by Christopher Good
We had to cancel our camping trip because of Lori’s broken leg.
Oh-seven had been a tough summer for all of us. It’d been so hot. I’d worked so hard – Matt had helped me in the fields, dragging his feet, and Lori too. We were all looking forward to a change. Something to get our minds out of the dust, off the farm. To break our routine, you know.
Well, the only thing that broke that August was Lori’s leg. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. And even now, almost ten years later, I still can’t shake the feeling that it was my fault. I should have been more careful.
Lori was just a teenager then. She’s twenty-four now, I think, so she’d have been fifteen? Something like that. She was plenty old enough to do more girly things. But she wasn’t one of those little flower girls. She didn’t much like to cook and clean, though she could; Karen had taught her well. She liked to be outside, to run around. She fed our steers. She helped drive the tractors. She was no boy, I guess, but strong for a girl. And I needed her help. Even with the drought, I’d bit off more acreage than I could chew, and Matt and I couldn’t have done it alone.
That morning I had decided to send Matt down the road to Eph Snyder’s old farm to bale up the last of the wheat straw. I needed to go up to the north end of the home farm to load up what he’d baled yesterday. I could have done it myself, though it would have taken longer, but at breakfast, Lori asked to come along and drive the trailer.
I looked over to my wife. Karen was finishing Dustin’s scrambled eggs, and there was a spot of ketchup on her chin.
“You going to need Lori’s help today?”
Karen took another bite and thought. “I need to do some laundry,” she said through her mouthful of egg, “and I’ll make a few dozen cookies. There’s nothing much in the garden this week with the drought and all.” She paused.
“Swallow before you finish,” I said, grimacing. “And wipe your chin.”
Karen found a napkin and cleaned off the ketchup. “Sure, if she washes the breakfast dishes, she can go with you.”
“Can I go, Mom?” Dustin whined. Karen nodded, and he tumbled off his chair and ran outside, slamming the door. Matt stuffed his iPod into his pocket and groaned before picking up his cap and following slowly. “Eph’s field?” he asked, not looking up.
“Aren’t you going to thank your mother for making breakfast?”
He left without replying. I was worried about Matt. He just didn’t seem to connect with me. Every father needs a son, and Matt had been my firstborn. Perhaps he was still my favorite. But since the time he’d turned thirteen or fourteen, he’d avoided me like the plague. I often wondered how I could bring him back. I was hoping our camping trip would be the answer. Good quality family time, you know.
“Thanks for letting me go, Mom,” Lori said, stacking the dishes.
I took a sip of my lukewarm coffee and bent over the farm paper. There was nothing new in it, just more analysts complaining about the heat and the drought. Global warming, they called it. A bunch of foolishness. Next summer would be better.
Almost before I had finished my coffee, Lori was finished with the dishes, and we went out and down the steps. Like so many other days that summer, it was clear, bright, and unbearably hot. The Dodge and the old flatbed trailer were both parked out by the machine shed.
“Can you hitch up?” I asked Lori.
She rolled her eyes. “Aw, Dad, can’t I drive the truck?”
“No,” I said. Lori was a little young to drive on the road, though she’d done it before. But with the trailer, I figured it was safer if I did. She’d be fine in the field. I started the truck on the second try and backed it up. In a second, she’d hitched it up and was climbing into the passenger seat.
It only took a minute to drive up. The 6200 was already parked in the headland where I’d left it the night before. I got out, and Lori climbed over into the driver’s seat as I started the tractor.
“Careful,” I called over. I pulled out a handkerchief and wiped my forehead, already soggy with sweat in the heat.
We drove around the field collecting the few bales of straw we’d been able to make. I hoped we could put everything that was left on one load. The dry straw would easily be light enough to pull. The trailer was pretty rickety, but I figured it would be fine.
Lori was yelling something as I drove past. I couldn’t hear her over the tractor, but she pointed toward the ground. After a second, I saw it: a bird ahead of the truck, a killdeer. I grinned a little, motioning that I’d be careful. Lori loved animals. She loved anything small and helpless, really. She’d be a good mother someday if she ever got up enough courage to trap mice and such.
