I am tenderly fond of In the Bleak Mid-Winter. It’s one of those stories. West Texas Literature is no longer active and it’s a shame because they published some stellar pieces. If you’re so inclined, it’s well worth going through their archives. I was afraid to tell this story for years. I’ll always appreciate the boost WTLR gave to my confidence by publishing it.
In The Bleak Mid-Winter
The doctors pronounced Jay brain dead yesterday afternoon. My youngest brother, comatose and motionless, had spent a week on life-support in the ICU before the recommendation came that we turn off the machines. With my parent’s consent, the doctors harvested his heart, kidneys, liver, and corneas. At twenty-two, Jay is the first multiple organ donor in the county.
Nine days earlier, he had taken a curve too fast and rolled his jeep. A dairy farmer heading out in the early morning light witnessed the car’s slow-motion tumble; the world gone silent as he stared at the crumpled car that shuddered in the middle of his pasture.
Now my father and I walk in different realms. I seek the dull silence and weave my grief into a nest. My father clasps at the solace others give. He’s repeated, “I’m so proud of Jay and the gift of love he gave to five people this Christmas,” more times than I can say. The line – his mantra – replays on an endless loop.
I want to grab him by the ears and twist. “Would you just shut up?”
My dad’s entrance into the hospital administrator’s office yesterday morning was almost triumphant. He endorsed the papers with a flourish and handed them to my mother. She hesitated. The papers trembled in her hand as the administrator hastily cleared a space on the crowded desk. She sagged against me, took a frayed breath, softly asked God’s forgiveness, then signed.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
Tonight my father is driving his prized white Jimmy with the black leather interior. We must bring my brother’s clothes to the funeral home. We know it’s irrational to venture out in the midst of a building storm, but the wake is tomorrow. The windshield wipers swat across the glass. They swipe fat white crystals to the edge of our view where they pack into a solid frame.
The car has an excellent sound system. Music from a soft classical station fills the cabin. A pan-flute comes on. The haunting melody uncovers my desolation. It burrows into my father as well. He pulls the car over, his face twisted. He wipes his eyes with a handkerchief. “I’m sorry. It’s just so beautiful.”
He reaches to put the car in gear. I place a gloved hand on his arm. He balances his wrists on top of the steering wheel, his shoulders hunched.
“Last Thursday night, when Jay spiked a fever, you know Mom thinks that’s when he died, right?”
His big bear head slowly turns towards me. This is news. He’s talked at her all week but hasn’t listened.
“I know it sounds far-fetched, but that’s when his spirit came to say goodbye. I’m certain of it. Actually, he came to see Meghan, but I was half-awake.”
My father dips his head to peer into the side mirror. Meghan is my three-year-old daughter, the first grandchild. I stop biting my lips and begin again. “Dad, you know how much he adored her. Thursday night, at about eleven, Jay and, let’s call him a spirit guide, came to my house. Jay smiled at Meghan and said, ‘You’re right. They’ll take good care of her.’”
My father looks straight at me now, frozen with the intent stare our English setter gets when’s he’s pointing a bird; it’s the hesitation before the lunge that flushes out his prey.
“I called to him, he turned, and I was flooded with…his happiness, his joy. How eager he was to explore the phenomenal new world around him.” His spirit was a combination of gas and electricity and filled the room like perfume. Jay distilled down to his essence and he was more alive than anyone I’d ever known.
I place a careful hand on my father’s shoulder, afraid I’ll break the spell. “Jay’s fine. We don’t have to wonder.”
“Thank you, thank you for telling me,” his gloved fingers give my hand the briefest of squeezes. He adjusts the rearview mirror then coughs into his glove.
I’d told him badly and left out essential details. I hold my breath and hope it was good enough. Will this man, grounded in the ways of wood and stone, body and bone, believe?
“You know, you should talk to your sister. She’s gone to Lilydale for readings.”
I cover my mouth and close my eyes. My disappointment rises like a pit to my throat. There it was, Lilydale. The place where psychics and mediums go to ply their trade. The place where the crazy women live. “Dad, it’s so much more than Lilydale. Don’t you see?”
“I know, Pumpkin. I know.”
My father swivels the car back onto the road. The darkness presses against the windows. The snow swirls in chunky flakes, which shift and dance in the dim light of the car’s low beams. We are hypnotized in a sea of powder, lost but for the tire tracks directly ahead.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