I am unable to forget the words my stepfather Hank spoke to me. We were sitting outside in the wrought-iron chairs. The day was steamy, and the bugs were biting, but neither of us could get up and go inside to the air conditioning, because he had brought up his leukemia, and once a conversation like that is started, there’s no moving it to a better location. He sat with his hands on his thighs and looked at the fresh-cut grass.
“When I die,” Hank said, “you will probably go insane.”
I looked down at the grass to see what he saw. Such comforting stuff, grass: steady and sure and soft underfoot.
“That was two years ago,” I told him. “Nobody would even know unless I told them.”
He said I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t happen again; the stress could trigger an episode.
I slapped a biting fly and told him I was as strong as an ox.
He looked strong, too, still an imposing figure with his big hands and high cheekbones, those fine blue eyes and that white hair that he liked to have combed. He looked good for seventy-two. To look at him, no one would have known he was dying. To look at me, no one would have known I’d been sick.
“That won’t happen,” I promised him.
He didn’t believe me.
I got up to get us some lemonade, which seemed a better idea than telling him he wasn’t really so important to me that I’d go nuts without him.
In the kitchen I wondered what to say. I couldn’t let him go around thinking I was going to lose it when he died. How could he go peacefully with that hanging over him?
A memory of a conversation with my real father, the schizophrenic:
Him: Forget about me. Live as if I didn’t exist.
Me: I already do. [Laughs.]
But I didn’t, and I never will, shouldn’t even try to, never never never.
A few days after Hank’s death, as I was saying goodbye to my mother, she paused and looked me in the eye. Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Before you go,” she said, “there is something I have to show you.”
I followed her into the bedroom and over to the dresser, where she stopped and stretched out her arm. Afraid to see what she was pointing to, I looked at her face, at her red-rimmed eyes filling with tears. Then I let my gaze travel slowly down her sagging neck, over the blue knit sweater, down her bony arm, so familiar, and past her fingers, gnarled with arthritis, their long fake nails painted a gallant shade of red, to a box on the dresser.
“I brought Hank home,” she said.
I recognized the box, with the army seal she had selected. Hank’s knickknacks had been pushed aside to make room for it.
“But that’s not really Hank,” she said.
I was thankful she’d said this. I turned from the box, because looking at it hurt too much. My eyes drifted out the window: to the roses, the lawn, the water’s edge, the dock with the ospreys on it. My mind caught on a snag, a question: If he’s no longer here, where is he?
When I told Joe and Sharon at work that my stepfather had died, Joe told me a fishing story: Once, Joe’s brother had gone fishing. (I imagined someone who looked like Joe, only with a cap and a flannel shirt, sitting on the dock, casting his line into the softly rippling water.) He heard gravel churning behind him and turned to see a limousine pulling into the parking lot. It stopped and idled, with its tinted windows and long black body. The driver got out and opened the passenger door. A small woman with paper-thin skin planted her black pumps on the gravel. She stood and straightened her black knit suit before reaching for something from the back seat: an urn. She walked to the water’s edge, slipped off her pumps, and waded calf-deep into the water. Reaching into the urn, she pulled out a handful of ashes and began sprinkling them.
But the wind was brisk that day, and what was left of, presumably, her husband drifted into Joe’s brother’s face.
“It was all in his eyes,” Joe said. “His eyes were watering, and he started hacking. . . .”
And that’s when Sharon and I did a terrible thing: We laughed. Hard.
I put my hand over my mouth and mumbled, “That’s horrible.”
Sharon said, “Isn’t it?”
And then we laughed some more.
Oh, God, I thought. How terrible. How could I laugh? I wanted some assurance that after I died, I could preserve my dignity. But why did I care? It’s not as if I’d know. That man’s ashes weren’t him. The man was gone. But where he had gone eluded me.
