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Authors: Terry Gamble

Good Family (28 page)

BOOK: Good Family
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But Ian is regarding Derek’s construction of wood and rock with an expression similar to the one he assumed when he first saw the lawn jockey. He crouches down like a golfer gauging a putt. Then he rises, stands back, and shakes his head. “How people betray their secret histories,” he says. “Dana is very, very careful.”

“Oh, she’s always been like that.”

“I’ll bet she hasn’t,” says Ian. “People often project the opposite of what they feel.”

“Thank you, Dr. Anke.”

“Organization compensating for chaos. Virtue for shame.” He stares at Derek’s mound. “God, what
is
this?”

I think of those pictures of our parents, those fading testimonials to happiness, smiles forever fixed, arms thrown around one another as if they can’t believe their good fortune, and I realize that Dana and Philip provide a center—something immutable in an ephemeral world. Exhaling imaginary smoke, I study the lake. It looks cooler today, potentially autumnal. “Did you know,” I say, “that when you have a stroke, you actually lose awareness of part of your body? Think about it. How exquisitely perfect for my mother, who did exactly that. For forty years, she kept denying, denying, cutting off part of herself with booze and cigarettes and naps until—ta-da!—she finally lost awareness altogether.” I pause to punctuate what I consider to be a brilliant analogy concerning the moribund facets of my mother’s self. “And what did my father amputate in the service of marital longevity?”

“Ever the philosopher, Maddie,” says a voice from behind. Sedgie, in his Hawaiian shirt and a towel around his hips, works his way down the dune and lands on the sand beside us. Beowulf tags along wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt that says
THE END IS NEAR. GET SERIOUS
. Sedgie takes a long look at Ian, starting at his toes, finishing at his head. “That’s my hat.”

“Is it? It was just lying there.”

“Hmm,” says Sedgie, his eye still on Ian.

Beo tells us they are going to bond over a “lithesome doobie.” Perhaps we’d like to join them?

“Alas,” says Ian, fanning himself with Sedgie’s hat. “We’re abstainers.”

“You’re getting high?” I say.

“Until the bartender comes,” says Sedgie. “We
are
having a bartender?”

The first thing Dana did after Philip called the undertaker was to call hospice. Then she called the yacht club.

“We’re getting high and looking for heart-shaped stones to put in Evelyn’s grave,” Beowulf says. “It’s a tradition.”

“Whose tradition?”

Beowulf thinks about this. “Well, it
should
be.”

Practicing serenity, I fight not to say,
Why don’t you two grow up
?

“By the way,” says Sedgie, “the phone’s been ringing off the hook. Your sister’s looking frantic.”

I look at my watch. It’s already 2
P.M
. The news must be spreading. And I feel the inexorable pressure of having to work out details. When my father died, Mother took to her bed, relinquishing the details to Aunt Pat. Not yet sober, I wasn’t even in Sand Isle when they threw his ashes off the stern of the
Green Dragon
. Years ago, we used to time Coke bottles we’d chucked off the stern, counting the seconds until they sank beneath the waves, someday to wash up on the shore as smoothly sanded shards of emerald or aquamarine.

“I’m heading up,” I say, turning to Ian. “You coming?”

Ian shakes his head. He’s going to help Sedgie and Beowulf search for rocks. As they head down the beach, Ian trails them, holding up his hands as if he’s framing “the middle-aged guy and the kid getting stoned” scene—the one that we’ll put toward the end of the film when the family starts to unravel.

M
other has been dead for less than eight hours, and the flowers have started to arrive. In the kitchen, I see a Portmerion casserole and a plate of cookies wrapped in plastic. Upstairs, I find Miriam in Mother’s room. Seeing me, she slams shut the book she’s holding and shoves it back on the shelf.

“Where’s Dana?” I ask.

“Resting. She’s rattled.”

I look at Mother who isn’t Mother. When life leaves the body, the difference becomes eminently clear. And when someone is as emaciated and
frail as Mother, it’s hard to recognize the woman who used to decoupage with the aunts, tipping her cigarettes with kisses of pink. Now her teeth and cheekbones are exaggerated like the bold lines of a caricature. Miriam has already picked up all of her pills and removed them. The bedside table looks unnaturally empty. Mother used to cover its surface with photographs and ashtrays and Kleenex boxes and glasses of water or vodka. She always kept See’s candies in the drawer.

