This, Too, is Vanity

by C.D. Mitchell


The telephone repairmen had no right to talk about my Christmas tree.

"I've heard of getting an early start on Christmas, but this is ridiculous," I heard Lenny say.

"Hell, Labor Day was last weekend. Do you think he just put it up, or hasn't taken it down?" That was Gus.

"Too lazy to take it down. Look at the dust on it, and the bulbs on the floor," Lenny said. I left the kitchen and walked down into the den.

Lenny and Gus took a credit card number as soon as they arrived on my property. They made sure I understood they would check the lines to the box, but since I hadn't purchased the insurance on the lines--the insurance only cost a buck a month they reminded me--if the problem existed on my side, the charges for the repairs would begin immediately. After fixing the lines, they came inside to make sure I had a dial tone. Unseasonably warm and humid, even for September, the daytime heat gave no hint of the cooler nights we were having. Gus had crawled up on a copperhead while under my house. I heard his shouts all the way out to the horse barn.

"That tree was put up by me and my two sons last year," I said, "My youngest son has leukemia. He helped me decorate it."

Lenny and Gus said nothing. The moment of silence was long, and I let it hang a bit longer than I should have.

"The tree stays right there," I said.

Gus reached his big hand up and touched the scarlet ribbon that circled the tree. He had a well-trimmed beard and a friendly look and smile that reminded me of Tim Allen's partner on Tool Time. This warmth hadn't been present earlier. "We found your problem. Do you have any dogs?" he asked. Gus knew I had dogs. My Walkers chased their truck all the way up the driveway.

"Yeah, I got some coon hounds. The horses get after them and chase them under the house."

"Yep, that's what happened," Lenny said. "That's where the lines separated from the box. But we got it reconnected." He rocked back and forth while he spoke, shifting his weight from his left leg to his right.

"And we stapled the phone lines to the bottom of the joists so it won't happen again." Gus stood calm and patient, still looking at the decorations on the tree.

"Well, I'll have the insurance next time. Never had problems with phone lines before. I've always rented though, so I never worried about it. This is the first place I've owned." I walked past them as I spoke—a wide circle that took me to the tree--where I bent over and gathered the fallen bulbs from the floor. I found niches on the artificial branches and hung the silver, gold, and crimson ornaments again. They swayed slightly for just a few moments.

"Mr. Mitchell, there won't be any charge for this trip. The lines should have been hung better when they were first installed." Gus picked up his tools as he spoke, while Lenny glared at him.

"Thank you."

Gus and Lenny eased toward the door. Lenny stopped. Much younger, Lenny was a tall, heavy man, nearly twice the size of Gus, though Gus was in charge. The back pocket of Lenny's Levis revealed a perfectly round and pale circle from the can of Copenhagen exposed by the threadbare material. Lenny turned to me and spoke.

"It is a beautiful tree, Mr. Mitchell, and I would never take it down." Then they left. I heard an engine fire up outside and listened as Clara and Bandit chased the panel truck down the driveway.

I walked through the kitchen to the bar, poured a double shot of Jim Beam in a fruit jar full of ice and slipped back into the den. After I plopped down on the couch I took a long sip of whiskey. That damned tree. All the ribbon had settled into a mass of overlapping rows on the lowest branches. A dozen ornaments still lay on the floor. Many of them had shattered when they fell. Slivers of the silver tinsel that Clayton loved had fallen to the carpet.

But I didn't know what to do with it.

* * *

Built more like me, my oldest son, Clinton, resembles a stump, with shoulders nearly as broad as he is tall. Towering over his brother by a good foot, Clayton lost twenty-five pounds after he began the chemo and now wears a toboggan on his bald head to keep it warm. His naturally lean body looks frightfully thin and his face is swollen from the steroids he must take daily.

Clayton inherited his athletic ability from my family. He accepts that he will not play professional football like my brother, Verl, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons. His desire to play football his last year of high school motivates him now.

The summer before his diagnosis, Clayton built an obstacle course. He ran that obstacle course during the hottest part of the year, trying to develop more strength in his legs so he could stuff a basketball. By September, at thirteen years of age, he consistently slam-dunked the ball on a ten-foot goal. Then as the fall semester of high school started, he began to experience fatigue. Clayton's struggle to accomplish his goal became even more incredible when the doctors told us in October he had battled leukemia all that time.

