Mom died, the text message read, similar words we’ve been hearing too frequently but always leaving us with the same hopelessness. The words my brother, estranged now, estranged then, come to think of it, said two years ago in a quickly left phone message. I thought of confronting him, but when he never answered, I knew I couldn’t say what I needed in a text message. When my mother-in-law died my wife and I were there, watched as she took her final breath, easy, calm, as if to say, this passage is easier than I thought given all the time I asked God to let me take it. We didn’t feel helpless that day, more like silent observers, standing on the pier as the ship slipped into a vast ocean on the maiden voyage a very new sort.
She moves with the fluidity that suggests she has been trained as a dancer, though she denies it, says that she has no interest in dance, barely tolerates music and then only because it sometimes is a requirement. She smiles, though it doesn’t seem at all natural to her, more another thing she does because she believes is quite often required. Hers is a life of requirements and she strives to be compliant, choosing to hide a seething passion deep within, for it terrifies her: this is what she was taught by her mother, how she survived four older brothers, a father who feared his reflection in the whiskey bottle and quickly erased it,, the devil deal with consequences, the pain on her mother’s face, she often too slow to duck. She knows the day is coming when he will be repaid by her, and she hopes no one she loves is near Ground Zero.
He is four, he announces to all gathered at the extended family table that he will be five soon, in January. It is important that we know this just as it is important that he sit next to his cousin, for boys like he should always sit next to cute girls and sisters don’t count, everyone knows that. Four people in his class have birthdays in January And he tells us their names, we hoping there will be no quiz. As I call him to get his food from the buffet he turns to his father, and says, “Josh, save my seat,” and smiles broadly. He repeats this ensuring we have all heard. When I ask him why he says Josh, not daddy, he laughs and says, “Because it’s his name, silly, like your name is Papa Lou, and anyway he always calls me Charlie, not son.”
When I die, my friend Larry said one morning in the third inning of a double header of stoop ball, I want to be burned, not that I intend it to happen any time soon, but when it does. They burned my grandfather I think it was Dachau, but unlike him, I want to kick some ass before it happens. Just let them call me Jew boy I’d like to hear the sound of their balls imploding up into their bladder. They burned my grandmother too, years later, until all that was left was the cancer eating her stomach, but I want to be burned in an oven set up properly for the job, my ashes cast into the wind or maybe in the infield of Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium if Luke Easter is still playing first base for the Bisons. It was only two days later that Larry tripped on the curb outside the variety store on the way home from school and later that day they took his kidney and laid it, all bloody within, on the steel tray. When he came home his mother said he had to be careful when you have only one kidney you can’t fool around and you certainly want to avoid the strain that comes from kicking any ass.
First Appeared in Afterthoughts (Canada), Vol. 2, No. 4, Autumn, 1995.
The cemetery is a place of monologues, family histories laid bare, admissions, secrets long kept hidden finally revealed You must listen carefully, for the voices speak only in hushed tones, befitting both place and circumstance. There is no dialog, no riposte, no response for in this place, that would be put of place, censorious, Thy are respectful, one speaking, a pause, then the next, and time seems meaningless to them, the tale is all that still matters, and matters deeply. Pause, if you will, and learn, but say nothing for we dare not speak ill of the dead.
My mother wanted to tell me of my great-grandmother, a woman she barely knew, but who she imagined more fully that life itself would ever have allowed. History, in her hands was malleable, you could shape it in ways never happened. She wanted to tell me but she knew that her grandmother wouldn’t approve of adopting when your womb was perfectly serviceable, certainly not for a man more than a decade older who could not uphold his most sacred obligation. She wanted to tell me, but I am adopted and this woman can be no more than a story of passing relevance to me.