For the Memories
Editor’s note: We don’t always need to travel halfway around the globe to find exotic places and to discover unplumbed truths. The bittersweet story below poignantly captures some transcendent travel lessons learned close to home and seems an appropriate tale for the end of the year, a time of reflection, renewal, and resolve. We offer this with our warmest wishes for a new year of exploration and illumination. –Don George
I cried twice while in Texas, one of them out of sheer terror. My dear boyfriend, Sean, was helping me load our gun when a 45-caliber pistol went off next to us, the violent blast so instantaneous that there was no time for my life to flash before my eyes.
That wasn’t part of the plan.
The plan was for Sean’s cousin Jeremy to show me how to shoot a shotgun on the prairie. When I’d first met Jeremy, he had sauntered through the door of a rural barn an hour south of Dallas, sporting tattooed biceps, a spiky beard, and a camouflaged baseball cap with a tractor on it. I knew he was the right man for the job. This was the man who had built his family a barn out of a trailer and taught his two little girls how to shoot their own food. When I first walked into his house, six pairs of dead buck eyes stared at me from the opposite wall.
I had never wanted to come to Texas. I had never wanted to shoot a gun. I live, quite comfortably, on the liberal extreme of America’s gun culture divide. I reside in Berkeley, California, a city steeped in tie-dye and peace protest history. I cook mung beans with my sketch-artist friends, talking about that time I lived in a vegetarian cooperative with the theme of Social Change Through Nonviolent Action. Before this trip, I had never held a gun—not even in a video game. And to be clear, I wasn’t nervous about shooting one: I was scared out of my wits. Looking at the glassy eyes of the herd of deer heads in front of me, I thought: Why am I doing this?
“This place looks great!” Sean said, walking in the door behind me. “You’ve done some work.” He took my hand. “Sabine, you’re finally seeing where my family’s from!”
Oh yeah, I thought. That’s why.
* * *
I first met Sean when I was in a whole other style of culture shock. It was a couple of days after I had returned from more than three years stationed in coastal shantytowns and mountain jungles in the Caribbean. I had just left a job leading 51 Peace Corps volunteers in the northern Dominican Republic. The move was so sudden that the turn signals of passing cars reminded me of the fireflies that blinked in the rain forest at night.
For the first 48 hours after my return, I wandered in a literal fog that snaked through my hometown in coastal California, feeling an unexpected yearning for the screeching roosters and bolting motorcycles of my former home. Fleece-clad people in loud shoes clicked by without noticing me, lost in a perpetual state of catching up to their own schedules.
I finally landed in a dream of a store: Berkeley’s Cheeseboard Cooperative. Lured in by the sea of salty smells, I became mesmerized by wheels and wedges of cheese as white as the Caribbean sun. I stared at the orbs of mozzarella and powdered disks of triple cream. But the most beautiful thing I saw was one of the customers: a blue-jeaned, brown-eyed man drinking a coffee and chatting with an elderly lady by the door. When he saw me, he excused himself and walked over, taking long, lanky strides and trying to hide a smile.
“Would you like some pizza?” he said.
We sat on the grass in the middle of the street with our cheese-coated pizza, the sun streaming on our heads through dissipating clouds, talking for hours. He wanted to know everything about me—what the Peace Corps was like, what I missed from the island, where I had traveled. Later in the day we went for beers, and he told me how he had escaped from Texas the first chance he had, packing his car after college graduation and driving 1,800 miles to California.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with him.
* * *
Jeremy’s girls walked me around the prairie, past pastures polka-dotted with bales of hay and a lumbering possum that had an odd affinity for daylight. They had a pen of bunnies and goats behind their house; their staccato of bleats competed with the distant cracks of shotguns. As I walked by the animals, I got a strong whiff of vinegary, peppery BBQ smoke. I turned to my left, discovering a blackened smoker parked in the grass, its horseshoe-handled belly big enough for about 30 briskets, or so the girls told me.
“When does daddy get off work?” the youngest asked when we got back to the house.
“Not ‘til 6,” came mom’s reply from the kitchen.
Sean was sitting at the table, sewing a rip in his jeans. We locked eyes, and I walked over.
“It’ll be dark by then,” I whispered to him.
“It’s okay. I’ve got an idea,” he said.
* * *
My heart was pounding in the car as I pulled up to the gun range parking lot. I could hear the muffled sound of gunfire from within the thick concrete building next to us.
“Don’t freak out,” Sean said.
We walked through a side door into a room full of camouflage jackets and ear mufflers, and my eyes locked on the muscled men behind a wide glass counter, rows of guns lined up behind them as if they were running a death machine concession stand.
