My stepfather died June 14th, the same day my older brother died years before, the same day my young half-sisters were born several decades earlier. Pop died in his sleep, I’d like to think, but maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’d fallen softly into a coma, waiting as death approached, as death stripped his last dignities, his few remaining self-contained independences. His face sank in; his already sharp cheekbones speared against the thin Dutch summer light. I imagine they cast shadows on the white walls, and that those shadows shifted as the hours passed, while his wife, my mother, wrung her hands and pretended all would be okay. The doctor would come, the housekeeper would help change the newly soiled sheets, the children and grandchildren and great grand children would arrive on the weekend for one last celebration before Pop got too tired.
They all ended up coming days earlier, when he slipped away sometime after mom had fallen to sleep. She’d only meant to for a moment, the day had been so long, the doctor’s diagnosis so final. But the bed she’d made for herself on the couch had welcomed her. Mom had only rested for a moment, she’d thought, and jumped up with a start when she no longer heard his labored breathing from the other room. Mom rushed to Pop’s bedside. His body was cool. She called her stepson, hung up the phone and paced until he arrived.
My oldest sister went to his funeral. None of the rest of my mom’s remaining children could. Our passports were expired or we were short of funds or both. That was okay, because mom’s stepchildren surrounded her, and her brothers and sister, all the nieces and nephews, the upcoming babes still in wombs – all enveloped her. She knew their love, felt time pass through each generation and decided that she’d bring her husband home to America, to send his ashes into the sea, to rest with her older son, who shared a death-day.
She came to Florida last week. My brother, one of my sisters, her children, and my children and their children all got together and ate, shared the love along with fried chicken and cold salads. We spent time like river water, without thought to its direction or force. Without watching where it went, which direction it preferred, we simply allowed it to take us where it would until mom got bored and tired and restless, and then we cascaded, in separate cars, down different routes, almost arriving at different times, to the newly opened fishing pier near here. We gathered in the docks and waited. Time jiggled around us like ice. We froze in the unseasonable wind and when it was just right, clustered in a corner and spoke of our pop. Some spoke of events, some mentioned what he’d meant, most threw an item into the choppy seas. One threw flowers, another a rock, a stick, some sand, handfuls of grains, a poppy pod. We wept, not for our own selves, but for the pain of the children. My daughters and niece burst apart, sent little bits of themselves under the waves with their grandfather. My Marie bled so freely that her grandmother asked her for help, to open the urn, to tip it over, to watch the grey dusts and ashes and tiny bits of bone fall forward and out, over the flowers, along with the grain, the sand. The cluster of us watched, faces pinched and red, as the tide took our father, our grandfather, under the bridge, around the pylons, towards the south, where dolphins broke the surface, porpoised and dove through the remains and the gifts, and scattered them to tomorrow.
My mom arrived here several days before the big day, and she spent all of our time together telling me about pop. She told me again and again, the same stories I knew, the same sequence of events that led to his illness, his passage, the words he said before he died, how she comforted him, how she could have comforted him, what she would never chance to say again, what she never chanced to tell him, what he would never know.
I let her speak, again and again, let her tell me, and with each relaying, her skin faded, her colors dried up, until finally she was little more than a shadow of her true self. Then I said, “Stop, Mom, you speak too much. You have nothing left.”
She turned to me and laughed. “You will never know,” she said. “You won’t have the time. Or at least I hope that’s the case.”