “There’s the Merritt place over there.”