It turns out you’re still dead.
I’m a bit grumpy about it, generally. I thought you would have found a loophole, that somehow the cosmic soup wouldn’t have been enough. That you would make it back here, at least for summer.
It’s dawn, and I’m outside under the pergola, laden with a foot-and-a-half thick blanket of grape leaves. It’s a little crisp, but clear; yesterday was the hottest day of summer for us, and today promises to be bright and warm, unlike last year when the marine layer came to blanket me in a gray shroud. The trees are black, but the sky is tipping toward periwinkle, two bright stars flickering their last light before they are outshone by our own nearest one.
A moth flew into the grape leaves above, mapped by nature to know when to retire for the day.
A few minutes have passed, and now shapes become less draped in black. The leaves which will appear bright green in a few minutes are a little muddy, not simply silhouette, but subtly mottled with dark and less-dark.
I was going to Vancouver to visit Chris for “Dad’s Day” but things kept conspiring against us. First we couldn’t get a hotel, then Moxie got some horrible illness which we thought might take him out too. But he’s next to me now, cleaning himself like a cat and no longer miserably sick. Chris had to work anyway, which he thought was appropriate. “That’s what Dad would have done,” he said. ‘Well, this day sucks. I’d better get to work.’” It’s true: You would have toddled to the art studio and worked out your complicated emotions in paint.
Pink! The sky is dusty rose, and one crow has begun to pipe in with unwanted cackles.
In a week, Chris is coming to Portland to shoot a film. “I miss him, but the weird thing is, I couldn’t do any of this if he was still alive. How’s that for insane?” he said. “I couldn’t afford to do this. He made it possible.”
“If he could see that this was his legacy, he would be ridiculously proud!”
The star is gone, washed out behind our own bright light, and two thin wisps of pink cloud pass where it was a minute before. Even mosquitoes go to bed, one circling me for a last bite before tucking in for the day. The dewy air fills my lungs pleasantly, and my clothes hang onto the moisture, making them cool.
I was calling Chris at this time last year, and Lars. Did I call Mom this early? I can’t imagine that I would have. I’d have thought, “She can’t change anything. She might as well sleep.” Then calling the hospice agency. Thankfully they called the funeral home, as I wandered through the house to gather up your last luggage to board the ferry: fresh flowers, your old teeth, some francs to pay the boatman.
A hummingbird is chittering its high machine gun insults, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tattattat, staking its claim to territory. I read in National Geographic that hummingbirds have great potty-mouths, that their diverse chirrups and titters are mostly threats and insults to other hummingbirds, being a remarkably ferocious little dart of life. It wasn’t possible to make me love them more, but it made me respect them: small, but fierce. Now, even when I can’t see one, I can identify their chits and I’m comforted.
The hummingbird, looking for insects, is whirring and wheeling above us: me, the dog, the cat. An impossible creature doing impossible things, draped in impossible jewel-box colors of emerald and ruby.
The sky is baby-room blue, all the leaves defined once again by ambient light. I killed the mosquito in a bit of swift justice. Surprise. Life over.
I’m tired, but not as tired at last year. I’ve never been as tired as I was last year. After I came back home—after I moved back into my life—I fell asleep for 18 hours. I lay down on our bed fully clothed in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t move again until the next morning.
It is now truly day. Lars and Milo are asleep, the cat skulks, the dog cleans itself like a cat, curls up in a ball and snuffs. I will sleep again too, I hope.
Mornings always belonged to you, the early riser. I was never fortunate to be at home in the dawn, but I’m here with you now. I miss you dearly.
The first direct sun has tipped on the trees. This is my cue to say goodnight.
The watch was in every photo of Dad, from the Eighties on. A Seiko, it had a light in its dial, a new-fangled luxury when he bought it on deep discount at Montgomery Ward’s for less than a hundred dollars. The dial featured the months of the year in both English abbreviations and Japanese katakana, and Dad figured out how to set it properly, though things like this usually defied him, employing a type of logic foreign to him.
