On average, the adult human skeleton is composed of 206 bones weighing 30-40 % of the body’s total weight. Water accounts for half that figure. Desiccated, then, the skeleton weighs 15-20% of a body’s original weight at death. So if my father weighed 170 pounds when he died nineteen years ago, his skeleton— marrow dried, flesh gone—weighed between 25.5 and 34 pounds when my sister dug him up this past July. I wasn’t there to see how the blue pine coffin had collapsed on him. I didn’t watch the forensic anthropologists (two couples from the University of Montana and two graduate students) search for his bones in the dark earth. I didn’t see how they dusted each find with a fine horsehair brush. I didn’t see them hold each one to the light or hear them identify the flat bones that shielded his brain, heart, lungs. Skull, sternum, ribs. I didn’t hear them identify the long bones that tethered muscle, skin, and held his weight for 71 years, just one longer than he believed Psalm 90:10 promised. Humerus, ulna, femur. I missed how, finally, they sifted the complex bones from their bed. Vertebrae. Sacrum.
It was after 10 p.m. when they finished counting and cataloguing their finds. Midnight, by the time my sister Bobbie drove the ninety miles to Missoula, a cardboard box of bones strapped into the back seat of her Honda Civic. She took them to the crematorium the next day.
Three weeks later, she calls to tell me.
It took ten hours for them to find all his bones.
I can’t believe you dug him up without telling me, Barb. My sister changed her name to Bobbie several years ago. We both know I revert to Barb as an insult.
Why would I want to tell you? Her tight tone confirms the sting. You wouldn’t have wanted to be here.
My father died Father’s Day, 1996. Or the day before. Another twenty-year argument between my sister and I. She insists he died on Saturday, the day before Father’s Day. I say he died on Father’s Day. I prefer the symmetry of it, the way it carries the hint of a cosmic wink. Plus, I’m a lawyer. I tend to defer to written proof.
Look at the funeral program. It says, Passed Away, June 16, 1996. Father’s Day.
Every lawyer knows how unreliable eye-witness testimony is. Still, her account casts doubt on mine. I was there, remember? I’m the one who watched him die.
He was working on a new house the weekend he died. It would have been his fourth in twenty years. The baby of the family, I was the only one still living at home when he built the first one. We’d been living in a trailer on twenty acres of scrub, and while he’d talked about building Mom a house someday at the far end of the property-line where the Smith River pooled algae-green in spring, it seemed little more than a fantasy to keep him going. He was fifty-one. I was three months away from turning eighteen. As far as I knew, he’d never built anything other than a screened porch once, but there he was, standing in the charred rubble of our burnt-out trailer, saying, Guess I’ll go ahead and build that house now.
A man with no education, no money, nothing to make you believe he had any rational basis for thinking he could build a house. But he did. No architect. No drafting table or blue prints. Just some men from church and a six-sided carpenter’s pencil he’d sharpen with his pocketknife while staring into middle-space, calculating next steps on slabs of sheetrock. There were mistakes. He didn’t treat the wood properly. For as long as we lived there, red and black box elder bugs crawled out of the logs oozing red juice on every flat surface, flying at us, clinging to our clothes and hair. There were injuries, too. One of his friends lost a thumb in the power saw and Dad couldn’t find it in the corner where it had flown, not thinking to sift through the piles of sawdust lining the wall until it was too late to reattach the shriveled stub.
I spent the day before my father died dragging my husband and five-year-old daughter through a drizzly day of open houses I’d seen listed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that morning. We weren’t in the market. I’d just started a new job, my first at a silk-stocking law firm. While I hadn’t yet exposed myself as wholly unsuited for the position by nature and nurture both, I was beginning to sense that nub of truth, beginning to suspect I wouldn’t be around long enough to jump into the senior associate ranks. Or earn their salaries. Still, I felt compelled to spend the whole afternoon opening the doors of strangers I’d never meet, traipsing through places I’d never belong until the realtors waded into the rain to retrieve the last limp balloons from their Welcome! signs.