The oldest of the three, Candice is a year older than Clinton, and six years older than Clayton. Clayton was more her baby than his mother's. After Arkansas Children's Hospital had made their diagnosis and summoned Clayton to Little Rock to share the news, Debbie, my ex-wife and the mother of my three children, had called Candice and left repeated messages for her to come to Children's Hospital, to Three Gold. When Candice got off the elevator, she read "Blood Cancer Unit" on the wall in front of her. She collapsed.

* * *

Back before my children had been introduced to the words divorce and leukemia, things were simple. Family events evolved around the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, Halloween Jack-o-lanterns and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving--not around who would have the children for a certain holiday. The rituals we observed with each season never changed. My children received Easter baskets even after they were too old to hunt the eggs. We always took the children and let them pick out their baskets. Easter was never clouded with the shroud of secrecy generated by Santa's arrival.

At Halloween we would travel to the fruit stands out on 412 highway and search through hundreds of pumpkins scattered over a five-acre field till each child found the one they wanted. Then we'd take the pumpkins home and carve them on the steps of our front porch. Even after we left Fayetteville and no longer had the huge pumpkin patches to search, we still made an event out of going to each store and finding just the right pumpkin for each of the kids.

And every year--even after I divorced their mother—I took the children to find a live tree for Christmas.

Candice seemed to enjoy the excursions the most, even after she reached the age when family events were not supposed to be fun. She always made sure we bought the tree that Clayton chose. Clinton really didn't mind. He knew we couldn't buy three trees, like we did with the pumpkins or the Easter baskets, so he put up a half-hearted fight that he abandoned too easily to ever have been sincere.

Taking the tree down became as much a ritual as selecting and decorating it. We carefully wrapped the cheap ornaments like they were carved from gold and placed them in a box that we stored in the children's closet. They would eat the threaded popcorn and complain to their mother about how awful it was.

"Well, it's only six weeks old, and I didn't even butter or salt it," Debbie said, every year. Those kids knew that popcorn had rotted, but I believe they chewed on it just to complain to their mother about how bad it tasted.

* * *

The first time we went to a tree farm the children took over an hour to agree. They ran up and down the planted rows of trees looking for the biggest one they could find--thinking a big tree meant more presents. I used the saw the attendant gave us to harvest their selection, and I let the three of them drag it up to the sales stand where a man who worked there placed it in a shaker that shook the dead needles out from the branches. He wrapped the tree with a green net and helped us tie it down for the ride home.

During my college years at the University of Arkansas, we were always broke by Christmas. One year it had snowed just after Thanksgiving and the children were anxious to go select our tree. We didn't have the money to buy a live one, but we lived next to the Agricultural Experiment Station in Fayetteville, and they had a patch of Christmas trees on the far side of the school farm. I called Kerry Steelman, a friend of mine, and we went and cut two of the trees—one for each of us--in the middle of the night and dragged them back to my apartment, not realizing we had left a trail in the snow that led to my front door.

The children were disappointed the next morning. They wanted a bigger one. So I told them Santa Claus had delivered it during the night, and they needed to go sweep out his trail in the snow so no one could figure out where he had landed.

After that, I realized the importance the children placed on going with me to select the tree. The next year, I loaded our family in an old Volkswagen Baja and took them out into the White Rock Wilderness. We found a shaggy cedar tree, cut it down and tied it on the top of our rig. Then we took a logging road—we called them pig-trails--back down the side of the mountain, hoping the jolting, jouncing, jarring ride would knock the dead needles out of the branches of the cedar. When we got home, we strung popcorn on threads and decorated the tree.

As an undergraduate student with a family, we didn't go home as soon as school let out in December. My wife and I both worked part time jobs that never paid enough. We always made it to Paragould a day or two before Christmas, though, so the grandparents could buy presents for the kids. The year we got the cedar tree, the children absolutely refused to allow us to take it down before Christmas, so we left it up until we came back.

That old cedar tree dried out fast. A manager of a local tree farm told me we had cut it after the sap left the trunk. The day after Christmas of that year, we went back to Fayetteville. The tree stood in its corner, parched and dry. Debbie wanted to take it down then, and the children already had the boxes out for the ornaments. But I knew classes started in a couple weeks, and I'd receive my grant checks. So we waited on taking the tree down and pretended Christmas came late--with stockings and presents and ham and dressing. A match lit near that cedar tree would have burned the whole apartment complex down, so we passed on lighting any holiday candles. But as soon as we'd opened the presents, we took the tree down.

