That Last Photo

I suppose I knew at the time that my dad would never go home. In order to do so, he had to learn to walk again after having his toes amputated due to infection. He didn’t have the strength or balance to sit up, couldn’t hold the phone or even twist his upper body to answer it, and needed help eating. He hadn’t made much progress at the physical rehab place. Yes, I’m sure I knew he wouldn’t be going home.

Still, when my daughters and I visited him in Bullhead City, Arizona – where he had chosen to move many years earlier, distancing himself some 600 miles from any family – I encouraged him to keep trying. He had been back and forth between the hospital and rehab several times. He had endured three back-to-back surgeries, the doctors trying to save his toes, his feet, his legs from a staph infection. “Work on your upper body strength so you can get yourself in and out of a wheelchair. Then you’ll graduate to a walker and you’ll be able to go home.” I knew this would take months. I was pretty sure he didn’t have months.

During all this time in the hospital, my dad went through major alcohol withdrawal. He was an alcoholic for nearly 60 years. My entire life.

All those years of drinking, the surgeries, the alcohol withdrawal, the various medications – dementia was setting in and he was suddenly looking very old. His face was ashen compared to the usual state of robust red I’d always known him to have, his always broad and muscular shoulders so narrow now beneath the clean navy t-shirt he wore, his legs shrunken with atrophy from being in bed for three months. His left leg was in a brace, his right foot heavily bandaged, the amputation beneath not healing well.

It was his hair though that kept getting my attention. At age 78, it was still blonde, as were his whiskers and the hair on his chest and arms. He hadn’t had a haircut in a while and, at about an inch and a half, the freshly shampooed, fine strands were longer than I had ever seen them. Except for the occasional bed head – and it was a short bed head – my dad’s hair had always been neatly parted on the left side and combed down while wet. I chuckled that day at his longer, slightly unruly hair.

The day we visited, my dad was mostly coherent, mostly making sense. We asked about his care, caught him up on our trip to Arizona, commented repeatedly about his hair,  joked around. That’s what he was good at, joking around. He was in a good mood. I asked if I could take some pictures of him and he said, “Oh, yes,” and perked up even more. I took a few shots and then the girls asked if I wanted a picture of him and me together. Of course, I did.

He smiled for that picture. Something he hasn’t done in years.


Yes, I suppose I knew that my dad wasn’t going home. And that this was probably the last time I would see him. Though he was slightly confused and a little paranoid and, I’m sure, albeit being discreet, sad and scared, I was enjoying him in a way I never had before. He was, for the first time in my life, completely sober.

He wanted us to rub his legs. I got on one side, Addy on another, and we massaged his withered thighs. I knew Addy was a little uncomfortable with this. Admittedly, I was, too. I thought back to my girlhood, when my dad was always looking for one of us kids to give him a back rub. I would intentionally do a poor job, hoping he would choose my brother or sister the next time. But this time I gladly did it. And I regretted having not touched this man enough times in my life. In his life.

Amy, my youngest, sneaked away to a chair in the corner of the room. When I looked at her, she gave me a barely noticeable yet loud and clear shake of her head. No. Do not ask me to take a turn rubbing his legs.

I understood. And I didn’t ask her.

As my dad got sleepy and we three began to feel the emotional strain of the day, I started mentioning that we would have to go soon. After a while, the girls said goodbye to their grandpa, a man they hardly knew, and left the room.

Then it was just him and me. And yes, I’m sure I knew that he would not learn to walk again. That he would not be going home. That this would probably be my last trip to Arizona.

“Well, dad, I’ve got to go…,” I said. I wasn’t at all sure how to leave the room.

He immediately started in with some story. I smiled, shaking my head, thinking of all the times over the years when I’d rolled my eyes at this same scenario. It was usually when I was on the phone with him. I’d have to get going and I’d say so and he’d ignore me and just keep talking, not wanting the phone call to end.

I took one backward step toward the door. Then another. I had to get out of there. Why, I’m not sure. Why couldn’t I stay longer? Why didn’t I stay until he fell asleep? Why didn’t I rub his legs some more, his hair? I could have rubbed his hair and put him to sleep, like I had so many times with my children.

Tears pooled. I had to go before he saw them. Had to go while I was thinking positively about his sobriety, his hair, the notion that he might get stronger and go home and I could come back to Arizona and visit him again.

“I love you, Dad,” I said and quickly turned and walked out the door.

“Come back!” he yelled, with more vigor than I expected him to have. Then, a few seconds later, and sounding more resigned, “In here.”

Blurry eyed, I went as fast as I could down the hall, pass the nurses’ station, through the lobby, to my girls.

They looked at me, crying and running to get out of there, and I could see the concern, nearly horror, on their faces.

“Oh, mom,” Addy said, and they each took one of my arms and hustled me outside.

My dad’s health steadily declined and I did not return to Arizona before he passed away. When he was close to going, when he could no longer speak but the nurses were sure he could still hear and understand, I called and said what I needed to say and what I thought he needed to hear.

I’ve looked at the picture of him and me together, several times a day since then, and though it was taken at a sad time during his most unhealthy days, it makes me laugh and feel good. In this photo, he is alive and sober and smiling and I’m clearly enjoying those last minutes with my dad.

Keeping It True

My dad doesn’t read my blog; he doesn’t do much on the computer other than occasional emails. But I wanted him to know of The Bottle of Whiskey, so I called him and, after the usual catching up on his health, a few jokes, and a couple of the same old stories, I read it to him.

