Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
Hit the brakes hard.
Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
A cursory check for traffic.
Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.
LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.
Dad believed that the countless objects he amassed held value, and he took great pride in that. My parents had both come from families of working poor and weren’t familiar with terms like 401K; my dad played keno as part of a financial plan. Being able to pay their bills in full and on time was a Herculean feat. When my dad died, there were no life insurance policies or inheritance to claim. There was only his stuff.
I was raised in the countryside of Oregon, but my mom often recounted a story of when we once lived in town. I was still a baby then. She and I were home alone together. Holding me on her hip, she answered a knock at the door and was surprised to see a policeman. He told her this was a city and there were ordinances. She was going to need to clean up her yard, or he’d have to fine her. With the pride she took in her appearance and her impeccable housekeeping skills, she choked up with embarrassment. She didn’t mention my dad, that the mess was his. She spent the afternoon with a neighbor woman feverishly cleaning up the small yard and garage. When my dad came home, he was enraged. He screamed at her, red-faced, for touching his things, accusing her of trying to get rid of him. My dad was over six feet tall and barrel-chested. When angered, he was a charging bull.
Mom had a decision to make; either leave him or accept this craziness as the life she had married into. She was a young mother, seeking stability for herself and her family in whatever form she could find. She wanted us to stay together. She looked for a way to make it work. Within a week, she found a house for sale in the country, and they moved every last item away from the judgmental gaze of city life. Mom always wanted to move back to town, but Dad’s stuff kept them rooted until the day he died.
When I was growing up, we would constantly find new things strewn about the yard: battered oxygen tanks or a discarded boat motor, pieces of sheet metal twenty feet long and wine distilling equipment. How he got some of those things home single-handedly remains a mystery. He had an idea in mind for all of it; he would cultivate a vineyard or engineer a new type of sea-going vessel. Not one of the plans ever came to fruition, but he refused to part with a single thing.
There were rare occasions when mom spotted the latest addition out in the yard and couldn’t contain herself. “What is that? What’s that metal for?” she’d demand.
“I’m going to build a two-person passenger plane,” he replied. ”I can fly you to Chicago to visit your sister when it’s done. Think of the money we’ll save on airfare.”
Out in the countryside of the Willamette Valley, my dad was free to accumulate to his heart’s content. The wooden skeleton of his barn sagged with rot, unable to contain the vastness of his imagined treasures. The contents piled up to the rafters and cascaded out, covering the yard and becoming entangled with the rampant, wild vegetation. There was no system to any of it. Wherever he put something down last, that’s where it would stay, and he heaped new things on top of old as he brought them in.
When he passed away, my husband and I began working to help my mom prepare the house for sale. As I looked out over their property, I realized I would have to touch every relic of our lives from the past four decades. I would have to revisit each painful moment; and ultimately, I would have to grieve that his entire lifetime of ambitions amounted only to the worthless piles stretched out in front of me.
Dad always bragged about his vintage coin collection, his prized guns, and his classic cars. For safekeeping, the coin collection was stored in a locked briefcase shoved under the bed. The combination had long since been forgotten. We pried it open to find a sea of wheat pennies and US state quarters encased in plastic. We found two-dollar bills squirreled away in his sock drawer. A coin collector assessed nothing we brought in was worth more than face value, including the plastic-enshrined quarters. At work, an older colleague of mine had also recently lost a parent and he would say things like, “I’m going to be out tomorrow; I need to tend to my parent’s estate.” I thought about this phrase as I slammed plastic-enshrined quarters against the kitchen floor to break them free of their casings: “I am tending to my parent’s estate.”
Dad had left his two-dozen assorted guns and boxes of ammunition lying haphazardly in a pile on the garage floor. We were too frightened to touch any of them, not knowing whether any remained cocked or loaded. My uncle, who we had not seen in years, showed up to claim them all. That would be the last time we heard from him.
Dad’s automobile collection consisted of nine vehicles in states of mild to severe decay. He constantly talked about his intention to resuscitate each of them to the glorious condition of their heydays, and the amazing fortune he would reap. The best car of the lot was the one pick-up that still ran. The driver’s seat was broken into a permanent position of recline and the rearview mirror dangled by a thread. Most perplexing of the bunch was the 1972 Chrysler Crown Imperial.
Even in my earliest memories, the Chrysler never ran. I never saw it driven, never saw anyone start it up, never even saw anyone open the driver’s side door and sit on one of the plastic bench seats to reminisce.
In the early years the Chrysler sat adjacent to the driveway. After a decade without improvement it was decided—I’m not sure exactly who decided—to move it to the back of the house, near the barn. In Dad’s mind, this probably equated to progress. The car needed to be near his tools if he was going to repair it. In my mom’s mind, I’m certain she just wanted to get the eyesore out of sight from the general passerby.
In Oregon, the elements of nature are subtle. There are no bone-rattling earthquakes, the complete and sudden devastation of hurricanes, or the intensity of a Midwest blizzard. There is only the rain, the omnipresent dampness. It seeps in quietly, seemingly harmless. But left unchecked over time, that ubiquitous moisture is power.
Over the years the two-ton Chrysler turned from dusty rose to a bleached mauve to forest green, covered in moss. The sodden earth began to consume the car—the tires buried up to the rims. And out of nowhere, the descent of Himalayan Blackberry, vegetation that seemed like science fiction.
When my aunt came to visit a few years back, she looked out the family room window onto the overgrown backyard and asked, “What’s that red thing sticking out of that bush?”
Sheepishly, my mom murmured, “That’s a tail light.”
