It was the end of October, hunting season. Grampa told everybody he was going up to the cabin with Uncle John to do some deer hunting. Nothing unusual about that because they did that every year. But then Uncle John phoned wanting to talk to Grampa and Dad said, “I thought he was up at the cabin with you?” Dad and my uncles went looking for Grampa and found him dead up at the cabin. Turns out Grampa had gone up to the cabin a week early. By himself.
The doctor was sure Grampa died of organ failure. He hadn’t taken any food or water up to the cabin, or lit a fire to keep himself warm. My Aunt Jess got suspicious and looked at the pill bottles on his bedside table ‒ turns out he had way more than he was supposed to because he wasn’t taking them.
I was so sad I couldn’t get out of bed for a week. At his funeral, my little niece Joy kept staring at Grampa’s hands like they were suddenly going to shoot up and go for her nose, like when he played that oops, I got your nose game with her. Then she wanted to climb up into the coffin beside him and would have if my sister Angela hadn’t dragged her away. That’s exactly what I felt like doing.
My mom and all my aunts blamed themselves: We should have got somebody in to look after him, we shouldn’t have left him alone in his house like that, not with his mind going, we should’ve paid more attention, made sure he was taking his pills properly…
But what could we have done, short of locking him up in his own house? Standing guard to make sure he ate his vegetables and took his pills? He didn’t want to come and live with any of us. He always said he was perfectly capable of looking after himself. And he was, basically. It’s true that his mind was playing tricks on him. I remember once when he was making Kraft dinner for us and couldn’t find the strainer for the macaroni. When he went to ask me, he forgot the word “strainer”. “You know what I mean, Rose, goddamn it! That thing like a net but made of metal, you know, for pasta!” I laughed thinking about a strainer being called a net, but Grampa didn’t think it was so funny. Now, thinking about it, I can see why. Imagine opening your mouth and the word not coming out. And sometimes he’d get mixed up too. He’d forget how to get a DVD to play, or how to set the washing machine, or where he put his slippers. We’d be having Sunday dinner and Aunt Lizzie would ask him to pass the potatoes. Grampa would turn and look at her, puzzled like. You could tell he was coming back from far away.
We all noticed that Grampa was getting quieter too. Grampa was someone who always had something to say about everything, sometimes too much, said my Granma when she was alive. Or as my Aunt Jess put it, Grampa could talk the ear off a pig. I remember going with Grampa to see Uncle Larry’s grave in the cemetery up the road. Larry was Grampa’s oldest boy but he died in a motorcycle accident when he was seventeen. I knew that Grampa was trying to illustrate what would happen to me if I got the motorcycle I wanted when I turned sixteen. When we walked along between the rows of graves, Grampa stopped to tell me the life story of every single person buried there. “Look, there’s old Mr. Maclean, he married Sally Fisher from over on the 4th. They had six kids, the oldest was Johnnie, he bought the turkey farm up the 5th. The next, now that would’ve been Eric, never seen such a good-for-nothing! Couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag. God knows what he’s doing now, probably not much. Then there was Sally, I went to school with Sally, she was a tough one, played baseball with the boys, the only girl that ever got the strap, too bad she ended marrying that Arnold, a guy more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. Then there was Jill….”
Then last Easter Grampa tripped going up the cellar stairs. He went to the hospital for X-rays, and they said his hip was all smashed and needed surgery to fix it. But when they did all the tests to see if hip surgery was even possible, they discovered he had a bad heart. So he ended up having two surgeries, the first to clear the arteries in his heart with little balloons, and the second to put a new metal joint in his hip.
Then, just when they were about to let him come home, he got a bad infection that gave him the runs. He had to wear a diaper because he couldn’t get to the bathroom on time. He kept trying to make it so he wouldn’t have to call the nurse. The doctors got worried that he was going to fall again and so they sent a social worker round to talk to him, to try and persuade him to be more reasonable. “Cooperative” was the word they used. Don’t think it worked.
