A Year for Family

This appeared in the Abilene Reporter-News Christmas Day, 2010. Afterward, my editor asked me to take on Big Country Journal.



The heat rose in waves from the pavement as I sat on my heels along a farm-to-market road in Callahan County. Leaving an assignment about two miles down the road, I had pulled over when I saw a kitten sprawled in the other lane.

It was injured, and though I had no idea what I should do, I didn’t want to just drive on. The last time I had come upon a kitten in the road, I took that animal to a vet only to have them put it down. And although it probably was the best thing, it bothered me — and besides, on this road, I had no idea where the nearest veterinarian was.

I brought some water and tried giving it to him. I made soothing noises to the cat, spoke to it and waited. It was July 12, the sun broiling. I wondered what I should do. The situation felt eerie, like somebody just on the edge of my hearing was speaking to me. I had the nagging feeling that something more was going on here than just an injured kitten in the road. A feeling of helplessness overrode it all, and I confronted my indecision by walking back to my car to clear a space for the cat. Maybe he’d last to Abilene.

But that choice was taken from me. The cat got up and staggered into the tall grass, heading for the trees at the fence line. He knew where to go, and it didn’t involve staying with me.

What am I doing? Why am I here?

The question bloomed in my mind, not for the first time that day — but insistent now. My father’s colorectal cancer was claiming him 700 miles away in Missouri, and here I was at work. It seemed so pointless, I felt out of place, like a rook on a Monopoly board.

I needed to go.


With one breath/with one flow/you will know/Synchronicity — Synchronicity I, The Police.


It was January when I called Bill Erdrich with the news.37531_1515787893143_1438689_n


“Hey, Ron. What’s up?”

“Well, Dad, I know it’s been a long time coming, but I wanted to let you know that you’re finally going to be a grandpa.”

He let out a “whoop,” and I could tell he was jumping up and down in his chair. He was so excited, he turned to his wife, Jessica, and shared the news.

“Ron and Nellie are going to have a baby! When is it due?”

“Oct. 15.”

“Oh, now I’ve got something to live for, I’ve got to hang on for my grandbaby,” he said, his voice breaking as he started to cry.

“Thanks, Ron. That’s great news.”


The blastocyst that will be your baby has split to form the placenta and the embryo, and the specialized parts of your baby’s body begin to develop. — WhatToExpect.com


At the beginning of 2010, Dad told me that his doctor had given him six months to a year left to live. Dad accepted that pronouncement like he had anything else he had no control over — ignoring it to address the things he could affect. I think Dad had prepared himself a long time ago for this time in his life.

I drove up to St. Joseph, Mo., in mid-February to spend time with him and to listen to the webcast judging of a photo contest in nearby Columbia.

We didn’t talk as much as in past visits, he spent the days sitting in his chair watching TV. Later, I had the feeling that maybe my listening to the contest was the problem. In the end, I wish I had just ignored that contest, but I was foolishly hoping that maybe one of my pictures would win something and I could share the moment with Dad. But instead we sat there and wasted time, him with his TV and me with my computer. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

One day, Dad stood up and announced there was something we needed to do. He gathered up a tote bag filled with cans full of old wildflower mixes he had picked up at an auction somewhere. Wearing an untucked Hawaiian shirt, he wrapped a white scarf around his neck and tugged a wool fedora over his bald head. As he was about to step out the door, he laughed.

“Now, you’ve got to admit, Ron, this is a great shirt. And the reason it’s great is that you can carry your pistol underneath it and the-e-e-ey don’t see it coming,” he said, drawing the word out with a chuckle.

I smiled, hiding my unease at the thought of Dad packing heat. As his strength had begun to wane over the course of his sickness, he had taken to carrying a pistol. Home alone most of the time, I know Dad felt vulnerable to home invasion, but I was more worried about an accident with his pistols than a break-in.

We went out the front door and crossed the street to an open field on the other side. He stomped up a small dirt mound, dry, yellow stalks of grass poked through a dusting of snow on it. Wispy clouds held the color of the setting sun as Dad started shaking the seed cans across the mound.

My dad had fought with the city to prevent that former corn field from being turned into an industrial park but had given it up as the cancer took hold. He had won a concession from them — they had agreed to plant a line of trees to obscure the park from the homes along the road, but nothing had been doDad001ne yet. Maybe it was the spirit of the ’60s coming out in Dad, if he couldn’t bury them in court he would bury them with wildflowers. At the very least, he could irritate the landscaper come spring.

A couple of days later, we visited a funeral home. Dad wanted to pay for his cremation. It was snowing when we arrived — fat, wet flakes that turned to slush in the streets. It was supposed to pick up later, and as we went inside I made a note to myself to shovel out Dad’s driveway before I left for Abilene.

