Ten Years Later

The job was soul-sucking. In retrospect, I realized it was that way in part because they really did just want me to quit; no amount of determination or work on my part was going to change anything. But at the time, it seemed like the right thing: like what I had to do.

My office phone rang. That happened occasionally, but really, not that often; nobody actually cared what I was doing there in that cubicle on Page Mill Road. I’m not sure if I could have been more surprised when the person calling was Nilda. “Do you have plans for lunch?” she asked.

“What?” I replied. “No, why?”

“Because I’m at this conference on global philanthropy at the Stanford Alumni Center. Come meet me and the family for lunch.”

I checked the clock, not that it mattered — it isn’t every day someone who might as well be your sister, but who lives eight thousand miles away, happens to be a mile from where you’re sitting. I headed over there posthaste.

Even before I saw her and her husband, I saw two young Peruvian boys running and playing at the edge of the courtyard. Called by their father, they came over and nodded solemnly and returned to playing. The grownups talked.

“Your father,” Nilda asked me, “do you think it’s as bad as he does?”

I bit my lip, against the tears filling up my eyes. “Yes,” I said. “Maybe even worse. It could be… it could be days, only. It could be right now. He’s suffering, too.”

We neither of us wanted it to be true. We both knew I wouldn’t exaggerate or pull punches and that Nilda would never wish I could. We would just both wish the truth was something else.

“I still wish you would do textile work,” she said, changing the subject, if only slightly. “It would matter if you did.”

“I can’t see how,” I told her. “I’m trying to see how, and somehow… somehow, I’ll come up with something. But I can’t afford to do it and live here. I need to make a living, and where I live is here.”

We parted, too soon. I lingered longer than I should have, knowing I had to get to the parent conference at my son’s first grade. I thought about the places I’d been with Nilda, no more or less varied than those I’d been with my parents. I thought about us all, about all of it, about the smell of the highland plains in the Andes, the Stanford alumni looking to donate money to someone like Nilda for her projects, about being so poor we caught hepatitis trying to upgrade from just having a pot to piss in, about the vicious rumble of my Trans Am’s engine while I hauled ass down southbound 101 trying to make up a few minutes of time.

I crested the small rise next to Moffett Field in the far right lane and gunned it to pass a semi on the right. Yeah, I know, I thought. But whatever. I took a moment’s pleasure in the car’s response, and that’s when I saw what I hadn’t before: the CHP car one lane left of the semi. Well, fuck. I came off the throttle but it was too late, and no sooner had I passed the Mathilda exit than he was behind me, rollers lit up. I pulled to the side.

He walked up on the passenger side, and I rolled down that window. He looked at the booster seat in the passenger seat, the motorcycle helmet in the back seat, and I handed him license, registration, proof of insurance.

“So,” he said, “were you aware of how fast you were going?”

“Just keeping up with the flow of traffic, sir.” He gave me a look. I sighed. “I’ve got a parent conference at my son’s school,” I said, “in three minutes.” He looked over my documents, looked around the inside of the car.

“I’d expect better situational awareness from someone with a motorcycle license,” he said, blandly. “You should have seen me before you passed that semi.”

“Yeah,” I said, “you’re right, sir. I should have.”

He tore a page from his ticket book, handed it to me with my documents. “I’m writing you a fix-it,” he said. “I don’t think the tinting on this car is to spec.” It was, but I just wanted done with that, and really, he could have written me for the 82mph my needle had briefly touched. I took the ticket, thanked him, and was only 3 minutes late to the conference.

“He’s refusing to write his journal again,” the teacher said, “and then he had a tantrum about it, so I sent him to the principal’s office again.” I reiterated — we’d been around and around about this — that this was exactly what he wanted; in the principal’s office, he was supposed to just sit and read quietly, which was all he wanted to do, and so sending him to the principal’s office just reinforced that all he had to do to get out of writing the journal was have a tantrum. She shrugged. This, just like my job, was going nowhere. The first grader and I went home.

