At the airport I have to make a phone call for someone to pick me up because my mother is at the hospital with my father, who has had a stroke. Next to me is a young woman also making a call; she turns to me, the phone dangling, "The ticket agent screwed up the connections—I'm missing my mother's funeral," she says.
I nod. "Maybe it's for the best," I say.
"No," she says, "I want to be there."
"You'll get there," I assure her, "don't worry."
As I turn away I see other women, ages thirty to fortyish, dressed in black, probably going to funerals too. I glance back at the young woman talking intensely into the phone. I imagine her name is Charlotte and the funeral is somewhere in the deep Midwest. Afraid of missing it, she will not. And although she dreads arriving at it, she will attend it all the way there, and back.
Driving myself to the airport that morning I had my new blue truck in cruise control. As I was trying to figure out how it worked, it seemed to me that cars on a highway were like emotions—sometimes, in the left lane, they were going faster than I was; sometimes, in the right lane, they were going too slow. Sometimes they would come up on me, out of nowhere and sometimes I would see them up ahead and approach them for a long time.
Sometimes the other cars seemed like other people's emotions, but mostly the cars were my own. Some of the cars were old and banged up, and some of the cars were shiny, expensive or cheap, and new. Manifesting outside these windows on the surface of this blacktop the cars appearing out of nowhere, the highway itself, were parts of me.
It didn't take long to figure out that in order to stay in cruise control I had to gauge the situation and change lanes ahead of time. The instant I got reactive, I was out of cruise control. The closer I got to the city, the harder it got to stay at the same steady speed because there were more cars.
The closer I got to home, the more emotions I had. When I got to the hospital my father did not know me although my mother pretended he did. "He's dying," I said to my mother. She looked at me across his body in the hospital bed. He seemed already in his casket, sleeping so deeply she had to bring him back from long distances to force him to eat—I could see how far back he came and I was amazed.
"He won't die," she said, "I won't let him."
The hospital room became our home. The home I had just left had its children and its husband, its wife and mother, who were me. But here, again I was the child, my intervening life barely existed, it seemed more like a dream. My father was her child now, too; my mother was still my mother, but also his—as a mother or a wife I was imaginary, and as a father so was my father.
No, he didn't die. How could he? She and I fought over it; you've got to let him, I would say. She would just ignore me. People would come in to test him for rehabilitation possibilities, and she would prompt him the way she used to prompt me from the back of the room at spelling bees, forming the letters with her mouth.
Now when I go home to see him, one more time each time, I'm glad she saved him; it gives us time to get used to it. I walk into the kitchen and put my bags down on the same green linoleum with the white swirling. The oven is new, and they have a dog—we never had a dog when I was growing up because my mother thought animals were dirty. But now that my brother and I are gone, they have animals. I know the drawers are full of things she never uses that are as familiar to me as the photographs in the box with the broken hinge that she keeps in the closet. I know there is money in the bags of clothes there. I know there is jewelry hidden in other boxes under the bed. I know the altar is still in their bedroom with baskets of unironed clothes next to it because she keeps the ironing board in there next to the exercise bike she is always nagging my father to ride. She doesn't have to because she has high blood pressure. The kitchen radio is on like always; the TV, like always, is on in the living room.
I set down my bags. My mother opens the dishwasher—which hasn't worked for ten years and which she never replaces because since we kids are no longer at home she has no reason to entertain—and throws in another plastic top from a margarine container. She never throws anything away anymore.
My father is sitting at the kitchen table fluttering in and out of the present like a leaf blown about by wind.
There are times when he just isn't here at all; the question is where, at those times, he is. Lost in the past, I think, as if it were a place—a room within this room, like Russian nested eggs.
When I am home he tells me stories from that place. In his particular case, it's an island, Greek. He sees the skirts of the old men swaying—he remembers being a little boy, teasing the old men who wore the Turkish style trousers, called vrachia that ballooned out at the hip; he's throwing pebbles at an old man, and then he sees the dirt road, the black skirt of the trouser swaying—suddenly, he tells me, it's as if he is actually there.
Whereas we can go out to dinner with old friends and the rest of us are chatting and he is not. He eats his food very slowly, head bent over his plate, as if engrossed not in eating, but contemplating it.
My mother, twenty years his junior, gives things to him: a glass of wine, a piece of bread. He ignores the wine, takes the bread and looks at it, turning it over, looking at her, as if to say, What is this?
After dinner someone asks him if he enjoyed his dinner. He looks up, startled. "No," he says.
Later we are at our friends' house, chatting, and suddenly he enters the conversation. We all look at him, the way you look at a person just entering a room.
The next day I say to him—"Why did you tell George you didn't enjoy dinner last night?"
"Did I say that…," he says. "I wonder why."
"Well, you didn't seem to really be there during dinner," I start to say, and then suddenly, I get it, and I start laughing, saying "but of course, no wonder you didn't enjoy it—you weren't there—it makes perfect sense, how could you enjoy it…,"
We're both laughing now, he finishes the sentence for me, "…When I was someplace else."
