Proof of Passage

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The day of the passports was, for all appearances, ordinary. I like to think that other people’s children, at the most random provocation, take to tears and defiant tantrums, even if the post office will soon close and it’s the last day to safely apply for passports before their vacation. In this case, it didn’t help that the day was gray and cold, and I felt deadened, unable to summon even a tingle of my old excitement before an impending trip. I had made a frugal choice. Still enmeshed in winter, we were going to Canada to fill the school-free days, passing on the chance to frolic in Caribbean waves. Who goes north for spring break?

But I had filled out all the forms, collected birth certificates, and grabbed my expired passport from the large yellow bowl in the blue cupboard where it had, for whatever reason, lived for years. I could never lose it or forget its location, because at one time or another everyone in the house had come across and laughed at this embarrassing representation of my past self: the permed hair, the hideous cardigan, the plump round face. I was glad to hand it over.

We headed for the nearest post office, not the quaint white clapboard in the tiny Vermont town where we live, but just to our north in the town of Shelburne, whose population of 7,000 roughly doubles ours. The building is newer, if still vaguely in keeping with New England character. It has less charm, but more parking. Inside, sense of place surrenders to institutional sameness—the hum of fluorescent lighting, Formica countertops protected by Plexiglas. The application process was tedious, particularly for the people stuck behind us, just wanting to buy stamps or mail a package. At least we made it in time.

passportFrom behind the counter, the official in charge abruptly eyed me with my son and daughter and said to the woman helping us, loudly enough to be heard by my kids and everyone behind us, “Where’s the father?” The question was familiar, but still registered as a quick jab to my chest, requiring effort to hold back tears, stand straight, and speak in a calm, even tone.

“He died.”

The legal requirements were clear. I had already presented a death certificate in my neat package of documents confirming our citizenship and our right to leave the country, even if not our circumstances.

The scrutiny left me angry and exposed. We know; we are not whole. The unraveling was so slow; we were each undone, stitch by stitch.

*

When Kevin and I married, our wedding gift to each other was a large handmade cherry farm table. It was the perfect symbol of the life that we wanted together. It had beauty and simplicity and we imagined our friends and family gathered around it, sharing the amazing food we’d cook. I also envisioned the table spread with maps of places we’d dream of going, and years of school projects.

We did bring it to life in our hundred-year-old house: Kevin brined and smoked our Thanksgiving turkeys. For my birthday, he made his own ricotta gnocchi (and his own ricotta). Together we made homemade tamales—carnitas as well as rajas, cooked to melting with cream and onions. When the smoker was going he might run outside and smoke tomatoes that I would turn into vinaigrette for pan-seared lamb chops. I was the baker, of apple tarts and Christmas-morning cinnamon rolls and strawberry shortcakes. I confess we served uncountable bowls of Annie’s mac and cheese here too.

It was at the table at the end of dinner, Kevin and I lingering over wine, when he mentioned, in his typical casual tone, some odd symptoms he’d been having, issues that might not be surprising in a seventy-year-old man, but are worrisome in one who is thirty-three. My diagnosis was immediate, kidney cancer, but I kept it to myself. It made me feel still and cold, but I knew how absurd it sounded. I asked if he’d called the doctor. Tess was still playing in her highchair. At fifteen months, she was too young to sit at the table. Bay, four and a half, was already off, probably dismantling something or other.

My dire forecast, like most of my life’s anxieties, didn’t become reality. If there’s an upside to worst-case thinking, it’s that you’re usually wrong. Planes land. People make it home. It’s not a tumor. But maybe this was a failure to conceive of the worst case. From that first conversation, on an evening in mid-May, it would take well over a year, a ruptured appendix, and five surgeries to get answers that would make my initial fear sound tame. The cancer Kevin actually had, epithilioid sarcoma, was obscure and incurable.

Even so, we hadn’t quite equated incurable with you are going to die. Surgery is the “recommended treatment modality” for extending life with this diagnosis, so we took our thread of hope to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. There, Kevin and I sat, suspended in silence, in the pristine exam room lined with blond wood cabinets. I read again and again the words “biohazard” and “disposable sharps,” their red lettering the only color in the room—if these labels held answers they wouldn’t be good. Already knowing that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes, we were waiting, with feigned rationality and acceptance, for the opinion of one of the world’s leading sarcoma specialists. At last he entered. He was slender, and on the short side, young for his highly prestigious position. He wore a bright bowtie and an expression of grim detachment that perhaps he hoped to overcome with the eccentric accessorizing of his expensive suits. Having examined Kevin and reviewed his scans, he made it clear: surgery, what would amount to radical resection of several organs, could only be cruel and pointless.

We sat there a long time in a mixed state of crippling despondency and disbelief before we pulled ourselves together and headed for the comfort of a favorite restaurant. At Frankies Spuntino we ordered everything we wanted—room temperature roasted carrots and charred Brussels sprouts, mushroom crostini, house-made cavatelli with spicy sausage and browned sage butter. Kevin looked at me over a glass of the house red and said, “You know what? I feel lucky.”

