Originally published November 22, 2011
Father Peterson had the kind of voice you'd want to be leading your memorial: deep and haunting, with a slight hint of tremble in its lower register. It was a voice that conveyed to everyone in the chapel how beloved and missed the recently deceased was. One of his readings had lodged itself in my brain, and kept echoing as I walked to the reception hall. “Set your minds on things above,” he’d read, “Not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory”.
My mother had selected the passages herself in the hospital. Mom had spent her life floating past danger and ignoring consequences, but at the end she had no illusions of escape. When the doctor told her the severity of her diagnosis she told him that she wasn’t worried. She was just going to "let go and let God". Now God had had his say, and I was home to bury her.
In the greeting line at the reception my Aunt Ellen waddled over to me, her plump cheeks wet with tears. Her attire did not seem funeral appropriate. She was wearing a cheery purple dress and a white shawl that she had obviously crocheted herself. From what I knew about Ellen’s greedy kids I suspected she was broke, and that this ensemble was the nicest set of clothing she owned. She approached me with tear-filled eyes and spoke through gasping sobs.
"Her grace has gone out of this world," she whimpered, "but it still shines on in your love for her." She took a deep sighing breath and stared into my eyes. "There she is", she said, “There she is”, and tapped her fingers on the side of my face before moving down the line to greet my stepfather.
Listening to Ellen spilling out empty condolences, I marveled at the disconnect between her current grief and the way she had treated my mother, her sister, while she was alive. I had no idea who this saint that she was speaking of now was, but they certainly bore no resemblance to the wild-eyed harlot that had made Ellen’s life so difficult. If my mother had been there, she would have waited until Ellen's head was turned, puffed out her cheeks and squinted her eyes while gasping for air-her quick impression of Ellen that always made me laugh.
Ellen had never cared about my mother, and mom’s passing hadn’t changed that. Watching her performance I realized that she was presenting sentiments that she wanted us to pass along on her behalf when she died. Ellen wasn't grieving, she was coaching.
I stood in the receiving line greeting mourners for about half an hour. Our family was bigger and louder than I’d remembered. There were dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins and second and third cousins packed into the hall, along with friends of my mother. There were also patients and doctors that she’d met during the years her illness took her, along with every nurse from her hospital ward. Every single nurse.
While greeting the mourners, my stepfather Don remained quiet, exchanging only the briefest of “thank you”s. He was gracious, but closed off in a typically Midwestern way. He had always been a tall man, but now he was stooped by age and grief. When I first met Don, I didn’t think much of him. I was twelve years old and not interested in having a new father. He seemed weak to me, and too eager to please my mother. We got along fine, but he never crossed my mind after I moved out of the house. If not for the brief moment of conversation we might have when I called my mother and he picked up instead of her he may as well have not existed. In the day and a half that I'd been back, he'd barely said a word to me.
After the reception was over we shared a final moment by her grave. The newly overturned dirt was rich and brown. The grass seemed more vibrant than the plots next to hers, tall prairie blades that bent with reverence in the slight breeze. Don cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses, which were damp with tears.
"When we bought this plot she said she loved the little garden next to it. Said it reminded her of her little flower box under the front window at home, and the days you all spent out in the garden when you were a little boy. She was happy that day."
I didn't know what to say. I'd missed all of those moments. I'd known she was sick for a long time, but she'd stayed sick for so long that her illness became a constant. Soon it was just background noise in my busy life. It had never seemed real to me, and being back home, hearing the eulogies, and staring at her freshly cut headstone didn't make it any more real.
We walked down to Don’s truck, a 1978 Ford with rusted wheel wells. I let Don grasp my arm as we walked down the grassy slope and over the shallow ditch to the gravel road the truck was parked on. Don was a few years older than my mother had been. I hadn’t seen him in several years, and his age was catching up to him. His walk was different, little more than a tired shuffle. He seemed brittle now. I opened the passenger side door and waited for him as he slowly passed around the front to the driver's side. In my head I was already drafting speeches for when we got back to their house, speeches about all the responsibilities I had back home which needed my attention. Speeches about why I had to leave immediately.
