They don’t let the dead talk. We’re too tired. But the things I thought of before I died, with my family around me. I don’t know if it was days or hours or minutes. I could smell them. Each of them separate but all together, too. I could smell vanilla and mint and skin and body odor and salt and spices. They smelled like my life which sounds like a small thing. A sentimental thing. But you haven’t smelled your life yet, so you don’t know. You’ll see. I didn’t know my life smelled so good. I wasn’t sad to leave it behind. I was too busy smelling it.
The closer I went to death, the further I went from life. Which is to say, I slipped back and back and back. I thought about ice cream cones from the creamery. We used to get when we were kids. Black and white twists. Grass bent under my feet. Pulling a button through the hook on my overalls.
When I was dying, I came to life in a burst, all my life gathered into a moment. It was magic. I got to take my family with me as I slipped and it was a happiness, a real happiness, to take them with me to the creamery and my boyhood bedroom, marbles rolling in the drawer of my nightstand. They didn’t know my mother with rollers all over her head, stirring oatmeal at the stove in the morning, an apron tied over her robe. My mother had the softest face I’ve ever known. It was always soft, always had that rumpled, gentle look that we all wake up with, but most of us lose by the time we’ve used the bathroom. It was so soft it was furry to look at, and that’s not me speaking about her through the lens of death and memory. What I’m talking about here is her softness through life, through her life and mine, too.
I have never seen a thing so pretty as bands of light on the wooden floor of my childhood home. Radiator rattling and pipes banging behind the walls. Water rolling with bubbles in a pot on the stove. Snow falling outside the window over the sink. God made snow so we’d believe in pretty things. As I die, I don’t know that I believe in God, but I know I believe in pretty things. And then I wonder how different the two are. Probably they’re not.
I got to take my kids with me, walking around in the shoeboxes of my life. I hadn’t ever gotten to put it all together, see, the way I did when I was dying. All at once, my children’s grownup smells and their laughter that, when they all laughed together, sounded like the pack of them turning in omersaults around the Christmas tree when they were kids. A cup of hot coffee on my knee. A hangover banging in my head.
The hard knot of my mother’s apron. Gummy oatmeal. Everything was blooming, quiet, tender blooms, in the air around me. I was blooming. As I died, I went into full bloom, light passing over me and then lifting me away.
They kept crying, their voices breaking. Like toy airplanes breaking up in the air, pieces falling away. I was okay, I wanted to tell them. And I was. I wished I could tell them. Keep their plastic airplanes afloat.
Death makes us gentle. I feel gentle like I spent the afternoon at the VFW bar, like nothing can get me down. In life, everything got me down. The kids bringing home bad report cards. A lost receipt. A nasty customer. Now I just take my time, walking around town, balls of air, spun from white threads, spinning at my elbows and knees and ankles. Loose as a puppet, wide smile to boot. And the kids, they are gentling, too. Growing furrier, like their mother. Long gone. A hollow at her throat where she could have set a nickel and held it. Her face built from the finest net of bones. Too pretty to touch, like I could knock the whole thing down, ruin everything, if I wasn’t careful. She held her hands to my face, when she was playful. When she wanted me to know she loved me. The children are growing into her. They’re pulling her up out of themselves, like it is they who are the costumes and she the kernel, the seed inside.
They are finding a way to speak to one another that is lighter with kindness. They say, “Is Mike going to talk to the kids or wait for you?” They pause, eyes wide and spinning. It is a relief to them, to spin their eyes, the eyes they’ve held stock still for days. Or hours. Or minutes. They spin them to one another and offer them like they are cups of coffee or packages of donuts, wrapped up like hotdogs in buns. “Maize is wonderful. Really. She is amazing. I’ve never know such a kindheart.” “Bobby, God. Of course there’s the baseball, but you know me. I don’t give a shit about that. It’s the way he looks after Jason. Always looking, scanning, finding him. Seeing what he needs. Bobby is a prince. He really is.” This is how they say I love you to one another, and it’s beautiful. The pictures get prettier and prettier, and the fur along the edges only just blends it together.
Death softens our voices. It draws our words out like long, narrow canoes swaying on gentle water, and the people the kids talk with, the people can lay out their words into the lengths of the boats, each boat held by one of them. They switch things. One minute, Sharon has the funeral home and Rose is calling the cousins. But then they switch and Rose will talk to the caterer if Molly can run to the house and let out Rosco. Rosco. I will miss Rosco as much as I will miss anyone. There’s time and more than enough room. Time is so finite but expendable, the way time gets when you have a good reason not to care if your boss is looking for you. The kids are each walking around with canoes on their hands, carrying one another’s words and their sighs and the silent whimpers when they lose words. They steer past one another, guiding their words and their quiet, listening to the same thing. Water smacking the sides of the boats with the tiniest hands imaginable. Baby hands.
I had the prettiest cat when I was a boy. Gray stripes.
Person with guitar? Reveal each child’s personality in one way or another. Develop each child, their strengths and foibles. Their aches and shames. Maybe build a story like Olive, where father is Olive and children are making small messes, emblematic of bigger ones. Complex relationships between kids.
To be continued…