On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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— For JoAnn Lewis Saviola
We loved the earth, but could not stay.
— Loren Eiseley
Friday, December 1, 2017. After driving eleven hours, my aging eyes no longer good after dark, I pull off in Holbrook, Arizona, gas up at a convenience store, grab a couple of beers, and swing into the lot of the cheapest-looking motel on the strip. The office is bright and clean, with a chessboard set up on a table. The affable desk clerk — lively Irish blue eyes, cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth — asks if I want a smoking or nonsmoking room. I don’t smoke, but I take a smoking room because I’ll save twenty dollars.
The place is shabby: mirror leaning against the wall, curtains taped shut, dead roach on its back in the bathroom, leak dripping from the ceiling, shadows flitting across the baseboards. A mousetrap by the toilet has not yet done its job. I open a beer and call my wife, the chair creaking and sinking underneath me as if it will soon give way.
The blue-eyed clerk sweeps the parking lot below with his broom and dustpan. Pretty soon he’s noisily sweeping the room next to mine — at eleven o’clock at night. I can’t sleep anyway, thinking about my ailing father and how long it’s taking me to get to San Diego to see him. I lie on top of the rumpled bedspread fully clothed and drift off into a nightmare in which a deformed figure in a checkered cap is trying to heal me. At the break of dawn, shivering, I get up and hit the road.
All along Interstate 40 I see DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS signs, posted because of possible escapees from nearby penitentiaries. The idea of picking up an escaped convict spawns dime-store-novel ideas in my head. Flagstaff is seven thousand feet above sea level, so I have to watch for patches of ice. In Seligman, where I stop for gas, crows fly and roost in droves. They appear ominous. Nobody else seems to notice.
I thought this would be a two-day trip from Nebraska to San Diego, but a wrong turn and a stop in Walsenburg, Colorado, to replace a flat tire have cost me half a day. Add six more hours due to my decision to cross the Rockies at Raton Pass. I’ve eaten all the food I packed. Juanhijos Burritos in the gas-station food court looks good. I order two. I had no idea they would weigh a pound apiece.
In spite of California’s long-standing drought, the Colorado River is positively bulging. I’m tearing down the slope of the San Bernardino Mountains at eighty miles an hour when my sister, Lou Anna, calls to say that our father has hit a rough stretch and has been taken by ambulance to Scripps Hospital.
I tell Sis I’m about two hours out; just ask him to hold on. Even at eighty miles an hour, I’m farther away than two hours. The traffic is heavy for a Saturday. An old woman in a Cadillac cuts me off. I curse myself for not flying.
Three hours later I arrive at Scripps Hospital, a place I know from having delivered pizzas here forty-odd years ago as a teenager. I’m unshaven, dressed in what my wife calls my “homeless guy outfit”: sweatshirt, sweatpants, and beat-up sneakers. My clothes are still faintly redolent of the smoking room from last night.
This is a lavish, state-of-the-art hospital, the kind I could never afford to die in. My father is here only because it was the closest facility in a life-and-death situation. His oxygen level had fallen to fifty, a number the respiratory therapist tells me is curtains for most. My father is tough, however, even at eighty-six. He’s been fighting various illnesses all his life.
Pop does not recognize me — or, at least, he does not acknowledge me. He is wearing a mask connected to a machine that forces oxygen into his lungs. Extremely thin and frail, he labors mightily for air. I didn’t prepare myself for this. The mask over his face stretches his mouth out of proportion, making him look like the man in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.
Lou Anna and my mother have been here since this morning. My brother-in-law, Kwame, is in Chicago on business and plans to fly in tomorrow. Sis tells me in the hall that Pop confided twice to her that he does not want to live anymore, that the battle is over. His heart, his mind, and his hearing are all good, but the rest of him is worn out. There’s no fixing it.
Yet I saw him on his deathbed almost thirty years ago, after two major surgeries, and he was back to teaching class a month later. (I know he was near death because I’ve worked in five convalescent hospitals and had seen the signs many times: the sallow complexion, the slack mouth, the slick skull face, the shallow breathing.) Pop has miraculously bounced back before from poor turns of health and emergency trips to the hospital. I can’t count all the eulogies I’ve written in my head. Maybe, I tell myself, this is not it.
Despite his struggles, his vital signs — oxygen, heart, respiration rate — are stable. He can’t talk under the giant-squid attack of the breathing apparatus. We ask if the mask can be removed for a minute so he can speak, and the respiratory therapist complies.