Don slid gingerly into the cab of the truck. All of his movements, I noticed, were calculated to bring the least possible amount of pain to his joints. He struggled to swing the heavy door shut with a great "Oof". I wondered why he didn't trade the old junker in for something lower to the ground and a little more practical. This was the same truck that he’d picked my mother and me up in on their first date. As a single parent, it was very important that any man dating my mother got along with me as well. She took me along on her dates as a kind of asshole repellent. Any guy looking for a quick lay got the message right away. Mom’s tag-along policy led to some long, awkward free dinners.
The ride from the cemetery was quiet. Don kept his window rolled down. The air was brisk and cold. I wanted to ask him to roll it up, as I hadn't really owned proper winter clothes in many years, but I didn't want to break the silence. It had snowed a week ago-the last my mother would ever see. The streets had been cleared, and now the snow was packed tight up against the curbs, streaked brown with dirt. The whole town looked dumpy. My childhood here seemed to be a memory of some other world, a life lived by somebody else. We drove by the school and the park and the playground in the center of town, all of the places that I used to play. I knew I had been in those places before, I knew I had been that child, but I couldn’t picture myself there.
We arrived at the house. The engine gasped and sputtered as it shut down. We exited the truck, and I paused for a moment on the sidewalk to allow Don to catch up. As we walked down the cement path to the front porch memories of my mother began to flood over me. Small mementos of the person she had been were everywhere. All of her silly yard decorations were still standing. Her favorite, a wooden stand-up of a fat lady bent over flashing polka-dotted bloomers to the neighbors, was still on the side of the house. So were her pink flamingos, her sad little flower box, and the small ceramic squirrel that sat on a swing attached to the lowest limb of the oak tree in the front yard. The squirrel’s grin was wide, making the face look ghoulish. I suddenly realized that she wouldn't be greeting us at the door. There would be no excited burst of talking and hugging and kissing. I realized then that she was gone.
We walked into the enclosed front porch. Don sat on a tiny bench, with another "Oof", and began to take off his boots. He struggled to lift his leg onto his knee, and took a deep breath before he began to untie the laces. For a moment I thought I should help him, but I didn't know if he would find that insulting, so while he finished I quickly kicked off my dress shoes and went into the front room of the house, which served as their dining room.
The only pieces of furniture in the room were one small round table with two place settings and two chairs, and four oak bookcases-one on each wall. Most of the shelves were filled with my mother's books, her bibles, miracle stories, and Shakespeare. The few shelves that Don had taken held with books about Civil War battles and fly fishing, his two favorite subjects. All over the room were frames with pictures of me with my mother. The only picture with Don in it was their wedding portrait. Being in the house again was like being trapped in a museum. I was surrounded by the weight of death and history.
Don walked in from the porch and hobbled past me on his way to the living room. He didn't make eye contact with me as he passed, he hadn’t since my arrival. He sat down in his old arm chair. The leather was cracked and faded, and stuffing spilled out along ripped seams down the side. His hand hovered for a moment over the remote control, but he let it fall back onto the armrest. The room was silent except for the occasional slushy roar of cars passing by outside. The room wasn't filthy, but it was far more cluttered than my mother would ever have allowed.
I stood in the doorway, watching the back of Don’s bald head and my own reflection in the black screen of the television. The reflection was warped and surreal. A shiver ran down my spine. I cleared my throat, to break the heavy silence.
“Well, I said, “it was nice to see everyone again. There were a lot of people there. I guess that would have made mom happy-she always like to be at the center of a crowd.”
"Yeah, I think you're right" Don replied, and continued to stare ahead.
"I don’t really remember the last time I saw so much of my family together in the same place. Some of those kids I didn’t even recognize. Who was that little blonde boy with the Power Rangers jacket? I didn’t get introduced to him.”
“That was your cousin Jimmy's son. Jimmy and Carla came by right after he was born. He was just a little thing then. I haven’t seen him since that. We all went out to dinner to the steakhouse in Rochester. That was real good. Jimmy's in construction now, you know."
