On the last hour of my life before, the sun shone, the radio played propped on a lawn chair, and I crouched in our garden to pull weeds. I heard the church bell ring and wondered why, on a weekday morning. How innocent I was, thinking of my potatoes and errands. I had lunch fixed and packed in coolers to drive out to the field at noon, a load of laundry in the washer, and thirty minutes to neaten the rows before the day’s heat. The bell kept ringing, a distant clong-clong that traveled the country roads, and I stood up, brushing the dirt from my hands, sweat dripping from my face onto my husband’s worn red Case IH T-shirt. Slowly my mind clicked to one of my Dad’s sayings: Ring the warning bell. People used to ring the bell after tornados, falls, and disasters. Neighbors came from all the farms around to help. I listened to the bell, thinking: a fire, a crash, an accident?
I stood and looked southwest, toward the church. It might be a prank. School was out that day for a teachers’ institute, and though most farm kids got up early anyway to help with harvest, there were plenty of people living in the country who didn’t farm anymore. I met them at the high school, where I worked many days as a substitute teacher. Some of these people were surprisingly ignorant about agriculture, and I’d been eyeing a particular group of trailers with some troubled kids just up the state route that skirted the church. They might be up to no good, ringing the church bell. I pictured their sullen faces and overlong hair as they sat on the unpainted wooden stairs added to their trailers, girls and boys alike in baggy shirts, shorts, and bare feet. My own children had complained about my insistence to “put on decent clothes” when they went into town. I wanted people to see they were cared for and had manners. I didn’t have to remind them anymore as they were grown men, moved out to live in apartments, Dan with his girlfriend and Mitch with three friends from high school.
The phone rang in the house, blending with the church bell, and I ran in my flip-flops to answer it in the kitchen. We’d kept the landline for its reliable service when our cell signals would cut in and out. My dad, before he died a year earlier, had lived with us and needed the landline to check his pacemaker. So I still moved to answer the phone, wondering if I should stop to wash my hands at the sink first. The ring won out, and I grabbed the phone with dirty hands.
“Sharon, it’s Jim Bond. Is Ryan there?”
“He’s out in the field. I’m going to . . .”
“There’s been an accident. You need to come, get Ryan and come.”
My mouth went dry. Jim farmed a few miles down the road. I pictured him or one of his hired men injured. I tried to think if Ryan would feel his phone vibrate as he drove the combine and whether it would be quicker to drive out to get him to go to Jim’s place.
“I’ll try to get ahold of Ryan. What do you . . .”
He cut me off again, his voice rising, “Don’t wait, Sharon, call him and then come now. It’s Mitch.”
I’d been worried before, thinking it was Jim’s emergency, but now it was mine, my son Mitch. He hadn’t told me where he was working that day, moving around to help on different farms in the area as needed—anywhere except our farm. Months before, he’d had a falling out with his father.
In a second, all the farming accidents I’d ever heard of flashed through my mind: overturned tractors, moving parts of spinning gears and augers that grabbed clothes and chewed up flesh, falls from haylofts and tall machinery, chemical burns from pesticide applications, truck crashes and snake bites—a horror movie list of risk and bodily harm.
“What is it? What happened? Is he OK?”
“He’s in the grain bin. Come,” and Jim hung up.
If you know about grain bins, then the dangers come to mind quickly: dust explosions, falls, machinery malfunctions. But the power of tiny kernels of corn or wheat or millet to move with massive force is the scariest: engulfment. That’s the technical term. It means that the grain completely surrounds a person, moving so quickly that the person can’t escape. Bits of corn seem harmless, but together they’re not. Instead of tiny grains of sand trickling through your hand on the beach, imagine a whole truckload of sand coming down on a puppy. Or, picture a vortex moving downward, tons at a time, as there is in a grain storage bin. Engulfment happens quickly, within seconds. There’s no time to escape. It’s weight, force, dust, and worst of all, complete lack of oxygen. People suffocate. Scientifically it’s probably just some sort of physics equation: so many tiny pieces, so much friction, surrounding and engulfing a person. A person who might be my son.
With Jim’s words jangling in my ears, my whole body buzzed with fear, and my mind wouldn’t focus for a second as I stared at the phone in my hand. I dialed Ryan’s cell and listened to it ring several times. When his voicemail came on—“Hey there, it’s Ryan Collier, leave a message”—I let go with my voice, shaky and sharp. “Ryan, you need to go to Jim’s now, now—it’s an accident in the grain bin.” I didn’t want to say it was Mitch, for fear Ryan might have his own accident in the field rushing to help. As soon as he noticed the message, he’d go. We all help each other in the country when there’s an accident. We have to.
