I’m in the market for a new set of parents for my daughter. I have been given six months to come up with my replacement. Half a year.
Yes, we’re certain.
No, no hope.
And in the ensuing conversation, in the part where somebody might mention space-age medicine, risky experimental trials, or even good old-fashioned radiation, surgery, balding chemotherapy, all their expertise is brought to bear on fashioning suggestions, on stringing serious, straight-faced phrases into small, sad sentences: Put your affairs in order. Enjoy what’s left. And every blessed one of them forgets to say: We could be wrong. I can tell you, that would jolly well be my first line if I had a speaking part in this production.
One brave physician does have the nerve to say, These things happen.
“Apparently,” I say.
So. Six months.
I’m back in my hometown, staying with my sister Nancy, the hands-down favorite to replace me. For this first week my daughter, Rachel, is away at camp. A trial separation. Then she will come here, and we will both get used to the idea that she will go on living with Nancy after I am gone. That, or we’ll run off to Utah together in the middle of the night and leave death bound and gagged behind.
Rachel is twelve years old, and I am sixty. I have been working out the math for other people ever since she was a baby. No, I am her mother actually. Yes, it is unusual. Forty-eight, yes. No, it’s not impossible. The timing seems about as smart now as everything else I’ve ever done.
Like the timing of my husband’s death, which, although I didn’t choose, I can still occasionally believe to be my fault. There isn’t much that happens on the planet earth that I can’t make myself feel guilty for. Jake was killed on a rafting trip in western Canada six years ago: a case of rough water and mean rocks and a dozen different particulars of physics converging on a moment in a most peculiar way. That’s if you don’t factor God in.
We got lucky with the summer camp; somebody dropped out at the last minute, and Rachel got the slot. I wanted her to have this breather. Plus, I want her to have some competing memory of this summer. I want her to have cows and campfires and a near miss with an old canoe, a case of poison ivy, or puppy love to tuck away for all the years when she is up against remembering.
Six months. Plus or minus. And with any luck at all Rachel could live another seventy or eighty years. Our joint life span might stretch thinly out across 140 years.
So here I sit, drinking lukewarm coffee in the last outpost on earth. I scan Nancy’s front lawn and look across the quarter mile of water to the houses on the far side of the pond, and I imagine I can flash messages with mirrors that could be understood by Boy Scouts in their bedrooms. I could summon children from their swing sets with this mirror Morse code, across the water and the new-mown lawns: HELP! SEND SUCCOR! I’m here living with my sister, and that is awful, and her husband, and that is awful, and with their dog, whom I cannot abide. And a whole troop of Cub Scouts carrying a canvas cot would storm the family room and spirit me away. Or maybe just one lean and sun-tanned Eagle Scout with merit badges covering his sash would row across in a canoe and carry me off to his pup tent. And, oh, dear God, let him be Roger Wilson, cocky and sixteen, and let me be in high school when he gets here.
So it seems I have come home to die.
Where would you go?
Nancy has never left this town. She and Tom have two grown kids and two careers and a history of more trips to Hawaii and Disney World than I care to think about. I hardly saw them during all the years when I visited Johnstown only in my mind.
“Are you still reading that same book?” Nancy’s parcels crinkle as she walks across the room, her arms full of purchases. I call them “purchases,” these items bought and paid for, packaged up and carried home and laid out across the bed and talked about, then put away — for good, as far as I can tell. Purchase. The word makes me think of Louisiana and Manhattan and glass beads and salvation. Purchase. It’s a word to go a few rounds with. Get a purchase. Get a grip.
“Come see what I bought.” Nancy nods toward the bedroom, where we do our looking, and I follow. I am, after all, her guest. “You should come with me next time.”
“I should,” I say.
The last time we went shopping, I finished the first third of Little Dorrit. Nancy tried clothes on while I sat outside on the chair for husbands and read Charles Dickens.
“Remember Nelson’s department store?” I say.
I ask her these questions all the time. Do you remember the old library? She gets her books there. Remember the junior high? She works there. Remember the church, the shoe store, the park? She buys her groceries where my memories are, conducts the business of her days smack in the middle of my past, stomps freely through the town with no respect for history. A boy I had a crush on in eleventh grade fills her teeth. The parking lot where Robbie Smyers let me out and drove off with Dolores Ruffner is where Nancy taught her son to drive. I am amazed at the idea that anyone could live their real life here. I think if I had never moved away, I would still be tripping over history every day.