We find this excruciatingly funny. My mother tries to pretend that it is not; she is annoyed with us and does not want to laugh. She cannot help finally smiling because is it funny, but she doesn't like it. She doesn't like me getting into his oldness, she doesn't like me encouraging him to give in to being old.
It took him a long time to get old. But now he is being old with a completeness that takes my breath away. He reminds me of my grandmother, who was so old she died twenty years ago.
He takes his teeth out and doesn't like him to put them back in. My mother pushes them at him across the table. He reminds her of my grandmother when he does not put them in. We call her the sergeant. "The sergeant wants you to put your teeth in," I tell him and he laughs and discretely slides them under his napkin.
She is fighting the whole world, the laws of the universe, of life itself. He reminds me of my grandmother and she reminds me of the Spartans at Thermopylae, doomed but resisting to the end; her love for my father is an idea she still has. One day I see him hobbling to their bedroom in the middle of the day, "I can't go on," he says to her, naming her name, "I can't," he repeats in the language they speak to each other, the language of their parents, their past, their lives branching off around it with all the things that are private between them, all the things I can't know.
But now I know something new. I know that just as she does not allow him to die, he lives only for her. It's a love story, the love story of the century, two merely human beings defying, for each other, for as long as possible, death.
I try to get the story out of her, their story; she has always been reticent, letting it out in little bits and pieces. I ply her with questions: Tell me when was the first time you…, tell me how did you know that…, tell me. "Why do you want to know," she says.
"Maybe I'll write about it," I tease her, "how can I make your story into a best-seller if you don't tell me?" She gives me a long look across the kitchen table, which she is now leaving, to go in and see how he is.
"Use your imagination," she says, and goes to him.
The young woman at the airport made it to her mother's funeral just in time. I can just see it: her father in a black suit, one of the pall bearer's along with her brother. It is a hot day in early October in the Midwest. There is a haze over everything, and the small town her mother lived in before she died is far from here; only the family will go there to bury her on the farm where her people are buried. But her father is ill; her father is having some kind of attack, her brother stays behind with him and takes him to the hospital—they will follow later in the car, but she drives the hearse with her mother in the back up to the farm at Oscola; when her brother and father arrive they will bury her together. The cat will watch from the window, the dog will be locked in so it doesn't sniff the coffin. At the church she took the diamond earrings her husband had given her for Mother's Day and put them in her mother's pocket before they closed the casket. The diamond in her mother's pocket glittered in the dark like living eyes as she drove her mother in her casket inside a hearse along the highways of southern Illinois, each farmhouse farther from the next in the dry October heat and the glazed sky.
At the farmhouse that she had grown up in, she had not the courage to open her mother's casket and look at her once again, alone now in this bleak Midwestern landscape she had always been trying to escape. She left her mother and found the key in the place it was always hidden, and let herself in the dark house.
Those few hours with the coffin in the car, between the church and this house that now was her mother's gravesite, drove a wedge between her ordinary life and the present. She felt exposed, on some new threshold of her life, in an old house that was a new house. The furniture in this one was good as sold; the contents of its drawers piled up in the center of the living room in boxes ready to be taken away, the walls already showing holes in the walls where the paintings used to hang, the flowers already dying of neglect in the garden. She remembered her mother the last time she had seen her, standing here, just inside the doorway waving goodbye—her mother, grown stout, but still pretty, waving goodbye in her robe and wearing socks with her slippers.
Fear struck at her like a weapon; her legs were weak and she felt as if she had to go to the bathroom. She walked inside the house and let its emptiness ring through her as if she were a room with no one in it, loneliness ringing through her like a phone.
This empty room held her past. It was empty and yet full. It had all the familiar plates and chairs and tables and lamps she had grown up with; only the people were missing. Only the life was gone.
It was like stepping into an old dress, being back here, alone with her mother dead in the driveway. It was like the dress didn't fit right anymore; she wanted to take it off, sell it, give it away, but even if she could do any of those things, it would still be with her, in the closet of her head.
She sat down in the room. She sat on the couch as if she were testing it. If they did sell the house now, it would be empty for awhile, then someone else would live in it. All their things would be dispersed. Were the things their life? Where was their life—was it inside these walls, was it in the cloisonné vase on the coffee table? Was it in the photographs in the box in the right hand drawer of the kitchen chest? Was it in her, was it that now she was her mother?
Then she realized the phone was actually ringing and it was her brother; they had taken some tests at the hospital, their father would be all right, they would both be up next morning.
She sat back down on the couch in the complete darkness that had now overtaken the house, and the night was like a coffin closing over her face.
In the morning when she woke, she was her mother. She was her mother and she was making eggs in the same pan her mother always used, only wearing different clothes that were her own. Her hands went unerringly to the right places for everything she needed, her thought on the woman in the hearse in the driveway. She was quick to notice how quickly the fire leapt into blueness and made the butter melt its heart out on the stove; she touched the silkiness of the glaze on the plate sitting attentively next to the stove.
