Little Bill Daggett: I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.
Bill Munny: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
As I have in many other areas of my life over the last two weeks, I’m going to revert to instincts here. I’m going to start telling this story at the beginning, since I lack the frontal lobe capacity to approach it in a different manner, and hope that I catch up to the present day sometime soon.
The beginning is a bit perilous and may require some pauses to silently weep or even to break down into heaving sobs, but that’s the advantage of reading all of this: you won’t have to bear through those moments, just my disjointed tales. The middle bits aren’t so bad, although the return home is a bit shaky, even up until today. The future, of course, is unwritten, no matter what Lawrence had inscribed on his mind.
Overall, however, I find that telling my tale helps me make sense of it. It helps me understand the feelings in my subconscious that I don’t allow my conscious mind to apprehend. It helps me understand why I just can’t get enough sleep, and why my stomach is constantly in knots, no matter if I eat regularly or forgo meals. It helps me understand why I can’t think five minutes into the future and why reflections of the past, held in picture frames and melodies, burn my eyes.
It started over two weeks ago now. Mama, 3B, and I were headed back to my home, Palo Alto, for my 20-year high school reunion. Mama and I had talked to my Mom about a variety of things leading up to the visit, including the happy surprise that almost all of my siblings would be coming to town to meet 3B. Since Mom’s house was cluttered with all of the material from her many concurrent projects, we also talked about where Mama, 3B, and I would sleep as well as where my siblings would sleep. Mom had decided that it would be best for Brother #2 and Sister #1 to stay in a local hotel, and that Mama and 3B could be in one room with our Pack N’ Play, and that I’d be across the hall in another room.
Mom bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t fit a double bed in either room–in part because of furniture that I had stored in one of them, she was quick to mention–because she thought it would be best if the three Bradsteins could all sleep in one room. (I use the term “sleep” loosely here. After all, 3B was going to be only eight weeks old while we were there.) I told her that it was no big deal. We’d be up half the night anyway, back and forth between the rooms, and it was only going to be for a couple of nights.
Since Mom was the communication hub for the family, I was sure that she’d tell my brother and and sister what her plans were. But when Brother #2 called early in the week before we were due to fly out to talk about other things, he mentioned that he hadn’t talked to Mom about the arrangements because he hadn’t been able to reach her. He mentioned that Sister #1 hadn’t been able to either. I knew that I had called and her answering machine had been full, which wasn’t unusual, since she almost never deleted a message, but it was sounding a bit odd, given that none of us reached her or got a call back. (Note: Sister #1 played back all the messages on Mom’s machine, which went back several months and included one from me excitedly telling Mom that Mama and just felt 3B kick for the first time. Sister #3 later told me that Mom used to have her come over and listen to those messages because she was so excited to get them.)
By now, you all know how this story ends, but what you don’t know is that as this all unfolded, I was swapping phone calls and emails with my siblings while I was at work. That’s a frustrating enterprise, at best, since these weren’t calls I wanted to be taking on my work phone, in my veal-fattening pen with its walls of tissue paper, and cell reception in our building is sketchy on a good day. I had to keep walking to a window or even down a floor and outside to check for messages and make calls back to either of them. From my end, there wasn’t anything that I could do except try to keep a lid on my rising panic and wait for what was rapidly appearing to be a sorrowful conclusion to this flurry of communication. Knowing that they were doing everything they could out there, and that the waiting and the dread were just as bad for them as for me, I tried to let them go and just wait to hear back from them.
Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer; I just had to move, so I took an early lunch break and headed down into the nature preserve, which (not so) coincidentally has good cell reception in case a call came through. On the way out of the building, I had to tell myself how to breathe, to keep from hyperventilating: “In through the nose, out through the mouth…slower…slower…in, then out.”
Even with that, I was almost panting. I just couldn’t relax enough to breathe deeply.
Down in the hollow of the nature preserve, surrounded by the beauty of late summer blossoms, the lake, the artificial waterfall and the soft, green light shimmering down through the leaves, I couldn’t help myself any longer. I begged god for this one favor:
Please, please let my mother be alive.
Please let this be like it was on New Year’s Day this year, when we panicked a little, and it turned out that her phone had gone out unexpectedly.
Please, god. I know that I’m not a religious man. I know that I’m not even as spiritual as I aspire to be. But please god, this isn’t about me. Please god, don’t be so cruel. I just want Mom to meet 3B. I just want her to hold him once. To see his sweet little smile, to be delighted when he smiles at her, to know the soft warmth of her hands and the sweet music of her voice. I want her to hear him coo and to see him sleep, and I want her to see how happy I am.