I photographed him going over the paperwork with one of the staff. I told him later I felt odd watching him arrange the disposition of his remains.

“Nothing odd about it,” he said. “It’s important to do this now so you and your brothers won’t have to worry about it when I’m gone. You’ll have plenty enough to worry about then.”


Your baby’s eyesight is developing rapidly and, weighing in at three to five ounces, (the baby) is at least five inches in length. Bones are now in place in the ears and as the baby gets used to your voice, the muscles in the body, especially those in the back, are gaining strength.


Mid-May arrived, and it was time for me to travel once again to Missouri. My brother Andy was graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute.

I broke my usual routine of driving the whole way in one shot, I had worked part of the day and then left late. Staying in Emporia, Kan., I made it to my brother’s apartment before Dad and my stepmom.

I had begun to notice a change in my father. Something had seemed off about him as of late. We had taken to talking on Skype now more often, using that Internet service’s video chat function. But our conversations were slowing down now, it seemed like my dad’s edge was off.Dad022

The chemo wasn’t having any effect on the cancer anymore, it was spreading. I knew it was only a matter of time until he stopped taking it.

When he arrived at the graduation, I felt a sadness. He was in a wheelchair, the crowd being too much for him to try to walk through with his cane. I had staked out a prime seat for him, and as he sat down he handed me a backpack. Inside were medical supplies, water and other items.

The ceremony started, and I began taking pictures of my brother. Sometime during the ceremony, I noticed tears in my dad’s eyes. I let him be, and afterward we all went outside with the rest of the families.

The crowd was pressing against all of us, and it was challenging to get Dad out the door and away from it. We moved him to a park bench and my brother made his way over. He went over to Dad, and I moved over to get a picture of the two of them.

Dad told me that he thought of me as the family historian, and when he was diagnosed I wanted to capture and hold as much of him as I could. I had seen my grandmother, Elaine Phillips, and my good friend, Maryanne Martin, both waste away from cancer.

But when was it too much? Recording our conversations, asking questions, clarifying family history, taking pictures at every opportunity. At what point do you just stop? Should you? We left the reception early, and I took Dad to Town Topic, an all-night small diner on Broadway Avenue. I took a few more pictures and then put the gear away. I needed time with my dad.


This week, your baby measures nearly eight inches and weighs in at a full pound or about the size of a small doll. Now with eyebrows, eyelashes, and maybe even hair on the head, the baby can perceive light and dark, and hear the whoosh-whoosh of your circulating blood. As the brain and nerve endings develop, the baby may reach out to experiment with a newfound sense of touch.


Father’s Day weekend arrived, and my wife, Nellie, and I made a rare trip together to see Dad. My stepmother Jessica had planned a baby shower for her on Saturday and my brother Alex was going to be home from the Air Force. The whole family would be together.

By this time, Nellie knew the gender of the baby but this being our first one, I didn’t want to know. She had successfully fought off curious friends and co-workers who swore they wouldn’t tell. Dad had declared that if I didn’t want to know, then he didn’t either.

Before the shower, Nellie asked Dad about his life.

“What kinds of things did you like to do on your time off?”

“Party,” he replied with a smile.

“Party?” she repeated with her own laugh.

“Yeah, go out, shoot a little pool, have a couple of cocktails to get things rolling. Sometimes some other lawyers would show up and we would sit around and talk about how stupid the judges were or how poorly the cases were investigated.”

“How does that differ from when you guys were hanging out at the restaurant in the courthouse basement?” I asked.

“Actually, it didn’t much. It’s just that you couldn’t get a cocktail,” he said.Dad023

Dad drifted for a moment, his head drooped down until Nellie asked another question.

“Did you ever plan to have three children; did you want to have that many?”

“I’d rather have had six,” he replied.

“You wanted six?”

“Or more.”

“Did you want to have any girls?”

“After Andy, I did, but that didn’t work out. So I didn’t have any girls, which was kind of sad.”

The next morning, I woke Dad early to take him to church. The baby shower had been a smash, and Dad had really enjoyed himself. I was hoping for more chances that day to speak with him and listen to more stories.

He took some medicine and went downstairs. After a few minutes, his stomach became upset and he sat down in his recliner to rest for a few minutes. The minutes turned into half an hour, then a full hour. I tried to wake him but didn’t have any success. I tried harder and still no response.

Jessica came over, and we began to worry. Dad wasn’t responding. We called the nurse, and she came over — with no luck, either. The nurse began to talk about Dad being close and maybe not having much time left. I couldn’t believe it — was my dad about to die? Not yet, it couldn’t happen yet, I told myself.

