Our spring picnics came early. One morning after months in the house I would open the front door and smell dirt, and by noon we would be at a picnic table by the pond, the two of you shivering in your spring coats, wind tugging at the Styrofoam cups until we could get the cocoa in them. The dirt on the island was powdery and was attracted to the cups by static—if they got away, which they sometimes did, they were unusable.
You were babies then. I miss you already, even while you are asleep in my bed with the white morning light poured over you like protection. Love is an arrow.
A large bird came across the water, so big it never even flapped its wings. It cruised swiftly around the pond, moving without moving, silently pacing its shadow over the water. It was out of scale, out of place in this dinky municipal park with its lawn sprinkler fountain and weeping willows and wedding photo gazebos, the pond choked with bloated, overgrown carp.
After my mother died, I drove her wheelchair out of the hospital. As I backed it up to the van, I caught people inside staring out at me. Did they pity me? I wanted to explain that they were mistaken. This is not mine. My father chained the chair to the lift and pushed the lever. Rising from the curb, my back to the van, I felt what she must have felt: helpless. On display.
What brought it here from the endless waterways it must belong to, why it would choose to settle on such an unpromising patch of dirt in the middle of town, was beyond reasoning out. We were still staring—everyone stared—when it drew up ten feet from our table, wings folding back, legs dangling like strings, hanging on the air for a moment with a couple of quick flaps before easing down to a spot on shore. The fat geese hissed and scattered, grudgingly clearing a place for it. And only then did you turn and say, “What is it?”
I empty the upstairs closet. I find clothing dating back to her college days, outfits that I recognize from old photos still matched and hung with paper between the folds. We go through stacks of papers and pictures and cards, envelopes and shoe boxes and folders. “She kept the books until that final week,” my father says, handing me the checkbook. “It was always dead accurate.” The entries on the last several pages are nearly illegible, traced and retraced until they dented the paper.
On the ground it was a completely different bird. Suddenly slight, a tiny oval of body poised between slender legs and neck, beak fine as the point of a pencil. It stood on the bank, turning its head this way and that, eyeing the water for fish, so unlikely in the midst of the petty geese, which were still jutting their necks and honking their objections. They left a wide circle on the dirt around it, a perimeter. “I think it’s a heron,” I said. “It must be a long way from home.”
Sometimes our picnics were so early the grass was still cupping snow in the low spots. Back then it took me more than two hours to move us all from house to car to picnic table. It was a production. We had the time, so that was okay.
In this picture she is seated in a webbed lawn chair, smiling. She only smiled halfway to hide her overbite. She combed her hair forward over her ears because she thought they were too big. This posed a challenge, since her hair was very fine. According to the Bible, our hair is our glory. It is to be worn long and flowing, a feminine crown. For both of us, with fuzz for hair that would never grow past our necks, this reads as just another accusation. Mene mene tekel.
My father takes the picture from me. “God,” he says, “she was beautiful.”
Everything came to you so much earlier than I expected. One night when I tucked you in I felt tears on your face. “What’s the matter?” I asked, imagining a missed party invitation, something mean or careless said at school, but instead you said, “I don’t want to die.” You were only eight or nine years old. “Oh, honey,” I said, running quickly through the potential responses, choosing carefully, “when you die you’ll go right to Heaven, and I’ll already be there waiting for you. You won’t be alone for a second. I promise.”
“But I don’t want to go to Heaven,” you said. “I want to stay flesh.”
In this photo, she is standing in the dark, holding a balloon, pregnant with my older sister. It’s an experiment in strobe photography, and her faith in my father, who got her to stand for the picture, and in his lab partner, who fired the gun, must have been absolute. At the moment of the flash, a bullet is passing through the balloon, which is half missing but still fully inflated. From the perspective of the bullet, it must be carving through a slower space. From the perspective of the balloon, and the air, and my mother, it outruns time.
On the fourth day of her stay, my father and I had finally seen what was happening. We were sitting in the hospital coffee shop. We’d both reached the conclusion, and merely had to say it. “I think,” he said, “I don’t think she’s coming home.” “I don’t think so, either,” I said, or “I think so, too.” “I think we’re talking palliative care,” he said, a word he was clearly testing out. And having the word let us move forward, proceed through what came next. Upstairs, the oncologist came from her room and asked us to join him in the consultation room, where he tried very diplomatically to break the news to us. We waited politely for him to understand.
