Years ago I knew an old woman. Her faith was of a homegrown American strain; seized by visionary excess and influenced by the nineteenth century’s enthusiasm for scientific principle, every pleat and button of the afterlife had been cataloged. Her husband, who had only driven her closer to that God he wouldn’t believe in, had died long before and she had outlived all her friends and now all but one of her children. She had pushed and protected and punished her son and two daughters according to the needs of their characters as she saw them. She had tithed, tilled, conserved, and given with both hands even to those neighbors she didn’t like. All of that fight and for no mere surviving but to do what was right, even beyond her scope as being rich only in the needs she had to meet, had made her obdurate; and here she was—was she in fact a burden and a tyrant? She could no longer walk but kept her stick at hand for emphasis. Her heart she could feel inside her turning liquid, sluggish as the oatmeal she tried to swallow every morning.
Most terrible was how little remained that was real, as solace or distraction. Her teeth had ground away like chalk and her stomach was bad. Flowers, books, needlework, the pleasures of eye and hand, each had been stolen, as one silver knife or fork at a time might be filched by someone you’ve trusted until the day when you can’t believe the entire set is gone. Some evenings when the daughter with whom she lived was cooking dinner, a smell—lemon or cilantro, or onion before the warm olive oil had soothed it—would sharpen the quiet between them, touching her like the shadow of a cloud over the desert on its way to rain elsewhere. So she sat in her armchair, which today had been carried out into the lawn at the center of the green-gilt afternoon of my brother’s wedding reception. An old woman in a green glass bottle.
With her blocky head sunk and turning within her bunched shoulders, she looked like the owl I had seen at a rescue station. Winged by a hunter, it could, after so many years, submit to the touch of those whose own needs kept it alive. Leashed to its perch, the owl like an icon articulated the small air around it; its gaze, saturnine, sulfurous, brooded absently as a knight who has outlived his conflicts. When an owl glides noiselessly through trees at night the forest appears as intersecting planes and columns—abrupt geometries—which slide, tilt, separate, and vanish behind. A territory of grisaille, part memory, part improvisation. I had once been stalked by an owl during a sunset run through the woods and I felt again the ghost of that old fear, the involuntary shudder of the small and the quick, when its eye dropped on me the predator’s cold, brazen fury, the late light from a wounded imperium.
A hard floor was laid over the part of the lawn where people would dance later. Whidbey Island, fifty miles long, forested in second or third growth, macadamized and cultivated, is really no more than a sandbar, riven with streams running from one salt water to another, which an earthquake will someday liquefy and dissolve. The mountains we rested our eyes upon, and all the suburbs skirting them, had for centuries been called on maps the Mer de l’ouest, a great inland sea summoned by a desire for symmetry to match the Mediterranean on the other side of the world. This landscape breathed water, exhaling a deceptively mild, humid scent that combined salt with cedar, and people seemed to squint a bit or rub their eyes as the air veiled objects near and far. Once a month I felt as though I could see with utter clarity into the life of things. For those two days I walked everywhere cautiously in a pained rapture.
The old woman wore a flowered blouse and the afghan that she preferred for its catlike weight upon her legs (yes, there are certain fierce preferences still, I see, and now that I’m troubling to remember her face, there is an almost disowned and, therefore, haunting need, her spectacles turned toward me, the light from them soliciting, like coins in the collection plate). There was a glass of water and a box of tissue beside her, in case she started to choke as she might now without any reason. In their summer dress, everyone, even the parents and grandparents, looked rich, and youthful, accepting the party’s promise that for these few hours we would be replete. The labor of the day, the effort to refine it to its ideal, showed only where that labor had failed: a razored cheek’s bead of blood or the torn hem; leaves in the fountain; the fly exploring a segment of melon. Shadows grew out of the evergreens that circled the garden. Some guests, nervy, bold as starlings, approached and withdrew from the old woman. Most acted as their costumes demanded, their manners more playful and tenderly formal, each one paying their fee to play by bending to ask after her. She gave them always the same answer, its longing unfaded by repeated exposure to the air’s solvents, “I want to die.” Her voice a barb caught in the warm flesh of the afternoon. Some were up, already veering away so heard her only as branches scratching, or the far-off ratcheting of a jay defending its territory. But others kneeled beside her as if she were a lock they were determined to pick, that empty space to be filled by their being. They would hum in her ear the need for strength and the splendors, etc. of life, etc. until on the lathe of her silence their evangelism turned into a fine, wheedling noise and they dwindled away to find a drink or a kiss. They remained outside.
You have only to look at the pictures from that day to see all this, and to see, too, the way the groom, my brother, holds so casually the bride’s hand in his, his face, flaring whitely, a wing-like blur, looking over his shoulder, called by the flash of something, or someone else, behind him.
She had died once already that summer. Or so it was thought when my mother lay down just before lunch one day in the middle of August and did not wake up.
If the cotton sheets were cool and smelled of the westerly that had dried them, if the curtains were drawn against the sun, perhaps when she closed her eyes she felt a sound inside her ear like the plaint of an oar pulling through dark water. Her body like that kelp scalloping the tide line after a storm, its holdfast torn from the seafloor, she let the current take her and felt herself suspended, sustained by this other element. When the white obelisk appeared, it didn’t matter whether her vision of it came from morphine dream or deep childhood. As she drew near she saw around the bottom on all four sides a name unfamiliar to her but incised so deeply that only it had survived intact the devotions of wind and ice and rain. The rest of the engraving—dates, achievements, human ties—all were effaced; except at the top a simple, open boat stood nearly upright on a wave. Inside sat four figures, cowled and blunt as four mittened thumbs.