By the evening, Dad did come around a little. I felt like we had dodged a bullet. I was sure he was going into a coma, but his strength, something that I thought was only a memory to him, had returned enough to bring him back.

But if I had suspected that his mental acuity was waning before, I knew it now for sure. He seemed distant and drained. His attention would wander. Nellie and I had stayed for an extra few days until I felt like he was out of the woods. I had called a pastor from his church the day before so Dad could take communion at home and that seemed to give him some comfort.

I was shaken, though. Things were not looking well.


Under the baby’s skin, capillaries are forming and filling with blood. By week’s end, air sacs (also lined with capillaries) will develop in the lungs, getting ready for that first breath.


On the evening of July 12, I told Nelliewe needed to go. Dad’s nurse had called me that afternoon; she thought he was very near the end. We were going to leave the next morning. Hopefully, I could see him one more time. But hope isn’t always enough.

The phone rang at midnight, it was my brother Andy.


“Hey, Andy. What’s happening?”

“Dad’s gone, he died a few minutes ago.”

I had known this was going to happen for so long, I had expected this call for two years and now it was here. A sense of relief came over me. Relief for my father and relief for the release from the pain he had endured for so long. I was glad for him, though I felt a hole opening up inside me in the spot where he used to live. I told Nellie, and I wept for him.

We made it to St. Joe in record time. We went to the funeral home so I could see him before he was cremated. He was wrapped in a sheet on a stretcher, seemingly asleep. I spoke to him, said a prayer, but really just sat there until I felt like I could leave. It helped.

The next week was taken up with preparing for the memorial service and the week after that figuring out what to do with all the things Dad had gathered over the years. You can’t keep everything. You’ve got to let some things go. I found the family tree tracing the Erdrich line back to the mid-1600s. I sorted through his things, reliving parts of his life through old photographs, yellowed letters, and even old receipts. Some of it was history, some of it wasn’t. But, now, it was my responsibility.


Your doctor may check for labor signs, while your baby prepares for birth by sucking, turning and breathing in the womb.


The room was dark when Nellie woke me. It was 6:15 in the morning.

“Ron, I think there’s something wrong with me.”

Groggy, I got up and asked what was happening. We had been up late the night before taking pregnancy portraits in the living room. We had played music, and Nellie had even danced a little. She had been complaining of cramps earlier the day before, but now it appeared they had returned.

“I think I need to go to the hospital or call the doctor,” she said.

We were one week away from the date our doctor had picked to deliver the baby. Nellie had an appointment with her later that day, so I asked her if she thought it was serious or could it wait for the appointment.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve had these cramps all night, and now they’re coming about three minutes apart.”


I had planned to have a nice, leisurely drive to the hospital for the delivery. That plan went out the window as we grabbed clothes, computers, cameras and phones. Apparently, babies do come on their own time.

I didn’t think I would have to do the crazy drive to the hospital, but now I found my foot getting heavier on the pedal. I hit a few bumps in the intersection, muttering an apology each time until Nellie told me to slow down, threatening to give birth in the front seat.

37838_1518316316352_1740013_nMom likes to tell the story about how Dad casually walked into the room during her labor with me in the mid-60s and tossed down a copy of The New York Times.

“Here, I brought you something to read, if you want.”

She can’t remember her reply, but she remembers the look on his face.

“Uh, maybe I’ll just save this for you,” he meekly said, eyes wide.

Mindful of that memory, while I kept friends and family updated on Facebook, I stayed focused on Nellie and helped when I could. I felt good, though. Finally, this baby was coming.

At 6 p.m., our daughter was born and I released my wife’s hand as the nurse beckoned to me. I got up, but stopped — I didn’t want to leave Nellie.

“She’ll be fine,” said the nurse. “You’ve got to bring your little girl to the nursery.”

Wrapped in swaddling, I carried her inside. People crowded the window to see, but I didn’t know any of them, my only blood relative in 700 miles was lying in my arms.

“Hello, little one, I hope my dad got see you,” I whispered. “Welcome to the world.”

I didn’t know why my dad died before he got to see his granddaughter. As she came into the world, he faded from it. Humans see patterns in everything, we need meaning in our lives and we look for it, even when it might not be there.

I could contemplate for the rest of my life the meaning of my father and my daughter never meeting, but the real meaning of it is there is no meaning to be had. It’s just life.

“What’s her name,” asked the nurse who came to put her in a crib.

“Willow,” I replied.

“That’s a lovely name, why Willow?”

“It’s what her strength will be: bend like a willow and snap back. Like her grandfather.”