Every year thereafter we repeated the process of finding a tree. Then after I received my financial aid for the spring semester and celebrated Christmas again, we'd take it down.

Every year my wife pleaded with me to get an artificial tree.

"That tree is gonna kill every one of us," she said. "We'll be as toasty as your popcorn."

The kids laughed and reminded her that she always burnt the popcorn, and they pleaded for her to go with us to get the tree.

Every year she relented, until our divorce. My rituals continued with the children, only I had to pop the popcorn now, and the ornaments were stored in my barn.

* * *

Two months before Clayton's fifteenth birthday in March of 2000, after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant, the oncologists told us Christmas that year would be the last we shared with Clayton.

The visits I made to Arkansas Children's Hospital always reminded me of the seriousness of the situation my son faced. Of course I knew cancer was a killer, but he looked strong and healthy as he ever had. That made it easy to just pretend nothing was wrong. Every time I walked through the halls of Three Gold, I walked past parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, embracing and weeping over the bad news they had received. As my son's bone marrow transplant and recovery had progressed, I felt guilty walking by the grieving family members. They were family to me also, because we all faced the same demon; we all sought the same miracle. We wanted the Angels of Three Gold to save and restore our children to us.

Nearly a year after his transplant, Clayton came down sick. This lasted for a couple of weeks, so his mother took him to Little Rock to have him checked out. At the time, I was building houses with my father. That day I had gone to work and made it till almost lunch. They call it "Mother's Intuition," but I knew something was wrong.

"Dad, I gotta go to Little Rock," I said.

"Go," he said.

"I hate to leave you with this. You know I'm not one to skip a day of work, but I feel it. I need to be there today."

"I know you don't need an excuse to take a day off. But here's the point. Anytime you do something that puts your children first, son, you'll never be wrong. Now go."

My father had lived by that motto. I had failed miserably.

Three hours later I walked onto the floor of Three Gold and bumped into my children's mother standing in the hall, crying. I never had a chance to say a word.

"I have some bad news I have to tell you."

I leaned back against the wall and bowed my head. I knew what it was; I knew why I felt I had to be there that day.

"He has relapsed again. They say they can't cure him, but they can prolong his life, and maybe science will catch up to him. The decision is his."

The last words she said brought my head upright.

"Is he gonna do it?" The chemo and radiation had ravaged his body. But as long as a hope for a long life had existed, the devastation was worth the payoff. But now, for the first time, I realized my son had a decision to make, that he had to make on his own.

"Oh, he says he's not about to give up."

People passed us in the hall, looking at us occasionally, mostly looking at the floor. One man lay his hand on my back as he passed and said, "Bless him, Jesus." I wanted to chase him down the hall and ask him to pray with me, to pray for me, to pray for my son. But he was on Three Gold. We all prayed for everyone on Three Gold. I wiped the water from my eyes, repeatedly. I didn't want anyone to know we had been given bad news. We had been one of the fortunate families. This wasn't gonna end like this.

"How are Candice and Clinton?"

"It was hard at first, but they're all in there playing Risk now. Do you wanna go in and see them?"

"Yes."

"I'll leave you alone with them for a while."

The room Clayton occupied had two chambers. A sliding glass door separated the outer and inner chambers. This was for sterilization purposes when the patients had low resistance due to their treatments. But Clayton hadn't been receiving treatments, so the door was open.

I walked into the outer chamber and began to wash my hands. They saw me. Clinton got up from where he knelt throwing dice at the foot of Clayton's bed, and Clayton rose from where he lay. Candice continued to sit on the far side of the room in the recliner her mother had slept in so many nights.

"Daddy, are you alright?" Clinton asked as he walked around the foot of the bed.

I tried to say something, but I couldn't. I acted like I was busy washing my hands, and then I made a sound like a frog that had been stepped on when I tried to say, "No."

Clayton had sat up now, with his feet on the floor. The IV lines ran in every direction, and Clinton continued to stand at the foot of the bed. Candice still hadn't moved.

I eased into the room with them. The weight of my divorce, the nights away from home, the many times I had broken their hearts, the promises I'd made and never kept, the days Clayton had battled for his life while I continued to work, every mistake I had made weighed on my soul as I entered that room. I thought of Christ hanging on the cross with the sin of the world on his shoulders.

