Gene, my father in-law, who died on December 3, 1999 (born in 1920) wasn’t a strong father figure. He had a bit of Barney Fife in him. I liked him, probably because he liked and accepted me, unlike most of my wife’s family.
Four of the five sisters-in-law liked me most of the time, but the brother in-laws acted as if they belonged to the same secretive circle-jerk that they would never let me be a member of, not that I wanted to.
Gene died at a nursing home in the same small town of Adams where he raised his family on a farm with his wife Mildred. When my wife was a teenager, the family moved to Rochester, Minnesota. When Gene and Mildred moved back to Adams after they retired, they bought a ranch style house that was the same size with an identical floor plan to the house in Rochester.
When Gene was going to die, my wife got a phone call from her sister, Bev. She said, “You better come.”
The next morning my wife and I loaded our three kids into the Previa and drove the hour and forty-five minutes to Southern Minnesota. I always called her home town, Bug Tussle, because it had less than 700 people. I got it from The Beverly Hillbillies TV show. Actually, there are a few towns in the USA called Bug Tussle. Everyone in Bug Tussle, Adams, knew who everyone else was. It was usually the adults who said, “You’re so and so’s son, daughter, cousin, nephew… so and so’s your grandfather, grandmother…” Throughout almost twenty years of marriage which encompassed visits to Adams and the surrounding towns for the holidays, family reunions, weddings, and funerals, I discovered that everyone living in Adams was very likely related. It was a small gene pool of less than 1500 people which encompassed the other nearby small towns of Rose Creek, Staceyville, Johnsburg, and Lyle. Years later, after I got divorced, my daughter told me that her cousin from Johnsburg married a guy from Rose Creek, and they had a daughter born with two thumbs on one hand. Surgery fixed it, but when that child begins to date she should be highly encouraged to date, if heterosexual, no closer than Austin, MN which has a population of about twenty-three thousand.
At the nursing home, where Gene had spent the last couple of weeks in hospice, my wife’s family gathered in the hallway outside his small room. Everyone was already there before we arrived. It was quiet except for the subdued sounds of grieving. My wife’s sisters blew their raw noses quietly and blotted their puffy eyes gently to save their mascara. The brothers-in-law gave me a sideway glance, as they milled uncomfortably around their wives. Everyone looked lost and vulnerable, not knowing how to cut through the smothering cloud of pain. It was a heavy dark energy, like the Grim Reaper was floating above them waiting his turn to enter Gene’s room.
Everyone else had said good-bye to Gene over the last fifteen minutes. My wife’s brother, Kevin, told us we should go in and, “You know,” he said, “talk to Dad.” I knew he meant.
Kevin’s wife, Denise, who was an RN at the nursing home, led us into the room. “Gene,” she said loudly, “Lori and Mike are here.”
Gene stirred and became somewhat lucid. The morphine kept him in a constant narcotic haze. The cancer began in his lungs, but it had metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes. The diseased had now progressed to the point where tumors were causing lumps all over his body. It was excruciating for him to move or be moved. While we were in the room, Denise and another nurse shifted Gene from his left side, which faced him away from us, to his back so he could see us. Gene groaned, came close to screaming.
My wife knelt beside her Dad. I couldn’t hear most of what she said, but I did hear her say, “I’ll see you soon.” This wasn’t true unless she planned to die in the near future.
I stooped down to talk to Gene. I didn’t know what to say. Exchanging any statements or gestures of affection would have been disingenuous. Over the last ten-plus years we had never shown each other any signs of affection, except for a handshake. We talked, but it was typically about sports or current events. I told him that it was nice to see him and that we would come again soon. I almost asked him how he was doing, but I knew how he was doing. Then he put his boney hand on my arm and asked, his voice straining, “Why don’t you like us?”
I was taken aback. “W-who?” I stuttered. “I like you,” I said. I did like him and his wife, Mildred. For the most part, I liked the sisters-in-law and the nieces and nephews. But also, for the most part, I didn’t like the brothers-in-law. I could have liked them, but they didn’t accept me. It was mainly Kevin Meyer. Grace, my wife’s sister was married to him. He was a chain smoking, alcoholic, Viet Nam vet. He ignored me when I tried to engage him in conversation. After he did this a couple of times, I figured he could go fuck himself. He was the Alpha among the brothers-in-law, so when he was around, the others also ostracized me. When he wasn’t around, they were receptive to me. But, I figured they could go fuck themselves also. I didn’t have time for their duplicitous behavior. They were weak men, and, likely synchronicity, republicans.
