quiet thoughts on the last and first day
When was the last time you had a steak? Rode a horse? Smelled a stranger’s perfume, or worse, tasted it as you passed through the air they’d just vacated?
When was the last time? It’s an impossible question. Until you’re out of time, you could still do all of those things - chew meat, saddle up, go blech on an escalator at Nordstrom.
When was the last time you really talked to your Granddad? When was the last time I did? For the past 5 years at least it felt like every time I talked to him I was shouting at myself, remember this! Remember it! I shouted so loud it’s all I remember hearing when I sat in front of his moving mouth.
When was the last time you had that feeling, that “too quiet” feeling, that “too much is going on inside of me right now so I’m just going to skate on this blank surface, damn the sea underneath” feeling?
When was the last time you had to explain to your children that when sad people get together, they always start laughing?
They know him as well as I knew my great-Grandfather, which is to say we had a couple of teasey, tickle, or monster-based jokes. At the beginning of every visit, I thought he was strange but nice, and by the end of every visit I knew he made my Granny laugh, and that he was a Good Guy.
I can hear him saying my kids’ names over his folded hands, with his warm voice. “Well, hello there, Chicken.” “Oh my, Buster.” They weren’t sure what to do with him but by the end of every visit they’d seen him make GG laugh and came to believe he was a Good Guy.
My kids had noticed I’d been on the phone a lot. I told them the truth. I said he’s dying, and I’m sad. I’m glad I told them the truth before they asked because after I did, Chicken asked me the next time I’m on the phone a lot, will that mean someone’s dying. Because I’d already been straight with him I could say, “No, babe. I will always tell you if someone’s dying. I will always give you all the information I have when I have it. If you’re surprised, it’s because I’m surprised too. Sometimes I’m on the phone because of work, or gossip, or someone’s getting married or having a baby. I’ll always tell you even if it’s sad.”
We thought he might pass today so I took the boys to the woods. It seemed like the right place to go even if I almost turned around three times on the way to the trailhead. It seemed like a place that would hold us if we got bad news there. I mean, of course it would. It’s the fucking Earth. It holds every person who’s ever lived.
We didn’t, by the way. Get bad news there. Buster did drop his water bottle into the water and started to watch it float downstream, screaming, “No! It can’t be gone!” Chicken jumped into the river fully-dressed, submerged up to his waist, and pulled out the bottle. I almost burst into tears, too.
“Why’s he so upset about the water bottle?” Chicken asked, squelching back down the trail.
“I don’t think he really is,” I said.
Chicken, 7, said that he knows Oo-Daddy is going to send dreams to GG. “He’s going to send her signs like bumblebees. I don’t know what they’ll be, but GG’s gonna know ‘em when she sees ‘em.”
Buster, 5, said, “I bet the next place where you’re dead is pretty good, actually. You can make a good wet rope out of the guts of the people who killed you. Or a fishing net!”
(Buster may have picked up a few things from Martha Stewart when she was inside.)
When was the last time you tried to have a whole relationship with someone in a single visit? Was it at their birth or their death? Or was it in the one-act play you wrote? Because that shit wasn’t believable, Maureen. I once heard someone say that the key to a successful family gathering was to try to connect with each person individually. It’s easy to forget that your family members are unique human beings with full lives beyond the Thanksgiving table. Anyway, I’m just saying - you can’t rush to love someone just because you think it might be curtains soon. They might get better and you just showed your cards: full house, Queens over Guilt Trips.
I’d wanted to go to California when we started to understand that this was it, but not to say good-bye to him, necessarily. I wanted to go so I could be with my whole family. So we could kick off our shoes and I could run out for coffee or ice cream or Bic pens if we needed them. Now that I have my own little whole family, however, my ability to run errands for the people who needed to be there was significantly impaired. Not to mention, honestly, how bad could they potentially need Bic pens? They could just text shit to themselves if they needed to. I fluttered around all weekend trying to find something to do to help. I kept calling relatives who were as fluttery as I was and had no news. We repeated the same text messages to each other with different intonation, as if that would reveal secret new information.
“Well, you know Dad said he’s comfortable and resting.”
“I know. Since he’s resting comfortably, I think we have to just wait and see.”
“I was glad to hear that he’s resting. He sounds comfortable. So that’s good.”