“Oh, dear Lord. Tom will be home any minute, wanting his supper.” This is a line Nancy must have heard once in a movie. From what I can tell, she never cooks. On my few visits through the years, Tom has cooked chicken on the grill or we ordered pizza or Chinese. Now, most nights they go out for dinner. I stay home and scramble eggs, declining their gracious invitations. (They are unfailingly polite.)
I still can’t believe I’m here. I don’t know if they have invited me or my prognosis. I mean, I know it’s not their intention to grow old with me, and it is clearly their intention to grow old. They talk about it all the time. They want to buy a condo in Palm Beach, Florida. Nancy says you would not believe the gift shops there.
I attempt to introduce our mother into a conversation. Our mother, now in a nursing home, she who no longer knows our names, our sins, our faces. Our mother, the woman who once told us she never wanted children.
“Water over the dam.” Nancy slams the silverware drawer shut.
I start to tally up the funerals of relatives I can recall.
“It does no good to dig that up again.”
I tell Tom a story about five-year-old Nancy: “Mother and Dad bought her a Kodak Brownie camera. She was in kindergarten. And then, when I left for college, they bought her a canopy bed. They never gave me anything, and they buy her a canopy bed with a real canopy.”
“You’re sleeping in that bed,” Nancy says.
“I’m not going to touch this one with a ten-foot pole,” Tom says and goes to get a refill from the half keg in the laundry room.
I fall asleep, and I am in a tiny dress shop with Nancy, and all the dresses cost twenty-seven dollars, and only I know our mother’s dead. Nancy keeps asking the clerk to show her more dresses, and I keep hissing to get her attention. Finally I whisper, “We have to leave. Our mother is dead, and we don’t have any money,” and all of a sudden we’re out in the middle of a big field in the dark, and in the distance I can hear the whistle of a train, and I think if we could just follow that sound back home, we would be safe. I start to run, pulling Nancy, but she drags her feet so that I am practically carrying her through the night.
I wake up in Nancy’s guest room, my heart pounding. I sit up to breathe, and then I hear the train whistle again, far off in the night, and all of a sudden I am the safest I am ever going to be. That lonely whistle takes me back to lying in a big iron bed beside my grandmother, fat and fast asleep and breathing loud and deeply, while far away, glamorous ladies in tight dresses and men in three-piece suits or army uniforms ride through the thickest part of the night in warm, noisy, yellow-lighted railroad cars, riding sentinel, blessing all the sleeping people on the earth. I hear the whistle blow again, the saddest and the safest sound I know.
Still, I need to put some distance between me and that dress shop and that dark, empty field. I get up and put my bathrobe on and try to slap my grandmother awake, but she will only suffer this resurrection fast asleep. She is a heaving mountain beneath clean, starched white sheets, laundered in her dungeon basement, fed through the mangle rollers by hand, and hung on the line to dry in bleaching sun and untamed wind. This woman will not be awakened by whistles in the night. I carry her out to Nancy’s eerie kitchen, sit her in a chair, and say, Now, then. She just sits there. And it occurs to me that, in the fifteen years I knew her, I never saw Grandma Chase do a thing. I never saw her watch TV or read or sew or ask someone a question. I spent a lot of time with her, but still she is one of those relatives I have gotten mostly secondhand. Every time I tell someone about them, I must rely on the stories of others who loved or hated them enough to make their histories up.
“Mattie, are you OK?” Nancy is standing in the doorway, looking worse than my imagined fifty-years-dead grandmother in the chair opposite. Nancy’s skin is yellow-gray. She doesn’t have her contacts in, and her eyes look lost. The right one wanders like it did when she was little.
“Oh, me? Sure. I was just trying to puzzle out Grandma Chase. The whistle woke me up, and it reminded me of when I used to sleep over at her house. Do you know, for the life of me, I can’t remember anything she ever did. Did she just sit her whole life out, or what?”
“What whistle woke you, Mattie?”
“The train whistle.”
“There’s no train, Mattie. There hasn’t been a train through Johnstown now for twenty years.”
“Maybe not, but there is still the whistle in the nighttime.”
“You should go back to bed,” Nancy says. She isn’t good at being up in the middle of the night.
