I talked to your father last night.
This was my mother speaking and it was a March afternoon in Indiana a couple of decades ago, and a couple of decades after my father had died.
He had died upstairs, in this house where we sat sipping tea, waiting for the appointed hour for me to pick up my children from school. I was in from Florida on my spring break.
“He was in your dream?” I was trying to understand. This had come out of nowhere.
“No,” she said, emphatically. “I woke up and he was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me.”
“You must’ve been dreaming.”
“No, Honey. It was your father. He sat there and we talked the way we used to talk. We just talked about … things.”
I looked at my mother, wondering if this was leading down a twisted path to a punch line. But she was serious and her eyes were dewed with tears.
She continued. “He said, ‘Martha, everything’s going to be all right.’ He kept saying that — ‘everything’s going to be all right.’”
This wasn’t the first time, she told me. These didn’t happen often, these visits, but she prayed for them.
Selfishly, I wondered why he hadn’t come sat on my bed. I was down the hall, sleeping in my old room.
My sister and sister in law both said that near the end, my mother talked about visitations from my father. They said she was worried about what they would be like in heaven. He would still be the young, vigorous man who had died four decades before. Would he see her as she was at her death, a frail woman in her nineties, or would he see her at what she called ‘her best’?
She worried about this, I was told.
All of this was on my mind when I got the phone call. It was my brother in law, John. I’ve known him since I was 10, so he’s as much a brother as my blood brother.
When my father had died so suddenly, all of us were in shock. It was John who held it together and made arrangements and did all the things a paralyzed family was incapable of doing.
So now he was on the phone. It was a few days before Thanksgiving. My mother had died peacefully. My sister, her devoted daughter, was with her.
I knew this was coming. Greedy as I am, I had hoped for another visit. I wanted to take the children on a between-the-holidays road trip to Indiana during Christmas break. I just wanted to see her one more time.
But now Thanksgiving loomed and she was gone. I had to be grateful that I saw her a few weeks before.
I took the call in the hallway outside the bedroom, with all of the children already asleep. John said that the funeral would be in six days, after the holiday. I told him I’d fly out late on Thanksgiving. My brother said there was room at his home.
Nicole at first thought I should take the whole family, but I didn’t want the children to bury another grandmother.
The sudden death of Nicole’s mother the year before had shocked us all. I was away on a trip when Nicole called with the word — word she had just gotten while driving home. She had been in Houston, taking her mother to MD Anderson Cancer Center. So she flew home to Key West for the weeklong wake and funeral, taking Savannah with her. I returned home and flew down a couple of days later with the little boys.
Fortunately, I had a role model. I tried to do for Nicole’s family what my beloved brother in law had done for mine: I helped take care of business. I worked on the obituary, I served as pallbearer and delivered a sort-of eulogy. Savannah and cousin Andrea had been planning to pay tribute to their grandmother but on the day of the service realized they could not do it.
So I said a few words of preface, then read a poem in memory of Victoria Toppino Solodare. My voice broke only once.
Funerals are strange for a lot of reasons, perhaps most principally because they become family reunions. The sudden gathering has a shade of dour since we come together in grief, but there’s still the joy of family.
As our tribe gathered in Indiana, I wished the boys were there after all — to spend time with my brother and sister and their longtime partners, of course, but also to see their big brother and sisters and the army of cousins.
Suzanne, my sister, and Sharon, my sister in law, had done all of the heavy lifting. My mother spent the last years of her life in — pardon the maddeningly antiseptic term — an ‘assisted living facility.’ Even though she was in her nineties when she moved in, my mother disdained it as an old-folks home. Despite the full staff at the home, Suzanne and Sharon were my mother’s caretakers.
The arrangements were made. Thankfully, I’d traveled without incident and believed I might’ve passed a critical point in my long road to recovery from cancer. I’d soon discover I was wrong about that, but somehow I made it through the days surrounding the funeral — including the round-trip to Indiana from Boston — without incident.
