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March 2008, vol 4 no 1

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Garry Eaton

 

My Father’s Fence

Unemployed, and staying temporarily with my parents during my Dad’s last serious illness, I look around for something to do to make me feel useful besides drying the dishes. The backyard fence is missing some boards and needs paint. Dad will never get to this now, and I locate enough lumber and other supplies in the garage to get started. There's even some paint, though not enough for a proper job. The thirsty old cedar will have to make do with a single coat.

As for Dad, I believe he’s almost beyond caring much what his fence looks like now. Ever the hard working, hard drinking 'man's man,' he takes what refuge he can from old age, ill health, and a marriage that no longer interests him by drinking more than he should. Lately, he has faced yet another reminder of his failure, a son nearly thirty and still on shaky legs financially and professionally. ‘Boomerang boy! When I was his age…’

Though I haven’t disclosed it, I planned to spend this hiatus at home with Dad, to fool with little home improvement projects, and to hope it might mark a new beginning, or mend a difference before it’s too late. But I hesitate a moment before beginning a project that might not be appreciated just now.

minefield
deep footpaths
crisscross this mud

Just to see what happens, however, I start digging holes early next morning, before anyone else is up Later, at breakfast, nobody objects. So by Sunday, despite a few mishaps, I've set several fence posts in concrete, replaced some split rails and pickets, and a rusty hinge, scraped, sanded, and applied an undercoating over all, and a thin topcoat of white. As I stand in the middle of the yard, admiring the property’s new air of respectability, and wondering if anybody will notice, Dad comes out of the house in his old grey sweater to inspect. So far today he’s sober, and though he’s tired he seems to be in a good mood. After jiggling a few posts, and sighting with his eye down the fence line a couple of times, he appears satisfied. Though supposed to have quit smoking months ago, he lights up two cigarettes, and hands one to me. We smoke, and enjoy a moment together in the autumn sun. Then, before turning back into the house he smiles, and says to me without apparent irony, “maybe you should have been a painter instead of a poet.” I nod. Good one!

It was his only comment about the fence, and my last real effort to make amends somehow for the many ways I’d failed him. Unfortunately, I was away working that winter when his life came to a sudden end.  

heart disease . . .
the final thump,
a stone on his coffin lid