I was liberal.
“Why don’t you think I like you?” I asked Gene.
“Like us, like our family?” he uttered, drawing deep from his depleting energy. The way he held my arm and looked at me, I could tell that he wanted an explanation. This was important to him.
Then Denise, who was standing there listening to everything said, “You need your rest now, Gene. Everybody has to leave your room.”
I wanted to stay. Gene had morphine coursing through his veins, and despite his failing state, there was lucidity and honesty coming from him. I wanted to know what it was all about. Why did he think I didn’t like any of them?
On the way home I told my wife what her Dad said. I asked her if she knew why he said that.
“I don’t know,” she said. After almost fifteen years of marriage I knew what dishonesty sounded like in her voice. She had probably said something to her sisters about my dislike towards her family. My wife was good at saying what was best left unsaid, and loyalty towards me had never been her strength.
The next day my wife’s sister, Bev, called. I watched my wife tear up quietly. I knew what had happened, but I let her tell me after she hung up the phone. “My Dad died,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said and hugged her. There was a barrier when we touched. It prevented any real emotional connection. I felt no empathy, and she probably felt no comfort.
The wake was scheduled three days from now on December 6th at the Adams Funeral Home, the only one in town. The funeral was the day after at St. John’s Catholic Church in Johnsburg. It was one of those small town churches with a cemetery adjacent to it.
The next morning we packed up and headed back to Adams.
Gene looked like a bad replicate, as he lay in the casket. I knew his illness had wasted him away from about a hundred and forty pounds to about a hundred pounds. The suit that once fit, now hung on him like a bad hand-me-down. His gaunt face and the pancake makeup made him look like a hungry vampire. I wondered why they couldn’t have pumped him up with something. After all these years I figured mortuary science could have come up with something to make the dead appear alive for the last day they were on display. Still, friends and loved ones commented on how good he looked. He looked good and dead.
Lois, my wife’s sister, stood over her father and sobbed quietly. She rubbed his hand and patted his chest. She wore a purple dress that looked a size too small. I knew she was about fifty years old, and that she was graying. But she had dyed her hair dark brown, almost black. It looked wrong: aging face with young hair. She was the nutty sister. The one nobody liked to talk to, because she spoke in an annoying loop, repeating the same thing, asking the same questions. She was so damaged it was difficult to be kind to her. My son, who was her godson (I didn’t know why I let my wife make that decision), stood next to her. “Do you want to touch him too?” Lois asked him. My son nodded, so she took his hand and placed it on his grandfather’s hand. I thought about intervening, but I didn’t.
My wiry little boy walked up to me and said, “I touched grandpa. He was cold.”
Grace leaned intimately against the coffin, as she cried emitting only sniffling sounds. She wore a dark green dress. She was a petite woman and a little too thin. She was smoker thin. Instead of eating, smokers smoked. Although once a real beauty (I had seen old photos), her habit caused damage. Smoke wrinkles mapped her face, particularly he upper lip. Her tomboy short hair was slipping from blonde to gray.
If she called on the phone and her sister wasn’t around, she would spend a half hour talking to me, but when I saw her in person she acted as if she barely knew me. She didn’t want her husband to know that we had conversations, had acquired some intimacy. She behaved like she was having an affair. This behavior was common in my wife’s family.
My wife’s sister, Bonnie, wailed like a walrus, and she stood over the coffin. Lois was labeled the nutty one, but only Bonnie had spent time in a psychiatric unit. Her husband Frank tried to be like Ward Cleaver, but over the years I watched this steady and sure nice guy show signs of stress and premature age and behave a bit jaded as he dealt with his wife’s breakdowns. He was an engineer, the kind of guy that had all the answers and could fix things. He couldn’t fix his wife. He couldn’t change her past, her having a neglectful clinically depressed mother, who spent days in bed, and an emotionally detached alcoholic father. I figured all the wailing she was doing at the wake had to do with more than her father’s death.