* * * *

The ringing phone woke me from a fitful Saturday morning sleep. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and the phone’s display said 203-something and ST RAPHAEL HOS.

It was my father. He spoke with difficulty, past pain, past morphine. “Well, Abbo,” he said. “I’m shutting down here. I was a farmer long… enough… to see lots… of animals get here. Stuff’s… shutting down. Not coming back. So you… gotta get everyone here.”

I squeezed my eyelids as tight as I could but it didn’t stop any leakage. “OK,” I said.

“Quickly,” he said. “I won’t… I won’t make it long. I can’t wait.” I told him I knew. “I won’t… I can’t… none of this… just keep him alive till someone gets here,” he went on. “Just bring… them all.”

I promised I would.

“Make sure… about Quilla… that she knows I’m dying. That they haven’t… been telling her I’ll… pull through. That she’s coming to… say goodbye.”

I promised that too.

He hung up, and I turned to my husband and we started setting it all in motion.

* * * *

“I have a huge favour to ask,” I told the mom behind the counter. Her whole family ran that bagel shop and I can’t begin to count how many mochas and lattes and bagel breakfasts and lunches I’d had there. We all laughed about how often I’d see my sister Molly, and my niece Quilla there, often. Pretty much every Sunday like today.

“Sure,” she said. “What is it?”

“If my sister comes in –” I gulped. “Well, she’s not answering her phone and either she’s not home or not answering the door. If she comes in, today, call me when she does and see if you can get her to wait a bit. We have to get to my father because he’s dying.” I handed her my card, with my cell number on the back. And true to her word, she called me and she stalled my sister there over her Sunday late morning bagel.

With everyone back at my house, the bereavement fares were being sought and it was too late to make it from California to Connecticut that day. And there was nothing on Sunday. Tuesday was the soonest. Tuesday, my mother’s birthday. My husband and son would stay behind; it would be me, my sister, my niece, on Tuesday into JFK.

I took seven-year-old Quilla aside. “Ed wants me to talk to you,” I told her. “We have to have a big girl talk about this trip to see him.”

“I like planes,” she said, “it’s fine.” My sister interjected: “Hurry up. We have to go. This is bullshit. I can’t just go on Tuesday. I can’t be ready then.” I didn’t say that I could never be ready to go to our father’s deathbed. I could never be ready to see him die. I could never be ready to face a world without him in it, but who the fuck cared if I could ever be ready? I kept holding Quilla’s hand.

“It’s not a regular trip,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I know,” she said. “Grampy’s in the hospital, so we have to visit him there.” Molly was gathering her things to leave. I was running out of time and maybe she didn’t want me to do this. But I’d promised.

“We’re going to say goodbye to him, Quilla,” I rushed it out. “This will be the last time we get to see him.”

“NO!” she screamed, and “Oh, fuck this,” her mother muttered, loudly, at the same time. I took a deep breath, and my son tried to take Quilla’s other hand. She wrenched both hands free from anybody’s grasp and glared at me. “He is going to be fine,” she said.

“No, Quilla,” I said. “No, I’m sorry, but he isn’t. He is dying. But we get to go say goodbye.”

“That’s it,” said my sister, and grabbed her daughter by the shoulder. “I’m all set with this. I’m out of here. Fuck this.” And they left.

“Well,” said my husband, “that went well.”

I just cried. My boy handed me a tissue.

* * * *

At least the flight was a nonstop. At least Molly and Quilla didn’t dodge me when we went to pick them up. Molly kept reassuring Quilla that Ed would be fine. I kept looking Molly square in the eye, and she’d look me back and keep saying it. She said it so much I wondered if she believed it too. I switched to an unoccupied seat a row or two forward, and kept crocheting. It was my handspun tussah silk and I finished the scarf. I gave it to the flight attendant who kept distracting Quilla, thanked her for her help. “Is your father really dying?” she asked me. “Yes,” I said. “I just hope we’re in time to say goodbye.” She brought me a whisky.