The loader tractor wasn’t very fast, but after only thirty or forty minutes, we were almost done – only one bale left to fork up. I had two full rows on the trailer, but I figured the tractor could lift one on top yet. We drove up.
Lori jumped out of the truck and came toward me. “There’s that killdeer again!” she called, pointing. “I want to find its nest.”
“Okay, fine. Just watch the trailer,” I hollered back. I put the tractor in gear, and Lori disappeared behind the truck.
This would be an oversized load for the old trailer. The tractor could barely reach high enough to set that last bale on top – I’d probably been a little too optimistic. But I didn’t want to come all the way back for just one. Surely I could manage it. I lifted as high as I could and inched forward. The tractor wobbled a little. This was a bad idea, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet.
I moved forward again, pushing the bale up over the stack. There. A little precarious, but it was on. I pushed it a little with the forks, then a little more. The old wagon rocked. My heart stopped. The bales on the far side were falling.
Where was Lori? Instinctively, I went for the horn and held it as those two bales hit the ground.
I cut the engine and heaved myself off the seat. “Lori!” I yelled. “Are you all right?”
“Dad, come here quick!”
“I’m coming!” She was alive. She was all right. I ran around the back of the trailer. Lori was on the ground – one of the bales had fallen on top of her, pinning her legs.
“Are you all right? Can you feel your feet?”
“Yes,” she whimpered. “I was running—”
“I’m going to try to roll this bale off your legs,” I said. Three-by-four bales are heavy, but the straw was very dry, and I’m a big man. I put my shoulder down and heaved. Lori whimpered, and I gritted my teeth. After a few tries, I was able to rock the bale off.
I knelt down beside her. “How do you feel? Do you think you can get up?”
Her breath was ragged, and I could tell she was in pain. “I think it’s broken. I felt it—” Her voice faltered. “I felt it snap. And the killdeer’s nest—”
Stupid bird. I had a daughter to take care of.
“Okay, Lori,” I said. “I’m going to carry you to the truck. This is going to hurt, but I’ll be as careful as I can.”
She nodded weakly. “You know what you’re doing.” I didn’t really, but Dustin had broken his leg a couple years before.
“You ready?” I scooped her up, and she held on. She hardly made a sound as I carried her over and propped her up in the back seat of the truck. Such a strong girl.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have anything to put under your leg. I’ll drive as carefully as I can.”
I unhitched the trailer, and we drove very slowly, very quietly back toward the farm. Thoughts raced through my mind. How could I have been so reckless? How could she have been so unlucky? How could she have been so lucky? It could have been so much worse.
As I pulled in at the farm, Karen was out in the yard hanging up laundry. She wasn’t hard to find in that yellow dress. “Get me a couple pillows!” I yelled to her. “And some extra-strength Tylenol. Lori broke her leg. I need to take her in to St. Joseph.”
So there we were at the hospital, me and Lori. I’d left Karen at home to take care of Dustin – didn’t want any more broken bones. Thank God the ER wasn’t too busy.
I had plenty to think about, waiting there on that hard narrow chair.
What had happened? My mind must not have been on my work. I’d been thinking about Matt. Wishing that things would be different with him. That he’d show more interest in taking over the farm – he just didn’t seem to have farming genes. That he’d join the church. That he’d get along with his mother and siblings. That maybe . . .
I hadn’t been thinking about my work, anyway. I’d been thinking about Matt, and I’d been careless. And that stupid killdeer. Without that bird, everything would have been all right. Lori had been following the bird, she told me, when she heard me hit the horn. She looked up and saw the bales falling, and she tried to run. But she tripped.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Lori. Her face when I found her. The pain in her eyes, in her voice. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she held on to me as I carried her to the truck, then into the ER. How fragile, how vulnerable she was, her arms around my neck, her head on my shoulder.
I felt sick. Lori was lucky this wasn’t worse. She was lucky she was alive. I was lucky she was alive.
I shook my head, trying to clear those thoughts. She was a tough girl. The Tylenol had made her a little drowsy and disoriented and probably hadn’t dulled the pain much. But she was awake, and only the occasional moan escaped her. I couldn’t look at her, could hardly speak to her. We waited, mostly in silence. I twiddled my thumbs.