“Everybody in this family always rested so much,” I say. “They took so many naps. They would lie down right after breakfast. Most of them were retired completely by the age of forty.”
“Mattie, they’re all dead,” Nancy says.
“Well, but when they were alive, they rested. Like us. We are a brood of resters.”
“Mattie, I’ve worked full time my whole life,” Nancy says. “Now go back to bed.”
“I am. I am. I just keep trying to figure them all out.”
“They’re gone, Mattie. All of them have been gone for years. They lived their lives the best they knew how. You have to stop living back there. Live today.” She speaks, then has the courtesy to wince.
Nancy turns and leaves the kitchen night to Grandma Chase and me.
I think she sometimes means well.
When Nancy was six and I was eight, she told me that a witch lived underneath our bed and then would throw my pillow on the floor, where it would lie till morning. One day she tied a string across the middle of our room and said she would tear my eyes out if I put one foot on her side. The door was on her side.
When she was miffed, Nancy could be stone silent from after lunch till bedtime. She would play dead in fights, stop breathing, feign sincere unconsciousness until I begged and pleaded and promised I’d be her servant my whole life — a promise I now wonder have I kept.
She told our little brother Ricky if he wet his finger and put it in the electric socket, ice cream would come out. She promised if he jumped off the six-foot-high armoire, he could fly. Inspired by the first seat belts, she chained him to his tricycle and pushed him down a hill.
Oh, Nancy would give you anything. She was always generous. And she was mean.
I can’t tell you just what it all amounts to, but I do know that I am afraid of her to this very day.
“Tom and I are going to have, like, a cookout,” Nancy says, and I try to make a mental list of things that are like a cookout: certain women’s magazines; my sister-in-law Bethy; cherry jello; marigolds; Wayne Newton; anything that happens in the basement of a Baptist church.
“It’ll be good for you,” she says, and I wonder in what way. “You can help me get ready. I think I’ll do a strawberry theme if I can find the right paper plates. I’ll make sloppy joes and put red food coloring in the ice cubes.”
“Do you feel like you had a childhood?” I say. I sometimes feel this sort of sudden rush of possibility in conversation.
“What do you mean?” Nancy says. “Of course I did. What kind of question is that?”
“The kind that wants an answer,” I say. “I’ve always been amazed at other people’s stories of their childhoods. By comparison, we grew up in a vacant lot. I remember once I read one of those exercises in a self-help book. It said to sit quietly and close your eyes and bring back one memory from childhood that was entirely happy, and I sat there half an hour and couldn’t resurrect a one. Oh, I could think of happy things, but when I played the story out, it always evolved pretty quickly to some reprimand or sad feeling or catastrophe. There wasn’t one ten-minute just-plain-happy memory there.”
“Well, it was all a long time ago,” Nancy says, as though this might have anything to do with it.
“Look, Nancy, I know you and Tom aren’t young. I know you’d like to retire in a few years,” I say. “I know this isn’t your first choice.”
“Mattie, don’t be silly. We love Rachel, and we’d be happy to have her if it ever came to that. But you just concentrate on getting well.” She’s been giving me books about self-healing, mind over medicine, the implicit message being that if you got sick, it was your own damn fault.
“God only knows how long you might be with us,” Nancy says. “Besides, Rachel only has six more years until she goes to college.”
“Seven,” I say. “She was older when she started school.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
Sometime later, driving to the hospital, Nancy suggests that her daughter Tiffany might raise Rachel. I imagine Rachel being passed around among members of the family or Nancy’s church or our hometown.
“No,” I say. “No.”
“Well,” Nancy says. “OK.”
It makes me feel like I should spell it all out for her: Don’t give Rachel away, and please remember to feed her, keep her warm and dry, don’t let her date ax-murderers in high school. Not only must I marry these three people now together, but I must plan their life, leaving nothing to chance. I, who did so poorly with my own life, must now oversee a life for them while I am fully occupied pushing up daisies — or, more likely, being weighted down by them.
Or, I wonder, will it work that way? Do you still have the same worries about your kids after you are dead? Or do we imagine that on the day we die our children become indestructible, invincible? How else do we sign last wills and testaments that give our children over to our relatives, for pity’s sake? I’m leaving Rachel to Tom, and I won’t let her ride to the mall if he is driving.
Rachel’s coming home today. Home. I keep saying that like home is something that you carry around with you, a pup tent you put up every night and take down every morning.
