Almost twenty-four hours ago iCal, the Mac’s built-in calendaring application, popped up a dialog and sounded a morosely quiet beep. I had instructed it to do this days ago, because I was afraid that I would forget. Schizophrenically and simultaneously I was also dreading that I would remember. I came down on the side of inevitability: The Date was going to happen one way or t’other, so I should note its passing.
I hope I am not overstating this. After fourteen years, this being the thirteenth revisit of the day, the grief is not sharp nor without mercy. My remembrance of Allen—yet again—is something I long ago made peace with as a recurring, anchoring, stabilizing thread that stitches itself into the rest of my days. In other words, it just is and so I occasionally trot it out here to obtain deeper understanding, better perspective and, like all remembrances, a chance to inhabit in the present a thing from an increasingly distant past.
It is now 12:15am, technically Friday, July 13, 2007. On Thursday, July 13, 1995, at 12:30am, Allen died.
That timestamp is a bit of a conceit, manufactured by me for official records because after more than two days of him being unresponsive and after much more than two days of my having any meaningful interval of sleep, he died when I wasn’t paying attention. In a strange sense, it’s something he would have done for me, to spare me, had he been there consciously. Is that a comfort now? There’s no real need for comforts, but time offers up an answer anyway: of course it is…was…whenever.
Perhaps it’s what gave me some sort of continuity that was orthogonal to any live-a-day life as he stepped out of Time but remained a constant to my memory.
An odd thing to say, really, because when I close my eyes I don’t see his face, I see the many versions of his face: full, healthy, soft, sharp, angular, gaunt, ghostly, skeletal and then immobile. But the Who He Was that made that little lucky return while I was sleeping may very well be the singular notion that handed me the ability to hold him as both an anchor of When and a pleasing background hum that is the sound of me impelling me past him. Past us.
It is now 12:25am, and time is everywhere and only here, refusing to move at the right speed—moving too quickly or too ploddingly—but demanding I note it at every small step. This is not unlike how it was that night. By that time, my world and notion of ‘someday’ were so small and impossible, respectively, that clock served as calendar and calendar was an absurd contrivance.
This is how Now is playing for me. The clocks are different and there are strangely many more than there were then. The room where he died is a room that has changed purpose and appearance several times since then, my own microcosmic Number Three Beekman Place.
It is now 12:30am, and right now I would have been asleep for some time up to 25 minutes: 12:05 was on the clock face when I dozed off, having spilled yet another morphine bolus into a body that was increasingly cold at the periphery. Death spreads inward.
So cold at the hands, feet, knees, elbows, in fact, that I regularly touched the neck, the flank—not to be sure if he still lived, because the labored sound of breath passing vocal cords that no longer held muscle tone was a macabre sort of clock in its own right. No, I just needed to—
I don’t know how to finish that.
It is now 12:30am, the time on his death certificate: we “split the difference” of the time I fell asleep and the time, 12:55am, that I woke up to an unwelcome new world. Odd that I am so acutely aware of this, because a week ago in a therapy session with Ronald I sheepishly admitted that I had some kind of memory block as to whether the actual Date was the 13th or the 15th. I had to find his death certificate for my own certitude.
It is still 12:30am. I would have been asleep for almost 25 minutes, and I would remain asleep for another 25.
I awoke without a start. Silence.
I was the only one breathing. I was the only one in the room, something that happened to be true for more than forty-eight hours by then, but nonetheless it was somehow more true. Biologically true. Medically concluded.
My autopilot continued. I woke his sister Patty. I called the coroner’s office. When they arrived, I ushered the crew to the bed and insisted—according to my sage mother’s strong advice (“he’s not there anymore and they have a brutal job to do and you don’t need to see that”)—that I would not remain in the room while they did what they had to do. The crew chief nodded with a solemnity that was unexpected, given that this was routine work for him. He said they’d take him out of the back the house—the logical choice, but he said it out loud anyway. He said they’d take care of everything. He said he’d close the glass door with enough force that I’d know when they were gone.
Patty sat next to me, saying nothing. I answered the deputy-coroner’s questions, then supplying 12:30am as the time of death.
I heard the glass door slide shut.
I pulled all the schedule-3 narcotics from the shelf and watched her catalog and then empty each bottle down the kitchen drain.
To my direct observation, the absence of these medicines was the first objective change to the house. Tincture of opium was one of them, I remember, and remember finding it odd to think of some velvet- and damask-heavy era where tinctures and elixirs and powders were the standard conveyances of medicine. Why was I not in the present, in full?
I also knew in that moment that my lack of focus would haunt me in the coming days and weeks and…
I didn’t know how to finish that thought.