Walking out of the terminal I pondered just how much fun it was going to be to get this crew to Grand Central, onto the Metro North commuter train. I walked up to a guy standing by his limo, and quietly, while Molly and Quilla wrestled with heavier coats, I asked him if there was a price I could pay him to drive to New Haven.

“I could lose my medallion for that,” he said. “Nope.”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” I said, and gestured with my head at my sister and niece. “My dad’s in the hospital there, dying. Today’s our mother’s birthday.”

He looked at me in disbelief.

“Cash,” I said. “How’s $200?”

“And tolls,” he said. “There and back. And if we get stopped, we’re just friends out for a drive.”

“To the hospital door,” I said. He nodded. We got in. I sat in the front. We were just friends, out for a drive, after all. Friends listening to the muttering and wailing from the back seat.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to mutter and wail. It was that it wouldn’t matter if I did.

It was just about dark by the time we got there. There in the semicircle drive I surreptitiously handed the limo driver $260. I had another $24 left but whatever; there are ATMs in New Haven.

We left the suitcases in the hall outside his room in the oncology ICU. I scrubbed my hands to the elbow and then I hit the disinfectant gel dispenser by his door. He was there in the bed, asleep, breathing hard, oxygen mask on his face. Our mother was beside him in the recliner, sitting up. She stood. We hugged, and hugged hard.

“Some birthday, huh?” she said. Ed didn’t wake. He didn’t move. He just breathed hard, unsteady, gasping. One of the nurses had explained it on my previous visit, weeks earlier: with no red blood cells to speak of, there wasn’t much of anything to transport oxygen. What a fucking bitch of a disease; what a way to watch someone you love go down. No white blood cells, so immunities are gone; no platelets so if he gets a nick or a scrape he’ll bleed and bleed and bleed and never clot and all that precious, single-donor, carefully-sorted transfused blood product won’t be enough; and in the end, no red blood cells so you can’t even breathe.

“When’s the last time you left here?” I asked my mother. “When did you eat?” She was vague; said something about coffee and the morning, and a shower Monday. “Damon was trying to get me to go to dinner,” she said.

“Go,” I urged her. “Go. Have a birthday dinner, at least. Even Ed did that for his birthday. He had an ice cream sundae even. Go.”

She didn’t really want to. But she did. And then she came back. “Do you guys want to go to my house to sleep?” she asked. And amid argument I convinced her to go sleep in a bed, to let me take the watch sitting with her dying husband, my dying father, this dying man. Molly and Quilla would go with her, help her, keep her company. She could sleep in a bed, and not be alone.

That recliner… it was as good a place to sleep as any you could really ask for in a hospital room. Things went beep and whir and click and whoosh and thump. It smelled how only hospitals do. I watched him gasp for air and wondered how my mother had stood it since he called me Saturday. I wondered if I was that strong. I cried for my mom. I cried for my dad.

He woke once, or roused. Or something. He looked at me. He pulled off the oxygen mask.

“Abby,” he said. “Abby. What are you doing here?”

“You said it was time to come, Ed,” I told him. “We’re all here. Everyone’s here.”

“It’s 1969,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Ah,” I replied. “Well. If I’m here, obviously it’s not 1969, eh?”

“Hrmmmm,” he said, “hrmmmmm.” If you knew him, you’d know exactly how he always said that. It was distinctive. And then he sat up, most of the way up, and subsided again as fast as he had. He looked at me, fully lucid. “I’m the dog catcher,” he said, “and I wouldn’t let a dog live like this.”

His eyes closed again, and he resumed that gasping breathing. I put the oxygen mask back on. Weakly, he swatted at it, then stilled. Gasp. Rasp. Whoosh. Click. Whoosh. Click. Whoosh. Click. Beep. Whir.

