The first person I ever knew with cancer was my grandmother. It killed her when I was about fifteen. Growing up, we drove to Watertown, South Dakota and visited my father’s parents once or twice a year for the holidays. My grandfather had been a gunner in the Army Air Corp in World War II. He flew on missions from England into France and Germany. I have a black-and-white picture of him in his flight suit with a leather helmet and goggles. He has this exhausted look on his face like he can’t believe he’s still alive. He met my grandmother, Laura, over there. My father was born across the pond and came home to America in ’45 after the war ended. Grandpa Ray owned a hardware store with money his uncle Lester loaned to him. Grandma held on to her British accent. Sometimes she used the word, “bloody.” She also liked Bloody Mary’s. She had black hair and when she hugged me I would about gag on all the perfume. I remember her frying eggs in her kitchen. I sat at a table and ate the eggs sunny side up with white toast. In the center of the table was a ceramic chicken sitting on a nest. When I lifted the chicken, the receipts would spill out. I told my father about it and he said his parents cheated on their taxes.
I liked going to my grandparent’s house when I was little. They had a large artificial Christmas tree and their house was a lot nicer than our trailer. I used to stay in a nautical-themed den with a gold-plated barometer on the wall and a bed that pulled out of a red leather couch. They had a sunroom with wicker furniture and a formal dining room with plates behind glass they never used. They also had an attic and a basement my brother and I liked to explore. At my house, we had an industrial-sized cable spool that my old man carpeted and called a coffee table.
Grandpa was never as affectionate as Grandma. He would greet us when we got there, but as the weekend wore on I sensed we were putting him out. He was balding with a pot-belly and mustache. If you said anything to him he would squint at you through his glasses, blink hard and clear his throat. That was about it. He sat in the living room all day, watching football or bowling on a Zenith cabinet TV while he drank tall cans of Budweiser.
As I got older I started dreading going to Watertown because my parents would fight so much when we returned home. It didn’t help that Dad drank with Grandpa Ray the whole time we were there. It stirred up a lot of feelings in my father whenever he saw his parents. My mother told me that Grandpa used to spank my father with a belt in the basement as a child. I sensed some deeper dysfunction that no one wanted to talk about. It always seemed like one wanted something from the other, but neither one of them knew how to give it. But I was a kid. I just liked seeing grandma and getting presents.
Once before I was old enough to shoot, they took me along with them duck hunting. The day before Grandma had bought me a book about the ocean. I remember sitting in the back seat reading about octopi and whales. I was interested in biology at an early age. The morning of the duck hunt before the sun had risen, I sat alone with grandpa in the cattails. It was peaceful under that cobalt sky with the mallards chortling in the distance and the methane smell rising out of the slough. My grandfather asked if I was cold. I told him no, that I was all right. It wasn’t much below freezing and the cattails cut out any wind. He asked me again and I admitted my toes were kind of cold. He told me to stamp my feet to get the blood flowing. When we got back home to Sioux Falls, my father confided that Grandpa Ray said I might be a “bookworm.” My father diplomatically told me he didn’t agree but suggested maybe I not read books around grandpa. I didn’t consider literacy a form of weakness and pretty much wrote my grandfather off as an asshole.
I walked along a railroad track with my father to my right and a pasture littered with skulls to my left. It was a sunny November day and I was excited to hunt with my Dad in a place he had hunted when he was young. I stepped on the ties with a twenty-gauge shotgun cradled in my arm. It was the easiest walking I ever did pheasant hunting. I wore a Chicago Bulls cap and a hunting vest loaded with shells. I watched my father work the thick cover of the ditch. “If I flush one I want you to take it,” he told me.
We were just outside the city-limits of Watertown. It was Thanksgiving weekend. There had been much debate between my father and his parents about cleaning the birds inside the house if in fact we did shoot anything. My father said he could do it in the basement and would put down newspaper, but grandpa was pressuring him to take any birds we killed over to the game-processing place in town. I could always tell that Grandpa wasn’t as enthusiastic about hunting as my father. But part of this may have been that Ray’s eyes were bad and he couldn’t hit anything himself anymore.
I caressed the stock of the double-barrel and gazed at the cow skulls that dotted the short grass of the pasture. There were dozens of them. I wondered how they got there and figured the herd must have died in a blizzard. They were bleached white by the elements, the hollow sockets of their eyes staring at nothing. A rooster flushed ahead of my father. I shouldered the gun and drew a bead on the bird. It flew in the direction of the wind back over my father’s head. I raised the gun barrel safely into the air. My father blasted the rooster with his twelve-gauge. The bird dropped stone dead into the weeds leaving a cloud of feathers.
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” my father demanded.
“He was too low,” I explained. “I didn’t want to shoot you.”
He found the bird and admired it briefly before stuffing it into the back of his hunting vest. After a few more minutes of walking, he climbed the bank and joined me on the tracks. He wore an olive T-shirt, jeans, a camouflage cap, and black Wayfarer sunglasses. His face was ruddy from the sun and when he smiled deep crow’s feet formed around his eyes.
“When we get back I want you to tell everyone you shot him. Ok?”
“That’s fine,” I said after a pause. “I’ll say I got him with one shot.”
I was old enough to know how to lie and I knew the lie was not for me. We walked back to the car together on the railroad tracks.
I was a sophomore in high school when Laura was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed the day after Christmas. The cancer had spread into her brain. She must have known it was over. Up until that point she had compartmentalized the sickness in her body, but now it had swallowed her and all she could do was wait for death. She spent Christmas in the darkness of her bedroom. Only Ray and Roger were allowed in to see her. I could hear her moaning in pain while we all sat in the living room in silence, knowing there was nothing we could do. “It’s in my brain, Ray!” she screamed over and over. I never saw her until the funeral. It gave me a jolt to see a dead person. It made me realize the body was just a vessel. It was my grandma, but it wasn’t. I didn’t like looking at her. She was all makeup on cold dead flesh. The ground was frozen solid and they couldn’t bury her in the cemetery until spring.