Skip to main content

by Nyle Smith

“Please don’t protect me,” crosses my mind as I watch my
father-in-law brush the leaves from the tiny grave. He and I have
never been particularly close, although we have reached that
comfortable equilibrium where we recognize that even though his
daughter is my wife, she’s still his daughter, and even though
she’s his daughter, she’s my wife.
“Please don’t protect me.” That thought again, knocking around
clumsily. I ignore it and notice that although there have been
many tears at this small graveside in the past, there are no tears
today, just acceptance of a long past tragic fact . For just a
moment, I lose track of my father-in-law’s hands among the fall
leaves. It’s difficult to distinguish between the veins and calluses
of his hands from sixty-nine years of life and the comparatively
youthful aging of the leaves from one brief summer. The leaves
and his hands blur together just long enough for me to imagine
that my father-in-law looks as if he might be a tree. If I sawed
him in half, perhaps I could count the rings of his life, left there
year by year as life pressured him to grow. The ring from 1952
would be an extremely wide one, a mass of growth forced on him
by a year of storm, and the death of a babe.
I have babes of my own now-two girls, one aged three and a
half years (mustn’t deny her that half year, it’s very important to
her), and one aged seven months. The rings of their trees are very
tender. Tender, too, are my feelings for them. I want to wrap them
in the arms of my love, protecting them from any harm the world
might bring against them. I want to preserve their innocence, but
most of all, I want to ensure at least one tiny element of their
tenderness survives the cauldron of youth. Yet I realize I can’t
protect them from their personal hardships any more than my parents
could protect me from mine, and there are some things no one
can protect them from. The thought of them being taken from
me, ripped from my arms by the dispassionate power of death,
destroys me. I am sure if that happened, if I actually had to lay
one of my children in the grave, my heart also would be in danger
of burial. Life itself would become impossible for me, I would
simply refuse to exist. Yet, I see around me the proof that I
would still exist, that I would find a way through.
My father-in-law would agree. I watch him from the corner of
my eye as we drive away from the little graveyard on the hill, the
graveyard that will contain both him and his wife one day. They
purchased four burial plots here years ago, and now they’re con-
fronted by their mortality every time they leave the cemetery; they
know one day they won’t be driving away. One day the stone they
leave behind will bear record of the final resting place of Wendell,
Sarah, and David.

David was their baby’s name. He received it though officially
he didn’t graduate into life. He died during the turbulent
innocence of birth. The difficult thought to confront is that
he was perfect. Absolutely ten-count-’em-ten toes perfect. Yet he
didn’t make it. The cord wrapped around his neck while still
inside the birth canal. While modern medicine was furiously
trying to save him, David stopped breathing, then was still. When
the forceps wrung him from the womb, there was no cry of joy
or rage or bewilderment, there was only silence. In the silence,
Sarah wept. They whisked the tiny body away from her, protecting
her from the sight of her perfect baby, her perfect, dead baby.

Wendell, protected from the scene by the plaster and mortar of
the waiting room walls, was stoic when he was told. He was an
Idahoan, and stoic Idahoans, used to drought and long winters
of ice, deal with tragedy directly. Confront the problem, damn
the emotions, put forth your best solution, and continue on with
the blessing of life. So he arranged for the burial of his son.
The problem with arranging for a burial was that a mortician
had to be called and paid, and money wasn’t something my
mother and father-in-law had a lot of then. Besides, there were
the hospital bills, which would be formidable. Yet the Idahoan
in my father-in-law prevailed, and the funeral was arranged. A
viewing was discouraged, for the tiny body of David had been
badly bruised. But he still needed to be dressed. It would have
been nearly an impossible task for my mother-in-law at the time.
She had experienced too many miscarriages in the early months
of pregnancy, and to have to confront the body of her full-term,
perfect baby boy would be too much to bear. My father-in-law
was willing, but strongly discouraged. Too difficult for him, they
said, too traumatic. So an angel in the form of the mortician’s
wife stepped forward and volunteered to do the job. Soon David
was prepared, dressed, and tucked safely inside his tiny coffin.

The family drove to the “final resting place” and gave David his
dues for making it at least this far in mortality, namely a funeral
and a headstone. Though he may not have been there to feel it,
they also offered love.
The “angel” who had volunteered to dress David for them also
charged them twenty-five dollars for the privilege. Twenty-five
dollars! To this young couple, in 1952 dollars, that was an
astronomical amount. If they had known the cost, they would
have arranged for a church or extended family member to
complete the task. Perhaps the final insult of misguided capitalism
is in the realization that even compassion can be bought and paid
for. Though incensed, my in-laws scrimped and saved and got
the bills paid somehow. In Wendell’s house, the bills always got
paid “somehow.” Yet even after the financial matters had been
taken care of, something still gnawed at him. He should have
dressed David. It wasn’t a matter of money, it wasn’t a
matter of being “protected” from the sight of his deceased son;
it was a matter of a father’s duty to his children. David was his
son, and he should have dressed him. As he viewed the events
with the clarity of hindsight, remorse crept in.
The cemetery is now far behind us, and as the car tires crunch
through the leaf-lined streets, I think I see a small tear forming
in the corner of the Idahoan’s eye. Then he says it, straight out.
“If I could change anything in my life, I would have dressed
David.” He need say no more, the glistening in his eye and the
slump of his body tell the rest. I want to lean forward from
the back seat and hug him, tell him I understand, that as a father
of children I offer him empathy and support. Instead, I wiggle
deeper into the Naugahyde-covered seat and stare out of the
window, wondering how any of us ever survive our personal tragedies.