I had lived with him for eight years; he’d read to me from Robert Haas, the New Yorker, Harry Potter; he’d made me giggle with wry witticisms he channeled from our Newfoundland in the voice of a cartoon character with a lifelong smoking habit; but he never stopped stunning me. Lucky? He’d longed for the years we missed alone together, he explained, having children immediately after getting married. (If I had been his age at the time, twenty-nine instead of thirty-six, we surely would have waited.) His reaction to dying—at least one of them—was gratitude for the time he’s had with me, but especially now, with our children. Kevin had made an art out of loving us. “You know what,” I didn’t say, but had thought repeatedly since the moment he told me he had cancer: “I cannot raise them without you. I will never be as good.”

His doctor counseled against surgery, but was willing to try other treatments, despite the lack of meaningful data samples on a cancer that obscure. He eventually masterminded a succession of harrowing plans—conventional chemotherapies, with and without radiation, as well as clinical trials. Some of them hammered back the cancer a little, but they all hammered Kevin. It didn’t matter. He was willing to endure anything. For the next three years he was never in remission and never out of treatment, except when side effects forced a rest. He was often in excruciating pain—radiation burns, tumor pressing on nerves, metastases repeatedly collapsing first one lung and then the other. But if he could stand—and often when he couldn’t—his energy belonged to Bay and Tess.dad They kept him going, and they broke his heart. He wrote in the blog that he started more than two years after his diagnosis:

[The kids] provide so much pleasure and inspiration to live each day. They distract me, delight me, get me off my butt. We dream together. They blast through my reveries with their dirt clods and chess games and princess parties. They make me want to leave some kind of legacy for them, even if it’s just faint memories, stories, letters, made-up words and silly voices. But I can’t fill a reservoir of parental attention and love now that they can draw on their entire lives. Being a parent is about moments, and I’m so conscious of the moments I (probably) will miss… everyone is going to get through, but I want to be there—we’re writing this great story together, and I want to know how it comes out.

But he couldn’t stay around and now there have been so many moments that were not part of his dream. Moments when the fallout surfaced. Over such formative early years, the kids endured so much: Their father’s pain; my grief and loneliness. They endured the uncertainty over who might pick them up from daycare or who might take them for the night, never sure if we would make it back from New York when we promised or if we would end up in the ER.

Kevin missed the moment when Tess, five when he died, beat her fists on the pillow on his side of the bed, crying, “Daddy, come back! Daddy, come back!”

Kevin missed the moment when Bay said, “Everyday I would ride home on the bus and wonder if Daddy was dead. It’s sort of a relief.”

*

Even the moments that were part of Kevin’s dream, not just the big things yet to come—the graduations and the weddings—but the day-to-day events he wanted to help shape, micro-moments in the evolution of the people his children would become, he wasn’t just missing them; his absence altered them. We were forced to adapt and do normal things—even as not normal became our identity.

Where is the father?

In a town like ours, most people know; we often made them uncomfortable and they looked away. Others blew by the caution signs and slipped into a momentary world of regret.

Three months into widowhood, I was waiting for the start of the school variety show—because there’s no passport out of parenting if your little girl wants to sing—when I ran into a doctor I had once known socially and had seen on trips to the hospital with Kevin. I told him what had happened and he asked if I was remarried. Last November, I emphasized. He then indicated, gesturing toward the stage, that my kindergartener and her brother surely weren’t this dead husband’s children; they must have a live father waiting eagerly in the wings. I tried to break it to him gently. Yes, it was that tragic, that fresh. He quickly found his seat, as I stood alone in the crowded gym.

But if the doctor’s blunder was merely hapless, the postal worker’s brusque question, “Where is the father?”, seemed pointed, cruel. With photos taken, applications accepted, $600 (including the fee for expedited processing) relinquished, we were finally free to go home. Within twenty minutes, the woman called, even though the post office was then certainly closed. She informed me that the passport I presented was not my most recent—clearly indicated, I now know, from the telltale holes punched on either end. The frizzy headed girl in the ugly sweater was long gone.

I like to think that other people misplace things. I assume they don’t panic, as I did. My nerves sizzled with frustration at my carelessness. Now I could be the cause of missing the deadline. I couldn’t recall another passport so I said it must be lost. If I came back, the woman offered, she would let me in to fill out the newly required form. But I didn’t leave. Not yet. That I must have had another passport since the one I had given her began to seem obvious as I ticked through the years.

In my mind, I scanned the house until one possibility emerged, a drawer in a bedside table I no longer use. Among old pens and paper clips, an odd assortment of cassette tapes and a packet of giant sunflower seeds, there it was. Happy news. A quick trip to trade little blue books was all that was needed, the momentary crisis a mere annoyance.