When we got home, the phone was ringing. My sister, calling with a message I didn’t want to hear.
Dad. Hospital. Unresponsive.
The only time I’d ever prayed harder was four years earlier, February, 1992. I’d taken my nine-month-old daughter Rachel on her first visit to see my parents in Montana. Dad had finished the house in Plains the previous year, his third since that first one thirteen years earlier. Tongue-in-groove floors, refurbished brick fireplace. He’d built a barn out of weathered wood, a dozen sheep grazed on snow-covered thistles while two furry burros stood guard. They had peacocks, chickens, everything he’d wanted. Bobbie still lived two states away.
A few days before the end of our stay, Dad invited their pastor over for lunch. He was right out of my childhood—an unctuous man courting tithers like my parents. Dad was at the island fixing sandwiches. Baby? Would you make us a pot of coffee? He stood behind me chatting with his pastor while I filled the Mr. Coffee pot with water.
The air went out of the room.
I turned to see my father clutching his chest. His face, grey. What? Dad? What?
He said I kicked the baby on the hand or head. I am still shamed, twenty-four years later, by how I turned to him instead of Rachel—how I didn’t even notice her at his feet, flat out, arms wide, her breath held that long moment until I knelt and she screamed louder than I’d ever heard her scream. He had on his cowboy boots, the ones I bought him just out of law school. I saw a quarter-sized dent in the side of her head, the precise imprint of his boot’s toe. Its depth drained my blood, because your blood really does drain when you believe you’re losing the only one you’ve ever fully loved.
I picked her up. Stood, dazed. He told me he’d thought she was one of the dogs nuzzling his feet, he hadn’t looked, and anyway, said Mom, I was her mother, why wasn’t I paying attention? They blamed me. As if I needed help with that. I said let’s go, we have to get her to the hospital.
Dad’s pastor stood. Wait, let’s just pray for her, he said.
I had enough of my wits about me to know that if I said, no you fucking asshole, I need to get her to the hospital, it wouldn’t make things go any better. Dad could get stubborn. It was embarrassing enough for him to have his pastor see what little faith I had, for him to hear me say, Dad, you can pray on the way to the hospital. He drove me to the Plains hospital where the ER doctor, even more incompetent than I’d feared, chuckled, that’s just a goose egg. It cost me another chunk of my tongue when I didn’t tell him he was fucking asshole too, and instead said to Dad, I think he’s wrong. I need you to take us to Missoula. We sped the 90 miles to Missoula, where the ER doctors were marginally more competent.
It’s true, as Carson McCullers observed, that the most loved one holds the power in any relationship. As between us, my father held the power. Until that drive, when it shifted forever to the one I held in my arms.
Yes, it was dent. It looked bad. She’d need a CAT scan, twenty-four hours of observation. The next day the doctors said she’d dodged a bullet. Despite how bad it looked, the dent hadn’t been deep enough to intrude into the brain-sac. No bleeding on the brain. No concussion. It would have been a different story if her skull hadn’t still been pliable. All good, they said. But even they could see it wasn’t. For me. One of the nurses pulled me aside. It was just an accident, honey. You’ve got to forgive your Dad.
I couldn’t. Her injury conjured a past I’d pretended to forget: the casual violence and negligent nurture of my own early years.
The anthropologists were friends of friends of Bobbie’s. I can’t say I would have been able to make the trip to Montana, even if I’d known. Seen most magnanimously, my sister’s decision not to tell me in advance came from a protective prompt. But she’d lost that instinct decades ago. And now I can’t help seeing it from another angle, seeing it as a grudge. She seemed to believe that as the baby, I’d found a way to wedge myself into our father’s mercurial heart. I believed a more difficult truth. I believed our father’s love proportionate to our professed adherence to his faith.
