Strengths and foibles? 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.
When I was dying, I came to life in a burst, my life gathered into a moment.
Death makes us gentle. I felt gentle like I was just out, walking around town, loose as a puppet. I walked with assuredness. With the cadence of a very, very fat man, a man big around the middle like a balloon, round as a blimp, wearing pinstriped pants and a black coat with tails. Tiny matchstick legs and a monocle. I walked easy and confident as that fat man.
When I first died, and they pictured me in heaven, with their mother or St. Peter, they were sometimes angry at me. Very angry, with a thrumming in their chests and sharp winds and slamming doors and nasty words. They’d find a plastic cup of fruit in the fridge or a thing of tapioca and they would stand there, hand light on the door’s handle. They’d be cool as a cucumber on the outside, placid as a pond, while they raged inside. Raged. That I could leave them. That I could just go. Before I finished the tapioca. That someone could go before the pudding went bad. Before they were done pressing their dry lips to my freckled forehead. They wanted to know where my hair would go. They thought about this a lot. What would happen to my hair. Where would it go. How could I ever leave them when I still had hair to touch.
They had a hard time in the days after I died. Colors were too bright. They couldn’t make sense of things. The world alternately careened around them, and they couldn’t bring themselves to care much, and dragged and dragged. In the space of a minute, they walked the distance between a giddiness light with gratitude and assurance that I had left only after a life well lived to paralyzing sadness, tears gripping them. Panic running up stairwells in their throats like the house was on fire and they had to get out. I can’t tell you that I sat beside them while they slept or visited them in their dreams. Those things are lies. The world was different for them, without me there. I knew how this was because I knew the world after my mother died, after their mother died. Time doesn’t ease pain or make things better. That, too, is a lie. What is it that happens. The world rearranges itself. The blocks fall down all over and then they reassemble in a bit of a different way. Things aren’t so pretty as they were before. But you don’t get to keep pretty forever, not in the same way. Not without it changing. Rearranging itself.
The emptiness builds itself up into monuments, piling bricks and laying down mortar mixed into a gritty paste, cementing you at the bottom, looking up, and you are dwarfed.
You write stories in the middle of the night, when the sky is black and endless. Crickets sing mocking songs to keep you awake, keening into your lap and over the toilet and into the pillow.
And then you get to be okay at telling yourself the stories. You teach yourself the words and after some time passes, because time always, blessedly, passes, the stories begin to wear down into old stories and the words roll through your brain and over your tongue and across your heart like a balm. Your cheeks slacken in a satisfying way when you tell the stories. Your eyes soften in their metal sockets, pats of butter melting in a heated pan. Your face is softening.
You get to where you have the world in a different way and it’s not any better but it’s not so much worse that you can’t find a way to bear it. You find a way. You bear things because you don’t have a choice not to. And because you are brave. Even if you don’t think you are brave, even if you never believe yourself to be so, still, you are.
On the day I died, on a day which was really still very early morning, just as the birds gave some thought, from deep in their dreamworld, to singing themselves awake, the world nearly turned on its side. Wind woke people in fits and starts all night, whistling and blowing. The world was hollowed out like a gourd. The sky was a metal gray in the morning, but the sun was out, pinning the clouds and washing them shades of white. Roads were strewn with debris. Power outages everywhere. People left the house wearing wrinkled pants and dirty hair. It would be easy to say that my death was big and profound, and the world was coughing up indignance at my passing. But that would be a lie. I was not big or profound. My life was small and strung together with things like naps and grilled cheese sandwiches and cups of milky tea and my garden, rose petals under my trembling hands. I shook the world in very, very small ways. So there was no indignation, no grand gesture when I left. The wind was just there all night, in the same way that in the morning I was not there any longer.
As I slipped away from life, it gathered in folds around me, like a queen’s pleated collar. So it happened that while I let go of life, I felt very alive. The now was fuzzy, like I was opening my eyes underwater and seeing the world in bobbing colors. Lenses clicked into place, and the past spun into focus sharp and bright, like breaking through the water’s skin up into a sunny day. You can’t believe how green the trees are, how blue the sky. You feel yourself prettier than you were under water, softer and brighter now, and the sun wipes hot palms over your face and shoulders, drying your skin. The world is a marvel. The white of the lifeguard stand poolside, snapping its fingers in clean lines. Ruffled swimsuits holding onto the bottoms of little girls, split peaches, their hair pulled into pigtails, dark and wet at the ends, tapered like paintbrushes. Dying is like gathering up the past into a moment.
