Have you ever lost someone who meant more to you than your own soul?
I did. I lost my wife Pat.
It took six long, tortured months for her to die.
I had to stand by and watch my beautiful, perfect wife waste away until there was nothing left. It didn't matter that I have money and success. It didn't matter that I'm called an "important" writer. It didn't matter that Pat and I had finally started building our dream house, an engineering miracle that hung onto a cliff wall and would allow us to sit quietly and look out across the Pacific.
Nothing at all mattered from the moment Pat came home and interrupted me while I was writing-something she never did-to tell me that she had cancer, and that it was in an advanced stage. I thought it was one of her jokes. Pat had a quirky sense of humor; she said I was too serious, too morose, too doom-and-gloom, and too afraid of everything on earth. From the first, she'd made me laugh.
We met at college. Two more different people would be hard to find, and even Pat's family was completely alien to me. I'd seen families like hers on television, but it never occurred to me that they actually existed.
She lived in a pretty little house with a front porch and-I swear this is true-a white picket fence. On summer evenings her parents-Martha and Edwin-would sit on the front porch and wave at the neighbors as they pa.s.sed by. Her mother would wear an ap.r.o.n and snap green beans or sh.e.l.l peas while she waved and chatted. "How is Tommy today?" she'd ask some pa.s.serby. "Is his cold better?"
Pat's father sat just a few feet away from his wife at a wrought iron table, an old floor lamp nearby, and a box of gleaming German tools, all precisely arranged, at his feet. He was-again, I swear this is true-known as Mr.
Fix-It around the neighborhood and he repaired broken things for his own family and his neighbors. Free of charge. He said he liked to help people and a smile was enough payment for him.
When I went to Pat's house to pick her up for a date, I'd go early just so I could sit and watch her parents. To me, it was like watching a science fiction movie. As soon as I arrived, Pat's mother-"call me Martha, everyone does"
-would get up and get me something to eat and drink. "I know that growing boys need their nourishment," she'd say, then disappear inside her spotlessly clean house.
I'd sit there in silence, watching Pat's father as he worked on a toaster or maybe a broken toy. That big oak box of tools at his feet used to fascinate me. They were all perfectly clean, perfectly matched. And I knew they had to have cost a fortune. One time I was in the city-that ubiquitous "city" that seems to lie within fifty miles of all college towns-and I saw a hardware store across the street. Since hardware stores had only bad memories for me, it took courage on my part to cross the street, open the door, and go inside.
But since I'd met Pat, I'd found that I'd become braver. Even way back then her laughter was beginning to echo in my ears, laughter that encouraged me to try things I never would have before, simply because of the painful emotions they stirred up.
As soon as I walked into the store, the air seemed to move from my lungs, up my throat, past the back of my neck, and into my head to form a wide, thick bar between my ears. There was a man in front of me and he was saying something, but that block of air inside my head kept me from hearing him.
After a while he quit talking and gave me one of those looks I'd seen so many times from my uncles and cousins. It was a look that divided men from Men. It usually preceded a fatal p.r.o.nouncement like: "He don't know which end of a chain saw to use." But then, I'd always played the brain to my relatives' brawn.
After the clerk sized me up, he walked away with a little smile that only moved the left side of his thin lips. Just like my cousins and uncles, he recognized me for what I was: a person who thought about things, who read books without pictures, and liked movies that had no car chases.
I wanted to leave the hardware store. I didn't belong there and it held too many old fears for me. But I could hear Pat's laughter and it gave me courage.
"I want to buy a gift for someone," I said loudly and knew right away that I'd made a mistake. "Gift" was not a word my uncles and cousins would have used. They would have said, "I need a set a socket wrenches for my brother-in-law. What'd'ya got?" But the clerk turned and smiled at me. After all, "gift" meant money. "So what kind of gift?" he asked.
Pat's father's tools had a German name on them that I said to the man- properly p.r.o.nounced, of course (there are some advantages to an education).