When I first see Rachel, I don’t recognize her for a second. She’s tanned, and she looks taller and is wearing a shirt I haven’t seen before. When she hugs me, she gushes, “Mom, you’ve got to meet Jenny. She’s my new best friend,” and she introduces me to a skinny, tooth-braced adolescent with mauve eye shadow and two silver tarantulas dangling from one ear.
“Mom, you’ll just love her,” Rachel says. “She’s so cool. Can I sleep over at her house tonight? Jenny thinks her parents might invite me to go to Maine with them.”
I’ve been holding my breath for seven hundred-hour days. I exhale a week’s worth in one puff.
“Mom, are you OK?” She remembers to be concerned. She’s out of practice.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Really good.” I even smile.
I want this Jenny gone.
“You’re too mean to die,” Nancy said to me once when we were younger. Guess I’ll show her.
When we were little, sometimes Nancy and I would fight for days, expending all the energy we had, foraging for injuries and conflict to keep the battle going. Today feels just the same, except that now we forage through long decades.
What has Nancy been harboring for twenty years? What have I? I had this Alzheimer’s-like menopause. I forgot the days of the week, the names of all my friends, the first part of whatever sentence I was in the middle of. But in that mental muddle, with all the daily details off on holiday, the memories were crystal clear of every hurt I’d ever suffered at my sister’s hand. And where to find the person who might go back now through family history and understand the people and the things we did, the mean things, the fabled sins that caused the storied sorrows, and show them all redeemed?
“Oh. I’m sorry, Mattie.”
Nancy’s caught me crying.
“No,” I say, “it’s OK, really. I always figured I was going to die, even as a kid — especially as a kid. I’ve been expecting it for sixty years. It’s not the dying that’s the sad thing; it’s all the things that could have been so different. And now I am to leave Rachel just as she is standing on that ledge they push you from to hurl you into adolescence. That abyss.”
“Why, Mattie, the teenage years are lots of fun. I had a good time during those years.”
“You did not.”
“I did. Rachel can, too.”
I haven’t got a clue if she’s telling the truth or lying.
“Well, anyway,” I say, “I never thought I’d grow this old and die and still have so much unsettled, so many loose ends all over the place. We’re so very different, you and I. You’re amazing. It’s like you’ve got this extra-thick skin, this armor plating, that lets everything roll right off you. Nothing penetrates. Me, every pinprick breaks the skin. One needle and I bleed for hours. I have no protection.”
“Maybe you should get some. Maybe you could try to change.”
“It’s too late. Even you have to realize that. What am I supposed to do: get myself in shape to live a better life? I need to be getting myself in shape to die.”
“Oh, Mattie, don’t say that.”
“Why not? It’s true. Besides, what’s it to you? You were never all that keen on me for starters. You never liked me. Plus, you don’t even know me.”
“And you know me?” Nancy says.
“Of course I do. You’re all out on the surface. You’re on display. You’re what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I’m dying, and you’re going shopping.”
“I’d go shopping if I were the one who was sick. It’s something I enjoy.”
“I rest my case.”
At one point it occurs to me I should just make up my mind to go on living, at least until Rachel’s grown. It’s the only arrangement that makes any sense. I’m not perfect, but I am the strongest wisher in the universe. I could go on living just to wish her well. Besides, Rachel’s gotten used to me.
“Excuse me?” Nancy looks nervous. Every time I say or do anything, I see her wondering whether my present circumstance has started to affect my brain.
“You remember,” I say. “We all die on holidays. Grandma Chase died on New Year’s Eve, her mother went out on the Fourth of July, her father had his heart attack on Christmas, and two cousins died on two different Halloweens. Dad always used to say, ‘In this family if you can just make it through the holiday, you’ll be ok.’ ”
Nancy sits down with her cup of tea and unscrews the cap on a nail-polish bottle. Copper Red. Even the name sounds toxic.
“But they all died pretty standard deaths,” I say.
“All the relatives. Maybe how you go out is genetic.”
“Mattie, think about something else.” She starts to apply the careful coats of copper. It smells awful, but I love to watch the change it makes.
“Maybe I’ll use that after you,” I say.
“Sure. Here, let me do your nails.” She reaches for her bone white cuticle stick and takes my hand. Her skin feels soft and warm. I can’t remember the last time she touched me, the last time anybody but Rachel or a doctor did.
