“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.
I was never into Barbies. Instead, I was a sucker for chubby-cheeked, troll-eyed Cabbage Patch Kids. I named my first one Cindy, and my second one Linda. When the “official” birth certificate arrived in the mail addressed to Linda Renstrom (the names of the person—and the doll—have been changed), my mom unleashed holy fury in the kitchen, ranting about the mailman’s audacity to deliver Linda’s mail to our house. That’s when I learned about my dad’s ex-wife.
Despite the court’s decree that she reassume her maiden name after the divorce, Linda kept my dad’s last name for professional reasons, even after she remarried a few years later. I’ve always wondered what her second husband thought about that. It wasn’t a big deal that my dad had an ex-wife (my mom also had an ex-husband), especially given that one of the reasons they split was because she didn’t want kids. Linda introduced herself to me at a fundraiser when I was about ten and over the years I bumped into her here and there. She was friendly and I admit it—I liked her.
In 2006, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Linda visited him once while he was ill and jokingly asked if he would finally consider retirement. Dad said he’d keep working until my younger sister was through college, continuing to build his retirement fund for his kids and his grandkids. In retrospect, this friendly visit seems ominous. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can’t read minds, and probably don’t want to.
A few months later, Linda came to my dad’s memorial service and sat right behind the rest of us, offering words of condolence and pats on the back. She struck up an unlikely, but uniquely comforting friendship with my mom. Linda was the only other person who had loved my dad the way my mom did and made my mom feel less alone as she adjusted to the reality of life without Dad.
Meanwhile, my mom also struggled with the logistical aspects of my dad’s death—namely, his retirement account. The account representatives were strangely cagey with her, and eventually told her that while she was the owner of his account, she wasn’t the beneficiary—a distinction that still baffles me. My mom grew increasingly distressed, and Linda acted as a sounding board, disgusted and empathetic.
Just before the New Year, almost four months after Dad’s death, Linda called to tell Mom the “good news”—she was the account beneficiary and would consider sharing.
I didn’t think we had room for this kind of fiery rage, but there it was, tangling with the sadness, twin tornadoes upending everything we thought we knew. When depression came down heavy and smothering, anger functioned like a combustion engine. My brother and I pulled ourselves from naps or afternoons spent on the couch hiding inside of television shows in order to chop wood in the backyard, splitting the remains of a diseased tree my parents had taken down months earlier. Working with the ax made my shoulder blades ache in a way that offered some small distraction from the other, bigger pain, and vented some of my anger. Chopping wood was the only way I felt I could shape things.
For my mom, it wasn’t so simple. On top of managing grief and the ensuing legal battle, she also stung from Linda’s betrayal and from the loss of a friend. We learned that Linda had been aware of her beneficiary status for some time and had cozied up to my mom to harvest information and increase her chances of netting the most cash possible. I didn’t think things like this happened in real life; then again, I didn’t think colon cancer killed otherwise healthy sixty-three-year-old dads, either.
None of us understood how Mom’s beneficiary status could be in question. The financial services company had records of his divorce from Linda and his thirty-year marriage to my mom. But there was a problem with paperwork—Dad’s retirement was supposed to go into a trust he and my mom had set up, but this was before the time of the internet, a time when something important could get lost in the mail or a file could drop behind a desk unnoticed. My parents were meticulous in financial matters and frequently updated their wills and advanced directives, especially after Dad got sick. But something had slipped through the cracks. Accounting and paperwork don’t care if a family’s heart has been ripped out. Lawyers don’t observe grieving periods. Linda had bided her time until she had my mom’s trust and a keen understanding of our ability—or, more accurately, our inability—to function. Then she made her move, maneuvering legal complexities to her advantage while we were still sorting through the wreckage.
Of course, Linda wouldn’t have been able pull this off if others hadn’t made mistakes. The most likely explanation is that the financial services company bungled Dad’s account. It’s possible they never sent my dad the necessary documentation in the first place, as we later learned happened to one of his colleagues. It’s also possible that he sent the paperwork back but they improperly filed it or never received it and didn’t follow up. Our lawyer, who agreed this was both unfair and ridiculous, somehow couldn’t uncover or subpoena records that proved beyond a doubt my dad’s intentions with that money.
Dad’s death raised questions about fairness, about whether good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. My dad had colonoscopies at the proscribed intervals, didn’t have any family history of colon cancer, exercised regularly, took good care of himself, and was otherwise healthy and happy. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He was wronged, and so were we.
Linda’s grab for his money was unfairness squared, a double-down on his death. As furious as I was with Linda, I was even angrier that the world didn’t possess a mechanism to stop her. I desperately wanted—and at first expected—someone to look her in the eye and say, This is wrong. You can’t do this. I wanted her to reach a point where she simply couldn’t increase the suffering of the family of a man with whom she had been in love, a man who, among other things, put her through graduate school and let her keep his name. But she never did. Instead, she said that unless we cooperated, she would take everything.
As I cleaned out Dad’s office looking for documents that could help us with our case, I allowed myself a dark thought: What if it wasn’t a mistake? But the only communique I found from Linda was mixed in with thank you notes from students—a photo of a twenty-something Dad on the beach wearing a silly hat and a note that read, “thought you might like to have this.” I looked at the photo and thought about my dad having married this woman. Did he have any idea what she was capable of? It’s hard to imagine he did, though I suppose that could be one of the reasons he divorced her. Or perhaps her morality had evaporated in the decades since their divorce. There’s no comfort in either possibility.
Ultimately, our lawyer advised us against going to court. While fairness was on our side, no one could guarantee what a judge would do. Linda and her lawyer both seemed convinced of a win and were happy to drag us through the expensive and laborious process. For the first time since his death, I hoped Dad wasn’t out there somewhere, in some form, still aware of what was happening with his family.
The choice between settling and going to court paralleled the competing feelings of sadness and anger. Anger was in many ways easier, but it was more toxic, as court would be. As far as I could tell, anger didn’t have stages like grief did—it was a hot burn all the time. On principle, we wanted to fight. But we were so sad and so tired. I kept thinking about what advice Dad would give us if he could. While he would want us to have access to the money he had spent his life earning, he wouldn’t want us to prolong our own suffering by allowing Linda to define our lives any longer. As it was, Dad’s death would define our lives for the foreseeable future.