My mother hated to see people she loved in caskets. As a child, she’d been forced to view an uncle in his casket — and to kiss his dead lips. The lining of the casket was purple silk. She hated purple the rest of her life.
She insisted on a closed casket at my father’s funeral. Some thought this odd, but I think she believed — as do I — that no matter what the courts say, the dead do have privacy. I never liked the idea of people observing someone — even an ‘absent’ someone — when they are most vulnerable.
So she had a closed-casket funeral, though there was a brief ‘viewing’ period. Again: it’s an odd custom, but some need it in order to accept the finality. I was across the room during the viewing period, but tried not to focus. That was my mother, but it was not my mother.
Suzanne asked if I would speak at the funeral. I thought again of the poem that I had read at Victoria’s funeral. If anything, it was more appropriate now, for my mother. The poem is about death and a love that spans the great divide between here and the afterlife.
So I stood up front, by the casket, and in a surprisingly steady voice, I talked about the poem.
I’d found it in The Georgia Review in 1981 and often used it when teaching writing classes. I like to encourage people — even those who think they do not have a poetic bone in their body — to try to write poetry. Verse requires a specificity of language that helps any developing writer.
And this poem that I was going to read was written by a journalist.
“I found this in a literary magazine years ago,” I said to my family and to all the others in the room. “It always stayed with me. I hear it in my head frequently and it reminds me so much of my mother and father. I’d like to read it for you. It’s called ‘For Your Future Reference,’ and it was written by a man named Otis C. Williams, Jr. He was a New England newspaper editor.”
I pulled out the poem. “Oh, and it was prefaced by a note from Robert Penn Warren. This is what he said:
“The author of these poems — or poem — had never written a poem in his life, but was, like his wife, a lifelong reader of poetry. He gave these to his wife on his fifty-sixth birthday, saying, ‘I don’t know why. I feel fine. I just felt like saying this.’ Eight months later, he was dead, of an unsuspected cancer. Later, his wife, who I have never known, sent me these pieces, out of the blue. I do feel that they should reach a wider audience than that for which they were, devotedly, intended. The poems were untitled when they reached my hand. The only remark about them from the bereaved was that she regarded them as one poem, not two.”
I paused, wondering if I’d make it through it or if I would suffer a more severe break than I had at Victoria’s funeral.
I drew a deep breath.
What can I promise you, of all the things
I would have liked to promise you, now that
I have passed over to the other side?
So swiftly and so smoothly, suddenly,
there was only one momentary stabbing pain
and I had no time to think of myself, or
what was happening to me, but only of you.
What would become of you, he thought, like
a concerned bystander stripped (or relieved)
of all human feeling as no one still living
can be relieved. Would she be all right?
What can I promise you? Only that you may
keep me as long as you can and I will be.
And for your future reference, I can promise
you that it does not hurt and it is not dark
because there is no light. It is only different.
Strange, that I think if I could feel anything
I would miss you very much. But you must know
that I have not gone away to anywhere. It is
only you who have stayed where we once were.
I paused before continuing with the second poem — or the second part of the poem. Somehow, I was holding it together.
Death does not seem to affect me the way I thought it would;
there is no lack of awareness that I am dead.
The lamps are lighted in the house next door;
the geese flew months ago. And I have trouble remembering
what happened yesterday, but no trouble remembering long ago.
There is a dull grayness, numbness, not unpleasant, and it is
all in black and white. I used to dream in black and white;
it is not reasonable to expect that I would be dead in color.
So, it is not what I thought it might be when I said long ago
the worst thing I could think of would be to be dead and not know it.
It is different.
I know, because I cannot now feel the lights next door and there are
no lamps lighted in my house, and the geese I did not watch
for long enough when they flew, I cannot bring back.
Not back in time, to watch again and make a difference.
If I were wishing anymore, I would wish the lamps lit here,
the geese winging endlessly so I could watch, and that
I could be dead in color.
I knew the poem might strike some as an odd choice for my mother’s funeral. If I was going to speak, I should be relating stories about her sense of humor or her strength or her powerful personality or the joy she took in her family.