I had moved to New York before my father died. It was September. Like most of us, Dad wanted summer to go on forever—but he dutifully returned to Pasadena. A portrait of my grandfather hung over his desk alongside a nautical chart of northern Michigan and a barometer. His secretary, who at first thought he was taking a nap, dropped the glass of water he’d sent for, splattering his desktop. She was mortified, she told me later. His desk was always so neat.

At the time, I hadn’t seen him for more than a year. It had been such an awkward departure from Sand Isle the summer after Sadie died that I couldn’t face him.
I found your detritus in the boat room
, he told me, referring to the bottles I had hidden. As demoralized as I had felt then, I wonder why I even bothered.

Miriam’s voice is brisk. “You’re going to have to tell that undertaker what to do. She wanted to be cremated.”

Cremation is a family tradition. There is something unseemly about lying intact and allowing nature to take its course. Still, they wouldn’t allow me to go with Sadie to the crematorium. I was at home, sedated, secured to my bed by well-meaning relatives who thought they knew best.

“Can I be alone with her?”

“Of course,” says Miriam. She looks around the room and, with a sweep of her arm, indicates the vases that have been arriving from the florist since this morning. “All these flowers. This last year I’ve been with her, I’d never know she had so many friends.”

After Miriam leaves, I sit by the bed. Although I’ve talked to the dead
many times in my dreams and my imaginings, it is another thing to speak to a body.
Where are you, Mother? If you’re with Sadie, will you do a better job watching over her than you did watching over me?

My mother’s corpse doesn’t answer. If her spirit is in this house, I can’t find it yet. Her hair is combed, but her lips are pale. Except for her wedding ring, she wears no jewelry. The early-afternoon sun spikes on the lake and, for a moment, I can imagine she is napping. Aside from the hospital bed, all of the trappings of sickness are gone. The lilies have the strongest smell. They remind me of my wedding. Soon, the undertaker will be coming. I take my mother’s hand, remove her ring, and pocket it.

C
arnations,” says Dana, standing over the pantry sink, plucking the carnations out of a vase of roses and baby’s breath. “Mom would have croaked.”

She starts to laugh, and I join her, both of us quaking with the absurdity of attributing Mother’s demise to a tasteless flower arrangement.

Suddenly Dana stops. “The undertaker will be here any minute. Jessica’s gone. I have no idea where anyone is.” A few indigenous-sounding notes drift in through the window from no specific location. “And that damn recorder. Where’s Philip?”

I tell her that we have plenty of time, and that Mother will stay dead.

“But they’ll take her out of the house. Doesn’t everyone want to be here?”

I see her point. There should be something more ritualistic about removing a body. What would the Irish do? The Sufi mystics? Can’t we ululate and rend our hair?

“I’m
here,” I say.

The doorbell rings, and we jump. No one ever rings the doorbell; they just walk in.

“Where’s Miriam?” Dana says.

If Aunt Pat were alive, she would immediately take charge and gather
the forces, but the best I can summon is a paltry whistle that no one will hear from the porch. I go to the door. It is not the undertaker but the hospice ladies standing like Mormons, earnestly paired.

“We’re so sorry for your loss,” says the older one.

I wait for the platitude I know is coming. Death is a natural part of living. They see it all the time. Their job isn’t to deny death, but to steward it. “Come in,” I say.

Ten minutes later, we are drinking tea at the kitchen table. The two ladies knowingly nod when we tell them how the last breath was such an anticlimax; how Mother seemed so small; how final it was to witness the cessation of life and know she’s not coming back.
Yes, yes
, the hospice ladies say.
That’s how it is
.

“Ghosts,” I say.

The white-haired one looks at me. “Pardon?”

“In this house.”

“I’
ve
never seen them,” says Dana.

“The world is a mysterious place,” says the younger hospice lady with the dyed red hair. She is wearing loads of turquoise. The look in her eye strikes me as ghoulish. Who would go into this kind of work? Who would pretend to translate death? They are necrophiliacs, the two of them, getting off on our loss. I decide to give them nothing.