A week later I told a boyfriend, who couldn’t have cared less, that I could not marry him because he collected big-eye paintings, the ones of small children and animals with huge brown eyes. He had them all over his kitchen. I told him, “That’s the only reason you like me: my big brown eyes.” I told him, “You would probably slip one of those paintings into my coffin, and that would be it for me: all eternity with that thing.”
It matters to me what happens to my body. I don’t know why. It’s like owning something I would never sell.
Hank was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Four soldiers held the flag over the urn while four more fired rifles and another played taps.
“Hold me up,” my mother whispered to me.
I put my hand on her elbow. My nephew fainted. The crowd circled him, and I got him a ginger ale from the limo. I was as strong as an ox, as I had predicted.
We put flowers in the hole that held Hank’s urn, and his daughter-in-law put in a letter she had written. The letter bothered me. I understood her need to write it, to say what she needed to say, but when I saw it lying there, I wanted it delivered to Hank. He was not ashes in a nine-by-eighteen-inch hole. He was a man who, when I called, shouted into the phone, “And what good news do you have for me today?” A man like that does not just cease to be. But he had; he had vanished like Houdini. My mother held his flag close to her chest, and I squeezed her hand. We walked slowly together into an unfamiliar world.
The Sunday before Hank died, I made pesto for him and my mother. We were sitting at the dinner table, and I was twirling pasta onto my fork when it came over me, a firm knowing: This is the last time I will see him. He had spit up a bit of blood that afternoon, and perhaps it was the shock of seeing his teeth dirty with it. Anyone could tell the man was dying. But he had been dying for so long that we’d convinced ourselves he would hang on forever.
I told myself I was just being morbid, not having a premonition, but the next day I decided to leave work to go see him. It was just something I had to do. I made the drive to their house and found him in bed, unable to get up because of a hamstring pull, he said. I stretched out on the couch, and we talked. I told him how well I was doing at work, so he wouldn’t worry. He said he was amazed that I could accomplish so much with my illness. He wanted to know about my love life. I groaned and told him the California guy wanted to sleep with me, but still loved his wife.
Hank said, “You sure have kissed a lot of frogs,” and I laughed. Sometimes his words had weights on them and sank deep down inside me. I decided right then that my lips had kissed enough frogs.
And then we just got goofy. I don’t know how it started, but Hank made his Grinch face, the one where his mouth curled up and his chin jutted out, and he wiggled his ears: first one, then the other, then both at once.
“All right, you,” I said. “Stay out of trouble.” I kissed his cheek and told him I loved him.
“Take over the company,” he said. “And that California guy: throw that one back.”
Posing like an actress in a melodrama, I raised my arm to greet my public and exited.
And that was the last time I saw Hank awake. Two days later he would spit up blood, then bile, and close his eyes.
At the funeral I was oddly at ease, as if death had always walked with me. Tears were sweet, and it was easy to look everyone in the eye, to be quiet, to say a few words, to give a hug. The head of a construction company told me that he had loved Hank and respected him the way he did few men. His eyes were bloodshot. He tried to smile, but there was no hiding his tears. It wasn’t just him. Everyone was so gentle with one another. If only someone we loved died every day, what a world it might be.
The next day it dawned on me that my premonition at dinner with Hank had been almost uncannily accurate, like when I’d known it would be the last time I would talk to my father, or when a voice in my head had told me, “Jim is dead,” and weeks later I’d found out my old friend Jim had died. How was it that I knew when a person close to me was going to die? I mean, I knew. I was informed. There must be predestination, or else how could I know the future before it happened? As I sat on the couch, a voice told me my cat would be the next to die, and I believed it. (He did die, about a year later, in my arms, too weak to stand.)
Right there on my couch, I went crazy again, even after I’d told Hank I wouldn’t. I reasoned that, since I’d had a premonition, I must have psychic ability. And if I could trust my thoughts, then the male voice in my head belonged to a real person, because that’s what my intuition told me.
