Son-in-law. Brother-in-law. Uncle-in-law

I saw my father slip on the porch steps carrying a sewing machine cabinet out of our house. The fall cracked two ribs. He spit. Said nothing. Picked the cabinet up and carried it to the trunk of our Oldsmobile. So be it.

As a boy, I caddied for him. When he threw his clubs, he threw them two-handed and a grunt like an Olympian. Light as I was, if I could have held on, I might have gone pinwheeling through the air to land in the woods off the fairway or in the cattails at the edge of a pond. I loved my father. I raced off to retrieve the club and put it back in the bag for him.

“Let that be a lesson for the rest of them,” he said.

When he was dying of Alzheimer’s, he was already dead. Or as dead as you can be and still be pretending to read a newspaper or not pretending to not know your only son. Later, at the very end, he didn’t know anything at all. His body was gnarled. He looked like he’d grown thorns.

The last Sunday that he was alive he slept curled in a wheelchair that was more like a bed, and they moved him to the common area with the rest of the group for a Christmas service. I sat next to him while a CD played carols from a boombox with Alzheimer’s symptoms. It skipped. It played singers no one could name. Then it was too loud. Then it was too silent for too long.

My father died that sad week.

No one from my wife’s family came to his funeral, and I say I was unaffected by that, as I count on them saying the same when I don’t go to their parents’ funerals. When I don't attend their children's weddings. When I can’t name my biblical number of nieces and nephews. When I have nothing to say to my mother- and father-in-law or my brothers-in-law when we occasionally meet.

“How’ve you been?”

“Good, good.”

We’re family, but we're not. I’m not their brother. I’m not their son, and I’m an absentee uncle. We’ll die never having said anything important to one another.

When my father was among my mother’s family, he wasn't there either. He read the sports page on the porch. He mowed my grandmother’s lawn. He played the par-three course by the highway. He took me to the aquarium, where he and I watched those introverted fish pirouetting when they came too close to the glass. In each year's group picture of all of us on another final day at the beach, my father will stand on the edges, white t-shirt and last year's bathing shorts. Bull among deer.  

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It’s 1981 and there’s a Tom Petty song playing on the radio that sits on the patio table a few feet from the edge of my grandmother’s swimming pool. My father is mis-hearing the chorus as he does with every rock song: the wading is the hardest part. He hums it a little to himself while he sweeps catalpa leaves off the concrete onto the grass, my cousins and my sister and I on towels and lawn chairs, eyes closed, slick with baby oil, working on our tans.

Bird Report

Dusk: Nine mourning doves quiet as priests. First two telephone poles on Cortsville. Six of the birds on the line above facing one direction, three on the line below facing the opposite.  

Six the number of man. Three the number of God. What does God see coming that I don't?