DAY IN AND DAY OUT
Jeffrey C. Eaton
I’m not a dummy.
There’s a lot of things I can’t do—most things. But I’m not a dummy.
Before the accident I was like everybody else in my high school. I had friends. I even had girlfriends. I was on the wrestling team, and the coach thought I could be a state champion in my weight class. I was the only—maybe there was somebody else but I think I was the only general curriculum kid elected to the student council. I was in the band and played drums. I could do stuff, all sorts of stuff. And I could have done the college prep courses if I had been interested. I’m sure I could, everybody said I could. But we had the farm, and from the time I was a little kid, I’d always thought that I’d be a dairy farmer. I could have gone to AG school, I suppose, but what were they going to teach me that I couldn’t learn from my dad? Maybe if we had some kind of big industrial operation like the Rayburn’s across the valley, where they’re milking about three or four hundred cows at any one time. That’s huge for Jersey, which may be the Garden State but is hardly a farm state.
We’re a family farm. We’ve got good equipment and all, but we’re not state of the art and don’t need to be with 120 head, milking sixty to seventy five at any given time. We’ve got Harvestorr silos, but we don’t need a Slurrystorr system. We spread manure the old-fashioned way, out of the cart after every milking. And though our milking parlor is not fully automated, two people can get everything done pretty quickly if they know the herd.
Our farm is 160 acres, give or take a few. About 120 of that is pasture, hay and alfalfa fields, some corn, too. The rest is woods. And really beautiful woods, with all sorts of trees, oaks and hickory and walnut and cherry and, of course, maple. In the spring there are flowers everywhere, and there is wildlife of all sorts, nesting on the property or roaming about, passing through. We have this sequence of three ponds that have been made by the damming of a stream that snakes through the woodlot. These ponds slow the water as it comes down the hillside, the bottom pond being the largest and home to plenty of fish and a Great Blue Heron that looks prehistoric when it circles up from the shallows to gain altitude.
A lot of new people have moved into the area, buying acreage and putting up houses as big as our barn. Bigger even, I am told. Some of them commute all the way into New York City to go to work. Others work more locally in Flanders or Dover or Morristown. There was always a little something between the farm kids and the others, probably as much our problem as theirs, us with a chip and thinking they were thinking we were hicks. Basically, though, we got along pretty well. I had friends who were from farms and friends who were suburbans, and I guess you could say that I was pretty popular. A lot of kids came to see me in the hospital and at the rehab, especially at first, right after the accident. When I got out of ICU, they showed up with all sorts of get-well stuff, filled my room with balloons. I think that a lot of them would have kept coming if I wasn’t such a tough visit. It couldn’t have been easy for them to see me as I was… am, immobile and all. For a long time I was also speechless and when I began to talk, well, my speech wasn’t very good. In the beginning, they might not have thought that I was even hearing what they were saying to me. I don’t hold it against them one bit that they didn’t keep coming, though I know my mother does. I wouldn’t have kept coming back either, unless maybe it was my best friend, Johnny Kershner, who still, after all these years, comes about once every two weeks to see me. Or Michelle. She was my first, and I think it is safe to say, my last love, my only love, a popular girl at school who played field hockey and softball and who was so smart and never needed any make-up to be heart-stoppingly pretty. I saw her in the bleachers at the wrestling match against Flanders, but I figured she was there to watch one of the seniors. Then she was there again when we wrestled Hackettstown, and I even talked to her after the match—I won my weight class as I did at every match that winter. Truth be told, I had an everlasting crush on her, going all the way back to grade school. But I always thought she was out of my league, even though she was friendly and said Hi to me in the hallway, but one of those girls who would be going off to college and would never come back and who I was positive hated farm smells. This and because I was generally shy around girls, I couldn’t believe it when one of her friends told me that it was me she was coming to see wrestle. I could not believe it, let alone did I know what to do about it if it were true. But somehow I got the nerve up to call her on the phone, one of those calls where you dial every number but the last one and then hang up the receiver until you can’t stand yourself any more and you go through with it, short of breath, your heart pumping like crazy. She sounded glad that I called, which made it possible for me to find my voice, and we talked for probably more than an hour, and I never felt better in my life. Almost.