“What do you want, Pop?” I ask him.
He points to his mouth. “Wa-ter.”
I glance at the respiratory therapist. He shakes his head. “You can’t yet, Pop. They’re afraid you’ll aspirate it” — inhale it into his lungs. “Is there anything else we can get you?”
“I . . . want . . . to . . . breathe,” he says.
The mask goes back on, and he waves his hands once more, palms down, as if directing some invisible, celestial orchestra.
My distraught eighty-four-year-old mother is exhausted. She has been married to this man for more than sixty years. He is the love of her life. Worrying and caring for him nonstop, she has not slept decently in a month. She has not eaten since breakfast. She needs a break. Pop needs one, too. We kiss him, hold his shiny, smooth hands, whisper in his big ears, tell him to hang in there, not to go anywhere, to get some rest, and we’ll see him in the morning.
Not far from the hospital is Borrelli’s, the Italian family restaurant where my mother and father have dined nearly every Saturday for thirty years. Pop loves the place for its warmth, good lighting (he’s been virtually blind for a decade), and overall bonhomie. We take a window booth. Lou Anna orders the veggie linguini; my mother, the cheese ravioli. I have the spaghetti with mushroom sauce. Pop would’ve had the pizza. He and my brother-in-law always have the pizza. The pressure of taking care of my father lifted, my mother orders a glass of chardonnay; ever disciplined, she will have just one. I order a glass of Chianti; less disciplined, I will have another. We glow with the privilege of being alive, of being able to breathe and drink and move about as we please, and of the knowledge that, whatever might happen in the next few days, Pop is still with us.
The next morning, a Sunday, my mother and I meet my sister and Kwame at the hospital. Kwame grew up in our neighborhood, and he and Lou Anna were a hot item as teenagers, until fate and racism divided them. Later in life, both divorced from bad marriages, they reunited and combined their large families — they have eight children between them. I’ve never seen either one happier. Kwame, who is foreman of multiple departments at a major San Diego casino, once trained as an EMT, so he understands the special requisites of my father’s chronic lung disease and what might be done to make him more comfortable.
Pop is still hanging in there, more fragile than ever. The numbers on the monitors are holding steady as that dreadful ventilating machine keeps him alive. His knees are drawn up, and his hands float about in confused futility. He answers all questions (How did you sleep? How do you feel? Are you in pain?) with a theatrically mouthed “I don’t know” or a shake of the head and a conductor’s waving of the hands. Water is all he wants. “Wa-ter,” he enunciates desperately through his mask. The nothing-by-mouth designation on the dry-erase board next to the flat-screen television, presently showing an NFL game, has not changed. The answer is still no.
All at once he begins gasping and writhing, and I’m sure he’s leaving us. We rush to his side to give him our last words. (Mine are “Thank you, Papa, for loving me. It made all the difference.”) The nurse appears. I admire the deft surety of her hands, the steel clarity of her eyes, the way she’s able, like some mysterious engine, to convert panic into calm. She bends over him, checks all the connections, smooths his hair, adjusts an IV bottle and the angle of his bed. This, and our swarming to his side, seems to have brought him back.
“Can he please just have a drop of water?” I ask.
This decision must come from on high, she says. A week ago, when my father was taken to his usual hospital up the road, the presiding physician — I’ll call him Dr. Doom — gruffly made it clear to my mother that my father’s situation was terminal. Comfort was the only remaining concern. All the drugs he was taking unrelated to comfort (antibiotics, steroids, blood-pressure meds) were no longer necessary. Dr. Doom’s prognosis is the reason why I’m here.
Now Pop’s new supervising physician enters the room. I’ll call him Dr. Dasher. With his looks, wit, and youth, he is a step up from Dr. Doom. He’s just gotten acquainted with my father’s case, and, puzzled by the massive scarring on Pop’s lungs, he asks us a few questions. He is shocked to learn that almost thirty years ago my father’s lungs collapsed six times and finally had to be stapled to his ribs. We also tell him many things he doesn’t need to know: that Pop is an excellent teacher; a beloved, generous man; an encyclopedia of facts about history, literature, and geography; the center of my mother’s existence.