I ran to the sink to wash my hands, thinking that I might need clean hands to help. I don’t know why I thought that. We were out of hand soap in the kitchen, so I poured Ajax liquid, intense yellow and lemon dish scent onto my palm, sudsing away the garden dirt. I dried my hands, grabbed my purse, and ran for my car. Later, I would realize I closed the screen door but left the back door open as I rushed past. The radio in the yard brayed country tunes for the gardening tools I’d left in the dirt.
In the car, I drove even faster than usual on the road to Jim’s farm. As the gravel flew and dust clouds billowed on either side, I talked out loud. “Please Lord, let Mitch be OK. Please Lord.” I drove each curve and turn with almost-reckless practice, my whole body leaned forward to urge the car faster. To keep the fear at bay, I finally just repeated “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” a mother’s mantra of fear.
I pictured Mitch’s face from the last time I’d seen him, a week before, when he came by the house to see me at 9 a.m. He knew his dad would be gone then. His brown eyes and tanned face—so like his dad’s—appeared at the back door. He came into the kitchen where I was fixing food for a neighbor who’d had a baby, and I’d been so happy to see him. “Hey, Mom,” he said, “got any milk?” He’d always been my big milk drinker, big cool glasses with sandwiches or spaghetti or even popcorn. I gave him a big hug, reaching up to grab his strong neck and shoulders above me, noticing the half-grown beard that was meant to spite his father. His straight brown hair was shaggy, peeking out from under his cap, but he smelled like soap and freshly brushed teeth. “Aw Mom, none of that,” he said, stepping out of the hug, but not until after I’d actually gotten the hug in. That’s really all the talking we did, as he drank milk while I cooked, then said, “OK, gotta go,” as he left. We’d already talked out the argument with his father—two grown men wanting their own way about what one of them would do with his life. I had given up on mediating, waiting for Ryan to figure out that his son needed to find his own way. Sometimes families need to wait out their quarrels, and I believed my husband and son would get there. In the meantime, I’d learned just to be with Mitch without much talking.
As my car sped toward the church, a white building at the crossroads that connected our rural route with the one that led to Jim’s farm, I saw two trucks parked at angles next to the building. Jim’s wife, Debbie, stood with her arm pointed toward her farm, her mouth moving to the men in the trucks. She wore a dress and heels, strange for a countrywoman on a Wednesday, a sign she’d been on her way to town. She rang the church bell, I thought, calling neighbors to help on her farm. I didn’t stop, but had to slow for the turn, and I saw briefly the stricken look on her face as she recognized my car and saw me pass. She didn’t wave, and I wondered what she already knew about my son that I would soon know, too.
The church sits just down the road from Jim’s farm, over a slight rise in the land. Our farmland rolls a bit, but the swells are gentle enough that we absorb the ridges and bumps easily. I’d driven over that hump of road thousands of times, but that day when my stomach did a roller coaster clutch at the top, I saw Jim’s farm as if it were a stranger’s. Ten or more trucks and even a piece of farm equipment or two stood along Jim’s long gravel driveway and in the lot behind the house near his pole barn. The old two-story white farmhouse seemed ignored, with all the movement around the edges of the land—the paths, outbuildings, and the five grain storage bins in the distance. I saw men running from some of the vehicles. The preacher stood at the edge of the drive, pointing toward the silos north of the house. The short driveway between the grain bins and the road was filled up with harvest equipment, and the ditches were deep by the road there. Everyone must be parked at the house to leave space on the road for the police, a rescue crew, or the ambulance, I thought, as I braked my car and ran toward the preacher.
“Where is he?” I yelled, already turning to run with the men and women I’d seen heading toward the grain bins.
Pastor Caleb, his smooth face barely older than Mitch’s, spread his arms wide and stepped to stop me. He had on dress pants, a short-sleeved dress shirt, and the clip-on tie he always wore, but his dirty boots showed he’d known what a farm emergency meant. Sweat gleamed on his forehead, and his eyes met mine.
“Sharon, you need to stay here with me,” he said, punching each word as he did when he reached the key points of his sermons.
“My son,“ I said, and my voice caught. “Mitch is in the grain bin.”
“I know,” said the pastor, “But you need to stay here with me.”