I tried to walk like someone who knew what she was doing. I thought the muscle-men would realize that I was a complete amateur, a sissy most likely to freak out and drop a live gun on the floor, a wimp they would best send back to the California suburbs. But as I geared myself up for a personal interrogation, Sean indicated a row of tablets glowing along one side of the counter. Signing in was easy. The only question I was asked by the gun clerk was which color I wanted my ear mufflers to be. (Pink.)
It was so much worse than I imagined. For one thing, I had only thought about pulling a trigger, not about the atmosphere in which I’d do it. It was terrifying to walk into a room of gunfire, feeling the blast of bullets jolt my ribs over and over as I willed myself to overcome the primal call to back away. Sean beckoned for me to follow him between two flimsy-looking planes of Plexiglas that separated us from the dozens of people who felt the urge to blast bullets at 10 a.m. on a Monday.
We clipped our target, a white outline that reminded me of the image Facebook shows for users without photos, on a plastic hanger riddled with bullet holes, and Sean pushed a few buttons that sent it back a dozen feet or so. He pulled our pistol—what he promised was one of the less powerful guns at the range—out of a black box along with the ammo and proceeded to shout instructions at my earmuffed ears between the bullet explosions around us. My protective eyewear was fogging up as I hyperventilated next to him.
“OKAY,” he shouted. “NOW YOU TRY.”
“TRY TO LOAD IT.”
Sean had placed the gun on the shelf in front of me. I reached out tentatively to pick it up. I slid a single bullet into the barrel, like Sean had showed me, but my hands shook as I tried to cock it—PRAAACK!
My chest exploded with the now familiar force of gunfire, only a hundred times stronger and completely unexpected. Death was the only thought in my mind as tears blurred my vision and terror froze my veins: death by misfired bullet. Death of Sean, death of me, death of the fuzzy gray form standing next to me… hang on. The shot didn’t come from my gun, did it? It came from him, my new gray-shirted shooting neighbor, or more accurately, from the deafening blast of what I’d later learn was a 45-caliber pistol. No one was dead.
But that was too late: The tears were already flowing fast. I set the gun down, gave Sean a defeated look, and then slunk back to a chair at the back of the range. Sean looked at me compassionately. Then he turned around and made dozens of expertly accurate shots. With only a few bullets left, he came back to get me.
“WANNA GIVE IT ONE LAST SHOT?” he yelled, breaking into that half-smile I had fallen in love with. He walked me back to our shooting cubby and loaded a single bullet into the gun.
I picked up the pistol in both hands, holding it firmly. It was lighter than I thought it would be. I took a wide stance, held the gun in front of me like I’d seen Sean do, and before I could talk myself out of it, pulled the trigger.
I felt the shock of the explosion rush through my body, followed by relief. As it turned out, once I made up my mind, pulling the trigger was the easiest part.
* * *
The liter-sized beer bottles hit the concrete with a satisfactory crunch, the green glass flying out in fireworks-style arcs. I was out in the dark of the Dominican jungle, flanked by two of my best expat friends, taking my anger out on an old, empty water repository. For weeks I had been fighting the news that my dad’s health had decayed: the heart problems, the kidney disease, the stroke.
I imagined the scene at night: my mom scrubbing her forearms sterile, the bags of liquid piled next to the bed. I imagined the drone of the machine—whatever that looked like—sucking out my dad’s blood and pumping it back into him through a man-made umbilical chord, every single night.
I had run out of bottles to throw. Among the ferns in the now quiet jungle, fireflies blinked neon green. I knew what I had to do: I had to quit my job, and I had to go home.
* * *
“I didn’t think I’d live as long as I have.”
Uncle Pete raised his eyebrows at Sean and me like he had gotten away with something, the walls of his trailer warbling in the wind. It had taken us all morning to find him—getting lost, making U-turns on two-lane highways and squinting for entrances to dirt roads indistinguishable from driveways. We found him waving to us from the porch of his trailer, which was parked in an acre of trim green grass.
Uncle Pete looked good for a man about to turn 90: full head of white hair, good range of motion, and a propensity for laughing with the foolhardy. Uncle Pete was not only an uncle: he was also a granddaddy, a great granddaddy, and a great-great granddaddy.
“We should call you a superb granddad,” Sean said.
Uncle Pete smiled. “I’ve got two great-great-grandkids.” He pointed them out to us from a table of photographs by the front door. The table was crowded with picture frames, many with loose photos wedged in their sides. Looking around his trailer, I saw more than a dozen clusters of framed faces covering the walls. When Sean said his family rents a convention hall for gatherings, he wasn’t kidding.
Uncle Pete sank back into his orange-brown sofa chair. “I’ll sit here and think about every one of ‘em,” he said.
