I don't know. I was just reading “Shooting War” a graphic novel satire on the war in Iraq that hit way too close to home for me to feel comfortable. So I switched over to Neil Gaiman's “Death: The Time of Your Life”. Which is good and all, I love his writing, anything I have ever read by him-- novel or tweet, off the cuff remark or a speech to a graduating class on the necessity of making good art in all aspects of one's life.
I guess reading a story that is essentially a meditation on death (the event/concept) while following Death (the character) isn't the smartest way to improve one's mood when they seem to have a lingering spectre with their fingers in your brain whispering about death (of a loved one). And so, I just wanted to write. Something.
I'm angry. Yes. She's dead. Gone. I look at a picture of her, carry one in my wallet. She doesn't look dead. She doesn't feel dead. (“So it goes...”?) But she is. I have to accept that as all people do. If you don't accept that, then you have problems, and certain problems keep you from getting very far in this world. Padded rooms aren't my style, I need more fresh air then a zip-tied room can give me. I hate mosquitoes though.
But she was this stoic Presbyterian. Maybe. Or a Lutheran. She taught at a Sunday School, she helped the church, she played bridge with people from her congregation every Tuesday for as long as she was able. I'm not saying she was perfect, but she was calm, serene. She was peaceful. She walked quietly. Even when she showed anger (or more accurately: frustration over ignorance) she did it in that same way: Quietly.
“Viv? Can I ask you something?” (Me. Age, I don't know, ten I guess. I'm on the phone. My mom is off out of ear-shot, my dad is at the shop.) “My dad and I were talking about politics. He said [conservative Republican rhetoric] and I really can't wrap my head around it. Can you explain why I'm wrong ([about my liberal Democratic rhetoric]) so that I can make him happy?”
“Brian,” There might have been a smile in that voice, there was certainly kindness and love in her words as they crackled through that land-line, “Your dad is an amazing person. He is an excellent example of a man, and I know he has been an excellent father to you-- but-- he's only human. He may not always be right. It's okay to disagree--” [--with respect and love.] It stuck. And though my temper is sometimes shorter than my respect and love for the person I disagree with, I try and hold it close.
I remember when she got cancer the first time (of three). I remember: “double-mastectomy”. Losing both breasts? Isn't that like losing yourself? Your identity? But living was important too. I remember the ear rings I gave her. “I love you.” It was all I could manage. I ran out that door. She wouldn't see me cry. I was a boy. Too strong for stuff like that. It was her, not my mom that found me sitting on the ground behind the garage sobbing. “I'm not dead yet.” She smiled. I hugged her.
She came over almost every week. Since I was little. Since before I understood that people might think it's rude to call Aunt Vivan; “Viv”. My mom tried to correct that for years. But Viv was shorter, quicker, took less effort to say. I never meant any disrespect. I'm sure everyone knew it. I think I was in college before I ever knew her first name wasn't even Vivian, but Ruth. But everyone called her Vivian. Even my dad did, and it was his sister, so it had to be her name, right?
She'd drive from Lake Park, or maybe my mom would (rarely) go and meet her in Spirit Lake. I'd sit at the table. Forgetting video games, tv shows, and other preoccupations. I'd sit and listen month after month as she talked about Dave/Dianne (Son/His Wife) and how the farm was doing. Sometimes it got a little dry, and they got nervous that the beans wouldn't come in enough, and that corn was awfully short. Of course if it wasn't, the flooding was going to drown it all. Just depended on the year, sometimes even the month.
She'd have a cup of coffee, I think she took it black, but she might have taken sugar and milk as my mom does. But there was always a cup of it. Her white hair short and curled. She always smiled, even when she was tired. Her hands were old hands, wrinkled and thin but soft and kind and always warm.
To me, even when her daughter demanded to be given the farm in the will (to sell; our family did the cliché) rather than give it to Dave/Dianne, who actually wanted to farm it, she never showed anger. My mom said words I'd never heard, and my dad reflected those words in his face and posture. (“Brian, it's good you came.” - Barb, daughter. I nod, “Sorryforyourloss” muttered without making eye contact.) No one questions odd behavior, because no one wants to deal with more than themselves. Funerals are selfish services meant to sooth the living. The dead couldn't care less. And I'm not saying that you should unceremoniously dump a body in a ditch and be done with it, but just that too many people are self involved. It hurts too much, I'm sure, to be anything else. It's easy to pick on Barb and her ilk and the nastiness they stirred up. It's always harder to walk uphill to the high-ground. Distance is my companion in that. I'll never see that woman (Barb) again.
