Death happens when it’s inconvenient, in a snow storm, when the plows haven’t awakened to clear the streets. Though Death personified is suave, it’s really a lump. It doesn’t ask, Is this a good time for you? Is your calendar clear? It blunders into an important lunch, while the candidate’s mouth is full of turkey wrap. It rings the doorbell well past the time for visitors, while the old man sits heavily on the toilet, thinking it’s a spot of heartburn. It happens when no one is much expecting it and looking in the right direction. It happens as if no one has ever died before. It happens to my father.
6:00: Stops at local grocery to pick up a few supplies, a turkey wrap, some orange juice, an apple. Not much, he never buys much. He can’t carry much.
6:20: Pulls into the long sweeping drive of Luther Crest, the retirement community where he resides and parks in his spot near the entrance.
6:25: Carries his bag of groceries into Luther Crest and takes the elevator up. Exits the elevator on the 3rd floor, turns right down a long winding corridor identical to the one he would have taken if he turned left. Walks with a shuffling step, past one closed door after another, each with a number and name in small black print in the tiny box above the doorbell. Outside each apartment door, a ledge with sad displays, vases of plastic flowers, animal figurines, snow globes covered in dust. Thinks the stuffed animals are speaking to him. Encounters no one on this long corridor but hears the sounds of televisions behind the doors turned up too loud.
6:30: Calls the woman he has been seeing, who my sisters and I have not met because he thinks his dating her will be an affront to the memory of our mother, which it is not, and makes plans to see her the next day.
9:05: Cannot breathe. The nitroglycerin spray does nothing and the attack continues. Turns blue.
9:07: Calls the first responder and she comes quickly. She is a young woman who knows what is in the room. She calls an ambulance.
9:30: By the time the ambulance arrives death and my father are one.
10:15–1:03: I don’t know what my sisters do at the hospital or what has happened to death. Was he ever admitted? Did he have a room? Or was he in emergency?
1:03: Carol calls. My husband Richard and I are sound asleep. The dogs are settled. It is cold because the heat has shut off for the night and it is snowing lightly outside. Richard gets up and answers the phone. Hello. Yes, she’s here. Handing the phone to me, Your sister. Hello I say. Sorry to be calling so late, she says. I know it is something terrible she has called to tell me. I know this before she speaks.
1:30: Richard takes the dogs downstairs and outside. He’s brought them back in and they sit on the big blue pillow under the dining room table while I talk to my sister. I don’t know what I’m saying.
1:45: I urge Richard to go back to bed. He resettles the dogs and gets in bed.
1:46: I step outside to our screened porch, open the door, and stand on our small deck. You’d think there would be silence then, when everyone is mostly in bed sleeping or trying to do so, and my father is dead. I hear a leaky gutter dripping—drip, drip— dispensing the day’s rain water upon the ground, and I hear the river, swollen with melted snow and ice from the warm days, whishing downstream, the current, constant and unfettered, marked by force or strength, a steady onward movement.
1:50: I walk down to the banks of the river. Our house looks lit like a cruise ship sailing dark water, portholes aglow. I hear the river sweeping forward.
2:00: I think of my father hastening away from the grave site where we buried my mother, trying to get to his car as fast as he could. He bought a cheap suit a size too small for the occasion and the buttons were popping, the seams were unraveling. He was hurrying to his car holding the lapels.
2:02: And now here I stand in the dark with all my buttons popping.
