Nat, September 30, 2008
A man is sitting on a bed. He is my father.
The body of a woman is beneath the covers. She was my mother.
This is not really where the story starts. Or how it ends. But it is the moment my mind returns to, the way I always see them.
According to what my father will soon tell me, he has been there, in that room, for nearly twenty-three hours, except for bathroom breaks. Yesterday, he awoke, as he does most weekdays at half past six and could see the mortal change as soon as he glanced back at my mother, just as his feet had found his slippers. He rocked her shoulder, touched her lips. He pumped the heel of his palm against her sternum a few times but her skin was cool as clay. Her limbs were already moving in a piece, like a mannequin’s.
He will tell me he sat then, in a chair across from her. He never cried. He thought, he will say. He does not know how long, except that the sun had moved all the way across the room, when he finally stood again and began to tidy obsessively.
He will say he put the three or four books she was always reading back on the shelf. He hung up the clothes she had a habit of piling on the chaise in front of her dressing mirror, then made the bed around her, pulling the sheets and blanket tight, folding the spread down evenly, before laying her hands out like a doll’s on the satin binding of the blanket. He threw out two of the flowers that had wilted in the vase on her bedside table and straightened the papers and magazines on her desk.
He will tell me he called no one, not even the paramedics because he was certain she was dead. He did not answer the phone although it rang several times. Almost an entire day will have passed before he realizes he must contact me.
But how can she be dead, I will ask. She was fine two nights ago when we were together. After a freighted second, I will tell my father, She didn’t kill herself.
No, he will agree at once.
She wasn’t in that kind of mood.
It was her heart, he will say then. It had to be her heart. And her blood pressure. Your grandfather died the same way.
Are you going to call the police?
The police, he will say after a time. Why would I call the police?
Well, Christ, Dad. You’re a judge. Isn’t that what you do when someone dies suddenly? I was crying by now. I didn’t know when I had started.
I was going to phone the funeral home, he will tell me, but I realized you might want to see her before I did that.
Well, shit, well, yes I want to see her.
As it happens, the funeral home will tell us to call our family doctor, and he in turn will summon the coroner, who will send the police. It will become a long morning, and then a longer afternoon with dozens of people moving in and out of the house. The coroner will not arrive for nearly six hours. He will be alone with my mom’s body for only a minute, before asking my dad’s permission to make an index of all the medications she took. An hour later, I will pass my parents’ bathroom and see a cop standing slack-jawed before the open medicine cabinet, a pen and pad in hand.
Jesus, he will declare.
Bi-polar disorder, I will tell him, when he finally notices me. She had to take a lot of pills. In time, he will simply sweep the shelves clean and go off with a garbage bag containing all the bottles.
In the meanwhile, every so often another police officer will arrive and ask my father about what happened. He tells the story again and again, always the same way.
What was there to think about all that time, one cop will ask.
My dad can have a hard way with his blue eyes, something he probably learned from his own father, a man he despised.
Officer, are you married?
I am, Judge.
Then you know what there was to think about. Life, he will answer. Marriage. Her.
The police will make him go through his account three or four more times—how he sat there and why. His response will never vary. He will answer every question in his usual contained manner, the stolid man of law who looks out on life as an endless sea.
He will tell them how he moved each item.
He will tell them where he spent each hour.
But he will not tell anybody about the girl.