And yet. I remember: I am six. Flu sweeps over me, and I cannot get to the toilet fast enough. Clots of vomit in my hair, diarrhea on my legs. Dad cradles me, cleans me with a warm washcloth, changes my sheets while I’m still in his arm. He spoons ice chips into my mouth and smooths my sweaty head until I sleep.
Or, I am five. He comes home from traveling all week selling farm equipment up and down the Coachella Valley. I run to the door to meet him, put my bare feet on top of his polished wingtips, and we spin across the celery colored carpet while he whistles “Waltzing Matilda.”
Or, I am four. We are at the San Diego zoo, a splurge, I know, even at that age. When he places me on the back of Speedy the tortoise, I clutch the smooth hardness and intricate geometry of its shell. It leaves a pink imprint I still see.
I don’t know whether Bobbie got what she was looking for when she moved back in with our parents. From my angle, all I could see was my 40-year old sister immersing herself again in their faith, the only way we knew to stake a claim with him. As a testament of faith, she opened a Christian bookstore in Plains, a town of 300 souls in a county so rural it didn’t have a single streetlight. When I said the idea seemed crazy, Dad’s eyes narrowed. He believed it was God’s will, was certain she’d be blessed for rededicating her life to the Lord. Something I ought to think about.
The fissure between my father and I grew when he called to tell me he wanted to build a house for Bobbie on the property, wanted me to give her 80 acres.
Your sister needs a home. She’s promised to live there with your Mom if I go first.
I had a three-year-old and was still in debt nearly seventy-thousand dollars in student loans. They’d lost their home in a shady deal while I was in law school, and I’d offered to buy them 300 acres Dad found in Plains, a place he could build on, he said, one last best place. I’d been paying for the property with plastic, digging my own family deeper into debt so I wouldn’t have to retract an offer I’d come to regret. But in Dad’s book, fair meant providing for the daughter walking with the Lord.
Later, I learned that he’d starting seeing visions the year he turned 70. He didn’t say anything about them to me, though. Instead, he said, My three-score and ten years are up this year. I ignored the message. Or didn’t recognize it. Or maybe I’d forgotten how literally he relied on every written word in the Bible, the one he’d carried with him for decades, its brown leather cover worn smooth, the pages of its onion-skin paper thinned nearly transparent in places. All I could see was how easily he broke faith with me for the promise of a future I didn’t believe. Focused on the wound, I ignored the worry. For the first and last time in my life, I said no to my father.
As the baby, I’d been spared most of his wrath. But I was grateful for the continent between us when his voice turned mean. He told me he’d just sell the place. If that’s how I was going to be about it, he didn’t want to live there anyway. Okay, I said, sell it. We were hurting each other as much as ourselves, but we didn’t know there wouldn’t be time to repair the damage before he’d die. Eighteen months later.
Was his skeleton intact?
What do you mean?
Was it like you’d see in a movie or science class?
The lid of the coffin had caved in, Sis, get it? No, it wasn’t intact.
That last statement makes me cry, softens Bobbie a little. She says all that was left of him was bones, boots and his belt buckle. She had them toss the boots into the oven with him, but the buckle got lost somewhere between Paradise and the crematorium. I don’t believe her, but I understand the lie. I would have kept the buckle, too.
He died building the new house, the one he’d designed with an attached apartment for my sister to live in forever.
It’s just the machine breathing.
Please don’t unplug him until I get there. Just wait for me.
I called Bobbie the next morning to check on Dad and give her our schedule. I’d missed a late night plane, squandering time with my brain fused, unable to manage the simplest tasks—the bank I’d used for two years disappeared for hours, the clothes in my closet blurred together, Rachel and David hovered at the door, unsure of the woman with the glazed eyes, blotchy face. The most direct flight would take us through Salt Lake City the next morning.
I can be there in eight, nine hours. Wait, please.
