Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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With Onions Come Tears
by BEN JONES
Mom tells me all the time that God looks at us like we are onions: “He takes each layer of our life and peels it away. God makes us become so utterly weak and helpless and forces us to rely wholly on Him. God did this to your daddy,” she said. “He took away his health, his job, and his pride… By the time your daddy died, he was the center of an onion—broken down as far as he could be.”
I was going into the third grade the year Dad got sick—first layer, health. Mom told me it was cancer, but tried to blot the seriousness by explaining it as “he’s going to be sick for a long time.” Initially, as an eight year old, I didn’t realize how big of a deal this was. After months of transitioning into our new lifestyle, Dad’s sickness progressed and he became unemployed—second layer, job. Mom realized she had to do something where she could make enough money to support her family of seven, so she went to nursing school at the age of 49. This left me with a preoccupied mom, a dad that I had to take care of, the loss of our financial stability, and a ridiculous amount of growing up to do in a short amount of time. Luckily I was blessed with the ability to cope well in strenuous situations.
When Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, we were told he’d have two years at the most. Hearing a licensed doctor say that about my Dad is the worst feeling I can recall in my nineteen years; it was as if the doctor had a scheduled time to rip my dad away from me. This sparked the end of my childhood.
In 2005 (two years after the diagnosis) Dad got the news that he was cancer-free, only to have it replaced with something even worse, emphysema. By this time I was fully aware of what was going on; I knew Dad was going to die sometime before I got out of high school. It was just a matter of time. The doctors said he probably wouldn’t last much longer, and we should start preparing.
When sixth grade rolled around, Dad was still with us. I could tell that he was slowly getting worse though. Sixth grade turned into seventh and Dad had developed a new disease. The new addition to our family bonding was C.O.P.D. (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). This disease is commonly caused by decades of smoking, which was the case in my dad’s situation. About a month after Dad got diagnosed with his third sickness, I started seeing him wilt like a flower. I watched him deteriorate for two more years.
By this time, God had peeled back the most prominent layers of my dad. Dad began to realize that he needed something more in his life, so he found God and developed an unforeseen love and dependence. During this point in his sickness, Dad started having these panic-anxiety attacks and start gasping for air and shaking uncontrollably. When he started doing this, he would fumble around for his black, leather-bound, fingernail-imprinted Bible and grip it as if it was his only supply of oxygen. After Dad would calm down, he would muster up the strength to read Proverbs 4: Wisdom is Supreme. He would read this because it was a guideline on how to live as a son of God; it starts of with “Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction; pay attention and gain understanding” and it’s followed by small anecdotal proverbs.
As a twelve year-old boy I felt so solitary. I didn’t have my dad to show me the “physical” way to be a boy. All of the other guys in my grade had these amazing, healthy fathers that could play with them; drive; go hunting; go to their basketball games and their football games; go an hour without needing morphine; go a day without needing a breathing treatment; go a minute without having oxygen in their nose… that’s what I had to go home to after eight hours of school—a personalized hospital where I was the nurse. At night I would sit in my room and cry to myself and ask God why I couldn’t have the same fucking life as everyone else my age. I felt that I had missed out on the father-son relationship that I was entitled to at birth. After doing that same routine night after night, I went into a three-year depression where I just wanted to die because I felt I had already experienced adulthood and I didn’t like the taste it left in my mouth.
On October 14, 2008 Dad asked me to stay home from school. He said he was feeling worse that usual—which was becoming more and more frequent. I was in the living room working on some homework when I heard Dad shouting for me. With my heart racing and the “Oh God!” thought in mind, I sprinted down the hall, hitting the thick, wooden doorframe to his room on my way in. Dad had run out of oxygen in his tank and was too weak to lift the new tank into the roller. It was the first time I’d ever heard my dad use the word “fuck,” so I knew I had to do this as fast as I possibly could. Several hours later when Mom got home, Dad had a “dopey” drawl in his words and couldn’t hold his head straight—Mom started screaming at him because she thought he tried to overdose on morphine. We had the ambulance come get him and we rushed him to Jackson. I knew, then, that the end of Dad’s pain was coming… I just wasn’t nearly prepared for how soon.
