Becky's voice had the nasal rasp of someone who'd been crying. "He's at the cottage now, Fred, but he'll be going into the hospital next week."
It was Tuesday, and I was at an airport waiting for another flight. I heard what Becky didn't say: that this would probably be his last stay outside of a medical facility. I scrounged mentally for a weekend commitment that would prevent me from going, but Uncle Phil was starting to die over a weekend that I had free.
She continued. "Karen's here. I'm going to call Pete next and see if he can come."
Becky and Karen were sisters, mismatched bookends pushed together to hold their father upright. Pete was my brother, who I hadn't talked to since Christmas. Their mother and our mother were sisters.
"I might be able to make it, Becky. I'll call you back and let you know."
"Thanks, Fred, I hope you can. It's been two years since you've seen him." Her voice was gentle enough that it almost hid the accusation.
I called my wife, then pocketed the phone and pulled out a note pad. Getting to northern Michigan from the east coast was never easy, but there were plenty of open seats to Detroit. I booked flights and a car, then put away the note pad and took my cell phone back out.
Pete's recorded message came on, assuring me that he'd call me right back, which he almost never did. "Pete, it's Fred. Becky just called. Uncle Phil is apparently going downhill. I'm catching a flight to Detroit on Friday and driving north from there. Let me know if you'd want to drive up with me."
I called Becky back. "Becky? 'll be getting to the cottage Friday evening around six or seven and leaving Sunday morning. Have you got room to spare, or should I book a motel?"
"That's wonderful, Fred." Her voice sounded clearer. "No, we'll have a room for you. You'll bunk in with Pete if he comes."
Business travelers are stability tested at airport terminals. I shut out the garish posters and videos, the polyglot babbling, the constantly repeated warnings to be suspicious and mistrustful, and hunkered down into remembering.
I'd never stood witness to the death or funeral of a male relative. My father's father had died of cirrhosis in a Chicago hospital. My mother's father had died in a hospital in Tennessee after a car accident. My own father had dropped to the floor of a Texas motel bathroom and died of a heart attack. Our mother had insisted that my brother and I were too young to attend the funerals. Uncle Phil would fit the pattern. If I saw him now, I wouldn't be present at his death, and would almost undoubtedly skip his funeral.
My wife and I had agreed that there was no need for her to come—she didn't carry the suitcased memories that would spill open after my arrival. And there seemed to be no reason yet to bother our son with the news. On Friday morning I woke her at four a.m. to say goodbye, and she was falling back asleep before I left the bedroom.
LaGuardia to Detroit is almost a shuttle flight. The Detroit airport barricades itself outside the mayhem of the city, and I routed my rental car northwestward to avoid traversing the urban decay. I drove north through lower Michigan's thumb shape for five hours until I reached the thumbnail.
I'd spent a dozen childhood summers at the cottage, and its lake water and pine wood aroma had permeated me. I slowed down as I reached the last turn. The approach to the cottage had been a transforming portal, snaking through dense tree stands and over gnarled-root speed bumps to the cottage and the rocky shore of the lake.
But the overgrowth had been thinned and gentrified, and the dirt trails paved over with gravel. I refused to see what was around me now, holding on to mind pictures of century-old trees that grudgingly let me pass in slow, sharp turns, and which died in winter and dropped across the trail to block springtime entry.
The side of the cottage facing away from the lake and the freestanding garage were still as my mother's father had built them in the early 1930's, but I knew in a quietly hopeless way that the cottage had been wrenched out of the depression and force-fed modernizations.
I walked into the garage, which saggingly clung to its past. The privy was still behind the crudely made wood door inside the back corner of the garage, but the humans and flies and spiders had all abandoned the pit toilet decades ago. There was only the aroma of wet rot.
The well house spring where I'd hand-drunk frigid spring water and stored the perch I'd just cleaned was long gone, buried under an almost suburban lawn. As I walked through the cottage backdoor, still unlocked, I lost my bearings, the mutations making me think I was in a Lake Tahoe time share. What my grandfather had built, constrained by one man's capability, had been work, ganged into spacious conformity.
Becky and Karen, older but archetypically recognizable, met me in the redone living room. They'd already eaten but put together a refrigerator meal for me. Uncle Phil was heavily medicated, and not expected to rouse before morning.
None of us wanted to admit that we were having a rehearsal for a wake and talked around their sleeping father. Becky started. "Pete got in this morning, but he's gone into town. You'll be staying with him in the same room you had as kids. Good trip?"
We had what my mother used to call a good visit, talking of spouses and children and providing sanitized reports of our lives. We were close enough that the omissions were only occasional. I felt obliged to testify while the three of us were together.
"You know, our dad died when I was ten and Pete was three. Your dad always made us welcome, helped out our mom, included us in the holiday dinners…"
Becky interrupted, eyes tearing. "Thank you so much for coming, you and Pete. I know what it means to Dad."
"I had to come. Although I do remember what a son-of-a-bitch he was when I crewed for him on the sailboat, and I really remember the times he shanghaied me to shovel dry human manure from the sanitation plant for your garden."
Pete came in while we were still laughing and gave me a quizzical look.