“You’ll do more than sit!” Sean’s cousin Beckie piped up from the corner. “I get calls from the neighbors all the time: ‘Beckie, you know your pop’s out there on his lawn mower again?’ You know you ain’t supposed to be doin’ that.”
“Yeah, well,” Sean’s aunt Debbie chimed in, “you know when he was takin’ care of us kids it was us that was doin’ a whole lotta things we weren’t supposed to.”
The group chuckled. Uncle Pete explained to Sean and me why he was in so much trouble: Apparently he had crashed his lawnmower into a fence not long before we got there.
“You ain’t supposed to be doin’ that,” Beckie told him again. She turned to Sean and me. “The vibrations of the motor feel good on his feet so he’ll go out there and mow just about everybody’s lawn. Won’t you, Pop? Likes to go out there and ride for acres. Likes to go out there and think.”
* * *
“I’ll take this down to the pit,” Dad said at the end of dinner, scraping leftovers from his plate. In the months since I’d been back, the silver of his hair had thinned. He shook a bit as he stood up from the table.
“To the compost?” I suggested.
“Yes.” He reached over to grab my mom’s plate.
“Dick. Dick! I’m not done!”
“Ooh, I’m in trouble now!” He chuckled. “I’ll have to… follow the dog outside for that.”
As he shuffled out the door to our garden, my mom sighed and started stacking the dishes. She had been washing them ever since dad had forgotten to use soap. When he got back, he offered to help.
“Dick, what’s the name of the thing you use to wash dishes?”
She pointed to the container of liquid soap on the counter. “It’s an S-word.”
My dad gave a sigh of exasperation. After a moment, his eyes lit up and he smiled. “Stamina,” he said.
* * *
We knew exactly what was going to happen: The dialysis would take its toll on my dad’s body, and he’d get weaker and weaker until it didn’t work anymore. But worse than that was what was going to happen to his brain. He was already confused a lot, at a loss for words, unaware of why exactly he was sick. But every once in a while the dementia would spike, and he’d forget where home was, and think my mom wasn’t his real wife. Those moments were glimpses of a horrible future: an abyss of fear and confusion, where mind and body are ripped away in a slow march to the end.
But we had a choice. A terrible, terrible choice. We could save him from that future—but we’d have to stop treatment. It was a decision the doctors refused to make for us. For months we debated in teary hospital rooms about what to do, my mom playing her trump card every time: How could we tell him we were stopping? So we waited. And waited.
One afternoon my dad and I were walking in the garden. It was sunny; there were hummingbirds. But I couldn’t stay in the moment. I kept thinking of what it would be like when he didn’t know who I was. I began to cry. Dad looked at me uneasily, could tell I was trying to hold back the tears. He leaned over and wrapped his arms around me weakly.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Whatever it is—it’ll be okay.”
And my dad, to his everlasting credit, was right. A week later, we stopped treatment, and he never even noticed. We stopped giving him meds, and for a few glorious days, his eyes cleared up and his energy came back. Without the machine to tend to, we all slept through the night for the first time in months. Neighbors brought food and booze; family members flew in to spend time with him on our sunny porch. While he could still walk we’d go down to the garden, and talk about the time in his life that stayed clear in his mind: his childhood. We spent hours down there, talking about how much the world had changed and how lucky we were to have witnessed it.
When he died, he did it the way he’d always wanted to: surrounded by family and gin, in the house he still recognized as home. At the last moment, I felt the shock rush through my body, followed by relief. I knew there’d be years of tears to come. I would grieve him the rest of my life. But as it turned out, once I made up my mind, letting him go this way was the easiest part.
* * *
We waved goodbye to Uncle Pete as we climbed into the rental car, offering once again to close the gate to his lawn on our way out.
“No thanks!” he yelled from the porch. “I’ll leave it open. Maybe someone else will come by!”
As we drove I stared out the window at the prairie, which reached out to all horizons, filled with grass and tan, twiggy trees. I thought of the laughter in that trailer, the stories of older times: roosters that pecked at the kids’ ankles, evenings spent eavesdropping on neighbors that shared phone number 9. I thought of all the faces on the walls smiling down at Uncle Pete.
“He really just sits there and goes through everybody in the family, thinking about us,” Debbie said from the back of the car. “It makes me a little sad. I mean, at that age, all you have left are your memories.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I think I’d rather have it that way. I wouldn’t want to live for nine decades and not have the chance to reflect.” Sean squeezed my hand as I spoke. “He’s got an incredible life to think about out here.”
Little cardinals chirped from the phone lines as we ambled down the dirt road, and Sean gave my hand another gentle squeeze. I cried twice while in Texas, one of them for the memories.
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