Friday, April 1, 2011

long ride home

I just now finished an excellent online read of a mother who, accompanied by her two young daughters, pays a visit to her ailing father, who is likely drifting into the last, exhausted stages of his long life. It is a meditation on dying, and not so much on death, but how we introduce such a concept - and it's cacophony of complex emotions - to our children. Very thoughtful and wise.

It occurs to me midway that I share little with this woman, save perhaps that we were both raised in families that kept a tight lid on the topic of death, a subject which was never broached, a word that was never used, at least never aloud or in the presence of me, my brother or sister.

My first personal impression of loss came when, at the age of around four, I was suddenly sent away to live with an aunt and uncle in Seattle. My memories of that summer visit are vague and strange, and include my first glimpses of both false teeth (my aunt Aggie's) and a lightening storm, which I beheld, alone and breathless in the late hours of night, as spied through a thin part in the long, blue curtains that hung next to my bed. Both events were impressive, and seemed equally ominous.

As far as the idea of death itself goes, while no explanation was offered to me regarding my re-location (not to mention what had became of my parents, brother or sister), it soon became my silent presumption that my mother had "gone away", was in fact, gone. I had no innate concept of death, but of finality, yes.

So it was then with immense surprise that several weeks later - with equal abruptness - I was ushered back again to my family and home, which appeared to be miraculously intact. There was no pomp and circumstance to my reappearance, it appeared merely a simple matter of my aunt and uncle dropping in to say hi, and then driving away, leaving me behind to resume where I'd left off, once again with no explanation or even acknowledgment of what had been or now would be. What little I recall of the matter shuffles in a pale fog, as surely I must have too. Only too happy to bolt for the back door and out into the fields where I could quickly put the entire, very odd, experience behind me. I was never told why I was away (at least not for several years) and I never asked. A hair past forty-eight months of age, my mental vacancy regarding this seemed a clear demonstration that I had absorbed as much emotional confusion as I could manage.

Fast forward six years: my mother has divorced and remarried, this first time to a skinny man in a cowboy hat and boots, whom we join in his rural home outside Ferndale, Washington.Name is Don. Although countrified and in a slightly emaciated fashion, Don physically resembles a man not unlike my real father, in the style I would now have noted as the none-too-subtle signs of a heavy drinker.

The house is two stories of gray, asphalt tile, heated with a single downstairs wood-burning stove, and has two bedrooms upstairs, the smaller of which has no wallpaper (mine) and the larger of which has no closet (my sister's). Don and mom share a bedroom off the kitchen. A recent high school grad, my brother wastes no time in exciting the situation, pointing his Ford towards the promise of a big-paying job in the Montana oil fields.

We have one pastured cow (which is eventually butchered for meat having suddenly dropped dead) and Don's most prized possession, an Appaloosa mare. I have no recollection of him ever actually riding the creature, although I'm sure he also owned a saddle for it, which I had observed being stored in a small tack shed behind the main house, a untidy but revered location which was soon deemed to be the one space forbidden above all others to me.

It is a time when my afternoons after school are spent mainly alone - no other kid I know lives closer than several miles - with a lot of wandering in the woods. But I do have a dog, named Cindy, who over the course of our year's interment I have successfully raised from a puppy to a full-grown mutt. She is simple company, but faithfully so.

My mother's days appear equally uneventful, except for her frequent trips to the supermarket in town, and occasionally visits to a friend or acquaintance, also by car. On these occasions, largely out of a complete lack of other prospects, I generally tagged along, curled up in the back seat of my mom's black and white '55 Fairlane.

I don't recall knowing any of these people in particular, or even knowing anything about them, only that I usually kept outdoors during her stays, every so often in the company of an equally anonymous child who may or may not have been in my general age range. Either way, I was glad for the company, as was my mother, evidently.

It was to be one of these visits wherein I would be passed a first lesson of loss and death, and it would come to me on the long drive home, my mother at the wheel, me in the back seat, flattened down in my way against its cool vinyl seat covers. The ride home began with my mother cheerfully wishing her friend well, tucking herself and purse behind the steering wheel. The door closed, the engine revved, and we pulled away, Mom aiming one last smile over her shoulder to her friends on their front porch, slipping finally out of view. She drove, I starred \out the window, blankly observing cornfield after cow pasture that streamed past.

At a certain point - I have no grasp of how soon or later - and without so much as shifting in her around in her seat, my mother's voice announced: "Sonia called while I was inside. Called from home."

"Yeah? What?"

"She said Cindy was run over by a truck out in front of the house. She's dead." Just like that.

I squinted a short while in the direction of the back of her head while her words slowly took a legible form in my head, she now completely silent, and then turned back again to the scene outside the. whatever it might have been.

In the next instant came an explosion, a burst so huge and sudden it was like stick of dynamite had been lit and shoved inside my gut. I was literally all over the place-- up against the roof, on the floor, the seats, kicking, crying, screaming, shrieking, with every bit of strength in my lungs, lashing out with both arms, both feet, both hands like a giant, crazy cat caught in a spring trap. How I missed breaking a window I can't image. And this went on for miles, this rage, this fit of all fits, body parts continuing to fly in in every direction.

I was a human hand grenade, and she'd pulled the pin.

Mom, she was like a statue.

As astonished as I am know to recollect it, she didn't pull over, didn't reach out a hand, didn't so much as even glance in the rear-view mirror at as far as i could tell. Just sat there and stared ahead, gazing down the road as if it were an endless tunnel, never herself making as much as a single peep, or sigh.

The next thing is it's all over, and I'm laying sprawled flat across the rear floor, fingertip to toe, and I hear the sound of the gravel, popping under the car as we pull into our driveway. She parks, turns off the engine, steps out and closes the door behind her. I laid there for a while, all cried out, then pull myself back up into the back seat. I am still dazed, but beginning to move on, towards considering the practical matters of the event.

I buried Cindy out in the big pasture behind our house, under a tall fir. It seemed like a nice place. When I checked the following week I realized I hadn't buried her deeply enough, as coyotes or some other varmint had raided the grave site, dragging her remains off somewhere else, to eat, most likely.

But it didn't seem important to me by that time. I knew she was gone already, long gone, dead and gone. Gone forever.

All that remained was me, and a word that had once been her name.