“You all right?” I said after a while.
“Yeah.” She waited.
“Not the morning we were hoping for, eh?
Even through the pain, she didn’t seem angry or anything. It was all just an awful mistake. She’d been too close. I’d been too distracted, I guess. In that moment, I could have just wrapped her up in my arms and let it all out, the stress, the guilt. But that wouldn’t have been proper.
“You’re still here,” I said, shaking my head. “When I saw those bales fall . . .”
Lori nodded. “Dad, it’s okay. It’ll heal. Don’t worry.”
I wondered if she really meant that. “You must be here for a reason,” I said, trying to convince myself. “A reason that includes a broken leg.”
The next few days blurred together a little. Of course, we couldn’t go camping now, and it was too last-minute to really plan anything else. Anyway, what could you do with a kid that couldn’t walk? Lori was going to be in the cast for probably six weeks. We’d found her some crutches, but her right leg was so sore too that for the first week she really couldn’t move around much.
I could have kicked myself. Here I’d been concentrating so much on Matt, on how I wished things would be different with him. It wasn’t that he was at fault for what had happened. Of course not. Either way, I’d well nigh forgotten I had a daughter. I’d have to do better with Lori in the future. She deserved better – she was hardly a little girl anymore. She’d grown up right under my nose.
It’s just that . . . Well, I still don’t know how to say it. With Matt it was easy. I knew what was wrong and I knew what needed to be done about it. It wasn’t the same with Lori. Perhaps I just didn’t relate as well to womenfolk. Even Karen and I had had our moments.
It can’t hurt anymore now to say that the shine had more or less faded from our relationship. Karen had gained a lot of weight, for one. She’d never been very tidy, and I had been all right with that. But with three kids and all, she just couldn’t keep everything in order. She snored – I don’t know when that had started. Little things about her that I wouldn’t have cared much about ten or fifteen years before just irked me. And with Karen going through – with Karen having older-woman issues, I guess – things were just tough.
It was especially tough because there was nothing to do. Matt and I had finished up the last of the wheat harvest, and though the heat was unbearable, our beans weren’t dried off yet. There wasn’t any hay to speak of. The steers didn’t take much of our time. I tinkered with my equipment in the privacy of the machine shed, but nothing was really broken. The stress of it all made it hard for me to concentrate on the task at hand in any case.
It was like a week of Sundays. Matt spent far too much time cooped up in his bedroom. Lori read a book or occasionally tried to help Karen with something, her face pinched. Karen moved even more slowly than usual and took lots of naps. The heat drained us all. Even Dustin, disappointed as he was about our trip, sometimes seemed to run out of energy and just sat in the shade with his dog.
Me, I wandered around restlessly. There was no use whining about if-onlys – but if only we had been able to get away for a week! If only there had been something to do. If only I’d been more careful.
It’s hard to say this. I try hard to do what’s right, to be respectable and all that. And I’ve never told anyone this part of the story before. It’s just that I had suddenly realized that fateful day, as I was laying Lori into the back seat of the truck: I haven’t been this close to a woman in months.
I couldn’t allow myself to think that way. I couldn’t! It made me sick. But now it was as if I’d eaten the forbidden fruit. I tried to do what I could. I tried to make it up to Lori. To distract myself and her. Several times I made myself sit down on the couch beside her, and we talked about this and that. One night we played Parcheesi before bed, me and her and Dustin. Playing games with Dustin was a terror. Even Lori’s patience was tested. Plus, I felt like I was walking on eggshells the whole time. I wasn’t a very good sport. I held it all in as best I could; but after the game, I had to go sit in my study for a while and just calm down a little.
Like I said, it was a long week.
“Guess what!” Lori said at supper. “I found out just today that there’s a killdeer’s nest on the driveway! I’ve been watching them from the window in the sitting room.”
“A what?” Dustin asked.
Matt spoke without raising his eyes. “Bird.”
A killdeer. I lowered my sandwich. “Just don’t look too close,” I said, a little sharply. “We don’t need you breaking another leg.”