The voice said, “You are a psychopomp.” I went to the dictionary and looked the word up. It wasn’t listed. I went on the Internet, and there, on a shamanic site, I found the definition: “one who helps souls cross over.” And I remembered what a guy named Mark had said to me in college. “I help people cross over.” And somehow it made sense that I did, too.
I thought the voice was Mark’s, but I wasn’t sure. I asked it for proof. He gave me directions to Mark’s office. I looked the address up on the Internet. He had indeed given me the right directions.
Still, I was afraid to believe, so I asked the voice, “What movies did John Waters make?” (Mark was a film buff.)
He wouldn’t tell, but he told me other movie titles I’d forgotten and who was in each film, and soon I believed he was a real person, and that I was not psychotic.
When I told my sister, my mother, and my friends that the voice was real, they said I was wrong; it wasn’t possible. Their disbelief was hard for me to take. It scared me. I stopped talking to them.
I went home after work at night and socialized with the voice. He was angry I was still considering seeing the guy from California, so I broke off the relationship. And then I realized it was happening again: I was becoming isolated. No one called. I didn’t go out. I stopped reading and writing. I didn’t even listen to music. All I did in my free time was talk to the voice.
Years earlier, when my mom and Hank had brought me home with them from the hospital the first time, I’d sat on the porch and smoked cigarettes and drunk coffee and stared off into space hour after hour. Hank couldn’t stand seeing me that way. It compelled him to finance my recovery, to work with families of schizophrenics, to take care of me. He would talk to me about my delusions. He cooked me dinner, and we would talk about how to put my life back together. One day in therapy, I found out that my dad’s illness had made me terrified of men — all except for Hank. He was controlled, appropriate, safe. To honor him, I tried not to go crazy when he died. But then I did.
What if I am a psychopomp? I thought. Should I work at a funeral home, be a hospice nurse? I needed guidance. I stretched out on the couch and asked God what to do. I expected God to speak, to inform me as to the nature of the afterlife. I waited for an answer, but it never came. My hands trembled.
I asked the voice, “Do you know what I’m afraid of? Because I don’t.”
And he said, “You don’t even know what you’re afraid of?”
And then I realized: I was afraid I would crack again. I was scared that Mark was just a psychotic voice. I didn’t know what to do about this power I had. My intuition had proven true, but it also told me the voice was Mark.
I asked the voice, for the hundredth time, to prove he was real.
“I’ll name the moons of Saturn,” he said.
That would be something I didn’t know.
“Rhea,” he began.
But wait, he’d done that before. I felt confused. The thought came to me, Fear is the root of pathogenesis. Could be true. Sounded true.
I decided to give up and just make the best of it.
Mark said, “Do you want to play a game?”
I said, “Yeah. Statue.”
And he said, “OK, stand still, and I’ll tag you.”
And I lay on the couch with my eyes closed, listening for the voice and smiling. “Maybe we should set a time limit on this,” I said.
And he said, “OK, if I don’t tag you in twenty-four hours, you can move.”
And I said, “How about if I’m a moving target?”
And he said, “Carroll, do you know what I am?”
And I said, “What?”
And he said, “I’m a mummy.”
I mean, this voice was a riot. Sometimes tears came to my eyes, I laughed so hard.
I told him, “Well, if you’re a mummy, you’re dead.”
He said, “That’s true. Mummies don’t usually converse with the living. Who’s your favorite person in the world?”
I said, “You are.”
He said, “But I’m a mummy!”
I said, “You’re my favorite mummy.”
And he said, “How many mummies do you know? Carroll, do you think I could be Mark?”
I said, “No!”
And he said, “What, do you think I’m just a witty voice?”
And I thought, OK, he’s Mark. OK, we’re all reincarnated. We have souls. Our souls go to God when we die. There is an afterlife. Human consciousness is evolving so we can go to a better place, maybe another planet.
