I hadn't cried at all since it happened. That is pretty much the norm for me. I will cry at the sappiest movie or the cheapest pop song, but when something big and awful happens in real life I just all of sudden become resigned and non-feeling. I guess it started when my cousin (who was more like a sister to me since we were both "only children") died in a car crash when I was still a kid. She was so beautiful and so vibrant and then she was just all of sudden so dead. Her parents' life was such a nightmare that day as well as every day afterwards that the only response that made any sense was: "Shut down; don't dwell; shit happens."
I got the call at 4 AM that there was trouble. I went back to sleep and got another call at 6 AM that it had happened. So I made plans with my wife to travel by myself from Little Rock to Corinth, Mississippi (about an hour due east of Memphis) and take care of it. I was listening to some old soul music on a Memphis radio station at around 10 AM when I got on the new beltway that takes you south of Germantown and saves you about an hour's drive. I didn't realize the speed limit changed from 65 to 55 for a few miles there, and (sure enough) a cop with a radar gun was right ahead of me. When I looked back and saw him turn on the lights, I thought he was going to go for the little black Camry in front of me who had slammed on his brakes, causing me to slow down as well. But, no. He was wanting to talk to me.
I pulled off at the next exit and stopped. I rolled down the window and began the process of getting out my drivers license and insurance card. He walked up to my window and said, "I clocked you going 66 in a 55."
I was looking down at my dashboard and he was standing with his head just above window level. I said, "I don't guess it would make any difference if I told you my mom died this morning and I'm on my way to Corinth to bury her."
He said, "What was that, sir? I couldn't hear you." And he leaned further in my window.
I turned to face him directly and said, "I don't guess it would make any difference if I told you my mom died this morning and I'm on my way to Corinth to bury her?"
He knelt down so that we were eye to eye and said, "It might."
We just looked at each other for a minute and he handed me my license and insurance card back and said, "We all have a mom. We only have one. I'm sorry you just lost yours, but try to watch your speed, please."
And he walked back to his flashing car and drove away.
And then I began to cry. I sat there on the side of the road and cried hard for a long time. And now I can't even tell this story without crying again. There was something very important about what he said to me and the way he looked when he said it. It had something to do with his initial, "It might."
I thought of all the things that might have been different. My dad might not have left her when I was just a youngster and put her in a situation where she had to work a minimum wage job just to put food on the table. She might not have tried to kill herself a couple of times when things became too much for her. (Not that pretend suicide stuff, but stuff like shooting yourself in the chest with a pistol and barely missing a major organ.) She might have been born totally sane and my dad might have been born an honorable gentleman. I might not have become such a callous son who should never have treated his mother so badly and who should have been there when she first went into the hospital instead of hiring someone to "sit with her."
I was crying because the cop was an authority figure who treated me well, and it brought back all the times my dad was a great dad when I was little, before liquor and women and the pull of breaking free sent him on his way from us. I became a 5 year old with a problem and a comforting man to forgive me of a small sin and tell me it was OK to feel bad about the bad things in life and maybe even cry a little. Or more than a little.
I was crying so hard because it was something that made me realize how much I loved her even though it was so hard to say that to her, and how much I was going to miss not having a living parent, no matter what had happened in the past with both of the dysfunctional and helpless in their own way breeders who have left me here, now unattended.
Now I sit here in her house -- my house now, I suppose -- and arrange a funeral. Out of all the folks in my life who have died, this is the first time I've actually had to bury them myself. It's not as seamless as you might think.
She showed me a picture a long time ago of her and a young sailor who wasn't my father. This was after he had left home when I was a kid and left us broke and stranded. She said, "I should have married this one. But then you wouldn't be here, so I guess things turned out for the best." He was a strapping young Italian fellow in his 20s and I asked her why she didn't. She said, "He was Catholic. My dad would have killed me."
