“He’d give me this look,” said my mother. “And he’d reach out and touch my face. And I’d touch his face. And if he woke up and I wasn’t there, he’d give me this hungry look. Like he was wondering where I had been. One time he had been coughing, and I woke up and I came out and I was touching his face and I told him it was all right. ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘It’s all over. It’s over now.’ And he sort of perked up and he said, ‘It is?’”
“And I said, ‘The coughing. The coughing is over,’ and I think that disappointed him a little bit. And then, on Friday morning, he had been awake and then he drifted off the way he does and I went over to cut some pears. To get something to eat. And your father started breathing funny. Like he was choking.”
At this, my mother’s voice breaks and she stops talking.
“And that was it?” I said.
“Well, I got the stethoscope and I listened for his heart. And then I listened to my heart. And then I tried his again.”
“His last word was, ‘Owww.’”
“That’s not very memorable,” I said.
My mother laughed.
“Maybe we can make something better up,” I said.
I was in the middle of writing an essay when my mother called. The essay was on an article I had read comparing the character of Gatsby to JFK, it being the fiftieth anniversary of his death. I don’t know why I was writing along these lines. Probably because it was what I was thinking about at the time. But two or three paragraphs in, I got the call. And for some reason, I was shocked. I had nothing to say. Even though I was very aware that my father slept ninety five percent of the time and that when he was awake, it was probably fifty/fifty that he’d be lucid and that he was suffering from kidney failure and heart failure and cancer all at the same time, I was shocked. Even though I knew he would die very soon, I thought he’d live for months and months more. Maybe years.
After mom had called the mortuary and the hospice house, and dad’s body had been removed from the house, Dave, Rebecca and mom all drank martinis and made toasts. Then my mother went to sleep while Dave and Rebecca continued to drink martinis and smoke cigarettes.
“I heard a loud noise in the middle of the night,” said my mother. “And I knew that David was playing pool, and I thought maybe he moved some furniture or something, but the next day I found out he had pushed the screen out of the basement window so he could climb out the back window and SMOKE CIGARETTES! And I said to them, ‘Why are you smoking cigarettes?’ and they said, ‘It was Joe! Joe was smoking and he wheedled us into smoking with him!’ Why did you wheedle them into smoking with you, you dirty, rotten rat!”
“They threw me under the bus, huh?” I said
“You belong there!” said my mother.
“I didn’t wheedle. I didn’t need to twist their arms. Their grownups, mom. If they want to smoke, they’ll smoke.”
“They don’t need to break my screen to do it! I told your brother, I said, ‘This is unacceptable!’ Do you smoke?”
“No. Not really. Very rarely.”
“And there was something else,” she said. “You know I don't want you kids on my computer, with all those viruses and diseases out there."
"You didn’t get online when you were in my house, did you?”
"You didn’t get online when you were in my house, did you?”
“That’s strange. Because I wanted to send an email to Barb, and I started the computer and it told me it hadn’t been shut down properly, and when it asked me if I wanted to go the place it was when it shut down and I said yes and it went to your blogsite.”
“Wow. That is strange.”
“So, you didn’t get online.”
“No! I wouldn’t do that.”
“Your brother must have, then. I knew it!”
“So, I’m adjusting,” she continued.”
“I still talk to him. That’s not good.”
“That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“When I’m alone, I talk to him. Like I always have. I keep thinking he’s gone on one of his business trips and he’ll be back. I think he’s at the airport.”
“But he’s not coming back.”
“So, it’s an adjustment. Sometimes I cry. I miss him very much. And everyone’s coming for Thanksgiving, and that’s going to be a lot of people for me right now.”
“Mom, if you don’t want them up there, tell them.”
“No. It’s not that I don’t want them.”
“You need to tell them. You need time to grieve. If you want to be alone, you should be alone.”
“No. I think it will be good for them.”
“I told your father I’d come find him. I told him I’d find him.”
“It’ll probably be the other way around,” I said. “He’ll already know the terrain.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll find him.”
After I hang up the phone, I drive over to Bethel, pulled my tool pouch out of the truck and bring it down to the basemen of the tiny old church, built in 1868. It's somewhere in the twenties outside, with a dusting of snow on the ground, but it’s warm in the old basement. I plug in the two bright work lights and try to think where I left off. I had some ductwork made up and I need to install it. I kneel and begin to knock the return plenum into shape, banging on the tin with the little ball peen I carry in my pouch. It feels good to actually do something. It seems like forever since I’ve put my hands to some kind of physical labor. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing that matters. After I get the return duct in place, I walk through the basement of our new church to the kitchen, where I have coffee with Portia Byrd on Sunday mornings. It’s strange to be in a place so fraught with memories. Always so full of people and noise. But now so dark and quiet.
Stirred by some nagging inconsistency, I call Dave when I get back into the cozy, warm basement of the old sanctuary.
“Dave,” I say, “I just called to see if you were okay. You okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m good. It's kind of fucked up.”
"I know," I say. "It's kind of fucked up."
“So, you broke the screen,” I say.
“I didn’t really break it,” he says. “I just bent it a little.”
“Mom wasn’t too thrilled,” I say.
“I know. She told me it was unacceptable. But whatever. I don’t think all the insects are going to tell each other, ‘Hey! There’s a little bend in that screen!’”
“Besides, the basement should have a walk out.”
“That’s what you should tell her,” I say. “Hey, maaan. That basement should have a walkout, maaan!”
I do the George Thorogood maaaan. Like, “One whiskey, one scotch and one beer.”
“Hey, maaaan,” says Dave, laughing.
“Hey,” I say, “by the way, Mom’s gonna accuse you of getting online when you were at her house.”
“Really?” he says. “Why?”
“Because I got online,” I say.
“And you didn’t tell her?”
“No way! I’m not telling her! She flipped out the last time I did it, and remember I told you I wasn’t going to do it? Well, fuck that. She went shopping and Dad was asleep, so I got online, and I checked a few things, and then when I tried to shut it down, it wouldn’t shut down! I mean, that old computer took, like, a half hour to shut down! I mean, it wouldn’t shut down! So I just pushed the button.”
“You’re not telling her?”
“No way, maaan! I’m not telling her.”
“Besides, you threw me under the bus with the cigarettes, so fuck you.”