I was afraid to think of Hank, for fear I might summon his spirit. I didn’t want to talk to him. A memory slipped in, though, of the first time I’d met him:
I was a little girl, and I had made cookies without a recipe. (We never had all the ingredients for real cookies.) I brought him one as he sat in his suit in the living room where no one was allowed to sit. And I remember he told me, with a mouthful of cookie, that it was very good. So off I went to get him another one. And my mother said, “Oh, Carroll, I don’t think he wants to spoil his appetite.”
The voice and I are getting along. We love each other. We want to be together. He says, “Call me.”
But I can’t do that. The last time I called, Mark hung up on me. So I say, “No, you call me.”
And he says, “OK.”
I look at the phone and know that he will call within three days.
When he doesn’t, a crack opens up and allows disbelief to creep in. I begin to see that all my mystical thinking is just the dream of a sick person. I am pathetic, and angry that this voice in my head has seduced me or berated me into believing it was real.
I sit alone in my living room and stare at the phone and realize that Mark, wherever he is, is not at all interested in me. In fact, he’d probably like me to drop dead. I cry until snot drips from my nose. I call my mother, and she tells me there’s always hope, and I yell, “How can you say that?” It’s cruel that she offers me hope. She cries harder, upset that she can’t help me the way Hank did.
I am stunned. She is right. I can’t talk to her, and Hank is not there. Their house reverberates with his absence. When I go there on Saturday, he will not be in his chair watching golf. He will not say, “It’s the muffin!” I don’t know where he went.
I ask my mother how long it’s been, and she says a month.
Our first taste of fall. The humidity has broken, there is a breeze, and the sky is teal. If only I could stop to take it in, but I can’t, because the voice may catch up with me. I dread going home to my quiet house. There is no one there to help keep the voice at bay. Why am I going out with jerks when I should be going out with guys like Hank? Why did he have to die for me to know this? When will I stop making mysteries out of truths?
I’ve died once already, during my first episode. On the second story of a house that was under construction, I felt evil angels suck out my blood and dissect me, slice through my wrists, my ankles, my neck. And then I stood up and drove home. I put my coat in the bathtub and thought the red dirt was blood.
It makes a difference to have died. It makes life crisper.
One day I will know for sure what happens when the heart stops and the lungs neglect to breathe, and that thought is comforting. I imagine it will be like falling into a pool. I will welcome the coolness that will take my breath away. Immersed in water, that element that is so much a part of us, I will feel as if I’ve been baptized. But those who know me will merely see the drama queen exit.
On the second anniversary of Hank’s death, my mother and I go to where he is buried. I am there to support her, but when I see the plaque with his name on it, I’m the one who breaks down. My mother puts her arms around me, and I wet her shoulder with tears, because I can’t tell Hank now that I did stop kissing frogs, that I met a prince who treats me well, the way Hank taught me a person should be treated. I can’t tell him he was right: the Freudian treatment was bunk, and the new doctor has made the voice go away most of the time, and he decided I’m not even schizophrenic, but manic-depressive. Hank would want to know that. I can’t tell him I am doing well at work and that the Fourth of July was terrible because he was not there grilling.
And he can’t explain to me how the voice knew things I didn’t know, or how I know when a person close to me is dying. I have no answer to these questions. Holding my mother’s arm, I walk back to the car, wrapped in the mystery of the universe. I look out the window at the forest, and the trees make me feel small.
I go back to my routine, stay rooted in the tangible, but that does not make the intangible go away. I simply don’t ask why anymore. I just go forward. I don’t hear the voice of God, but somehow he leads me. It’s a feeling I have, a firm knowing that everything will be OK. I try to become who I am meant to be, and to let go of Hank, yet not let go of him. Maybe he is here with me now. I must go call my mother, for she is next. As I walk to the phone, I recite Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. . . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
I pick up the phone to talk to my mother while I still can, and I see my other cat, the one that didn’t die, curled up and sleeping peacefully. He lives in the here and now, and I think that when I get off the phone, I will go buy some flowers, talk to my boyfriend, sleep like a cat, get up and go to work, and be happy. That is what Hank would want me to do.