My mom says that in the nursing home, near the end, people brought her a ton of pictures. But out of all of them, the only one she kept was of Tasha, Liz, and myself. I don't know if it's true or not, but I [want to] see truth in my mom's eyes as she's telling me this.
I was never anything. I was just there. I went to school. Then college, then took an extra year there. I didn't get my stories published before she passed. I didn't give her all her dreams, or achieve any of my own in her lifetime.
She met Liz and Tasha in a diner. The last time I saw her before the nursing home (which was the last time I saw her-- “I love you, I'll be back up soon!”; Funeral.). But she saw Liz and liked Liz, and she liked Tasha. She said I had turned out to be a great man like she knew I would and knew I could be a great husband and father. I could have told her anything, and if I did it with love and confidence, she would have had my back.
I look at her picture... And it doesn't feel real. I wanted to speak at her funeral but I guess you only get to do that in Hollywood. It doesn't matter. I was late. I took off late, I got hung in traffic on the way out of town. I did 85-90 the whole way from Omaha to Hinton, slowed to go through Merril-- (because once when I was at WIT and still had my Capri, I blew through that town doing 55, passed the inside of a semi on a lane coned off for construction work, because I didn't want to be stuck behind him on a one lane for miles. The cop caught me, I don't know like... twenty minutes later. “Son! Do you know just HOW LONG we have had to drive to catch you?” But they could only give me a warning, they never clocked me and by the time I got pulled over I was back to non-speeding speeds.) --and then I was out of there and back to the 85-90. I hit Sheldon's turn off to go north to Spencer. I had an hour drive+ and I had 45min until the services started. I tried to call my dad to tell him what a failure was.
I lost it. I pulled over. I screamed. I sobbed. I didn't know what to do. I thought a lot of things. Some more serious then others. Many dark thoughts. I wanted to hide. I was ashamed. The woman that meant as much as my parents was dead in a casket an hour away and I couldn't make it to pay my respects. I think I threw up. I really couldn't tell you. I remember numbly driving (and stupidly driving) the rest of the way. I couldn't run home. I didn't have gas, nor money to replace the gas. I had sold a game to get the tank I had to get there. I hadn't thought about the return trip. It hadn't mattered.
I got there 45 minutes after the service started. I waited in the parking lot for five minutes deciding whether to enter or not, if anyone would see, and how much of a flying crap I really gave at this point what people thought of me.
I walked in. It was L-shapped. I was in the little L part, and the I piece was the … what's the word? Cathedral? Foyer? No foyer was what I was in. But the actual church service, pews, all that-- that was around the corner. No one could see me. The priest, he was on speaker, and started the prayer. Something like “Dear Lord, our Father in Heaven, we deliver unto you the soul of Vivian Fischer, into your eternal--” but I don't have to tell you what they say, I know you know.
So I did what I was raised to do when someone starts a prayer. I bowed my head and I closed my eyes. And I said “Amen”. And never in my life have I ever wanted Heaven to be more real than I wanted it to be for her in that moment. She deserved it. If she didn't get to go to Heaven for her life, than who does? No god could damn someone like her.
And I opened my eyes and Mike (her son) was there. Some people move during prayer apparently. And he put his hand on my shoulder (I don't find it a comforting gesture, but you have to suck it up right then.) and he said: “It would have made her very happy to see you here today.” And the priest was wrapping up. They were carrying her out any second. And I know I had to be grey with shame and I could barely look up at his boots. “I was late.” And I glanced into the cathedral-whats-it-called and watched them wheel the casket out on the stretcher. And I'm looking and in my ear I hear him in an almost-whisper: “She would have recognized the effort.” And he was gone. I don't remember seeing him again, not at the burial, not at the luncheon thing. Nadda.
I was stunned and elated to see at least ~100 people. I was sad they were sad, I was sad that they (probably?) had this twisting pain, like a heart in some boys palm, being twisted for the same reason he drowns ants, just to see how they twitch. And I was sad she was gone. But still not a single tear since that freak out when I knew I was going to miss her service. I hear it was nice. But aren't they all? You have to say that. But I'm sure it's true.
And we got into a car with a distant uncle of mine. (We: My mom, dad, and I.) My dad and him talked about whatever from days gone by and miscellaneous small town talk. Bits about Leroy and Vivian and god knows what else. I remember that they were repainting the library. Gas was only $3.15/gal there. The Wal-Mart intersection needs a real light and not a four-way stop. I remember it had snowed. Just the night before. I remember when I got home and emailed my dad I was safe that he said the snow had melted. It made me smile. Maybe I'm a bad person, but I think it was better that it wasn't a perfect day.