It was hard not to feel as though we were giving in or paying Linda to go away, and maybe that’s what we did. Even though she received a staggering amount—an amount that suggested she was every bit the intended recipient as Dad’s actual family—we settled.
The desire for vengeance has never entirely dissipated. My brother and I brainstormed various nonviolent schemes, my favorite of which was a plan to get our friends from various parts of the world to send postcards to Linda with horrible images on them: a kitten getting stung by a scorpion, a bloody toenail, a gangrenous limb. Little anonymous deliveries that would put into her life, at least momentarily, some fraction of the unpleasantness she caused us. But we didn’t do it.
About a year after the settlement we ran into Linda at an event. The anger resurfaced, as though we’d been storing it like fat. Utterly unprepared even to see her face, we tried to avoid her, but none of us could forget she was there. We kept our distance until my brother saw Linda talking to his two daughters, who were eight and eleven at the time. They knew Linda from Dad’s memorial service but knew nothing of what had happened since. That Linda had the gall to make friendly chitchat with anyone in our family was simply too much.
My brother walked over just in time to see Linda take a photograph of his girls. “Don’t you dare talk to them!” he hissed, corralling them away.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Linda said.
“Are you kidding me?” my brother said.
“I didn’t take anything I didn’t deserve,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.
And, in a moment that could have come straight from the movies, my brother said, “I’ll show you what you deserve,” and threw his glass of red punch on Linda’s cream-colored blouse.
We all stood there, dumbfounded. My nieces started giggling—they had never seen their father do anything like this. I never had either. We all left in a hurry. Our last image of Linda was with her mouth open, gaping in shock.
That moment has achieved infamy in our family, but as vivid as the image of the punch on Linda’s blouse still is, what I remember most is her silence. Her voice had been so powerful, overruling all of ours, especially my dad’s. Shocking her into silence, even if only temporarily, provided space for us to be heard.
JOELLE RENSTROM‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and her other work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, The Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.
When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.
I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.
Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.
When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.
And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!
I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!
One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.
I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”
I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”
“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”
And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.
My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.
But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”
That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.
I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.
My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.
We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.
We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.
For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”
My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.
All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.
“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”
She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.
The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.
When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”
I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”
People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.
Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!
We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.
When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.
The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!
As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.
Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”
I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!
We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.
The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.
After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.
A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”
The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”
A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.
The silence in the sunlit office grows. The priest behind the desk, young and rosy-faced, looks expectant. My mother looks at my brother. My brother looks at the floor. Nobody looks at me.
I’m surprised by the priest’s question. I haven’t been to many funerals, and it hasn’t actually occurred to me until now that there will be a eulogy and someone will have to deliver it. I’m not surprised that my mother is looking at my brother. I’m the older and was closer to my father, but my brother’s the male and has always been her favorite.
“Would you like to think it over?” the priest asks, looking pointedly at my brother this time. The priest is new and has never met my father. My parents were not regular churchgoers, and for the past six months they were absorbed in treatments for my father’s cancer. Months of radiation therapy for a tumor in his mouth. Months when he couldn’t eat, liquids and yogurt dribbling out of his nose as he sucked on a straw.
The room we’re sitting in is lined with leather-bound books. They don’t look well thumbed or personal. I suspect they don’t belong to the priest, but probably just come with the office as clergy rotate in and out of the parish. Outside the window the autumn sky is deep blue. The lawn is littered with yellow and red leaves that shuffle and recombine with each gust of wind.
“I’ll talk about his birthday then,” the priest says. “How’s that?”
He’s decided to focus on my father’s long life in his own short eulogy after the homily, and the pending eighty-eighth birthday he didn’t quite reach. After talking to my mother the priest hasn’t found much more to say. “The man was a saint,” my mother keeps repeating. Not exactly something the priest can include. Not exactly true either.
My brother didn’t say no to the priest right then, but he postponed his decision. A successful businessman, he nevertheless hates public speaking, and maybe that’s the reason he refused to give the eulogy. Or maybe it was more complicated than that, part of the damaged father-son relationship that no one ever faced in my family, as we refused to face so many things. I didn’t exactly say yes to the priest. I murmured that we’d get back to him.
Fretting over what I might say in the eulogy dominated my thoughts as my mother and I visited the mortuary, wrote and called in the obituaries, visited the florist to choose arrangements for the altar, went through decades of clothes crammed in her closet to choose her outfit for the funeral, and argued about her reasons for not calling any relatives. “It’s a long trip,” she insisted. “It’s just too expensive. I’ll tell them later.” My mother wanted to know how much she was supposed to pay the priest and the Ladies Auxiliary that was providing some food at the meager reception after the service. She wanted to give the lavish floral display she’d ordered to the church for their Sunday mass. “Might as well,” she said. “What am I going to do with it?”
What I Considered Including in the Eulogy:
My father’s love of Ireland
His love of his job
How much his employees loved him (at least according to my mother, but I think it was true)
His engineering accomplishments, drafting abilities, passion for math
His carpentry skills, and all the work he invested in our eighty-year-old house
His love of literature (a long time ago, really)
His love of music (ditto)
His love of art (ditto)
His love of his family (despite)
No, not despite. I couldn’t include that.
I can see him in his wing chair in front of the fireplace reading my high school report card. He’s wearing a maroon polo shirt, beige Bermuda shorts, dark brown nylon knee socks and slippers, his feet stretched out in front of him on the wicker footstool. I’ve gotten all As and a C in Phys. Ed. “What’s this C in Phys. Ed.?” There’s a bit of a twinkle there, but he’s also partly serious.
My brother’s hovering in the hall, his report card crammed in his pocket. He’s going to get in trouble and he knows it. At the very least he’ll be grounded for his grades. My father will force him to quit the football team. Sports are not important, in my father’s opinion. Grades are important.
