Family of Four, In Four Parts

(One) winter night, I and my sister follow my father through the woods. I’m twelve, which makes my sister sixteen, which makes my father forty-two, which makes my mother thirty-nine. My sister and I walk, watching my father's flashlight cast beams around the apple orchard. We're looking for my mother who, experimenting with hysteria because of my father’s infidelity, has gone missing. We find her in her robe lying in the snow and dead field grass.

My father helps her to her feet and walks her back by the arm like a cop.

As we get closer to the house, our dog meets us at the edge of our backyard and goes with us, leaping like a drum major the rest of the way home.

Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.

(Two) times my mother wanders out of a bathroom in Denny’s. My father and mother and I are traveling through Georgia, on our way to visit her side of the family in Jacksonville, Florida. My mother is high.

The second time she walks out of the bathroom a waitress has to help her to the manager, and I watch the manager talking to them both. I watch the manager and waitress looking around the restaurant until the manager looks at me and points me out to my mother in a way that suggests he's asking her a question.

My mother's eyeballs are vibrating and she doesn’t recognize me at first. For those seconds, I am and am not her son.

(Three) of us when my sister is not there as my father dies of Alzheimer’s. My sister reasons that because he doesn't recognize her anymore she's not his daughter and he's not her father.

He is and he isn’t, I say, which isn't how I feel, but what's the point?

That night my father lies on his side, breathing through his mouth, not looking blankly at my mother and me, but his watery whale eye following us wherever we move. My mother wears her dead mother's mink coat and the $25,000 diamond ring my father bought her. She gives orders to the nursing home attendant like a hostess: “Sugar, Dr. Ardelle needs more ice?"

When I don’t have the faith to read the Bible to my father any longer, I step out of the room to call relatives to tell them their youngest brother, their favorite uncle, their brother-in-law is dying.

Oh, honey, they all say, I’m so sorry. Thank you for calling.

(Four) hours later and the hospice nurse has my mother and me go home to get some rest. The nurse feels my father's feet. He’ll be here when you come back, she assures, which will and won't be true. He'll die an hour later, and I’ll spend months not convincing my mother that the nurse didn’t kill him.

And when we return and I enter his room that last time, my father is there but not there. They’ve propped him up with pillows. His body sits on the bed like a costume to be returned. His eyes are open and he looks alarmed. His death caught him by surprise, too.

There’s a painting I can’t find anymore of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus just before Peter loses his faith and sinks. The painting looks like something my precocious daughter might have done for Sunday school. Squatty Jesus. Squatty Peter. Squatty terrified disciples in a boat the shape of a hot dog bun.

In the small church I now pastor, there’s a cross made of nightlight bulbs and a portrait of Scotch-Irish Jesus above it. Wispy-bearded. His hair is parted down the middle. He looks like a phantom from the War of Northern Aggression. He looks like a moonshiner. He looks like moonshine.

How true is true enough, Jesus? How much do we have to believe to believe? 

That my now recently dead sister couldn't have meant it when she said our now long dead father wasn’t her father anymore. That my mother wasn't nodding like Blanche DuBois as she walked between the tables at Denny’s. That our dog may not have led us back that night my father found her in the snow.

And that my father didn’t die like our dog died, alone in that room, not knowing who anyone was or wasn't, but helpless to do anything but trust whoever was there.

Bird Report

Does the salt attract the birds along the winter roads or is it the warmth from the sun on the concrete? Or is it the snow melt and the puddle water that must taste the way my grandfather’s tool shed smelled? Motor oil and moss.

They’re out this bright and blue morning. Sparrows, mourning doves, starlings, mourning doves, starlings, sparrows. Each flock bursts into flight as my car passes—birds flung into the air like rosebuds for an emperor.