The closer I went to death, the further I went from life. Which is to say, I slipped back and back and back, losing my foothold in an easy way.
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 for a black and white twist. To my boyhood bedroom, marbles rolling in the empty drawer of my nightstand.
They had pictures of my mother in their heads. They knew knew her knitting her wrinkled fingers into the afghans she never stopped making. They knew her with a metal teapot in her cobbled hand.
They didn’t know her with rollers all over her head, stirring oatmeal at the stove in the morning, an apron tied over her robe. My mother’s face was soft. It always wore the rumpled, gentle look that we all wake up with, furred over like a newborn animal with its eyes still shut. 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. All through her life and mine, too.
The hard knot of my mother’s apron. Oatmeal sweet with swollen raisins and spoonfuls of brown sugar. Everything alive with quiet, tender blooms. As I died, I went into full bloom, every memory of my life bursting into bloom, light passing over me and then lifting me away.
Ice cream cones from the creamery, dripping down my arm and pooling in the crease of my elbow. The spot would still be tacky when I went to bed at night, and I’d suck it clean as I fell asleep. We are always sucking at things, is what I believe.
The days were so hot then. Our bodies poured sweat, each of us a faucet set to on. Each of us lit from inside. Every day was church. Dandelions colored a shocking yellow. Running up hills, crushing grass under our feet, lungs ready to burst like pomegranate seeds popped between your teeth. The world was colored like handfuls of jewels.
My memories of childhood are lit like the bands of light laid across the wooden floors of my childhood home, golden as backlit honey jars on a sunny windowsill. Radiators rattling and pipes banging behind the walls. Teakettles humming from their bellies. Snow falling outside the window over the sink.
God made snow so we’d believe in pretty things. As I died, I don’t know that I believed in God, but I’m sure I believed in pretty things. I don’t think the two things are so different.
[I had the prettiest cat when I was a boy. Gray stripes.]
I killed more than the one, but he’s the one I see in my sleep. In the grocery store, at the park, in traffic. He was the first one, and when I took his life easy as I would take a roll from a bread basket, I knew that a part of me was lost, too. This sounds, maybe, just maudlin. But once you are in war, maudlin isn’t a real word any longer.
When I looked down on him, still as a felled tree in a forest busy with birdsong and running deer and digging rabbits, I mourned him and left some of my own self with him on the packed earth, tucked into the cottony pocket on his hip, built fine as a bird’s skeleton. The part I left was, I think, the best part of me. It was the part that sucked on ice cream dried at my elbow. The part that pulled on my mother’s leg after I ran through her garden and crushed her roses. The part that hung heavy ornaments on tender tree branches. The part of me that looked down on my own toes as they got sucked into the sand at the ocean’s edge.
For years after, for ever after, I stood on the ocean’s edge and threw out my eyes like a fisherman’s line, far across the rippling coverlet of the sea. I touched roses, fingering their petals and thinking, “I should think important things while I touch these petals.” I buttoned dresses down a small girl’s back, wondering at the fine layer of hair clinging to her spine like she was a mythical animal in miniature, wings fluttering underneath, just waiting to break through the skin, ready to flap.
And with each line cast and every fish thrown back, each flower petal and button, every shoelace tied and pancake turned and garden bed watered, every toilet flushed, each cap screwed off or on, every nail pounded and song hummed, every tooth pulled, every nail clipped, every everything. All of it. Through all of it I muttered prayers under my tongue all day, every day. For the dresses that never got buttoned, the mouths never wiped and the downy heads never cradled.
I saw the widow building a nest each night, a nest of sheets and pillows and bedspreads. Socks and pulpy tissues. I saw her body curl up like a baby animal, its mother shot in the woods or just grown tired, leaving her behind with her long legs waving in the air. The tail of a sheet wadded into her mouth, tamping down wails into her peppered throat.