I wasn’t driving yet, and neither was she, so we mostly saw one another at school events. When my friend Johnny got his license, we double-dated to the movies in Newton and went for pizza afterwards. Her family lived in Lake Mohawk, and on a Saturday night, a couple of weeks before school let out for the summer, I got Johnny to drop me off where Michelle was baby-sitting not far from her house. She asked me to come by after eight because the kid she was baby-sitting would be asleep by then. She had cared for the kid many times before and knew the family well, and they never told her she couldn’t have a friend over when she was there, though it could be they thought that went without saying. Anyway I was there a few minutes after eight, excited as I had never been before or since, and, needless to say, nervous, knowing neither what to expect nor what I should do. During the drive over, Johnny asked me if I brought protection, and I said I did. But I didn’t. It wouldn’t be necessary. Not yet. Not with the kid’s parents coming home by eleven. Not with Michelle.
She came to the door dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt. And barefoot. I had never seen her feet before. I ‘m pretty sure that I didn’t like feet, but hers were adorable, small, white, with maroon toenails. She had a bruise on her left thigh from a bad pitch that had hit her and put her on base. Her breath had a sweetness I could not place, not gum, not mints. It was just her. We had kissed before, quite a bit, but until that night our tongues had not come out from behind our teeth. When they touched, the effect was exactly what was predicted in health class. A great rush of blood in me. Her wetness. Clothes didn’t come off so much as became loosened and worked around. My lips were on her breasts, my hand inside the leg of her shorts, fingers inside her panties, clumsy in her fluid complexity. She tugged my penis free of the twisted confines of my underpants and jeans. Neither of us was prepared for the force of my ejaculation after only a few strokes of her hand, and she cupped her other hand over the head in an effort to control the spray. I knew that I hadn’t done much for her, and as I hurriedly cleaned the spots off the sofa, her tee-shirt, and my pants I promised it would be better next time. But that was the last time. Not because Michelle thought better of us continuing in the direction we were going but because I would be paralyzed every which way before we would have the chance to be together again. That night was the entirety of my love life. The whole thing. According to my mother, Michelle came to the hospital every day while I was in the coma and my life was hanging by a thread. But once it was plain that I would live and how I would live, she stopped coming. I think I remember her talking to me—“Danny, are you there?”—but in the beginning after the accident, after I could breathe on my own, I still couldn’t speak, couldn’t get the lips and tongue that had pressed against the perfect skin of her breasts that had tasted faintly salty, to move or make any sense at all. I would improve, but I think I knew even then that I wouldn’t be getting all that much better.
Even to this day, years since I last saw Michelle, my speech still isn’t good. The words come out slow and stupid-sounding, even to me, kind of growlly and often at a volume that scares little kids. I’m glad that Michelle stopped coming to see me. I wouldn’t want her to see me as I am or hear the way I speak and maybe think I’m a dummy.
People do not generally consider New Jersey a beautiful place, and I can understand why. You don’t have to travel the northern part of the Turnpike or Route 1 or go through cities like Patterson or Newark to be put off. Sections of Route 46 can do it to you. But it’s different where we live in Sussex County. People here aren’t living on top of each other with everything paved over. There’s open space and a fresh smell of earth that is still alive… though maybe not for long. There’s plenty of people around licking their chops over this land, which is not all that far from the City, people wanting to “develop” the place, as if anyone has an idea that could improve it. Which is not to say that everything here is perfect. Even our farm has changed things. Forest was cut down to make pasture and fields. We use chemical pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers for our crops. My dad has done his best to treat our land with respect and do as little damage as possible, but there can be no question that our farming has changed things. But having said that, our farm fits. If you think that milk and dairy products are good for people, then what we are doing and the way we do it makes sense and the land is being used to good purpose, not overused, not underused. I don’t think that this can be said about some of the schemes the developers have in mind. My dad worries a lot about this kind of thing. Dairy farming has never been just a business for him.
