DEATH WILL BE WHAT IT WILL BE
Svez took several deep breaths and continued to lie alongside his wife’s body. Her brief struggle had awakened him, and he wondered if she heard his promises before she fell into her deep sleep. He studied her face while her breathing became fainter and fainter until it finally stopped. He pondered her last utterance, Thelma, then sat up and reached for his overalls crumpled on the floor. He stepped into them, pulled the strap over his nightshirt and hooked it to the wrong side of the bib. He reached for the other strap dangling inside his pant leg as Thelma rushed into the room.
She shrieked, “Mama.”
Thelma crawled over the foot of the bed on hands and knees and stared into her mother’s face. “She ain’t dead, Pa. She can’t be.”
“I better get the boys up.” He studied his bare feet, unable to decide whether to first put on shoes. His daughter lay with her face buried in the pillow and an arm around Liz’s neck. As a child, she would sneak into their bed when frightened or cold. He felt weak and wanted to lay alongside them and pretend everything was normal.
Thelma cried, “I failed you, Mama. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do.”
Iggy brushed past Svez, gawked at Thelma and began to sob.
“Ma’s dead, Iggy”
He peered at his mother’s lifeless figure and whimpered. “She’s still got her nightgown on.” He frowned as if fitting pieces of a puzzle together.
“She died in her sleep, didn’t she, Pa?” Thelma got up, brushed her tears and put her arm around her brother. He stopped crying.
Svez stooped and pulled a shoe over his bare foot. “She asked for Thelma before she died.” He picked up a sock but tossed it away and stared at his other shoe. Iggy’s chest heaved and air whistled through his nose and mouth. “And for you, too.”
George, Herman and Ralph appeared in the doorway. Thelma and Iggy began sobbing again. George put his arms around them. Herman and Ralph tiptoed to the bed and peered into their mother’s face.
Svez stepped into his other shoe and wished he had put on his socks. He glanced around the room and felt his family stare back at him. “I was on my way to wake you boys.” His two younger children should stop crying. The sounds of their grief made his chest tighten and his eyes water.
He glanced at Freddie’s crib, built when George was a baby, and Liz made him put runners under it so she could stick her foot from under the covers and rock it when the baby fussed. He relived a morning many years ago when Thelma slept in the crib and his boys burst in demanding to go to the Forth-of-July parade. A wistful smile. “First the chores, then we’ll take you to the parade.”
“The parade, Pa?” George backed away and bumped into Freddie’s crib. Herman and Ralph glanced at their father, hesitated and walked out of the room single file but stopped outside the door. George steadied the crib as Freddie rolled over, grabbed the side-slats and pulled himself up. He lost his balance and plopped back down. With his thumb in his mouth, he blinked and faced his family who stared back.
Svez placed Freddie on the pillow next to Liz where the baby touched her nose, closed eyes and colorless mouth. His lips twitched and contorted, ready to cry or a laugh but he did neither. He faced Thelma as if seeking a clue for what he should be feeling. He whimpered. Svez seldom heard or saw the boy show any emotion, and he felt a mixture of tenderness and pity.
Liz claimed Freddie as their son and having to leave him terrified her. Svez assured her they would love and care for him, but with her gone, he became frightened for the child. And for himself. He remembered the one important instruction she’d given him. He muttered, “Father Reinhardt.”
Almost in unison, Herman and Ralph repeated, “Father Reinhardt,” backed into the front room and then darted toward the kitchen. George clung to the crib as if it might start rocking again and stared at the lifeless form on the bed. At the sound of the storm door slamming, he turned and followed his brothers.
Svez stood helplessly beside the bed as Thelma gathered clothes from Liz’s closet and dresser.
Between sobs, Thelma said, “I gotta get Ma ready for the priest. He can’t see her like this. She told me what she wanted to wear when she meets with God.” She faced her mother. “I can do this, Mama. You’ll look good when Father Reinhardt gets here to anoint you with oil and pray for your soul like he did for Aunt Martha.”
“Guess you know what to do.” He realized Liz had trusted Thelma with the important instructions, and he felt sad as he went to the kitchen to make his call. Concerned Reinhardt’s sister would answer, he was relieved to hear a man’s voice. While he explained what happened, Thelma stoked the coals in the stove and pumped water into a kettle. After a cup of coffee, his nerves would settle down. He slumped onto his chair at the table and realized Liz’s bath water steamed on the stove, not his coffee, and he felt too ashamed to mention this oversight to Thelma. He remained sitting with his hands covering his face.