"Oh yeah?" I said. “No, I didn't know that. I mean, the last time I saw Jimmy he was probably 13, 14? That was over a decade now, though. But, people start having kids so young here, I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised. How old is his little boy?”
"He’s four now."
"Wow. Jimmy's got a four-year-old boy. What's his name?"
"Derek. Derek James I believe."
“Everyone’s got families now. Really big ones, too-how about Bobby? Five kids and every one seems just as wild as their daddy.” I could hear myself slipping back into the upper-Midwestern accent that I'd tried so hard to break after moving away. I felt embarrassed, but I couldn’t tell if it was because the accent was coming back now or because I’d changed it. “Surprised to see so many of them were able to make parole to get to the ceremony,” I joked. “Judges must be getting soft in Oakland County these days, huh?”
Don didn't laugh. I was getting nervous, so I kept talking.
“I was actually supposed to be there with Bobby that first time he got arrested,” I continued. “Can’t remember why I didn’t go. There was a bunch of us, bunch of kids from school and a couple of my other cousins, we were heading to the creek and, uh, I don’t know why I didn’t go. But Bobby, the next day I heard in school that he ended up getting taken away for throwing rocks at cop cars. Then he, I don’t know-then a couple weeks after that he smashed out all those windows downtown and they sent him to Juvenile Hall. I don’t think things were ever the same for him after that. He was gone for six months, and when he came back he was different.”
“I always felt with Bobby-well, that is your mother and I felt-that we knew where he was heading, and we didn’t want to take the chance on you ending up where he was going. Bobby was a sweet kid, always was. But your Uncle Steven was not a good man. It’s the grace of God that Bobby is as normal as he is now.”
I looked around the room Don sat in. Unlike the dining room, there were pictures of my mother and Don together everywhere here. Some were cute snapshots they had taken of each other around the house, and some that had been taken during their post-retirement travels to the Grand Canyon, New Mexico-even to Paris. I began to realize what a full life they'd shared together, and just how much Don had lost. My chest felt tight, so I unbuttoned the top button of my dress shirt. I could hear kids shouting outside, and the wind blowing against the side of the house. There was a low buzzing hum in my ears, growing increasingly louder. I needed to get back to my home, away from this static world.
"I should probably get on the road before the storm starts,” I said. “I was listening to the news on the drive up this morning, and they said it could get pretty bad later on." The forecast had said no such thing.
"Yeah, okay", Don said, and shifted in his seat to point to a cardboard box in the far corner of the room. "But at least take a quick look at that box before you go. There are a few things in there that your mom thought you might like to have to take home. She set that up some time ago, for your next visit.”
The box was old and battered. The top flaps lay loose and torn at its sides. As I approached it I noticed an LP sticking out. I knelt down in front on the box, and lifted the record out. It was my old copy of Bob Dylan's Bringing it all Back Home. I picked it up by its edges and inspected it gingerly, like I'd just pulled a fragment of bone from an archaeological dig. Don was silent, but I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck.
"Wow," I said, flipping the record over and reading the track list, and then back to the cover. Dylan stared out at me, a wild-eyed wizard in a smoke-filled crystal ball. A gorgeous woman lounged behind him with a cigarette in her hand and contempt in her eyes. They were glorious, young and reveling in their decadence.
"Oh my God,"I said, “I remember when I got this. I bought this at Wazoo Records. I think I got it my very first week of college. They mostly had punk stuff there-I wasn’t really into that, but then I saw this in the new arrival bin, and I grabbed it right away. Oh, man, I thought I was so cool. I played this all the time with my door open hoping some girl would walk by and agree with me.” I smiled at the mental image of my teenage self. "Never worked."
I put the record aside, but it still held my attention. Just a moment before I couldn’t remember having owned it, and now I was filled with memories of that first semester: cold winter nights in a drafty dorm room, the trouble I’d had falling asleep my first nights away from home, meeting kids from towns Id never been to and countries I’d never even heard of. Girls of all different ages and body types. Some exotic, some plain, some dark and mysterious, but all wonderful in my eyes. Getting high for the first time with all of my new friends, feeling the burning of the smoke in the back of my throat as I held it in. For a moment I was 19 again, flush with discovery.