Brambles had grown up and around the Chrysler, devouring all of it except one final piece of tail light. They grew twelve feet tall, surpassing the height and width of the barn, engulfing not just the car, but the expanse between the car and the barn, using both as makeshift trellises.
After Dad passed away, I wasn’t sure my husband and I were up to the challenge of unearthing the car from the grips of the brambles. But my wiry husband assured me we could do it. Not knowing where or how to start, we each simply bought a new pair of work gloves and hedge clippers.
On a crisp winter morning, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air, we embarked on our odyssey. I began clinically, like a novice surgeon taking the first cautious snip. The weed was covered in stickers, shooting out in catawampus directions like an army of angry penknives. It clawed at us with vicious tentacles, pulling at our arms and legs. We emerged from the bushes with scratches everywhere, on our backs and faces, blood dripping down our forearms.
Soon I was hacking and lunging with unquenchable hostility. Questions cascaded through me. What other daughter had to engage in an activity like this in the wake of her father’s death? Why did he leave this mess for us to clean up? Why didn’t he take better care of things? Why didn’t he take better care of us?
After several days of relentless toil we stood smugly over the decimated thicket and beheld the Chrysler in full exposure. The initial victory was sweet; we felt like laborers excavating the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Once we turned our attention to the car, our spirits sank. The windshield looked like a kaleidoscope. The interior seats were brittle and splintered, the ceiling upholstery torn and dislodged; where the passenger side floorboard once existed there was now an irreparable hole. After waiting for decades to be restored to its former glory, the car was unceremoniously sold in an estate sale, purchased by an anonymous buyer for the paltry sum it could fetch as scrap.
I looked up the number for Molalla garbage service online.
“I’d like to arrange for delivery of a drop box.” I used terms I found on their website and hoped I could translate my needs into their language.
“What size do you need?”
Barn-size? “What are the options?”
“Our smallest is twenty yards. That’s 7’5” by 16’ by 4’7” and the largest is forty yards. 7’5” by 22’ by 6’8”.” She rattled the numbers off with quick efficiency and I hurried to jot them down.
I shoved the figures imploringly in front of my husband with a “???” and a helpless look on my face.
“The biggest,” he mouthed back to me.
“The biggest one,” I responded. I feared the woman on the other end would question me. What does a well-spoken young lady like you need with a dumpster that large? I thought she would doubt me. That’s really large, honey. Are you sure you need something so big?
But she did no such thing. She merely asked when I wanted it delivered.
I responded without hesitation, “As soon as possible.”
For over two decades, with joy and fear I’d envisioned the day I would walk into the barn and clean it up. In my imagination, I’d be wearing knee high rubber boots and would have somehow gotten my hands on a Hazmat suit. In reality, I wore a grey Army t-shirt (Dad’s) and my mom’s jeans with an elastic waistband. The clothes were foreign to me, which fit the foreignness of the experience. It is hard to remember what my gloved hands touched first, but once started, I was transfixed. We had always been forbidden from touching his stuff. This would never have occurred in his lifetime.
On our first pass, we filled the forty-yard industrial dumpster in less than three days. It was so full, I’d end up owing over-tonnage fees. We’d only scratched the surface, though; we decided the rest would need to be addressed in stages and subsequent visits to the dump.
As we loaded the bed of my father’s truck with memories from my childhood, I was mystified to find decomposing rolls of shag carpet Dad had removed from the house when I was eight years old. My mom made plans for its disposal back in 1986. But Dad demanded to keep it; he planned to repurpose it. How did he think he was going to repurpose used 1970s Granny Smith apple–green shag carpet?
The hundreds of pairs of identical, fringe-beaded earrings intrigued my husband. The summer before I started high school, my dad was fired from his job. I don’t know if he looked for other work and couldn’t get anything, or if he became enticed by a pyramid scheme before he ever got that far. He sent money in to some unknown destination, and in return, he received a set of beads and string. He simply had to construct them into earrings and make five times the profit on his money. Except, of course, his beaded constructions were never purchased, leaving us with hundreds of sets of identical earrings and a hole in the bank account. When my childhood friends asked what my dad did for a living, it was hard to explain.
My mom hadn’t had reason to visit the dump in ages, but she thought she remembered the way. She was mistaken. Neither of us had any idea where it was. Unbelievably, in the year 2013, neither of us owned a smart phone or GPS. My mom’s idea was to roam through the Wal-Mart and ask for directions.
Upon entering the store, Mom instructed me, “Look for someone who looks like they’d know where the dump is.”
“What would someone who knows where the dump is look like?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Someone like us.”
I gazed over at my mom, a reflection of myself, in her messy flannel shirt, muddy boots, and stocking cap pulled tight over her ears. We burst into raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all. Silently, I also prayed this would not be the instant I run into someone I knew from high school.
Once we found our way to the facility, I stood at the edge of the platform and tossed our mold-infested memories into the dump. It is hard to throw away a life.
In the next round, we rented a metal “drop box”, another forty-yard container we’d fill to brimming and sell the contents for scrap. I was determined to get all the riding lawnmowers in there. Dad bought a new one every few years on credit. Whenever he mowed for the last time in the fall, the lawnmower would stay put right there on whatever the last patch of grass had been, uncovered all winter, until the next spring. After several cycles of this, the machines would rust into disrepair, the wheels would lock up, and he’d buy a new one. On the day he died, there would be four riding lawnmowers scattered around the yard, immobile.