Dr. Dasher patiently explains that pneumonia has set in; that Pop’s cellular acid levels are concerningly high; that his lung disease is advanced; that his kidney function is compromised. The doctor uses the dreaded phrase “no heroics.” I saw this designation on the charts of many deathbed patients I attended as a youth. It means no measures will be taken to revive my dad if he starts to die. Dr. Dasher is saying the same thing as Dr. Doom, but with more tact. Though there is slim hope of any life extension, he proposes one last massive dose of antibiotics to clear the pneumonia and an elevated pain-relief regimen to put my father more at ease, whatever the outcome. We gratefully agree, even though we hear the strains of euthanasia in his song.
The musical Grease is now playing on the television, and I ask Dr. Dasher if exposure to John Travolta is safe in these kinds of situations. He quips that a little grease never hurt anyone.
The new antibiotic-and-analgesic program is initiated. The mask comes off, and Pop gets to have a few drops of water. Dr. Dasher clasps our hands, wishes us the best, promises to see us again soon, and, with a flurry of lab coat, makes his exit like an intrepid aviator.
Within the hour Pop’s legs relax and straighten, his hands stop waving about, and some alertness returns. He laughs at a joke. He corrects someone’s geographical mistake. His oxygen rates are running close to normal, so the mask stays off. Things are looking so good the nurse brings in a cup of applesauce, though she’s not quite ready to peel off the lid.
My mother, my sister, Kwame, and I have lunch at Casa de Bandini, a San Diego landmark north of the hospital. The cold draft Pacificos couldn’t be better, the tacos are crisp and plump, the mariachis yodel merrily between the tables, and the conversation effervesces like the invisible symphony my father conducted. Like me, Lou Anna was once a master of bad choices and took a long time to get her life in order. Finally, desperately alcoholic and in the grip of another unhealthy relationship, she went to see a psychologist. After one visit she quit drinking and has not had a drop since. I’ve always wanted to know what the psychologist said to her, and I ask her now for the magic words. She smiles. It was nothing Freudian or scientific or Greek, she says. The psychologist simply told her: “You are immature. You need to grow up.”
Words I think many Americans would benefit from hearing. Most certainly it was the advice I needed, too, though as always I had to go about solving problems in my own thoroughly complicated and maddeningly roundabout way, taking notes as I went.
I express guilt that I didn’t fly and get to San Diego sooner, but driving was cheaper, and I hate flying, with all that genital probing and luggage rifling. Also I wanted a car so I wouldn’t be a burden, and I brought Pop a jug of my chelada, a fiery, Mexican-style garden beer that he is particularly fond of and that would not have been permitted on the plane. I hadn’t known Pop was so close to the edge. It appears unlikely at this point that he will ever taste my chelada again.
My ebullient mother is thankful that her family is together and that her husband has such excellent care. She believes so ardently in people that often, seemingly against their will, they conform to her expectations. It was her idea to hire the leader of a crew of teenage thieves in our neighborhood to watch our house whenever we went on vacation. Asking the fox to guard the henhouse, the cynic would say, but my mother’s faith in humanity won out — or perhaps she was more psychologically astute than I give her credit for. Our house was one of the few on the block that were never burglarized.
Her ebullience is short-lived, however, and she reveals her deep regret that she didn’t do more to help Pop. She says she should’ve known he had pneumonia, should’ve gotten him to the hospital sooner. We tell her over and over that without her care and devotion, he would’ve been gone long ago.
My phone rings. It’s my wife back in Nebraska calling to tell me the oven is on fire. I leave the noisy restaurant so I can hear her better: Throw baking soda on it, I say, not water. No, not baking powder; baking soda — the big yellow box in the cupboard beside the walnuts. Yes, just throw it straight on the flames.
The fire in the oven is extinguished. She thanks me, relieved that she did not have to call to report that the house had burned down. I tell her Pop is doing pretty well, considering. Thank you, love you, talk to you tonight.
There are historically big wildfires all over California, some close by and moving closer. I can’t recall wildfires in December before. We smell smoke in the air, hear calls for voluntary and even mandatory evacuation. The newscasters make it seem as if all of Southern California will soon be devoured by flames. A fire also rages in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just north of where my wife and I live. Wildfires. Oven fires. Fires like omens wherever I go.