He never really spoke to me again. He might have spoken to his brother, the next night, Wednesday night, his final night. I don’t know. He did sort of speak, though, that Wednesday: he would pull off the mask, and he’d say, over and over, “Quickly.”

Sometime that night I think his brother and I realized what he meant: quickly. Let it be over quickly.

The arrangements were in place to move him to hospice in Branford, to the place right on Long Island Sound, about a 9 mile ambulance ride. Thursday morning was a blur of doing what had to be done; standing by my mother’s side while she signed papers, while she authorized things, while her drawn and exhausted face looked a million years old. She’d dyed out even the white streak that, once natural, she’d always kept; but it had been long enough sitting in the hospital that the white showed in her roots. There was a lot of it. She was thin; thinner than she’d been a month before, when we’d thought he would go for that stem cell transplant, and I had thought she was thin then, even for her.

She would ride with him in the ambulance. I would follow, driving Ed’s Volvo; his brother, my sister, her daughter, they’d ride with me. I went down to get the car, bring it around to meet everyone by the ambulance loading area. I wanted to make sure I had the right truck number, that sort of thing.

“One thing,” the ambulance driver told me. He was a young man, mid-twenties. He looked so much younger than me, but I was only 32. I was too young for this. He continued. “We’re not allowed to pronounce patients,” he said. “So… so, if he dies on the ride, I’m legally required to bring him back here to this hospital to be pronounced dead.”

“Oh God,” I said. He nodded. “We’ll go slow,” he told me, “to keep things smooth, but not too slow, because… we need to get there quickly.”

“Yes,” I said, “Quickly. He doesn’t want to die in this hospital.”

“If he goes on the way, what I’ll do is pull over to the side of the road, and everyone can say goodbye. But then we have to come back here. So stay right behind me.” I nodded, numbly.

My uncle Gerry was in the passenger seat beside me, silent as I was. My sister and niece sat in the back, sobbing. I never drove a longer 9 miles in my life. Every second of that drive I watched and waited for the ambulance to pull to the side; I envisioned saying a final farewell to my father on the shoulder of the interstate while relentless traffic whipped on by buffeting us all with its wind. Please no. Please not that.

I pulled into the hospice tight on the ambulance’s bumper. “Get out,” I told everyone. “I can’t park here.” I looked desperately for somewhere to park; there was nowhere close. It seemed like it was miles away across the parking lot. I whipped that car in there and jumped out and started running, running, and the ambulance doors were open and my mother was standing beside them looking at me.

I knew. I still ran. I knew, though. And when I got there, she looked at me, looked at Ed on the stretcher in the ambulance, at the young ambulance driver standing ready to pull the stretcher out.

“He stopped breathing,” she said.

I looked at my mother, there, in that moment, the moment when death did them part. There was nothing to say.

“Wait!” my sister shrieked. “He’s got a pulse! I can see it! Right there!” She pointed. It was true; in his temple, there was a vein pulsing. But he wasn’t breathing. His eyes were open, but he was gone. “Do something!” Molly sobbed.

“No,” my mother whispered.

“No,” I concurred. “Molly, we can’t. He has a DNR. He’s gone.”

“Just a second,” said the ambulance driver, clipboard in hand, and ran inside the hospice.

“How could you?” my sister raged. “How could you just let him die?” My mother and I looked at each other. Birds were singing. The air was warm. It was spring. I could see gulls. I could smell the ocean, faintly. The sun was shining. There was Ed, that pulse fading, in the warm spring air, outside. Not gasping desperately. Not pleading. And not there in his body.

The ambulance driver came back, with someone from the hospice. Seconds passed, and the pulsing vein went still. “Time of death, 2:11 pm,” someone said. “Admitted, 2:10 pm.” More hospice staff were gathering, taking everyone in hand. We all went inside.

But then… “Wait!” I ran after the ambulance driver. He turned.