I was pleased to see his eyebrows elevate slightly and I felt smug: I'd impressed him.
He went behind a counter that was scarred from years of router blades and drill bits having been dropped on it, and reached below to pull out a catalog. "We don't carry those in the store but we can order whatever you want." I nodded in what I hoped was a truly manly way, trying to imply that I knew exactly what I wanted, and flipped through the catalog. The photos were full color; the paper was expensive. And no wonder since the prices were astronomical.
"Precision," the man said, summing up everything in that one word. I pressed my lower lip against the bottom of my upper teeth in a way I'd seen my uncles do a thousand times, and nodded as though I knew the difference between a "precision" screwdriver and one out of a kid's Home Depot kit. "I wouldn't have anything else," I said in that tight-lipped way my uncles spoke of all things mechanical. The glory of the words "two stroke engine"
made them clamp their back teeth together so that the words were almost unintelligible.
"You can take that catalog," the man said, and my face unclenched for a moment. I almost said gleefully, "Yeah? That's kind of you." But I remembered in time to do the bottom lip gesture and mumble "much obliged" from somewhere in the back of my throat. I wished I'd had on a dirty baseball cap with the name of some sports team so I could tug at the brim in a Man's goodbye as I left the store.
When I got back to my tiny, gray apartment off campus later that night, I looked up some of Pat's father's tools in the catalog. Those tools of his were worth thousands. Not hundreds. Thousands.
But he left that oak box out on the porch every night. Unlocked.
The next day when I saw Pat between cla.s.ses-she was studying chemistry and I was English lit-I mentioned the tools to her as casually as possible. She wasn't fooled; she knew this was important to me. "Why do you always fear the worst?" she asked, smiling. "Possessions don't matter, only people do."
"You should tell that to my uncle Reg," I said, trying to make a joke. The smile left her pretty face. "I'd love to," she said.
Pat wasn't afraid of anything. But because I didn't want her to look at me differently, I wouldn't introduce her to my relatives. Instead, I let myself pretend that I was part of her family, the one that had big Thanksgiving dinners, and Christmases with eggnog and gifts under the tree. "Is it me or my family you love?" Pat once asked, smiling, but her eyes were serious. "Is it me or my rotten childhood you love?" I shot back, and we smiled at each other. Then my big toe went up her pants leg and the next moment we were on top of one another.
Pat and I were exotic to each other. Her sweet, loving, trusting family never failed to fascinate me. I was sitting in their living room one day waiting for Pat when her mother came home with her arms pulled down by the weight of four shopping bags. Back then I didn't know that I should have jumped up and helped her with them. Instead, I just stared at her.
"Ford," she said (my father's eldest brother thought he was bestowing a blessing on me when he named me after his favorite pickup), "I didn't see you sitting there. But I'm glad you're here because you're just the person I wanted to see."
What she was saying was ordinary to her. Pat and her parents easily and casually said things to make other people feel good. "That's just your color,"
Pat's mother would say to an ugly woman. "You should wear that color every day. And who does your hair?" From someone else, the words would have been facetious. But any compliment Pat's mother-I could never call her "Martha" or "Mrs. Pendergast"-gave came out sincere-sounding because it was sincere.
She put the shopping bags down by the coffee table, removed the pretty arrangement of fresh flowers she'd cut from her backyard garden, and began pulling little squares of cloth out of the bags. I'd never seen anything like them before and had no idea what they were. But then Pat's parents were always introducing me to new and wondrous things.
When Pat's mother had spread all the pieces of cloth out on the gla.s.s-topped coffee table (my cousins would have considered it a matter of pride to break that gla.s.s, and my uncles would have dropped their work boot-clad feet on it with malicious little smiles) she looked up at me and said, "Which do you like?"
I wanted to ask why she cared what I thought, but back then I was constantly trying to make Pat's parents believe that I'd grown up in a world like theirs. I looked at the fabric pieces and saw that each one was different.
There were pieces with big flowers on them, and some with little flowers.