The morning Dad died and the man from the funeral home drove away with him, I put his watch on. I needed this piece of Dad, modestly omnipresent for as long as I could recall. But the watch didn’t fit my narrow wrist, and hit the bone when I walked, a solid metal thunk which drove me mad.
Chris asked after the watch and I handed it to him, knowing it would fit. “I haven’t worn a watch in years,” he said. “Maybe I can get used to it.” Chris visibly matured with this classically adult accessory adorning his wrist.
He handed it back after a couple days. “I don’t know,” he said. “You can have it.”
I was relieved, but wrestled with myself: I wouldn’t be able to wear it unless I got the band adjusted; Chris could wear it and its integrity would remain. I wanted it, though it was impractical. Chris really should have it, I thought. It only makes sense. I gave it back to him, though Lars told me I shouldn’t—that it seemed like the only object I wanted out of Dad’s entire estate. Regardless, I handed the watch to Chris, the male heir. He asked if I was sure, I said yes, and he put it back on.
He was on his way back to Canada when I called him. “Did I ever tell you the story about show-and-tell?” I asked. “Dad took me to a gem shop and bought me this rock...”
He laughed, and mailed me the watch before he reached the border.
Months back in the swing of life—school underway, estates broken up—things normalized. Lars and I were joint parents again. I walked Moxie most of the time, but asked some friends if they would be interested in taking him. They were intrigued; they had been his dog-sitter a couple of times, and they loved him dearly. I encouraged them to mull it over for a bit, and get back to me.
Finally, Lars and Moxie found a mutual understanding: as my cooking gave way to complete burn-out, Lars was scrambling to learn a few things in the kitchen. One thing he learned was that he loved rotisserie chicken from the store, but that he couldn’t eat one by himself. Moxie’s eyes would follow him with feverish chicken-inspired adoration, and after Lars had eaten, he would share some of the leftovers with Moxie as a symbolic olive branch, man to dog.
It became their thing, Moxie and the Chicken Man.
“I’m so sorry about the dog,” I said.
“I know you are,” Lars said.
“I still feel really guilty.”
“Thank you, Chicken Man.”
Chris and I chatted about the Great Dog Debacle.
“I kept myself so solid, so pulled together to help Dad navigate his way through dying. I was taking care of him, me, Milo, and Lars. The dog obsession was this funny displacement, something my subconscious created to deal with this unbelievably painful, stressful experience. And I was sad Milo was on his own.”
“What about Stanley?” Chris asked me.
“Stanley was my dream dog. I imagined writing with Stanley, this big lug, keeping my feet warm. He was the dog who would love me unconditionally when Dad was gone. He was my booster—my proxy Dad—who would love me no matter what I did.”
“So you wanted the dog for yourself, but instead got the sibling for Milo you said you wanted in the first place,” he noted. “Because they really are like siblings.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s right. Stanley was for me, but Moxie is Milo’s dog.”
“So it worked out?”
“I guess so,” I said. “No thanks to me.”
Dad, lying on his deathbed in his living room on a sunny afternoon not so far from his end, noted the lines etched in my face that had grown there over the previous year. “I know how hard this is,” he said. “It’s not hard for me, because I’m okay with dying. But it’s hard to watch you suffer.”
I sat next to him and held his hand.
“But it’s beautiful. I watch you, detached from the experience sometimes. You take care of me like a mother. You’re so good to me.”
I equivocated, I’m sure.
“I’m the patriarch, and letting go of my time, which is fine. But you’re stepping in to fill the breach. You’re the leader now, the matriarch. You have Milo and Lars, and your brother. You’re the new leaders. And that’s good too.”
On the flight home from Hawaii, Chris said, “I think I’ll take Dad whenever I travel, leaving a bit of him all over the world.”
It’s a work in progress. There is no last chapter.