“I just… I just want you to know when you go off shift tonight? When today’s over? That this was a win. Thank you.”

He looked back. “I know,” he said. “We lost my mom last month.”

* * * *

They laid him out in a viewing room at the hospice. He was in the street clothes he’d worn when we went in to get him that transfusion right before he was supposed to go to Seattle for the transplant. And after everyone said goodbye we were supposed to take the things to remember him, before he went to cremation.

I watched my mother take the wedding ring from his hand. “You made him this scarf,” she said. “You should take it.”

“Leave it with him,” I said. “It’s his.”

Resignedly, sadly, she looked at me. “He’s being cremated,” she reminded me. “It’s not like he can have grave goods.” It sounds wrong, perhaps, but it was the truth, and the truth of the two of them: ever the archaeologists and anthropologists.

“Whatever,” I said, putting my hand on his where they lay loosely crossed on his abdomen. “Whatever.”

I took the scarf. But then… then I put into his hand the small vending machine bag of Fritos I’d bought numbly a few moments prior.

“Goodbye, Ed,” I said. “I wish I had a beer to give you with these.”

My mother and I turned, and left the room: she, a widow, and me, half-orphaned. Outside the sun was shining and spring was springing. Gulls were flying. And the world without my father in it just kept right on turning. And so it has, every day since, for ten years now, and every year at this time, I relive that week. But this is the first time I’ve been able to write it down.

Dear Chris

Dear Chris,

I bet you wondered, any time you read the birthday letters I wrote to Ed after he died, whether I’d write them to you, too, when you were gone. You never asked me, but I bet you wondered.

Well, so. There are ways that losing you is harder than losing Ed. My father may have been the cornerstone of my sense of who I was, he may have been larger than life, and he may have been the one I always asked for advice, but you know what? None of that could make him my mother.

You were the one I always wanted to make proud. You were the one who set the standard. You were the one with the image and the vision of what I could be, or should be. And I will probably never feel like I came close to measuring up. And yet now it all comes down to me to shoulder what I can of all your burdens and works.

I guess I have three songs.

You bought that piano in 1979 so I could take lessons. It cost the princely sum of $150 when the nearby high school was getting rid of it. I don’t even know how you got it to the house, though I would bet on your uncle Jimmy playing a role. I was in third grade and I hated to practice. I hated sounding like crap, when you would sit down and just play this. But as the years wore on I learned why practicing mattered and even if I never, despite years of lessons, practiced anything hard until I took up guitar, the sound of you playing this piece punctuated my life with you.

And for making me practice even though I probably never measured up, and for so many other things… I suppose that I judged you harshly.

And just in case nobody else you raised is thinking of playing you a song or two today, here’s one they should be singing to you… in a performance complete with incongruous set.

Thank you, Chris, for the way you never stopped trying. I miss you so very, very much.

I think I will have an ice cream sundae for dinner.

Love,

Abby

2 March 1977

My father wrote:

2 March 1977
Chinchero

We passed a quiet day watching the rain and mud. I managed to get a couple of hours in practicing doing a Loraypu with both hands, that is picking up from either side towards the middle. When the sun finally began to shine, we sat out by the church and did textile things; some Huaman kids showed me how to do a new hakima “ocho-ocho” in the tanka ch’oro threading and Abby had her first lessons in weaving a cata.

I remember that as if it were yesterday; maybe better, in fact. My warp was yellow and black, the string tied heddles synthetic navy blue as were the selvedges and my weft. I also remember the days that followed and every mistake I made on that piece, that older girls picked out and had me do over. I was as determined to get that right as I was to be able to read without having to ask for help with words. I had two skirts to wear then, and the outside one was blue and shiny and I loved it. I remember the feel of that weaving in my clumsy hands and using a ballpoint pen for a shedsword. I remember how the blades of grass felt tickling my calves while I sat, and the change in temperature every time the sun went behind a cloud, and asking if soon I could have a needle for my hat since now I was a weaver. My nose was sunburnt and scabbed. My hair was tangled and so very very blonde. And my hands on this keyboard right now look so very unexpectedly old compared to the hands I remember having then. But they are the same.