My mom, husband, and I groaned collectively under six hundred pounds of riding lawnmower. In perfect synchronicity, we exhaled and lifted on the count of three. We progressed across the backyard in inches. There was a point where I looked down and saw I had gashed my leg. Blood ran into my shoe. I felt nothing. I was a robot-o-tron with one thought: Metal in the bin. Not metal to the dump. Surprisingly, many things had morphed to a point where it was impossible to tell what their origins were.
Mom begged me to come inside the house and spend time with her.
“Mel, why don’t you take a break? We can visit.”
“What do you mean? You can take break. I want to keep working.” Throughout my life I’d been merciless with my own belongings, throwing things out without a hint of sentimentality. With all that was in front of us, how could she think of stopping with so much still to get done?
“It’d just be nice—to visit for a while.”
“We can talk while we work. I came to work.” At my response, her shoulders slumped with a heaviness I didn’t understand. I was oblivious to the loneliness of my recently widowed mother. I felt nothing except a driving desire to finish this. I had to finish this.
Among the ruins, I found a handicap bar, the kind attached in restroom stalls. When I was ten years old, my dad worked security at a rehab facility and brought the bar home. I had begged for a ballet barre in my bedroom. The stolen handicap bar was his solution to purchasing a real one. When he showed it to me, it didn’t look sleek and pretty like a real barre, but it would be mine nonetheless, and I was excited in the way only a child could be. The bar sat on the floor of my bedroom, awaiting installation, until I left for college. Seventeen years later, I threw this symbol of my dashed childhood hopes into the dump.
And then there were the papers.
Stashed into dozens of file cabinets, boxes, nooks and crannies, we uncovered every “official” piece of paper that had ever entered our home. Every phone bill, bank statement, tax return and department store receipt since 1974.
Some of it was just plain odd—prescriptions my mom had received for conditions long since forgotten; the pay stubs I’d received from my first job at age fifteen.
Some of it inspired a spark of pride—a commendation memo Dad had received for some task he’d completed in the Army Reserve.
Much of it told something deeper.
The court summons addressed to Dad for stealing from his employer (items which were likely still sitting out in the barn at the time he passed away.)
Business cards that had women’s names and phone numbers scrawled on the back, which my mom pulled angrily from my hands.
Written warnings Dad received for being too aggressive with his co-workers.
A lay-off notice addressed to Dad when the cannery shut down.
Records from a financial consultant when my parents filed for bankruptcy.
Notices from the IRS regarding the lien they had had on the house.
Through these papers, the story of our family was told.
We burned all of it.
After many months, we were coming to the end. We’d worked our way across the yard, to the outer reaches of the barn and into its depths. Only the “wine distillery,” a slapped together addition at the back of the barn, remained. Dad fermented cherries into a putrid concoction he generously called “wine” and then boasted of his plans to sell to major distributors once he’d produced enough jugs. After all we had dealt with, this final hut would be simple. The structure and everything in it were completely dilapidated. I just needed a stash of garbage bags and a bit more endurance.
The space was more disgusting than I had anticipated; it smelled like the walls were doused in cherry wine. It was nauseating. I hastily started to sweep whole shelves into a sack. But the stuff—a conglomeration of rags, plastic tubing, cardboard boxes—was molten and disintegrated under my touch. I discovered glass beakers that still had a deep burgundy substance in them, solidifying. I stepped in something far too squishy and found myself gagging reflexively.
Before I knew what was happening, I was doubled over, convulsing, tears soaking my face. I cried until I felt empty. I crumpled onto the waterlogged plywood serving as a floor.
In that moment, I finally understood. I was not cleaning up my dad’s selfish mess; I was cleaning up the remnants of a disease. This yard, this barn, were not merely the objects of a careless man who brought home too many bicycles. He had a psychological condition. I was only able to recognize this after he passed away, after spending countless hours cleaning out his things. I had spent my life feeling so much anger toward him and so much shame about the turmoil we were forced to live in. But I could not hold on to that resentment. Just like I would not feel irritation at a stroke victim for slurred speech, I could not continue this animosity towards my dad for a mess he couldn’t stop himself from making.
I saw now he was not collecting garbage—he was collecting possibilities. The possibility of a gleaming classic car, the possibility of success and accomplishment. He wasn’t a perfect man and didn’t follow through with his plans, but he was able to believe in the impossible. And there was beauty in that.
Out there in the space that had been the source of so much shame and humiliation, I was able to find my own form of forgiveness.
MELISSENT ZUMWALT is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She learned the art of story telling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.
Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.
Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.
It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.
“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.
My father sighs audibly.
I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”
Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”
I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”
They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.
“Well….” Mom’s dubious.
I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”
Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.
“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.
As Dad reads, I relax a little.
My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.
This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.
The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.
So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.
And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.
Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.
That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.
Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.
I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.
Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.
“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.
Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”
Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.
I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”
As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”
My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”
She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”
I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”
She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”
“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”
“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”
“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”
She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.
I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”
I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”
She says, “But I worry about you there.”
I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.
“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”
Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.
I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.
She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”
I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.
She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”
I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”
I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”
Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.
But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.
Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.
When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”
When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.
For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.
Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.
In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.
That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.
When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.
The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.
At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”
Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”
I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”
“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”
I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”
“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.
“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”
“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”
I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”
She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.
Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”
She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”
I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”
But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.
In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.
The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.
Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.
Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.
Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.
When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.
Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.
I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.
Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.
Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.
The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.
She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.
As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.
MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.
“It looks like you’ve got a horn growing on your face.”