“No, that’s OK.” I pull my hand away. “It always chips or takes the imprint of my sweater. Do you know how Maggie Osborne died? Grandma Chase’s mother?”
“No. I didn’t even know her name. This color would look pretty on your hands.” Nancy holds her splayed fingers up as though to catch some drying air current.
“Well, when we were little, the adults always said she went to bed with her hair wet and caught pneumonia and died. I have never washed my hair after 4 pm in my entire life. Remember that?”
“No, Mattie, I don’t. Excuse me now. I’ve got to get these nails under the dryer.”
For years I have rehearsed the fight we’d have the day we chose our mother’s casket. Nancy and our brother Ricky would talk like sales reps from the casket company. She should have only the best. We want it watertight, good quality, steel vault, no question, definitely. And I would be over in the corner by the plain pine box, saying, This one, or mahogany for three hundred dollars more, but the cheapest concrete vault. And they would hate me, and say, You never cared about her. You went sometimes months without calling, sent her free samples of bath soap and shampoo and strange sweaters for her birthday. You didn’t love her. And even when I am the one who writes the script, to this there comes back no reply.
And now, surprise, surprise, Mother’s scheduled to outlive me.
“What kind of coffin will you bury Mother in?” I ask Nancy.
“Don’t be morbid, Mattie.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I want a plain wood box myself, but I always figured you’d buy her the most expensive one.”
“Mattie, you may both outlive me,” she says. Death scares Nancy silly. Even my death does. “No one knows these things,” she says.
But she knows as well as I do that we’re standing in a queue: me first, then Mother, then Nancy.
“I’m not afraid to die,” I say.
“Well, that’s good.” She knows I’m terrified. “Your hair looks nice, Mattie.”
She’s really reaching here. I need a haircut. In fact, I could use all new hair. But every time I think to call for an appointment, I get nervous that I’ll die in that bowl-cut, new-mown, fresh-perm stage; that first week, before your head gets used to the cut, when there is too much face and too little hair. There are about two or three times in your life when you want to look half decent.
“Rachel, this is hard for me to talk about,” I say.
“Then don’t.” She turns away.
“I have to, lamb. You know it’s possible that I might not be getting better.” I have a letter from a doctor in my purse that constitutes a written guarantee. “And, honey, depending on what happens, I wondered what you might think of coming here to live with Uncle Tom and Aunt Nancy.”
“It’s the stupidest idea I ever heard. It’s not like you are going to die or something. I mean, if you don’t get better, I can take care of you. I can do practically everything there is.”
“I know you can. It’s just one of those things we should think about.”
“Well, I don’t see why. Besides, you can’t die; you gave me your word.”
I did. When Jake got killed, I promised Rachel that I would not die. And I meant it.
“And why here,” Rachel says, “a million miles from home?”
“Well, Uncle Tom and Aunt Nancy love you very much, and they are really the main family we have.”
“And that’s the reason,” Rachel says. “Because there isn’t anybody else.”
Rachel runs from the room, colliding in the doorway with Nancy, who stops there, standing like a guard, her arms folded, resting on her little potbelly. I brush past her. I’m finished with pretending. I move down the hall and hear Rachel’s and Tom’s voices in the kitchen. I stop and hold my breath.
“Yeah, well, you don’t understand,” Rachel is saying.
“Maybe not,” Tom says. “I was adopted.”
“I know,” Rachel says.
“I never knew my parents, never saw them. I’m sorry about your mom. I’m really sorry, and about your dad, too. The whole thing stinks. But you will have them to remember and to think about for your whole life. I don’t have one single memory of my parents.”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel says.
“Well, don’t be. Don’t ever be sorry about anything that’s not your fault. It gets you exactly nowhere. Plus, it wastes a lot of time and energy you could be using to play golf.” He slams a cabinet door shut with a click. “Come on. I’ll take you out. We’ll play a couple of holes.”
“You mean real golf? Jenny plays real golf. I only ever played miniature before.”
“Yeah, well, it’s time we got you started on a decent swing. Nancy started when she was forty, and she can’t swing worth a damn. You’ll need to play golf if you’re going to be living here.”
“Oh, well, I won’t be doing that.”
“Heck, girl, you need to play golf no matter where you live.”
The screen door slams. An old summertime sound I had forgotten. I walk into the kitchen. I want to be in the room where those words just were.
