How good it’s been to slide back
the heart’s hood awhile, how fortunate
there’s a heart and a covering for it,
and that whatever is still warm
has a chance
–Stephen Dunn, “Loves”
I was out planting tomatoes in my garden when the phone rang. When I heard my father’s voice on the line I knew it had to be bad news. My mother was the only one who ever called, and she called often, and she would fill my father in in little bursts during the conversation while he kept his eyes trained on whatever golf tournament was on TV.
She had died in bed, the night before, right beside him. She had complained of feeling poorly at about eleven, and he had asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital, and she had said no, and they had gone to sleep, and when he woke up the next morning she was dead. She was eleven years his junior, active, athletic, young for her age. She was an anorexic, and an alcoholic, and was taking Vioxx, but if there was anyone who knew how lethal a combination that was in those days, it wasn’t us. She had been and would always be the good parent. None of us, me least of all, had expected that she would die first.
I was in Pennsylvania early the next morning. We buried her the day after that. My father and I were both in shock, I see now, and we had never really learned how to talk to one another. When I was a child I was afraid of his anger and his occasionally violent outbursts, the most serious of which left me with a broken femur when I was four years old. In the years since I’d been old enough to “take him,” as one close friend put it, I had made no effort to understand his conservative values, and he had made no effort to understand why I had dedicated my life to the arts.
On my second morning in Pennsylvania, I went around town collecting menus from restaurants that offered delivery, and educated him in using the washing machine, the dryer, and the dishwasher (he was shocked to discover that if you put glasses in the dishwater right side up they wind up full of water). On the third morning, I loaded up my mother’s now redundant car and drove to Holyoke, where I’d been invited to teach at the Mount Holyoke Writer’s Conference, as if this detour home had always been part of the plan.
It was only when I saw the giant bouquet of lilies sent to my Mt. Holyoke dorm room that I realized it was probably strange that I hadn’t cancelled the teaching engagement. I am a workaholic from a family of workaholics and our first commandment was always that if you have been hired to do a job you show up on time and ready to give it everything you’ve got. My father felt the same way about work, and would never have suggested I stay and help him get his bearings. No one had cut off our legs, was one of his favorite expressions, and I was in the classroom, ready to go when the conference began.
My editor, Carol Houck Smith, was also in attendance that week. It is only at this moment that I realize what amazingly good timing that was, to have my surrogate mother—an inimitable woman—on hand the week after my real one passed away. To say nothing of Stephen Dunn, and Gerald Stern—whom Carol also edited—and Jack Driscoll; all broad-shouldered soft-touches, all men well acquainted with the labyrinths of grief.
The next morning, out of the blue, my father showed up in Mount Holyoke, the first of several drop-in visits over the next decade and a half until his death. These visits always occurred at writers’ conferences, usually somewhere lovely—Squaw Valley, Taos, Provincetown—never at my home, and always without warning. He would show up in one or another Cadillac convertible dressed in yellow slacks and a fleur-de-lis tie, expecting to be fed and watered and included in the parties. But this time, no one raised an eyebrow, no one asked if I had known he was coming. The conference simply absorbed him, and made him feel at home. Stephen and Jack played tennis with him each morning. Gerry entertained him with stories of the old neighborhoods of New York. I don’t know if my father realized how lucky he was to be in the company of men who were so particularly articulate in the language of sorrow, who were so skillful at offering solace absent of pity, but none of their kindnesses were lost on me.
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