He knew Liz was dying ever since the night Father Reinhardt came to visit yet denied the sight of her frail body as she undressed each night. He didn’t feel the effects of her loss of energy or notice any change in the daily routine, because Thelma’s efforts increased and the family’s needs were met without interruption. Thelma made their meals, cleaned and mended their clothes, and took care of Freddie. She tended to the chickens and butchered them for their meals. Had Liz and Thelma been a team of horses, he wouldn’t have missed the shift in workload. He dealt with tending the land and caring for the animals. Paying attention to family members never occurred to him, because Liz took care of their needs and they seldom interfered with each other’s role. Thelma never complained so maybe she hadn’t felt the shift in the workload either.
Iggy wanted to follow Thelma into the kitchen, but his feet wouldn’t cooperate. He watched Freddie touch their mother’s face, pinch her nose and pry at her eyelids, and wished she would sit up and yell boo like she sometimes did. Freddie crawled on top of her and plopped up and down on her chest. Iggy couldn’t stand to watch, but when he opened his eyes, Freddie lay on his tummy, his face buried in the pillow and his foot caught in the strap of her nightgown. Her breast was uncovered. Iggy looked away and made believe he was stuck in a bad dream. Thelma should cover Ma and take Freddie away.
He stared at the crumpled quilt half off the bed and imagined his mother struggling for her life. Years ago when a nightmare woke him, he peeked into his parents’ room and watched his father pounce on her until she made a face like she was crying. He wanted Pa to get off but couldn’t scream no matter how hard he tried. When he was old enough to understand what they had been doing, other frightening images plagued him. His seed squirted into Ma, developing arms and legs and then pushed out, a squishy bloody mass made him sick. He didn’t want to know his parents made babies the same way the animals did.
Suddenly, Arnie’s breath blended with the stale odors of the room. “Ya shouldn’t be gawkin’ when your ma’s ’bout to feed the baby. Ain’t right for a boy your age to watch.”
Iggy tried to swallow his saliva and gagged. “Ma’s dead.”
Arnie stepped closer, stared at Liz and hurried out of the room.
When Thelma returned with towels and a basin of water, Iggy backed against the wall. She stood Freddie alongside his crib, where he clung to the slats until the bed rocked and plopped onto the floor. He reached up but played with his fingers instead. Thelma covered Liz’s body to her neck with the bed sheet.
She faced Iggy. “You can stay until I undress her.” She touched the wet cloth to their mother’s forehead like checking for a fever. “Mama, I can do this. I hated to touch Aunt Martha, but now it’s easy because I love you.”
Iggy’s spirits brightened. Calling her Mama might wake her up.
“I need help remembering everything I’m supposed to do.” She stroked her mother’s face with both hands. “Please don’t ever leave me.” She kissed her on the lips.
Iggy gasped. He remembered a fairy tale about a kiss waking a dead person but lost this glimmer of hope when he felt Thelma’s stare.
“You have to leave now so I can wash and dress her. You can kiss her if you like.”
Iggy wanted to but he turned and sulked toward the kitchen where he sat on Ma’s chair next to Pa and waited for Thelma to make his breakfast.
Svez wished his son would sit some place else. He meandered to the sink, checked remnants of last night’s coffee and set the pot on the stove, still hot from the fire Thelma made. “Grab a couple of cups. We can sugar this up ’til Thelma perks a fresh batch.”
Iggy obeyed, returned to his own seat and stared into his hands.
Thelma entered with Freddie and glanced at the stove. “I’m sorry, Pa. I forgot all about coffee this morning.” She peered into the bubbling liquid and made a face. “Iggy, put another piece of wood in the stove.”
Iggy jumped up and went to the wood box.
Svez studied his empty cup as the crackling fire and the percolating coffee filled the room with familiar sounds and aromas. He stood to greet Father Reinhardt with a handshake, whispered, “Elizabeth left us,” and sank back onto his chair. Their rivalry welled as Thelma led the priest to Liz’s bedroom, Iggy trailing behind.
Liz believed priests were God’s representatives on earth with special spiritual powers to reach beyond the grave, but Svez wouldn’t grant such importance to any priest, especially Father Reinhardt. Yet, he realized she needed this man now more than she ever needed her husband. His gloom dropped to a level of near despair. His rage surfaced and he didn’t know where to direct it. Although annoyed and irritated with the priest, to unleash anger at him for trying to help Liz was unthinkable.
“Why me, God? Why Liz?” He paused, but heard only Father Reinhardt’s voice chanting words in a strange language.
When the voice stopped, Thelma and then Iggy responded, “Amen.”
Svez whispered, “Amen,” and turned his anger against himself. He never believed God punished people for doing bad things, but he couldn’t hide from the possibility he caused his wife’s death. Maybe he hadn’t treated her proper, but he had no notion of what he could’ve done different. Going to church more often would have pleased her. An incident flashed through his mind from the time he still drank hard liquor. But she had forgiven him.