Tom had the coffeepot all set to go. I switch it on and call out Nancy’s name.
I wake up shaking, wet with sweat. I dreamed that I was dead and no one knew, and I kept trying to get someone’s attention, only I couldn’t move or speak. I turn on the bedside lamp and then the overhead. It makes the room look worse, more menacing. Dear God, please don’t let me die tonight. Don’t let me die ever. Dear God. Death is sitting on the footboard of the bed. I am exactly one breath from being gone. I have to make a point of breathing. I can’t forget, not once.
I jump out of bed. I have to wake Nancy. She told me I could, anytime. But I feel better by the time I reach her door. I imagine Tom snoring there beside her. Something about the idea of these two fast asleep makes me feel safe as houses, whatever that means. (I never knew.)
I go back and get the comforter off my bed, and I curl up cozy as a cat by Nancy’s bedroom door. I might be guarding them.
When I wake up, the door is open, and I see Nancy alone in bed. Tom must have had an early golf game.
Nancy and Rachel are just back from shopping. I hear them in the kitchen.
“Well, I think we did just fine today.” Nancy sounds chipper. “I liked that fake fur. I wish you’d gotten it.”
“It was way too much,” Rachel says.
“I really wanted to get it for you.”
“Oh, no, my mom would think it was way too much for you to spend on us.”
Us. Oh, how I love that word. Us. As in “Us against the world” or “Us against Nancy.”
“Well, your mom and I have different ideas about clothes and money. Besides, I wanted to get you something special. What else is money for.”
“I’ve always gotten my jeans at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. You can find brand-new stuff if you go often enough. My mom just got me a neat sweater and a jacket at the thrift shop here.”
“Why on earth does she keep doing that. She has as much money as she needs.”
“Oh, we like to get good bargains. It’s fun for us.”
And the girl who speaks is now to be brought up in a shopping mall, to grow to womanhood in souvenir shops and boutiques.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.” Nancy lowers her voice, and I have to hold my breath to catch her words.
“I probably already know,” Rachel says.
“Well, I just want to say it to you directly. Uncle Tom and I would love to have you come to live with us. You could have your own little suite.” I hear it as sweet.
“Thanks a lot, but I think my mom is going to be OK. I think she is getting better, and we’ll be going home. I can take care of her. Easily.” She packs a lot into that last word.
Oh, dear God, is this a miracle too hard for thee? I am not asking for the world. Just give me ten years. Five. Two. I’ll give you all my. I promise I will never. Please. I’ll never ask for anything again.
Rachel and I could slip away unnoticed late some night, leave no forwarding address, and hide away forever. Get new names, new id’s, pay somebody to say, They went thataway.
I used to think that life, the whole thing, was about some special place or person or particular event, but it’s not at all. It all comes down to time, and nothing else. One more hour, another fifteen minutes, another fifteen years. Every prayer you pray is something about time.
If this were a story, there would be some eleventh-hour revelation that would turn the whole thing on its ear. If it were a good story, I, or Nancy, or both of us would turn out to have been adopted, and therefore unrelated to each other. We would each slide over into some other family’s narrative, where we could work it all out with a group of civilized and sympathetic strangers, dispense forever with this bramble-bracken family history we are all forever getting tangled up in. Or one of us would come to hear some story that would cast our whole life in some new, softer light. I think that’s why I stuck around so many years in psychotherapy. I kept hoping if I told the story often enough, went at it from a hundred different angles, that one day I would stumble on some part I had forgotten, some part that made me see the whole thing wasn’t dreadful, not at all. Even now, we might enlist a troop of relatives to testify, to blow the lid off, to say in the final paragraphs of a life story, No, it wasn’t like that at all, and let them finally tell the hushed-up secrets, scandals, confidences, lies, till all that’s left is early hope that people had, and good intentions.
If this were a different kind of story, Nancy might cook up some concoction she reads about in a women’s magazine while standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, combining carrot juice and quinine in just the right proportions to effect a miracle remission that gets written up in Redbook.
But no. The ending is pretty much the way it’s going to be. We’re on fast forward here. It is not wise I think to hold my breath in hopes of some surprise.
I try to tell Nancy some of this, and she astonishes me by giving every evidence of understanding.