That’s what the dermatologist says—literally says—to my father. A horn. I hadn’t thought of the growth as a horn until this moment, and now I wish I had looked at it more closely, even though it’s the kind of thing I don’t generally like to get too close to. I thought it was a big wart or a skin tag, or maybe a weird looking skin cancer, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a horn. I won’t get another chance to look at it, because the dermatologist cuts it off with no ceremony or drama—just a quick shot of Novocain and he starts digging it out. He’s done in five minutes. A horn on someone’s face is not a big deal to dermatologists. They’ve seen worse.
I should have said, actually, that I don’t get another chance to look at it attached to my father’s face, because the doctor shows it to me in a little vial, suspended in pinkish liquid.
He’s sending it off to the lab. Right now, the horn could be skin cancer or not.
Either way, the dermatologist isn’t concerned. He says, “There’s nothing to worry about. If it’s skin cancer we’ll take care of that, too.”
Maybe cancers that take the form of horns are easy to treat. Or maybe dermatologists just don’t get that worked up about eighty-four-year-olds who may or may not have skin cancer.
When I get home I google “people with horns growing on their faces” and it’s an eye-opener. You can’t mistake them for anything else because they are clearly horn-shaped. They’re hard, like dark, super-charged fingernails, and they’re huge. There are all kinds of horns, each resembling the horn of a different animal. Elk, moose, goats. Some curl up in a spiral, like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Just when you think you have a handle on all of the ways human bodies can go wrong, you learn something new.
By taking my dad to the dermatologist while his horn was so little I saved him from possibly ending up with a giant horn, which would have been (presumably) more difficult to remove. Nobody gives you a medal for that though.
I send my dad the link to the page of pictures of people with horns. I tell him, “If I didn’t take you to get your horn removed, it might have ended up like one of these.”
He correctly points out, “We’ll never know how my horn would have turned out because we cut it off.”
Right now, his horn is in a vial being looked at to see if it’s cancer or not. It might be cancer and it might not be. It’s one or the other, but at this very moment it could be either. We have to consider both possibilities.
It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat. A couple of smart people have explained this to me and I still don’t understand it, because a cat is alive or dead, not both, no matter if we know it or not. But the relevant point here is that since we don’t know, we need to treat it as if it’s both alive and dead. You need to cover all the bases.
In the days leading up to this dermatologist appointment, my father, who has early Alzheimer’s, took it upon himself to make a dentist appointment the same day. His dentist is in the same medical park as the dermatologist and, coincidentally, has the same last name too.
“They must be brothers,” my father tells me every time he calls me about the appointment, which is more times than you might imagine.
“They might not be,” I say, because that’s the truth.
But they are. We learn that because when we get to the dermatologist’s office, the dentist’s office is right across the hall and my dad says to the dermatologist’s receptionist, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
Three minutes later as I’m filling out his medical history form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
A minute later, before I finish the form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
This time she gives me a long look and when I quietly ask her if she could call me instead of my dad with the results, she quickly agrees.
Because he made the appointment with the dentist for the same day as this appointment, but four hours later, and because I don’t have time to stick around all day, my dad has formulated a plan. He will walk across a busy road with no crosswalks and have lunch at a shopping center, and then will walk back afterwards, find the dentist again in this medical park, which is the most complicated medical park in the world.
I have told him several times that this was not a safe plan, but he assured me that he did this kind of thing all the time, and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew several kinds of complicated airplanes and he could certainly manage crossing the street. I had put off the argument for later because I was so tired of talking about it.
He mentions this plan to the nurse once we’re in the doctor’s office, and she says, “No, you won’t. You’ll get killed, and even if you don’t, you’ll never find your way back here.”
He replies, “Oh!” and looks truly surprised.
“No, I’ll drive you to lunch and then I’ll drive you back here,” I say, even though I really don’t have time. I agree with the nurse. It was a crazy plan. But, also, I’m aware that I would seem neglectful if I let him do it, and I’m sensitive about looking neglectful.
My choices are to piss him off or to look neglectful to everyone else in the world.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle. I have power of attorney, and, sure, I can play it safe, err on the side of caution, but every little freedom that he loses diminishes him a little more.
He’s stopped driving. Although he’s in “independent living” at his senior living home, someone comes to his apartment twice a day to make sure he takes his pills. I started handling his banking after he made a few concerning mistakes with his money. He’s unhappy with all of these changes.
When an older person wanders off and gets lost, it ends up in the news, and the reaction in the comment section is predictable. “Someone should have been watching him!” Just like when a kid is allowed to walk home from school by herself (imagine!) and something bad happens. “I’d never let my kid walk around without supervision! Bad parents!” The online judgment comes fast and hard.
The problem is, until the older person goes missing or something happens to the kid, you don’t know for sure that it’s not safe to let them do this thing that they want to do. Maybe the kid is ready. Maybe the elderly parent is still able to take an unsupervised walk. How do you know? Maybe this will be the last time he can do it.
With Schrödinger’s Cat, the way it works is this: the cat is in a steel box. Also in the box are a radioactive substance, a vial of poison, a Geiger counter, and a hammer. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter detects that and makes a hammer smash the vial, releasing the poison, killing the cat. But the thing is, you have no idea when the radioactive substance will decay. So at any given time you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead.
It’s the same thing with elderly parents with dementia. Until something goes wrong—they mess up the bank account, they forget to take their pills, they get lost—you don’t know that the decay has gotten to that point. If you wait too long to start giving them that extra supervision, there can be a disaster. If you jump the gun, you’re taking away some of their quality of life before you need to.
After the appointment I drive him to the shopping center and we have lunch. Then I drive him to the dentist. It will be two and a half hours until his appointment. I can’t stay. The home where he lives provides rides to and from doctor’s appointments, so I have him call and request a ride, but he can’t get anyone on the phone.