There were stripes, solids, and some with blue line drawings.
When I looked up at Pat's mother, I could see she was expecting me to say something. But what? Was it a trick? If I chose the wrong one would she tell me to leave the house and never see Pat again? It was what I feared every minute I was with them. I was fascinated by their sheer niceness, but at the same time they scared me. What would they do if they found out that inside I was no more like their daughter than a scorpion was like a ladybug?
Pat saved me. When she came into the living room, her hands pulling her thick blonde hair up into a ponytail, she saw me looking at her mother, my eyes wild with the fear of being found out. "Oh, Mother," Pat said. "Ford doesn't know anything about upholstery fabrics. He can recite Chaucer in the original English, so what does he need to know about chintz and toile?"
" Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote," I murmured, smiling at Pat.
Two weeks before I'd found out that if I whispered Chaucer while I was biting on her earlobe, it made her wild for s.e.x. Like her father, an accountant, she had a mathematician's brain, and anything poetic excited her.
I looked back at the fabrics. Ah. Upholstery. I made a mental note to look up the words "chintz" and "toile." And later I'd have to ask Pat why being able to recite medieval poetry should exclude knowledge of upholstery fabrics. "What do you plan to upholster?" I asked Pat's mother, hoping I sounded familiar with the subject.
"The whole room," Pat said in exasperation. "She redoes the entire living room every four years. New slipcovers, new curtains, everything. And she sews all of it herself."
"Ah," I said, looking about the room. Every piece of furniture and all the windows were covered in shades of pink and green-or rose and moss as Pat later told me.
"I think I'll go Mediterranean," Pat's mother said. "Terra cotta and brick. I was thinking of trying my hand at leather upholstery with all those little nails around the edge. What do you think of that idea, Ford? Would that look nice?"
I could only blink at her. In the many houses I had lived in, new furniture was bought only when there were holes in the old, and price was the only consideration for purchase. One of my aunts had a whole set of furniture covered in three-inch-long purple acrylic. Everyone thought it was wonderful because all three pieces had cost only twenty-five dollars. Only I minded having to remove long purple fibers from my food.
"Mediterranean is nice," I said, feeling as proud of myself as though I'd just penned the Declaration of Independence.
"There," Pat's mother said to her daughter. "He does know about upholstery."
Pulling the little hair tie out of her mouth, Pat deftly wrapped it around her ponytail, and rolled her eyes. Three weekends before, her parents had visited a sick relative so Pat and I'd spent two nights alone in their house.
We'd played at being married, at being our own little family, and that that perfect house was ours. We'd sat at the kitchen table and shucked corn, then we'd eaten dinner at the mahogany dining table-just like grown-ups. I'd told Pat a lot about my childhood, but I'd only told her the deep angst part, the part that was likely to get me sympathy and s.e.x. I'd not told her the mundane, day-to-day things, such as rarely eating meals not in front of a TV, never having used a cloth napkin, and only using candles when the electric bill hadn't been paid. It was odd, but telling her that my father was in prison and that my mother had used me to punish my father's brothers made me seem heroic, while asking her what the h.e.l.l an artichoke was made me feel like the village idiot.
The second night we spent together in her parents' house, I lit a fire in the fireplace, Pat sat on the floor between my legs, and I brushed her beautiful hair.
So, later, when she looked at me over her mother's head, I knew she was remembering the night we'd made love on the carpet in front of the fire.
And from the looks she was giving me, I knew that if we didn't get out of there soon I'd be throwing her down on top of her mother's fabric samples.
"You're so alive," Pat had said to me. "So primitive. So real." I didn't like the "primitive" part but if it turned her on...
"You two go on," Pat's mother said, smiling and seeming to intuit what Pat and I were feeling. And, as always, she was unselfish and thinking of others before herself. When the drunk teenager who killed her a few years later was pulled from his car, he said, "What's the big deal? She was just an old woman."