I pictured his mother, kneading the soft spot over her heart, the cooling cake still tender at the center. I saw her hurl plates at the wall like she was at playing a carnival game. She cried herself into bloody noses and a tongue bitten raw. She forgot about a glass of orange juice on the counter or the nightstand for days. Didn’t notice the fur of green creeping across the juice’s bright skin. She knotted her newly thin body into a pile of bones on the bathroom floor and crawled down the hallway, trying to leave herself behind. Knocking her forehead against the floor when she couldn’t get away.
When I got back, I couldn’t go home. I planned to. Planned to run to my mother’s lap when the train pulled in. But it was cool day. I expected a warm one. And it’s not that I was angry. I wasn’t. I was just confused. Set off a little.
So I traveled for a good year. I rode the rails, stopping in small towns to work for a couple of months at a time. I was a fish monger, swinging the wet, smelly bodies of fish through the ocean air, slamming them onto butcher blocks. I was a carnival hawker, also on the seaside, in a striped apron and a straw hat circled with a black ribbon.
I met a lady named Gladys, wearing spectator pumps and a skirt narrow as a pencil. She had teeth thick like a horse and when she drank, which is what we did every night because there wasn’t much else to do, her laugh turned into a bark. When I wasn’t drunk, it was sandpaper across my gums.
There was a night when I told her she was an imbecile. We were drunk and she was knocking over glasses and tipping on her high heels. She didn’t remember the spilled drinks or my torn shirt the next day but she remembered me calling her an imbecile. So I walked into a flower shop for some carnations or daisies and there was a lady, her head covered in brown curls, laughing in a light red color, her hips round and swollen like fruit, and she was stripping the leaves from long stems capped with heavy yellow roses, petals wrapped tighter and tighter, the bloom a bright yellow at the belly and a light pinkish brown at the hems.
She wore a yellow rose caught up in her hair, colored at the edges like the ashy brown of acorns, when we married in my parents’ living room four months later.
(move) When I got short with her at breakfast over a scorch mark on my collar many years later, I brought home yellow roses tied up tight with a piece of string. She ran a knife blade through the knot and the bouquet sprung to life, tripled in size on the kitchen counter. She laughed with delight, ringing bells in the air, and squealed, “Oh Ed! You must be really sorry this time!” And I was. I was grateful for her quick forgiveness. She handed it to me quick and easy as she’d offer a tissue to a friend at lunch. Didn’t think twice.
We had babies because people who were married had babies. I really don’t know that I understood how it would happen. I knew that I fell into her like a child in a snowsuit falls into a snowbank. Like a child curls his body into a knot and drops it from the dock into the sea. I didn’t have room to know anything else. But when her hips spread and her belly grew and tightened like a drawn animal hide, my joy, too, grew and tightened like a skin. I brought her jars of maraschino cherries and turkey club sandwiches. She ate nothing else.
When each of them arrived, I carried an armful of yellow roses into the hospital and passed out cigars at the hardware store.
I didn’t love them at first, which I do not feel okay saying aloud. I would sometimes feed them because she was too tired for me to wake and they needed to eat. Because big people feed small people. I sometimes walked them so they’d stop crying. Once I walked them past the crying, through to the other side, sometimes then I just felt better with them tucked up against me like a flower bud, thinking about blooming but not ready yet. They were waiting for the sun to warm them just a little more. I couldn’t have said it then, but the way that they needed me was deeper than the snowbank I fell in, deeper than the sea I dropped in that landed me there, there in that moonlit bedroom, no bigger than a closet, with a small animal clawing at my face and crawling into my neck. My wife slept in our bed, her hip turned on its side, smooth like the metal skirt of a bell.
When you die, you write a list of your favorite mornings and nights and birthdays and baseball games onto your palms. If you’re lucky, the list reaches down your arm. My favorite night was a few days after our second was born. Our first was a treasure curled into a big girl bed, the inside of her mouth sugared with cake and ice cream from her aunt’s birthday, and the new one was napping next to my wife.