When my brother responds by flunking half his classes, my father roughs him up in the downstairs hall. I hang over the second floor banister while my father shoves my brother against the wall and my mother wails. Somehow my brother manages to graduate with a good enough GPA to get into the engineering program at Lehigh, but he drops out of Lehigh, and then out of the University of Wisconsin, and then out of Middlebury, and then out of the University of Wisconsin again.
He stays there, marries a local girl, bowls and golfs and drinks a lot of beer. His grammar changes. He starts to say “ain’t.” He builds an enormous house to impress my father, who’s not impressed. My father never revises his original blueprint for my brother’s achievements. After he dies I find a folder with my brother’s name on it in one of my father’s file cabinets. He’d preserved all the bad report cards from school and college. There’s an article on college failure rates, with statistics showing that boys are more likely to fail than girls. He’d underlined whole sections of the article in red ink.
Never unconditional love. Always qualified. Years of barely suppressed rage because my brother failed to finish his college degree. “He broke your father’s heart,” my mother repeated, for decades. Years of festering anger because I fell in love with the wrong men—wrong race, wrong politics, wrong ethnicity, wrong profession, wrong income bracket. Not the conservative, Ivy-educated, white brain surgeon he’d had in mind for me to marry. Not the dazzling professional job in a big engineering firm he’d envisioned for my brother. My father’s Horatio Alger story prematurely concluded in one generation when we failed to follow the scripts for upward mobility he’d written even before we were born.
A scholarship boy in the engineering program at Cooper Union, a privately funded college in New York City, my father wanted my brother and me to go to private colleges and to climb the intellectual and social ladder he’d barely begun to ascend himself. He was professionally successful, working his way up from copy boy to draftsman to junior engineer to senior engineer to vice president and member of the board. He was proud of that. He would have wanted those achievements in the eulogy. But he never felt socially accepted. He never saw other men in management (there were no women) outside the office.
I didn’t comprehend the depth of his isolation until shortly before he died. He’d pretty much ignored my half Mexican American son until Ben got an early acceptance to Harvard. Then he showed an interest.
We were sitting on the tiny balcony of their independent living apartment in their retirement complex in North Carolina.
“The perfect son,” he said, his voice vibrating with emotion.
It was so clear he felt he hadn’t had the perfect son.
He wanted to know more about Ben’s victories in cross-country and track. I was surprised he cared at all.
“I never fit in. I didn’t play golf or tennis.” I could hear all the yearning of a bookish, working-class kid who’d spent his high school years in the dark room developing photographs, who’d started working full time at seventeen and done his college classes in night school. Who’d never played sports, or enjoyed the privilege of leisure.
“Ben doesn’t play golf or tennis either, Dad.”
“But he could, couldn’t he. He could learn. I couldn’t.” The longing in his eyes was almost unbearable.
My mother didn’t want my husband and son to come to the funeral in North Carolina. My husband was teaching in California. Ben had just started his freshman year in Massachusetts, and he was running in a cross-country meet that weekend. She didn’t think it was worth making the trip. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she said.
I didn’t realize how much that hurt my husband until he told me later. At the time it just seemed part of my mother’s insane thrift and determination not to make a big deal about the funeral arrangements.
So my husband and son didn’t attend. Partly because I was acceding to my mother’s wishes. Partly because I inherited some of my mother’s insane thrift. We’d just spent money flying out East to see our son off to college. We’d just paid our first tuition installment.
But they should have been there. Looking back, I can see that. The few relatives who might have come should have been there, too. Not for my father, who was dead. Not for my mother, who didn’t care. Maybe for me, so I wouldn’t be looking back now at the nearly empty church and a ceremony that felt so incomplete. But for something larger too. For the occasion. For all of us and our deep-seated need to mark the significance of a loved one’s life and death in a fully realized communal ritual. Our hope that we, too, won’t pass unnoticed.
The eulogy was botched in a number of ways. Before the service, I told the priest that the three of us wanted to go up to the pulpit to say goodbye at the end. I was thinking I might even deliver a full eulogy then, but I was still not sure, still turning over the possibilities in my mind. The priest didn’t call us up. It might have been because the Catholic funeral service was so emphatically directed at the joys of the afterlife and not saying goodbye. Or he just forgot.
I ended up extemporizing a eulogy at the entrance of the parish hall, with the handful of mourners standing in the vestibule. I put my hand on the coffin, which was being wheeled out of the church by the mortuary attendants, who stopped and stood back. I cleared my throat. “I’d like to say a few words.”
I kept the eulogy short, and positive. I talked about inheritance. How my father had passed on his love of Ireland and literature to me. His ability to build and repair things to my brother. His mathematical and scientific skills to my son. I don’t know why I gave the eulogy at all, under such awkward circumstances, to my parents’ cleaning lady and a small group of acquaintances from their retirement complex. People who barely knew my father, and certainly didn’t mourn his passing. My mother was misty eyed, my brother stolid. The rest of them milled in the vestibule of the empty church, respectful smiles pasted on their faces, waiting for me to finish. The daughter who’d flown in from California. “Did you know she’s a professor?” I heard one of my mother’s bridge partners say afterwards. “Isn’t it funny, Peggy never mentioned that.”
I could see them eyeing the trays of sliced cheese and cold cuts on folding tables in the parish hall behind me. The white-haired volunteers from the Catholic Ladies Auxiliary were putting out paper plates and Styrofoam cups and plastic knives and forks. The bitter smell of boiled coffee filled the air.
Tips for Writing and Delivering a Eulogy that the Internet Would Have Provided, If I’d Looked:
Think about the person and your relationship to the person.
Gather information, including special accomplishments, career, hobbies, family anecdotes. Look for humorous and touching memories.
Decide whether your tone will be light or serious. Look for appropriate religious quotations if your eulogy is serious.
Organize your information and create an outline.
Write, review, and revise.
Have tissues and a bottle of water handy. Take a deep breath before you begin. Remember to speak slowly and distinctly.
