December 31, 1846
It’s New Year’s Eve and the pneumonia finally swallowed Grandpa whole. Dad found him when he went to the lean-to to that morning as he was bringing Grandpa his breakfast, the last of Roger’s right foot, boiled down to a thick broth, since Grandpa wasn’t taking solid foods well. The broth was topped with “hide sauce,” a name which I came up with, thank you very much, and which Mom’s been using as a substitute for her recipes that called for nutmeg and cinnamon, spices which we obviously don’t have.
When Dad didn’t hear Grandpa coughing or just making the most gross sounds from whatever climbed into his chest and built a nest, he knocked on the door and when Grandpa didn’t answer, Dad grew a bit worried and took a look into the lean-to. And there Grandpa was, cold as the ground and the sky he was living between just a few short hours ago.
Seems fitting that he passed on New Year’s Eve. What’s the point of wasting away into another year? It’s like he willed himself into a clean break. That’s something I can get behind.
In truth, we’re all pretty numb to Grandpa being dead. I mean it’s Mom’s dad, so she’s a bit emotional, nothing extreme, though. She doesn’t have the energy to truly mourn, and it’s easier when you know it’s coming, and we all knew it was coming. Basically, if I were to sum up my mother’s emotions right now, I’d say that if you were to see her on the street or in a store, you’d assume she was just a bit under the weather.
So, earlier this evening, Mom and Liz and I stood behind some trees a few yards away—Mom didn’t want to watch her dad burn—as Dad cooked Grandpa up, what little was left of him anyway, spinning him around like a pinwheel over an open flame. We were in the middle of the woods, a good mile or two away from camp. Mom and Dad didn’t want to have to share Grandpa’s meat with the rest of the party because, as Dad said, “Grandpa was our kin and only our kin. He was just as much of us as we were of him,” and then he looked the three of us over and said, “If this turns out to eventually be me, promise me you three will be the only stomachs I fit in,” and all three of us nodded because what else do you do when your dad makes you promise you won’t share his body over a Saturday evening supper and then finish his leftovers the next morning for brunch?
It was while the flame of the fire popped and cackled and Grandpa started to char that I began having thoughts about mortality. And then I started to think, How odd, this being the first time I ever thought about my own life and its subsequent death. Or anyone else’s for that matter.
Anyway, after eating Grandpa like he was one of Dad’s swine we kept in our backyard back home in Springfield, I kept thinking about mortality and how everyone I know or knew and will eventually know—if I ever survive this—especially those here with me, stuck on the shoreline of Truckee Lake, has died or has thought about being dead. Or, as it begins to become more common here, has thought about being dead and then died, and how this number will most likely continue to grow as the selfishness of winter keeps itself close.
I’m no one special. There’s no goat’s blood I can smear on the cabin door to keep the Angel of Death from visiting in the middle of the night.
I was not born with fangs.
It is so easy to die when you don’t take any precautions not to die, and even if you try to take precautions, finding the right ones to take can be downright impossible.
We left Springfield unprepared. All of us did. Not just the Donner’s, but all of us. How this ended up being the case, I have no fucking clue, but the Donner’s didn’t even include a single sawbones in the entire party as we trekked thousands of miles across dangerous and unknown land, like we’d all be magically immune from disease or random acts of injury.
Of course, so many of us were going to die.
So yeah, obviously, these thoughts of death didn’t skip me: death and dying and is this it? Is this all I get? Is this all Liz gets? My parents, too. I don’t want this to be it for any of us. This was it for Grandpa, but Grandpa wasn’t much more than a history lesson at this point.
A simple study in gravity.
These thoughts, these fears tracking my heart like a boulder being dragged in front of the opening of a cave, they most definitely include me.
Back in the cabin—this gross cramped cabin with the dirt floors and wobbly chairs and too small dinner table—sitting on my side of the straw bed as Liz snores next to me, I realize I haven’t written about Grandma yet. Though, honestly, there’s not much to say. I didn’t know her too well, which might be an overstatement.
I didn’t really know her at all.
Grandma died the same way as Grandpa, from a bad bout of pneumonia, just twelve years sooner, sometime in the fall of 1834. I was young when she passed. I was barely a person. My parents hadn’t even made Liz yet.
Anyway, a ditch was dug, and Grandma was laid in a pine box and some men in suits set the pine box that used to be part of a tree in the ditch.
I don’t remember feeling anything.
I don’t even remember being numb.
Leigh Chadwick is the author of the poetry collection Your Favorite Poet (Malarkey Books, 2022) and the collaborative poetry collection Too Much Tongue (Autofocus, 2022), co-written with Adrienne Marie Barrios. Her poetry has appeared in Salamander, Passages North, Identity Theory, The Indianapolis Review, Pithead Chapel, and Hobart, among others. She is the executive editor of Redacted Books and is also a regular contributor at Olney Magazine, where she conducts the “Mediocre Conversations” interview series. Find her on Twitter at @LeighChadwick5.
image: Jade Hawk is a meat popsicle.