“Try again,” I say, because I don’t want to leave him without a ride.
“It’ll work out,” he says. It’s one of his favorite things to say and it drives me insane. It happens all the time. He tells me about a problem and asks for help. Something with his computer, or his phone or TV, or something more important. Maybe his knee is bothering him. I start looking into it, but before I can do anything he says, “It’ll work out.”
It works out because I make it work out, not because it magically works out.
He assures me, though, that he will just call again after the appointment and get the ride. I tell him to let me know if he can’t get through. Then I leave and drive the forty minutes to get home.
That night he calls me and says that he never got through so he walked across a major road, this one with a crosswalk, at least, to catch a bus back home. He got on the right bus, had cash for the fare, got off at the right stop, and crossed the road again to get home.
“It all worked out,” he says.
Three days after the appointment we get an answer about the horn. The dermatologist says it’s benign.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.
At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.
She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.
You’re my only.
I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.
They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.
My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.
He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.
From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.
During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.
Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.
A match was made.
Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.
I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.
Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.
Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.
Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.
“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”
As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.
Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”
As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.
On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.
While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.
A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.
When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”
While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.
When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.
“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”
By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.
Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.
So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.
I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.
LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.
Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.
I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.
I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.
I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.
My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?
We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.
My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.
In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.
BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.
“I’m fifty,” I imagine saying to my mom. “Can you believe it?”
“No,” she would say back to me. “No, I cannot.”
I used to call her every year on my birthday. It became a funny thing, me thanking her for having me. I would have already gotten her card—she always mailed it early—and sometimes a little gift, though not every time. I know if I had waited long enough, she would have called me, but I was an hour ahead of her and up early to go to work. She was retired and a night owl. I would call her first thing, and she would still be in bed. I would remind her what she doing however many years ago on that day and she would always say she didn’t remember much, mercifully. Because that is how they did it in those days. My friends and I were some of the first babies born in the hospital in our town. Our mothers went in pregnant and came out not. What happened in between was for someone else to say.
She remembered enough to tell me she thought the hospital sent her home with someone else’s child; I know that. And for a long time I wondered whether she believed it. I had been big—almost ten pounds. Enough to warrant forceps, one tong clamped to the right side of my forehead, which left me with what she used to call a horn. “What do you mean a horn?” I would ask.
“A horn,” she would say, as if it were self-evident.
When I pressed for more details, she would never describe it exactly, would just say it was so big my christening cap didn’t fit and so unsightly that she heard my grandfather, leaning over my crib, say to one of his brothers, “Look at that, Camille. What the hell you think about that.” A lament. I was lamentable.
“When they brought you to me,” she would say, “you were so ugly. I was just sure you were the wrong baby. And I told them that, too. I said, that’s the wrong baby. But they kept insisting you were mine so what was I gonna do. I took you home.”
Those were also the days when babies spent most of their time in the nursery, bottle-fed, so the new moms could get some rest. “Well, my room was right down the hall,” she would say, “and there was one baby in there that cried all night long. I mean, all night long. I remember feeling so sorry for the poor momma that was gonna take that one home. Little did I know, that one was you! And that poor momma was me!”
The stories would spill out from there of her new-mother all-nighters, of the local TV stations going off at midnight and of her having to rock and sing or bounce and hum to me into the wee hours. Of me sleeping all day, through every visitor who came by wanting to meet me and my horn. “We would wipe your face with an ice cold washrag to try to wake you up,” she would say. “Even that didn’t work. You were out. But come ten o’clock—poomp!—your little eyes would pop open and you would be ready to play. All night. I would just get you to sleep, and then it would be time to get your brother up for school. I’m telling you, I thought I was gonna die.”
My mom loved babies, the littler the better, but she was not sentimental about them. She could sit content with a newborn in her arms all afternoon and talk about how hard they were, every once in a while catching the baby’s eyes with a coo and a smile and a high-pitched “Isn’t that right? Yes, it is. Yes it is,” until she got a rolling giggle in response.
It never occurred to me to wonder whether she wanted me. If pressed, I would have said I assumed she did. By the time I came along, my brother was eight. My mom and dad had been married eleven years, and she had had at least two “misses,” as she used to call them. Maybe more. “In those days, we didn’t count.” My mom would have said she was not of a generation that thought about kids as something you wanted or didn’t, or of a generation of kids who thought about whether they were wanted.
She loved the story of the time she told her nephew, my cousin Todd, that he was an accident. “He was so upset,” she used to say. “Now, why would you be upset by that?” she wondered. “I mean, I was an accident too. You think I care? By the time you’re number three or four or five, I hate to tell you: You’re an accident.”
When my husband asked what I wanted to do for my fiftieth birthday, I told him I wanted to talk to my mom. He knows I only ever most want what is impossible and that, if he waits a beat or two, I will get to something that is more possible, which I did. So I told him I wanted to spend it with my brother—my first best friend—and his family. I told him he was in charge of arrangements. All I wanted to have to do was pack.
I threw my clothes in a bag the night before—it’s my brother, it’s Florida, there’s not much that needs to happen. But the jewelry required some thought. I have pieces I love, pieces I travel with and pieces I don’t. Like most things in my life, my jewelry is poorly organized. The necklaces are tangled and often need polishing, the earrings are separated, left from right, backless, and sometimes bent. As I dug, I unearthed a cardboard box with a peacock on it. I was looking for one pair of earrings in particular, brushed metal with tiny blown-glass cornflowers on them. They’re more delicate than most of the others and I halfway expected to find them broken beneath a large pewter lily seedpod pin that only comes out during the winter. I unfolded the lid on the box and discovered a note from my dad atop the mess of chains and buttons and assorted cleaning cloths. “Nothing is lost as long as someone remembers,” he wrote.