“But, Mattie,” she says, “you’ve always known this. We all did. Sure we hoped a bit, but we got on with living in the meantime. You did too. You made a life, a just-fine life, in spite of everything. You’ve been the mother, the good mother, of a precious girl who loves you like life itself.”
I, of course, don’t want to hear this. I want my life to have been a wreck, the absolute worst disaster in the history of the planet.
But all the same, I imprint Nancy’s version of the telling on my heart, and play this sentence back a hundred times.
I heard a preacher on tv say that we all arrive in heaven on the same day. He said when we die, we fall unconscious, so the time does not weigh heavy on us, and when everyone is finished, when the dying is all done, we wake up the same morning, and we’re there. It strikes me as a fine arrangement. And so, I think, I will meet Rachel the first day in heaven, and her father, and my father, and all the ones we loved and thought that we had lost.
And while we’re standing there, so glad to see everybody, stretching our arms and smiling, leaning our heads back to feel the warm sun on our faces, what if one tall angel calls me over and bends down and whispers in my ear, “You did know, didn’t you? I mean, I assume you figured out long ago, but just in case, I want to be certain that you know that every blessed one of Nancy’s saccharine phrases was entirely and sincerely meant, and it was just the saying of them that was plasticized. It was only always just a problem of inflection, tone of voice. And all of your confusion and unhappiness just came of that, all of your allegiances and hating. You did figure that part out for yourself, didn’t you?” And I’ll nod dumbly.
I wake up Wednesday morning feeling well. I am fully awake and out of bed before I remember that I’m sick. This is a first since I got my diagnosis. I feel so well I think maybe the whole thing’s been some actionable mistake. I’ll have coffee and get dressed and sue somebody for malpractice. I’ll sue several people; I’m feeling that resourceful.
At breakfast I tell Nancy I’m actually feeling good.
“Well, let’s just hope you don’t feel terrible again tomorrow.”
I feel too well to take the bait. Besides, in our family, this is the sort of thing that passes for solicitude.
“We could go to the Beechwoods Cemetery,” I say. “It’s a good day to be off somewhere.”
“It’s going to rain,” Nancy says. “Plus, I don’t go to cemeteries.”
“Why not? I love cemeteries. I always have.”
“Mattie, you don’t want to go to cemeteries.” Nancy acts as though if we ignore death, it will go away. “Let’s go shopping. There’s a big mall up by Bradford.”
Mall. A word I always hear as maul.
I would rather be dipped in motor oil and rolled in sawdust.
I never did have the least bit of patience with a fizzle ending. Give me a good resurrection, fireworks, or a frank catastrophe, but please define the thing.
“I always thought a lifetime would be more than this,” I say to Nancy. “I’ve lived my whole life in the past. I thought about everything that happened, and the family going back through generations, every blessed day.”
“Well,” Nancy says, “it was your past, and if you lived in it, I guess you had as much right as anyone to do that. Seems to me it was your privilege.”
We used to say that growing up. That’s your privilege. I hate your guts. Well, that’s your privilege.
Rachel comes into the room during one of my two million reveries. I barely register her presence, so absorbed am I in my imaginary chat with her. A happening not unique in our experience.
“Oh, Rachel, Rachel.” I reach out and pull her down onto the bed beside me. “How can a person be so pure in her heart and so outrageous in her public packaging?”
“I’m such a jerk. And I mean well so much of the time.”
“You’re fine.” She picks at the little tufts of cotton on the bedspread where we lie. “You’re just like Aunt Nancy.”
“What?” My soul rises up in righteous indignation, but I force my body to stay lying on the bed, my voice to register in the neighborhood of normal.
“You are,” Rachel says. “You two are so alike. I never saw two people so alike.”
“What are you talking about? How?”
“Every single way. You both like things pretty much your own way, and you don’t much give up until you get it. You’re both funny, really funny, and you’re super kind. You take care of people all over the place, and you do about a hundred good deeds a week, and you don’t want anyone to know. You’re both really good, and it’s like you try to keep it a secret from each other. You guys show each other all your worst sides all the time. You work at it.”
“No we don’t.”
“Yes you do so. You spend more time talking about Aunt Nancy’s shopping than she spends shopping in real life. You guys are such fakers. You probably love each other and don’t even know it. But you’re like doubles. When I’m with her sometimes, I feel like I’m with you.”
I try to tell Nancy a little of this when we’re sitting in the backyard in the twilight, lawn-chaired between the brick grill and the hot tub.
