My mother is living with another dying man. He is not my father, but I’ve known him longer than I knew my dad. He moved me home from college. Moved me from apartment to apartment. Moved me to the mountains.
He is nothing like my dad, except he also loves my mother.
They have traveled together. Retired together. Gone to high school reunions together.
And I have come to love him in a way, the man who is not my father, who loves my mother, who moved me from place to place, who tried his best not to stand in the shadow of my father’s ghost.
He is nothing like my dad, except he is also dying a slow death, a day-by-day death, a counting-pills death, a sleeping-in-the-stepdad-chair death.
I have become very good at navigating death. I lived with my dying father and my denying mother until no amount of denying could stop the dying, and I’ve done what daughters do with their wounds—turn them into a career. I’ve become the cliché—the therapist who’s constantly trying to heal herself.
Who am I kidding. I lick my wounds to keep them bleeding.
Still. My mother is living with another dying man and I am two hundred miles away from her and I can’t be with her because of COVID-19. They are both high-risk. I rely on her to tell me, over the phone, what she’s feeling, what is happening, how she is coping with another dying.
She tells me what she’s always told me. She is fine. They are fine. He fell again. His blood sugar was too low. He thinks he just drove the Mustang to Las Vegas. He thinks he does not need the walker. He thinks he is fine.
She has convinced him.
They are fine.
I stare at the phone while we talk in the mornings. She tells me she went swimming. That they are out of milk. That she’s going to finally finish going through the boxes in the garage.
“And how is he today?” I ask. The pause before the lie is the tell. But I step into the lie because I’ve done it before. Because I’m trained in the danger of challenging the delusion. Because I’m two hundred miles away and I can’t look at her, my own green eyes looking back, and tell her, “Mom. He is dying.”
The year before my father died, we went out driving. I had just gotten my license and it was still exciting to drive the flat roads of Phoenix going nowhere, fueled by the illusion of freedom. “I want your mother to find someone else,” he said and I sped up faster than the speed limit because I had to push the rage out somewhere. “I told her you will never know how incredible she is if she won’t talk to you. She just wants you to have the happy childhood she didn’t.” I slammed on the brakes at the red light. My father didn’t flinch. “Make sure you keep some space around you on the road, sugar. Air will never hurt you.”
At home, two hundred miles away from my mother and her dying husband, I sit on my patio and watch the ravens. I feed them—bread crusts, oranges, crackers. They bring me twigs and aluminum can tops and occasionally a dead thing. I love them, my corvids, so I ask them to do what they do and go to the in-between and ask my dead father to help. Ask him to be where I cannot. They chatter and debate, then scatter.
My wife is facing the ocean again. The black water beneath her grabs her ankles and gnaws at her bones. Her white bathing cap glistens with salt. I’m behind her and I can reach but not touch. Not yet. When we went to Wrightsville Beach together in 1969, she wore the same white cap. We took our oldest, then, only daughter with us. She wore a red bathing suit and she clung to my shoulders and screamed when the waves came.
She puts one hand on her hip, my wife, shields her eyes with her hand. The big wave is gathering. She can see the roiling of the sea-surface, feel the tugging at her legs. The lifeguard changes the green flag to yellow. Be careful. Something’s coming. She doesn’t see the flag-change, only the wave.
She digs her toes into the sand. Trusts the ocean to carry her. The horizon is a straight blue line. She loves the way the curve of the wave bisects the sky.
I float behind her, buoyant on warm Atlantic water. When I was living, I couldn’t handle the ocean well. My polio-eaten leg. My attacked heart. But now, I bounce and hover over her shoulders, a sea-breeze kiss against her neck.
My wife has the same shape she had when I touched her. She has the same smile, though four of her teeth have been replaced. She has carried our life with her from house to house, each move consolidating boxes until she can’t consolidate anymore. Not because there’s nothing left to let go of, but because there is too much. The weight of our boxes keeps her toes secure in the sand. The weight of our boxes keeps her from floating out to sea. Her cellphone password is our anniversary. 6464. The 6 is a wave. The 4 is a tree—rooted and tall. The wave swirls around the tree and the tree bends.
The flag is yellow.
I am just over the horizon, I whisper, but she can’t hear me through the bathing cap. She can’t see me in the shimmering spray. I have always been just over the horizon. She takes a step and the water pulls her ankle and she stumbles. I reach for her but I miss.
The man my mother married after my father died of a heart attack is dying of kidney failure. He can no longer flush away what he doesn’t need. Toxins build beneath his skin, paint his eyes yellow, make him fall asleep mid-sentence.
“Let me help you with that,” he says every time I visit, wanting to take my bag, wash my windshield, get me a drink. He shuffles in slippers. He pours gallons of sparkling water. He forgets what he asks.
“I’m fine,” I say. “You rest.”
He doesn’t want to rest. He is always sleeping.
He watches his wife in the backyard swimming pool. She dives under for what seems like too long, but he can’t move fast enough to save her so he turns over in his stepdad-chair, pulls his blanket to his neck. His wife emerges at the other end of the pool, white bathing cap dripping chlorinated water down her cheeks. She pushes herself onto the decking, and he sees a shimmering prism in the water she shakes off her limbs.
I imagine these moments now, tossing my leftovers to the ravens. I’ve seen it and now it’s on repeat because I am here and they are there. There is too much air between my mother and me.