I continued to go to school while Mom stayed at the hospital in Jackson with Dad. After two days of them being gone I got pulled out of class. There was a phone call for me. Mom informed me that we were going to have to put Dad in a nursing home—third layer, pride. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Coach Strong told us today that he got his diabetes under control, isn’t that great?” After a few minutes of dancing around the elephant that mom had just presented to me, I got off the phone and went back to class. All I could think of the rest of the day was “I’m fourteen years old and I’m about to put my dad in a nursing home… Why, God, do you keep doing this? Please give us a break.”
The next day—October 20, 2008— I get called out again. This time there was an expression of sympathy on my councilor’s face. She told me that Mom would be there to pick me up in a minute and that my dad had taken a turn for the worse. I anxiously waited in the office for my mom to pick me up. She had a diet coke and fast-break waiting for me. With my grandmother in the front seat and my brother and me in the back, the cruise set on 95, we made our way to Jackson.
When we got to the hospital room, the nurses had put Dad on a BIPAP machine (basically it breathed for him). My whole family was there except for my sister, Evans; she was on her way from Fayetteville, Arkansas twelve hours away. Dad held on until she got there. Once Evans was there, we had the nurses remove the BIPAP. We watched Daddy breathe for the first time in six years without the help of any kind of breathing aid—it was the most serene, heart-wrenching thing to witness. Seven years of watching my dad slowly die and it all came to an end within thirty seconds. As my sixty-one year old dad exhaled for the last time, Mom crumbled. She was sobbing saying “Why God. Why have you taken my husband? Why have you taken away my children’s dad? Why, God? Why?” Mom got in the bed with her husband for the last time and cried on his shoulder and told him that she would always love him. This was the first time I had seen the raw emotion of my mother; this was the first time I realized how much I love my mom.
As I stood between my dad and the flat-lined heart monitor, I had my two most cherished memories with Dad come flowing back to me. The first memory was the first birthday I can remember with Dad; he was wearing his thick-rimmed glasses, wearing a green-gray button-down, with his twenty year-old loafers, holding a Blue-Bell ice-cream bowl in his hand, sitting in his favorite, burgundy captain’s chair looking at me while I sat on my brown and white stitched rocking horse looking up at him… I had the happiest, most innocent, unscathed expression of adoration for my daddy. The second memory I had was of something I did on a daily basis with my dad after he got sick; I would wake up at five in the morning to make Dad his four pieces of toast with cream cheese and orange marmalade accompanied by his cup of black coffee (“two scoops [coffee grounds] to one cup [water],” he would constantly tell me. I would give anything to be able to reenact those memories with my dad just one last time. There would be no more memories to be had after 2:00pm October 21, 2008.
I don’t remember much else about the time my dad was sick—maybe because I wanted to block out the seven-year sight of my dad dwindling down—but what I do remember is how much my mother loved my dad. She gave up everything for him. She never left his side… even through his depression, verbal abuse, and alcohol addiction she forgave him every time. I model my love for others after the unconditional love my mom had for my dad.
Although I lost the time I was allotted as a child, I was given the ability—well in advance—to care for others… not only physically, but emotionally as well. It has been ten years since my dad got diagnosed with cancer and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I honestly believe that everything happens for a reason. It took me a long time to figure that out. I’ve waited for a decade to see why God took my dad away from me and put me through such an emotionally-strenuous youth… it was to humble me when it was the right moment to be humbled and it was so I would be able to deal with all of the shit that happens later down the road—commonly referred to as life.
In December of 1993, Ben Jones was born into a loving household with three older sisters and a younger twin brother. He grew up playing in the muddy rice fields in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. When Ben was in ninth grade, his father died after struggling with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The next year Ben went on to attend the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science and stayed there for his junior and senior years of high school. Ben is currently enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi majoring in Banking and Finance.