They didn’t. While the rest of the family saw him still breathing, warm, the look of sleep instead of death on his face, my last sight of him was his rubbery embalmed body. They’d dressed him in Levi’s, his pink-and-blue plaid dress shirt with the pearl snap buttons, the cowboy boots I’d given him the year I graduated from law school, soles worn through.
My parents believed in a literal resurrection of the body, a belief that proved a barrier to cremation as early as 6000 B.C., when the Egyptians began preserving their royals through embalming and mummification, conserving the body for the soul after its return from a 3,000-year journey, the circle of necessity. If, after the soul’s journey, the intact body awaited, the two reunited and lived as one with the gods.
Even with decades of distance between my parents’ beliefs and my late middle-age, when I start to consider my own death, I research burial + green + not cremation. I may not believe in the body’s literal resurrection or the soul’s reunification with the body. I may believe even less in the lake of fire my parents feared. Still, something in me recoils at the thought of my mortal husk turned to ashes in a crematorium’s fires.
I don’t know if the hope of resurrection prompted my mother’s decision to bury my father on the small hill, barely ten yards from her back door. Maybe it wasn’t even her decision. His unexpected death left her catatonic. She’d never spent a single night alone. Had never written a check. Had no idea how much, or little, they had in the bank. I can see her sitting at the kitchen table, with her three oldest children hovering nearby, staring out the window at the muddied yard with his tools scattered around an empty sawhorse, see her ceding all decisions to her other children. Coffin, funeral, burial site—all decided by my older siblings before I could even manage to get from Atlanta to Paradise, the day after Bobbie called to tell me he was in the hospital.
Part of it had to be money. Turned out they didn’t have enough in the bank to pay for the funeral, let alone a plot in a cemetery. The blue pine coffin built by my parents’ pastor was a simplicity Dad would have appreciated, but didn’t plan. My older siblings must have calculated the costs, convinced my dazed mother how nice it would be to keep her husband close. If she buried him on the hill in her backyard, he’d always be there for her. She could still see him every day. Talk to him. And she would. Over the years, Bobbie said it wasn’t unusual for her to walk in on Mom sitting at the kitchen table talking to Dad. Oh, honey, she’d say, going on to tell him about a friend from church, a need for prayer, or how the house was progressing without him there to do the work.
After the funeral, everyone ate fried chicken and potato salad that ladies from the church prepared. People talked about how healthy he’d looked. What a shock his death was. He’d worked all morning on the new house, spent the afternoon helping Bobbie move furniture for a garage sale. No one noticed his breathing go ragged. His face wince. Mom might have noticed, if she’d been there, but she was eight hundred miles away visiting my oldest sister.
When Dad called Bobbie late that afternoon, all he said was, It’s bad baby. She heard it, then, asked if he needed to go to the hospital. His maybe so, sent her into a panic. Dad hadn’t been to a doctor since he’d joined the Navy in 1942. She raced to the house, the ambulance two miles behind her. She found him in bed, gospel music on his tape player, his t-shirt wet with sweat. He asked her to put his boots on him. She told me later that was the last thing he said before blood leaked from his nose, mouth, ears. Even his eyes. It looked like he was crying blood.
Six men lowered his casket into the ground. We tossed red roses and fists full of dirt on his coffin before staggering inside the husk of a house only my parents could consider habitable. Blue and red electrical wires spilled from the walls, dun-colored sheetrock hung in their bedroom and bath, between the main house and the apartment for Bobbie, his writing on it, figures for floor and ceiling joists written in the thick lead of his carpenter’s pencil, messages from a ghost. Outside, a light rain. We stood at the window watching ochre rivulets drizzle down the mound of fresh earth.
The Christmas before Dad died, I was in a Blockbuster Video store with Rachel. She was four, and it had been two years since we’d gone back to Montana. Half a lifetime, for her. She was playing in the aisles while I looked for videos. Ma’am? Is this your daughter? An African-American man waved me over. He was about Dad’s age, but taller, his smooth face and neat grey Afro nothing like my father’s peppery hair and white beard.