I began to dig through the box. There was a large picture frame, old drawings from high school, my senior term paper, and dozens of old cassette tapes. Below the cassettes, stuck inside the bottom flap of the box , I found a program from a play I'd performed in my Junior year of high school. It was The Miracle Worker. I'd had a small role, just a few lines, and I'd still managed to fuck up them up, but not nearly as bad as the girl playing Helen Keller. During the big breakthrough scene she struggled so fiercely and sputtered her line "wa-wa" with such misplaced conviction that the entire audience giggled.
She was red-faced and angry after the show, which was bad news for my buddy Phil, who was dating her that year. The three of us went out for a burger after the show. All night he tried to console her, but she refused his kind words, smacked away his hand when he held it out to her, and pouted in the backseat.
As I read her name in the program, it was like I could see her in front of me, thrashing around under the spotlights. I hadn’t thought of her, or even Phil, who had been my best friend throughout junior high and high school, in almost twenty years. Now it was like I could see them with my own eyes.
"Want a drink?" Don asked.
"Yeah, sure," I said, but I wasn't really paying attention. Behind me I heard creaking and groaning as Don made his way to the kitchen.
Behind the photo frame I found an old baseball, autographed by the 1987 Detroit Tigers. Don got it for me from a charity auction when I was 17. I’d watched every game of that year’s amazing stretch run, as the Tigers came back from three and a half games down with a week left in the season to win their division, in the same room I was in now, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of our old console television with Don behind me in his new leather chair.
Don returned from the kitchen and handed me a scotch. He had poured a vodka for himself. He looked over my shoulder and said, "Anything interesting in there?"
"Yeah, definitely. It's a real blast from the past. I think I’ll have to take some of this stuff home with me."
I pulled out the photo frame. It was dusty, but someone had wiped a clean streak in the front glass. The photo under the glass was of the three of us: me, my mother, and Don. I was in center frame, holding up a pathetic fish which was still attached to the line and rod. Don had forgotten to put on sunscreen before setting out for that morning’s fishing expedition. He was glowing an unnatural pink, but beaming with pride. My mother‘s face was contorted with laughter. Looking at her I understood the reason this photo looked so unfamiliar to me. She'd probably banned it from the front room-it wasn't one of her best.
"Where was this picture taken?” I asked.
"That's at Orchard Lake," Don said without hesitation, “that was the summer I met your mother."
"So this must be one of the first pictures of all of us together then."
"It's the first. I always loved it but your mother didn’t like it so much. Said she looked like she had seven chins in it."
"Yeah, she was like that. I wish she’d left this one out, though. She looks really happy here. She looks like herself, you know?"
Don sighed deeply. Behind me I could hear the tinkling of the ice in his glass as he took a drink. "Her last week," he started, and then paused. I shifted the frame in my hands, and looked over my shoulder at him. He seemed wizened and tiny, enveloped by his giant chair.
"Her last week," he continued, "she talked about those days a lot. She missed the lake, missed her swims. She swam near every day, up to the town pool in summer and at the lake on the weekends. She used to say that when she got to heaven there better be a sparkling lake as cool and wide as Orchard Lake waiting for her. By the end, though, well she just wasn't herself."
I stared into the box, just to have somewhere to look. "I'm sorry that I couldn't make it sooner,” I said, “I'm sorry I wasn't there at the end."
"Wasn't any need for you to see her like that", Don said with a gruff clearing of his throat.
"I guess you must have seen her at her worst, huh?"
"No," he said, "it wasn't like that." He was silent for a moment, and I turned toward him again. His face was puffy and his glass was empty. He stared out the window at the leaves shaking on the tree and the ceramic squirrel swaying in his swing.