“I know,” my father said. Then he said, “I think we’re talking palliative care at this point.”
Everyone who sleeps is an infant.
This is my favorite picture of her, even though I’m not in it. She is bent over, fixing the hood of my big sister’s coat. She has a scarf wrapped around her head, and long white socks with loafers and a long tan woolen coat. I love the picture the most because in it she seems so in her time. She was happy then, with everything before her.
One night I came to tuck you in and found that you were already asleep. When I kissed you, you said, “I can’t, I’m busy working.” I had to know what job you, at twelve, would have dreamt for yourself. “Working at what?” I asked, smiling, and you rolled over and murmured, “At not dying.”
The brochure from hospice was titled, “Killing Me With Chicken Soup.” The hospice woman explained that my mother was involved in a complicated process, and the IVs were just getting in her way. The dying, she explained, don’t need what we need. Not even water, she said.
It presided for several minutes before some boys came with sticks and chased it away. It lifted unsteadily, wobbled a moment before stabilizing on the air. Suddenly it was substantial again, neck tucked in, those great black wings. The geese quickly closed the circle, satisfied.
In sleep we can step across time easy as Jesus walking over the face of the water. What are you staring at? he asked his friends. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?
The hospice woman bent over her and patted my mother’s head and said, “It’s okay to go now, Marilyn. Your husband and your daughters will be all right. You can let go now.” I opened my mouth to object. My father’s mouth opened, too. I realized then we’d been keeping a sort of pact, one we hadn’t discussed or even thought through until that moment, not to let her know she was dying. Ever alert to the potential benefit of a good, timely lie, we had only said, “Rest. Rest so you can get better, rest so you can come home.”
A strobe is the simplest of mechanisms. Combined with an open camera shutter in a dark room, triggered by sound waves from a gunshot, it allows a person to capture a god’s-eye view of the world. The resulting photograph reveals something impossible, something unrecognizable slipped in between the jumbled envelopes of time.
Impossible things happen every day, our pastor used to say.
Breathing was the last thing to go. I am still not sure, but it seemed to me she had died overnight, was already dead when I arrived in the morning. Her eyes stayed open all day, but they saw nothing. Her mouth was stiff, frozen open. Yet she breathed until evening. And then, as the hospice person was standing before us, still talking, I saw the breaths spread apart. One took a full minute. The next, longer yet, and that was the last. After the hospice woman left, my father tried to close her mouth. It was stuck, bloody, impassable. Her temples were hollow, her hips and stomach like a girl’s, her body ninety pounds. I closed her eyes with a tissue because I was afraid to touch her.
The funeral director, for reasons of her own, I imagine, as we hadn’t asked, gave us the official cause of death: cancer, along with a secondary cause: dehydration. I wanted to recall the hospice woman. It was all a bit pointless by then. My father was testing out another word: cremains. This one seemed to help him along, as he used it several times over the next few weeks. Then the funeral director said, “Her mouth? Was that the cancer, I assume?” As if even she, boatwoman over the River Styx, had never seen anything like it. As if my mother might have been more graceful about it.
That spring a baby bird fell on our driveway. It had a nearly bald head, hollow temples, beak open, legs slighter than twigs, a tiny ribcage clenched like a hopeful fist and underneath something tender, a little yellow ball of organs. It felt like an oyster in my hand.
In this photo, she is majorette. Her hair is combed forward, but she has the mercy of the tall hat and plume. She holds the baton proudly, one leg cocked up in her majorette pose. She is a member of the band.
I recognize her sometimes by my car. She is asleep. She steps across time easy as that and casts her awkward shadow by me all the way home. She hangs on the air, moving without moving, pacing over the face of time. Oh ye of little faith, she says. Find me some water.
I saw them one morning on a sunny hillside so green it looked like the start of a movie. Black crows, wings tucked back like great thinkers, striding through the grass. Her mourners. Her companions.
We lie in the slow, safe darkness and I listen to you fall asleep one after the other. It’s all right, I tell you. It’s okay. I am the man behind the curtain, worriedly pulling my levers, keeping up the show. The secrets I keep I cannot keep forever: impossible things happen every day. The bird in the air is heavier than the one on the ground. It moves without moving.
We are miles from home.