I moved to run past him, breathing heavily, and my nerves jangling with fear. I’d been polite to the pastor since he came a year ago, but I wasn’t thrilled with him. His youth made him inflexible, and his sermons often focused too much on our sinfulness and not enough on God’s grace. His presence here seemed an irritating new reminder that he didn’t know what real troubles meant. Jim’s voice echoed in my head, in the grain bin and don’t wait.
Pastor Caleb now circled my shoulders with his arm—surprisingly strong for someone who made his living preaching—and leaned in to speak slowly to me.
“Sharon, Jim asked me to keep you here. You need to stay here for the ambulance.”
Tears began running down my face as I stared at the pastor.
“He’s OK, isn’t he? Where is he? Have they got him out?”
“Not yet, they’re working on it.”
My knees buckled, and I squatted there in the grass, behind Jim and Debbie’s house. They had raised their girls here, both of them now grown, married, and moved away. Jim always hired in help, but it was difficult to find good people during harvest. He was probably thrilled to have an experienced guy like Mitch to help.
There was no wind that day, so the trees with their green-yellow-red leaves stood still and calm. I could hear men’s voices calling instructions to one another, tense, but it seemed to me not frantic enough to save my son, to dig him out. If that’s what they were doing, it might take a while. If that’s what they were doing, he might be suffocating right at that second.
I’d seen the posters, “Grain Bin Safety,” when I helped with driving loads to the big storage facilities: never enter a grain bin without safety gear, beware the power of moving grain, moving grain can kill quickly. But people have been harvesting and storing grain since, well, since the beginning of agriculture: thousands of years? There are Bible stories about grain stored in good years to help in the bad years, and those are in the Old Testament, with Moses and Joseph featured. It’s tough to convince farmers, or people who work on farms, that some new push for safety in grain storage areas is completely necessary. Do people who live near water and spend their lives boating wear a life jacket every time they go out? They should, but they probably won’t. It’s so normal, so natural that they push the thought aside. That’s the problem with grain storage and safety: people ignore it. They know what they should do, but then the grain sticks to the sides or the corn won’t flow downward properly, and so someone climbs inside.
Kneeling next to me, the pastor put his hand on my arm, saying, “Sharon, they’re all helping.”
I noticed he didn’t say that Mitch was OK or reassure me about that. We squatted there together, the preacher and I, waiting to find out if my son was alive or dead. What a shitty job he’s got, I thought, to try to help people when there’s nothing he can do.
“I called Ryan, but I got his voicemail. He’s out in the field.”
“He’ll be here soon, I’m sure,” he said, and his voice was calm. “Can you come over here and sit, Sharon, while we wait?”
“No, I need to go over there and help,” I said, standing with a new surge of fear and worry, thinking of my son, my Mitch, hurt and needing me. But the preacher stood with me and held my arm.
“It’s best you stay here, Sharon. Jim told me. He’s there, and the neighbors, and they’ve called for help.”
He led me over to a picnic table that stands under a large oak in the yard. As we sat, I wondered how long before the emergency personnel would arrive. It takes a long time for them to come from town. My eyes on the road, I saw our blue pickup coming down the rise toward us. Ryan was driving, with Dan next to him. They drove quickly but not with the edgy speed I’d taken. They don’t know it’s Mitch yet, I thought, they don’t know. I stood with the preacher still holding my arm, watched the truck pull to a stop near the tree, saw Ryan and Dan walk over.
“What’s the accident?” asked Ryan, his face and clothes field dirty, Dan walking just behind him, both with the same stride and height. If I don’t tell him, I thought, will it not be true? I felt my voice catch as I tried to speak, but the preacher got out the words first.
“Ryan, it’s Mitch. He’s in the bin. They’re trying to get him out.”
At this, Ryan’s usual calm face broke into a grimace, and I saw Dan’s hand fly up to hold the side of his head, a habit he’s had since childhood when he’s tense or worried. They both turned toward the grain bins and took off running. I started to run after them, but the preacher held my arm.
“Sharon, please, Jim wants you here.”
“How long has he been in there?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Can he breathe? Is he buried all the way?”
“I don’t know, but it won’t help to think about that. We’re going to wait here and direct the ambulance when they come. They have plenty of people to help over there.”