She had the surgery for the new one. He was stubborn. She said that was because he was a he. She was marked up with black thread. The skin under her eyes was slack and colored purple, her lips dry. When I went to go to bed, I saw her lying there in a pool of moonlight, tears littered across her cheeks. Catching the moonlight like cut gems. The smell of her hung in the air. She hadn’t bathed in days and my blood ran loose like water in my body, my elbows and the skin behind my knees going soft. She was too weary to care or be embarrassed, her body leaking smells that its own self didn’t want to know about.
I ran her a bath, breaking apart grainy handfuls of Epsom salt under the running water. I laid her in the hot water and soaped her tired shoulders, her heavy breasts leaking milk when I ran the washcloth over them. I wiped the soapy cloth over her face, the small bones of her ears fine as the skeleton of a very small fish. I washed her hair, rubbing at her scalp with the fleshy pads of my fingers. Her face loosened and settled a little. I cleaned her toes and scrubbed her nailbeds and skirted her stomach marked with black stitches and ran the washcloth over the knot in between her legs and down her long, long arms. She had the longest arms. I felt small when she wrapped them around me.
I brought her a winter hat lined with animal fur and yellow roses the next day. A bunch of flowers for the kitchen table, a nosegay for her bedside table. I took our little girl into the backyard to run around some. I tried. I really did. I’m sure I forgot to try so much after some time passed but that I tried then must mean something.
It is my favorite night, my wife in the tub, me pouring warm water over her, bringing her back to a soft, careful life. Lying her in bed, her hair drying into stiff curls on her cheek, her toes tucked under themselves. I built up a nest around her, turning the sheets and blankets into low walls, in case she woke during the night.
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 sledding down a hill or turning in somersaults around the Christmas tree when they were kids. A cup of hot coffee perched on my knee. A hangover banging in my head. Hands pulling at the belt of my robe, at their mother’s fingers. They pushed strollers carrying plastic doll babies. Ran fire engines across the hardwood floors.
We took them on a canoe trip once. All of us piled into one canoe. They cried and whined and moaned the whole time. The sun was too hot. The water too wet. Not enough room. Too hot. Too many people. Monsters in the water. Too hot. Not enough life jackets. No juice. Nothing to eat. Boring. Too hot. Boring. I looked at my wife and under the burning sun, her smiling face across from me, I saw and understood bone tired for the first time, and I had the thought that I wanted to toss the children over, into the arms of the Coast Guard or another family who wasn’t so busy, and rinse each of her bones in the cool water, laying them to dry in the lit belly of the boat.
I’m not sure if it took days or hours or minutes. I could smell them, each one of my children. Each separate but all together, too. Laundry powder and perfume and torn mint, and under all that, skin powder and salty body odor.
The children are pulling her up out of themselves, like it is they who are costumes, skins, and she the kernel, the seed inside.
I know they will be okay because of this, because she was a queen and the queen’s court beside and the castle with flags snapping in the wind. She was the throne wrapped in a piece of jewel covered velvet and the long table laden with food and metal ware and the ballroom bristling with gowns, breasts heavy as split fruit, chamber music pulling the brocade curtains into longer lengths of fabric. She was the dragon roaring fire in the moat. She was the servants’ children tossing bread crumbs to the dragon and the queen herself delighting over the burnished faces of the servant children, pressing sweets and coins and marbles into their pudged hands.
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.
They cried. Their voices cracked. Their backs tore when they bent over their laps, splitting at the seams. 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 softened their voices, furred up the hems of their words. They weren’t so sharp, so hurried, so frantic and panicked all the time. Words creeped from their mouths like canoes set on the water to slip away from the dock. Death draws words from our mouths like narrow canoes swaying on easy water, soft under the warm sun. The kids laid out their words in the lengths of the boats, each boat held by one of them. Time is so finite, but expendable, too. It goes on forever, and forever is like the smell of your life. The kids each walk with canoes on their hands, carrying one another’s words and their sighs and the silent whimpers they drop when they lose words. They steer past one another, guiding their own quiet, listening to the same thing. Water smacking the sides of the boats with the tiniest hands imaginable. They wouldn’t believe how alike they are if someone made them compare notes, but each of them, alone, thinks, when they hear the small slapping of water, “Baby hands.”
