death · family

What is Real and What is Not (unfinished vignette)

“I just pretend it’s not real,” Josh says. “I mean it’s not my family. It’s not my girls.”

The chaparral is flaxen in color. The spring has already been glaringly unkind and things are not green. There’s dry grass and the backdrop of boulders, both very present as we sit in our lawn chairs on an Easter afternoon.

Grasses hollow as they dry, becoming insubstantial straw; boulders meanwhile exemplify what’s solid.

Just ten years ago, within the same landscape of granite, my aunt’s fruit tree drooped with limes and the society garlic gave up onion blossoms. The surrounding hills were verdant and we exploded the suburban lawnscapes with teenage abandon, wielding guns and guitars while playing music loud.  Now we are tame in comparison, and have kids of our own.

Earlier in the day, the kids held an Easter egg hunt, scaling the trees and bending the shrubs in anarchic joy. My eldest, Cayden, dangled from a tree limb, having found the Golden Egg.

“I found it, Daddy! I got it,” and I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t fall.

“The guy was, like, fetal,” Josh says. He cracks a beer and sets it aside.

Josh hits the marks of ‘tall, dark, and handsome’. He’s my cousin’s husband, clean-cut and athletic with angled jaw and high sculpted cheekbones, something of laconic. He works for the California Highway Patrol.

“He was just curled under the dashboard, like he was asleep.”

Josh doesn’t even blink. There are boulders behind him as backdrop, and we adjust our chairs to get out of the sun.

I ask: “How do you deal with it all?”

Josh shrugs.

“It’s not real. Well, when there’s kids involved it’s more real, I guess.”

He pauses. The guy, fetal, beneath the dashboard, crashed himself into an apostrophic position, beneath the ignition block. The guy actually crashed twice, the second collision relegating him to a mortal trifold.

Josh talks at length: “I don’t think about it. I mean, the accident happens at 2 a.m. and I have to pick brains off the road.” And he says this all, nonplussed, while the kids celebrate their brimming Easter baskets and wrestle in the grass.

“I’m surprised at how cold the brains are—I have gloves and all, but I can still feel how cold it is, you know. There are body parts everywhere.

“Then the sun comes up and the crows start picking at the brains on the roadside, and there’s a piece of skull in the middle of the highway.”

We collectively blanch. The kids are  meanwhile laughing among the geraniums and trading candies.

“But you know the one thing that bothers me? The one thing—the only thing–that gets to me?  There’s a slug, suddenly a fucking slug, crawling across that piece of skull in the middle of the road. And I ask: ‘Why is there a fucking slug in the middle of the road in broad daylight?’”



I won’t forget. My dad and I were in the kitchen and a vat of stock was coming to a simmer. I was teaching my dad how to make chicken soup: sustenance stuff.

Earlier in the day, there had been conversation in the living room. A shooting had occurred—on any day there’s a shooting—but this one triggered discussion. I think it was when Gabrielle Giffords got shot outside the Tucson Safeway. The topic ventured from gun violence to  war.

My dad—he was an OR tech in Vietnam, and not a field soldier. He was always and safely behind cyclone wire so far as the story goes, always in triage, never in the jungle. When he arrived at his station, it was Christmas and celebratory firecrackers syncopated the night air. Carols played from within the base’s breeze-block hallways, but, beyond the fenceline, there were sounds of gun-pops.

Explosions can be confusing. What constitutes a firework versus gunfire is probably a matter of semantics. It’s all saltpeter, just with different intent.

“You weren’t ever in the bush, right Dad?” I asked amid conversation.

I’d only heard stories about him being a doctor to the American soldiers but never shoulder with them in the bivouacs. He talked about white phosphorous burns and brain surgeries; operating rooms behind reinforced walls; refrigerated sheds where amputated limbs were kept. Still, he said nothing about the uncertain jungle, which was decidedly, probably, worse.

My dad cleared his throat in a two-note fashion, looked down.

“Well, we all had our turn in the bush.”

I never knew this, he had never said as much, and I felt awful seeing his eyes go unseeing for a minute.

My youngest, Finn, is the one kid in the family who shares my dad’s blue eyes. His eyes are constellations of sorts, blue with pixellations of white. They’ve not seen much; Finn is four. My dad’s eyes are lighter, clearer, but years older and endure the recess of having seen more.

I love my dad, so don’t press him to elaborate. Later, though, we’re in the kitchen making soup. We’re at that point in the stock-making process where we have to skim and clarify the pot of liquid, rid the bones and spent onion peels. A soggy sachet d’epice barely skates the surface, the thyme leaves separating from the stems.

I don’t ask: “What did you see?” That would’ve been inappropriate.

I’ve had eye surgeries, awake, and I have memories of needles inside my eyeballs. These are things I’ve seen, but anesthetically; things I’ve seen that are procedural, and traumatic in only a very local fashion. They’re not events that happened outside the aqueous humor of my eyes, but in it. How we see things is different.

I settle on asking: “What’d you feel, Dad?”

He pauses, says finally, sighing and placing a spoon on the range-top porcelain. : “I dunno.”

He looks up, has his own skull stories. “I was scared.”

Dropping to a whisper, and with things suddenly and incontrovertibly  real, he says: “I was very, very scared.”