memento mori

There is a funeral procession on the highway. Dozens of cars moving slowly in the far right lane, lights blinking. From the passing lane, I follow it for miles. Finally, the hearse – the sober memento mori. I slow down involuntarily.

Do we regret, in the end, the things we did not do? Or the things we did that we wish we had not?

On the morning my mother dies, we call the hospice nurse. She comes back to the house that she had left only hours before, saying, “It will be soon, but it will not be tonight.” She pronounces death.

I find myself embarrassed by the public nature of it. The hearse in the driveway – undeniable. Neighbors hovering near their front doors and windows. We are not much known here. Likely enigmatic: these two women, two teenaged girls, coming and going silently.

No one comes by with coffee cake or a casserole. No one rings the doorbell to ask about when the services will be. We receive cards, of course, and flowers from relatives and friends, but for the houses in the immediate proximity to our own, the days go on unchanged.

On the last day in the beach house, the air is warm but the sky is gray. The feeling that settles in is like that of the final days of summer – the fading light, the recognition that the time for certain joys has past, and what is ahead will be largely pragmatic: the washing, drying, and re-shelving of dishes; the folding of sheets and towels; the sweeping of sand from the wood floors. Before packing, I take my coffee out to the bench near the edge of the cliff that overlooks the bay. There is a long row of hostas, each in its early stages of unfurling.

I am alone now and it is so quiet that I am aware of the sound of my own breathing, of my own heart beating. I try to sit in the quiet, watch the surface of the bay in its small undulations, but I am restless. I walk along the edge, examine the plantings. I pull a weed from between the hostas. I tug at a few of last year’s branches – slender and brown – and they come away easily from the earth. There are raspberry bushes growing long and leggy.

This is and is not the life I imagined. These afternoons by the water, my son kneeling in the wet sand, or climbing across moss-slicked rocks. The warm, noisy kitchen in the early evening. The familiar touch of M.’s hand on my back as he reaches past me for a glass. These things, yes: I imagined them, hoped for them. How foolish of me to say that I did not anticipate the searching moments – the yearning for things that I cannot even name. The sadness of all these years without my parents. The relentless self-doubt.

Instead of driving home, we stop by the public beach – a last-minute decision to pass the afternoon here in the unexpected heat. We are in our street clothes, my son and me – and we sit in our corduroy pants, with our feet bare. He digs himself deep, rolls himself around in the sand. There is no point in trying to discourage him.

Nearby, there is an older woman sitting in a chair. Her companion sits on the sand by her feet and rubs her calves and thighs. She laughs loudly as he does this, her mouth open.

I think: I have a lot to learn about love.

Three girls in bikinis jog by. Surfers walk back from the water, their bodies slick and black in their wet suits. Next to us, two boys leap from the low stone wall to fall into the sand – again and again. Their legs are pale and narrow as birch branches. A butterfly kite hovers – its yellow tail fluttering. The rest of us stare down at our phones.

Several years ago, a friend invited me down to her mother’s house in East Hampton. I took the car ferry, drove out to the house – beautiful, sprawling, remote. Her friends came and went for a day or two at a time. Each day, there were different configurations of us, but the house was always full.

We walked to the market in the mornings, brought back bread and cheeses and fruits. We spent the afternoons flat on our backs in the sand and then stumbled home, sun-weary and famished. On her wide deck, we ate and drank and as the evening wore on, the sounds of our conversations grew giddy and loud, but there was no one around – for miles it seemed – to hear.

We stop for fish chowder and fries at a rundown-looking spot known only to the locals. On the sign out front, a wooden lobster hangs forlornly, with one claw broken, dangling. The vinyl booths are sticky.

I scan the faces of the patrons – families with small children, a few couples, a mother and her daughter. At the table near mine, a young woman and an older man with a baby propped up in a high chair. The child is too small, it seems, for the chair, and they’ve rolled beach towels around her. Her head lolls.

The man catches my gaze as I am looking at them, and I smile, then turn my head away, back to my son and his drawing. I do not mean to stare.  

On the drive back, I choose the toll lane with the broken gate. There are a few cars in front of me, and so I sit and watch as two women in yellow vests stand on either side of the gate, consider it, push at it, then stand back. My head starts to throb as on either side of my lane, the cars speed by. After several long moments, it is working again, although it is hard to tell what, exactly, fixed it. And we proceed. The vested women stand near the gate, alert for malfunctions, their arms folded across their chests.

The traffic is backed up for miles. A bus has crashed through the guardrail and landed in the wooded ravine below. We sit. I fumble with my phone. In the car in front of me, teenaged girls hang out the windows, waving their arms, laughing.

I think of the woman on the beach, her open-mouthed laugh, uninhibited. It was this laugh – deep and loud – that made an otherwise unremarkable moment seem too intimate to watch. To witness this pleasure, the expression of it. I feel the heat rising to my cheeks, blushing at the thought of it. How easy it is, I think, to watch sadness. To stare, at the restaurant, as the family eats with plastic forks from paper plates in silence. To crane our necks and slow traffic to see the bus on its side in the ravine. The mother, her brow furrowed, dragging her crying toddler to the car. But pleasure – I turn away – it is too full, too raw to be borne.

We inch along. The car full of girls moves over to the right lane, leaving me behind a white panel truck, which obstructs my view. I sit back in my seat, relax a little, recognizing that I can no longer see what’s ahead of me. All I can do is move forward.