It happened slowly.
It may have begun five or six years ago, well before Dad’s rattling breath slowed and then stopped beyond midnight.
It may have ended not long ago – humbly – in and beside a hospice bed.
And yet, in the mysterious way of these things, it will never actually end. It will travel with me to the end of my days and may well be passed in some yet unknowable manner to my own child.
In ways immeasurable, I changed. She changed. Together we became something new, new even though the world has told this tale with myriad words over countless pages, now lost, now found in the libraries of time. I slipped in simple miracle from being son to friend, to protector, to confidante, at last to deathbed confessor.
I’m not sure that I can map it precisely. I’m not sure that I want to. I’m not sure that I have any need of such a thing. Perhaps it is enough that it happened. In time – in its own time – I will know.
Where I will go from here I am uncertain. What I will eventually do (or not) with her dark, restless recollections I cannot say.
All I can say as I wonder at the day’s new light is that I have more to carry, more than I anticipated, more than I can readily understand.
Understanding is complicated. The words are easy. A fifth grader could take them in and process them. The visceral reality however – that is something else altogether.
How do we describe the birth of a child? How do we adequately capture the sights, the sounds, the smells? What do we do with the emotions, the fear, the joy? Do you see? No, if you have not been there, you cannot see. Words are not enough. Even if you have been there, the birth you witnessed was different from that which I have known.
I’m so sorry. I know how things changed. I know how you feel.
You imagine how you might feel. You know how you felt.
You remember hot wax melting from your own eyes. You recall the suddenly cold, arid plain where lately there had been agony. You taste the guilt of your words – your words, not mine. You know the regret but only you know why. You know the pain of hiding from them that darkening rift. You know your own valley of lost laughter. These are the things that you know.
But you do not know – really know – how I feel. You do not know what I have carried. You were not there. You were not there when I wept at eight, or giggled at fourteen. You were not there when I overheard them choose one over another. You did not feed them through a straw, or clean their daily damp bed, or launder their oft soiled clothes. You did not toilet the one who had toileted me. You did not.
No. You know what only you can know. Tell me just that – that you know how you felt, that if it has been as difficult for me, that I have your support, your waiting quietude. Please, I think, not your blathering. This is my lead and steel, shaped only for me. Today I cannot carry yours.
How then do we understand? How do we know that which varies from soul to soul? We let the stories speak when they need to speak. We let the words – the breaths, the laughs, the sighs – be theirs alone. We admit that their shoes have not scuffed the same soil as those lately wheeled away.
So what I am now is different – as different as you would be. It is changed – today and tomorrow, and then again tomorrow.
So too is this traveling sack, this bulging, wriggling burlap that I have learned to carry, that I will learn to carry once more, and once more as it sways, as it tilts on my shoulders through moons and through tides.
Rob, are you sure that you’re okay with this? Are you positive?
I am, Mom. I got this.
My shoulders have broadened with age, Mom. I’m good. Nobody would ever have guessed that the skinny little seven year old would be the one walking with you now. I’ll be okay. We’re good.
And one more eternity later in the bright, brittle air: Thank you.
It may be that as Mom grew weaker in sight, in hearing, in mobility, in ability to engage with her world she needed a surrogate, someone to stand in her stead, someone to carry that which she no longer could. It may be that she needed more than she had left, and that it could only be found in someone else.
As she became less, I became more. I became something that Lois could no longer be.
But do not confuse less with diminished. Lois Ann would reach out from beyond if you were to be so brazen! She remained vibrant, intelligent, well-informed, inquisitive, hopeful, sassy, even stubborn right up to her last rising of the sun. No, she was not diminished. She was simply in need of a partner, someone to hand her her cane, to pick up her secrets, to walk with her – resolute – to the end of the valley.
It happened slowly.