Oh god, I want Mom to see that 3B and Mama are everything I’ve ever wanted, and how happy I am to share them with her. Please god, I want my son to know my mother.
The thing is, god couldn’t answer my prayers. He had already made up his mind, and at that point, only a miracle would allow Mom to meet 3B. That didn’t keep me from desperate measures. I continued imploring a god that I’m not even sure I understand or believe in to save my mother. I tried picturing her laughing and walking around the house; I tried to picture her in bright, sunny places; I tried to surround her in my mind’s eye with a golden light–I’m a Californian, I’m entitled to trying freaky shit in desperate times–but although I could see her laughing, talking, walking, still moving as though alive, I could only see her surrounded by a brilliant, flat, white light.
Perhaps that was just a failing of my mind’s eye. Or perhaps that was god’s way of telling me that a rider on a white horse had come for her. I don’t know. I’ll never know. But, at the same time, with every passing minute I knew–I knew and I couldn’t escape it. I knew that Mom had died. It was getting harder to breathe as the minutes went by. I think that if I hadn’t still been whispering instructions to myself, I might have simply forgotten to breathe at all.
At one point during labor, Mama had turned to me with a look that said, “I need to get out of here.” She didn’t mean the room or the hospital; she meant her body. Through her eyes and with her face, she told me as clearly as if she’d whispered it into my ear, “I cannot take this anymore. I need to get out of my body. I need to get away from this pain.” It was a heartbreaking moment for me because there was nothing I could say or do. I couldn’t take the pain away or even comfort her by telling her that it wasn’t so bad or that it would go away soon or that I knew how she felt. But standing out there, alone, in the woods, with the rustling leaves, I suddenly knew what she had been feeling. I had to get out of there, but the there that I needed to leave was my body and my mind, from which there was no escape.
Somehow, I found my way back to the office, still reminding myself to breathe. Shortly after arriving, I saw that I had a voicemail from Brother #2. I walked downstairs one more time to get the news, pacing on the lawn in front of the building. He was already halfway to Mom’s house–a six-hour drive–and Sister #1 was on the road already. I got off the phone with him and immediately started checking on flights for the next day, and extending our return trip. Upstairs again, I packed my desk in about 12 seconds, and after I couldn’t find my boss in one lap of each floor of the building, I pulled aside the most senior coworker in our unit and told her, then left. I raced home to finally break down in Mama’s arms, who was at first so happy to see me home early, then so sad it made me cry harder.
In the almost two weeks we were in California, I didn’t think much of this brief time–the few short hours that day that seemed to stretch out over several days: the agonizing wait, the futile pleading with god, and the spinning laps through the building before my sprinting departure, all while trying to remember how to breathe. But when I pulled into the garage again, I was suddenly back there–torn apart by time, beseeching god, and trembling with every step. To keep from crying as I walked from the garage, past the lawn on which I paced as I heard the news, into the doors I had last bolted through two weeks before, I again had to tell myself: “In through the nose, out through the mouth…slower…slower…in, then out.”
Even with that, I almost broke down in the lobby.
I made it through by telling myself that, although this would hurt like hell, I’d make it through–that this would pass, which is somewhat true. These days, the tears don’t percolate up into my throat so often, but I do spend my days and nights with a dull ache in the bottom of my belly that keeps me from feeling hungry, and when I do eat, keeps me from ever feeling full. It keeps me awake at night, and threatens to pull me down and drown me in Hypnos’ sea by day. I know from experience that this will pass. Slowly. And never quite completely, but someday I’ll be able to eat again, become sated again, and sleep again–although never so restfully as before I’m afraid.
Mom and I had talked about our insomnia after Dad died. It just came up in conversation–one of us mentioning that we didn’t sleep so well anymore, and the other agreeing. Mom said that she used the TV and crossword puzzles to help distract her long enough to let sleep overtake her. I get too caught up in the completion of either a movie or a crossword puzzle for those to work on me, but we both needed the same thing: a distraction, something to keep us from remembering.
Mostly the memories of Mom are good, and don’t keep me awake; I still see Mom laughing and talking and walking around with us, but who I am now–a man orphaned at 38 years old–is what I’m reminded of every day when I walk into work and flash back to that day. And that’s what I remember when I lay my head down on my empty pillow at night. I remember pacing in the woods, I remember desperate deals I struck with a deaf god, I remember that 3B doesn’t deserve this.
And then I remember that deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.