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The Oar
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I last saw my father eight months before his suicide. He stood in the Spokane airport, beneath the ramp that led to the security checkpoint, looking up at the monitor that lists arrivals and departures. He wore gray slacks, black oxfords, and an old wool peacoat over a stretched-out T-shirt. A worn duffel hung from his shoulder. It was the size of a small gym bag and carried everything he had needed for five nights. He wore clear glasses with wire rims that he'd owned as long as I could remember. They were usually his back-up pair. He wore sunglasses most of the time to obscure his cloudy shrapnel-blinded left eye. His hair, going gray, needed a cut and sprang from his head. He looked a bit dazed, widening his eyes, regaining his composure to make the trip south to his home in California. His shoulders curved forward as they always did, a posture he took on when he learned to use wooden legs after losing his own in Vietnam. I stand with this posture, too.

It often had been difficult for me to watch him go. It aroused a great sympathy in my chest, as if I ought to go with him or he ought to stay. A psychology professor once wrote of meeting with one of his students, "I have heard that the best way to diagnose someone's depression is to note how depressed you feel when you leave the person. When my lunch with her was over, I felt as gray as the snowbanks that often lined the path back to my office." I read that shortly after my father died, and it seemed to explain the effect he had on me. Perhaps it was a sense that this could be the last time.

At the Spokane airport, people swirled about my father. They hurried toward their known destinations as he gathered himself. I was on my way from the bathroom to my parked pickup, having dropped him off after a visit. My wife was home with our sick son, and I needed to hurry back so she could get to work. I had already said goodbye and hugged my father a few minutes earlier, so I left without a second word. He faced away. So that is how I saw him last, only a few yards from me but distant and headed farther.

His visit to the home I had lived in for two years in southeastern Washington was his first and last. Before, when I lived in Oregon, he'd come to see me every summer since college, but after I moved he had a mild stroke that curtailed his traveling. My wife, C. J., and I invited him for Thanksgiving—we'd never done so for a holiday—and he accepted. Usually, he spent Thanksgiving at his parents', who lived in his neighborhood, and with his brother's family, who lived within an hour's drive. This Thanksgiving would be quieter, just the five of us, my father, C. J., me, and our two toddlers.

He arrived the Wednesday before the holiday. I drove the ninety miles north alone to meet him in my pickup. We met inside the terminal. When we stepped outside, he lit a cigarette and was descended upon by a security guard, who told him to put it out. My father stubbed out the cigarette and pitched it in the trash. He lit another as soon as we got inside the pickup.

I took a back road home, Highway 27, running through Tekoa, Oakesdale, and Garfield, small Washington towns supporting the dryland farmers in this high plain of mostly wheat. My father always enjoyed the back roads. We wound slowly through the bottomlands along small creeks choked with hawthorn and cattail, flanked occasionally by narrow bands of shorn hay. A bank of fog blanketed evergreen foothills to the east, and the clear sky overhead yellowed in the setting [End Page 122l] sun that seemed to hang on the horizon for an hour, keeping me busy with the shade as I rounded bends and crested hills to face it.

When we drove into the town...



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