I’m used to public speaking, in the classroom at least. I was composed, and spoke slowly and distinctly. I was choked up but didn’t cry. I didn’t gather any information beforehand or tell any anecdotes, though I did mentally rehearse what I was going to say. I don’t know how useful the Internet tips would have been. Even if I had located them and proceeded in an orderly fashion, I would have been stalled on the first one.
“Think about the person and your relationship to that person.” How to express my mixed feelings about the father who nurtured my creativity and intellectual development and then turned his back on me and the choices I made? Who strong-armed me into transferring to another college by threatening to cut off my funds after he learned of my African-American boyfriend? Who thought I traveled too much, lived abroad too long, stayed in school too long? Who never fully accepted my Mexican American husband or our son? “Look for humorous and touching memories.” How far back would I have to go? I could have said more about his job. There was a lot I left out, and a lot I couldn’t say, not that anyone there would have cared.
What I Did Not Include in the Eulogy:
My father’s rages when we were children
His anger and resentment later
The burden of his expectations
The fact that I’d lived in California for almost twenty-five years and he’d never once visited
How I felt about that
My mother was pleased with the eulogy, and six months later asked me to send a copy to her. It hadn’t been written to begin with, but I typed up what I remembered. It seemed sparse and inadequate to the man and my feelings about him.
I didn’t keep a copy for myself.
“I’ve lived longer than anyone in my family tree,” he said more than once, so perhaps the priest was right to emphasize his age. The fact that the priest focused his eulogy on something my father didn’t reach—his eighty-eighth birthday—fits the man, whose expectations exceeded his grasp, whose youthful dreams dominated a life where nothing was enough.
He was a man who held on to his ambitions, even to his detriment. Whose sense of duty never flagged. Who worked hard. Who retreated into angry solitude when he felt others had failed him. Who couldn’t look past his son’s failure to finish his degree. Who may have been proud of his daughter’s Ivy League Ph.D., but never said so. Who fought constantly with his wife but may have derived more from their bond than an outsider, even his own daughter, could fathom.
When they got the news that his tumor had spread beyond the possibility of further treatment, “We just lay on the bed,” my mother told me, “holding hands. We didn’t say anything. Just held hands.”
I hold on to that. I like to think he found some comfort amid so many disappointments, some companionship in his alienation.
What I Would Include, If I Were Asked to Deliver His Eulogy Today:
After eight years, I still don’t know. I stare at the blank computer screen in my home office, fingers frozen on the keys. My wooden desk chair, a swivel chair that my father bought as a young man in Greenwich Village, creaks as I lean forward. I review my directions from the Internet, stuck on the first point. “Think about the person and your relationship to the person.” I write:
“My father had big dreams for his future and his family’s. They weren’t my dreams.”
It’s all I’ve come up with, after years of writing, so much of it about my father. I’m like him, meticulous, critical, socially awkward, a hoarder of memories and books and souvenirs of the past. Obsessive in my quests—obsessive in this quest to write something that would express the man and our complicated history together.
To eulogize is to forgive, James Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son,” a better guide than the Internet to the enormity of the task. Everyone hopes that upon death he too “would be eulogized,” Baldwin writes, “which is to say forgiven, and that all of his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity.” I continue to seek that truth and coherence, labor to forgive the unforgiving, to find the words that no one in my family wants to speak.
My father’s dreams died with him. His disappointment and anger died with him. His love did not.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s creative nonfiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Waccamaw, Southern Indiana Review, Cold Mountain Review,Under the Sun, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle
My mother burned all her appointment books. It was a ritual, something she did at the end of every year; she would sit with the book—usually a spiral-bound week-by-week one with a nature photo on the left side and the dates on the right—and she’d look through all the appointments and commitments she’d had, taking the time to reflect on the things she’d done over the previous year. Then she’d burn it. I don’t know how or where she did that—in the bathtub, out in back of her house—but I suppose I do know why.
My mother wasn’t at home in time.
What I mean is that she struggled with time. My mother struggled with the present moment, for example, because it was generally a disappointment, characterized as it usually was by isolation, too much work, and not enough money. The future, on the other hand, was promising but often hinged on improbable things, like a windfall from who knows where. The future never seemed to arrive, or at least not the promising one she was hoping for; instead it just turned into a series of disappointing present moments. And the past—the past was worst of all.
My mother didn’t like to think about the past, let alone talk about it, and, on those rare occasions that she did talk about it, you got the sense that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions—sometimes she said so explicitly—and you weren’t supposed to bring it up again later. “Anyway,” she would say, when she wanted to change the subject to something more comfortable. This was the psychological counterpart to the annual appointment book ritual: One’s personal history sometimes surfaced, but it was best to turn those memories to ash afterward.
And so my mother was homeless in time, disconnected from past, present, and future—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, when my mother died in 2013—in November, a month she hated for its darkness—my sister and I weren’t expecting her to have left behind a tell-all memoir. There were memories in the form of photos—old photos of our childhood, for starters, and, from more recent years, some very beautiful nature photos that she’d taken herself—but we figured what little she may have written down about herself would be long gone.
We certainly weren’t expecting to find, among her things, a folder labeled “Poetry.” But that’s what my sister did find, one day when she was looking through things; she was looking to see if there was anything in there that I might want to keep as a remembrance.
I’d been having trouble imagining anything I’d want to keep. I wasn’t sure there was any object, any thing, that was going to mean much to me. What can an object mean? Your mother’s gone and, in the face of that, the things—all the things—are actually nothing. But then Karla found this folder.
The folder—a regular manila one—held a bunch of poems on pages and partial pages torn out of newspapers and magazines and a couple printed out from the web. Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rosanna Warren, Yehuda Amichai, Richard Wilbur, Anna Akhmatova, others. There was even one poem—“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy—that I’d given to her, because it meant something to me at a time when things were dark for me, and I thought it would mean something to her, too. Apparently it did. She had plenty of her own dark times, of course. It struck me, too, that there weren’t any of my poems in that folder. I think my poems would have changed the collection, made it something it wasn’t supposed to be.
What really arrested me, though, were the ones that were in her handwriting—the ones she’d written. My mother wrote poetry. And I’d had no idea.
