This morning, I watch the sun over the lake as it inches its way into the sky. The house is quiet. We all stayed up late.
Last night, in the early evening, I attend the dedication of a building for an organization my mother-in-law helped to establish decades ago. I stand there, beside Matt and his father as in the entryway, a curtain is drawn away from the wall to reveal an installation of blue stars. In each star, a name. We look for the name of his sister and find it near the top of the wall. In loving memory. Margaret Derby.
The lobby is warm and abuzz with chatter. I step outside. Beyond the parking lot, endless fields of green and clusters of trees. There is a faint scent of manure and pine mulch. I pace the sidewalk.
Late at night, Matt builds a fire. We sit around it, perched on tree stumps as our son tells his meandering stories about ghosts and aliens and the other creatures that populate a six-year-old’s dreamscape. I look up and the sky is dazzling with stars.
I want to talk about dying. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that I want to talk about death. Its ubiquity. The way it hovers over us here in this house. We talk around it of course. Of who will pick up Matt’s parents and who will drive them to the wedding and who will ensure that they have their medications on time. We don’t talk much about their pain.
Last year, Matt’s mother was still fairly self-sufficient. She walked slowly, and with some difficulties, particularly with stairs, but she was able to spend time at the beach with us and to fix herself breakfast and paint her nails and make herself tea. This year, she is never without her walker. Or, she is wheeled in a chair. After dinner last night, I paint her nails for her. Her hands tremble. His father has his own walker. He barely speaks, but he smiles when he is spoken to. Although he has never been particularly talkative, during this visit, his silence seems to have grown larger, taken on weight. It has become its own presence - not always visible, but it asserts itself at unanticipated moments. The way you glimpse the long tail of a cat as it skulks around a corner.
It is an oversimplification to say that I am frightened. To say that I do not want my children to have to watch me in my decline is too thin, too paltry a statement to make.
In the afternoon, I curl up on the hammock, my back turned to the house and sob quietly. When I return, my voice is thick and heavy and my daughter asks are you ok? I tell her yes as I collect my purse and tie my sneakers. We will take a drive, all of us, together.
The drive is quiet, past all the cornfields and farmhouses. Past the run down gas stations and the strip malls. My son sleeps.
I am looking for the lessons I am supposed to learn. The ones about making the most of your days. Of taking time to spend with the people you love. About appreciating what you have. These worn, flimsy bits of pulp offer no relief in the continuous present. “Does there have to be meaning?” Matt asks as I weep in bed. It breaks me out - momentarily - of my melancholy. “I’m beginning to suspect,” I say and we both laugh aloud, “that there is not.”
What is it that we owe to our children? We bring them into our lives and in so doing, compel them to watch us grow old and sick and frail. Or to lose us unexpectedly. Either way, if they live as long as we expect them to, they will endure losing us. We have drawn up the contract and signed it, and then pressed their small hands to the ink.
My son bursts into the room shouting. He is looking for a toy. Turn around, we tell him. It is right behind you. He spins around the room slowly, waving his arms around and then finally spots the box. Oh, there it is. Now I see it.
Around the dinner table, we tell stories. About the things we did during the day, the people we spoke to. The plans we are making for the rest of the week. The days have gone quickly, except for the few hours when they have not. I look over to where Matt’s parents are sitting, side by side. His father will smile when the table erupts in laughter. His mother will share a word or two when she can. I am glad to have them there, sitting around this long table of their children and their grandchildren.
After dinner, we gather up their things to ready them for the labored walk to the car. I think they are happy to have been here. I hope they are. I think maybe when they are finally back in their rooms in their beds, they will also be happy to have rest.