Fizzle1; oh you and your deaths
Death in the making, in the form of an old black cat with green eyes, curled in the curve of my arm, in the hollow space between my husband and me in the marital bed, labored breathing, still it was, facing me with a face, all through the night when suddenly up it got and vomited on the spread, and then moved to the corner, no food or water would it take; it had nothing left to say, still it moved from place to place searching for a final resting place? a last anchor? a place to be alone, I think…off stage, but I wouldn’t let it be alone, no, I had to search for it, look in all the old places, up in the attic in the eaves, under the back porch ruins, opening and closing doors, until I found it huddling outside, I had to put my arms around it, small it was…near the end…there had been so much more in my memory, and I had to embrace it, hold it, not let it go, Father called then and I couldn’t answer, I could hear the rings through the windows, I knew it was him, I always know when it is Father calling, he knows when not to call, has an uncanny sense when I am in the throes of something…this is when he calls, I can count on it, I can count on what he’ll say if I answer too…oh you and your deaths, he’ll say it as if I collect them…deaths, that is, maybe I do; what’s to be done about it, I can’t help I’m in the thick of ruin, and he lets the phone ring such a long time, eternity really, refusing to accept I won’t answer, that he can’t wear me down, why don’t I answer, well, I could say I was outside, with my arms around the huddling thing, I didn’t answer because I didn’t want to and I didn’t want to because I don’t like lying, I can’t say…everything is wonderful…lilacs blowing…ducks swimming…happy day…that kind of thing, I can’t and that’s what Father wants and when he doesn’t get happy day, he lets me have it, oh you and your deaths…that’s what he says with boredom and condescension dripping from his voice…so no…I didn’t answer, I was busy and then the strangest thing happened…a bunch of tiny birds, sparrows, flew about the tree, out of nowhere, ten I should think, they were making an awful noise, half past noon it was…what was it, I wondered, that stirred them, then I saw…the buteo regalis…all ruffled, all turned out…kree-a kree-a…compact, legs rusted and ruffled, lots of white, juvenile, it was, still green about the killing, saw its white legs landing in the grass by the tree lit with sparrows, the sparrows were dive bombing the hawk…he held his ground, a small emperor, the wind picked up…a bottle far away rattled as it rolled down a hill, the way things that need to flow downwards do, and the sparrows were up and swooping, the sun came out from behind the clouds, everything ablaze with light, the hawk still in the grass, dominion that’s the word I thought, was I sparrow or hawk…was I one…or the other, which face did I wear as the hawk flew up, sparrows in tow, his royal retinue, from tree to tree, they flew…and then out of sight, the sun disappeared, the sky thickened, wind grew and grew, building; branches began to break and pitch down, a few drops of rain, no more, I expected downpour, I expected the river to overflow its banks, but…no…a few drops…a sprinkling, on and off…all through the day until night like an intermittent suitor who comes and goes and can’t decide whether to stay, still I didn’t answer my father’s call oh you and your deaths, I picked up the branches dragging the big ones to the bank of the river, adding them to the pile, I went inside and changed the sheets…pulled them off the bed, tried to dry the damp place on the spread, I remade the bed and got in.
We have no say in how we come into this world.
No one asks: would you like to be born on a cold morning when the trees are ruined?
Would it suit you to be the child of parents whose unhappiness tunnels through the neighborhood, live in a room with heavy boulders wedged against the door?
We’re thrown into ourselves, finger nail by finger nail, eye lash by eye lash, roped to crumbs our mother bestows until some epic push dumps us out onto a cold steel slab.
Then hands sleeved in plastic grab us and shake us like we are rag dolls.
Listen: I know how I want to make my exit.
Let it not be February, not in the month I was born.
Let me have gotten somewhere beyond where I started.
Let there not be snow crusted blue on rooftops and steeples.
Let the river not be frozen and let the trees not be bare.
Let the deer not be hungry, staggered at the salted curbs.
Let the old people not be huddled behind their blue space heaters.
Let me not be ferried to a funeral home, those thick blocks of ice.
Let me not be put in a wood box no matter how rare the wood.
Let me not be burned in the world’s hottest oven.
Let no one gather at the town’s center and sprinkle flowers or words.
Let no one scatter me from a ship’s bow or saw me in obituary.
Let me not be stored in a decorative urn.
Let school children put down their pencils.
Let yellow buses turn into wigwams.
Let there be horses crossing the river with nothing but flies on their backs.
Let all the windows be open.
Let the wind be fierce.
Let the tires of cars go flat.
Let all the stall doors be unbolted.
Let all the fences fall.
Let apples drop from the trees.
Let the horses and deer enter the world’s final orchard.
Let the river swamp its banks after five days of heavy rain.
Let the tips of blue from the flags of iris ripen early.
Let branches the length of canoes rush downstream with the current.
Let the wind lift and die, like a forgotten field.
Let me set off in a blue plastic boat under the stone bridge past Spurgen Hunsicker’s house where the rubber tire still swings, past the village of willows.
Let the horses be dark on the road through town.
Let me hear the clop of hooves in rhythm, the stutter stutter swish of their feathery tails.
Let me disappear into the woods.
Let the mice take over the kitchen and run their mad dance from drawer to drawer.
Let them sleep in the spoons.
1. In the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s Fizzles, brief prose pieces, spasms of imagery and memory.