So in the end Grampa was in the hospital for over a month. I went on weekends with Mom to visit but I never knew what to say. He looked so tiny lying there in the white sheets, the bright light from the window shining down on his fluffy white hair. The yellow walls, the antiseptic smell, the blinking machines, the cheerful nurses coming in and out all the time ‒ it all sucked the words right out of my mouth. So I just sat on the bed and held his hand.
One time I bought him a bouquet of flowers that I had picked in our garden. It seemed like a good idea because I saw lots of flowers on bedside tables in the other rooms. But then I regretted it because Grampa sniffed them and said how beautiful they were about fifty times. Which showed he was just trying to be nice and didn’t know what else to say. Now I know what I should have brought him: a bag of jujubes, his favourite candy. Or Smarties, his second favourite.
When Grampa came home he was so skinny it looked like a breeze would blow him over and he had to take a dozen pills. He was tired a lot of the time too. But he was so happy! He said he would never, ever go back to the hospital, not in a million years.
Every day after school I went along the road to his house. I made us each a cup of coffee and two pieces of raisin toast. Then we watched TV together until suppertime. Sometimes I’d skip supper at home and make us Kraft dinner. We watched a lot of Seinfeld reruns. He loved the one when George goes out to save a whale that got its breathing hole blocked by Kramer’s golf ball. George tells his friends the story in a big dramatic way: The sea was angry that day, my friends,like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. Grampa loved that line. He kept saying things like, The cat was angry that day (when one of the barn cats scratched my littlest niece), or The washing machine was angry that day (when one of his socks disappeared).
Then my Dad got Grampa cable so he’d have something to do now that he couldn’t help out around the farm. So we started watching movies together. He hadn’t watched a lot of movies because he’d been so busy on the farm his whole life. We watched super long ones like Gone with the Wind and Titanic. And funny ones like Men in Black. Now I remember that he really liked one called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow. It was a documentary about an autistic woman named Temple Grandin. I remember thinking: of course a dairy farmer would like this!
“Wasn’t that something how she got down on the ground to see the world like cows do?” said Grampa.
“Dunno. Seems pretty obvious to me.” I said.
“How? How is that obvious, smarty pants?”
“I dunno. Like that cows don’t want to go in a dark barn. Nobody likes going in a dark barn.”
“Well, if it’s so obvious why didn’t those experts figure it out? Before they hired Temple, they were ready to tear down that barn and build a new one. Would have cost them a fortune.”
“See how she figured out that the main emotion of cows is fear, just like humans? That they were panicking out of fear?”
“Just like that cow that got out of the barn last summer. She was scared like that. She wasn’t crazy, just scared.”
“You know I’m right, said Grampa, sighing.
I just didn’t want to talk about that cow. But now I do.
I remember that it was August and that it felt like the hottest day of the summer. The cicadas were buzzing like wood saws and the dogs were panting so hard they couldn’t sleep, even in the shade of the giant maple trees beside our house. It was so hot that my brothers Tyler and Travis had been sent home by the landscaping company at noon. I was thinking of calling my best friend Lily and seeing if she wanted to go to the air-conditioned mall.
I was in the kitchen making Dad and me a sandwich when the telephone rang. It was Uncle Dave, who was up at the barn helping Uncle Ronnie move some heifers into pens. From the sounds of it, something bad had happened to Uncle Ronnie.
When we got to the barn, Uncle Ronnie was curled up on the floor, moaning and clutching his side.
“What the hell happened here?” said Dad.
But Uncle Dave hadn’t seen what happened and Uncle Ronnie could barely talk. He whispered what sounded like “cow…hit…me”, which I thought was funny but impossible, because how could a cow hit a man?
“What cow?” said Dad.
Uncle Ronnie couldn’t elaborate because he was turning grey like he was going to pass out. We looked around and Uncle Dave saw that a cow was missing, then that the back door of the barn was wide open.