They are finding a lighter way to speak to one another now that I am gone. It is a relief to them, to be kind and gentle with one another, but also, they are shy, like they are strangers meeting for the first time. They ask one another questions, small ones, about preferences regarding chicken stock or opinions about flu shots, and then they pause, eyes wide. Their eyes spin, earnest and wet with longing, and they offer their eyeballs to one another like cups of coffee or packages of donuts, wrapped up like hotdogs in buns.
When did they come to prefer different things. When did one of them decide that coffee black was best. Or that two cubes of sugar and a slug of creamer was right. Or just a drip of cream. When did they split, petals breaking, and determine preferences. They betrayed the pact they were born into and nothing will ever work the way it should again.
The kids, they are gentling, too. They are so generous with one another, so tender, each able to care for the other as though he or she has lost his or her father, instead of they who have lost theirs. They are handing one another hundred dollar bills, handfuls of them. Thousand dollar bills, turning their pockets inside out, pulling at the tiny, light blue lint balls, looking for more and more and more to give.
And what makes them mine is that I knew, always, that this is who they are. When the crowns of their heads were still soft, the soles of their feet still pink, I knew. As they calloused and their skin toughened and wrinkled, I knew. They are not surprising me, but they are surprising themselves.
[Move: Growing more like their mother, long gone. She had a dark hollow at her throat where she could have set a nickel and held it in place. Her face was built from the finest net of bones. Too pretty to touch. I worried I’d knock the whole thing down, ruin it, if I wasn’t careful. She held my open hands on her face, holding them there when she was playful. When she wanted me to know she loved me. I loved her.]
They don’t let the dead talk. We’re too tired. They tell us to rest. To take in small breaths. They say, “Just breathe in thimblefuls of air. It’s all you need.” We don’t need the air, of course. Don’t need any of it, but they try to make things easier, not so hard.
The colors are too bright. The world is in technicolor and their eyes are dusty with ash, marked with red and yellow cobwebs. No one is ever ready to let anyone go. It is not enough to say that a life full of love is a life well lived. It’s true, but it is not enough. They made me beautiful in my life, they made my life beautiful. And so I will stay in their lives, keeping their own beauty company, like a tree blows in the wind because the wind is there. I don’t have any songs to sing them when they can’t sleep at night, and I can’t visit them in their dreams and hold their hands, hands I knew before they knew themselves to be hands, before they had the words for hands. I can’t hold their hands when they are scared, but these aren’t things I did in life. It’s not how we were. So if we did not do these things in life but they knew, nonetheless, that I loved them, then they will know that I love them now, in death. Love is the most complicated thing in the world. It is the easiest, the simplest thing. It is a yawn or a sneeze, something the body does, kind of because it has to but mostly because it just does.
And how did I know they loved me? Because they held my hand like I was their tiny baby who they were encouraging, ushering into sleep. They swallowed tears like a silken cord of bristling knots, pasting smiles across their faces. Shining their faces brightly at me. Like lights. They are the light of my life.
They loved me as a father. They loved me as a friend, as a newborn that needed care for everything, as someone they had to love to the point, and this is the furthest point of love, that they would release me. And they did. They let me go, ringing small metal bells behind me, blowing apart flowers gone to seed with soft puffs of breath (add in to memories), faces tucked into their arms, sucking sweetness from their elbows while they sobbed, shooting marbles to one another across a honeyed floor, their small, child’s eyes peeping over their arms, reaching for one another. They let me go and this is how I know they loved me. And when I was gone and there was no bed to gather around, they sat on upholstered chairs in dining rooms, gathered around tables of fried chicken and bundt cakes and flowers reeking with the perfume of life and the ashes of death hung on the same hanger in a small closet. They poured over photo albums and chose flowers at the florist and checked with one another. Irish bells. Are Irish bells okay. Roses. Yellow roses. Do they sound okay? They spent the night at one another’s houses and let one person fall to the ground at a time, one person come apart at a time, never fighting to hog the spotlight like they did as kids. Everyone had a turn. Everyone’s turn was holy. They made room for each of them. And this is how I knew they loved me.
And how did they know I loved them then, in life? How could they be sure? They knew I loved them because I loved them. So how they will know now, how they will know I love them now? How can they be certain? They will know I love them because I love them. It has to be enough for you and if it’s not enough for you, then you are not one of us.