Rachel, what are you doing? I took her hand. I’m sorry.
His eyes were a French roast color, so dark you could barely see the pupils, nothing like Dad’s sea green eyes, the kind that changed color with his mood.
It’s not my business, honey, but I’m wondering how long since this baby’s seen her grandpa?
She beamed at him while I said, It’s been a minute. He smiled back at her, told me maybe it was time for me to take her to see him again. My father was in perfect health. He was building a house. He wasn’t going to die anytime soon. But some shadow must have crossed my face, because the man laughed. A big-throated laugh. My father’s laugh.
Don’t go looking like that, he said, I’m not psychic. She just asked me if I was her grandpa, said she’d been looking for him everywhere.
Six months later, I picked out a few of Dad’s favorite gospel tapes to send for Father’s Day: Doyle Lawson, the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Carter Family. Someone had stolen the shoebox of tapes he kept in his van and I knew he’d love getting new ones. I sent the package from my office’s mailroom, deciding against the extra postage even though the clerk told me it wouldn’t get to Paradise until after Father’s Day. I didn’t think it mattered, that wasn’t the kind of thing Dad worried about. But as the day wore on, the image of the man in Blockbuster kept appearing. I couldn’t get his words out of my head until I went back to the mailroom and paid the extra postage for a quicker delivery. Bobbie told me he got the tapes on Saturday. He was listening to the Bluegrass Cardinals sing I’ll Fly Away when she got to the house and found him in bed.
In the weeks before he died, my father had two visions. He saw the first one on a stretch of road between Hungry Horse and Polson. It was early light when he stopped to pee at the side of the road, and as he looked across the field he saw Jesus standing there, arms extended. He told Mom the wounds in Christ’s hands were big enough for a grown man to slip into.
He saw the second vision at church, the Sunday before he died. He was praying, when he looked up and saw a field unfurl in front of him. He watched as bearded wheat sprouted and grew to maturity, watched as wind carried the ripe seed across the field. The stalks shriveled. He stared at the dead stubble until he saw, all over the fallowed field, scattered shoots like tiny green threads undulating out of the ground.
I don’t know whether his visions were like William Blake’s, appearing infinitely more perfect and organized than anything ever seen with a mortal eye. Dad’s poetry only went so far as to say they were clearer than anything he’d ever seen wide awake.
After a few weeks of grieving, I called the Plains hospital, asked to speak to Dad’s treating physician. Without an autopsy, it was impossible for him to say with certainty, but he conjectured a comorbidity: internal carotid occlusion and an aneurism. Heart and brain went at once, he said. Your Dad had a massive blow out.
It made me wonder if his visions had been triggered by something as unspectacular as a small stroke or the early stages of dementia. Lewy Bodies are known to goo up the brain, trigger hallucinations. On the other hand, neurologist Oliver Sacks found that ten percent of the population—perfectly healthy, no brain goo, no explanation—have one or more hallucinations in life. One third of those are religious or ecstatic in nature. I didn’t want to discount God’s hand coloring on his cornea, but I found some comfort in thinking my father’s moods and decisions those last few years, the ones that stung me almost as much as his death, left me nearly as bereft, might have had a physiological explanation. It made sense, too, when I thought about my last trip to Montana, two years before he died.
One afternoon, he drove us to Ravalli for Buffalo burgers and homemade Huckleberry pie at his favorite spot off Highway 41. After we ate, he pulled out of the gravel lot and into traffic, misjudging the speed of an oncoming semi. It missed us, but barely. This was a man who’d never had an accident in his life, despite spending the bulk of his adulthood as a traveling salesman, routinely putting fifty, sixty thousand miles on his cars every year. I’d driven with him thirty times or more from Montana to Colorado, believing in the protective bubble that never popped while he sped down I-25 at 110 miles per hours, the hood of his LTD trembling, until we reached the Wyoming border and he’d pull back to 80, 85 the rest of the trip.