I remember. I remember this is the note that accompanied the last birthday present from my parents, the last birthday for which my mom was still alive. It was not long after they moved from Louisiana to live near us in Connecticut. The note is written in my dad’s certain left-slanting print on an index-card-sized piece of plain white typing paper. The edges are frayed, so he must have folded it and torn it along the kitchen counter, as was his habit. I’m a leftie too. Scissors are no good. I turn the paper over. “Senoir citizen’s make do,” he wrote on the back side. My dad can’t spell, can’t punctuate. He knows what he does is wrong by someone else’s standards and he doesn’t care.
I remember the gift. A costume chainlink bracelet with a gold-and-silver heart. I wonder who it belonged to first, or who he bought it for and when. “Senoir citizen’s make do” means he didn’t buy it for this occasion, and there’s no way in hell it belonged to my mom. In Connecticut they have no money, no car, and he has not yet figured out the bus. No—he brought this bauble up with him from Louisiana.
“Do you like it?” my mom asked.
“Oh, I do.”
“Oh, good. When your dad showed it to me, I wasn’t sure.”
She was right not to be sure, about this and so many other things. But still, after fifty-some-odd years of marriage, in the end she trusted him. Because what else could she do? The bracelet is not the sort of thing I would ever wear. It slides around the bottom of the peacock box. I found the earring I was searching for tangled in one of its links and wrested it loose.
After my mom died, sympathy cards slipped through our mail slot for weeks. Most people wrote about how kind she was, how much they knew we would miss her, how she would always be in our hearts. But one I remember most of all, a note from Miss Lorraine, one of my mom’s oldest friends, who I hadn’t seen in years and years. I remember her especially from a vacation our families took when I was about eight to a state park in Mississippi, where we rented cabins and skied in the lake and made homemade ice cream and root beer at night. We did that only one year and never again.
I’ve wondered whether my parents couldn’t afford it—it was hard for them to leave their small business for a week at a time—but I also wonder whether all their friends knew. Knew what I knew, even then. That my dad was cheating on my mom. That everyone had to look away all the time. Had to pretend it wasn’t happening. Whether my mom’s friends would worry that their own husbands would get ideas. Whether the husbands worried that my dad, always and still a handsome man, would make a move on their wives. Infidelity is contagious in that way.
“I remember,” Miss Lorraine wrote, “going to visit your mom in the hospital when she had you. She was so happy to finally have her little girl.”
By the time I arrived, eleven years into her marriage, my mom was already protecting me, protecting herself, from the disappointments of being women who love too easily, too hard, too unselfconsciously. By eleven years into her marriage, I wonder whether she knew how many others my dad had already had, whether she hadn’t dared to believe, after so many misses, that this one was really hers. A unicorn. A fantastical creature.
Can you believe it? I’m here, Mom. I’m still here.
ELIZABETH H. BOQUET is a writer and educator whose work explores themes of violence, suffering, and peace-making through writing. Originally from southwest Louisiana, she now lives and works in southwest Connecticut. Her most recent work, Nowhere Near the Line, was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press.
When I call, her voice sounds like a bird’s. She chirps “yes” to every question. I say, “Are you cold?” or “Did you eat lunch?” or “Are they nice to you there?” And she says, “Where’s there?”
Then I try something else. I say, “Are you wearing your night gown?” and she says, “Yes,” in that child/bird voice that trembles out the syllables.
When my daughter speaks to her, my mother thinks it’s me, but me when I was young. So we have these conversations, when we can, when she’s more lucid and can hear me, and she speaks to the adult me—the one who’s worried about her and doesn’t know what to do—and then to the young me who was brave and reckless and didn’t think about her, at least not very much.
There is where you are, but not me. There is what I say when I mean where you are. My there is your here. Get it? No, I can’t say that. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I have to pose questions that are simple to get answers that may or may not be true. “Are you wearing a bathrobe?” My mother answers yes, but later says she isn’t. “What color is it?” I ask. “Blue,” she replies. I am not trying to trick her. I don’t think she’s lying. I know she’s not. The world swims before her like a blurry movie screen and she’s confused and it comes through in her voice.
In the South they speak in slow rhythms, let the syllables fall over on each other like old friends, intertwined, a filigreed pronunciation. But my mother is not from the South. She’s asking a question in every answer. “Yes” turns into three syllables because she is asking, “Is yes what I’m supposed to say?” She is not who she used to be. Or if she is, she is just hanging on to herself by one little filigreed thread.
When I visit, she is in the hospital-like wing of her fancy, assisted-care “home.” She’s propped up with pillows, tilted slightly to one side, but she won’t last long. Soon she’s going to fall over and bang her head on the hard shiny rail of the hospital bed. As I get closer, I can tell that she can’t see me, and when I say hello she casts her eyes about, scanning the room.
“Oh, hi,” she says finally, but she’s faking it. She can’t see and doesn’t know who it is. I tell her it’s me and take her dry little hand. She looks in my direction and grips my hand like she’s afraid I’ll go away.
“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to stay with you a while.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Not for a while. I’m here now.”
“Good,” she says and clucks her tongue like a hen and looks around. When her eyes fall back on me, she sticks out her head. Now she’s like a turtle. I hold her hand with both of my hands.
I say, “Let’s have coffee. Want coffee?”