When we return to the hospital, my father has noticeably improved. He is relaxed and looking around. We take turns sitting on either side of his bed, holding his hand and making light conversation. Enter Dr. Number Three to outline the hospice-care program my parents are eligible for through their insurance. Another example of a first-rate, sympathetic, well-spoken professional (this hospital is loaded with them), Dr. Three explains that the goal of both palliative and hospice care is comfort. The distinction is that palliative care involves a treatment program, while hospice, which my father will receive, comes after treatment has stopped. In spite of its grave connotation, Dr. Three assures us that hospice does not necessarily mean our loved one is about to die. As a California public-school teacher from the Bygone Days of the Golden Age of America, my father has sterling insurance — even here at Scripps his coverage is 100 percent — and is eligible for in-home assistance, including nurses, attendants, and respiratory therapists. My mother is encouraged; I can see it in her eyes. Her husband is coming home.
The next two hours are the most precious I will ever spend with my father. He is alert and not visibly suffering. Though not a chatterbox, he converses with us all. There is nothing profound or sad about the occasion. It is just a Sunday evening like any other, the family together, so tranquil and timeless I’m waiting for him to change his mind about being sick, throw on his robe, and leave with us.
At one point, staring straight ahead and speaking as if to someone I can’t see, he says, “I am a coward.” I don’t know what he means: In the life he’s lived? In how he is facing death?
Pop doesn’t believe in God, spirit, ghost, or Beyond, and I wonder how he will navigate the new frontier if he turns out to be wrong. I consider the words of French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; nature will, at the time, fully and sufficiently instruct you: she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care.”
Night darkens the windows.
Confident that we will see Pop tomorrow, we say good night.
I don’t sleep well in the upstairs bedroom of my parents’ house in the suburb where they moved thirty years ago to escape the decaying, meth-and-crime-riddled neighborhood where I grew up. I keep thinking of the ancient, mangy motel in Walsenburg, Colorado, where I had to pull off on the way here. The couple in the next room — motel residents, it appeared — coughed all night: tight little pairs of coughs. I saw the woman once: young but addled and rail thin, cigarette hanging from her mouth. The all-night coughs were not a typical smoker’s hack, and I don’t know of a drug that would cause that kind of pattern. I suspect tuberculosis.
It is 2:30 in the morning when I hear a beep-beep-beep, like an alarm or a warning that a battery needs to be replaced. I ignore it. Three minutes later it sounds again, and I get up to explore. I can’t find the origin of the beeping in my father’s upstairs study. I’m tempted to wake my mother when the beeping sounds again, clearly from downstairs.
I discover my father’s stair-lift chair is making the noise. This chair has been his passage to the blessed, sunny sanctum of his upstairs bedroom for the last three years. My sister parked the chair at the very bottom last night. I notice that it is no longer at the bottom but a foot higher, where my father liked it, for easier dismount. I find the power switch, turn it off, and return to bed.
In twenty minutes my mother wakes me. “The hospital just called,” she says. “Your father has passed away.”
I groan and put on my clothes. My mother is in a state of tormented disbelief: This was not supposed to happen. We were going to see him again. We had arranged it with him. The doctors had said as much, hadn’t they? The meds were working. The disorientation and hand waving and answering, “I don’t know,” to every question had passed, and he was off that ghastly machine.
At 3 AM there’s no traffic. The city is as bleak and dark and empty as our mood. We haven’t called my sister, because she has to work in the morning. My mother and I stare wordlessly through the windshield as I drive, feeling a vague hope that someone has made a mistake, that this is only a dream.
We chat with the graveyard nurse, who spoke with Pop last. (I’ve always disliked the term “graveyard shift” when applied to a place where patients reside.) The nurse offers consolation, says the right words. She seems to have sincerely liked my father, though she could have known him only two nights. He won people over easily with his politeness, humility, and genuine concern for others.
I don’t want to see my father dead. I don’t want to remember him this way. But the curtains to his room are open, and there he is, all prepped and propped by the window. I enter slowly and put my hand on his shoulder.
Though he rarely expressed his feelings out loud, my father loved me so palpably and profusely that even on my worst days of childhood, when I was regularly attacked and humiliated, I carried inside me the radiant glow of his love. It not only got me through bad times but also taught me to love my own son the same way.
I say this to him now in so many words.
I half expect him to open his eyes and tell me, with that shy smile of his, that it was nothing.
“I love you, Pop” are my final words to him, and both my mother and I turn, heartbroken, and walk out of the room.
After completing some brief paperwork, we leave the hospital. My mother will not be consoled. She is not sure she wants to live now that he is gone, and she states this outright. Her life’s purpose for the last sixty years has vanished from her grasp. The tremendous strain of sorrow and loss, the guilt and regret that she did not do this or that, have fallen upon her like an avalanche.