I had taken for granted that I would have a lifetime to make it up to them. Now I realized those lives I'd taken for granted were fragile, like butterfly wings, and could crumble away before I ever realized it. I no longer had a lifetime with my son to atone for my mistakes. Kneeling at Clayton's feet, I wrapped my arms around his legs and lay my head in his lap. We reversed the roles we had both become so accustomed to. He ran his fingers through my hair and rubbed my back while I fought for composure. No one spoke.

Clayton hugged me tight. With his head on my shoulder and my body in his weak embrace, he said, "You're forgiven, Dad."

Those words erased years of my failures and gave me a future to correct my mistakes. I got up and began to talk with them. The nurses were taking them to Juanita's that night to eat. Would I come along? Of course I would. Candice walked out into the hall. Clayton went to the nurses' station to be unhooked from his IVs, and Clinton sat behind the door, waiting with me to go to a restaurant where we would all act like nothing had happened at all, and our night out was a family ritual--just like any other night.

* * *
.

I know rituals have a purpose. They are meant to give a familiarity to a season. Observing our rituals with my children after divorcing their mother had allowed us to continue as a family. But her absence was always felt. The activities of any holiday can be looked upon as events that bring families together and give us occasion to be thankful for what we have. But family rituals can also remind us of what we stand to lose.

Like we had so many times before, I wanted to cut a tree that Christmas; I wanted to share the experience one more time with my children and go back to a time when they believed the size of the tree determined how many presents they got, a time when they believed they could erase Santa's tracks in the snow so no one would know he'd come early to our house. But I didn't want the experience tainted by knowing it might be the last time we all went together. I didn't want a videotape of Clayton selecting his last Christmas tree. I didn't want to cut his last tree down; I didn't want to remove the last ornaments he'd hung.

That November I bought an artificial tree at Sears. I wondered why the children acted so funny when I told them about it. Candice even refused to come out and help us decorate it. But Clinton and Clayton helped me put it up. Clayton topped it off with an empty Budweiser can.

Clinton didn't like Clayton's idea for a star. "That's sacrilegious," he said.

"Budweiser's been Dad's Sunday morning communion for years. It has a religious significance," Clayton said as he grinned.

* * *

We started other traditions that year. Our family always took pictures, though we never videotaped any holiday gatherings. That Christmas seven video cameras recorded the event. I felt awkward about the situation. We all wanted to remember that time, to have it permanently recorded. I may not have videotaped any of our Christmas gatherings before, but I record them all now.

The oldest of six children, I have always remembered Christmas with my family as a bustling, crowded, and noisy time, with people taking pictures and opening presents and eating candy, nuts, and oranges from stockings. All grown now, my brothers and sisters have families of their own. But when we come together for the holidays, we still have personally monogrammed stockings stuffed with candy and fruit on Christmas morning--just like the grandkids. Some of our rituals never changed.

That year Christmas morning dawned on a melancholy house. All of my brothers and sisters came out, and both of my sons and my daughter showed up. Instead of the joyful laughs and loud conversation, hushed tones and covered mouths spoke of the genius of the artificial tree that would never be taken down.

With Christmas celebrated at my place, I had the responsibility for filling the stockings of all the others, and I just hadn't felt in the Christmas spirit. The grandkids received theirs. I couldn't disappoint them. But the rest of us did without, and no one complained. I knew Clayton felt it too, and he did his best to perform for all the cameras, trying to give each of his uncles and aunts a special cameo to remember him by. On his Uncle Bill's camera, he gave his Christmas list for next year. On his grandpa's camera, he said he wanted a colt for his sixteenth birthday in May.

"Shine your camera over here, Daddy." After I focused on him he said, "Graduation's only two years away, and you'd better start saving if you're gonna get me a four-wheel drive. But I'll settle for a Baja like you had if you can't afford a truck."

On his Aunt Donna's camera, he told her daughter, Casie, he wanted a date with her best friend.

"I know what you want. You'll just get her pregnant," Casie said.

Her mother stopped filming and looked at her. "He can't have any kids honey; he's had too much chemo. Watch your mouth." The room fell silent.

"See, she's safe with me," Clayton said. Then he laughed, and the moment was over.

