By mid-morning on Monday, Dale was taking full advantage of his first day in the house alone. While his wife Donna was off in Fernie for a week of skiing with a group of her women friends, Dale was sprawled out in the living room, snacking on taco chips, watching an “Ice Road Truckers” marathon on TV and trying to forget it was -34 outside.
In fact, it wasn’t only the house. Dale had the whole Hanson yard to himself. Dale’s son Jeff and Jeff’s wife Elaine had also left the farm the day before, taking their two small children to Mexico for a week on the beach.
“I don’t really see how it’s a vacation, taking these two with us,” Jeff had kidded, loading his kids into their car seats in the back of their SUV for the trip to the airport.
“At least I won’t have to cook,” Elaine said. “And it won’t be as cold as it is here.”
“Are you going to be OK here by yourself?” Donna asked Dale before she packed her skis into the trunk of her car.
“Sure,” Dale said. “What could go wrong? You have a great time.”
But the phone call came before Dale got through the first two episodes, just when one of the best ice road drivers was about to get stuck.
It was Helen, Dale’s father’s girlfriend, calling from their Arizona trailer park with terrible news.
“Ed’s had a stroke,” Helen said.
Within a few hours Dale had phoned his sister to break the news, booked himself a plane ticket and found a neighbour to check in on the yard while he was gone. By 4:30, he was on his way to the airport, with a quick stop to drop the dog off at the kennel. “I know it seems crazy, bringing a farm dog here,” he’d babbled on to the kennel owner. “But he really likes people. After a few days alone, he might decide to take a hike to look for some new friends. And with this cold weather…”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“I just hope nobody tells Dad,” he’d tried to joke. “The very idea of paying for a kennel would give him another stroke.”
Dale finally got hold of Donna at the ski chalet before his flight left. “Every year we think Dad’s too old to be much help on the farm, and every year he steps up to the plate like someone half his age and gets the job done.”
“Let’s just hope he’s all right,” Donna said. “Do you know how much damage there was?”
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Dale said. “But he needs to get home. He won’t have any health insurance with a pre-existing condition. Helen doesn’t think he should be driving. I’ll pack him up and drive him home.
“I’ll fly from Calgary and meet you there.”
“Don’t,” Dale told his wife. “It won’t be a very fun trip. You’ve booked a whole week, you might as well enjoy your vacation.”
In Arizona, things could have been worse, but the situation wasn’t great. Dale could hardly bear to see his father limping and confused. Ed was no help when it came to packing up the trailer.
“It’s pretty cold back home. Are you sure you don’t want to stay here?” Dale asked Helen after they’d met with Ed’s doctor. Helen had only known Ed for a couple of years, and Dale wondered if she wanted to be tied down to a sick man.
“I’m coming,” Helen insisted. “If I had a licence to haul this motorhome, I’d drive him home myself.”
Dale and Helen packed things up together. Ed watching silently from the couch. Every hour that went by without Ed making a wisecrack broke Dale’s heart a little more.
The drive was grim.
On Wednesday morning, Dale started off the trip by pretending things were normal. “I’m wondering if we should put some lentils in on that Gibson quarter after all,” he asked Ed. “But with these high prices, I’m sure everybody will be planting them this spring.”
Ed didn’t answer right away. Dale waited. “You should… plant,” Ed said slowly, “that… that new crop… You know… those green plants… Damn. I can’t remember the name.”
After that, they mostly listened to the radio during the three-day ordeal, with Helen helping Ed in and out of gas stations and hotels.
Dale could hardly bear to look across the truck at his father. Helen had him wrapped in extra sweaters, with Ed hunched up against the passenger-side door, looking about half as big as the man who had spent long days running the combine only six months before.
Trying not to think about Ed, Dale turned to the rest of his list of worries. On Thursday night he’d used the hotel WiFi to check the weather at home. Still cold, and blowing. Dale clenched his jaw all through the Dakotas on Friday, imagining frozen, burst water pipes and a yard so blown in with snow that he’d never get Ed’s trailer down the driveway. Dale couldn’t remember when there had been no Hansons on the farm for so many days in a row. He tried to relax by imagining Jeff and Elaine’s family playing on the beach; then he worried that Jeff might not be putting enough sunscreen on the kids.
It felt to Dale that all of the problems of the Hanson family were on his shoulders. He didn’t like the weight.
After they crossed the border, Dale decided to take Ed and Helen back to the farm. “You don’t want to open up Ed’s condo all by yourself at this time of night,” he said to Helen, who looked relieved not to be left alone with the deflated Ed.
Dale’s stomach tightened as he got near the yard. How much snow would there be in the driveway? Would he have to phone someone for help?
But he turned in to find a perfectly plowed yard. Not just the driveway to the house, but a path all the way to the shed, so he could park the trailer inside.
Then he saw lights on inside the house. Had someone broken in? Surely he’d turned them off before he left. But there was Donna in the doorway, pulling up the zipper on her parka.
Dale got out of the truck, and the dog came running up to lick his gloved hand.
“You came home early!” Dale greeted Donna as she trudged toward him through the blowing snow.
“I called Brian to come and plow the yard so we could drive in. Luckily you left the phone number for the kennel on the counter so I knew where to find the dog.”
Helen had already made her way out of the backseat of the truck and was helping Ed open his door.
“He’s not good, is he?” Donna asked.
“No,” Dale said.
Donna put her arms around Dale. He felt a tear roll down his cheek, but he wiped it off before anyone noticed.
“We’ll get through this together,” Donna told him.
“Thank you,” Dale said, untangling from the hug and turning back to help Ed out of the truck.