In-law relationships are almost always fraught with tensions. This one sure was, at least in the eyes of the narrator, who believes, I think, that his wife's admiration of her father is becoming, with his death, deification. Their divergent points of view are central here. There's a love triangle--father, daughter, and daughter's husband; and both daughter and daughter's husband sort of know it. Father's death has only made it worse. Dead, he's capable of being something he never was when he was alive: human.
What interested me here, I'm sure, is tangled love. It's perfectly impossible for people who know writers not to assume that they (writer's friends)really get it--they understand where all of these confused emotions are coming from in the life of the writer.
You're wrong. All the spit and vinegar in this scene arises from my imagination, not my experience.
In January, darkness spreads over the plains long before supper, so it had been dark for hours before the family left the home place that night, the moon already up in silver over the glowing ribbons of snow between the empty fields' stubbled rows. Kevin and Shelley sat in the back seat in silence, old enough to know that the world had grown smaller with the death of their grandfather, and larger, more complicated, more dangerous than it had seemed just that morning when the holiday began.
"Grandpa's with Jesus, isn't he?" Buddy kept saying. He sat up between Julia and me with his hands stuck between his mother's arms. "Grandpa died and went to be in heaven."
His mother unloosened his arms and took her son up on her lap, even though she held Rudy, the youngest, already sound asleep, in her right arm.
"Everybody sings in heaven," Buddy said. "It's just like Sunday School.”
The clock on the dash said it was just before ten.
"Grandpa went to heaven in a chariot,” Buddy said. For the first time that day I thought about what Buddy had imagined when the EMT's wheeled the body out of the house. I remembered the whirring red lights dancing off the sides of the machine shed out back.
I poured us both some brandy before we went to bed, so we sat at our kitchen table with most of the lights out in the house, listening to the constant whirr of the furnace fighting the press of cold against the outside walls.
"I wish I had known somehow that I was going to be the one to find him dead," Julia said. "I mean, I never thought of anything like that happening to me. I just wish I had known somehow."
The smears around her eyes that were there in the afternoon were long gone by that time. If anything, she looked somehow younger than she had, her eyes sharp and jumpy, as if she were walking slowly through a field of alfalfa, looking for something small but important she had lost.
I stood with Julia at the births of all our four children. She wanted it that way. But after the first, I had little desire to be there again, because I hated the uselessness of my own presence. Who knows what some analyst would say, but I stood there and hated myself because it seemed to me that what she was fighting was so much of an individual battle, her body writhing to release this new child, while all of her sense fought the searing pain that simply had to be. All I could do was stand there and hold her hand.
What I hated then was exactly what I felt that night, the horror of having an immense, solid oak door locked up tight between you and someone you love, and the frustration of having no means-no possible way-of opening it. Julia's grief, like her pain, was ultimately a private matter, and every word I could offer seemed nothing better than what any do-gooder had ever said in scenes like this—bland and chilled. My greatest gift, perhaps, was the brandy.
"If I'd have only known this was going to happen," she said again.
Every one of a dozen responses sounded frivolous when I rehearsed them in my mind.
"What do you do with a dead father anyway?" she said. "I mean, what's there to do now?"
"Probably you just remember," I told her.
"It doesn't seem like it's enough," she said. She turned the glass in her hand so the brandy rode the sides of the glass and left a tinge of bronze. Some tight Branderhorst emotion stretched itself thin at her lips and cheeks.
"You never really loved him, did you?" she said.
There was a lawyer's dispassionate ring to the question, as if she were only searching for a fact, not a criminal indictment.
"He gave me his daughter," I said. I thought it was as good as I could do.
"But you never really loved him, Howard. Admit it. You never really understood him at all."
It was no accusation, merely a statement of fact.