Pat and I were married for twenty-one years before she was taken from me. Twenty-one years sounds like a long time, but it was only minutes.
Right after we graduated from college, one of the teaching jobs she was offered paid exceptionally well, but it was in an inner city school. "Hazard pay," the man on the phone who was begging her to take the job said. "It's a rough school, and last year one of our teachers was knifed. She recovered but she wears a colostomy bag now." He waited for this to sink in, waited for Pat to slam down the phone.
But he didn't know my wife, didn't know what her boundless optimism could take on. I wanted to try my hand at a novel, she wanted to give me the chance to write, and the money was excellent so she took the job.
It was difficult for me to understand such selfless love as hers, and I was always trying to figure out the why of it. Sometimes it would run through my head that Pat loved me because of my childhood, not in spite of it. If I were the same man but had grown up in an orderly house like hers, she wouldn't have been interested in me. When I told her that, she'd laughed.
"Maybe so. If I'd wanted a clone of myself I'd have married Jimmie Wilkins and spent my life hearing him tell me I was half a woman because I couldn't have kids."
For all that Pat and her family looked like they lived an ideal life, the truth was, there were several tragedies in their past. In my father's family-my mother was an orphan and I was glad of it as my father's eleven brothers were all the family I could handle-a tragedy was a reason to stop life. One of my uncle Clyde's sons drowned when he was twelve. After that Uncle Clyde hit the bottle and stopped going to his night security job. He and his wife and their six other kids ended up living on what she made at McDonald's, and one by one their kids dropped out of school, or ended up in jail or on welfare, or they just wandered away. Everyone in my family seemed to think that this is what should have happened after Ronny's death. Forever after, they talked about Uncle Clyde's great grief over his son's tragic death in mournful whispers.
I was seven when my cousin Ronny drowned and I wasn't sad because I knew that Cousin Ronny had been a brute. He'd drowned while terrorizing a four-year-old girl. He'd grabbed her doll, run into the pond, and proceeded to dismember it, throwing the body parts into the murky water, all while the little girl stood on the bank, crying and begging. But as Cousin Ronny ran into the deep water, he disturbed a snapping turtle that bit his big toe, and he and what was left of the doll went under, where he hit his head on a rock and knocked himself unconscious. By the time anybody realized he wasn't pretending to be dead (Cousin Ronny was a great one for crying wolf) he actually was dead.
When I was told that Cousin Ronny had died-which meant that he'd no longer be around to bully me and the other little kids-all I felt was relief.
And I was sure that Uncle Clyde would be glad, too, because he was always yelling at Ronny that he was the worst kid in the world and that he, Uncle Clyde, should have "cut it off" before he'd made such an evil son.
But after Ronny died, Uncle Clyde went into a state of bereavement that lasted the rest of his life. And he wasn't the only full-time mourner in my family. I had three aunts, two uncles, and four cousins who were also in lifelong mourning. A miscarriage, a chopped-off limb, a broken engagement, whatever, were all reason enough to put life on hold forever.
I grew up praying hard that nothing truly bad ever happened to me. I didn't want to have to spend decades drinking and crying about the tragedy that had blighted my existence.
When I met Pat's extended family and saw that they were all laughing and happy, I shook my head at the irony of it all. So many tragedies had been thrust on my family, yet here were people who had been blessed- without tragedy-for generations. Was it their church-going ways that had made their lives so free of catastrophe? No, my uncle Horace had gone to church for years, but after his second wife ran off with a deacon, he'd never entered a church again.
About the third time Pat and I were in bed together, back when I still felt superior, as though my hard childhood had taught me more about life than her soft one had taught her, I mentioned this phenomenon, that her family had experienced no tragedies.
"What do you mean?" she asked, so I told her about Uncle Clyde and Cousin Ronny who had drowned. I left out the parts about the doll, the turtle, and Uncle Clyde's drinking. Instead, I used my natural-born gift for storytelling to make him sound like a man who loved deeply.
But Pat said, "What about his other children? Didn't he love them 'deeply'?"
