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Andrew Watch

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This week, First Person explores the process of dealing with love and loss.

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After my father died, I spent many hours looking for hidden messages. It was a maddening search and one that felt similar to running up to the edge of a great cliff in anticipation of discovering a beautiful, panoramic view, only to be blinded by the terrifying heights. I desperately wanted to find a message of enlightenment secretly scrolled away by him, but I grew increasingly spooked by the idea that maybe I wouldn’t like what I found – if I found anything at all.

This frustrating feeling lasted for several days as we received neighbours and other visitors at the farmhouse where he lived with my mother.

I went through his jean pockets, nightstand drawers and shaving kit; the junk drawer in his dresser. I opened passports, shook out cowboy boots. Surely, somewhere, there was an SOS, a few words written out on a piece of paper acknowledging what had been happening, even if he hadn’t been willing to do so with most of his family.

For he’d been dying; he thought he was dying, but he was caught in a situation where he seemed incapable of acting – of seeing a better doctor, a real doctor, and not just the one assigned to the rural hospital closest to the farm. Of taking a corporate time out, per se, and setting aside the chores of the day so he could figure out how he might be able to shake off death a little longer.

It turns out there was no note. No confession; no letter of regret. Not even a revelatory fortune cookie message, stashed between the pages of a book. No way to take his words and make meaning of what had happened. No explanation of why he’d let things unfold the way they had. There were no clues on the farm anywhere, in fact.

Instead, there were Gaudi-esque scaffoldings of sinus medications and inhalers, expensive air purifiers that took up entire corners of his bedroom; neti pots and poultices in tin cans and Costco-sized containers of vitamins. He couldn’t breathe – couldn’t even walk from the house to the barn – but it wasn’t because of his lungs. It was because his heart’s aortic valve had never worked, not even as a child. And so when his heart pumped blood, it leaked, like a loose valve on a tire you’re trying to inflate. At 71 years old, that valve was about to give out. He both knew this, and didn’t know this.

There was a garage full of tools, a clock that made tractor sounds on the hour, a lifetime’s accumulation of saddles, horse shoes, drills, rubber boots; goalie skates in the barn attic, covered in swallow dung. Just objects, random everyday things, some with a few strands of his white hair on them, others faded by the cold and the sun.

I ended up finding one of his winter coats in the massive metal sea can on the family farm. It’s the sort of shipping container you see in pictures of giant freighters in the middle of the ocean. My mother bought it because she wanted a place to store things when she didn’t have room in the doublewide trailer where they lived. It was nearly empty, but most importantly, she’d say, it was mouse-proof.

The coat was hanging up with some other pieces of clothes. A brown tweed jacket with leather elbows from England that belonged to him. A sheepskin coat that my mother no longer fit.

My father’s coat is a classic Canadian coat – red and black checks, what we’d call a lumberjack coat. The fabric – this word does not do it justice, let’s call it a wool-blend textile – is so thick and warm as to be impervious to all winds and cold. Incredibly, made in Canada – a provenance more rare than an ethereal meteorite landing from another universe, at this point. It was in the sea can because he hadn’t used it in a long time. It’s a heavy, boxy coat, lacking the frivolousness of Gore-Tex and the styling of a Canada Goose.

Still, the red-and-black coat is a deafening yell against winter at its most miserable: the late, unexpected snowfall in April. The howling cold in December. I pulled the coat off its hanger, laid it on the sled I’d dragged out to the sea can, and pulled it back through the snow to the house. My father, being pulled through the snow, like an empty scarecrow resting on its back.

I brought the coat home with me to Baltimore, where it never goes below much beyond freezing. It’s too big for me – he had even broader shoulders than I do, shoulders that seemed to expand and coarsen over the years of farm work and worn-out limbs. It has a large pocket on either side, at the hips. When I put my phone into those front pockets, before walking the dog, it’s always covered in little pieces of hay afterward. The flecks get caught in the crease of the phone cover or stick to the cold screen through static electricity.

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I want to dust the phone off; it’s an immediate, automatic reaction. The phone is expensive, a necessary luxury that demands care and protection. And yet, those little pieces of hay are much more holy.

So I resist brushing off my phone. It doesn’t matter if the gold flecks end up in the headset jack hole, the speaker holes or the audio screen. I want to preserve the tiny pieces for as long as they wish to stick to it, like little words from the note I never found.

Then, I take the phone, hold it over one of the coat’s pockets and tap the hay back into it. It can stay and live in that pocket for as long it wishes.

Sarah Richards lives in Chicago.