People always say that they can’t believe how a beautiful sunny day can surround something harsh that happens, and it was like that. I remember the sky held some pure white clouds in a calm blueness, and even the Bond farmstead seemed like someplace you’d want to stay, with the flowers still blooming around the house and the swings they kept for their grandkids standing in the far section of the yard. Debbie might have been wearing a dress when I passed her, but the fresh-mowed yard told me she’d been working in the yard either the day before or earlier that morning, the cut-grass smell still clinging to the lawn lines from the riding mower.
I finally heard sirens, warbling toward us, and watched the road as a police car and the special rescue vehicle they used for farm accidents went past, but there was no ambulance yet. The preacher sat with me, both of us silent. I could hear his breathing, a bit congested, like he had a cold. I wanted to go to the grain bins, but I also didn’t. Ryan and Dan would take care of it. They would find Mitch and get him out.
“When Mitch was little, he fell into the deep end of the pool in town, and Dan jumped in to save him.”
“How old were they then?” asked the preacher. He wanted to keep me talking.
“Six and four,” I said. “I didn’t even know it until after it happened and they both came up to me, dripping and Mitch crying, hanging onto Dan’s waist.”
“They were then,” I said. “Now, I don’t know. They kind of went different ways.”
“Well, that happens. That doesn’t mean they’re not close.”
He paused, loosened his grip on my arm as we waited. It seemed so long, what they were doing, voices calling as they worked. I’d seen the rescue equipment before, at the county fair, where they had an ag safety display. It looked like things a window washer would use on a skyscraper—boards, harnesses, ropes. It was hard to believe such things would be needed on a farm, although we all knew that farm work is dangerous. It was near impossible to imagine every single site with a grain bin or silo having such a thing just in case someone got hurt. I remember the extension advisor said it would cost “less than a hundred dollars.” That might not sound like much, but to farmers, who do well one year and then have too much rain or too little rain or whatever nature throws at them for years at a stretch, that might seem like too much for something their fathers and grandfathers never used.
Another truck pulled up and into the large open machine shop building. Debbie got out of the driver’s seat in her blue dress and heels. Heedless of the gravel on her good shoes, she ran toward us sitting at her picnic table. I remember thinking that the rocks would scrape the finish on the blue leather. When she reached us under the tree, she bent down to hug me, holding on for an extra moment as I felt my sweat-stained shirt against the scratchy polyester of her dress. I smelled the mustiness of the church tower, where she’d stood pulling the bell rope, combined with her flowery hairspray. She knelt down in front of me, looking straight into my eyes.
“Sharon, I’m so sorry.”
“Do you know what happened? Did you see him?”
“I saw him when he got here this morning, walking up the drive for work. I waved at him from the window, but then I had to get ready. I was going to Mt. Vernon for a meeting.”
“But how did you find out?”
“I was at the stop sign at the church, and I heard the cell vibrate, so I pulled into the church lot and took the call from Jim. When he told me that there’d been an accident, I went in and rang the bell.”
I stood, and the preacher moved with me, tightening his grip on my arm.
“I need to go and help,” I repeated.
Now Debbie eyed at the preacher, and a silent message passed between them. He shook his head at her, just barely moving, like a pitcher shaking off the catcher’s sign. She stood and touched my other arm.
“Sharon, I think we need to stay here. Pastor Caleb, what did Jim tell you?”
“He said that he needed Sharon to be here with me, to wait for the ambulance.”
I pulled against their two arms, and a sound came from inside me, an animal groan, as I thought of Mitch.
“What’s happening over there? Why don’t you want me to see?”
Debbie grabbed me to her, my face pressed into her large breasts so that for a second I couldn’t breathe. She put her hands on both my shoulders and pushed me to arms’ length, looking intently at my eyes.
“It’s bad, Sharon. He went all the way in. Jim said the corn covered him completely before they knew what happened.”
I wailed. I said, “No, no, no,” but as I said it, her words sunk in.
“Why was he in there? Alone? Why was my boy in there?”
“Jim knew,” Sharon stopped, her voice wavering, “Jim knew Mitch was experienced. Jim was off helping the new hired guys who don’t know what to do. He left Mitch to manage the grain bin.”
“Why would Mitch climb in there? Why?” I asked.
Pastor Caleb had stood silently, holding onto my arm, not seeming to know what to do, but now he spoke.
“We need to pray.”
“No, I’m not going to pray,” I said, almost spitting at him, ignoring my own prayers from the car ride. “If he’s dead, then it won’t do any good, and if he’s not, then I want to go and help dig him out. Oh, God,” I said, as my knees shook again thinking of him buried in the corn, not breathing.
