Cal stretched the yellow ray flower against the blue, Kansas sky and noted the withered edges. As he lifted the downcast head of another sunflower, loose seeds pelted his boots. Soon he’d have to assemble the catch pans to his combine for harvesting.
September brought with it a memory of Bria. A year ago she followed him through the field, recounting a sermon she’d heard in church.
“You would’ve liked Brother Mason’s talk today, Daddy.”
“Oh, yeah? Watch yourself now. Don’t trip in these rows.”
“He said that Jesus was like a sunflower before he died on the cross.”
“How’s that?” Cal looked to the sky, hoping the rain would hold off.
“He said sunflowers seek and follow the sunlight. Jesus always looked to the light too. The light is God, Daddy.” As Bria bent to pick up fallen seeds, she stumbled against his leg.
“What are you doing, Bria?”
“Picking up tears.”
“Didn’t I tell you to be careful? You’re not listening.”
“Sorry.” Bria paused, slid her glasses up the bridge of her nose and continued. “But, when He was hanging on the cross he got so ashamed and filled up with the whole world’s sad tears that He had to turn away from the light. Jesus did that for us so that we wouldn’t have to hang our heads and hide from Him.”
Cal looked at his pale, diminutive eight year old. She was fading away. During Marilyn’s pregnancy, he’d hoped for a boy. He never knew how to speak the detailed, poetic language of girls. With her grace and intelligence, he still didn’t know why Marilyn had ever agreed to marry such a backwards brute.
Bria’s glasses magnified her blue eyes. He felt loneliness looking into them, but couldn’t tell if it was his or hers. The words fathers should say to daughters always seemed to remain trapped in his throat, piercing him like coarsely cut gemstones. He placed his hand on her head, feeling the ridge of the scar under her fine black hair, and managed a terse alternative. “You shouldn’t be out here. Go on in with Mama. I’ve got to get some sprays and supplies set up.”
By the end of September another tumor, smaller and nearly impossible to reach, had formed in Bria’s brain. Cancer, it seemed, proved more powerful than the latest treatments or Marilyn’s faithful prayers. By March a close-knit community mourned the loss of a young believer.
Cal looked down the road, barely seeing the tip of a spire behind a jagged row of corollas. It was Sunday morning. Marilyn was at church. After Bria’s death, she’d finally stopped begging him to attend. She thought he was angry with God. The opposite was true.
He’d dreamt of Bria last night. Her glasses were gone, and her skin looked healthy, radiant, in a white sundress. She seemed to be sitting on something that elevated her against the blue sky. Her arms stretched upward. Although he kept calling her name, she remained focused, smiling up at the white-gold sunrays. Then suddenly, at the height of his grief, her face appeared close to his. He saw the dark lashes that cut her eyes into such sweet shapes and felt her arms tight around his neck as she whispered, “I love you, Daddy.”
The dream felt so real, he jolted up in bed. Marilyn didn’t ask him anything, just coaxed him against the pillow, curled herself around him, and rested her head against his chest until the rapid pounding ebbed.
This morning the cadence of his heart was steady and strong. It led his steps from the field of humbled flowers and down the road to the church.
When he opened the double doors, nobody turned around. The pianist played “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” as some knelt in their pews and others at the altar. He’d missed the sermon, but not the call. Yet, he’d become too ashamed to move closer. So he sank to his knees at the back of the aisle.
Marilyn had never seen her husband cry, but, when she heard the hoarse, desolate howl of brokenness several feet away, she knew.
Cal didn’t resist his neighbors, men he’d hidden from for so many years, as they knelt beside him, placing their calloused hands on his broad, trembling back. Some wept with him. And others interceded in simple, fervent whispers until he could lift his head out of the darkness and talk to Jesus on his own.
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