Marilyn stepped out into the sunflower field. The air was warm from the recent watering and the heads of the sunflowers were just tall enough to brush her cheek with their satiny soft petals if she leaned over just a wee bit. She knew they would be getting ready to harvest them before a week was out and she wanted to reminisce a little.
How many times over the last few weeks had she been mad enough at her father to tell him to go out into the sunflowers and enjoy. He would be going there ever. Not ever again but ever. It had been a rough eighteen month ride taking care of a parent with dementia.
One minute he would be asking her things as if she was his mother and a few minutes later it would be screaming that he is being kept prisoner and that his native home was just across that field behind the house. The field of sunflowers. How easy it was to tell him to go and cross the field.
“Poppa if I was keeping you prisoner there would be locks on the door why don’t you just go out and cross that damn field.” One time he actually made it outside then forgot why he was going out.
She had moved back in with him eighteen months earlier following a failed relationship. It was at his invitation. She thinks he might have realized something was up because she started to notice his forgetfulness right away. He would bring up how he hated hospitals and didn’t want to die in one in the afternoon and then bring it up again as if he hadn’t just spoken about it a few hours earlier.
Eight months passed and the changes became even more evident. The serious downward spiral was when he was given a ninety day notice to move. He had lived in that house for twenty-five years, count them twenty-five. In those three months his mind just gave up. He walked up to Marilyn a week after he received the notice and said,”I can’t do this, I need you to take care of this for me. Where are we going to go?”
That was the day when she saw a proud man begging for help. That was the day when she knew she was there for the long haul. Her life was put on hold.
Sometimes she wished he would go out and get lost in the sunflowers and give her a day’s peace and quiet. Why had she promised him as they sat in the back yard of the old house and promise him she would not let him die in a hospital?
It wasn’t a please take care of me no it was a sneaky promise of don’t let me die anywhere but home. No parent should do that, make their children promise to take care of them at home while they die. It is painful and heart breaking.
She walked a little farther down the narrow row. Her golden hair now whitening with age looked light against the brilliant yellow petals and large brown saucers of seeds. These were agricultural sunflowers. Short and stocky with huge heads for harvesting the seeds for oil and snacks. She felt the little scratches as she listened to favorite hits with ear buds on.
She continued out toward the center of the twenty acre field full of sunflowers. Her father sat neatly collected in a round cardboard container picked up just today from the funeral home. She had brought him home and plopped him into his favorite chair in the front room. Well maybe it wasn’t his favorite. His favorite had been taken away months before – the old swivel rocker was on its last legs and so was father, so watching him trying to get out of it was like a mini pseudo Charlie Chaplin moment. She got rid of it and instead of spending any money she had given him her favorite reading chair.
It was a monstrous wide base, puke yellow and tan-brown striped high back wing chair. The color was dreadful but she had gotten it for a steal at five dollars at a boot sale years before and spent many an evening reading herself to sleep in it before pouring herself into bed. She loved that chair but her father needed it more than she did.
It was solid and didn’t move so at least he could get up out of it. As the months passed he would forget until it was nearly too late and wet himself. It only takes a couple times in close proximity to give a chair a permanent reek but it had one. Even after it had been cleaned and covered in plastic and a seat cover.
She doubted it would be worth having it recover but she thought about it as she walked leisurely by the huge sunflower heads, one at a time. She loved that chair and hoped to have it professionally recovered someday but now it wasn’t just her chair any more. It was poppa’s chair too and all the more reason to keep it.
‘See poppa you could have crossed the field easy enough if you wanted to go home” she said out loud to the man that was no longer there.
She felt a pang of guilt but only for a second. He had put her through hell and he had been a cold parent. Mother was the cuddly one when she was growing up. Father had been the stern distant one. She guessed he had loved them, her and her sisters, the only way he knew how, by keeping himself safe behind his parental wall. Detached, that was how he was. He struggled with closeness. Sometimes Marilyn wondered just how his life really was as a boy. She wished she had asked more questions.
She wondered if she would have actually have let him get as far as the field of sunflowers behind the house. Probably not but there were moments when she just wished he would hurry up and get on so she could move on.
A week ago she had found him dead in the early morning. It had been a bad night and she had called the doctor. The doctor was an amazing young man in his early thirties with a pony tail half way down his back. Marilyn had been sure that father was going to have a field full of comments about the young hippy not knowing anything about being a doctor but the doctor had been up front with poppa right off. Asking him about how he felt about going to the hospital if he got really sick. Talking to him about if he wanted to be at home or in a hospital where he could be made more comfortable when the time came near. Poppa had actually liked him. Amazing!
Father hated and mistrusted medical facility and it was no wonder having lived through WWII and had immediately replied with no hesitation that he wanted nothing to do with hospitals, he wanted to stay home and that she would take care of him. Great, thanks for volunteering me poppa, she had thought. Then realized what a silly reflection to make considering she had already signed on for just that.
But that night before he died had been hectic and she had called the doctor asking if she should call an ambulance. His doctor had reminded her of his wish to be home and he suggested that she see how things were in the morning.
