As we ate, there were only two topics:
the weather (“The farmers could really use some rain”)
and the food (“Can I get anyone anything else?”)
Homemade peach pie, homemade raisin tarts, then off to play
Grandma’s crocheted blankets protect the nubby couch
Grandpa’s Bible, pages flagged, pages worn,
sits at respite on the end table below the hideous orange lamp
Brown and yellow candy dish with Scotch mints from Canada
Smell a cold draft, the coffee in the dining room,
the tinny, dusty scent of oldness
Rifle through records of Mario Lanza, giggling
I’m in the passenger seat and my dad is driving. We’re heading south on Seventh Street, past the hospital. Mom died there. That’s what we’re both thinking. Neither of us says this, though. Suddenly, surprisingly, my dad turns philosophical. He says, “I took care of my mother, and your mother’s mother, and your mother. I always took care of the women—the mothers—and it never occurred to me that they would die first.” He shakes his head a little, as if the thought of all those women dying has just occurred to him.
I don’t know what to say to that. We’re not a tearful, sentimental family, or at least not in public. We’re matter-of-fact and straightforward. Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “I always thought you’d die first, too. I mean, before mom. Because you smoke and all. I always thought you’d get lung cancer or something.” Maybe that was too blunt. As impervious he seems to be to any health issues, my dad could still get lung cancer from all of the pipe smoking and cigars over the years. “Plus, men usually die before women,” I add, to make it less about him and more general, like those stories you hear about farmers who die because they worked too hard and only ate meat and potatoes.
My dad nods. We’re past the hospital now. “All of my coffee buddies are widowers. It’s really strange. There are only five of us now, and all of us have lost our wives.”
I don’t tell him how I feel about the word ‘lost.’ It’s like ‘passed away’ or ‘passed on’ or, even worse, just ‘passed.’ People don’t get ‘lost’ and people don’t ‘pass away.’ People die and their bodies are buried or cremated. If souls exist, I do not believe they are ‘lost’ in the vast universe or ‘pass away’ as tiny specks of light floating around in infinity or heaven or whatever you might believe. Those terms make no sense to me and I cringe inside when people say them, but I do not cringe at my dad.
I nod at his comment about his coffee buddies and repeat, “Widowers, not widows.” Widows are what the movies show: a hundred widows living in the close quarters of a nursing home and comically chasing after one man, the one widower of the bunch. That could be my dad someday. Shudder.
By the time we reach the grocery store, one of us has changed the subject. One of us says, “What do we need to get again?” because passing by the hospital has made us forget. We park. My dad pulls out a piece of paper with a list of four items. Since my mom died, he has started making lists like she did. His lists are shorter than hers ever were, but he knows that being organized is half the battle, and when you only need four items but you forget one, that’s not a good ratio.
We go in search of the frozen foods aisle so my dad can buy cookie dough. My mom was the one who made homemade cookies for her daughters, friends, neighbors, and his coffee buddies. Now my dad—no longer responsible for taking care of elderly women—has upheld this baking tradition but adapted it to a level that he can manage. He makes cookies with pre-made cookie dough squares and brings the cookies to his coffee buddies, his fellow widowers, when they have coffee together at the café three blocks from the hospital where they have lost their wives. They drink dollar coffee, talk about their sons and daughters and grandchildren, and leave with plates of his almost-homemade cookies in their hands, delighted at the simple gift.
Lisa McCallum’s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Colere; Into the Teeth of the Wind; inTravel Magazine; Loonfeather; Mikrokosmos; North Country; Peace Corps at 50: Asia; Pilot Guides Travel Stories; Prairie Margins; Pology; Tango Diva; The Mid-America Poetry Review; The Talking Stick; Transitions Abroad; Travelmag; Wanderlust and Lipstick; Whistling Shade, and elsewhere. She writes and teaches in the Twin Cities.