Think about that: I’m a poet myself; my mother had been watching me write poetry since I was a kid, had been listening to me talk about it for years. Meanwhile, here she was, writing her own poems—and she never shared them with me. Never brought them into any of those conversations about poetry. She never even told me they existed.
They say you often learn new things about people after they’re gone; you keep getting to know them. It’s true.
When I got the folder, I read all the poems with feverish attention—the ones by other people and, especially, the ones by her. I read hers many times. I wrote about them in my journal. I typed them up so I could (almost) feel what it was like to write them myself, letter by letter, word by word. I savored and inhabited them.
And for sure I recognized the woman who did the writing. There’s sadness there, for one thing. She writes:
the wind finds its way
through every crack in this
my body like a
massive ink blot
I know this woman. Honestly, I know those feelings. Sometimes the wind does find its way in.
And there’s my mother’s familiar desire to relocate to a particular kind of future—pleasant, better, and out of reach, though in these poems not necessarily impossible:
think I would feel better
if I could sit under a tree and
look at the mountain….
I’d wait for peace
to come down the mountain—
Anything green would be welcome,
a patch of grass would do.
I am waiting for spring
in its own good time
But it’s not all yearning, my mother’s poetry. There’s something else there that I didn’t expect. She wrote about nature, mostly, and moments of stillness—and what she did is she froze these things in place. She looked right at the present moment, in other words, and held on to it.
For now the pond is still.
Even the frogs are quiet.
clouds on the
Even when the moment was complicated, she held on to it:
Gloriosa daisies and
Long shadows on
the aching beauty of
Even when the moment was hard, she held on to it, and sometimes transformed it:
there’s a slight
feeling of melancholy but
there is a sweetness to it.
Most surprising, sometimes she actually wanted to keep the past with her:
trying to remember
There’s one pair of poems that especially move me. They’re both about the same moment where she was outdoors and a rabbit hopped out from beneath a hedge. Something about this touched my mother profoundly. She wrote about it in a beautiful eleven-line poem. Then, on the next page of her notebook, unwilling to turn from the instant—needing, in fact, to go further into it—she wrote the experience over again, this time in twenty-nine even more attentive lines.
Right, I thought. This is what we do as poets, I thought. We see something and we can’t bear the idea of losing it, so we write about what we’re seeing in order just to hold it. Richard Wilbur’s blackberries; Rosanna Warren’s mother between the bed rails; Thomas Hardy’s blast-beruffled thrush. We’re the people who don’t let go.
And my mother was one of us.
For my mother, any given present moment was tough, if she stepped back to take it all in. Things generally hadn’t turned out the way she expected; she was living alone, working too hard, post-dating checks, eventually ailing, watching November come in with its shorter and shorter days. The big picture was sometimes understandably hard for her to look at.
But what if the focus was smaller? Closer?
In these poems I met a woman who made peace with time, a woman who managed to split minutes and seconds into instants tiny enough for her to embrace them—tiny enough to allow her to be at home. I didn’t really know this woman when she was alive. I have to say I’m upset about that; there’s a loss there, beyond the original loss of losing the mother I did know.
But I’m glad she didn’t burn these poems. I’m glad that I’m starting to know her now—starting to know a woman who over and over again did make herself a home, who was able to make it out of what she had at hand.
I am sitting, just
sitting and aware
and wide awake
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach) and the short story collection Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
When my mother found out she had cancer, she said she wanted to do two things when she got better: learn to play the piano and get a bird.
“A bird? Why?” I asked, remembering the nasty parakeets I’d had as a child who kicked feathers and birdseed shells into my underwear drawer.
“Well, I have a friend who has this really beautiful bird, and I’d like to have a bird like that.”
I rolled my eyes, a childish act, that, at twenty-seven, I was probably too old to still be doing. It was so typical of my mother to want something simply because it was beautiful: bird as objet d’art. Her desire—requirement, really—for things to be aesthetically pleasing was not a trait we shared.
In the emotionally chaotic days after her cancer diagnosis, it still seemed reasonable to make plans for the future. My mother would stagger her chemotherapy treatments with her schedule at work. We located the city’s best wig store. She ordered shelving for her new apartment. And she was going to break up with her boyfriend, Steven, because, although he was nice, she said, “Nice is not enough.” She would stop postponing joy and make the time for things she always seemed to be putting off. So if a bird was part of the life she imagined for herself in her post-cancer future, who was I to argue?
Can we ever think of our mothers as unfinished? When we are children, they are whole and entire. Everything that was meant to be for them has come to pass because it has brought them to us. But in time, we come to see our mothers as women with paths not taken, connections not made, choices left somewhere in the dust of the past. After my mother’s death, I often imagined the turns her life might have taken had she lived: a new man, maybe not so nice but right; weekly piano lessons in her apartment surrounded by her lovely things; a beautiful bird inspiring her. It was all so close, and yet beyond her reach.
I walked into the garage to grab a box of waffles from the freezer. The birds—barn swallows, we’d learned from Google images—were flying in and out, tending to the nest they built in our garage each spring. My children and I loved to watch their life cycle play out, while my husband, Ken, was less tolerant of the feathers and the mess. Every morning he ran out in his suit and tie with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towel tucked under his arm to clean the poop off his car. But he softened eventually, as he did with most things involving his family.
On this particular morning, the baby birds were chirping frantically, opening their tiny beaks so wide the nest looked like one big mouth. There were five babies this time, the most we’d ever had, and the parents seemed more agitated than usual, if such a feeling could be ascribed to barn swallows. Every time I walked through the garage, they swooped down at me, coming so close I was afraid of an Alfred Hitchcock-like encounter.
I stepped over a pile of desiccated dragonflies and saw that one of the baby birds was lying on the ground. I was surprised to see it there, like I’d somehow forgotten that these birds weren’t here for my family’s amusement alone; this was the circle of life, the universal struggle for survival writ small, the real deal. The bird looked dead, so I grabbed a shovel to scoop it up. But as soon as I touched it, it scooted away. Fuck, I thought. A sick or injured bird seemed far worse to me than a dead one. If it were dead, I could toss it into a bush. But a bird in crisis: That shit needed to be dealt with.