We return to my parents’ home. My wife’s twenty-year-old car, the CHECK ENGINE light permanently on, scrapes entering the driveway. The house feels empty. Everything — a cupboard, a slip of paper, a plate, a chair, an item on the wall — is a reminder of him. I take a stool at the kitchen counter next to the magnifying glass that Pop used every morning to do his word puzzles and read his newspapers, which my mother has stacked neatly for the last few days in anticipation of his return.
Faint light creeps in the windows. I make coffee in the new all-metal-and-glass French press I got my mother in response to her growing distrust of plastic.
I text my wife: He’s gone.
What do you mean? She replies. English is her second language, and my choice of words may have confused her. Or perhaps she is not yet ready to accept the news.
Can you call me?
I do, and she sobs without a word for a long time. As he did with everyone, my father made her feel welcome and important from the day they met. She’s cried many times when saying goodbye to him. This is the last.
It’s five in the morning — still too early to call and wake my sister. Today is her birthday.
I comfort my mother, keep her moving and talking, recite the unavoidable clichés. Ironic that death is the only sure thing in our future, yet even when we are prepared for it, we are blasted right out of the sky.
As sunlight fills the windows, my mother dutifully begins to make phone calls to friends and relatives. Each time she tells the story, her sorrow is refreshed, and she breaks down.
I text Kwame: Pop passed around 3 AM. Use your best judgment in telling my sister.
Kwame is busy and doesn’t get the message.
Sis calls me an hour later, chipper. There’s been a birthday party for her at the office where she works as a paralegal. Cake, balloons, gifts. She is eager to know how Dad is, wants to know when we are going over to see him.
“Kwame didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Dad passed away early this morning.”
She bursts into tears and chokes out the words: “If I knew he was going to die, I would’ve stayed with him all night.”
For the next three days Lou Anna (who has a paid week of bereavement leave), Kwame, and I sit in the living room, commiserating and reminiscing with my mother. The neighbors arrive with flowers and sympathetic hugs. The phone calls come one after the next. We keep Mom occupied, the coffee brewing, the stories and memories spinning. We talk about the bad things: his drinking and smoking, the rocky parts of their marriage, his poor health and regular hospitalization for asthma and eczema. When Pop was an infant, his eczema was so severe his arms and legs had to be splinted to prevent cracking and weeping. His mother, fearing he would starve from the strict diet at Union Hospital in the Bronx, kidnapped him and took him by train to Arvada, Colorado, where her father, a country physician, nursed my dad back to health. Because the Colorado air was good for him, Pop’s mother left him there to be raised by his grandparents. I believe he took her decision as a rejection, and perhaps this is why he spent so many years trying to destroy himself with cigarettes and alcohol.
I am surprised to learn that my father was once a “playboy,” as my mother puts it. I’m not exactly sure what this means (infidelity?), but after I was born, she says, he straightened his course. Neither did I know that as a teen he hung out with a “bad crowd,” though the homemade tattoos on both his arms should have been a clue, along with the way he enjoyed breaking up fights on our street. Though many times I saw him embarrassed, diffident, and humble, I never once saw him intimidated.
Many alcoholics are abusive or mean. Not my father. The more he drank, the kinder he became. After the series of collapsed lungs and the two major surgeries, he quit drinking and smoking and underwent a period of introspection. He and I grew closer then, though he had supported me from the beginning, allowing me more than my share of blunders, bruises, and the wild risks I deemed necessary to become a full-fledged writer — an eventuality that he, and only he, regarded as a certainty.
I tell Kwame, a mechanical whiz, about the beep-beep-beep of the stair-lift chair a few minutes before Pop died. We study the manual, especially the troubleshooting section, in search of an explanation but find no mention of beeping anywhere. In three years the chair has not beeped, my mother says, except a single note to announce its arrival at the top or the bottom.
Every time a neighbor comes over to offer condolences or bring a bouquet, the front-door handle is locked. No one is locking it. The door has never done this before.
Later that day, after my sister and Kwame have gone to take care of some business, I go to the store to get skim milk for my mother’s coffee. In the dairy section a frizzy-headed, dazed-looking woman in her late fifties informs me that milk is not good for me.
“What is good for me?” I ask.
“Almond milk,” she replies. She holds up a package of cupcakes and points proudly to the word vegan on the label. “Vegan is good for you,” she says.
Dime-store-novel idea: Though the sign reads, DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS, the young motorist pulls over anyway and offers the Proselytizing California Food Faddist a ride. Later that evening, in a seedy motel, he inexplicably commits suicide. No note is found except the word “vegan” scribbled on an envelope.