Every breath labored as though forced to travel through the difficult terrain of a foreign country. Her flesh clasping to bone, a simultaneous sinking away and tautening, foreshadowed the final dissolution, which disappears briefly at death. Then the face is smooth, relieved of every tension, pain, and anxiety, as well as the hard work that is dying itself. I knew that the mind when asked to imagine death fails, but I saw how even besieged and collapsing mitochondria will not cease converting food to energy because by the next evening she’d rallied. She woke, like a tired swimmer hauling herself out of the water. (I wondered if her lungs felt heavy, as mine sometimes do, as if I’ve been holding my breath in my sleep.) Shrunk by her concertinaed spine, she stood before the linen closet with the prompt factotum of her oxygen tank beside her. From what did I avert my understanding?
The state fair was held over one of the last weekends of summer during a late string of hot, cloudless days, unusual enough at any time in the Northwest to appear as a landmark on the horizon, looking back. My friends and I had avoided the interstate on our way to the fair, arriving instead by more roundabout, scenic two-lane state and country roads. Though thick evergreens suggested green and pleasant shade, we’d stopped and didn’t have to walk far to see what the trees attempted to deny: raw, copper-colored earth and sheared stumps of clear-cut gaping behind for thousands of acres.
People waved flags at long lines of cars, inviting drivers to park on front lawns and, like ants, where one turned more followed. Fairs like these had once showcased progress, a condition that in a less hectic past approached the freakish. Next to an exhibit of midget nudists, fairgoers could visit the Incubator Pavilion to watch rows of impossible babies being cultivated like tiny, pink, imported lettuces under glass. Today’s Commercial Hall, with its knife-sharpening demonstrations and sonic jewelry cleaners, in fact, the entire fair, felt no less quaint—freakish, now, for its nostalgia—than the Ferris wheel where we waited in line. On our skin and in our hair we wore the smells of the day: frying dough, spun sugar, and grilling beef; as well as the high coloratura notes of chicken shit and horse manure’s golden baritone. The wheel lifted everyone beyond these to where a few untethered metallic balloons winked away. Was this the moment when she slipped off her life? What had seemed too difficult, the work of months, turned out to be almost as easy as shedding a sweater on a humid afternoon.
The house smelled like the interior of a clock when I walked in a few days before the weekend of the fair and found her on the couch crying, alone. “I don’t want to die,” she said. Each sob cracked the vessel, and because she never had cried before, now that she’d started she couldn’t stop: “I don’t want to die.” I searched for words of comfort, optimistic as the mariner who, guided north by rumor, fable, and faith, believes each new bay or inlet will lead to the Northwest Passage of his imaginings. But every gentle word, once spoken, turned out to be fool’s gold, the blandest, sanitizing lie. How is time to be consoled? Invited to look into waters running cold and sourceless, I saw only the cul-de-sac of my own face.
Long ago a man named Jean Nicolet kneeled in a birch canoe. In winter the wind that blows in every season slaps together small glaciers from sand, ice, and wave, and these bumped against the shore like next year’s beef in a pen. Paddling across the water in his hazardous craft, he would have been too intent on his goal to feel the confusion that can overtake you when sky and water trade places at the low horizon. As his shoulders ached and thighs burned, he could distract himself by composing a short graceful speech of greeting (a few compliments strung together on a thread, nearly invisible, of threat), and imagining the fire, the spices and porcelains in lamplit rooms, which awaited him. With a perfectly calibrated bow he would shake out the sable-lined damask robe, presented by courtesy of the French king to the emperor of China. What he thought when he stepped onto the marshy western shore of Lake Michigan I don’t know. Like that naive ambassador I had assembled my maps, my guidebooks, and consulted the experts on every pertinent subject. Taking a lake for the sea, inventing my destination by light of my own need and hope, I’d prepared for the wrong voyage. To live closely with a dying person is to inhabit time in a way that is both intimate and infinite. What remained for me to discover after many attempts is that this suburban wife and mother, my mom, had had her occlusions: the pain that lived in bone, suffusing the body’s soft tissues, usurping the mind’s well-lit paths, unreachable as a tyrant’s black silences. To preserve her secret demanded the fury of the less gifted athlete determined to surprise a stronger and faster opponent; the magnitude of her fear was betrayed only by her self-control, which, until that day on the couch, had been immaculate. She could even send my brother off to college where he was still locating his classrooms when she died. Her face, then, as I remember it, was cleared of those shadows of human suffering and doubt; like an icon’s, it existed in the solitude of an eternal present. I recall what I had forgotten that day several weeks before when she woke from her coma: life is not personal.
On the day of the fair, Mt. Rainier shone with a soft, rare mineral gleam in the near distance, massive and light as an ocean liner. It seemed to hoard the quiet of epochs while the fairgrounds leaked noise. Every ride played its own tune, each one distinct—zany or wheedling or jaunty—but all discordant. Again and again the operator of the Matterhorn ride asked, “Doyawannago faster?” Everyone wailed their assent, the collective Yessss! skimming down a long, steep hill of sound. From so many human throats came chatter, laughter, cries, exclamations, and exhortations, which together added up to a vast and mournful roar.