"Don't you worry, brother," Clinton said. "You find you a good-lookin' wife, and I'll see to it you get to be a daddy." He got up and grabbed his brother and hugged him with that rough-house style I always used with them when they were little, when I grabbed them and tossed them into the air and caught them and turned them upside down, or snuck up behind them as they walked through the house in their underwear and grabbed the back of their shorts and shouted "Grundy," as I lifted them up off the floor, pulling their shorts up into the crack of their little behinds, and they scurried away, grinning and tugging at their Fruit-of-the-Looms.

I looked around the room for mother. Down the hall at the far end of the house, a closed door led to the master bedroom. I eased it open. Mom knelt by the side of the bed. Her Bible open in front of her, her kerchief crumpled in her clenched hand, she wept as she prayed.

I closed the door and left her alone.

* * *

The phone rang. I looked up from the statement Gus had left behind and saw my empty glass. I got up to answer the phone in the kitchen, grabbing the Beam bottle on my way past the counter.

"Dad, when you gonna turn that coon loose on the pups?" Clinton said.

"Is Clayton all right?" I'd forgotten his appointment that afternoon.

"Clayton's on his way back from the doctor's office. He wants to come out and see the horses."

"I still gotta go see Benny. I'll see ya when you get here."

I bought my hay from Benny Leuker. Benny gave me a discount for hauling off the coons he trapped in his cattle feed, and he had a big boar coon for me to pick up when I came by.

"We'll come out soon as he gets in," Clinton said.

I knew they'd take an hour or more to get there so I poured more whiskey into my glass and returned to the living room where I put one of the videotapes in from last Christmas. I watched our family and thought of how a cautious optimism at Easter had replaced the somber mood at Christmas. The doctors tried a new protocol for treating Clayton's type of leukemia, and the drugs had placed him in remission again, for the third time. Clayton had celebrated his sixteenth birthday that May with the hope for many more. I bought him a black stud colt for his present. But reality had battered our optimism. The doctors said they could prolong his life, but never cure him. The news of his remission did not mean he would live to be an old man. But five years of remission was considered cured. We counted every week as he continued to go and take his chemotherapy, and they continued to check his blood counts. Every week I listened for the phone to ring, expecting more bad news. The news--for a change--was all good.

As I listened to the tape, I stared at that tree. All summer long I had stared at that tree. That tree meant so much to me when we first put it up. As long as I had that tree, Clayton would be there. But that tree began to grow, it seemed, and took on a presence of its own, dominating the room, and the house, and every conversation I had with anyone who visited me. It no longer stood for an everlasting monument to my son. Its image grew darker as over the summer the dust accumulated on its branches and dulled the sparkling ornaments and silver tinsel that hung from its limbs. The tree reminded me of all my failures as a parent—of how many times I'd taken my children for granted. I began to feel ashamed for my lack of faith in Clayton. He knew why that tree was there--because he wasn't supposed to be, because I had more faith in my telephone lines than I did in my own son.

Clayton never said a word when he visited; he just looked at that tree and grinned. For me the experience was like being in the same room with my ex-wife and my girlfriend. They just weren't supposed to be together. Never once did my son entertain the thought that he could lose his battle. That tree stood as a constant reminder that I had, and somehow, I think Clayton competed with that tree, to see which would outlast the other.

But I didn't want to take it down. Afraid to lose his tree, afraid I could still lose him, I began to think of it as a jinx. Would he relapse two weeks after I threw it away? If I took his tree down, did it mean I was vain, or cocky, that I took for granted he would be there for all my holidays? I'd made that mistake before.

The tape ended and ejected as I finished my last sip of whiskey. I checked my pocket for the keys to my truck and left for Benny Leuker's.

* * *

Clinton and Clayton were waiting when I got back from Benny's. They opened the gate and I drove into the pasture. The horses saw and smelled the bale of Tifton Bermuda and chased the truck as I eased along. Every time he bounced in his cage in the back of the truck, the coon squalled. The hounds heard his cry and set up a ruckus, jumping up on the side of the truck and vying for position with the horses struggling to get at the bale of hay.

The boys took the live trap out of the back of the truck and set it out in the middle of the pasture. The hounds couldn't get to the coon, but it could get to them. Its long narrow snout and small, razor sharp claws could poke through the narrow bars of the cage. I pushed off the round bale of hay for the horses and listened to the melee. As the dogs pressed their noses against the side of the trap, the old coon took advantage of them, tearing at their noses and shredding their ears. The baying of the hounds became a medley of enraged yelps and frenzied howls of pain mixed with the squalls of the coon. Like yearling colts, the horses took off around the pasture, kicking and bucking and snorting. Then they raced back to the hay, nipping at each other's flanks as they vied for a position of dominance.

