Out Of Control
By Carol L. Bowman
It’s the sound. The sound that never leaves me; the sound that frightens me every time I relive those moments thirty-two years ago; the sound that forever pierces and never fades.
It was supposed to be a day of celebration, that 4th of July in 1980. My husband, my son and I, my three sisters and their families all converged on our parents’ farm for our mid-summer annual picnic. Anticipated pleasant images of sparklers crackling and hamburgers sizzling on the grill were replaced with relentless memories of a few seconds of horror that continue to haunt me.
The preceding day, I had driven my father for his radiation treatment and he and I talked alone for the first time since the surgery his malignant brain tumor. I felt uncomfortable and sad as this once burly, 200 pound, confident man needed my physical support as he weaved and swayed on the sidewalk back to the car.
Although only 58, his frame felt frail to me, his clothes bunched up from weight loss, his belt cinched in the last hole. Where thick brown hair once curled, he now wore a hat to cover the scars of the vicious intrusion. In his hand, he clutched the card that the nurse had instructed him to carry, alerting authorities that his imbalance in walking was due to his medical condition and not inebriation. He did indeed appear to be drunk. How I wished it had been that simple.
I wanted to say so much to him, but I didn’t. He was too proud and too tenuous and I was too afraid. We turned onto the dirt lane and drove the mile to the farmhouse, nestled in the center of the twenty-acre tree nursery where I was raised. He poked my arm with a tender jab and said, “Hey, kiddo, don’t worry. Your old man is going to beat this thing.”
I couldn’t look my father in the eye. He knew it. I lowered my head and said, “Of course you will, Daddy,” as an image of his sister, who died many years before from a similar brain tumor, flashed through my mind.
I silently processed the prior day’s sad interaction with my dad, while we prepared for the picnic. As I tossed the potato salad and watched mom cutting onions and juicy red tomatoes from their garden, I wondered what she was thinking. She never voiced her own fears about my dad’s illness. We were the family of ‘Great Pretenders.’ Uttering feelings about anything was considered idle chatter. We learned to deal with the situation at hand, solve it and move on. Reality of managing the basic daily grind silenced expression of doubts, worries and disappointments. There was never any time for sniveling.
Reflections interrupted, my ten-year old son raced into the house. I saw in his sweet face a fear no mother wants to see from her child. ”Mom, come quick, it’s Grand Pop.”
We dashed out, but it was too late. Apparently, wanting to cut up a fallen tree branch, my father zigzagged down the sidewalk, brandishing a chainsaw. He had already pulled the frayed cord to start the gas-powered machine. The momentum of the motor turning over knocked his fragile equilibrium into a stagger. He instinctively had his finger on the saw’s trigger, a maneuver he had mastered over the years, removing downed trees.
In attempting to regain his balance, the impetus of the motion sent him spinning out of control, his finger locked on the mechanism to engage the blade. The lethal metal teeth of the revolving chain, whirring around, waited to cut on contact.
I wanted to scream, but the horror paralyzed my voice. My mother wailed; the grandchildren, whom we moved away from the dangerous path, looked on, mouths agape, eyes bulging; a family frozen in place by fear. No one dared approach.
Rex, my father’s German shepherd and faithful companion sensed the panic. He raced back and forth, barking, crazed as to what to do to protect his master. The dog darted in and out, desperate to dislodge the menacing weapon from his pal’s hands.
Rivulets of gasoline spewed from the screw top on the saw’s petrol container. The grinding sounds of the chain, gnawing in continuous motion, made me wish I were deaf. As my father spun like a wobbly top, his dignity, his independence, life as he knew and my mother knew it, seemed to fly off the blade’s callous edge.
Daddy finally relaxed his finger from the trigger. The machine slowed and the whirling blade stopped, but the running motor still growled dangerously. My brother-in-law cautiously approached and coaxed the chainsaw from my father’s trembling hands, his fingers still twitching. I watched as he looked at his wife, his daughters, his grandchildren and even his dog for one painful instant. Then exhausted and humiliated, he stumbled to the ground.
That evocative image of a disease out of control, proved to be the turning point. For the next four months before his death, my father continued to console me with those words, ‘Hey kiddo, don’t worry,’ but only in a whisper.