“Don’t you look PRETTY in your new pink dress?”
There are four generations of us here, at Lillie and Elgin’s house. Most everyone made it, it looks like. The locals, of course. Stan and Ramona are up from Raleigh. My brother, Jeff, and his wife, Reba, are up from Monroe. She is going to have a baby very soon, perhaps in the next couple of weeks. My own father is in off the truck. And Elgin himself is up and around, doing pretty good, it seems, in his struggle with cancer. To be sure, some days are better than others, and this day is good enough that he is able to work the grill, as he usually does on these occasions. He’s lost a little weight and his appetite isn’t what it used to be — food tastes funny, probably because of the medication — but he’s in his usual high spirits, and it’s good, really good, to be sitting out here on the patio with him, talking about his tomato plants while the hamburgers sizzle in the sun.
As we talk, I try to think about the pain he is in, the fear he must feel sometimes as he confronts the end, the faith that lifts him above it, rising, rising … Suddenly, two cardinals — a male and a female — light on the clothesline only long enough to settle a small dispute, then take flight again, gliding over rooftops, the house, the shed, the workshop. It doesn’t seem they are going anywhere, or have any particular place to be. The flying itself is the thing, simple and pure and perfect. I think of Elgin as a bird, soaring, weightless, liberated utterly, from his body, from cancer, from the requirements of gravity and the burdens of the earth.
My father emerges from the kitchen, which, on Sundays, functions as one enormous piece of machinery. Women weave around each other, cutting cucumbers, peeling Saran Wrap off of casseroles and desserts, stirring pots of steaming vegetables, piecing the ham, pouring huge glasses of iced tea, and catching up on current events. A man can needle through, sometimes lucky enough to snatch a chicken leg or a bite of fried squash without getting swatted.
“Whew,” my dad says, joining us at the table outside. “It’s hotter in there than it is out here. Elgin, how long ‘til those hamburgers are done? Is that girl in the kitchen Ryan’s new girlfriend? Whose girl is she?”
I wait for him to say something about MY new girlfriend. I’ve been talking about her on the phone for several weeks, and now she’s here, in the living room, talking to Lisa and Mamaw, getting acquainted, I guess. We’ve been dating only a few weeks, not long enough for the differences between us that will ultimately prove fatal to reveal themselves. By summer’s end, it will be over between us, but we don’t know that yet, and neither does anyone else. We’re happy and pretty excited. I’ve had a few girlfriends since my divorce, but this is the first time I’ve brought somebody home. Every time she’s in a different room, someone tells me, “I LIKE her. She seems so sweet! You better hang on to that one, mister.”
Now it’s dad’s turn. He worries about me and Lisa, I know.
“I like this one,” he says. “She’s more like us than anyone you’ve ever dated.”
It is, I think, a moment of grace for my family. I have a girlfriend, Reba’s going to have a baby, Elgin’s holding his own, and we are all together again, thankful and happy and blessed. We are blessed by what we know, and what we don’t know.
By this time next year, Elgin will have taken flight. My father, too. From now on, Father’s Day will bring with it an ache, a heavy stone in the stomach of the earthbound, an absence that no volume of memories can ever adequately fill.
Even so, other fathers go on worrying about their children, providing for them, loving them. My brother, my uncles and cousins, someday maybe even me. We want to help our children fly. Remember, the flying itself is the thing. Simple, pure and perfect.
Editor’s note: This essay is from Chris Cox’s new book, The Way We Say Goodbye. Cox will be reading and signing books from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 1, at Blue Ridge Books and News in Waynesville. In addition, Jeff Minick reviews the book in this week’s book section of The Smoky Mountain News.