St. John’s Catholic Church was built in 1868. Twenty-two reverends came before Father Leif. He served the parish for as long as I was married, which seemed like a long time to be stuck giving services to churches in the small farming communities of Lyle, Adams, Johnsburg, and Rose Creek. Father Leif had a slight effeminate tone. There was a gentleness about him that didn’t fit this parish.
My wife’s sister, Bev, gave the eulogy. Eulogies aren’t an accurate biography of a person’s life. All true flaws and character defects are left out. A eulogy is more like a campaign speech endorsing a candidate to pave the deceased’s way to heaven. Bev never mentioned Gene’s genital warts, contracted (not from his wife) after he was married, or the dozens of empty booze bottles my wife’s brother, Kevin, found over the years stashed around the farm, until Gene got sober.
Bev delivered the eulogy without breaking down. She cried a little bit thoughout the entire thing, like a long distance runner paces herself. There was a grace to her delivery. As I listened, I realized there was a grace to Bev that none of her siblings had. I always knew it, but I never really consciously thought about it. I was believer in intuition, vibes even. From Bev there usually emanated an air of acceptance and kindness. She used to be a nun but, years before I met my wife, she had left the convent. I didn’t know whether being a nun had anything to do with her gift of grace, because I went to Catholic school, and I knew a nun or two that exhibited no grace of God, only his wrath. She dated and had boyfriends, but I didn’t think she would ever marry. She once had God. How could any man measure up to that?
Father Leif gave as personal a funeral as a Catholic priest would. I could tell that Gene was a very familiar face to him. Mildred and Gene went to church at least once a week. They were the diehard breed of Catholic.
Father Leif didn’t have an engaging speaking voice. It was a bit effeminate, and at those parts where he has to chant or sing he sounded a bit off key. Some of the Catholic priests I’ve heard were very melodic, good singing voices.
I wondered how Father Leif got stuck in a parish like this. It seemed like a bigger city would be his kind of gig. It was. Eventually he moved on, got promoted, to a bigger city.
After the service in the church the family slowly moved outside to the cemetery. Father Leif said a few cold words about the judgment of afterlife. He didn’t guarantee that Gene was on his way to Heaven. God would make that decision, unless maybe Satan had a hold of his ankles.
Standing next to Gene’s casket I became overwhelmed and the release came in a short gush of guttural emotion and I cried for a few seconds. Then I was done. Three guys from the VFW did a twenty-one gun salute, each firing seven times. One of the vets gave me a couple of the shells. Who knows where the bullets landed?
After the burial the family ate in the church’s school cafeteria. The school was directly next to the church. Although at one time it did go to the eighth grade, now it was just used for Sunday school. The cafeteria kitchen was semi-retired. Now it was just used for funerals, weddings, and other special occasions. The women from the church served homemade ham sandwiches, potato salad, baked beans, and punch. Some of the relatives, particularly the brother-in-laws, were drinking beer. I drank a Pepsi and talked to anyone but them.
There was something strangely intimate about my wife’s family’s place in the natural setting of the small town they came from. They took the nostalgia for granted, but then again they came from a Rad Bradbury version of Mayberry. I wished I could have been John-Boy, but my wife’s family was a darker version of the Walton’s where secrets led to bad behavior and mental illness. Like rural zombies I knew they didn’t know what they were missing, what they didn’t get. I don’t know if my wife’s sister Bev knew what it was, but she was the only one who had it.
Mike Sharlow lives in the Midwest in a small city on the Mississippi River. Sometimes he’d rather punch people in the face than reason with them, but he rarely does punch people. He’s been charged with a felony, but a kind judge took pity on him and dropped the charge to a misdemeanor. He’s familiar with drugs and alcohol, but it comes more natural than it is an aspiration. He’s agnostic rather than atheist because he can’t prove there isn’t a God.
Sharlow has three published novels: Welcome to the Ranks of the Enchanted, as Michael David (Winston-Derek, 1992) which is in the Charvat Special American Fiction Collection at the Ohio State University; Nighthag, (as Michael David) and Teenage Monsters (as Mike Sharlow). He has published stories in many magazines including; Amelia, Lost Souls, Write Place at the Write Time, Solecisms, Absinthe Revival, Worker’s Write, and Temtpatation.