An excerpt from Out of the Inferno: A Husband’s Passage through Cancerland
Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life . . .
Dante’s Inferno, Canto I
On a rainy November day in central Texas, Neil Schmitt, my father-in-law, trudged wearily down a country road along Pecan Bayou. A tall, lean man, he bent his head against the rain. He wore a floppy hunting cap, thread-bare coveralls, and worn-out boots that he knew he couldn’t afford to replace. After walking out to the road from the old tool shed that he used as a blind, he decided that he was done with hunting for good, just like that. Once Neil made up his mind to do something or not to do something, that was it. He quit smoking that way. He quit playing poker that way. And this cold, drizzly day, he decided to stop hunting.
In his seventies, I guess he had become tired of getting up before dawn to sit on a folding chair for hours waiting for a deer to show up, and also his reasons might have had something to do with unpleasant memories of the land. The days alone in the blind may have given him too much time to think about what had happened there during his boyhood—abandonment by his father, the long illness and death of his mother, and the struggles of subsistence living in a tin-and-tar-papered shack with a dirt floor. He carried his rifle close to his body, cradled in his arms. The strap of an Army-green canvas bag hung over his wide sloping shoulders like a sack of memories.
As Neil made his way down the wet tar road towards Irene Brown’s house, he stopped mid-stride, and walked to the gate at Jordan Springs Cemetery where Laura, his mother, lay buried. She had died of breast cancer in the 1940s. As the sole caregiver for his mother, her long illness and death had flattened Neil’s teenaged life like a bulldozer. He rested his gun on the cyclone fence, and stepped inside the grounds. He passed by the gravestones of long-dead, half-forgotten people that he had known during his life in Brown County, Texas. On the far side of a hundred-year-old oak tree, he removed his shapeless cap, and stood over his mother’s grave. The face of the gravestone never changed. For him, it must have been like looking at a memory that couldn’t be weathered away by rain or bleached out by the hot Texas sun.
Cold rain dripped on his thin gray hair, and ran down his forehead and neck. He fastened his top button, and pulled his bare hands into his coat sleeves. The air smelled of woodsmoke. After about five minutes, he tapped the toe of his boot gently on his mother’s flat gravestone, and returned to the road. Dogs barked from the ranches. Windmills groaned. Jack rabbits stood by the side of the road like marbled statues. Stella, his wife, and Irene Brown, the widow of Dennis, his best friend, waited down the road at Irene’s house with hot coffee, ham and eggs, biscuits and gravy. Irene had stoked the kitchen fireplace with bone-dry mesquite. Struggling down a rainy country road towards people you love, warm food, hot coffee, and a bright fire made what Neil called a life. A cure for gray thoughts on a gray day.