Photo courtesy of Connie Kuhns.
Remembering her father's last days in a hospital in Wyoming, Connie Kuhns struggles with questions of mortality, memory and how to fulfill her father's dying wish.
How do you remember someone’s last days on earth?
A woman got on the bus at Johnson’s Corner. She sat next to me, although I offered her the seat behind me because there was more room. She was old. I helped her with her seatbelt. I didn’t feel like talking.
Her short white hair was brushed back like a rancher’s wife. The silver ring on her left hand was huge. I think it was a black stone. She was glamorous in that Georgia O’Keeffe kind of way. I stared at her hands as she placed her black leather jacket across the seat in front of us. I asked her if she rode motorcycles. Not since her husband died, she said.
“Are you coming from the airport?” she asked.
She had been visiting her sister in Colorado and was heading home. I told her I had just flown into Denver from Vancouver and was headed to Cheyenne. She said she was from a small town in Nebraska “that you’ve never heard of.” I knew what she was going to say.
Alliance, Nebraska. Cattle Capital of the State. KCOW: the greatest call letters of all time. When we had a dollar to spare, Patti Nicholson and I would ride our bikes out to the radio station to buy demo 45s for ten cents apiece. Andy Williams. Maxine Brown. The park had a lily pond and a magical shooting fountain, which was restored just last year. Bulldogs. Football. Box Butte County.
I reached over and took her arm. “I was born in Alliance,” I said. “You look like my mother’s friend, Jean Schafer.”
“My name is Jean Schafer,” she said, as if there could be two.
“I’m Connie Kuhns, Dean and Wilma’s oldest daughter.”
“How is your dad?”
“That’s why I’m here. He’s in a hospital in Cheyenne.”
So this is how it began: a long conversation with a woman who knew me as a child, who looked after my mother, a young wife ten years her junior. Jean’s four boys were legendary in the neighbourhood, kept in line occasionally by the leather strap that hung inside their back porch. She and her husband, Dick, made chokecherry wine with my parents in the summertime while we kids ran around barefoot and sweaty under a string of yellow bug lights. I hadn’t seen Jean Schafer in more than forty years. The last time was on the day we had moved away. I was twelve years old.
If the signs were any less obvious, I would have to have been unconscious. I knew then that my dad would probably die this trip. Jean Schafer was not on that bus for nothing.
I had my first McDonald’s hamburger in Cheyenne in 1967. My friend Rue Ann had to drive over there from our small town in the panhandle of Nebraska to get her contact lenses. Mom let me go along. The last time I was in Cheyenne was over twenty years ago. I was with my husband and newborn daughter. We were catching a connecting flight to Vancouver. Someone had parked in the handicapped parking space so there was no room for my dad’s van. I stormed around the airport in a fit of tears and anger, carrying my daughter, searching for the culprit who made even a moment of my dad’s life more inconvenient than it already was. I found him in the barber shop being interviewed. He just happened to be the governor of Wyoming.
My dad hugged my baby girl extra tight that day when we said goodbye. He always said that was what made her so shy.
It’s funny, the denial a person can be in when faced with something that’s not going to end well. My mom was staying in the hospital with my dad, but upon my arrival, my sister and I booked ourselves into Little America. I couldn’t wait to go shopping and have a steak. It was my birthday.
My mother examined my dad’s body like a nurse. She pointed to his lower back where his skin was deteriorating and asked me if I wanted to see the hole, which was now the size of a soccer ball. I declined. I was already taken aback by his appearance. His face and arms were swollen and his forearms were oozing. Seeping is the correct term, I think. He was so happy to see me. He had told my sister earlier that he knew he’d find a way to get me home.
I ran away in the summer of 1969. I had just flunked out of my first year of college and I knew that my dad would be furious. It seemed easier to run off to California with two girlfriends and no money, in an oil-burning Chevrolet that I had bought the night before for sixty-five dollars, than to face his wrath and disappointment. I still have the piece of paper he took notes on while talking to the highway patrol when he discovered I was missing. Linda Miller. Charlene Murphy. ’59 Chevy. Burbank. It was a horrible time for my mother, just one of many.
I went home a few months later to pick up my stereo and look after my siblings. Mom was in Denver, in the hospital with bleeding ulcers. I left the day after she was released. Dad asked me what he could do to make me stay. I was sitting in the swivel chair in front of the television. I had just announced that I was returning to California on the train the next morning. I made a joke that he could buy me a car, and then I turned the chair away from him so that he wouldn’t see me cry. I had gotten pregnant in California and I had to go back. I just couldn’t disappoint them again.