When the coroner left, I asked Patty if she was ok. She nodded yes, with a look on her face as if she were afraid that making a sound would precipitate some awful avalanche; though I didn’t know her very well, I knew she was trying to spare me. As I look back at it, it seemed to be a Howland family trait.
I spoke first, telling her that I needed to call the airlines. I told her I needed a haircut. I told her I never got around to getting the black trousers—bought specifically for this very time—hemmed and what would Vivian think? She smiled a little bit when I mentioned her mother and that was all the answer I needed. She still hadn’t made a sound.
That marked the second objective change to the house: up until Patty spoke, the house was silent save the sound of my own voice. And I knew that I’d have to adjust to that.
But then she did speak, saying she needed to call their mother to “let her know”. It was my turn to say nothing and the house was completely silent. She moved first, went into the guest room to call Holyoke, Colorado. I went into the back room and found pillows still arranged to prop his gangly limbs into comfortable configurations. Only now the pillows were a kind of morbid chalk outline sketching his shape and giving words to his fate: in this spot, Allen Howland died.
I was uncomfortable suddenly with sameness, silence and stillness: I grabbed all the pillows and threw them into a heap in a corner of the room. I stripped the bed and added those sheets to the pile. I couldn’t look at the pile, so I sat on “my” side of that big big bed facing away. And stopped. I breathed, labored, a weak echo of his last two days.
Again I needed change. I walked to the front of the house; Patty was still on the phone speaking quietly when she spoke at all. I remember her saying “I’m alright” and then “he’s alright, I think.”
I called the airline I’d already made tentative plans with and got us tickets back to Colorado with a “bereavement” discount. Patty and I drove a Mazda 929 rental car from Denver to Holyoke.
At the very Methodist, very compartmentalized, very linear wake/viewing and funeral services, I was Family, second only to its matriarch, Vivian. Allen’s sister and brother sat to my left, followed me. I remember the images of hands clasped in prayer, drawings on several places on the casket and in the linens. I would, days later and back in San Francisco, note: “Hands clasped together in prayer are more easily shackled.”
I’d wanted a funereal transition from material to ethereal, from body to soul to spirit to sky to space, but the Methodist service took it from body to corpse to box to ground to rot. But Family won out the day and I was comforted.
I went back to Colorado once a few months after that. Why? Because I genuinely liked Vivian. She reminded me of all the strong women in my own family tree. She was no-nonsense, including how she treated me: I was family. One takes care of family, but one is not effusive to family. Period. All else as trivia.
Without Allen, though, to situate and maintain the relatively young chute on the family tree, we fell out of touch. I found out a couple of months ago, starting with google maps, then google, then an obituary of Vivian’s brother from three years ago that Vivian had “preceded him in death”.
I didn’t know how to parse that phrase. Was that English, even? I could find no reasonable scansion. No one would be surprised—no one was surprised—that I mourned, loudly and damply for quite some time. But then I found a sort of closure because the “natural order” of things calls for parents to die first. During that last visit to Holyoke, that was the caption that described the empty space where Allen used to be. Vivian said it a few times, but not desperately. She’d lost a daughter, Connie, back in 1974 and that only added to her sullen acceptance that she herself remained behind. (Allen never did find peace with the idea that he would be, by his death, causing his mother so much more pain “ for losing another one”, he’d say.)
But I suppose she could see it on my face, too. The only family experience I have with a parent dying first was when my great-grandmother was “preceded in death” by her first daughter Mary, my grandmother, and that was in 1970 and I was 6.
Vivian’s death, with me unawares, was as sad as losing any relative who wasn’t directly ancestral. You feel in the blood a little less for it and you know the family is that much diminished, but whatever stabbing heartache there might be does pass into philosophical musings soon enough. In a way, now that she’s gone, and now that I’ve mourned for it and for myself, the world is a little more naturally aligned, with Mother, Father, Son and Daughter all gone. But I do feel for Patty and for her remaining brother Dennis because they are still family, no matter how little I know them, no matter how long ago it was.
I am as much older than Allen now as he was older than I when we were Mr. & Mr. Howland-Barbose.
I feel adrift, unstuck, afloat, but the river has a path, does not descend into any enduring chaos. We will all get to where we will, when we will.
And knowing this as time goes on, I am carried further and further away from where Allen left us all and, well—
I don’t know how to finish that thought.
Over and over and over again
The world only spins one way
The past is a distant flicker by now
And a lesson for another day
Now, my sad little boat floats on out to sea
And you’re almost out of sight
I’ll remember you
Please don’t forget me
I whisper with all my might…
—Closer and Closer Apart by Mary Chapin Carpenter