My stepfather passed away on Sunday. He celebrated his birthday in hospice care on Friday, and Sunday, after several years of increasing suffocation, he just passed - peacefully, they say - away. And the first thing my brother asked me when I told him was
Where did he go?
Why, I wonder, is it such a horrifying thought that perhaps he just went back to the dirt?
The dirt from which emerge my tangy sweet amana orange tomatoes and my fuzzy lemon cukes. The tomato blood-water runs over the edges of the cutting board, spilling onto the counter beneath. My mind confuses sound and touch as the kitchen blade slices the summer cucumber harvest, crunching through the skin, skimming through the flesh. I tumble the tomatoes and cukes with dill and mint from my dirt, purple onions, vinegar, sugar, olive oil. Sun, water, dirt, from my tongue, to my belly, to my cells.
The dirt that catalyzes seeds the size of the “d” at the beginning of the word into head-heavy, seven-foot sunflowers, with their scruffy stalks and lazy spreading leaves, and their faces smiling with a thousand little unpotentialized “d”s.
The dirt that smells so crisp, cools and dries my fingers and palms, when my husband and I break it and turn it and pack it back with our hands around spindles of green and brown that aren‘t as fragile as they seem. I drink my coffee with him over a shovel and a bag of Black Kow, puffed up with the accomplishments of a whole day before most people have finished checking their email in the morning. I hold his gritty hand.
The dirt on which my stepdad played football as a kid, that ground through his uniform to stain his knees and elbows, and sprayed under his helmet each time he took the ball to the turf in practice or game play.
The dirt that gets between our toes, fills our nostrils, finds its way beneath the most indoor fingernails, so pervasive, so integral to every moment of our lives.
The question is not Where did he go? but What do we do now without him?