“Maddie lost a child,” Dana tells them.

Traitor
, I think. But if it weren’t for the tattooed initials on the dining-room wall, I might wonder if I imagined the whole thing.

“Ah,” says the older one.

“It’s a huge loss,” says the one covered in turquoise.

How does your loss feel?
Dr. Anke asked.
Does it remind you of something else?

“How old?” the older asks.

“Four months,” says Dana.

“Meningitis? Flu?”

They remind me of Aunt Pat and Aunt Eugenia, efficient know-it-alls miming concern.
Do you feel threatened by authority?
Dr. Anke once asked.

“The death of a child…” says the turquoise one, her voice trailing off.

“So difficult to get closure,” says the other.

I almost spit out my tea at the word. Where’s the closure when you look at other people’s children and feel both repelled and fascinated? What kind of closure is it when each year hinges on a birthday in May, the years marked off by what grade she would be in, what she would look like, if she would be athletic, pretty, smart? Will I finally have closure when I go through a day without having to scrub the idea of her from my mind like a stain?

“Never completely,” says the turquoise one.

I look at her sharply. The ladies sip. Again, the doorbell rings. This time, it is the undertaker. He is surprisingly tan. For a moment, he and I stand blinking at each other. His suit is linen, like Jamie’s. “You rang?” I say.

T
hey all come eventually. Glistening from sweat, reeking of pot, WD-40, suntan oil, and incense, they make it back to the house. Mother’s corpse is laid out benignly on top of the sheets, dressed in peach chiffon.

“She wore that dress to my wedding,” I say.

“It’s a beautiful dress,” says Miriam.

“Peach?” says Ian, looking at me.

I shrug. “It was the eighties.” I examine the fabric for stains. She walked into the lake in that dress, and now it will be reduced to ash.

“Are you going with her?” Ian asks. Ian is no stranger to protocol, having made countless trips to various mortuaries over the past decade and a half. He knows how the body disappears from view in the crematorium. He’s seen the miracle of makeup in disguising Kaposi’s sarcoma on sunken cheeks.

When I die, just push me into the East River
, he once said to me.
Anything but send me back to Minnesota
.

“Just to the pier,” I say, as if the island is enchanted and to leave its gates would condemn me to the Hades of reality.

The tan undertaker and his beefy assistant cover Mother with a sheet
and lift her onto a stretcher. Light as air, they carry her down the stairs, knocking some of the photographs askew. My grandfather’s stern face, now crookedly hung, stares down on us. When they took Sadie, they wouldn’t let me watch. I had bruises on my arms, and Aunt Pat had pulled my face into her chest to muffle the sound. They move through the dining room, the living room, out the front door, and start down the labyrinth of steps that twist to the sidewalk below.

The carriage is waiting. By design, there are no other passengers. The two men work efficiently. They set the stretcher across the seat, one of them sitting with her to brace it. Dana and Adele climb aboard, but the rest of us walk behind. Occasionally, we have to jog a little to keep up. When we were kids, we’d run after the carriage at night, darting in and out like Indians, shushing one another, trying not to giggle at what seemed a radical act of delinquency as we climbed aboard the luggage rack.
Woo, woo, woo!

“Whoa,” says Sedgie, dodging a fresh pile of horse manure.

All afternoon, I’ve had the urge to call someone, but it’s Saturday. Dr. Anke won’t be in her office, Ian and Dana are here, and anyone I know in New York would say,
I didn’t know you were close to your mother
.

As we pass the tennis courts, people wave. Bicyclists pull over. We’re an odd little procession, heading to the channel. Too soon, we reach the pier. The mortuary has its own boat—a sleek Boston Whaler that they probably use for fishing when not needed for official business. Mac has stopped the ferry and is standing by the Whaler. I think he might salute. Sedgie once told me that the Odawa used to bring their dead to Sand Isle to bury them, but no bones have been found, and I’m sure he said it just to scare me. In India, the Hindus take the corpses down to the river and light them on fire. This is not so different, I think as they load Mother’s body onto the boat.

I
have come to the beach to be alone. It is nearly evening, and the house feels claustrophobic in its silence. We walk past one another,
unsure what to say. We knew she was dying, but we are stunned nonetheless. No one has any appetite.

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