I gripped the steering wheel of my car. My father was dead. As my knuckles turned white I realized my hands were like his. Sunburnt on top, calloused underneath. We both loved to dig in the earth.
He died where he feared—away from home. The brain tumors took over fast. After years of surgeries, experimental chemotherapy treatments, various forms of radiation, and numerous hospital visits, the tumors won. It happened within days. On a Tuesday he woke up in his room at the long-term care facility with a cold. By Wednesday the doctor called my mom and recommended hospice care.
My mom, brother, and I met with the hospice nurse within hours of the doctor’s call. I couldn’t believe we were at this point. My father was three rooms away as the nurse explained her role in my father’s care until he died. We had just seen him. He looked tired and his mind was foggier than normal. It was time but I was in denial. I had to leave the room.
The next day my father was in a coma. For the next four days my family and I took shifts sitting with him. He was never alone. He had his “surge” when my mom was with him. They were able to spend a few waking hours together until the seizures began. I was with him—holding his hand and talking to him—during the longest of his seizures. It lasted so long the nurses quit keeping track of time. His hand gripped mine in his pain with a strength I would have described as force—life force. Less than twelve hours later his body was still. He died on my brother’s shift.
I had to drive. I had to get away from my dad’s death. I headed for the closest hiking trail. I needed the summer air—sticky with humidity and loud with bird song.
At a bend in the country road, silhouettes stretched across the blacktop under the darkness of an ash and sugar maple canopy. I slowed my car in the morning mist. At first I thought they were turkey vultures. But as I slowed my car and drove closer, I realized I had interpreted the shapes wrong. The big birds before me were turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris.
A line of hens and poults stretched across the two-lane road, dancing and playing in a conga-style line. I stopped my vehicle to watch as the chocolate-covered hens moved up and down the line as if counting their children. The poults—now almost the size of their mothers—hopped around and sparred with one another. After a few minutes the turkeys were done with me, their audience, and dispersed into the brush. The open road called again, so I drove forward. I inched my vehicle onward, slowly at first, past the site of the turkey gathering, mindful of any stragglers. As I passed by I noticed why the meeting had taken place. In the weedy, gravel-pocked side of the road lay a dead poult. Apparently hit by a car not so long ago, the young bird lay prostrate and exposed in death. His or her family had been saying goodbye. I had witnessed, and subsequently interrupted, a turkey funeral. The dead turkey and its family forced a ball of emotion to bounce from my stomach to the base of my throat. I started to cry, no longer alone in grief.