When I return home with the milk that isn’t good for me, my mother is standing in front of the house, locked out, waiting for a locksmith.
It’s a Schlage, the locksmith says, as if this door, which has had the same lock for thirty years, suddenly needed to be explained. My mother asks that he disable it.
Living alone in rooms you’ve shared with a loved one for three decades, it’s impossible not to be reminded of your loss every time you turn around. By the third day my mother is wearing Pop’s too-big slippers and sleeping in his bed. She is often diverted from grief by heaps of paperwork and long hours on hold, listening to the staticky piano music of another impenetrable bureaucracy.
On day four we learn that much of my father’s collection of unopened medications can be returned for a refund. My father was as religious about medicine as Vegan Woman is about food. The hospital was my father’s church; the doctors, his priests; the drugs, his Eucharist. These medications, especially the steroids, undoubtedly prolonged his life, but they also caused a progressive need for more meds to treat the side effects of the previous, so that on any given day Pop might have been taking, with fervid faith, upwards of twenty pills.
At the pharmacy we stand behind a loud woman who’s not afraid to get personal. “Where are you from?” she bellows at the pharmacist clerk. “You have an accent.”
“I’m from here,” the clerk replies, flustered.
“Just tell her you’re from France,” I say. “There’s nothing wrong with being from France.”
“Thirty-six dollars,” says the clerk, handing Loud Lady her prescription.
“That’s too much,” Loud Lady declares, as if the clerk were authorized to bargain with her. “I could get it for a lot less at Walmart.”
The clerk promises to do her best and asks the woman to have a seat.
“I’m a Trump Republican,” Loud Lady declares. “We’ve got a voice now. Don’t mess with me.”
I ’m prepared to stay in San Diego as long as my mother needs me — months, if necessary — but by day nine she thinks she’s going to be all right. She wants me to return to my family and my work and to get back across the Rockies before the weather turns bad. Her being alone in this house is inevitable, and she doesn’t need to be coddled. Besides, she has many friends and caring neighbors, and Lou Anna and Kwame are close by.
My father did not want a memorial — he did not think he was worthy of one — but we decide to have a big one for him in June. (As it turns out, he will have six memorials.)
Just before dawn the next morning I kiss my mother goodbye in the driveway and thank her again for keeping my papa alive longer than any of us thought possible. I tell her I will see her soon, that I will call and write often.
Backing out of the driveway, I worry about her living alone in a fast-moving city full of hyenas and vultures. (In fact, two weeks won’t pass before an attorney specializing in “elder law” will swoop down and convince my unsuspecting mother that the language in my parents’ trust is vague and needs an expert’s revision. The attorney’s initial fee is $6,700, and her ongoing rate is $375 an hour, plus expenses. Fortunately my sister the paralegal is able to step in and determine that the wording of the trust is adequate and no legal aid is necessary. My mother’s money will be refunded.)
With my poor night vision there is no way I can drive the route I have planned in two days. This becomes especially clear when the used tire I bought in Walsenburg for only forty-three dollars, labor included, shreds at seventy miles an hour just west of the Continental Divide. I’m lucky the wheel is not damaged and that I do not have a wreck. I limp into Grants, New Mexico, and buy another tire, a new one this time. So much for saving money by driving.
The cheap motels are better on the way back, and before I left, I rolled a dozen burritos with brussels sprouts, lentils, roast beef, sharp cheddar, roasted butternut squash, purple potatoes, lemon juice, and hot salsa. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Vegan Woman.) Roaring down the interstate in an effort to beat the first big snowstorm, I say I’m sorry to each animal lying dead alongside the road.
I am superstitious and have many preconceptions about death. (Let’s face it: You don’t have any idea what death is, either, do you?) I expect a visit or message from my father. I talk with him every night, and though he does not reply, we tumble together through my dreams.
Poe Ballantine’s essay “Invisible Symphony” [July 2018] could have been an excerpt from my diary. I lost my mother and my mother-in-law last summer in a span of nine days. Like Ballantine, I went through it all: vigils around hospital beds, hoping for the best with family, then sorting through the items they left behind.
He writes, “Ironic that death is the only sure thing in our future, yet even when we are prepared for it, we are blasted right out of the sky.” He couldn’t be more right. A couple of days after my mother’s funeral, when I finally realized I’ll never hear her voice again, that sky came crashing down.