I went inside and Googled, “how to get bird back in nest.” I read that birds don’t always fly straight from the nest. Sometimes they need to hop around for a few days on the ground or on low branches while getting acclimated to flight. Since the parents were still around and the bird was fully feathered, I should just leave it alone. Leaving things alone and letting them sort themselves out—that I could do.
When I returned to the garage, the bird was still on the ground. I looked up at the nest and saw the four tiny faces of its siblings poking over the edge, the tips of their beaks joined together in a line of collective worry.
My mother learned she had cancer on a Monday. A colonoscopy she’d had the week before had revealed a large mass in her colon, and she was scheduled for surgery that Friday, the day before Memorial Day weekend. Looking back, the speed with which her surgery was scheduled, plus the fact that it was happening in a New York hospital the day before a holiday weekend, should have clued me in to the urgency of the situation. But, like most things involving my mother’s illness and death, I only made sense of things later, when everything was over.
My mother spent the week before her operation organizing and making plans as if she were getting ready to go on a trip instead of to the hospital for a bowel resection. I stopped by every night, bringing Chinese food, which only I ate, and searching endless iterations of “stage three colon cancer” on her computer while she sat on the couch with our cat, Firecracker. What I read scared me: The five-year survival rate for my mother’s disease was low, less than fifty percent, depending on how many lymph nodes were involved, which we still didn’t know. But if my mother was concerned, she kept it to herself, placing the bulk of her worry on the cat instead. He was lethargic, not eating that much. She brushed him over and over until the wire bristles were matted with thick tufts of silvery grey hair. Then she would throw the wad in the trash and start again.
I had burst into tears when my mother first told me, over the phone, that she had cancer. I could tell my reaction had frightened her—such an outward display of emotion was uncommon in my family—so I pulled myself together and tried to ask clear-headed questions about next steps. I decided to act as though everything was going to be fine and that this was just a temporary inconvenience, something to get through. My mother acted the same way, as did the rest of our small nuclear family: my father—from whom she was separated but still close—my younger brother, my mother’s sister, Marianne. If privately we were frightened, we kept it to ourselves. We worried about the cat.
One night, as I walked to my mother’s apartment, I saw a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was in a fetal position, although I wasn’t sure that term could be applied to pigeons. What did they look like as fetuses anyway? All I knew was that in all my years living in New York, I had never seen a dead pigeon. I thought immediately of the bird my mother had just spoken about. I didn’t believe in omens, but I was convinced this was one. I looked at the bird for a few moments and then continued down the block. I didn’t tell my mother about what I had seen.
An hour after I found the first baby bird, all five were on the ground, huddled together near the freezer. I called Ken.
“Can you get them back in the nest?” he asked. I could hear street sounds in the background placing him in the city, far away from the life-and-death struggle taking place in our garage.
“Are you kidding?” The nest was a good ten feet off the ground. “I’ll kill myself getting up there. Besides, they’re fully feathered. They’re supposed to be flying.”
After my mother’s death, I became extremely sensitive to birds. If I saw a dead one lying in the road, I would become certain that something terrible was going to happen. Ken would have to grab me and say, “It’s just a bird, Daisy. It doesn’t always mean anything.” And after a while, I convinced myself he was right: It was just a bird. And yet, standing here with broken birds at my feet, that feeling of doom flooded over me again. Perhaps Ken sensed my old worries surfacing and was trying to calm me down.
But there was also a part of me that was annoyed by the entire scene. I wanted the birds to do what they were supposed to do, without my help. They were supposed to jump out of the nest and fly, not cower pathetically on my garage floor.
“Well, what do you think we should do?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should do anything. If they can’t even make it out of the nest, they have no chance in the wild. There’s nothing I can do.”
When I was nine years old, I found out that my mother had been engaged to someone before she’d met my father. His name was Leif, and he was Swedish, like her. “If you had married Leif,” I said to her, “I’d be Swedish!” This felt like magic. If only I could be Swedish like her, I’d know how to knit and crochet and speak Swedish, that secret language she spoke only with my aunt or with the au pairs who lived in the room off our kitchen. If my mother had married Leif, I would finally have access to the part of her that had always been a mystery to me: the her that existed before I did.
“If I had married Leif,” she said, bringing her long, thin cigarette to her lips, “you wouldn’t exist.”
After ten days in the hospital, my mother came home. The surgery was grueling, but she didn’t have to wear a colostomy bag, which pleased her. She wasn’t well enough to return to work or to begin chemotherapy. She didn’t talk about getting the bird anymore, and Steven—poor guy—was still around.
We were taking things day by day, absorbing one bit of bad news at a time, nibbling on it like a dry biscuit, and then opening our mouths for the next bite. The mood in her apartment was somber. My fifty-six-year-old mother, who a few months earlier had celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in St. Barth’s, needed help getting in and out of the bathtub.
“You have to get her over to Sloan-Kettering,” her friends told me, certain that the right doctors would be able to help her. They didn’t understand how sick she was, I said. She didn’t have the time or strength to doctor-shop. The ways things were going, it didn’t seem like anyone could make it better, maybe just different versions of bad. I was tired of listening to these pushy New Yorkers who thought they could control everything, that I could control everything. I didn’t want control, not over this. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. So I focused on managing her pain medications and sticking to the doctors’ instructions. Try this, then that, they said, and I did. I was always good at following the rules.
One night, while Marianne was visiting, Firecracker, the cat, collapsed.
“Do something!” my mother shouted, so Marianne shoved him into his cat carrier and raced across town in a taxi to the emergency vet. He was dead by the time she got there. Marianne, always so fragile, was traumatized, weeping as she told us how she had looked into the carrier and seen Firecracker lying on his side, his eyes bulging, tongue protruding from his mouth. I wanted to kill her.