What we were all saying was “The only love language we have right now is flight to your side, but we don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, if that will be too many people, too many children who will interrupt the necessary grief of adult children losing their father by yelling for more Goldfish crackers from the room where we stash them with iPads and juice boxes. We don’t know.”
I thought about saying a prayer for his safe journey, for crossing over. But almost immediately I thought, “Girl, stop your nonsense. That man doesn’t need a prayer from you to do what he’s ready to do.” I think I had enough faith in his life that I didn’t need to try to put in a good word for his soul under the wire. I think I had enough faith in his death that I didn’t need to try to smooth his way. I didn’t pray for any part of the process of what was coming, now, for sure this time. I listened to one of my favorite concertos by Beethoven (mistake, while driving) and I kept thinking, “Okay. It’s okay.”
I thought about all his deaths, the ones that already happened. The death of the baby he was when he learned to walk and talk, the death of the boy he was when he left home, the death of the young man who hadn’t yet gone to war, the death of the new father when his kids went away to college, the death of the man who hiked up a mountain with me when his knees and lungs retired early.
We don’t mourn the deaths of these passed people, even though we might look back a little sadly at the parts we miss (already, I miss the way my sons slept on my chest, and they would still 1000% sleep on my chest if I let them, but see they have so many knees now). We don’t have time to mourn the death of every age. Even if you’re one of those people who has a birth MONTH instead of a measly peasant day, if you had 30 days of parties you still couldn’t grieve for all the singular people you were that year, who will never exist again. You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to keep going, forward, ahead, to whatever person you are in whatever shape life you’ve made in this moment right here, the moment of the last death.
You’re supposed to look at your life like a pointillist painting: a million unique points of light, each less important than its contribution to the whole. Or at least you’re supposed to have 3 children, 2 daughters-in-law, 9 grandchildren and their spouses on a text chain to each remember out loud 3, 4, 1 point that glowed the brightest for them: a nickname, a trip, the way he said my kids’ names over his folded hands, the old-fashioned “tsk tsk tsk” noise he made as he bounced newborn baby Buster in the crook of his elbow, not awkwardly at all. What a pro.
Tonight I rushed my kids to bed so I could keep my promise to them. If he passed at bedtime I’d have to tell them the truth; I promised I would. But they need to sleep. Buster cried for almost an hour today, and Chicken stayed up until almost midnight last night asking me questions about death, dying, the afterlife, heaven, birth, aging, you know, all my anxiety’s favorite topics.
Night time is always hard for them. At the end of the day it’s too easy to think about the end of life. Lately, every night Buster is asking me when I’m going to die, and there’s only so long a girl can say “Oh, someday, but not anytime soon” before he’s no longer satisfied (he’d like a date, if you please) and I start to wonder, when AM I going to die though?
He passed at 11:05 pm. I hadn’t realized I’d been waiting up for him, sitting two states away in solidarity with my parents, aunt and uncle, and grandmother, who were waiting up with him, too.
That was it - all the last times are fixed now, his and ours. And you know what else? All our first times are about to be fixed again, too. Because here comes the next season. It’s already here.
I once had a dream that I was dead, but walking around and talking to all of my friends, running errands. In small talk they asked me how I was, and I’d say, “Actually, I’m dead now.” They’d laugh as if I said I was thinking about getting a pixie cut or a puppy. I was me, just dead, and I was the only one who could tell the difference. It was days before I realized that it was a dream about moving on, when your body is still here but your head and heart are already in the next place.
I don’t know if I’m anywhere yet.
All of this is very nice and peaceful-sounding but somewhere in California there’s a hole ripped in the world and no matter how ready we all thought we were, we will have questions for him that will go unanswered and we’ll read things we’ll want to share with him. And no matter how fair it seems that he lived 9 decades and left us surrounded with love, it’s fucking unfair that we have to trade him for his peace. I do not approve of the terms of this contract.
I told my kids, you know how before a baby is born they think the whole world is their own private uterus jacuzzi? They don’t think breathing is a thing. They don’t think much of light. And then suddenly that world ends. But it’s not a disaster - they emerge into a bigger, louder, brighter place where they will get bigger, louder, and brighter, too.
Nobody knows for sure but if I had to guess I’d guess we roll on like that. Into the next season. I told my kids the truth: I don’t know.
I remembered an Irish blessing: “May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way home.”
It’s 12:01 am in Seattle.
Here it is, early, too soon, chasing the heels of the last day.
The first day.