Maybe you had to go…
by Roy Beckemeyer
Maybe you had to go, finally. Those months hadn’t been easy. You would tell us how your toes curled when the nurse took bone marrow from your ribs with a needle and syringe. It was just like you to make light of the most dreaded but commonplace part of your days. I remember reading you articles I had written for my high school newspaper, sitting in the waiting room waiting for them to bring you back from a lab, looking out your window at the factory-like austerity of the hospital building while you napped. St. Louis was not a place for any of us. We belonged to the small towns we lived in and the farm fields that surrounded us. We should have been out running trot lines, cleaning catfish, hoeing weeds from rows of beets, picking peaches with juice running down our chins.
We had just finished up sawing the slab ends we had hauled from the sawmill and stacked them in the shed the day you got the call. We had cut enough wood to get us through the winter, and we should have felt content, confident ready for the cold wind and snow. Then Doctor Wilson on the phone. I remember you and mom going into your bedroom for a long time after you had talked to him. You came out and tried to explain what was happening to us, but we had never even heard the word leukemia before. And no encyclopedia entry could have prepared us for what the word really, truly meant: Mom’s red-rimmed eyes; the both of you gone for weeks on end, you in St. Louis, the three of us at home with grandma; the nights we would spend hours on the phone calling your friends and asking if they would go to St. Louis and give blood for you.
By spring everyone was exhausted, you of course, most of all. The slightest sense of optimism was in mom’s face the day she came home and told us the hospital staff felt you had improved enough for her to spend the weekend with us. I had fallen asleep sooner than I usually did, the comfort of mom’s presence downstairs bringing peace that had been missing. So although uncle Bud’s knock and voice outside our door in the middle of the night woke me up, it was her crying that brought me out of bed, shaking, with tears already clouding my eyes.
I know that she wished she had been there to hold you at the end. But I think that you knew what was coming, and had seen so much of her love those last months together that you wanted to spare her from seeing your final pain. I think that you wanted at the end to be by yourself, knowing that we who loved you were together in the home you had made for us, the place you longed to be but could no longer share. I think when you finally had to go, you knew you weren’t really alone at all.
– Roy Beckemeyer, 9 July 2013, Memoir Essay written as an exercise for an on-line class, “Seasons and Cycles: Sense of Place, Writing and Healing,” taught by Kansas Poet Laureate Emerita, Caryn Mirriam Goldberg. My father died of leukemia in 1958 at the age of 43, when I was 16 years old.