"Hurry up Dad, this bastard's eatin' the dogs alive," Clayton shouted.

I got out of the truck and came around to where the boys egged the hounds on. The pups jumped at the cage and howled like they had seen the devil himself. The coon squalled and growled and clawed at them through the bars of the trap. I hoped they knew instinctively to trail the animal once we'd set it free. Bandit and Clara had never seen a live coon before. Unlike me, I hoped they knew what to do with this new experience. Generations of Night Champions were bred into their pedigrees, though, and they would know what to do. This ritual would have to be repeated for years in order for them to become night champions themselves, but I envied those hounds. If everything in life could only be so clear.

"Turn him loose," Clayton shouted at me. He danced around the cage, first on one side with Bandit, then on the other with Clara, calling the hounds by name as he shouted encouragement to each. I hadn't seen him move so deliberately in a long time. He imitated the squall of the coon, pinching his own cheek and emitting a high-pitched squeal that unnerved the ring-tailed animal as it squalled back at him. Bandit lingered too long against the bars and the coon bit him, hanging its teeth in the end of Bandit's nose and tearing open a gash as the hound jerked away in an effort to get loose. Then the trapped animal spun in its cage and shredded one of Clara's ears, and she howled with pain and rage as she pulled away from those needle sharp teeth.

Clayton's mother would have donated my body to science if she knew he was in the pasture with me, about to set a coon loose on the dogs. I noticed the slight tremor in his hands—a side effect of the chemotherapy. I had nearly cried the first time I took him out to eat, and I watched food drop from his spoon as his hands trembled. He laughed at my concern, trying to set me at ease.

The doctors had good news that day--again. With the cancer still in remission, the chemo would stop for a while.

I managed to get in between the dogs and put my foot on the release lever of the trap. The coon snarled and reached through the cage to grab at my foot and bite at my toe. The fur on its back stood on end and made the animal look twice as big as he really was. I tried it again and made it, causing the front door of the trap to spring open.

For a moment, the coon continued to grab and snarl at the dogs through the cage walls. Then like a gray flash, he sprung from the trap. But instead of running off into the woods with the dogs trailing, he went up the nearest tree, with Clara and Bandit leaping at his tail.

"Who's gonna' shake him out?" I asked the boys.

"I am," said Clayton.

The tree--an elm nearly as tall as the house--stood a short distance form a massive red oak. Its leaves had turned yellow, and many had already fallen. The largest limb was no bigger round than my arm, the trunk no bigger than my leg. Dressed for the occasion, Clinton wore shorts and a sleeve-less shirt. He weighed 200 pounds, nearly fifty pounds less than me, but the branches of the elm wouldn't have held him.

So with Clinton and me giving him a boost, Clayton pulled himself up the tree. He didn't want the boost, but I don't think he'd have made it, even before he was sick. Then again, every time I think my children can't do something, they prove me wrong. Although tentative at first, he made good progress, disguising stops to catch his breath as opportunities to plot his path. The ascent might have been easier if he'd been dressed differently. Because of his increased sensitivity to sunlight, Clayton wore jeans and long sleeve shirts during the day

The coon climbed out onto a smaller branch. Bandit and Clara were Treeing Walkers, and their black, tan and white bodies stood in perfect form, with their front feet against the tree, their tails straight as rods and swaying like windmills behind them, their eyes skyward as they bawled at the coon above.

"Are ya'll ready?" Clayton shouted down to us. He'd gone as high as he could. His breath came in short quick gulps of air that made me think he had hyperventilated

"Give him hell," Clinton shouted.

"Get over on the other side of the tree in case he falls," I said to Clinton.

Clayton began to shake the tree and the coon looked like a trapeze artist. All four paws held onto a branch, and it refused to let go. Spread-eagled and clinging, the animal swayed back and forth as Clayton shook the tree. One paw shook loose and Clinton shouted, "Here he comes," but it managed to regain its grip. In spite of all of Clayton's efforts, he couldn't shake him loose, and my son was wearing out a lot faster than the coon.

"I got an idea," I said. I ran to the back of the truck and grabbed the braided lariat we used to catch the horses. I took it back over to the tree and threw it up to Clayton.

