It is the late 1970’s near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the skies are lit a poisonous pink and ominous orange, often growling with clanks from steel mills that endlessly align the Ohio river banks.
As children, we are taught to mind the “soot” that deposits on every railing and building in the tri state area. Our little white church gloves, and bell bottomed plaid slacks often stained in powdered grey, by a film of waste from the mills, which encompassed every building, statue, and street of the Monongahela Valley.
For now, soot is not a concern for me. It lies as quietly and dormant as I do, in this mill ravaged town. I am being wheeled down a long hallway, Perry Como is singing about Pennsylvania pumpkin pie for the holidays, and I am coming to terms with my imminent death. I am dying young. This isn’t just another day of painful medical procedures, of wrinkled physicians brows studying the complexity of my condition; this is the day I will see my father, before my passing.
This mystery illness has rendered me golden with jaundice. I am spending my days in the isolation wing, in the constant companionship of pain that has absorbed the totality of my being. I may not receive pain medications, due to my liver not functioning properly. I have not graduated high school. I have not had a boyfriend or gone to the prom. The priest from my Catholic school has visited me, upon my mother’s request, to pray my young soul be guided to heaven and my sins of the Earth be forgiven. This is of great relief to me, for I fear hell, as I have not followed the commandments, to honor my father and mother, as my father has been absent in my illness.
“Can I see my father, mom?” She does not look at me; she waves her hand, as if swatting a fly, and informs me it is deer season, and I know better. He is off tracking a prize to adorn his wall. He is stalking a graceful animal, vulnerable by the snows that had fallen deep within the woods, the snows mixed with soot, that know no purity from the Pennsylvania mill ladened skies.
The prayers from the priest, my classmates, the mass that was offered for me, they have reached the ears of God. Today I am being atoned by the presence of the man, by which I sprouted from his angry seed. I will see my father and honor him. I will go to heaven now in peace.
Throughout the day, I am a mix of epic pain, and wasting from being unable to eat for weeks. My arms, colored like the skies from a storm, purple, black and indigo to feed me through needles and tubes.
At times, I doze as a reprieve of this existence, but mostly, I am sans sleep, or relief. Dying young is hard.
Someone has given me a little plastic Christmas tree for my room. It is another focal point of pain. I won’t be home for Christmas this year. I will never be home for Christmas, again. Truly, it matters not, this sadness is tempered with the delight of seeing my father today.
If this is my last night to coexist with the world, with the soot, with a Christmas that will never be celebrated, I am ok; I am about to be redeemed by my father’s presence this evening.
I lift my head to press the button of my hospital bed. I hear the shuffle of foot steps in the hall, even the pain that has writhed me incapacitated these final weeks, has faded, for my father is standing over me, albeit with the most angered demeanor.
” Why in the hell didn’t someone tell me she was so goddamn sick? Huh?” Oh daddy! How happy I am now, knowing that for this brief interlude, I’ve beat the deer which run through the woods at the brink of dawn, escaping the cold wood and steel rifles of the hunter’s obsessive prowl. I am more important now. I cannot be mounted on the wall after my passing. I cannot be a story of how I gave chase, adorned by an eight point rack atop my crown, however, I am worthy of a bit of your time and concern.
“I told you she was sick and not getting better. You’ve been busy.”
My mother deflected the guilt like an expert with her words. She had sufficient training growing up Catholic in the Ohio Valley, and briefly explored the life of a postulant during her years at Duquense University, before meeting my very Protestant father.
Then the tempo changed; my father began telling my mother that the nurses on my floor were flirting with him. They were in dismay he would have a daughter my age.
“Hell, I told them this was my baby. I’ve got three more older than her at home.” He beamed between chewing gum and smiling like a boy at Christmas who had just unwrapped a toy gun to shoot imaginary deer in the soot ladened woods of Pennsylvania.
I watched the jealousy creep onto my mothers face. They began to bicker, one on each side of me, as I disappeared from their presence, with my little plastic Christmas tree glistening from the hospital room lights.
Oh Jesus, what have I done now? Am I the cause of another argument between my parents, just before my death? Oh God, please, I am ready to expire now, I have seen my father, take me now before this sin of my existence keeps me from my journey to heaven. I’m on the brink of hell, as I’ve incited such discord between my parents. As the argument continues, I begin to petition God for my father to kill a deer soon. That will cure every wrong on this planet. He will be happy again.
I am ashamed to be alive and more so that I am not dead, as I have kept him from the woods, where he stalks his prey in such delight, to hang the heads with glass eyes that shall never blink again on basement walls, to pat an ego reveling in the domination of man over beast.
I hope my funeral services won’t fuck up his plans this deer slaughter season. I hope my life or death does not fuck up one more thing in my fucked up life!
God is gracious in His deeds. He has granted me a stay of execution from this planet. The tests they performed on me earlier in the day have solved the mystery of my illness. It was a benign tumor in my bile duct. There is a procedure to cure me and I shall live. I shall live to see another Pennsylvania Christmas in all its glory of snows iced in soot, stained with the blood of an eight point buck my father dreams of slaying.
Deer daddy, we both will be happy again.