“Rachel’s a very sweet girl.” Nancy goes for bland. Like she’s ever gone for anything else.
Then she leans back and closes her eyes, and a wind starts up, the kind that makes me shiver, draw my sweater tighter.
“You’ve always thought that if I was the good guy, that meant you were the bad guy.” Nancy’s voice sounds older, sort of scratchy. “It’s always been like only one of us could be ok. Like it was either/or. You’ve done great things with your life, Mattie. Look at Rachel. And Jake was nuts about you. I’m ok, you’re ok.” She starts to laugh. “It’s not a contest,” Nancy says, her voice breaking up between each word.
“Boy was I misinformed.”
Then we’re both laughing. Tears are running down our cheeks. Tom moves into the light. He’s carrying the garden hose.
“What’s so funny?”
Nobody answers him. Neither one of us can speak.
There ought to be a noun to name the hug your sister doesn’t give you every blessed Christmas, standing in your mother’s doorway, muffed and bundled, ruffled, unamused. A noun prepared to work its butt off, to do the work of half a dozen adjectives, to name not just a person, place, or thing but whole rooms full of sisters in places all across America, and usually on holidays, making a pretense of doing all kinds of other and important things rather than kiss the sisters they despise. There ought to be a modifying, synchronizing, qualifying phrase — say, a dependent clause held up by hope springing eternal — to tell the time, the temperature, the mood of several people, the well-hidden awkwardness, the hesitation that gets cast in granite, the silly clown wave or perfunctory smooch landing on your collar or your earring.
But there ought to be a whole new part of speech to name the way I felt last night, when I was all tucked up in bed, and Nancy came into my bedroom without knocking and with one warm hand reached out to gently touch my cheek, and said, with subtle (for this sister) irony, “Even though I know how much you love it when I touch you.”
There ought to be a verb to say, Would you please do that again.
I grab my hat and coat and gloves and call out to Nancy, “I’ll be back.” We always say that. We always mean it.
At the end of the front walk, I start to take a left, but I look up, and there’s the sky gone fiery and magnificent, out of its mind with purple and blue and a gold made up of red and orange and one more color I can’t name, and I have to turn right this one time, to follow that sky home.
I keep my eyes fixed on this sky, not watching where I’m going, nearly tripping twice, and I do a painful little dance step with the fire hydrant at the corner of Federal and Park. And then it opens up, the trees and houses move to either side to give the sky some vista, and there she is: all fiery and the finest I have ever seen.
I walk on, but by the time I round the corner, all the color’s gone. Just like that, it’s dark. We’re back to twilight, back to Monday, back to me.
I start to pass an old woman walking just ahead of me, then turn to face her.
“Did you see the sky?” I use my raise-the-dead voice, she looks so old.
“It was a miracle,” she says. “I stood here and saw the whole thing with my own two eyes, and I cannot take it in.”
We walk on side by side — I match her gait — and a front door opens, and a woman steps out on her porch. “Mary, did you see the sky?” she calls out from the darkness. “Did you see the sky? It was a miracle tonight.”
“I did,” this Mary cries. “We both did, and neither of us can believe it.”
Nancy is standing in the kitchen when I get back home.
“Hi, Mattie,” she says as though tonight were any ordinary night.
“Tomorrow let’s go shopping,” I say. I wink at her, then smile. “I want to buy you something.”
“That’d be real nice.” Nancy bites her lip the way she used to do. “But you don’t have to.” And just like that, God’s handing out do-overs, and I am ten years old again and Nancy’s eight, and she’s my little sister, and we’ve got a day ahead of us tomorrow that’s going to last from when we first wake up way through till after supper time. Till firefly time.
“You don’t have to buy me anything,” this little sister says. We were brought up to say, You don’t have to.
“Oh, but I’m going to,” I say. “I want to.”
“Well,” Nancy looks down at her sweater. “Like what? I mean, what kind of something were you thinking of?”
“Oh, that’s a secret.” I look at her, I really look at her, and smile again.
As it happens, I won’t be here to shop with her tomorrow. But until the day she dies, she will remember that tomorrow we were going shopping. And at the oddest moments, in the middle of doing something else entirely, she will catch herself wondering just what kind of thing it was that I was going to buy her. And when, with passing years, the morning draws then very near, she will whisper softly to herself, I must remind myself to ask her.