She had been up several times that night answering his calls for someone but not her. Trying to keep his covers on him and by morning she didn’t wake up until the phone rang and woke her. The doctor must have known because it wasn’t even office hours when he called to see how poppa was doing.
Marilyn opened the door to his room and didn’t even step in when she had mutter into the phone. “He’s dead”
He was staring at the ceiling not moving and his forearms where up like he was grabbing at something or blocking something. The doctor asked for her to feel for a pulse. She was silent for a moment before moving deeper into the room. There was none.
He explained to her to have the funeral home she was planning to use call him directly and he would of the signing of the death certificate. He had bled to death from his aneurysm bursting in his abdomen. At least that is what he had said from the black color of his eye whites. They had discovered several months back that he had an abnormally large aortal aneurism. The doctor was amazed at the size. Amazed it hadn’t burst yet.
Her last vision of her father could never be erased.
She walked on deeper into the sunflowers oblivious to the world around her as she hashed out the last ten days.
She called her sister after she hung up from the doctors and her sister drove over to help her with contacting the funeral home and arranging for them to pick him up. He had been taken and now a week later returned in a box. It was a little bigger than a gallon sized can but the same shape. Marilyn was busy packing up the house and giving out those things the family, his daughters, her sisters, wanted when the funeral home called to say he was ready to return.
She dropped what she was doing and drove into town. Thinking back on this she had to chuckle. She had absent mindedly put him in the passenger seat and buckled him in as she had been doing since his decline.
In the next week he was going to fly out over the pacific with his oldest granddaughter to have his ashes released. Oh how she used to chide her father about that before he had lost his senses. He would be particularly mean or start talking about how no one had a choice and it had to be his way and she would remind him with a smirk on her face that if he wasn’t a little nicer he would get to the Pacific Ocean the slow way down the toilet.
This idea would make him very upset and when he would claim she couldn’t, she would remind him he would not be there to stop her so he better just try to be a little nicer. She never would have because it would have clogged up the toilet but it was fun to give him something to think about when he was being too argumentative and was still her father.
The sun was low in the sky the music was good, the sense of freedom was overwhelming after two years locked in or was it eighteen months? She couldn’t remember exactly but things felt good and refreshing in the glow of the evening sun.
All this thinking and Marilyn hadn’t been watching the activity in the field behind her to her right. The big harvesters with their suspended hedge clipper style mowers had started from the far right of the field closest to the house and were heading west toward the setting sun to her left. They had already made one pass, two passes behind her. Two machines working side by side were clearing fifteen or twenty rows of sunflowers in a single pass in each direction.
She was a thousand miles away and wanted to be farther. It was strange to be sleeping with her dead father sitting in the house on his chair. Everything was the same but so wildly different.
As she approached what she thought was the best of the center of the field she sat down in the sunflowers. She sat and smelled their musty odor. She dug her hands into the dirt a little and smelled the fresh scent of mother earth. Her father had been an irrigation specialist and she had grown up going out with him into the fields here and there in the growing season. Nothing smelled as wonderful to her as a fresh dug field. There was something almost erotic about it and calming.
She sat, listening to the gentle sounds of a natural recording on her ear buds. Surrounded by the sunflowers the wonderful feeling of mother earth beneath her, the sound of a babbling brook and bird song and insect buzzing, she meditated and sure she felt the hum of the world around her.
The world whose day, week and month had gone by without a thought of her situation. Life goes on. People die every second of everyday somewhere in the world and babies are born as often to replace them. She drifted her mind off with the possibilities being free of her responsibilities. It was like the burden was suddenly lifted but it felt like such a long carried burden that she had this sometimes nagging feeling of emptiness.
She lit a cigarette. She had started smoking again after having quit for more than a year a few months ago. She started again because she was having to light his cigarettes. He couldn’t be trusted with a lighter. His old Zippo lighter wouldn’t go out unless you closed the lid and he had dropped it on the end table a couple of times still lit.
Marilyn inhaled deeply. She should have been stronger but she had to admit how much she had missed smoking. The smell, the taste, the filling of her lungs was bliss for that moment. There would be life again, there is always life even following death.
Something poked her on the shoulder. Marilyn screamed pulling her earbuds out in a knee jerk reaction. Looming over the top of her was one of the farm hands. Behind him she saw death as she stood to her full height.
The engine was running and the mower was whirling on the massive sunflower harvester.
“Oh shit!” spilled out of her mouth. Her thoughts whirled with the prospect of what might have been.
“I think that cigarette just saved your life young lady.” The driver yelled. “You know you are trespassing?”
Her mind still spinning on how close that machine was to them. “I am so sorry.” She yelled back. “I am in the little farm house there.” She pointed. “My dad just died last week and he loved looking out at the sunflowers.” She was having to think fast. “I was just reminiscing. Really. I didn’t realize it was today you were harvesting. I’ll go right now. Sorry.” She yelled.
“Sorry about your dad. You came close to joining him. If it hadn’t been for your smoke we would have rolled right over the top of you.” He yelled before turning back to his machine.