godfathers and cancer
“i spread a bunch of marigold seed, but only a few came up this year…i don’t know what went wrong.”
my father is sitting next to his brother on a golf cart. they’re riding around on the 3 acres i grew up going to every weekend or so. he’s smoking a cigar and he’s got an axe in his hand. my uncle bill, who is also my godfather, is deciding which pile of wood he’s going to have his brother split next.
this place is as close to a family farm as i have.
my great-grandparents lived out here and so my dad and his brother grew up coming here, too. they grew and grew, such that when i came around i was used to looking up to men with hearts over six feet tall.
that’s my normal.
and so a few months back my uncle was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
i imagine him standing next to my parents at the baptismal, me in christening gown, and watching a baby either quiet or wail, as the priest poured the water on my head.
i don’t remember that.
but walking around on this fine september day behind my godfather’s house i do remember him, tall and strong, with a visor on playing tennis with my dad. my cousin and i sitting at the net running to get yellow tennis balls, fingering the blades of grass made white with chalk.
i remember swimming under the moon with so many people in the 4 foot pool, two of which were over six feet, and it still feeling huge.
i remember fourth of julys and walking along the fence at the back by myself and pumping water and ringing the dinner bell outside the small house up front before he built the big one out back.
i remember my truest childhood.
my father picks up another log of cherry wood and sets it down to split it and i feel my eyes fill up. i don’t want to spoil our afternoon with crying, so i walk away until i can keep on having a perfectly nice time.
my aunt rosie put down those marigold seeds, just like any other year out on the farm, but this time they didn’t come up.
she’s not sure what went wrong.
and none of us are sure what’s gone wrong when the 6’4 strength of a family is getting around on a walking cane he fashioned himself, bones closer to the surface.
we don’t know what has gone wrong when cancer shows no mercy and the strong man has to watch his brother from the golf cart, pain tapping him on the shoulder telling him it’s almost time to go in and take another pill.
sometimes things go wrong.
and there’s my dad.
he’s sweat clean through and he’s splitting wood for his brother. over and over he hits the iron wedge with the sledgehammer so hard he breaks it – as if to beat cancer itself.
because he would if he could.
if there was something to be done, just name it brother – and i know my dad would do it.
but there’s nothing. there’s nothing anyone can do. we all know it and it makes me walk away by myself from time to time.
so we spend a sun-blaring, end of summer day together with cancer and cherry wood and cold beer. we each take a turn with the rifle and try to hit the can my uncle’s got up on a board for a target.
we kiss thinner faces, say our goodbyes and drive the back roads home.
sometimes the marigolds don’t come up no matter how many seeds you sow, no matter how hard you hit.
but if we could, you know we would uncle bill.
you know we would, brother.