So the fellow who turned out to be my dad was a part-time Baptist preacher and a farmer. And, later on, a drunk. And, a little later on, a philanderer. And, even later on, a thief. But he wasn't a Catholic and that was apparently very important in my mom's family.
She asked me, just a few years ago, "Is it true that you can find almost anyone on this internet thing?" I told her, "Yes, pretty much," and she spelled her old Italian Catholic boyfriend's name, Louis Renzulli, for me and told me where she thought he might be living. Within five minutes I had given her a phone number and an address. He was in New Jersey, probably about half an hour's drive away from some drunken ex-doctor.
And now I sit here in her house and go through letters from the Italian Catholic sailor which are so sweet and dear and in which he calls her "Pee Wee."
When she told me last winter than he had passed away up there in New Jersey, I said, "You should have gone to see him."
She said, "Oh, that would have been silly. We're just a couple of old folks who would probably look pretty darn ugly to each other nowadays."
I look at pictures, a lot of pictures, stored in boxes in this house. When she was young, she had a look about her. It was her mom's look; that twinkle in her eye that said, "I'm on to something here. You might want to hear about it."
I see pictures of my dad, too, with my cousins and me when I was little. He had a twinkle in his eye, too. He was happy and my mom was happy and they were in their late 20s and early 30s and it was the 1950s when Ike was running things smoothly, and then quite suddenly things between my parents went so far to hell that I had to do that thing where you just turn it off and say, "Shit happens. Deal. But you do not cry, you little fuck."
The day he left home when I was around 13, I was on the couch watching a baseball game. It was Saturday afternoon. He was in the bedroom and I could hear him packing stuff up in a suitcase, like he did sometimes when he went on his "business trips." He came in and sat down on a chair facing me. He said, "I've got to leave now. I probably won't be back."
I suppose he wanted me to run over to him and hug him and say, "Oh, please don't go."
I kept my eyes on Sandy Koufax throwing a fastball in black and white, just over the inside corner, and said, "It's about time." I had turned into a momma's boy, even though I wish she'd given him a bit more slack about the looser lifestyle he was leading now that we were in the city and not on the farm.
When I got married at a later age than most, I had a calico cat that I loved dearly. The woman I married also had a cat, and there was a personality conflict between the two felines. I asked my mom if she'd like to take my cat and she happily agreed. That cat lived with my mom for ten more years before the cat died. It hurt her badly to lose the only other living thing in her house. I said, "You should just get another cat." She said, "No, I couldn't take it." But when I'd talk to her on the phone I could tell she was hurting too badly, being all alone.
A few days later, I was visiting a client who had a yard full of cats. There was one which looked almost like a Siamese but had some peculiar features which made it even more attractive; a different color of blue in the eyes. I asked the client if she was particularly attached to that one cat and she said, "Not really." I asked her if I could have her and she said, "Sure."
I put the cat in a carrier and drove the miles from Little Rock to Corinth and took her in my mom's house. I said, "You want to see the prettiest cat on earth?"
That one got named "Fifi" and my mom and Fifi lived together for fifteen years.
In April she finally had to have one of her friends take Fifi to be put down.
I sit here and look at the pictures of my bald-headed dad with us when I was a child and when he was happy. Then I find pictures of him standing there with a briefcase in his hand or at a company meeting and he does not look happy any longer. He looks like a man who works selling stuff for the Man. He's not smiling and he's a bit jowley.
I work for the Man. I'm bald and jowley and I sell stuff for a living. I like to drink. Too much. Luckily, I waited until I was in my mid-30s to get married and knew what I was getting into and who I wanted to get into it with. But when I look at that picture of him, it is like looking into a mirror.
Every time my mom looked at me, her only child, she saw him. I look just like him. I know it was hard for her to deal with that. She loved her side of the family so dearly, but the Baptist sailor who ruined her life looked exactly like me. And yet she put up with all of my crap for years upon years, just like she did with his.
Does any of this matter at all?