Debbie pulled me down to the picnic table bench, keeping an arm around me. I felt like I was sitting at the bottom of a well, my whole body yearning to climb the clammy, slick sides to reach my son. At the top of the well, like a far-off circle of light, I saw a remembered image of Mitch as a baby, Ryan holding my hand at the hospital as I looked down at the baby’s sleeping face, thinking how lucky to have a second boy because I already knew how to mother a boy. Then I thought of Mitch’s wiry arms and legs in his summer T-shirt and shorts, aged 10, determined to finish painting the fence because Ryan had said he didn’t think Mitch would stick with it long enough. And the last image in my mind was Mitch walking away from his dad and older brother, the last day they’d talked, Mitch’s red face matching Ryan’s, their equal determination to have their own way.
Pastor Caleb pointed to the road beyond the drive, “Here it comes,” he said as the ambulance moved toward the farm. The siren seemed muted to me, but Debbie and I stood together as it pulled into the drive and threaded past the crookedly parked vehicles toward us. Debbie and the preacher released my arm as I waved at the ambulance and pointed toward the grain storage area. The EMTs nodded at us as they pulled past and drove up next to the bins and the men walking around them, working to get my son out. I ran behind the ambulance, feeling dirt beneath my flip-flops, my steps sliding, Debbie just behind me, still in her heels, and the preacher in his boots a distant third.
At the grain bins, I saw Dan come around the silver curve to meet the ambulance. His face was streaked with sweat and dirt, and he pointed around the back of the bin. Just then, a shout went up from someone inside, and I could see the EMTs, a man and a woman now out of the ambulance, grabbing gear to follow Dan. They ran around the back, where I couldn’t see, and I followed.
The EMTs stood talking to Dan, and a crowd of men and two women gathered around the back of the grain bin, its metal ribbed sides twenty feet tall, the side ladder holding two men, while a taller truck had been driven next to it so that the rescue team could lower their equipment from its roof. I thought, it’s just a shorter bin, not the one with 50,000 bushels. My boy is tall enough; he’ll be OK.
I saw that Jim was at the top of the ladder, looking down into the bin, and Ryan had climbed up behind him, hanging onto the ladder but not able to see in. I had thought the shout meant that Mitch was out, but then Dan turned to me as the EMTs stood waiting with their gear. He was always his dad’s son, so stoic. Now he walked to stand in front of me. He always tells me the truth, my eldest boy, a straightforward man.
“Mom, they’ve reached his hand.”
“Yes, they’ve dug down to his hand.”
“Can they pull him out?”
“No, the grain is too heavy. They’re still digging.”
“But can he breathe?”
Dan turned his head away from me, closed his eyes, put his hand up to his head, then said, “We just have to wait.”
And if I tell you that I still hoped at that moment, you’ll understand that it’s because we have to hope, mothers and fathers. We have to hope that our children will be all right. Even if the news is terrible, we hope. We think of impossible returns, kidnaped children found years later, missing persons arriving home unscathed, accident victims given last rites and then reviving, miracle cures and heart transplants. I wouldn’t let myself believe anything other than that Mitch was buried in the corn but somehow breathing anyway.
Some of the men working around the grain bin now produced a blow torch, yelling “Stand back.” They were cutting openings in the sides of the bin to let out grain. Dan reached over to give me an awkward, sweaty hug, and then wrapped one arm around me to look into my eyes.
“Mom, it’s going to take a while. You need to go sit in the shade and wait. I’ll come get you if there’s anything to tell.”
“Anything,” I repeated, “promise me.”
“Yes,” said my son.
Debbie and the preacher walked back with me to the picnic table, where I sat, already drained by the adrenaline and fear, yet still able to feel the relief of going back to the shade, sitting down at the table. Debbie kneeled in front of me. I thought about how her dress would get dirty doing that, so it was lucky she’d worn one of easily washable polyester. I noticed that her face now carried a smear of fine dust on her cheek.
“You come in the house now,” she said.
The preacher spoke, “Sharon, it could take a while.”
“Then I’ll sit here a while.”
Debbie stood and then said, “I’m going in to change and get water and food for everyone. I’ll be right back. Pastor Caleb, if you need me in the meantime, just open the screen door and holler for me.”
The preacher nodded, and Debbie went back in. I could hear the sizzling roar of the blow torch, the calls of men working to free my son. Now we had to wait.
“You can pray, now, if you want to.”
“Do you want to pray with me?” asked Pastor Caleb.
“No, I can’t,” I said. “I’m holding him in my mind.”