Except that what I saw brought hot, silent tears. I sat motionless on the bed; I could barely breathe. How had I forgotten this? I hadn’t ever considered passports as a measure of passed time, of life lived. Now I understand them not just as an authenticated statement of identity, with indisputable dates, but also a record of appearance and experience that can’t be curated. A passport gives us official validation, tells the world, as far as such things can, that we are a safe risk, that it’s okay to let us in. When their time is spent, we hold onto them—if we can—only later to pull them out and overlay the printed facts with the gauze of memory.

I fell in love with the woman I saw. Her dark hair was naturally straight and silky, her cheeks slender. She wore a classic black dress. Her eyes sparkled. She looked young and happy. She was beautiful. The most stunning thing about this woman, in this passport, is that she was in Italy with the man she was in love with, the one she would marry. We would soon be off for our afternoon espresso, in the simple, chic attire we had brought to blend in with Italians.

Kevin and I had gone to Italy in grand style, with ludicrous luggage, a laptop for writing, and a ton of books, as if there might be a footman meeting our train at every stop. In Naples, we made a trek to an acclaimed friggitorie, standing on the street outside eating stuffed potato balls and zucchini blossoms and anything else the shop would deep-fry, salt, and pour into paper cones. Kevin and I looked at each other and the empty cones in our hands, went back inside, and ordered it all again.

We moved further south to the Amalfi Coast. Once I exhaled, realizing the lurching maniac driving our bus had not left us crushed in the rocky water below, we discovered that the place we’d booked blindly was enchanting, with shuttered bedroom windows I would open in the mornings, looking out to sea. Kevin and I made love on cool white cotton sheets in the ocean breeze, drank limoncello on a terrace under blooming wisteria.

This is not to imply things were perfect, even there. Anxiety and self-doubt have been reliable travel companions, and the newly discovered passport reminded me of my failings too. They explain why I recall the day the photo was taken. When I noted the place of issue—the embassy in Rome—the provenance increased my romantic nostalgia until I realized why I had gotten my passport there and not in the US. I had lost the one I came with mid-trip, and now remembered the same panic the call from the post office had triggered, remembered turning my suitcase inside out looking for it, rifling through too many clothes, near tears, not over a document, but my own ineptitude.

While unpacking back home, I found the original “lost” passport tucked in a secure pocket in my luggage. (This is how things happen to me: I’m sure I’ve been careless when I have not; I’m sure the plane will crash, the bus will careen over the cliffs, the loved one won’t come home, that the state trooper will knock at my door. I am not supposed to be right.)

The woman in the photograph carried excessive baggage of all sorts when she crossed customs into Italy, but at this moment of rediscovery none of that mattered. I idealized her (the correct pronoun, I think, for this ghost person treading on the other side of innocence). As I looked at that old passport, my silent, mystified mantra was, “She didn’t know, she didn’t know.” She had not yet experienced the pain of childbirth or the intricate wounds inflicted while tending over death.

I wasn’t present, though, when Kevin finally died, early on a November morning. He was in a residential hospice facility where he could have professional care in a place designed to be as unlike a hospital as possible. His room was identified not by a number but by an animal. For three and a half weeks I moved back and forth between the “elephant room” and home in an uneasy negotiation of longings, mine to be with him, my children’s to all but consume me, as if I embodied safety.

When I arrived at Respite House after getting the call, the few people around at that hour watched me as I made my way to him. They knew what had happened, knew I was the fresh widow. Countless nights I had listened to Kevin’s strained breath, watching, if the sound paused, for the slight rise and fall of his chest. But now I stepped into his room and saw his chest frozen still, the life that I left there the night before replaced by the tiny dance of candlelight.

Kevin and I had traveled many roads, but we were not quite to the end. I found a solemn beauty in the last of my time with him. Maybe those days together in Italy, wandering through churches, studying the pieta and countless scenes of lamentation, impressed on me a kind of devotioncoast I couldn’t anticipate or yet understand. But I felt it in that moment as I dampened a cloth and gently washed Kevin’s face, his hands, his feet, focusing on my task, away from the shock of dark blood pooling in his thighs. I love this offering, caring for the ravaged body of my lover, it’s only meaning or purpose a sacred, silent honor.

I was grateful for the quiet competence of the women who helped me dress him. Finally, I buttoned his crisp white shirt and removed the wedding band he wore on a silver chain around his neck after his fingers thinned nearly to bone. I clasped the chain around my own neck and kissed his cooling forehead.

There’s so much I wish I didn’t know. But place and time and experience make me who I am. Those acts marked me, were proof of my journey, a new stamp on my passport.

The document that so enchanted me has been returned with holes punched, officially finished. In the new passport picture, I have lost the dewy glow I’d had, not from youth, just from loving a moment. But the pages are fresh. The points of entry I’ll encounter are unknown, but the passport is a call to keep going.

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Lee Ann Cox has published personal essays on Salon and is the recipient of a 2014 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently working on a memoir and can be reached on Twitter @leeanncox. More from this author →