"Every morning when I went in there she would tease me that she was going to run away with the young male nurse they had watching her. I forget the boy’s name now. I just saw him two hours ago, and I forgot his name already. She would know. She knew all of her staff by their first name. She used to send me out to buy them presents. I liked that. I liked that she would do that, and that I was able to do that for her. It was a way for me to feel like we were still doing things together, like we still had a life outside of those walls. Every night we watched old monster movies and game shows until she fell asleep. A lot of nights I'd fall asleep right there next to her, and the staff would just let me stay there for the night. As time went on, when everyone knew the end was near, I never came home. Sometimes she would cough so much she'd lose her breath, and then she'd have to take a nap. Those times she was scared, and she'd have me hold her hand as she fell asleep. But she always tried to make me laugh, even on those days.”
Don looked at me, and our eyes met for the first time since I’d returned home. His eyes were filled with tears that wouldn’t fall. “Every day she gave me her best,” he said, “whatever her best was on that particular day."
I looked away. I felt my cheeks flush, but didn’t know if it was from anger, embarrassment, or sadness. "Strange to, uh, to think of her as gone,” I said, “Now she's just stuff in a box, and whatever it was that made mom herself is over and done. She'd been sick for long that I just. I mean.” I kicked at the box, “Goddamn,” I said, “Goddamn it.”
I smacked the box away from me with my open hand. The contents shuffled and I noticed a tiny flag of white silk in the mass of baseball cards. I pulled it out. It was a forked white achievement badge. In gold foil stamping it read:
Troy Jr. High School
Certificate of Merit
I stared at the ribbon for a long time, trying to assign a memory to it, but I just couldn’t find one. "Some of this stuff she packed," I said, "it's just so random. Like this ribbon. Now I can't even remember where I got it-or why."
I turned the ribbon over in my hand. I knew where I must have gotten it. I could picture the assembly hall of my old school. I could feel the hard wooden seats that grew more uncomfortable with each passing year. I could remember receiving other awards. I could picture the long walk down the aisle to the podium, the empty cheering of the other students, and the open jeering of others. But the memory of the white ribbon I held in my hands escaped me. "I just can't believe she kept this,” I said.
I stiffened, suddenly aware of being watched. "Well, I said, "no reason for me to hold on to it anymore. I might as well throw it away."
In the quiet room Don's words, almost a whisper, echoed like a gunshot. I took a look at Don, then back at the ribbon, and then I understood who had really packed the box.
"What I mean is," he continued, embarrassed, "I could keep some of that stuff around. If you decide that you don't need it after all."
I looked at this man that I'd known for over half my life. Somehow he’d just always been in the background. I'd never stopped to consider him as his own person, separate from my mother. I wondered if Don had even though of himself as a separate entity from her in the past two decades. Now he had no choice but to be that solitary man, whoever he was.
"Yeah," I said, "of course."
He settled back in his recliner and stared back at the window garden. I was burdened with loneliness, Don's and my own.
"I wish..." I started, but I couldn't finish.
"I know, son," Don said gently.
"You know what, maybe I should stay the night. It looks like it might get rough out there after all. It’s such a long drive to the airport, I wouldn’t want to get stuck along the way. I mean, if that’s okay."
Don looked out the window at the perfectly clear sky, and said, "Yeah, that's probably for the best. You can take your room, of course. Everything's still the same up there."
“Thank you,” I said.
I walked up the stairs to my room, carrying the box in both hands. The stairs creaked under my weight. I expected to find mom waiting for me at the door, telling me that she was planning to turn my bedroom into a sewing room if I didn't visit more. But she wouldn't be there.
My room was exactly how I'd left it. I put the box on top of my bookshelf and sat down on my old single bed, which was still covered with my Tigers bedspread. I tried to remember the last time I’d been in that room. I tried to picture what my mother had been wearing and to pretend I could hear her shuffling around the kitchen downstairs preparing dinner for the three of us.
I got up from the bed and walked to the box. I reached for the Dylan album, then walked over to my record player. I pulled the record from its sleeve and ran my fingers along the imperfect grooves. I smiled and put the record on the turntable. The vinyl popped, hissed, and growled at me as I turned the player on, and then the jangling guitars started. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. The turntable was old and the record was in bad shape. The music was coming from a far away place, somewhere I could never get back to.
Dedicated to Rich Scroggs, with love and gratitude.
Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of Drunk Monkeys. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, poet S.C. Stuckey.