I sighed. "Sure he did, but his love for Cousin Ronny overrode everything else." This last bit was difficult for me. I'm cursed with a clear memory and I could almost hear again the ugly fights that used to rage between Uncle Clyde and his bully of a son. Truthfully, before the boy drowned I never saw any love between Uncle Clyde and Cousin Ronny.
But to Pat I put on my best I'm-older-than-you look (by three months) and I've-seen-more-of-the-world-than-you (by the time Pat was eighteen she'd been to forty-two states on long driving vacations with her parents, while I had been out of my home state only twice) and told her that she and her family couldn't understand my uncle Clyde's feelings because they'd never experienced true tragedy.
That's when she told me she couldn't have children. When she was eight she'd been riding her bike near a construction site and had fallen. A piece of rebar, embedded in concrete, had pierced her lower abdomen and gone through her tiny prep.u.b.escent uterus.
She went on to tell me how her mother had lost her first husband and infant son in a train accident. "She and her husband were sitting together and she'd just handed him the baby when a runaway truck hit them," Pat said. "My mother wasn't touched but her husband and baby son were killed instantly. Her husband was decapitated." She looked at me. "His head fell onto her lap."
We lay there in bed, both of us naked, and looked at each other. I was young and in bed with a girl I was in love with, but I didn't see her beautiful bare b.r.e.a.s.t.s or the soft, perfect curve of her hip. Her words had shocked me to the core. I felt like a medieval man hearing for the first time that the earth wasn't flat.
I couldn't reconcile that sweet woman who was Pat's mother with the woman who'd had a severed head drop onto her lap. And Pat. If one of my female cousins had had a hysterectomy at eight years old her life would have stopped then and there. Every family gathering would have had everyone clucking in sympathy. "Pooooorrr Pat," they would have called her.
I'd known Pat and her family for months, and I'd met three grandparents, four aunts, two uncles, and an uncountable number of cousins. No one had mentioned Pat's tragedy or her mother's.
"My mother had five miscarriages before she had me and they removed her uterus an hour after I was born," Pat said.
"Why?" I asked, blinking, still in shock.
"I was breech so I was Caesarean and the doctor had been called from a party so... so his hand wasn't steady. Her uterus was accidently cut and they couldn't stop the bleeding." Pat got out of bed, picked up my T-shirt off the floor, and pulled it on over her head, where it reached to her knees.
The irony of this matter of uteruses and families flooded my brain. In my family girls got pregnant early and often. So why were my uncles able to reproduce themselves lavishly, but Pat's parents had only one child and no hope of grandchildren?
As I watched Pat dress, I knew there was something else in what she'd just told me about her birth. "A party? Are you saying that the doctor who delivered you was drunk?" People like Pat's family didn't have drunken doctors who "accidently" destroyed a woman's uterus.
Pat nodded in answer to my question.
"What about your father?" I whispered, meaning, Did he have any tragedy attached to him?
"Macular degeneration. He'll be blind in a few more years."
At that I saw tears form in her eyes. To hide them, she went into the bathroom and closed the door.
That was the turning point. After that day, I changed my att.i.tude toward life. I stopped being smug. I stopped feeling that only my family had experienced "true life." And I relinquished my biggest fear: that if something truly awful happened to me, I'd have to stop living and retreat into myself.
You go on, I told myself. No matter what, you go on.
And I thought I'd managed to do that. After that kid ran his car into Pat's mother and killed her, I tried to be an adult. Right after it happened, I thought that maybe if I heard the details of her death I'd feel better, so I went to a young policeman standing by the wreckage and asked him what happened. Maybe he didn't know I was related to the deceased by marriage, or maybe he was just callous. He told me what the kid who'd killed her had said. "She was just an old woman," he'd said, as though Pat's mother had been insignificant.
There was a funeral, a nice Presbyterian funeral, where people politely wept, where Pat leaned on me, and where her father aged by the minute.
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»