Dog Town

I’ve been sorting through papers and putting old field notes into chronological order, when time permits. This morning, I found a single page in my mother’s handwriting, tucked into a book of field notes from 1977. I’m transcribing it here in full because I’m thinking a lot about my parents right now; in the next few days, I’ll weather both my mother’s birthday, and the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

Here it is: a field note of my mother’s from 1977.

THE PASSAGE TO THE OTHER WORLD IN CHINCHERO

When a person dies, his soul begins to journey over a very difficult and rocky oad. After much difficulty, he arrives at the village of the spirits of dogs, which is on the edge of a wide and raging river. He cannot hope to cross the river without the help of his dog spirit helper, for whom he must search. His life in the Dog Town reflects his former life in that the dog spirits treat him as he treated dogs in his former existence.

On the 5th? 8th? day after he has died, his family try to do their share to help him across the “strait,” through the passage. They take his clothes and go to the nearest confluence of the river — in Chinchero, just at the bottom of the archaeological site — and wash his clothes. This helps to have the effect of allowing his anima and his espiritu to reunite, his espiritu being his essential being (which is in the Dog Town) and his anima being that which has flowed out from him in his existence on the earth — his acts — his karma, I suppose. This has a tendency to be left behind in his clothes, his house, and so on.

In fact, in Chinchero, it appears that when a head of family dies, the X is put over the door, but when a particular family branch that has been occupying a house dies out — 2 old people whose children haven’t been living with them, for instance — the house is abandoned rather than new people moving into it. It may even be dismantled to build a new house, but on DIFFERENT FOUNDATIONS. Once the old foundations and their former occupants have passed beyond living memory, however, it would seem that the foundations may be re-incorporated into a new house — after all, most of Chinchero is built on Inca foundations.

Anyhow — to the spirit still in Dog Town it would appear that his family spirits await him on the other side of the river where the road to “Paradise” is also easier — smooth, straight, inviting (I have not yet heard what the concept of “Paradise” consists of) — and finally, on this 5th or 8th day, whenever it is (this is long after the burial has taken place, which is relatively unimportant in all this, the important thing being the spirit passage — presumably spirits that don’t make it wander the earth, discontented, causing trouble, in half-human, half-animal forms (AUKIS?), scaring people to death, especially children. At twilight, the spirits out and abroad are only visible to dogs — who bark and howl, needless to say.

I think, perhaps, this whole process is shortened, less rigorous, for children — they pass more directly to the “other side” — the mourning is also shortened. It would seem that the Karmic principle operates in some form. Question: it seems that any spirit doing what it’s supposed to be doing stays in Paradise — any one that’s on earth is pestering people. Do the Quechua Indians ever see spirits as helping out on earth? Clearly they see reverberations for every act being done in the right or wrong way — these presumably bounce off the spirit world but don’t just have consequences for the afterlife but also more immediate: houses burning down, etc.

Chris' funeral procession enters the plaza next to our first home in Chinchero

There’s a poignance in all this which I still can’t quite find the words to describe. I’ve joked often about being the child of anthropologists, and what that means for how I see the world in which I live. I’ve talked about growing up in “the field” and all kinds of cultural and identity dissonance as a simple fact of my life. But I don’t know what could exemplify the crux of it all quite like knowing you’ve laid your mother to rest in a once-foreign world that became her home and called her one of its own. For my mother, it was always more than study; it was always personal, always real. And even so, she (like my father) chronicled a great deal, and urged me to do the same all through my own life: not with abstracted, clinical eyes, but as a participant observer who can never be detached from life.

As I go through piles of old notebooks, as I handle my mother’s estate, I feel like I’m washing her clothes at a confluence of rivers. It just takes a long, long time.