For a moment after the big rig blew past we just sat there while he stared out the windshield. Quiet. He looked, although I only see this now, like a man who’d lost something too precious to bear.
Bobbie never lived in the house Dad died building, or the future they’d planned. Within months of his death, she closed the bookstore, remarried, moved to Missoula. She tried to teach Mom how to use the checkbook, how to budget her Social Security, but it frustrated and frightened Mom. A few years ago, Mom told me she’d given Bobbie a power of attorney over the house, that they’d taken out a reverse mortgage to pay some bills, finish the house, travel. I’ll never know the details, how much went into my sister’s failing business, how much went to the church. By the time I found out about it, they’d rented the house to some people in a last-ditch effort to keep from losing it. It didn’t work. When they sold it, the buyers only had one condition: they didn’t want Dad’s grave on their property.
I wish I could have kept a bone.
Why would you want a bone?
Just to have something of him.
Which bone would you want?
I don’t know. Were his bones white?
Yeah. But broken up, Sis. Scattered, like I said.
After we hang up I think about how our family is like that, too. Broken up. Scattered. Although my sister and I let years of mean deposits calcify soft tissue, and occlude familial arteries, the way our voices soften at the end of that conversation, the way we call each other Sis, conjures the time we shared a less frayed connection.
Her question, unanswered, echoes long after the line goes dead.
What bone would you want?
At first, I think I’d choose a rib, imagine the smooth curvature of the one that most closely cradled his heart. But the coffin had caved in. Most likely, the earth’s weight crushed his empty cage of bones to shards. So then I think, a finger. Something small. Intact. I could polish it. Paint it. Slip a silver chain through it. But I tend to lose small things, and I couldn’t carry it with me or wear it around my neck. Although I long to save some impervious part of him, I’d fear wearing a bone might carry a whiff of necromancy repellent to my father’s spirit. Finally, I settle on his sacrum.
Sacrum. From the Latin os sacrum. Literally, sacred bone. The sacrum’s Latin etymology derives from the Greek, hieròn osteon, holy bone. The Egyptians associated the sacrum with Osiris, the god of the dead and the afterlife; Hebrews and Arabs believed the seed of resurrection resided in the almond-shaped bone at its base; and Mesoamerican Indians considered the sacrum a portal to the spirit world.
It truth, the sacrum isn’t actually a single bone. It’s five bones fused into sheath, a fusion that turns it into the strongest bone in the body, makes it the hardest to break, the last to disintegrate. To me, it looks like a mask with eight vertical holes, four on each side. If I had that strong bone of his, I’d thread the holes with red silk and hang it on a wall painted pale yellow, a color he loved nearly as much as rust or turquoise. Over the years, I’ve collected a small cache of folk art for this wall. Only now do I notice how many times angels appear in this art: a guardian angel painted on particle board; the silhouette of a flying angel cut from plywood, the resurrection trumpet held to her lips; Jacob kneeling in front of the angel he’d wrestled into blessing him, the artist’s caption, A vision from an Angle, printed below in black Sharpie.
This is where the flat, animal-like face of my father’s sacrum would rest. I imagine what it would be like to spend years with that relic hanging there. Tucked among angels. I imagine tracing the fastened seams with my finger, admiring its fractured strength. But mostly I imagine how, years from now, I might see it in a certain angle of light, how it might reveal some translucent shred of his soul shimmering there, poised at the edge of eternity, bearing witness to his obscure faith.
Kelly Beard is a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in Creative Writing, July 2016). She works as an employment discrimination lawyer in the metro-Atlanta area where she live with a poet (David Bottoms) and a dog (Jack). Her work was chosen as one of the top-ten essays in the 2014 Tucson Literary Book Festival Creative Nonfiction Contest and she published an extensive interview with Andre Dubus III in the literary journal Five Points.