It wasn’t easy. My dad is judgmental and mildly critical and I wasn’t sure how he would react to this short memoir in which he was the main character.

But I wanted him to hear it, because in this story he is portrayed as a hero.

So, I took a deep breath and began reading. I read slowly enough that he could take it all in, but fast enough that he wouldn’t give up on it, get lost or tired of listening before I got to the end. Besides the pacing, I had to manage my breathing. It’s always been hard for me to read something over the phone. I can’t maintain my usual, involuntary breathing pattern. I think I forget to breathe. Then I have to force myself to breathe and my rhythm gets all messed up.

When I got to the end of the story, he said, “Well, that’s a dream.”

The story was mostly memoir, mostly from my memory of a time when I was eight years old. I knew it wasn’t all true; there was no way it could be. I was recounting something that happened nearly 40 years earlier, when I was a small child, barely of the age of remembering. And I hadn’t asked any questions, hadn’t done any fact checking.

“First of all, it was 80 acres. Not 24. And half of it was leased from the Indians. We had a five-year lease.”

“Oh yeah, 80 acres, that’s right.” I had written 24. “The ranch was 80 acres and the farm was 24.”

“And, second, we never met any Indians down there. Not at night. Not when we were all in the truck.”

“Really? Well, I know you met some Indians down there some time. I remember the story.”

“You weren’t there. It was Roxy.” My older sister.

“Are you sure? Because it’s really vivid in my mind. I must have heard you talking about it or heard the story a few times over the years.”

“And, Jesus, if anyone ever pointed guns at me, I wouldn’t have offered them a bottle of whiskey. I would have killed the assholes. But, I liked your story. I like how you write. It was a good story.”

It was a good story. I’ll take that, coming from my dad.

A few weeks later, I called him again to visit. I had mailed the story to him after reading it over the phone. I knew he would enjoy reading it and that he’d read it over and over. He probably had his red pen out, making notes of all my mis-memories.

We weren’t on the phone but a couple of minutes before he started talking about the story. “It wasn’t Jennings Road we turned on to get to the ranch and that wasn’t the Jennings’ place. It was the Youngs.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now that you mention it! Bill Young. Yep, it was Bill Young’s place that reeked of silage. And who had the dog that chased us every time we drove by? I can’t remember that guy’s name, but I’d know it if I heard it.”

“I don’t remember either. But we’d go down to the end of that road there and there was Delfelder Hall.”

“Delfelder Hall! I can picture it. What’d they ever use that building for anyway?”

“Oh, just meetings out there. For the ranching community. And right past that was Leo Wambolt’s place.”

“That’s it! Leo Wambolt! He had the collie that always bit our tires as we went by. And is this right? If we didn’t turn right to get to our ranch, just kept going straight, we’d get to the sugar beets, right?”

“Yes. There was a sugar beet dump there for a while.”

I could picture the huge pile of sugar beets. “Why were they piled up there anyway?” I ask my dad.

“That’s where they loaded them on the train.”

We exchanged several more stories and memories about the ranch, which we had from the time I was six to about ten, at which time we moved to a farm that was much closer to town. As we talked, my dad seemed to relax and realize that I was a young girl at the time, that it was impossible for my memories to be accurate.

My dad is an amazing source of rich memories and amusing chronicles—not just of what actually happened but because of the funny ways he tells them, the vivid details and rough and somewhat inappropriate language he uses to recount the days at our ranch.

I could spend hours listening to him and I could take notes and I could incorporate more truth into my story called The Bottle of Whiskey. And I could write many more stories about the ranch and then several tales about things that happened at the farm over the years, too.

But if I did it that way, they would be his stories.

And what I want to write is my stories. Like The Bottle of Whiskey. My stories might not be all true, but they represent what I recall, how I remember our times at the ranch, what it was like from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl, a little girl who, on that night, felt safe tucked next to her dad in the crowded cab of the old Ford truck, a little girl who watched a silent film, a scary movie, through the windshield, in which her father starred, in which he saved the day and saved his family. I want to write my dad as that hero.

I’ll listen to his tales, his corrections, his truths. But at the same time I’ll try my hardest to not let them overshadow the way I remember things happening. Because I’ve got my own tale, my own truth, and, in the end, what I want to do is keep it true.

The Bottle of Whiskey

Seven miles north of town at 75 miles per hour. In the warmer months, I ride in the back of the 1970 green Ford truck. But, now, I’m squeezed between my older sister and my father, my boots tucked under his gas pedal leg. Next to my sister is my mom and on her lap my little brother. We always sit in the same spots; it’s the only way we fit.

I know the way, even in the dark, even though I’m only eight and can barely see over the dashboard. Turn right on Jennings Road, pass the Jennings farm. I remember stopping there once for a few hours. The reeking silage was so pervasive, so inescapable, I thought I might vomit. Go left at the end of this road and pass the farm with the collie, the one who always tries to bite our tires. Don’t slow down, no need to, he does it every time and we haven’t run over him yet. Turn right and come upon the Reno place. There’s a girl there who is my age named Charla. I think we could be best friends because our ranches are close together.

But, we don’t live on our ranch like Charla does and I don’t see her that often. We live in town. We drive out to here most evenings to check on the place, feed the horses, and on weekends we go for a family ride, shoot guns, hike around, mend fence, or continue the work on the barn and corral we’re building.

Sometimes we kids come out here with just our dad. We play around while he drinks whiskey.