Thursday, September 21, 1995
“You know he’s fought hard for more than fifty years to keep his leg.”
Lillianna Ferguson paced across the kitchen of her Oregon ranch house, stretching the coiled phone cord to its limits. But she couldn’t escape the slam of guilt her brother’s words brought. Their mother had told her about the way, against all the odds, her father had learned to walk again in the corridors of Valley Forge Military Hospital.
“Can’t you find someone else? A nurse or caregiver? Maybe the Veterans Administration can help.”
“Doctor Willingham claims he can’t fix the aneurysm without amputating. And the way it is now, Pop won’t agree to the surgery. With the size of that bubble, it’s just a matter of weeks before his aorta blows. The VA is paying his bills at Johns Hopkins. Come on, Em—”
“The name is Lillianna, Greg. It’s only been eighteen years since I changed it.” She sighed. Why couldn’t her brother or anyone in her extended family accept the fact she was no longer Emma Miller? That name was a constant reminder of everything she wanted to forget. “The VA has rehab facilities.”
“I checked out a couple, and they’re pretty depressing. Besides, they bring
back things. Things he’d rather forget. You’re his daughter, and he hasn’t seen you for years.”
A dose of guilt she refused to swallow. “Since when does he care if he—?”
“For crying out loud. Let it go. He’s an old man, and he needs you. He… He…” Greg’s voice broke.
Lillianna swallowed. Greg, though three years older, had always been the soft-hearted one, the caretaker, the boy who’d tightened her roller skates with a key he kept on a string around his neck.
“He what? He needs me to take care of him? Is that what you’re saying? Well, when did he ever take care of me?” Despite her attempts at control, her voice cracked, and she gripped the phone receiver in her sweaty hand. She glanced at the clock on the microwave. Her husband, Steve, would be back from feeding the horses soon and dinner was almost ready. She didn’t want to be in the middle of an argument with her brother when her husband returned.
“Hell… he didn’t take care of me either,” Greg finally admitted. “But he’s our father. And he’s been through a hell of a lot. He’s not the man you remember. Pop stopped drinking after Mom died. I’ve tried to put the past behind me and be there for him in spite of…”
She dragged her left hand through her hair and clutched the phone a little tighter with her right. “And I haven’t? Is that what you’re saying? Don’t you ever get sick and tired of seeing his side? Don’t you want to stand up and tell the truth about him for once?” She bit the inside of her cheek. Tears stung her eyes. Her brother was right. She hadn’t been there for their father. But that didn’t mean she had to start now.
“No,” Greg answered softly, then sighed. “I’m not even sure I understand what the truth is anymore. And even if I did, it doesn’t matter.”
“You’re a saint, all right. I acknowledge it. Shall I Federal Express you a halo?” She laughed bitterly.
“Forget the halo. Just tell me you’ll come. Agree to help me out, if not him. He’ll be in the hospital for weeks. I can’t take that much time away from the business. It’s my busiest season. Besides, this may be your last chance.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel guilty?”
“It’s a fact. Somebody has to convince him to have the amputation. I tried. He won’t listen to me. Please, Sis, help him see there’s no choice. His doctor isn’t the one to do it.”
“He’s a stubborn old fool,” Lillianna said, her voice almost a hiss. “What makes you think he’ll listen to me?”
“Because he really wants to see you. Whenever I talk with you on the phone, he questions me. How is she doing? Does she sound happy? Did she say anything about coming back home? If anyone can convince him, it’s you. Come on. I’ll pick you up at the airport in Baltimore. There’s a hotel right next to the hospital. I’ll even pay the bill, for God’s sake. I’ll be there on weekends to give you a break. Please. It would mean a lot to him. And to me.”
“I have a life, too, you know. Ranching is hard work. And I’m not sure Steve can manage twenty-six horses on his own. Besides, even if I don’t go into an office every day, I’ve got deadlines to meet.”
“I’ve thought about that. You can bring your laptop. And I can hook you up with a printer if you need one. Don’t let your writing be an excuse not to see him. If you do…” He paused, and his voice grew faint. “I’m afraid you might regret it once he’s gone.”
After agreeing she’d think about it and get back with him in the morning, they said their goodbyes and hung up. Lillianna stared vacantly out the window at a gray squirrel as it sifted through the needles, bark, and pine cones under the conifers. A late September sun lingered over the trees and left a bright shadow on the ceiling.
There was something about autumn that roused her affection and sadness—the way the pastures turned golden and the apples along the drive dropped to the ground in fermenting mounds. She wanted to talk to Steve, but already knew what he’d say. He’d tell her to go, her father wouldn’t be around forever, and someday she’d be sorry. And maybe he’d be right.
Without any warning, young Emma floated up inside her until she was back in Mrs. Ward’s first-grade classroom on the early June day they’d invited dads to their Father’s Day play.