“I think he died instead of me,” my mother told me the next day, a shadow of hope passing across her face. Her high cheekbones were as hard as rails beneath her pale skin. I was surprised to hear her speak so magically, surprised also to hear her mention the possibility of her own death. But maybe she was right. Maybe Firecracker and the dead bird hadn’t been bad omens but offerings. This made perfect sense.
After school, I took Ellie and Sam to the garage to see the baby birds. They were still on the floor, tucked beneath the curve of my car’s tires. I could tell, although the kids couldn’t, that two of the birds had died. The once-charming experiment was no longer so charming.
“Why won’t they fly?” Ellie asked, her eyes wide with concern.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But they have to. If they don’t, they’ll die.”
When Ellie and Sam went back inside, I tossed the dead birds into a bush. I wasn’t sure what to do with the other three. If I left the garage door open over night, the parents could tend to them, but I was worried about predators. I decided to close the door and hope for the best. Would they really starve in one night? I brought out an aluminum tray of water, although I wasn’t sure if they needed it or if they could even reach over the lip of the tray. I watched them as they sat there, not even moving toward the water, and I decided I didn’t like them anymore. I wished in equal measure that they would leave or die, anything so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. I just wanted it to be over.
By July, my mother was back in the hospital. After several tests to determine why she wasn’t getting better, the doctors discovered that the diagnosis of colon cancer had been wrong. She had neuroendocrine tumor, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had spread throughout the lining of her abdomen, including into her colon. We had lost precious time fighting the wrong cancer.
During this time, Ken and I left my mother in the hospital to go to a Yankees game. My mother was on the phone with J. Crew ordering a birthday present for Steven, and I lingered in the doorway listening to her chat pleasantly with the woman taking her order. I doubted she had any idea my mother was calling from a hospital room or that she would die so soon after the clothing arrived that Steven would be too shaken up to ever wear it. I worried for a moment about leaving, but my mother waved me off. “Go,” she said, the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. “I’m fine.”
Ken and I took the train up to the Bronx and, as we walked down from the subway platform, we saw a pigeon lying on the stairs with its wings spread open like a book. The crowds of people on their way to the stadium stepped carefully around it.
I stopped walking as soon as I saw the bird, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Oh, Jesus,” I said to Ken. I doubled over, suddenly out of breath. “What the fuck is that?”
He calmed me down, and we stayed for part of the game. But when we walked back a couple of hours later, the bird was still there, still breathing, its tiny chest rising and falling with great difficulty. Someone had propped a piece of newspaper around it, a tiny version of a hospital curtain. I wanted to smash my foot down on its ribcage. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
We went straight back to the hospital and found my mother talking to one of her doctors, the only one who had known her before she got sick. The steady drip of pain medication had improved her mood, and she seemed closer to her usual, upbeat self. On his way out, the doctor pulled me into the hallway.
“Do you know how serious this is?” he asked, and I think I kind of nodded, although I really have no idea. And then he apologized to me, either for what had already happened or for what was still to come; I think he had tears in his eyes. But he didn’t go any further. Perhaps he could tell that I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, that his words had barely touched the protective net of my consciousness. Everything I came to understand about that conversation, I filled in later.
The next morning, I walked into the garage brandishing a snow shovel. I tapped the ground next to the birds and shouted, “Let’s go!” It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and I had decided it was time for them to fly.
With me and my shovel behind them, the three birds hopped out of the garage, across the driveway and onto the grass. Just seeing them against the backdrop of green, with a little sun on their faces, made them look better. One of the birds kept moving away from me, picking up speed until it was off the ground and flying. Not very high, and not very strong, but flying. I watched it cut a jagged line across the lawn and out of my view.
I crouched down next to the other birds. They looked terrified, shocked, their spindly feet as delicate as toothpicks, their coats more fluff than feather, and I realized I wasn’t scared of them anymore. They weren’t a bad omen or a harbinger of death at all. If they represented anything— and I wasn’t sure they did—it was the future my mother had planned for, the one in which she got an exotic bird and redid her kitchen and lived to see her grandchildren. It’s just what we do, plan for a future we know is not guaranteed because we can’t live any other way. And look how fucking fragile it is.
Shelley was the astrologer for British Vogue and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. When she came to New York, my mother sometimes went to her for a reading. A couple of months after she died, Shelley offered to read my chart, gratis. I asked her if she had been able to see my mother’s death on her chart during her final reading. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what Shelley would say.
“Not exactly,” she said. “We might be able to see that there will be a transition, but we can’t tell if that transition will be death or not because in astrological terms, everything is continuous.”
Despite everything, my mother’s death, when it finally came, surprised us all. Just the day before, her oncologist had ordered a course of chemotherapy. A young resident had come by earlier that week to refill a prescription for the eye drops she used to control her glaucoma. Now they were telling us there was nothing else they could do.
It was evening, about eight o’clock. The hospital air-conditioning was on full blast, and I was freezing. My mother lay in bed, unconscious, surrounded by photographs I had taped to the wall behind her, proof to everyone who cared for her that she really had once been a person. One of the pictures had been taken on New Year’s Eve. In it, my mother stood with one foot crossed in front of the other like an actress posing on the red carpet. Her painted toenails peeked out of her pink, sequined slide.
My mother was really gone by then, her breathing labored, the smells appalling and vile. We had already sat in another room with her doctors and hospital administrators who had reviewed her DNR orders. I was the only one who spoke. I signed whatever it was we were supposed to sign. My father seemed folded in on himself, my younger brother shocked into silence.
We went back into her room. Steven and Marianne were there; Ken, too. There weren’t enough places for all of us to sit so I leaned awkwardly against the side of the bed, stroking my mother’s hand. I wondered if I was supposed to stay there until she died. I became acutely aware of the woman she was sharing a room with and thought how terrible it must be to room with someone so close to dying. Then I was annoyed with myself for worrying about her when I should have been thinking about my mother. The thought of staying in that room until my mother died became unbearable. My teeth were chattering, and all I wanted to do was lie down. So I kissed my mother goodbye and walked out into the hot, humid July evening. I planned to come back in the morning, although by then she was dead.