“Jesus, one of the cows must’ve charged him and taken off,” said Dad.
Dad tried to help Uncle Ronnie up but he screamed in pain and his eyes started rolling back into his head.
“Go call the ambulance, Rose.” said Dad.
So I went off to the farmhouse to phone. Grampa was sitting watching the news and heard my conversation with the 911 guy. When the two of us got to the barn, we headed out into the field with Dad to find the runaway cow.
The cow was standing in the ditch that runs across the field. We could see the top part of her above the tall phragmites growing in the ditch. It wasn’t very deep, only about five feet. When she saw us coming, she started snorting and waving her head. She tried to get up the bank but kept slipping. She was panicking so much her eyes were big like saucers. Finally, she got so tired she flopped down on her knees and stopped trying.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“I dunno know.” said Dad, “Maybe we’ll have to get more people, get some rope and try to pull her out.”
“I could go get Mom or Tyler, they’re home.”
“No,” said Grampa. “She doesn’t need more people around. Best to leave her alone so she can calm down. Then she’ll get herself out.”
“We don’t have all day,” said Dad. “We’ve got to get her back in the barn. I have to start milking in a few hours.”
“Just leave her with me. I can get her back in. Rose can help me.” said Grampa.
“No, you’ll never get her back in, not when she’s like this.”
“I will, she’ll calm down.”
“Not so sure about that. Rose, you stay here with your Grampa while I go and check on Ronnie.”
So Grampa and I sat down on the edge of the ditch. The angelica was blooming up and down the sides of the ditch, the bees were buzzing all over them, and the sky was a huge blue dome over our heads. We watched a shiny silver airplane crawl across the sky like a tiny bug, leaving a long white line in the blueness. I felt little like that bug, except down here on earth. At first we talked but then the sun made us sleepy and we just sat there and watched the cow and the bees and the sky. It felt like we had all the time in the world. Even the poor cow closed her eyes for a nap.
We heard the ambulance come screaming down our road. It pulled into the barnyard and two paramedics jumped out and rushed into the barn with Dad. A few minutes later they came back out, pushed the stretcher with Uncle Ronnie into the back of the ambulance and sped off.
Then Dad came back out with Uncle Dave. Dad and then Uncle Dave got down in the ditch and pushed on the cow’s hind end. We tried nice words, we tried shouting, we tried pulling on a rope tied around her neck. We tried everything. But the cow kept falling all over the place, snorting and mooing like we were trying to kill her. She looked confused, scared and exhausted.
“We’re going have to shoot the thing, can’t see any other way,” Dad said.
“Let’s leave her for a bit, let her calm down and get her energy back,” said Grampa.
“No, it’s never going to work.”
“Sure it is. Let’s just leave her for a bit.”
“And then what? Say we do leave her for a couple of hours, even all night, a week? And then say by some miracle we do manage to get her out and back in the barn. Then what? This cow’s been nothing but trouble since the day we got her. Always been unpredictable, a bit crazy. Look what she did to Ronnie ‒ gave him a concussion and probably a few broken ribs too. Could have killed him!
“And how do you know that? Nobody knows that.” said Grampa. “Let’s wait a bit. I can stay out here ‘til she calms down. I got nothing better to do. You go on back in and do the milking.”
“I can stay with Grampa,” I said.
“No, I want it settled now,” said Dad.
“What’s the hurry?” said Grampa.
Dad could see that Grampa was really wanting to save that cow. He turned to Grampa and said, kind of sad like: “There’s no hurry. It’s just something that’s got to be done. You know that, Dad. You know we can’t have a cow like that around.”
Grampa didn’t say anything. He just looked down at his feet and then out into the big blue sky.
Dad told me and Grampa to go back to the farmhouse, that he would take care of it. Grampa took my hand as we walked back to his house. In my head, I could see my Dad getting the shotgun out of the closet.
I was in Grampa’s kitchen, making us a cup of coffee, when the gun went off. I starting crying and Grampa put his arms around me.