"Tie it around that biggest fork, up as high as you can reach it, then throw the other end down. And get your ass out of that tree," I said.

I got in my truck and backed it up. "Tie the rope to the bumper," I said to Clinton through the split glass in the back windshield.

Clinton fumbled for the other end of the rope. I couldn't see him for the tailgate, but I saw him bend over with the rope, and heard him slap the back end of the truck to signal he was through. Clayton was struggling to get down from the tree, so Clinton ran over to give him a hand.

I pulled the truck into gear and started to ease forward. The slender trunk of the tree gave easily and bent over as I increased the pressure on the rope. The dogs could see the coon now, as he moved back to get further up into the tree and away from the hounds. The tree was nearly perpendicular with the ground when I stopped, put the truck into park, and jumped out.

When I shut the truck door, the rope slipped off the ball on the bumper, and the tree slung back. The coon went air-born into the huge oak tree that stood next to the elm.

"I tied that knot as tight as I could get it. That rope must have broken," Clinton said.

"It's still in a knot, it just slipped off," Clayton said as he inspected the end of the rope. "I can't believe after all my hard work you just slung him over into another tree," he said between laughs.

"He may not have made it to the other tree," I said as I looked up in the branches of the oak. "He may have gone on off in the woods. See if the dogs can find him."

We tried to get the hounds to pick up the scent of the coon, but they couldn't. We made a wide circle around the tree, going out further and further, and joking and laughing.

"That coon didn't go high enough to land that far out," I said to Clayton, as he watched Clara pitching about and snuffling, searching desperately for the scent of the coon. Her ear left traces of red on the parched September grass.

"It's all downhill, Dad. He could've have rolled this far."

The hounds soon lost interest in an animal they could no longer see or smell, and for the first time since Clayton's initial diagnosis, I actually enjoyed his company and forgot about his sickness.

Scared of losing my son, I had expected the inevitable, the unthinkable. I tried so hard to prepare myself for what might happen, that I blinded myself to everything going on around me. There was no way to insulate myself from fate. No videotaped footage of a masqueraded Christmas celebration could ever replace the moments we shared that day. I had missed so much of their lives. I knew I would miss more, but I swore that day to become a bigger part of their tomorrows.

I also realized the significance of rituals, whether holiday rituals or simple day-to-day routines. Even when all has gone wrong, our rituals lend us a sense of normalcy—a feeling that tomorrow will come and all will be well. I had searched for a way to act around my son, a way to act in a profound manner that showed him I loved him and understood what he was enduring. The only way to do that was to act like nothing had ever changed.

With no cameras, no videotapes, we created memories so vivid I can close my eyes and still smell the horses, the hay. I can feel the course texture of the rope in my hands as I throw it up to my son. I can still see the tremor of his hand, the trembling bodies of the hounds as they reared up against the tree, the coon swaying in the wind as he grasped for the branches of the elm. I can hear Clara's jack hammer chop, the booming, bawl of Bandit. I can taste the salt from the sweat that trickled down my cheeks, the whiskey I sipped earlier in the day.

* * *

Clinton and Clayton sat beside me on the tailgate of my old Dodge pick-up, and we talked and watched the horses tear at the hay. The colt contested the other two horse's dominance over the food supply. A quick nip from Ahab, my big gelding, re-established the pecking order. The dogs continued to cast about for the scent of a coon already on its way back to Benny Leuker's barn. The sun had set on our fun, and the whippoorwills began to call from the surrounding woods. Their songs would soon be silenced till the warmth of spring brought another season of new life. The chill of early fall made us reach for jackets.

"I bet that coon thinks he's a duck," said Clinton as he shut the tailgate to my truck.

"He's flying south for the winter then." Clayton had wandered over to the hay and stood petting his colt. "He never touched down on this property," he said.

I backed the truck up against the tree. They both stood and watched, wondering what I was up to next.

"Which of you is going up the tree to shake that rope loose?" I said.

"Your turn, Daddy," Clayton said.

I hesitated for just a second before I jumped into the back of the truck and went up the tree to get the rope. The first branch I grabbed broke under my weight. I fell to the ground with the boys laughing at me like they'd laughed at the hounds.

'Let's go get the chain saw," I said. "We got too many trees on this place anyways."

I got in the cab of the truck to drive up to the barn, and I watched in the rearview mirror as my boys wrestled in the back.