“God?” asked the preacher.
“No, Mitch. I’m holding him there until I know one way or the other.”
The preacher nodded, bowed his head, took my hand, and began praying in a low murmur. It wasn’t the kind of prayer he prayed on Sundays, with a booming voice and a performing sway. It was a humble prayer for safety and help, the kind of prayer even people who don’t believe in God might say, repeating the phrases they know of what God promises and what they need desperately, people in the midst of suffering and fear. He just kept praying, holding my hand, and I thought better of him, our preacher. He wasn’t praying for show. He was praying for real.
That spot at the picnic table, the sun moving across the sky and the insects buzzing in the yard, kept me for the next three hours while I waited. I knew Dan would come to me when something was clearer. I knew that Ryan wouldn’t leave the rescuers, digging with his hands if they let him (they wouldn’t let him—the classic mistake with grain engulfment is having another person enter the bin and slip beneath the grain himself) until his son was out. Other neighbors arrived to try to help during that time, but I stayed next to the preacher and spoke only to him and Debbie, who soon came back out in jeans and sleeveless shirt. She had rinsed her face, and her strong arms toted coolers of water, then plates of quickly made sandwiches that she placed on the table and sent with newly arrived neighbors to the rescue crew. She managed the chaos, and people stood in a circle around us, waiting for word. The circle kept everyone distant from me, even if I was in the middle. I couldn’t talk to the people who came to check on me or offer to help. I had to sit, alone, and hold my son in my mind.
I know it doesn’t make sense to say I was keeping him alive, because how could that be? My thoughts weren’t magical. It would have made more sense, though still seem crazy to some people, to think that the preacher’s prayers could keep Mitch alive. Or more precisely, to think that God could keep my son alive. But I couldn’t reason through that, and I couldn’t pray, and I don’t even know what I believed during those hours on that October day, except that I had to sit at that picnic table, its plastic lumber imprinting my bare legs below the hem of my shorts, the oak tree over it bending its branches and shivering its leaves. I had to sit there and concentrate on my son to keep him alive.
While I held him in my mind, I relived the quarrel between Mitch and Ryan. It started on Memorial Day, then built for weeks. Mitch had just graduated, and he wanted to go to the local community college in the fall. I had been outside picking flowers, gathered on the table in a bucket ready for me to make arrangements to take to the cemetery. I could usually get one of the boys to go with me by asking them to help carry things, though really I wanted company so that I could talk about the people buried there. My parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and the tiny baby’s grave from the stillborn daughter I lost after Mitch, all of them were there. I had containers out to take with me for the graves: mason jars, empty tin cans, old mugs. The flowers mattered most to me, and I knew these would be easier to handle when they had to be removed for mowing. From the living room, I heard Ryan’s voice raised, and I realized Mitch had finally admitted to him that he wanted to major in art.
“No son of mine is going to waste my money on college for art,” Ryan had said.
“You said you wanted me to go to college,” said Mitch.
“I want you to get some classes that will help you get a job, not draw pictures,” his father said, sarcasm emphasizing the last two words.
“There are jobs with art, I can . . .”
“Those things are for rich kids,” said Ryan.
“Well, I’m not going if I can’t major in what I want.”
“Fine,” said Ryan, and Mitch stormed upstairs. He packed his things that day and moved out by the next. I tried to reason with both of them, but they were stubborn. Stubbornly alike.
And so Mitch had ended up doing what his father might have wanted all along, working in agriculture, but not on our farm. I had hoped that Mitch’s independence—moving out, not asking us for money, supporting himself—would bring Ryan around. It seemed to me that Mitch could enroll at college the next semester, or the next year. They could work things out, I thought. Mitch had to be alive so that he and Ryan could mend their quarrel. I just needed to think of Mitch to keep him vivid, his smile with the space between the front teeth, his long fingers gripping the tractor’s steering wheel or holding a pencil to sketch the view from our back porch.
As two hours stretched to three, Pastor Caleb walked back and forth, from talking to people circled around then to sit with me. People from the grain bins had come past me to use the bathroom or rest. Some people left and others came. I couldn’t watch them, talk to them, or notice. The sun moved in the sky, the shade from the tree shifted, and my stomach churned as the time passed. I waited for Dan.
It was Ryan who finally came to me, walking slowly with his head down, Jim following steps behind. He approached the picnic table with Jim next to him. Debbie, Pastor Caleb, and all of the circled others stood quiet to meet him.