The birds didn’t seem in any rush to go anywhere, so I sat there, letting the weak spring sun warm my back. I thought about how tenuous our hold on life is, how easily the thread is snapped, despite everything we think holds us here. We fall from the nest, unable to fly, powerless to fight the gravity that pulls us down; if we’re lucky, our parents stick around to feed us dead insects. Perhaps there are no omens, nothing to let us know that bad luck—or worse—is around the bend. Nothing had prepared me for my mother’s death; the only signs were the ones I had chosen to ignore.
Then I stood up and walked away, leaving the birds on the grass. I needed them to do what they were supposed to do, without me, just as I had needed my mother to complete her journey so that I could continue mine. She never got the bird she planned for, but I got five of them, birds that grew in the cradle of my garage. Some died early, others clung to the earth beneath their feet. But one flew.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is a writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Halfway Down the Stairs and Brain, Child, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Read more at www.daisyflorin.com.
My father doesn’t want the pictures anymore. When he finds them in drawers or old shoeboxes, he passes them on to me—in used mailing envelopes bearing his new address, or in secondhand shopping bags printed with the names of retail stores long defunct, with curlicued fonts that spell names like “Bambergers” or “Gimbels.” When he does so, I am struck by the incongruence of my childhood memories, grouped together in no particular order.
The pictures usually make me cry when I take a moment to look at them later by myself. They guide me back to living rooms in houses long since packed up and sold, to the feel of scratchy rompers and dresses sewn by my mother from McCall’s patterns, and to the smell of my grandmother’s Chanel No. 5 perfume, cloying and comforting on hot July days in Brooklyn backyards. They return me, quite viscerally, to the freedom of childhood summers, to the comfort of love and acceptance craved by an only child and bestowed by a dysfunctional—albeit well-meaning—extended family, to days when what has become would never have been foreseeable or possible.
My parents divorced ten years ago, after more than thirty-five years of marriage. They were high school sweethearts, who amassed decades of memories between them. These pictures are markers of what once was and what never should have been, of what cannot be fixed, and what will never return. So they’re put aside, someplace dark, and tucked away.
I was thirty-five, in my own marriage for nearly ten years, as I witnessed the dissolution of my parents’ union. The small, lacquered coffee table, the Pfaltzgraff dishes, the Christmas ornaments, the kitchen chairs with cane seats—all once merely functional items—were now essential to my mother and father, after passing through their lives largely unnoticed. They were life rafts, and my parents clung to them, alone and adrift, as they became unmoored from the weight of their married life. It was jarring to visit each of them in their makeshift apartments and see the physical objects of our former home, now unmatched and without their counterparts. Tables without chairs. Couches without pillows. Cherished collections, now halved.
The photographs, however, were largely left by the wayside. Who wants the wedding album from the marriage that didn’t survive? Who needs the box of Kodachrome slides from the honeymoon in late-sixties-era Kauai, that Christmas in the first apartment in Manhattan, the first ride in the new car, or the time we went on that trip north to Vermont and stopped along the way for fruit pies to take home? Who wants to remember that there was good there, even if it was only as bright and brief as the flash of light capturing it? Who wants visual proof of the dour, cold faces, the spark gone from someone’s eyes, the distant body language, the signs, all the signs—long before the other had awakened to it?
Most of our family photographs remain in a storage unit that my mother has rented for too long in Connecticut, because she still can’t bring herself to sort through everything. When her promised dates of delivery come and go unfulfilled, I don’t press her for them, out of kindness. My father has a few in his possession, and he offers them to me when he thinks of it. When he does, I discover moments I’d forgotten, or that I had never been cognizant of, given my age in the photos.
There are familiar memories, new to me again from alternate angles of relatives’ cameras. I sift through shots of birthday cakes and party hats, cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, tricycles with streamers, toys long since lost or sold at garage sales, presents stacked under tinseled Christmas trees, and every-day moments on outerborough summer streets and in backyard pools. There are blurry ones, many poorly framed, with ripped edges and creases. They were captured with cameras that we no longer own — my parents’ old Instamatic with the blinding flash bulb box, from my uncle’s old Nikon, or from the Polaroid we kept for a while around the house.
Sometimes, they humble me as I realize how little we had—and how much there still was to go around. We all lived in close quarters, seemingly on top of each other, in two-family houses and apartments and row houses. We were together. Often. This explains why several relatives often usually weren’t speaking to each other, my desire to have borne my husband more children, and why I yearn for a houseful of people yelling and clattering together on any given holiday.
One photograph will never be returned to me. It’s a vertical shot of me in cap and gown, bearing a broad, white smile, at my college commencement. I’ve taken my glasses off, for vanity’s sake, which ironically worsened my look with the tight squint of near-sighted eyes. I can sense that my father is there somewhere before me, squeezing the shutter button, but I’m not exactly sure of anything except his shadowy shape.
I was the first woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from college, and the first person to go away to college at all. My parents were proud of my accomplishments, and of their numerous sacrifices to get me there. After my graduation, my mother had a large print of the photograph framed to suit the decor of my father’s office. It matched the cherry credenza behind his desk, and he displayed it there for several years in his midtown Manhattan office.
When my father’s company moved downtown to the World Trade Center in the mid-nineties, he brought the picture to adorn his new office on the 92nd floor. On September 11, the day the towers fell, he survived because he was simply late to work that morning, and had not yet arrived at his desk.
In the weeks that followed, I thought of the photograph’s journey and wondered what its fate had been. Had it fluttered out to the murky Hudson River? Had it incinerated in the collapse? Would it be recovered in someone’s backyard in Brooklyn, clinging to a chain-link fence and wrongly labeled as the photo of a 9/11 victim? The thought process was my irrational way of distancing from the physical horrors that had occurred. The thought would surface when I could only focus on the chaotic flight path of flimsy photo paper, unable to humanize the abject pain and fear that took place on that day.
Photographs are small truths. They house our past. They help us to remember who we once were, when we have strayed so far from our beginnings.
KATHLEEN MCKITTY HARRIS is a writer and native New Yorker, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and McSweeney’s. She has also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam. Her website is sweetjesilu.com.