Mother’s Day, May 12th 2019 my mom at an early mass and I at the church of morning pages sitting at their kitchen table. A Toledo grey morning, in between sentences I stare into the acre of land they call their backyard, engrossed in my own thoughts. Less than a month since my dad left his physical body for who knows what, I wonder if I can still call it “their” house. Is it my parents’ house, or is it now my mom’s house? What do I call it? His things are still everywhere, all the signs that he lived, existed, and was, still occupy every corner of the house. Each inch reminds me of him, it’s all his handiwork. He gutted and refinished all the rooms; plumbing, electrical, and cabinets all installed by him. The floors refinished by my parents together, this house was their joint dream, but what does it become when one of the dreamer’s departs?
Sitting at their kitchen table engulfed in worry, about my mom and her feelings, my siblings and their sorrow, about the strange feeling of being lost and untethered that I can’t shake, salty tears roll down my cheeks staining the paper in my journal. Looking into the far back of their yard, I notice a movement and a flash of orangish brown. It’s the fox or more accurately one member of the fox family that lives nestled in the woods in the back of my parents’ yard burrowed into a wooded area mostly untouched by humans in the middle of the city.
Like a landlocked sailor I always felt like my dad was too much of a farmer for the city he lived in. He needed land to grow vegetables and plant his orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. Together my parents found the street in Toledo with the biggest backyards in the city limits. That’s the house we moved into when I was a freshman in high school, it’s no secret I never really liked the house itself, but they loved it, it checked all their boxes. Each year during college I’d come back for a visit and their garden would be bigger. My dad made it apparent that when farming is in your DNA you don’t stop just because you’ve moved to the city.
Coming home from Yoga on a cold February day this year I’d just pulled into my neighborhood in the middle of the city of Greensboro when a fox crossed my path. I felt certain it was an omen and looked up the meaning of seeing a fox cross your path. One of the first things I came across is if you see a fox on your property it means a death will befall your house hold. “Hmmmm”, I thought “I know a fox den has been on my parent’s property for a while so that can’t be right, but never mind that, what does seeing a fox OFF your property mean?” I continued to scroll and learned seeing a fox means a wise teacher is coming. I called my mom. “Hey mom! Guess what I just saw in the city?!” Elated, I explained about the fox and how I felt it was an omen and let her know that she and Papa should think about the fact that seeing a fox on your property means a death is coming to your household. We laughed that off and I continued to wonder what wise teacher would soon cross my path.
I told my dad about the encounter I had with the fox in the city when I was up in Toledo later in February. He told me how as a boy on the farm he had tried to track fox because he knew he could get $50.00 for one at the market. One night he was out trying to track the fox but one of the farm cats was following him. Knowing the cat would alert the fox he picked the cat up and put it around the back of his neck and he held onto its paws like the cat was a scarf. He wore the cat as he followed the fox tracks all over the fields and back through its own tracks. My dad commented that he was glad he didn’t end up finding that fox. My dad who never owned animals as an adult was always gentle-hearted where animals were concerned. “I’m glad you didn’t find it either” I told him.
The night we buried my dad after funeral and bereavement festivities were over I walked my high school friend and a North Carolina friend who had flown up for the funeral into the very back yard of my parents’ house. The backyard with its fire pit, sprawling and fenced garden, picturesque dilapidated white shed, and well laid plants and flowers is always something to show off on a pleasant evening. There’s no better way to understand who my parents are than to experience their back yard. The golden hour, sun beginning to set, light chill in the air, we had reached the edge of their property when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye to the right in the brush. Tucked behind tree branches and brambles the whole family of foxes were present. I could see them all standing still watching me watching them. I whispered “stop” to Chelsea and Betsy, and we stood enchanted and so close we could almost see the dark of their eyes. It was a moment you feel, of pure magic, wishing it could last forever, but knowing we should leave and let them be. Maybe a gift from my dad I thought.
In my neophyte experience of loss and grief, I’m seeing that death brings gifts. I would be lying if I told you all I’ve experienced was grief, because the truth is I’ve been given an immense amount of wisdom in the past month. Since middle-school one of my favorite books has been Le Petite Prince. The little prince befriends a fox and it is this wise teacher that tells him “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is truly essential is invisible to the eye”. Death, my wise teacher, has taught and reminded me what is truly essential.
A question I asked myself over and over in the first week after he died was “where is my dad? Where did he go? Where is his spirit?” I don’t believe in heaven and hell, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the notion of where he went. I do believe we’re all energy, and science tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So where is the energy that made up Kenneth Paul Wielfaert?
Papa was a combination of energies, the energy of love, gentleness, patience, hard work, creativity and human machine. My dad loved tall tales, folk lore and storytelling. He had an affinity for the tale of John Henry. Wikipieda reminded me that “according to legend John Henry’s prowess as a steel driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he only won to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress.” My dad riffed on the John Henry theme when he wrote what my mom referred to as his auto-biography “Suelieen the raking machine.” It’s about a girl that was born with a rake in hand, and legend had it she could rake a yard faster than anyone or any machine in the world. If you’ve met my dad you know that he took pride in raking their sprawling back yard by hand without blower or riding lawn-mower every fall often multiple times a season. It’s a task that like John Henry driving steel railroad spikes took a super human feat of strength, you might say he was part machine. When he wrote about Suelieen it was as if he was writing about himself. In the end Suelieen out rakes the machine leaf-blowers but she collides into the leaf-blowers she was competing against and disappears into a cloud of storms never to been seen again, leaving us with wonder and speculation about where she went. But more like John Henry, my dad’s heart gave out too. It could have been too much staying up until 2am to write his stories and illustrate his children’s books, too much working, or too much raking, and like Suelieen he’s gone, never to be seen again in the flesh. I wonder where he is and if he’ll turn into legend like John Henry.
On this Mother’s Day my eyes track the large orangish brown fox and my heart beat quickens as he begins to make his way up from the back of the yard to the mid-way point. Is he really going to come closer I wonder? It feels like my heart will thump out of my chest as he keeps moving closer to the house like he knows I’m sitting here, watching, paying attention. It came so close I could have pet it if I was outside, then he sat down on its hind legs and perched on his straight front legs like a dog would do before he decided to diagonally walk back, pausing before the halfway point to scratch his ear reminding me to listen and then disappearing again.
Oh yes, wise teacher, I’m listening.