Funny cow on a green summer meadow

by Jennifer Pruiett-Selby

There aren’t enough hours in the day. There’s never enough time. And no matter what we do to budget or plan, the inevitability of its expiration is omnipresent.

My father-in-law died on October 25, 2016. After fighting in Vietnam, where he’d been drenched in Agent Orange, he returned home to marry and start a family. Being drafted, his forced participation in the war (my God, the things he had to do!) weighed heavily upon him. Haunted by the lives he took, he drank. And, as most know, the presence of alcohol in one’s system numbs those parts of our minds keeping us in line. He was an angry drunk, but not the worst the world has ever seen.

As a child, my husband, Jason, feared him. Sometimes, he hated him. But, as Jason grew, so did a genuine respect for his dad. My father is also a Vietnam vet, though a voluntary one. He made horrible statements, things that let me know—without question—that he enjoyed what he did in those humid jungles. As I grew into adulthood, my respect for my own father diminished converse to the return of the memories of uncountable abuses by his hand. And his belt. And his words.

Wesley, my father-in-law and the namesake of my oldest son, was a man of few words. And by the time I met him, the once-rugged farmer had weakened due to thrice weekly dialysis sessions. I came to the family with two young daughters, and he and my mother-in-law, Sherryl, treated them as their own. Once, on a whim, they bought bicycles for the girls, bringing me to tears. My own father is a selfish man, though he’s cataloged everything he’s done for anyone. I can’t remember anything he’s ever done for me out of kindness, and I push away the painful things.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t list all the ways Wesley helped my family. Then there were many times he’d watch out for us that he didn’t intend for us to know. Though we lived on the same acre of land, he’d often drive by our house in the wee hours of the morning, just to make sure we were safe and sound. Little did he know that I, too, was up at those times, worrying about my daughters at their father’s house two hours north of us. It was because of Wesley that I was able to find a good lawyer that helped me fight for custody. Though we had moved into town by the time the custody battle was resolved, I wondered if he slept better, too, knowing my daughters were back where they belonged.

On October 25—after the shocking news that he had lung cancer, and that it had spread to his brain, after months of treatments fighting the inevitable, and after over a thousand dialysis sessions—Sherryl went out to feed the barn cats and came back to find he’d waited for her to leave, if only for a few minutes, to exit this world.

We saw it coming. He’d lost so much weight his hip bones protruded through his skin. His firstborn son, Grant (the namesake of my youngest son), had passed on from cancer just five years before. Wesley was ready to join him. And though we knew how his illness would end, there was no way I could thank him for everything he’d done for us. How do you tell the strongest man you’ve ever known, thank you, without acknowledging that he is going to die?

I couldn’t, so I didn’t.

But when he died, thank God I had something to distract me. A few weeks before, I’d been contacted by an agent requesting a rewrite on my young adult novel. I was awaiting feedback from Camille Griep (my amazing editor here at Easy Street), who so kindly agreed to read and critique the book. As if by some serendipitous chain of events, another agent requested the full manuscript just moments before Camille got back to me with her edits. I then asked her how I could possibly focus on the changes to the drafts, when my family had just suffered such a tremendous loss. Camille told me to explain the situation and ask for a month to grieve.

I hereby formally declare my reentry into the world of words. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my father-in-law, that man of little words, is that it’s what you put out into the world that will live on after you’re gone.

I took her advice and asked for more time, but I couldn’t implement that plan. Desperate for a distraction, I dove in headfirst and didn’t surface until the book was rewritten and sparkling. I mean, the thing finally looked like the work I’d always hoped it could be—a huge accomplishment.

As I sent it off to the—by then—three agents who’d requested it, only three weeks had passed. It was then, almost the very moment I clicked ‘send,’ that the ugly, raging ball of grief plowed right into me.

I didn’t realize what’d hit me at first. We’d had the funeral. I’d sobbed through it as my son, Wes, built a little shrine in the seat next to him, the program printed with his grandfather’s smiling face surrounded by his collection of Halloween spider rings and the badge the American Legion members had given to him. I’d soothed my terrified 2-year-old daughter as they shot rifles at the cemetery, my first live experience of a 21-gun salute. I’d watched at the post-funeral gathering as my children ran around the tables, playing through their grief with their little cousins. Many nights, I’d pushed play on the memorial DVD prepared by the funeral home for my boys to witness the chronology of their grandfather’s life pass by on the screen. I’d gone through the motions, been present every prescribed step of the way. Why, after “so long,” was I feeling this down? Why now?

And then I realized that I hadn’t let myself fully experience the loss. Through it all, I had dedicated the bulk of my mental energy to working on my damn book. I was there, and I had cried, but I had not let myself truly feel the absence of the man who’d become like a father to me.

I pulled away. I ate a lot. I became sick. The election happened, which did not help my state of mind. I did my best to turn off my heart and my mind. I idled in my spot on the couch and clicked through YouTube videos late at night. I became comfortable in a state of mind that promised no release or relief, should I choose to stay there.

Christmas came and went, then it was a new year. My children returned to school, and I tried to rejoin the living. I forced myself to exercise. I told myself that I didn’t have to write anything, for now, but goddammit, I had to read something at least—if only some of the Jim Marrs books waiting on my shelf. (I mean, the guy is the Stephen King of conspiracy literature!)

And now, dear reader, in this first attempt in four months at writing something other than grocery lists and emails to teachers, I present this column. I hereby formally declare my reentry into the world of words. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Wesley Selby, that man of little words, is that it’s what you put out into the world that will live on after you’re gone. And heaven knows we have few hours left in the day to accomplish what we need to get done.


Jennifer Pruiett-Selby, winner of Smartish Pace’s 2015 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, lives in rural Iowa with her husband, poet Jason Selby, and five children. Her work has found homes with Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Calyx, Crab Creek Review, Lunch Ticket, Rust + Moth, Ember, and Red River Review.