Our house is near the road which is narrow and winds gently up and across the hillside, fairly easy for the milk trucks to travel in order to get to the barnyards, even in the winter when there is snow. The house is two-story and about a hundred years old, though you’d never know this to look at it. There have been a lot of changes made to it over the years to make it useful and pleasant, with eight decent-sized rooms instead of the twelve closet-sized rooms that were original, and two bathrooms, the downstairs one remodeled now for my use. It’s not a fancy place, but it’s comfortable and as well-kept as any house in the suburbs. Our barn is about 70 years-old, but it’s as tight and clean and well-lit and modern as it needs to be for our operation. We milk twice a day, at 4 a.m. and at 4 p.m., every day, no matter what else is going on, Christmas, Easter, whatever. My dad had to milk on the day of my accident. He did most of it alone, not because neighbors didn’t want to help, but because they were milking at the same time, nobody with so much extra help that they could just step in and take over what I had been doing up until that day. And even if they could, it’s tricky. Just as you can’t miss a milking, you can’t get one wrong or you put your herd or part of it at least at risk. Not that dad didn’t trust our farming neighbors to get it right, but it’s tricky, and everybody in the business understands a farmer’s protection of his herd. Anyway, I was my dad’s partner until the afternoon my hands stopped working and got disconnected from my brain. Our plan was I would one day take over from him and buy out my sisters who had no interest in staying on the farm and who were off at school at the time of my accident. That was the plan in general, the details to be worked out in a future when my dad was ready to retire.
I started by saying how beautiful our land is and got a little side-tracked with the house and equipment and the herd. That’s easy to do, not just for somebody like me but for anybody, because everything here fits together, the way things are set up and the way it all flows. But the land is the thing. That’s where it all begins. I always loved to walk out on the property and watch it change. When you knew it well, the changes weren’t just seasonal. You could see things changing day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour if you were paying close attention, everything alive, even the rocks. This is especially so by the ponds along the east pasture and the woods below the corn fields, the farthest place on our land from the road, butting up against the Rayburn’s woodlot, about thirty acres or so, and untouched. One of the great joys of my life was going down into those woods. It’s where I was going the day of the accident, two days after my big night with Michelle, feeling kind of high, kind of crazy, not able to concentrate on much besides seeing her again and racing along the ridge of our cornfield on the ATV just before the turn off to the right and down the hill into the woods, where, once I turned off my engine, there would be no sound but the settling of the afternoon. To this day I don’t know what I hit, a hole or a rock, something I didn’t see, something that was nothing in the grand scheme of things. But whatever it was, the ATV broke free of my control and bounced down the embankment, rolling over on me and rolling over several more times without me. My neck was broken and my skull fractured. These were not my only injuries, but they were the ones that mattered, the ones from which I wouldn’t recover or at least not recover very much. I might still be able to see and my speech would probably be better if I had been wearing a helmet. I was driving too fast. My mother and father both warned me—wear your helmet, not too fast. But I was careless that day, so filled with happiness, rising up through my chest, expanding and spilling over. That’s how I was feeling. I remember.
The hardest thing about living as I do now is that I know I have ruined my parents’ lives. They would deny it, but it’s true. They have to do everything for me—everything. There is nothing that I can do for myself except sip a straw. Sometimes they will have somebody come in to help out, but rarely. They believe in taking care of me themselves; they believe they are the best ones to do it, that they are my parents for better or for worse. As it has turned out, they are my parents for the worst. It would have been so much better for them and for me if had I died on that beautiful, beautiful May afternoon. I really do not know how they do it. I am a labor of love that never ends, not the labor, and apparently not the love either. They do all they can to make my life good, though I don’t give them much to work with. It would, for example, take me forever to say out loud the things I am thinking right now, even if I could keep my thoughts from getting all jumbled up. But my hearing’s still good, and I do understand what I hear. The doctors have tested me. They know what my parents know from living with me day in and day out for the past eleven years. I’m in here. I’m not a dummy.
But I am easy to fool. If you don’t want me to know what’s going on, just wheel me out of earshot. I only know what I hear, and my folks are generally pretty careful to make sure that I don’t hear bad stuff. But the house isn’t that big, and sometimes voices get raised. Or they think I’m asleep when I’m not, which is easy enough to do—sometimes I’m not even sure myself whether I am awake or sleeping. Anyway, I do hear things I know they’d rather I didn’t hear, more often lately because there’s been some hard conversations about the future and what to do about me. Long ago, when I had just come home from the rehab place, my parents assured me that they would be taking care of me and promised that I would never have to live in an institution. None of us had any idea at the time what this would mean—how many years and how long the years would be. My parents promised more than they should have, and I accepted what they said. I was glad to be home. But it wasn’t long after that I began to have some sense of the toll that caring for me was taking on them, and at that point I begged them to put me in some sort of home for people like me. They flat-out refused. They loved me, and they would never do such a thing. They would care for me better than anyone else could or would, which I know is true, since I have never, not in all these years since the accident, had a bedsore, which is no mean feat when you’re caring for someone in my condition. But all this has gone on much longer than anyone could have anticipated. Too long. My parents are older now, and with no end in sight they need to think about what will happen to me when they can’t manage me any longer themselves. There is, thank God, no thought of my becoming the responsibility of my sisters. Which brings us to the present and some of the things I have lately been hearing, over-hearing would be more accurate. There has been talk of giving up the farm.