"Just Uncle Phil stories." I hugged him, but he'd swelled since adolescence, so my arms didn't make it all the way around. We'd lived in the same rooms for thirteen years and could read each other's moods without talking. But for over double that time we'd lived apart, and now spoke infrequently and met rarely. We were litter mates with the vague sense that we should have kept running together.
Both my cousins looked frayed and blotchy, worn away by caring for the father who'd always sheltered them. Karen spoke up. "We'll all pretty much have to hang out until dad is awake and dressed. The water's not too cold. You could go for a swim tomorrow."
I glanced at Pete, who understood. "We'd better hit the sack. It's been a long day for everybody."
We clambered up the steep, narrow stairs our grandfather had built, and into the cant-ceilinged room where we'd spent most of our summers. The old furniture was gone, reclassified as either show piece antique or junk, but the replacements had the same function: bureau, dresser and wooden bunk bed.
Pete had already commandeered the lower bunk. I fleetingly thought about asserting elder brother privilege, but knew I'd lost any seniority when I'd left home for college and never really returned. My barely teenaged brother had been left to the care of his widowed mother.
I stared at him for a second, wanting to ask what he remembered of our father. But I already knew the answer: nothing. Even my memories of our dad were fragmentary.
Banalities were exchanged, and then I asked, "When's the last time you saw Uncle Phil?"
"This afternoon, and maybe two years before that."
"Does he still speak so slowly?"
"Yeah, you'll still want to finish his sentences."
We undressed in silence. Women make an art of building bridges between themselves with small talk, but I'd been conditioned to approach another man only with purpose in mind. Pete and I were comfortable in our mutual quiet, but aware that part of our brotherhood was lacking by being unspoken.
Before I climbed the bunk bed ladder I dropped to all fours and looked under the lower bed. The enameled bed pan that we'd used as children was still there, but judging by the cobwebs and dead mosquitoes, hadn't been squirted into in years.
Once in bed, the stillness of the Michigan night took hold, the only sound the waves lapping in soft hisses over the beach stones. Stormy or calm, the ebb and surge of the waves had taken over from my childhood heartbeats, rhythmic intervals without measured time, and I'd sleepily hoped that the pulse of my life could continue at that pace.
Breakfast the next morning was disheveled and comfortable, the four of us having spent a decade of summers together at the cottage. But none of us wanted to speak to the dwindling future asleep in the adjacent room, and talked about the past, all recorded and emotionally safe.
"Dad's awake," the sisters chorused.
Uncle Phil insisted on being dressed and helped out into the front yard facing the lake. He was clearly uncomfortable with his daughters' efforts to make him comfortable, and relieved when he was left with Pete and me. He spoke more slowly than ever, and I had time between his words to look around the lake. What had been long stretches of shoreline woods was now a pimpled jaw line of close-set cottages.
"Lot of changes, Uncle Phil."
"The cottage looks good, doesn't it?"
Pete and I exchanged glances. He spoke first.
"I really like what you've done with the kitchen. It's a lot roomier and more efficient."
My turn. "And the addition to the living room makes it a much better place for entertaining." But I was thinking of my grandmother, who would read her newspaper in the living room stretched out on an army cot next to where the wall had been, opening the newspaper sections over her legs and torso so she would stay warm during her nap. I wanted the army cot back.
Uncle Phil asked about my wife and child, and how Pete was surviving down south as a bachelor. His conservative world view was a fortress, but he used our reassurances as mortar for his rampart walls. I thought about hugging him but knew we would both be uncomfortable.
He faded after a chicken salad lunch that he barely touched and went back to bed. Pete and I saw him again briefly that evening when he was roused to be given his meds. He was barely articulate, victimized by his illness and his drugs.
We were all up early the next morning, Pete and I because we had to leave, Karen and Becky so they could begin their ministrations. Uncle Phil was awake, lying in the bed my grandfather and grandmother had shared for almost fifty years.
"Uncle Phil, it was great to see you again."
"Glad you could make it up to the cottage. Make sure you get back up here soon."
Men occasionally can achieve intimacy without words, and I held his hand with both of mine. "You take good care of yourself," I said. His eyes sharpened their focus on me, as if imprinting my image.
Once we left the cottage, Pete and I hugged, the last time we would have contact for months.
I left the radio off during the drive back to the Detroit airport and tried to retrieve memories. But I could remember only shards, small moments, a picnic lunch with my uncle's family, a drive in my father's car, and realized that despite our lives together, I possessed only incomplete portraits of both men. Once at the departure gate waiting area, I pulled out my phone and called our son. After his recorded message I left a recording of my own. "Steve, this is dad. Hope all is well. Just wanted to let you know that uncle Pete and I visited Great Uncle Phil. He's dying, and we went up to say our goodbyes. I'm sorry that you never really knew him, but I'll try and tell you about him when we get together. Love you."
Notes from the Author
"The Cottage," unlike most of my fiction, is based on an intense personal experience. I debated even writing it, but did, and then sent it to my cousins, whose father had died. When they said they loved it I knew it would be okay to publish. Hopefully readers will like it as well.