“Aw, Dad, really?” Lori groaned.
“Sure don’t,” Matt said, looking up a bit. “We’d hate to miss another wonderful little trip.”
“Matthew!” Karen scolded. “That’s enough.”
“I watched the killdeer for a while this afternoon,” Lori said. “Scrounging for food. And I know where their nest is – I just had to keep my eyes open. I’m already excited for the chicks! I hope nobody steps on the eggs . . .”
She’d always been soft for animals, but this seemed like more. I guessed her motherly instincts were starting to come out. She was sure growing up. I wrenched my eyes away and looked around the table.
Dustin was looking down at his plate. “I wanted to go camping so much. It’s all Lori’s fault we can’t go.”
Lori’s face fell. There was a little silence.
“I’m sorry, Dustin, I really am. I wish it would be different.”
“It’s not your fault.” Matt turned toward her. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“It is her fault,” Dustin whined. “It’s all her fault!”
“Hush, children,” Karen said. I knew without looking that she was waiting for me to speak.
What was I to say? I couldn’t be too soft. I couldn’t be partial. My tone may have been harsher than necessary: “Lori needs to be more careful in the future. If she’d been paying attention, our summer might have been—”
“Dad, stop!” Matt’s face flushed.
“Keep your voice down,” I said. “That’s no way to talk to a parent.”
“And that’s no way to talk to your daughter,” Matt said.
“That’s enough. Go to your room. Now.”
Matt shoved his chair back and left the table. I shot a glance at Lori. She was fighting tears.
In the silence, I choked down the last of my sandwich. “I have some work to do at my desk,” I said, standing up abruptly.
Down the hall, I hunched over in my battered study chair and closed my eyes. I tried to think about what was happening. Then I tried not thinking about it. I felt awful – why did I have to keep making things worse? I opened my eyes and stared at the silent spines of the Vine’s and Strong’s, the piles of back issues of farm magazines.
I opened my laptop. Might as well update some accounts. If I kept my budget together, I might be able to afford a new tractor in the winter. But I hated bookwork in the best of times, and my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t focus.
I could hear Karen clearing up the dishes. The front door slammed several times – Dustin going in and out. Lori must have gone to her room, because Karen didn’t make conversation with her. It was amazing how light that girl was on her crutches.
After a while, the light faded from behind my window shade. I shifted and stretched restlessly. Finally I gave up on the accounts. I stacked the bills and receipts in neat piles across the back of my desk. I needed some fresh air, but I didn’t feel like leaving the safety of the study.
The house was quiet. Karen had gone to bed. The heat was still thick, and I was in no hurry to join her.
I felt so empty and alone. My mouth was dry. Why did I do things like this? I was a father! I was a terrible father. I was a terrible person. Well, I’d been here before. I stared into the screen. I needed to forget.
“Dad,” Lori said.
I froze. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak.
“Oh, no. Oh, no.”
I’d played broken wing all right, and I thought I’d kept everything hidden. But now she’d stumbled right into my nest.
So that is the story of how I lost my daughter. Not right away, I guess, but things were never the same after that. I’ve been through fire and water since then, been through counselors and pastors and accountability groups, and I’m porn free. And I’ve been to Jesus, and I’ve found a kind of peace.
Lori, though. I’d made such a mess of things. Somehow I’d made myself believe that if it all stayed on the screen, I would be all right. I tried to make it up – but how could she trust me after that, after she found me like that? She couldn’t trust any man, really, with me in the back of her mind. It’s been a long fight. She gave me a fair shot, but it just didn’t work out. I don’t blame her for leaving; she could have left long ago. She could have run away. And she didn’t.
Matt and Ann are coming over to help her get her things together. They’ll take her to the airport this afternoon, and she’s getting on a plane with a one-way ticket to the West Coast. I hope this world is kind to her, and I hope she’ll write once in a while.
I hope there are killdeer in California. I hope she sends me pictures.
Christopher Good is a deeply opinionated Canadian Christian socialist thinker and craftsman; he enjoys church sociology, literature, languages, music, and building hospitality furniture.