My stepfather, swimming in his mind, weaves memories together into abstract art. His anger is brief bursts when he breaks through the surface and realizes the lie.
He is not fine.
My wife, I remember how you’d run to the sea, arms above your head, splashing into the surf until the white-caps danced around you and I thought I’d lost you but you’d pop up just past the sandbar and smile and wave and dive again. You’d float, the swirl of salt and seaweed around your body holding you when I could not reach.
When my dad died, my mother boxed up his clothes and gave them away. I thought she purged everything, but now that she’s living in the last house she’ll live in with the last husband she’ll have, I see in her floor-to-ceiling stacked garage how many cartons of things have stayed. College yearbooks. Golf balls my dad bought the week he died. A stuffed graduation doll, the cap stitched a silver 1958, and a wedding album with some candid shots of her and my father standing in the cemetery of the church where they married, the white tips of the tombstones bobbing in the sea of southern grass. There’s also a cellphone passcode carried in her purse, kept on her nightstand, plugged into her car.
A cellphone password stored in the clouds.
She keeps an analog calendar on her counter and makes plans for the future. We are to take a trip together this spring. She has volunteering commitments. She is spending thousands of dollars to fix her teeth. COVID-19 has halted all of these.
The yellow flag snaps in the wind and she squints at it and writes down another plan.
Her husband who is not my dad is snoring in the stepdad-chair. He’s awake when she sleeps, asleep when she wakes. His gaudy Hawaiian shirts haven’t been worn in months. He wears a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and flannel pajama bottoms. He miscounts pills which she recounts. He charts his blood pressure in childish handwriting. She keeps a list of his medications in her wallet which is next to her cellphone passcode. She knows one day soon she will once again have to tell an intake nurse what medications her husband is on while he is being hooked up to tubes in another room.
She will be prepared, just like she was with my father.
He needs to go to the hospital now. He has likely had a series of strokes on top of the kidney failure. They tried Teledoc, but it was glitchy and he wouldn’t enter the frame of the camera and he insisted he was fine and my mother was trying to get rid of him. The lies form a heart shaped knot between them. She doesn’t push it. She knows he’s not fine, even if she won’t say it, and she knows if she takes him to the hospital she can’t go in with him. She can’t hold his hand. She can’t see him off.
Instead, she’ll be kept in the parking lot, isolated in her car because the virus carried on the air could kill her.
If I squint, I can see my fingers in the sunbeams. I can stretch them far beyond my form now. I am corporeal and I am wind. I am salt and I am chlorine. I am your beloved and I have been waiting and the sea is churning and the clouds are gathering and the flag has shifted yellow to red.
My wife steadies herself again in surf and sand and the seawater rises to her neck. Gulls chatter. A pelican, heavy, prehistoric, dives into the dark water and emerges, fishtail flapping in its beak. My wife can’t see where the sea truly meets the sky, but I can now and I promise, my wife, I promise, there is room.
There is enough air now between us.
My mother is two inches shorter than she was when my father died thirty-three years ago. I can see her scalp through her thinning hair. Her collarbone protrudes, her skeleton pushing against its clothes. She’s sorting boxes on the last day I visit before the shut-down.
“Do you need anything?” she asks, standing in a sea of cardboard. “A rolling pin? A Swiffer? A coat? I seem to have gathered too much.”
“I’m fine,” I say, as she burrows into ancient cardboard.
“Look at this! I haven’t seen this in such a long time.”
It’s a turquoise and green glass figure of indeterminate shape. “What is it?”
“I don’t know.” She holds the glass to the window and the sun shoots turquoise spray across the room. “But isn’t it beautiful?”
Before I drive north to home, she gives me my dad’s golf clubs—a heavy set of Pings from 1983. I touch them now each morning when I get up, my fingerprint merging into his.
“Call me,” she says, and her hands won’t stop wringing. I catch them and squeeze.
“I’ve got you,” I say, even though I am leaving, driving away through hundreds of miles of air.
Hold your breath, my wife, when you dive into the wave, the wave so big it topples buildings, the wave so big it cleans out garages, the wave so big it shatters bones. Hold your breath. Keep your cap on tight so the sea won’t clog your ears. Go under under under to where it’s smooth and still and the fishes brush against your skin, the air in your lungs a buoy. Beneath the waves the crashing sounds like chanting; the vibrations in the water remind you of being in the cradle, rocking rocking rocking you to sleep.
When you dive into the wave, my wife, inhale deep so I have time. I only need a breath or two but you can’t watch yet you can’t see, but when you go under, plant your feet, your still-living feet and let the water baptize you, let the water wash us away, wash us away.
When you go under, hold your breath,
open up your hands, and I will catch him.
Look, my wife, the flag flaps green.
Close your eyes, dive deep, and I will meet your husband and I will take him to the edge of sky and sea and when you emerge we will see your white cap bobbing in the blue and he and I will see you safe to shore. We will blow you salt water kisses that will dot your cheeks.
Open up your hands, my wife.
The air is calm.
I will not miss.
Laraine Herring’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Tiferet, K’in, and many other places. Her memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be released in 2021 from Regal House. She’s the founding editor of Hags on Fire, an online zine for women writing about perimenopause, menopause and aging, and she’s a professor of psychology and creative writing in northern Arizona. laraineherring.com