“We got him out,” he said, in a whispery voice, barely talking aloud.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“No,” I moaned, and I lost control, striking with my arms and hands at Ryan, at Jim, even at Pastor Caleb. “No, he’s not gone.”
Ryan and Jim, both covered in dust and bits of corn chaff, let my arms flail at them, not even flinching, but Debbie and the preacher tried to grab at me, with Debbie finally wrapping both arms around me and calming me as she would a child in a tantrum, “Shh, shh, I’ve got you, shh.”
I sobbed more quietly, and Debbie loosed her grip, so I ran. I had left my flip-flops, so I was barefoot on the gravel, but I barely registered the rocks. I went straight for the grain bins, elbowing past the people gathered to watch the EMTs who had their stretcher out but nothing on it.
They stood next to a shape on a board. The ag rescue crew were brushing at it, trying to remove the bits of corn. I reached the shape and stopped.
It wasn’t Mitch, this shape of cloth and dust and yellow bits of corn, and yet it was. His face had caught in a contortion of fear when the accident came. His clothes had been pulled and pressed to him, wrinkled and smeared, with the T-shirt pocket lumpy with corn. His eyes, his ears, his mouth—oh God, his mouth—all had filled with corn. His hair stood on end, still with kernels clinging. I brushed my fingers over his face and tried to pull bits of corn from his mouth.
Then I laid my head down on his chest and cried. His body felt too cold to be a person but too warm to be a corpse. The force of the grain had pushed at his chest, probably broken some ribs, they told me later, so that it seemed not even his full shape but concave in the center, a broken place. Here, too, the people circled around, no one sure what to do or say. It is a lonely place that I now know well, being separated from others by my loss.
Ryan stood with the people circled around, men who had worked to rescue Mitch trying to comfort him, putting their hands on his shoulder, not speaking, some turning away to keep from crying. It was Dan who finally came to me and touched my shoulder.
“Mom, they need to take him now.”
“What for? He’s gone.”
“They need to take care of him, of his . . . body. Mom,” he said, and his voice cracked, Dan who never cries.
I let Dan pull me back, and the EMTs moved in to take my son, his body. Dan led me to stand by Ryan, but I moved away from him. I thought of how he had nursed the quarrel with Mitch, and now Mitch was gone. If Ryan had let Mitch do what he wanted, then Mitch wouldn’t have been here, on someone else’s farm. If Ryan had gotten past his stubborn need for his own way, then Mitch might have been drawing pictures instead of inside the grain bin. If my husband had just let Mitch make his own choices, then my son would be alive.
I changed at that moment, from a farm wife to the mother of a dead son. I changed from someone who thought, “These things happen,” to someone they happened to. All those years of sitting in church, surrounded by the farmers I’d lived among all my life, why hadn’t I paid closer attention to their missing fingers, limping legs, and even my own grandfather’s glass eye? The danger was all around, but I ignored it. And we lived as if we had all the time in the world—time to plant and time to harvest, time to quarrel and time to forgive. But there was no time left for Ryan to mend his quarrel with Mitch. And I couldn’t forget that, even if someday I may be able to forgive.
So we had the funeral at the high school gym, the only place large enough to fit everyone. My grandmother always said, if you want a crowd at your funeral, die young. The blur of people walking past me in the receiving line was overwhelming. And after the funeral, people tried to help us, as they do in farming communities like ours. Our refrigerator filled with food. Ryan and Dan had more people than they could use for the harvest, and people helped Jim Bond bring in his crops, as well.
At our house, I set out the casseroles they brought and read the cards they sent and washed the dishes when the casseroles had been eaten. People noticed that I kept myself on the opposite side of the room from Ryan. When he spoke to me, I didn’t answer. I think they thought that was grief, but for me, it was also anger.
Ryan and I had one conversation about Mitch’s death. He came to me in the kitchen three days after the funeral. I’d been sleeping in the guest room, avoiding him, but he doesn’t talk easily and probably preferred waiting to talk to me about our son, about Mitch. Waiting to talk, that’s his thing.
What he said, coming into the kitchen, was this: “Maybe we should sue Jim.”
I turned from the sink, my hands in soapy water from scrubbing an awkwardly shaped sloped casserole dish that a woman I disliked had brought—eggplant lasagna, ugh, a dish I’d mostly scraped into the disposal.
“What for?” I said.
“For letting Mitch climb in there.”
“You think it’s Jim’s fault that Mitch was there?”
“Well, partly, yes.”
