Over my Spring Break, I did what I have done since October, when my father passed away. I went to my mother's while my brother, Buddy, was out of town. When Buddy heard from mom that dad had died, he flew from Germany
and was in the states in less than a few days. And he's been here ever since, helping to put the finishing touches on the house dad was finishing. This house had been in the finishing stage for many years now, and dad was doing what he always did when he got buried in a project; he slowed way down to the point where you couldn't really see progress, but you heard about it every time you talked to him. We never really saw a point in rushing the man; he was 72 and it would get done when it got done, and no one could really tell him otherwise.
Buddy's life didn't stop, but it did take a major break while he helped finish up the house enough for mom to move into it and begin the plans of selling it so she could move back to her beloved Ocean City, where I grew up. Years before, they left for Virginia, then moved back to build this house from the ground up. Dad had some wild fantasies about what was a good property investment and how well the mismatched, recycled Cast-off furniture from the condos where he worked part-time security would fit into his dream house. And now were all left to pick up the pieces, literally. Nothing in the house matches. Each bedroom features recycled carpet and each bathroom a hotel-style molded shower stall. I don't know if and when it will get sold, and how long mom will have to live there, sharing space with the shadow of his ghost.
Until now, I did not really know what it meant to be visiting someone in her grief, because I had no real experience. Most of the people I was related to or loved has managed to stay alive so far. But now I can see how grief is a place, a tangible chamber that you can only enter if the person going through it will let you in. Just like any other intense, life-altering experience, grief is different depending on the individual. I think of it as an added addition to your house; some people will give you the grand tour and give you a detailed explanation of every step of the process: the furniture, windows, insulation, added investment attributes, etc. Then there are people who close it off with velvet ropes and refer to it only in passing conversation. Some people invite you into their grief because it provides comfort, talking about it. For others, they either can't or won't let you come all the way inside.
It's this way with mom. I encourage her to call me any time she's feeling down, and I will listen. Most of the time, her focus is on the minutae of getting the house down, and how difficult it is to have Buddy running everything. What I hear is that she is struggling to let her son guide her life the way her husband used to, but that she still wants a guide, a helper, someone to complain about. It's how I know her mind is still working, active, alive. When mom stops complaining or gossiping, I'll know things have gone for the worse. The only time she really gets sad is when she refers to current experiences where, if dad was still here, people would recognize her, they would say hi, they would remember. It's as if dad was the color guard for the parade of her identity, and without him, she is simply walking the parade route all alone. She'll say things, but you know she doesn't believe them, things to make us think that she's ok. I try to stay positive; I ask her what kinds of things would SHE like to do with HER life, but she often draws a blank. Sometimes, and I'm ashamed at myself for admitting this, I get mad at her for reliving dad's death; I want her to see all that she's still alive for, and that me and Buddy are worth staying around for. But I know that's not what this is all about.
I'm not really mad at dad for dying, except that I wish he'd just taken the money from the sale of the Virginia house he flipped and moved back to Ocean City, where mom would have had an automatic support system. As it is now, she has to wait, maybe a year or two, for the house to sell and for her to get out on her own. Buddy and I do what we can, but he's got a girlfriend and already tiring of mom's tyranny, and I'm, well, here. It hurts when she tells me she wishes I lived closer, so I could see her all the time, and part of me wishes I could. I also wish I could just bring her home with me, so she wouldn't be alone. But I know she'd still be alone.
The day before I left for home, we moved a bunch of assorted furniture that was crammed in the attic; anytime someone at the condos remodeled or threw out "perfectly good things," my father would scoop them up, which is why there are 4 rocking chairs, 3 TVs, and 7 boxes of Christmas ornaments. Everything had some secret value to him, and now we were selling it all just to make the move easier for mom. We came across a box of VHS tapes. One of them had on the side label: 8mm family films and Laura's First Car. I remembered the first half of this. Buddy had gotten all these 8mm reels from his childhood put on a VHS tape, a time in history that mom refers to as "a different family." Buddy was raised by his father and our mother, along with an older daughter from his dad's first wife; I wouldn't come along for 15 years. After mom went to bed as she normally does, on a narrow twin bed framed by 3 small dogs under the soft glow of a muted television, I watched the tape.
I hate using this, but watching home movies of people you've never met reminds me of any movie that uses this as a device for exposition: look how happy I was or, look how expressionless he was growing up; we should have known then that Jeffery was not going to turn out right. I saw there in the dark and silence, watching hyperextended flailings of a 5 year old Buddy in a buzz cut, dancing around a rocking horse on springs in his cowboy costume, in the glow of an aluminum Christmas tree. The videos weren't always in sequence; some are of cookouts in the summer with Buddy as a toddler, then others are at a backyard pool when he was growing lean as an adolescent then again when he was 7 or so, dressed up for Easter Sunday. All the while, I searched for mom; I had seen only a few photos of mom in her cat-eye glasses and brunette curls. Like me, mom always hid from the camera, or was likely the one behind it, so it was only in brief flashes, first in her early 60's coif and cigarette, then platinum blonde with green tinted, square cut glasses of the early 70's. Then, I saw it: some family Christmas where she stood in the camera's view long enough for me to see...I look, now, exactly as she did when she was almost the same age. It was like seeing a ghost, some visitor from another dimension that stole your form and went around acting like you.
When I'd see Buddy playing with Cathy, his older sister, it made me a little jealous that I was raised as the only child in the later marriage. It also made me think about something: dad wasn't my biological father, but I wasn't ever supposed to know that. I wonder if there are no photos of me to be found between my birth and mom's marriage to dad because, then, there would be some inconsistency, something to question. Maybe Buddy's dad owned the video camera and took it with them when we split, because there are no such visions of my family.
The latter part, which I hadn't seen before, was a short film of me in 1996 screwing in the license plate of what would become my first car, a car that Buddy found for me while he was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, with his then wife, who was at the helm of the camera. My long red hair and horribly baggy clothes. My then college boyfriend who was dwarfed by my girth in his wan moustache and greasy ponytail. And then, we were gone. Just like that.
And now we're here. What's left of us. We don't hear from most of dad's kids, all grown up. They all came for the funeral but, as I predicted, not a peep from them since. That's how it's always been, and it's fine with me, but it only reminds my mother that she was a minor character in her own life, or at least that's how she perceives it at the moment. Dad's heart attack was sudden, even for his age, but since he didn't suffer there's an added relief as well as confusion; his departure was quick and painless, but it will take all of us many years to heal from his absence. Oddly, though, I feel like we are in a better place. We talk more, make more efforts to talk, and sometimes talk more harshly for the need to be honest. We tender things for mom, but we reach out for her more. We feel more like her children than we did. It may not be enough for her right now, but for us, it's good enough to keep it together.