Some history. My Dad died on his way to work in May of 1990. His truck was crushed by a crane that fell off a flatbed; the accident happened about a half kilometre from our house. It was a shitty day.
Twenty-three years later, I can talk about it without tearing up, but there is part of me that will never recover. I'm still sad. I really miss my Dad, especially when Nathaniel tries his hand at fishing or I hear Fleetwood Mac.
Here's my story.
I yank back on the muck-laden handle, hard and fast, and hear a loud slurp as I expose a gash of wet earth. My hand rummages in the deep pouch on my right. When my planting bags are full, it is sometimes difficult to grab just a single seedling. The rubber gloves I wear to protect my hands from pesticides and pine needles don't help.
Got it. My fingers find a tree and stuff it into the ground, whisking in the roots. I gently pull up on the tree by its tip until it is perfectly straight. I stomp once, packing the earth at the base of the tree, chuffing out air.
My eyes scan the rough terrain for a decent microsite and seeing one, I lunge to the left. I screef furiously with my shovel, rapidly clearing away the duff and barky bits. I drive the shovel into the earth, opening up another pocket of rich soil. I grab a tree, whisk it in, stomp and move on. I repeat these movements several thousand times a day.
Some days I plant like an automaton. I thrust my shovel into the ground with all the strength that I can muster. I'm reckless; I know that if I hit a rock, the reverb will injure my humerus, but I don't care. The pain is welcome. I can't stop. I won't stop. Poverty is a great motivator for those who are paid by the tree.
I continue my jagged, freeform bush-dance. In the distance, in the slash – the coarse, woody detritus of the logging operation - I see a blood-red splotch of cloth weaving back and forth but definitely moving toward me. It's Greg, my foreman. I hope he's not coming to bitch at me about my quality. I had to replant a few days ago because my spacing was off. You never want to replant; you're not making any money. You plant the tree once, and do it right the first time.
He won't meet my eyes.
“Hey. You have to come with me. It's your Dad.”
I don't answer. I am trying to process the information. It's difficult. I can feel sweat rolling down my back and into the waistband of my spandex. Odd to sweat like this, when the rain pours down.
It must be his kidney stones.
I push away other darker thoughts.
I focus on Greg's back and follow him to the stash, which is where we bag up. We walk in silence, listening to the rain patter on the earth.
There's not a soul in sight on the barren road. I grab my pack and climb into the front seat of the truck. Greg says nothing; his eyes focus on the muddy ruts. The dull landscape is starkly beautiful: the slash a jam of broken wood stacked haphazardly, trees riven to ragged javelins. We pass a prescribed burn - scorched wood and burnt earth, ash and dust, dots of new growth here and there. The bits of green look electric in this dead field.
I am nauseated. My clothes are stuck to me. I watch the wipers swish back and forth and try not to vomit.
Even thought it's the middle of the morning, the bar is dark. The shades at the windows are drawn and it feels like evening. It smells like smoke, beer and small town desperation.
I'm shown the payphone and Greg plunks in some change. There's no answer when I call home. I dial the operator and ask to be connected to the hospital. I'm shaking. When I ask to speak to my Dad, I'm transferred three times and I speak to three different people, all of whom put me on hold. The last nurse I speak with tells me to call home: “there's been an accident... I'm sorry... ” Her voice trails.
I thought he was still alive.
When I run out of the bar, into the street, I sound inhuman. I wail at an incredible volume. The street is empty save for three Natives, who are walking towards me. They look worried. I smack a concrete wall and hurt my hand, and then I cling to a post, sobbing. The Natives are concerned for my welfare. The eldest of the three tries to peel me off the signpost and I push her away. I know that I'm being unkind but I don't care. I don't want to share my grief. It's mine; I won't explain.
After the flight home, I light up a smoke, right in the living room. I haven't smoked in the house before, in fact, until this moment Joanne doesn't know that I smoke. Wisely, she says nothing. We are waiting for my brother to get changed into his new suit so that we can go to the Funeral Home to see my Dad.
The funeral director is pale and bespectacled; his hair is weathered teak. It's plastered to his head with grease. I want to send him an anonymous letter, tell him to change his hair.
He smiles a smile that is reserved for families like us. He greets us, murmurs apologies and leads us down the hall. As we're walking, he casually mentions that my Dad doesn't really look like he normally does.
We stop. This is news.
“His head might look a bit swollen”. He walks on.
He leads us into the room, and I can see the coffin, a body inside. Is that really my Dad? As we approach, and I get a better view I am speechless, initially.
My father's head is indeed swollen; it is gigantic. It's the size of a medicine ball. His features have stretched to accommodate his new head and the result is horrific. He's like a prop from a B movie – waxen and otherworldly - and I can see that the undertaker has used coverup to hide some cuts on one of his hands. The colour is unnatural; it's a bit on the orange side. I can't look, but I can't look away. I have never seen anything so sad, so wrong.
What was my grandmother thinking? And the funeral directors? Are they completely insane? How could anyone think that an open casket was a good idea after seeing this head?
I can't get over the size of it.
“That's not my father,” I sputter, bolting from the room.
No one follows me.
A few weeks after the funeral, I receive a package postmarked from Timmins – it's the last of my things from up north - my tent, a sleeping bag and some clothing. There's an envelope addressed to me and the handwriting is my Dad's. I open it tentatively. Inside is a phone bill, and a letter from the university. Attached to it is a sticky note with the words “Luv ya!” scrawled across it. I wonder if he would have said more had he known that he wouldn't be here a few days later.
My heart breaks, again.
This morning, I wake up to the sound of a chainsaw roaring. I throw off the bedclothes and peer into the yard. I see two workmen in hardhats. One of the men is using a sawzall and the other holds a massive chainsaw. There is a truck with a wood chipper parked on the road beside the grass.
I grab clothes, run outside.
I'm heaving; I can't breathe. My body is on fire and then I'm sobbing, bent over in pain.
They look at me, stunned. One of them approaches me. He considers my appearance, my behaviour.
He gestures at an erratic crack down one side of the trunk.
“It won't live. It's damaged.”
Lightening struck the tree two summers ago. It's a Blue Spruce. My Dad staked it and we hoped for the best. It is our favourite tree. The one that he adorns with lights at Christmastime.
Today, they are chopping it down.
He's not here to see it. We buried him three weeks ago.
I can't watch.
I return to the bush the following year, thinner and hard-hearted. I listen to a lot of Ella and Louis. It's hardly planting music, but it calms me. I'm numb but the smell of the earth is rich and I inhale it deeply. It is springtime and things are waking up.