But from the moment I’d discovered that poem thirty years before, I’d thought of my parents. There had been the one, brief stabbing pain that killed my father and my mother was alone. But she wasn’t alone. He’d been there, watching out for her, missing her, and waiting. She’d told me as much.
So as destroyed as I was by my mother’s death, I also felt some shade of happiness. If there was something beyond this existence, then now they were together and they shared it.
I hoped that they were dead in color.
We all gathered at my brother’s home. Food magically appeared. Cousins hugged. Pictures were taken. We all remembered our matriarch and we shared the inextricably bound emotions of sorrow and glee. Cliches become so because they are true. Exhibit A: At least, her suffering is over.
We repeated this mantra, taking solace in it.
. . . . . . . . . .
Back in Massachusetts, we careened toward the holiday. Gifts began to appear under the tree. Life continued.
I was a man, now aged sixty, but I felt adrift. I was, finally, an orphan. When your parents are gone, no matter what your age, you feel untethered.
Savannah was home from college. Nicole’s father came. He had spent so many Christmases with us and with my mother. He helped Nicole and I carry on — we were both motherless children now.
Because of my health and recovery, our life had been disrupted. During our first years in Cohasset, we lived in a huge and somewhat dilapidated house on the ocean. It was cavernous and most nights Nicole asked me to sleep in the guest room. My night noises kept her awake she said.
This depressed me, of course, because I remembered the marriage of my parents as some sort of model. They always slept together.
The guest room was at the other end of the house from our bedroom. Sometimes, she’d have one of the boys sleep with her and I’d end up with the other two in my bed.
Nine bedrooms, most of them unused. Two boys sprawled across my bed. My wife, half a football field away, down the hall.
This practice continued most nights when we moved to the next house. During my treatment and difficult recovery, I was back in the master bedroom. I needed to be near a bathroom.
I began sleeping upside down in the bed — with my head at the foot of the bed — so my breathing wouldn’t disturb Nicole. Usually, she’d ask me to let her fall into a deep sleep before I attempted slumber. It usually worked.
But as my recovery continued and my dependence on porcelain lessened, I was again exiled to our fourth-floor guest room — a loft-like room with two queen-sized beds.
Of course, it was also Savannah’s room, so when she was home over the holiday, I returned to the master bedroom.
When Savannah’s classes resumed in Florida after New Year’s, I was again on the fourth floor.
That was my Scandanavian Noir period. Nicole would go to bed early and when I’d gotten the boys to sleep, I’d climb to the top floor and watch television crime series based in Norway or Sweden.
I’d lie there and think about my life, now without a mother.
It had been a tough few years. One of our children had required extended hospitalization. It was heartbreakingly difficult and stressful. Then Nicole was absent for long periods during her midwifery schooling in Maine. Her mother was nursing her husband through his dual cancers when she was diagnosed with cancer. Nicole put life and career on hold and began spending every moment she could in New Jersey with her mother. Then her mother died suddenly and Nicole moved to the Philippines for a summer residency. While she was gone, my symptoms presented. By the time she returned, I was bleeding heavily and beginning to convince myself I needed help. My cancer was diagnosed and I began stumbling down the long road of treatment and recovery. And then my mother died.
And that led me to here, on a bed on the top floor of my home, staring at the ceiling. Due to the sequence of unending sorrow and trial, a yawning had come between us. We had not been true husband and wife for a long time.
So on the ceiling I saw a road map to the future. I was ready to resolutely go forth into the mystic. I was an orphan now, and a cancer survivor. I was a father of seven. I was a teacher and a writer and a husband. I imagined that now, perhaps, Nicole and I could resume our life, that we could be close again, share the new bonds created by our losses, and again find intimacy, and again make love.
I heard footsteps — too soft and hollow to be one of the boys. They were adult steps.
My eyes moved from the ceiling to the head of the stairway. Nicole stood there, looking down at me on the bed.
“I think I want us to separate,” she said.