That plate had all the time in the world she thought.
She felt so alone it was like being in the Himalayas.The air was lighter than usual; she could just breathe it in. She was a dream, breathing.
The house was just the same as they had left it: the same plaid plates she still liked, the same green linoleum streaked with marbled white, the same dog bowl in the same corner— although many of the dogs who had used it were dead.
Outside the window she saw how the driveway curved around to the back meadow where, down below, at the foot of a small hill next to a pond, a little graveyard lay with the remains of three bodies: her grandparents, and a child born dead to her mother before she had been born. She saw how that road was her road, a road she was now on that had no side roads; that now she was on it she would have to take to the end. She heard how a bird outside the window was singing, It's your turn, it's your turn, over and over again. She heard how another bird answered at intervals, It's my turn, it's my turn, again and again. She saw how you can make birds say anything you want, and so she said to it, "Don't be afraid.Say, 'Don't be afraid'; say it again."
Her father looked so pale in the black suit. "You can take that off, Dad," she said, "it's only us now."
"No," he said, "not till after," and he burst into tears. She tried to comfort him but he kept her away. She brought tea and bread and butter to the table with some ham; she was angry. He gave way to his grief, ignoring her. Her brother opened a beer, ignoring him. She watched her father, saying nothing, seeing how separate from him she was.
He pushed away her food, he pushed away her drink, he hung down his head and his hands, looking down, toward the side. Then he put his arms down on the table like a protection and dropped his head down inside them and stayed that way, finally falling asleep there, grieving as if the world had begun and ended with his wife, ignoring his children—grieving for her as if she had been his life.
The next morning they buried her. They drove the hearse down to the place where they had paid a hired man to dig the grave. It was in line with the others. Her father insisted on opening the casket one last time. They had rolled it off the casters and it sat there beside the rectangular bed of the hole. They opened the casket and their father leaned into it, kissed his wife, and stayed there so long they had to pull him out. And when they did, he sobbed, a choking sound came out of him, and he fell back in, dead.
They couldn't believe it at first. At first they were furious like orphans abandoned at a crossroads. Her brother kept slapping his father's face, but she saw it was no use. "Terry," she said, "calm down, he's gone, they're gone, they've left, it's over." They sat down beside the coffin, him still leaning into it, and they held each other and cried. The stayed there until they were both quiet.
"Let's go back in the house, Terry," she said, "and call the doctor."
"Why," said Terry.
"We need a certificate of death."
"Then we're going to go through all this again—right?"
"Oh no, Terry," she said, "no, we're not. I'll tell you what we're going to do."
How she explained it to him on the way up to the house was how they did it. After the doctor came, the hired man came again with his son, and they buried her and put him in the ground next to her, the way he was, buried him like that, in the fetal position.
There was something comforting about the way the ground took him in. In this ancient, time-honored way I imagined the woman, whose name I thought must have been Charlotte Irons, put her father into the ground beside her mother.
My father is older now than it is possible to be and still be, but he is. My mother brings him to visit us, old as he is. She will go nowhere without him and he is upset if she is not around. His hands shake when he brings his fork to his mouth. Food spills down his shirt. He almost totters over every time he gets up from a chair. Getting him into a car is a drama, each leg lifted separately, the cane, the handle of the door, the door, each thing having a speaking part.
He shuffles when he walks, bent at the waist as if listening to something under ground. The altitude is too high for him here and he does not feel well. One day he comes in from being outside and sits down heavily at the kitchen table where my mother and I are shelling peas. He looks pale and waxen, something has happened to him. "I feel death coming closer," he says.
We all look at each other. I tell my mother to give him a glass of wine. She thinks I drink too much and encourage him to drink more than he should, but this time she gestures to me to get it.
"I don't want it," he says.
"Drink it," she says—the sergeant. I rub his shoulders because he is crying, then I cry. My mother doesn't like it when we cry, but she cries too. He drinks the wine, my mother and I start making dinner, chopping, peeling, frying. My husband comes in and wants to know why we are all crying.
"He was outside and something happened to him," I say, "his death is coming closer, getting to know him like a friend."
"What does that mean?" My husband sometimes reminds me of my mother.
"He doesn't feel well," I say. My mother laughs.
"What was he doing outside?"
"Looking for things, he's always going in drawers looking for something, sometimes he goes outside looking," says my mother.
"What is he looking for?" I ask.
"Money," says my husband. This is very funny because my father has always been a gambler, and one who lost a lot of money in his day—horses, poker, the stock market. He probably was looking for money; with one foot in the grave, he's still looking for money, and it makes us all laugh.
My father finishes the wine and he feels better. Nothing happens, again. Before they leave my mother wants to know when I will be coming home again.
I am always going home, that's what she doesn't understand. I'm always just going home, driving to an airport, using cruise control for as long as I can, and then getting there, gaining on my parents, who are moving very slowly as I come up on them. He has a cane, she is smiling, and then, in no time at all, I see myself enveloped in the arms of the past.