My dad and I were a great team working together in the barn. The most important lesson he taught me was how to get the most work done with the least amount of effort and energy. This is important, because farm work wears you out if you don’t work efficiently. There’s too much of it to do if you can’t find a rhythm, a flow, if you don’t go out to that first milking of the day with a plan for the rest of the day that is part of a plan for the week that is part of a plan for the season and the year. Our goal, my dad said, was to do what is fitting to accomplish the work that needed to be done and to be at peace with the herd and the crops and the land. My dad believes this, always has.
After my accident, dad got a bit of help on the farm from neighbors and friends. There was hay to get in and corn rows to tend and, of course, the milking, and people came to lend a hand, even some who didn’t farm, offering to do what they could. But that couldn’t go on for long, and dad finally hired Ed Stankowycz to come work for us. When he hired Ed, dad told me that there is no one who could take my place. He put his arm around my shoulders and told me, and he kissed me on the forehead. I cried. I think he did, too.
Ed Stankowycz is a good guy, and that is surprising, given what his family is like, what country people in the South would call “trash.” A year or so after my accident Ed’s father was killed in a bar fight over in Stanhope, which really surprised no one and was not a cause for much mourning on anybody’s part. Over the years his mother managed to keep her job at the Post Office and money coming in, despite a bad alcohol problem. If I remember rightly, there were five kids, all of them, except Ed, usually in trouble. But Ed was honest and hard-working even if he wasn’t exactly a genius. His strength was that he did exactly what he was told to do, efficiently and conscientiously. His weakness was that he always had to be told. He wasn’t lazy, not in the least, but even after years of working with my father, day in and day out, he was at a loss if he had to make a decision that was outside of the standard routine. My dad wanted Ed to assume more responsibility, but Ed was the most unassuming man you could imagine, the best of farmhands but, in the end, no farmer. I doubt my dad would have sold the farm to Ed even if he had the money, for fear that in no time he’d run it into the ground.
A guy by the name of Karl Stelton came out to the house recently. He came by appointment right after lunch to talk to my folks and I guess me, too, since dad made sure I was in the room. Mr. Stelton pulled into the driveway right on time in a big silver Land Rover or Land Cruiser—my mom doesn’t know which is which. He’d come up from Morristown. He told us he had grown up in Rockaway when it was still farmland though his people were not farmers, his mother a nurse, his father in sales. He had come out to our place to introduce himself in case some day we might be interested in selling the farm. It seems he’d been admiring the land for some time and thinking if we wanted to sell that it would be a good place to build houses for people who might want to move here and live in such a peaceful place off the beaten track. I could not believe that this man was in our house, sitting in our living room, drinking my mother’s iced tea. Countless times I’d hear my folks at the dinner table or when we went out for a ride in the car talking about all the harm they saw being done by the land developers. But they heard him out, they asked questions, they were taking notes. It took me awhile to realize that they were talking seriously about selling the farm. I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe the numbers Mr. Stelton was throwing around, millions of dollars, even if we chose to stay in the house and keep an acre or two for ourselves. When he was gone, dad and mom asked me what I thought. All I could say was that I thought we’d always live on the farm.
It was because of me, of course, that my parents were talking about selling. They’re worried about who will take care of me when they can’t do it any longer, and they want to make sure that I will always have the best of care. What I can’t tell them, but what I think about every day, is that the best of care for me would be a shot of something to put me to sleep once and for all. But I can’t say this. It would make it even harder for my parents if I told them I wanted to die. They have done everything possible since my accident to make me want to live, to make my life as good as it can be. They won’t admit to themselves how awful this is for them, let alone how awful this is for me that I am of so little use to myself that I can’t even put an end to me. I can’t tell them how bad it is day after day in this chair when it’s the two of them who are working to make sure that my skin doesn’t break down and changing my waste bags and feeding me and breaking their backs lifting me into the truck if there’s someplace they want to take me or I need to go. They do all of this and so much more every day, and they do it willingly with no end in sight, doing their best to keep a hopeful tone in their voices, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all. They do their absolute best. How can I tell them that the hours in this chair are pointless and confused? I hear what is said. I listen to the radio and the TV. Like everybody else I know about 9/11, about the planes crashing into the buildings and the buildings falling down, but I don’t know what I know about it. What does any of it mean? I hear the fear and anger in the voices of those who are doing the talking. I try to understand, but it doesn’t quite touch me.