“Suing Jim won’t change anything.”
Ryan stood quietly, his hands in his jeans pockets, his face a greenish blue from the kitchen overhead light. He walked toward me and reached out to touch my shoulder, but I flinched.
“Sharon, I’m trying to figure out what to do.”
“Now you are, but it’s too late.”
“Too late to sue?”
“Too late to make things right with Mitch.”
He didn’t reply. He looked out the kitchen window over my shoulder, then down at the vinyl floor. Finally he walked out of the room. And we didn’t speak after that except about details of daily life that don’t matter: the neighbors are stopping by at 3 o’clock, Dan needs to borrow the mower, someone left a sympathy card inside the screen door.
Pastor Caleb later tried to talk to me, to convince me to forgive my husband. He sat with me in the kitchen, where I’d made coffee, and leaned across the table to emphasize his words.
“Sharon, he’s lost a son, too.”
“Yes,” I said, “and he’ll have to live with that. I do.”
“But it wasn’t his fault.”
I didn’t answer. I have no answer for what happened to us.
One day in November, I just packed some boxes and left the house. I’d called to rent a trailer—one of the ones on the road to town—where I now live alone. The barefoot kids leave me be, but I no longer think they’re so sullen. They’re just lonely, lost.
People think that I will come to my senses, move back home, keep on being the woman I was. But I’m not her. I might as well have buried myself in the garden that day, dug a hole with my bare hands right next to the carrots while the radio blared. If I had pulled the clods of dirt in after me, maybe no one would have been able to find me and tell me about my son. Maybe I could have avoided seeing his body that didn’t even look like a body anymore. Maybe I would have spent my time shouting to Ryan, and Jim Bond, and Pastor Caleb, and everyone who could hear my voice, that they should end their quarrels now. But I can’t even take my own advice, because I can’t forgive Ryan.
People still try to come by and see me, for all that they think I’m wrong to leave Ryan, but the only person I let inside the door is Debbie Bond. She comes because she’s worried about me and because Jim feels guilty for what happened to my son on their farm. I’ve told her that I don’t blame them. She sits with me quietly, mostly, which I can stand. I don’t say this to her, but I like having the person who was with me when my before became after. It’s like I’ve changed from a person to an animal, like in an old fairy tale, and I can’t tell anyone what’s happened, but Debbie saw it happen. I don’t have to explain to her.
And at night, when I try to sleep, I have a dream that I am Mitch. I feel the grain engulfment happening, the sudden shift of corn, and I know I only have seconds before I am buried. I breathe hard, I try to move my hands, but quickly the sound of rushing corn kernels fills up to my mouth, then my eyes, and finally I catch a glimpse of my upraised hand before I’m completely engulfed. My hand, Mitch’s hand, reaching up for help.
For all the hope I clutched the day Mitch died, yearning he could be saved, I have little now. Debbie has reminded me that I still have a son, that Dan needs me. I nod, and I believe her, but I can’t shake the sense that Dan has the parent he wants in Ryan. If Dan knew that I blame Ryan for Mitch’s death, he would be angry at me. So I don’t tell him, and I’m sure Ryan won’t, either. When Dan comes by the trailer, I meet him at the door, hug him, and say, “Thanks for coming by, but I’m tired, so I won’t ask you in.” He nods and leaves.
I feel stuck here in the country, wanting to leave this place where such violent accidents can happen, but knowing also that this is my home. As I drive to town for my substitute teaching days, things that I pass remind me of Mitch—his favorite teacher’s house, the gas station where he loved to buy donuts, the road that leads to the house he shared with his friends. If I left, moved someplace else, I could skip these reminders. And yet, I want them, I don’t want to be in a place where no one knew Mitch and no one speaks of him.
And this is the tiny bit of light that creeps in, like the small window over the sink in my trailer that only gets direct light for an hour each morning, something I miss completely if I’m not watching for it: Mitch’s father has the memories I have. Who else will remember our boy’s fondness for toasted bread on his sandwich, or the time he caught a fish by himself and put it in the refrigerator still flopping for us to find, or the day he split his jeans in third grade before school and had to come home on a snowy day in gym shorts? Only Ryan and I have these memories together. Yet neither of us can be who we were before, our slack, unsorrowed selves. Between bouts of grief, I let in these thoughts. I allow them to plant a seed in my mind that might grow to forgiveness. And it may come too late for us, for our marriage, but I am waiting, I am breathing, I am watching for what will come.