It is difficult for me to express my feelings to my father-in-law
because it brings me too close to a father-and-son relationship,
something I am distinctly unfamiliar with. When I was eleven
years old, my mother called each of her sons into her bedroom.
I knew something big was up, for the bedroom conferences always
denoted great import. When my turn came, my mother took my
hands in hers and asked me what I would think about her and
my father divorcing. With all the wisdom that an eleven-year-
old could muster, I told her that I didn’t think it was a good idea.

She merely smiled sadly and told me it was so, that they were
to divorce. I wondered why; I had never seen my mother and
father fight. Violence wasn’t something that was tolerated in our
home, a standard that was difficult to enforce with a family of
five active boys. Even though it seemed natural to me then-for
I had known of no other lifestyle – now I realize that for years
my father had not even been living with us.
After twenty-seven years of married life, Mom now faced the
future as a single parent. We had been living in Texas, but she
picked up and moved us to Utah, to be closer to family. Shortly
after our arrival, she found a job at the Attorney General’s Office
and over the next fifteen or twenty years carved out a career for
herself in consumer protection. The only thing I carved out
during our early years in Utah was a hole for myself to hide in.
I didn’t deal well with the divorce, and I didn’t deal well with
the years of poverty we endured before my mother was promoted
from secretary to investigator. Perhaps the most disturbing point
to me was that I never knew why my parents divorced, why my
father wouldn’t help us financially, why I suddenly found myself
in Utah in the midst of a church congregation that took the
wrong kind of pity on me because I came from a “broken home.”
My brothers wouldn’t talk about it, and all I could sense from
my mother was a deep sadness about my dad.
So it was disconcerting news when I discovered Dad was moving
to Utah to be closer to his boys. It was even more bewildering
when I remembered that Dad had never spent time with us when
he was living with us. So why was he making the effort now? I
needn’t have worried, for even though he did move to Utah, he
didn’t spend much time with us. But he did spend five minutes
with me one afternoon.
He called while my mother was at work and wanted to come
over to see me. I readily agreed, and when he arrived I eagerly
opened the door only to notice that something was wrong. He
entered and promptly handed me twenty dollars to go skiing
with, a gift that a fourteen-year-old boy like myself was definitely
happy to receive, but that happiness was marred. My father was
drunk. After he left, I wondered how I was going to tell my
mother. What a shock it was going to be to her, especially being
raised in a religious setting where alcohol and the devil walked
hand in hand, the same philosophy she raised me with.
When she arrived home, I blurted out what had happened,
afraid of how this new knowledge might affect her. There was
no registering of shock, no incredible disbelief; there was only
the same sad smile she had when she told me of her divorce. She
then related that my father had been an alcoholic for nearly a
decade, and that was the reason for their divorce. It became clear;
now I knew why they were divorced, it all made sense.
Bewilderment was replaced by appreciation of what my mother struggled
through and a renewed veneration for her. But still, I wanted to
tell her that she could have told me earlier, that she could have
confided in me. If she had, I think I might have been better able
to piece the puzzle together, that after I dealt with the pain, I
could then deal with my life.

Wendell’s eyes are dry again as he pulls the car into the drive-
way. As we get out, I avoid looking at him. We have shared an
emotional moment during our drive, and for the rest of the day
we will have to deal with its consequences. We speak in matter
of fact tones. We unload the car, and as he walks into the house,
for one brief moment, I imagine the years melting away from
his frame. He is a young father again, confronting the death of
his newborn son. He gingerly takes the tiny body into his arms
and lovingly places on the infant a gown that should have been
reserved for the joyous moment of bringing the baby home. His
tears flow freely as he places his son into a casket. It is more than
he can bear, this final act; yet in the tradition of his pioneer
heritage, he would have borne it well. It is life, it is hard, and
there is honor in bearing the pain. I imagine myself as an eleven-
year-old, crying out in confused pain and frustration at my
parents’ divorce, trying to confront the unbearable fact that
my father was an alcoholic. Yet I, too, came from pioneer stock,
and bear it I would have, if given the chance. Even though my
father-in-law and I are many years past these events, the rings
of our growth are still living within us, layered over by a lifetime,
but still an integral part of our daily existence. I wonder how
much wider might those rings have been if we were allowed the
luxury of not being protected, the luxury of facing life’s griefs
head on. But it is difficult for me to find fault, for I know full
well that the protections tendered me during my years have been
offered only in love. I, too, offer such protections not only to my
children, but also to my mother as she ages, and the tenuous role
between child and parent starts to blur.
We are through unloading the car now. My father-in-law enters
the house. As I watch the door shutting solidly behind him,
the thought crosses my mind once again, this time mildly:
“Please, don’t protect me.”