The spring equinox this year marked the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. On the night it happened, Larraine and I were up in the bleachers of Sask Place enjoying an INXS concert when my cousin Jim tried to have us paged. We didn’t hear the call above the band’s volume, and it was not until midnight when we got home to a half-dozen phone messages that we knew my father had died. My mother’s message was terse and it ended abruptly: “He’s no more.”
Dad had surprised her that day by volunteering to attend Salem Church’s choral Easter cantata with her. He didn’t care much for these “highbrow” events, being more inclined toward the fiddle which he’d learned to play himself, preferring his rhythms simple and the tunes familiar. My mother, also largely self-taught, had just recently withdrawn from her duties as church pianist after many years of devoted service, and for once was looking forward to sitting in the audience with a husband who normally shunned such concerts. That evening for some reason he’d offered to accompany her, but as it turned out, he was spared from having to listen to the music after all.
They drove to church, he dropped my mother off at the entrance and went to park the car. When he walked in the pastor greeted him with, “It’s a great day,” and he responded with his usual shy grin, “Tomorrow will be even better.” Then a few minutes before the service started he went to the washroom, and he never came out again.
The cantata got underway and Mom began to fret. Finally, she signalled an usher to check the washroom. My father was found unresponsive, lying with a bruised head on the floor of a locked bathroom stall. The usher called for an ambulance, then went to escort my mother out of the sanctuary, but it was obvious that Dad had “flown away,” as she often referred to his death after that bitter night.
Strange that on this 25th anniversary I should have recalled an uneasy memory from youth, of a time when Dad and I were confined in a space almost as small as the church cubicle in which he died.
One fall day he and I had been working at the river flat where our farmland was located, gathering straw bales and packing them on a wooden rack to take home for our animals’ bedding. Around mid-afternoon the sky had begun clouding over, and by the time our load was filled the rain was threatening. We still had nine miles to go till home, and Dad may have been hurrying as he steered the Massey 30 tractor uphill toward the cattle gate we had to open and close with every passage, and I sat atop the bales trying to balance to the lurching of the rack. The road up the riverbank was rugged and narrow, scarcely more than a trail we drove with trucks and tractors, even with cars when family reunions were held “downhill” as our clan referred to the river flat. We were already within sight of the gate when a wheel struck a protruding stone, the rack toppled over and I flew from my perch, landing among the scattered bales without harm as Dad braked hard, first to stop the tractor and then to keep it from rolling back — and now the rain began to fall.
I’m sure Dad must have said Jeepers! as he jumped from the seat — it was the nearest thing to a curse he ever uttered — and together we scrambled to build a shelter of bales against the upturned floor of the rack in which to huddle until the squall passed over. It was a little like a fort that kids might build, or, as I at first imagined more exotically, like an igloo in which Eskimos outwaited a blizzard raging over their land, except that Dad and I could look out at the swaying trees and falling rain.
In a way it felt cozy enough. But as the moments passed, it became apparent that we had very little to say to each other. I wish now he could have initiated some conversation, anything at all: “Well, boy, we’re stuck here for awhile, so here’s a story for you,” or even simply, “It looks like this won’t last too long. So, how are things going at school?”
But there were only the sounds of rain on the straw and wind in the poplars. I suppose my dad was thinking about re-packing those sodden bales, while I felt more and more alone in a presence that was almost an absence — much like the Deity (I realize at this distance) we called our Heavenly Father. And it wasn’t until I was well into my own middle age that the conversations between us acquired any degree of intimacy, but these of course are the ones I treasure.
Eventually the rain let up. We dismantled the crude shelter and put our shoulders to the hayrack, rocked it upright and straightened the hitch, and arduously began re-stacking the bales, which now were twice as heavy as they’d been when dry. Then we drove slowly through the gate and over the slippery backroads, the silence between us now filled by the little Massey engine pulling us toward home.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.