Thelma! He shook off the memory of his more recent offense with his daughter.
He felt Freddie’s stare from the playpen where the child stood and clung to the slats. “Your Ma loved you. Wanted me to love you, too.” He stooped and pressed the baby’s face against the stubble of his beard. When Freddie squirmed but didn’t cry, Svez set him on the floor. Freddie grabbed Svez’s pant leg, teetered and then waddled toward the bedroom. Svez followed as far as the open door and watched Thelma scoop Freddie onto her hip and put an arm around Iggy. Father Reinhardt dabbed an oily substance on Liz’s face and hands with a cotton wad. He handed it to Thelma.
She touched her mother’s forehead already shiny with oil and said, “Goodbye, Mama.”
Iggy took it, brushed Liz’s arm and handed it back to Thelma who clasp Freddie’s fingers around it. “She’s your Ma, too.” Together they touched it to their mother’s face. Freddie shook his hand free, put his fingers in his mouth and cut a face, his first serious reaction to the events of the morning.
Father Reinhardt touched the heads of the Rastner children, gave a blessing and, acknowledged Svez’s presence with a nod. “Why don’t you children spend a few quiet moments with your mother while I talk to your father.”
He led Svez through the kitchen and out to the porch. “I’ll come around this evening to say the rosary at seven o’clock.” Checking his watch, he glanced out the window. “Liz belonged to the Christian Mothers so they’ll come as a group. I’m sure some of them will offer to stay and join in the wake if you wish.” He paused, his eyes avoiding Svez’s. “We can make the necessary arrangements then. It’s customary to hold the funeral on the second or third day, which would take us to Thursday or Friday. Either day is fine with me.”
Svez didn’t answer.
“Is Thursday okay?”
“Good. It’s all set then.” He extended his hand. “I’ll stop at the barn and talk to your boys.”
Arnie squeezed into the cupola above the roof of the barn, pulled off his gloves and breathed into cupped hands to warm them. He climbed to the loft and crawled across the mounds of hay to reach the highest vantagepoint on the farm other than the windmill, which he rejected as too conspicuous. He put his gloves back on when he heard a car door slam and twisted the louvered vent to allow a more favorable view of the house and yard. To his surprise, Father Reinhardt wasn’t in the car, but walking toward the barn. Arnie slid from his perch, a brace holding the cupola to the roof, and landed on the soft hay. He crawled to the ladder and climbed down. The boys were still huddled around the feed bin. He hid in a pen where a cow licked her newborn calf.
Light from the bright morning sun flashed when the door opened and Reinhardt stepped into the barn. He hesitated with the sun on his back, either waiting for his eyes to adjust or gagging from the smell of cows relieving themselves. Maybe he’d just leave. Arnie spat when the priest closed the door behind him and put his hand to his forehead as if he were saluting.
“Hello. It’s sure dark in here.” The priest glanced around and walked toward the boys. “Jesus was born in a barn. I believe he still favors those who tend to his animals.”
First George, and then the other two nodded. Ralph began to cry, then Herman broke down. Soon all three of them sobbed uncontrollably.
“I understand you miss your mother,” more nods and more sobs, “but she’s in God’s care and we have to look out for each other.” Father Reinhardt glanced around the barn. “And God’s animals.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” They seemed to say in unison.
Ralph said, “This morning the brown Guernsey dropped a healthy calf. Arnie said it will be Ma’s calf, and promised not to butcher her. She’ll be ours forever.” A fit of crying overcame him, and his two brothers put their arms around him.
“Is Arnie here now? I should talk to him.”
George glanced toward the pen where Arnie stood and said, “Over by Ma’s calf.”
Arnie squeezed a teat and drenched his hand with thick yellow milk, hoping the sweet smell of milk mixed with odors of manure and rotting corn would make the priest sick. He hugged the calf’s neck, rubbed its nose with his milk-saturated hand and put his thumb into its mouth. He pushed the calf to the cow’s udder and exchanged his thumb with one of her teats. The calf sucked noisily.
“A fine looking animal you have there, Arnie. The boys told me you’ll take special care of it.”
Arnie mumbled, “I take care of all the animals. If it weren’t for me, none of the heifers would make it to their first breeding.” Then with a glimmer of trust and confidence, “I got the secret of getting her to take the bull. I know how to get her to let her milk go after she drops her calf. I can . . ..” He didn’t reveal his third secret, but patted the cow on the rump and walked down a row of heads locked in stanchions, nosing through bits of silage and searching for morsels of ground oats.
“Take good care of the animals God has entrusted to you.”
From the corner of his eye, Arnie caught the priest make a blessing motion with his hand.
“And may God protect you.”
Arnie snorted, grabbed his stool and milk pail, and sat under the first of a long row of cows.