“Sure. I’ll have some.”
I pry her hands off mine.
“I’m getting coffee. Be right back.”
“When are you coming back?”
“In just a minute. Don’t worry. I’m getting coffee. We’ll drink coffee, okay?”
I run out of the room—she can’t see me running—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what odd behavior is anymore. I ask one of the nurses where I can get coffee and she points to a buffet-like area in the back of the ornate lobby.
My mother’s “home” has an entrance like the Waldorf Astoria’s, but it’s all downhill from there. Each guest room contains a lost soul, cast out from their own life, adrift on an ice floe, though not dressed for the weather. And me? I’m standing on the shore, waving a white handkerchief. “Good-bye!” I say, over and over again. “Farewell!” I yell. “’Til we meet again!”
On a black marble counter, pitchers of juice and ice water drip with condensation. Next to them is a pyramid of cold muffins. Why is everything so scrupulously cold? Two thermoses, one for coffee and one for tea, sit on a silver tray surrounded by the sad pink remains of Sweet’N Low packets. Could anyone here be on a diet? My mother weighs ninety-five pounds. There’s a stack of extra-large Styrofoam cups, the size teenage boys drink Slurpees from. Everything is too cold, or too hot, or too large, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of dislocation. There’s an aura of impersonality, as though someone not quite human is in charge of this place. I splash coffee into the cups and run back to the room.
When I sit, my mother looks over with her blind eyes and I can see that the whites have disappeared— it’s all iris now. Did her eyes shrink? It doesn’t make sense.
“Here, I’ll hold it,” I say, steadying her cup.
We sip coffee and talk about the funny things I did when I was young. Her favorite story, the one she tells her friends over and over again, is about me. It is a fusion of fantasy and reality and, maybe, wishful thinking. My grandparents had a farm and four dairy cows, and I used to ride the cows. Well, not really. I used to sit on them when they lay down in the field, as cows do, and they never seemed to mind. Over the years, my mother embellished this event and I never corrected her. It made me seem like a daredevil, instead of a three-year-old looking for a comfortable spot to sit.
“Remember when I used to ride Grandpa’s cows?” I say, and we both laugh.
Later, I leave to get muffins and almost knock over an elderly man wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. Is he wearing his wife’s robe, I wonder? He’s as thin and fragile as a praying mantis, and I watch him struggle with the walker, hands shaking, as he attempts to regain his balance after our near collision. But I don’t stop. I run backwards, saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Then I turn the corner and sprint down another long hall—away from him, away from her. And, when I ask myself why I’m running, I don’t have time to answer. I’m in that much of a hurry.
My mother is different though she must still be in there somewhere. Are you in there, Mom? Age and Alzheimers have worked their deadly magic and transformed her. But I’m different too. I’m always in a rush when I’m around her and I don’t know why. It’s like I’m a contestant on that old game show, Beat The Clock.
The night before my mother dies, I sit with her and play music on my laptop. My mother doesn’t have much time left, so everything I do feels contrived and weighted with import. I had turned off the lights, but the heart monitor glowed, the oxygen monitor beeped, and my computer cast a eerie halo of green light. It’s cozy, just my mother and me and these contraptions. But the vast universe is pressing in. The unknowable is just outside the room.
We’re listening to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” when the nurse barges in. She flips on the light, then pokes around the room. She fiddles with the IV, then glares at me because it’s after visiting hours and I’d turned off the lights. She knows my mother will die tonight or tomorrow, and she knows she should not ask me to leave. But she wants me gone and I imagine why. The nurses will play poker after nine p.m. or they’ll have a dance party. I can picture them limboing and mamboing down the halls, snapping their fingers and swaying their hips, swigging champagne and trumpeting, trumpeting with life.
“If looks could kill,” I whisper, and the nurse finally leaves.
My hand is drawn to the oxygen tube that snakes into my mother’s nostril, then to the IV that runs antibiotics and fluids into her stick-like arm. I play Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” then Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But my mother stares at the ceiling, never toward me.
“Hurry up, hurry up” she says, again and again. And I think, is she talking to The Angel of Death? But I don’t believe it. I only know that she is not talking to me.
I find the crabby nurse. “We need more morphine,” I tell her.
My brother and I have been trading off, not wanting our mother to be alone. We worry that in the time it takes to shower, or eat a pork chop, or park the car, that she will sneak away. I leave at eleven o’clock and then my brother spends the night sleeping beside her in a cold leather chair. In the morning, he drives her car, this big Buick, back to his house to change his shirt and to get me. We’re going to have breakfast and spend the day with her. But she dies minutes after my brother leaves, sneaks out the moment his back is turned, just as we feared. There had been a plan and now it is all goofed up.
Someone calls from the “home.”
“Your mother passed this morning,” says this person I’ve never met.
Passed is the P.C. term, but I don’t like it. It reminds me of passing gas, pass the potatoes, pass the buck. Why be coy? She died. She’s dead. There will be “arrangements”: cold storage, caskets, morticians, cemeteries, body bags with heavy zippers.
When my brother walks in, I hand him a mug of coffee. “Sit down and drink this,” I say, before I tell him.