My best hope is pneumonia or some other respiratory infection that they can’t treat fast enough. That kind of thing can happen to people in my condition.
A decision has been made. My parents aren’t going to sell the farm to the developer, no matter what he does to sweeten the deal. They loaded me into the car and we went for a drive on a recent Sunday afternoon, and along the way, we passed sign after sign advertising land for sale, prime land for development. My mom told me what they were seeing as we drove and my dad commented on what she described. He sounded disgusted and tired. “We can’t be part of this,” he said. Not long after my dad told Stelton that we weren’t selling, we were contacted by Steve Rayburn who said he heard we might have some interest in selling our farm—where he heard this he didn’t say—and that he might be willing to buy from us for the purpose of expanding his own operation, not immediately but maybe in the long run. The Rayburn’s were probably rich enough to be able to do this, but my father was suspicious. It wasn’t something that made great farming sense, especially since the Rayburn’s already had almost as much land as we owned that was not under cultivation. My father wondered if Steve Rayburn might have been put up to making this offer by Mr. Stelton, figuring that maybe we’d sell to a farmer what we wouldn’t sell to him. Anyway, the offer didn’t sit well with my father, especially when Steve kept talking about our land as an investment. This is our home.
My father has an old hickory cane that is stained dark with age and use. He takes it with him when he’s moving the herd from one pasture to another or when he’s bringing the cows back to the barn. A tap on the rump keeps the stragglers in line. This cane stays with the cows. If they’re in the east pasture, it hangs on the gate to the east pasture. If they’re in the south pasture, it’ll be hanging on the gate there. When the cows are in the barn, its place is on a hook by the door. To my knowledge, that cane’s never been used as a cane until yesterday morning when my dad used it to make his way up from the barn and into the house. My mother was finishing making breakfast and I was at the table when we heard a commotion on the back steps, the clumping of the cane and my father telling Ed to stop fussing over him. My mother went out to the mudroom to see what was going on and between she and Ed got my father out of his barn boots, which he would never, not under any circumstances, wear into the house, not even when he was suffering terrible pain from four cracked ribs. It seems one of the cows had gotten spooked during the milking, shifted violently in her stanchion, and crushed my dad up against a steel support pole. We heard all about it from Ed as we drove to the emergency room where they told us that there was no damage beyond the ribs, no punctured lung or anything like that, but that my dad would need painkillers and would have to take it easy for some weeks until the ribs healed on their own. Dad had refused to go to the emergency room in an ambulance and the drive had been awful, so bad that it caused my dad to sweat through his clothing and groan terribly every time we went around curves or if we stopped too suddenly. The Percocet the doctor prescribed made the ride home tolerable for him, but also for mom and me and Ed. It was almost time for the second milking when we got back, and Ed told my father not to worry, that he could handle it by himself. My father was so exhausted from the pain and the day that he didn’t object. Mom invited Ed to stay for dinner when the milking was through, but he said he needed to get home where he had things to do as long as everything was okay with us. My sister, Julia, came over from Newton to help out, but there wasn’t much that she could do, and once they got my dad into the lounge chair in the living room where it seemed he would best be able to sleep, my mother sent her home to be with her two little ones.
The next morning when mom came into my room to get me up, she smelled like the barn. She’d been out helping Ed with the first milking, and she came in to see that dad and I were alright before going back out to the cows again. She got me up and cleaned me and put me at the breakfast table. Dad was already up, moving slowly around the kitchen, making the coffee and looking for things he didn’t have to reach for or stoop to get for a breakfast, not a hot one like my mother would make, but something to have on the table when my mother came in. He sat down heavily in his chair, sipping coffee. I asked him how he was feeling. It took him time to answer, and the words were almost as slow as mine were in asking. He said he was okay and would be better than new in a few days. That was all. We sat together in silence, and after awhile I told him how sorry I was.
Jeffrey Eaton has had a long tenure as a parish pastor in New Brunswick, NJ. Before that he was college chaplain and professor of religion at Hamilton College. His publications are in the field of philosophical theology.