Close family gathered under the awning, don't know how they picked that, since my dad stood outside of it, across from them. First time I think I've seen him in a suit. It was a suit but it was colored denim blue. Ugliest frickin' thing ever. But it beat my dress pants and collared t-shirt. I was glad it was cold enough I never had to take my jacket off entirely.
More words, two more prayers. And that was it. No bagpipes, no lowering the casket. I remember thinking “I have no idea what to do.” My dad walked off, and I saw Marylynn in the crowd. I have a lot of aunts and uncles. Or did. Not so much any more. And all I wanted to do was touch the casket and say goodbye.
I stepped forward, as others started to, and realized others were touching it. I never saw her face. I wasn't at the wake, I was late to the service and, obviously, outside it was closed. I don't know if any of that matters but I wanted to say goodbye. And I touched it. I don't know what I expected it to feel like. It was cold and smooth. Hard and permanent. And only a sliver of it hit but I knew then that she was dead, even though I seem to forget it now and then, and that she was never coming back.
I didn't care for a microsecond. I felt it. I felt the riptide of emotion that was about to hit me and I realized if it did, I was going to be crippled. In front of all these people. In front of strangers, in front of people who didn't know me or why I cared. In front of people who I'm sure felt the same or closer to her than they thought I did or had a right to.
I wouldn't. I couldn't. And a wail truncates to a sob. And I couldn't shut myself up and so I started walking and trying to grieve as quietly as humanly possible to do when it feels like you just gave up a lung... And it was one step, then another and then another. There's a crack in the bottom of my work boots, the dressiest shoes I had at the moment, and the snow squicked through. It melted, my foot was cold. I stopped and looked down. How did my feet work?
Sob. F!-ing foot, move! Sob. Dad's hand on my shoulder. As I said, I don't find it a comforting gesture. He never said a word, but rubbed my back. I don't know his look. I don't know what he would have done if I had completely lost it. I don't know if he would have been the tough farm hand telling me to suck it up or if he would have let me cry or if he would have lost it too. I don't know. My parents simply said they had done their grieving before I arrived. Maybe they had. Well if they weren't a wreck, I could do it to. And so when he touched my back I knew then I had to walk or never move again.
First one step. Then two. Three, then four. And I think my dad or someone tried to ask me something. I thought about... I don't know. Some long lost memory I guess. Couldn't tell you what. I almost stopped. I wanted to. I didn't want to be an adult anymore. My aunt was gone. I was in the car. I don't really remember walking to it. My mom gave me a tissue. She tried to comfort me. She really did. But I didn't want to be comforted. How the F! could THEY know?! (They know; knew.) But the wound was too fresh and maybe the peroxide would have helped it, but I had had enough pain.
They bought me a tank of gas, and I went home. The next day I worked. I had never been so happy before or after that day to drag my tail to that place, clock in, and deal with 'ignorant' people and their 'petty' problems, and all that jazz. They needed help, I stayed late, happily. I let people go home early so that I had more to do. I restocked the batteries, I detailed the shelves, I organized the terminals, I printed out the next MONTH worth of sales sheets and attached them to every clipboard. I went home, I slept. And that was it.
Our dining room in the house I grew up in wasn't big. Maybe fourteen by fourteen feet? Which, after the table, chairs, china hutch, desk, end tables, and knick-knacks, isn't that much. It was a dark wood coffee table on dark wood floor under a plain metal chandelier. Outside the windows you can see our neighbor's white house and the extended garage he built that my mom hated because-- “it blocks the whole view”. (Which was only ever his house, anyway.) It is joined to the kitchen by an open doorway and a cut-out with breakfast bar. In the kitchen you can hear the coffee maker making a fresh pot. And every week, for most of my life, I would stand out there as it finished and ask the same question:
“Coffee's ready! Viv, do you want another cup?”
And so it goes...
I didn't write these words for you to read. I didn't write them for any one person. This isn't the only place that I've shared those words. I doubt you'll ever read this, and this doesn't need any reply.
But it feels like ages ago, when you e-mailed me out of the blue to tell me about your mother. I was so stunned, so shocked, I really didn't know what to say. After not hearing from you for so long, I really couldn't even string a sentence together. As I said, I didn't know what to say then. But I do now, and it's simply this:
I am so sorry for your loss. She was an amazing woman, who I respected for raising such amazing daughters who had the strength to forge their own paths in a world that can be cold and heartless.
Congratulations on your marriage. May it bring you nothing but joy and happiness, and the brightest of futures. You truly deserve it. And stay forever strong.
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