I remember my parakeet and the three childhood dogs I loved and lost. I buried my dead pets in the backyard, marked their graves with crosses made from Popsicle sticks. For the parakeet’s casket, I used an old metal lunchbox, filling it first with thick rolls of cotton, and sprinkling the tiny weightless body with pink and yellow rose petals and red cinnamon Valentine’s hearts. For the dogs, I used cardboard boxes covered with Christmas wrap, even a bow if I could find one. A shiny, boxed gift for God! Each pet wept and prayed over on one knee. I was only devout in my faith at times of death. For my dog Pearl’s funeral, I shot an air rifle into the sky—a 1-Gun salute—and wore a black armband for weeks. But my mother’s funeral will be modest by comparison, lacking the high dramatic flair of my youth. She will be buried in a strange place by strange people. I will not dress or touch the body. I will not shovel the earth, say the prayers, or fire the gun. I will stand squarely in the dirt, like a lump of stone, a tombstone myself.
I call Diego and Sons Mortuary. I need to find out what my mother had pre-arranged for her funeral. She’d told me she had already done it—long ago when death seemed far away and talking about it was a silly thing to do. A man with just the whiff of an accent answers. His voice is silken, almost romantic.
I say, “Can you help me?”
“I hope so,” he replies.
I explain that my mother has died and that she had already arranged for the funeral, or at least I think she did. He asks her name and when I tell him, he repeats it.
“Dorothy,” he says, as though he knew her and misses her already.
He is so nice that I wish I could meet him, see him, but I know he is trained to be nice, like realtors, but not my mother’s nurses. Still, I wish I could talk to him forever, this exotic sounding man, this under…taker. Will he be the one to drive the hearse? Collect her from her “home?” Zip the bag?
I ask, “So it was pre-paid?”
“Let’s see,” he says in that beautiful, seductive voice. A pause. “Yes, she put it on her Visa card.”
I laugh. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He laughs, too. We laugh together. I never want to hang up.
Later, I attempt to write my mother’s obituary. “You’re the writer,” my brother says, delegating the enormous task to me. So, I try to produce something heartfelt, but my sentences are bad and sound phony. She lived here. She lived there. It’s too short. I freeze as if it is an extra-credit question on an exam that I’m ill prepared for. All I can think of are weird moments from my childhood, odd behaviour, hers and mine, and fights we had.
My brother and I sit on the sofa and look through the family albums. There’s a childhood photo of my mother with her six siblings taken in front of their gigantic house. Even as a child, my mother had a wary expression as if she knew what was in store for her. We stare at our parents’ wedding photo. They look so young and skinny. We keep looking, hoping to find a suitable photograph to run with the obituary I have yet to write.
Then, for some reason, I remember one of the last times my mother and I did something together, before she had Alzheimer’s, before she was in her new “home”— when she was still here. I’m in the car and my mother is driving that stupid Buick of hers down the Bayshore Freeway, going 30 m.p.h. though the speed limit is 65. People honk, one guy gives us the finger. The car is so old and decrepit that it won’t go any faster and the turn signal broke off, so my mother had made a new one with a popsicle stick and some duct tape. We’re a family of oddballs, cow riders, and duct tape mechanics. The obituary should reflect this somehow, shouldn’t it?
My brother and I can’t find a photo we like, and again I try to write the obituary. But, it’s all a big jumble. I can’t do it. I appeal to my brother to write it.
“You’re the writer,” he says again, managing to make the word writer sound both truthful and accusatory.
Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I sum up my mother’s life in a few simple paragraphs? I realize now, too late, that I should have asked her to write the obituary herself, when she was still lucid, and before the Alzheimer’s kicked in. “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d ask. But no one is that organized, are they? Must I have the final word?
Once upon a time my mother was young and hopeful, but then things happened. Her first born child died when he was a month old, and her marriage turned so bitter it was like a cancer spread through our home. But in an obituary, you’re only supposed to write about the wonderful things. I’m having trouble thinking of any right now. The recent past is so filled with tragic events, it blocks out all earlier years. At the end, my parents’ lives were, well, pretty bad. My father had a heart attack and later a stroke. My mother got Alzheimer’s, then broke her hip, and, over time, became so fuddled up that she had to live in that fancy assisted-living “home.”
Still looking for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, I come across an album I’ve never seen before. Old and dust-covered, clearly it has not been touched in decades. The first pages contain my oldest brother’s birth certificate and many cards of congratulations—happy cards with bunnies and kittens and colored balloons—then his death certificate. I turn this page. More than fifty cards of condolence have been carefully pasted into the album by my mother’s own hand. With shock, I realize that this forgotten tome had started as my brother’s baby book. It was meant to be filled with celebrations, birthdays, Christmasses, graduations, and the progress of his life.
Two years ago, when my mother and I sat down to write my father’s obituary, she scratched out the sentence I’d written about their “three” children and wrote in the word “two.” She was already editing, rewriting her life, improving it, leaving out the bad parts. I guess I will do that too. Why not? My own life, if I look at it objectively, has nothing as tragic as the loss of a child, but there are moments of failure I’d rather not think about. Suddenly, I understand the form and its purpose—to call into high relief the events that can be celebrated. And those high points will, we hope, cast a shadow over the things we must forget.
For inspiration, I look in the local newspaper, and read the obituaries. I need a template. I see that a friend’s mother has also died. What luck! My friend’s mother and my mother are almost the same. They’re the same age, both mothers and wives. My friend’s mother even looks like mine in the youthful photograph they supplied—same blond pin-curled hair and pretty lip-sticked mouth. The obituary is beautifully written. Our beloved mother, etc. I have to change a few facts but not that many. I copy the words and the sentiment I don’t feel and pawn it off as my own. I don’t know how I feel. I’m not there yet.
JEANNE SHOEMAKER graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, the Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.
I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.
He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.
Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.
I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.
The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.
When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.
And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.
A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.
Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?
One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.
How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.
Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.
But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.
I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult, and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.
I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.
I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.
No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?
C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.