Do you know that I believe in God every time that I approach our house from the south? First, I see the huge fir tree in the front, hundreds of feet tall, reaching toward the sky, beyond our little river village. Is the tree that tall or is it my imagination? Behind the fir, as I get closer, the cherry tree, long with sinewy branches that never seem to bear enough leaves, and then the Japanese maple—the reason you and I chose the house five years ago—reveal themselves. What remains of the sycamore, its trunk still towering over us, becomes visible. I remember how tall it once was and I am grateful that we left so much of the stump and for the branches it grew after we found the hollowed and rotting wood and had to cut it down. That sycamore is a sign of defiance; it is a reminder that life wants to happen. Before I can see our home, I feel it, pulsing warmth and encased in all those trees on the hill that seem to lean in to draw heat from it. I can hear the chimes on the porch blowing in the wind and I think, every time, about the wind chimes on my grandfather’s porch in northern Minnesota and the black dirt there and his overalls and the scar on his bottom lip. For a split second, I am in both places.
The house, enclosed in the protective bubble of trees, is ours now. It hasn’t always been, of course. We moved here after vowing to never leave the city where we met and where our girls were born, where their little legs learned to stay planted on the floors of the subway cars we rode as they lurched and raced us uptown and down. Before we moved into this house, other families made it home, eating and arguing and bathing and playing and hanging their own photos. Have you noticed the spots of old wallpaper stuck behind the radiators in the front bedrooms? I’m not sure how long the house will belong to us. When we bought it, that night after seeing the fireflies under the maple, we talked about grandkids visiting us there. I don’t allow myself to imagine too far into the future anymore. We had only lived in the house for six months before my fingers brushed against the lump under my skin while I was getting out of the shower early one morning, when it was still dark. If I get sick again and I can’t get better, my heart will break too intensely. The thought of that makes it difficult to breathe.
The future is unpredictable in many ways, I suppose. Many foresee the waters of the Hudson River rising enough in the next twenty years to irreversibly affect the lower-lying parts of our village. Flooding may become even more common, more destructive. Perhaps the waters that now occasionally flood the playground will gradually stop receding, slowly drowning the seesaw and the aging wooden structures that the girls climb. Our house on the tall hill will be safe, but I wonder what will become of the homes of friends and businesses closer to the water. Do you imagine us in twenty years, or are you also afraid to think that far forward? We would be celebrating our pearl anniversary. What might we see from our chairs on the porch if we are there to look down at the river and the village?
Two years ago, in the days before he died, I was struck by how the tumors on your father’s neck looked like pearls, how defined they were, as if a long strand had been fastened around his neck and bunched on the left side as he lay in the hospice bed that we’d set up in his den. I was afraid to look too closely at his neck while his eyes were still open. At some point, as he slept, I surprised myself and leaned over so that I could see the little purplish balls protruding from his skin. Apparently, he wasn’t aware of them until his oncologist mentioned it at their final meeting, when he was told that nothing more could be done. It’s remarkable that your father hadn’t noticed the bumps on his neck when he looked in the mirror or when his hand passed over them as he was getting dressed, buttoning his collared shirts. Perhaps he averted his eyes or avoided touching his neck, in the way that I avoided touching my left breast.
Hours after I first saw the pearl-like lumps and when your father could no longer open his eyes, I touched one. It was hard and I kept my fingers on it—one of the clusters of cells at the source of his lightening—listening to his breath. We were alone. You had gone downstairs with your sister to eat. I hadn’t touched a tumor since I found my own that morning two years earlier. I moved my hand from his neck to his thin wrist and tried to match the rhythm of my breath with his for a few moments before telling him again how much we all loved him. I promised that I would take care of you. I told him that I loved you more profoundly and broadly than I could understand or put into words.
It was the smell of lotion that lingered on your hands in the hours after your father died that broke my heart. The nurse had washed him that morning and the scent of the Vaseline-brand moisturizer she applied was strong when we walked back in the room where he was lying after she had finished changing him. He no longer smelled like himself, like coffee and cologne, but he was no longer fully himself by that point anyway. He was dwindling. With your sister, you sat next to him for hours, rubbing his hand and his head. You had listened in the weeks leading up to his death for the cues and clues he shared about how he wanted to die and how he wanted his life to be defined. You told him repeatedly how much you loved him, how proud you were of him, how much he’d taught you. You told him that you forgave him. You said the things that you knew he needed to hear, in words that he could understand.
I watched you guide your father through his final hours. Toward the end, when the space between his breaths became erratic, I followed your eyes as you looked up at the spot where his eyes—once again open at the very end—were fixated. I saw what you saw, a cross from the shadow of the window frame in the afternoon sun on the ceiling. I saw you see God in that way that you do that makes me feel alone, sometimes, and envious. I wish it was as easy for me to see. Time stood still in that room where your father lay among piles of paper that represented what he had accomplished and acquired during his lifetime. We would later spend weeks sorting through the piles. I felt like we were watching an empire fall as we bagged papers for shredding that he had intentionally saved and organized into a system only he understood. You and your sister converted it all into weightless electronic accounts and files.
On the afternoon of his death, we held hands as we watched the man and young woman from the funeral home remove your father’s body from the house. The Vaseline scent from your left hand transferred to my right and, as I drove home that night to the girls, I could smell him on my fingers and taste the lotion on my lips that I had used to kiss his head. It burned. I touched the girls with that hand as we put together a puzzle and colored pictures and I kissed their warm cheeks; the scent of the lotion touched their skin, almost imperceptibly. I wanted him to last. I regretted eventually washing my hands, knowing that the scent would be lost. I was overwhelmed by a sense of his loss when I walked through the lotion aisle of a pharmacy weeks later.
Your father’s illness and death, like your mother’s years before, filled our heads and hearts and home with profound sadness for some time. A couple of days after he died, I lost myself in a song that I hadn’t heard for years during the drive home from the store. As I pulled up to our house, I realized that the sadness was waiting for me there. I had to walk through it to get inside the back door with my groceries. I am forced to move through a similar sorrow when I consider the possibility of my own disease recurring, as theirs did. I do not want to leave you. I do not want my parents to lose a child. I do not want the girls to lose their mother. I do not want to die.
The losses we’ve experienced have also given me the chance to see your innards and mine, the parts that we hold, clench inside, and guard until we are cracked. I learned better ways to love you and see you. I saw you most clearly in the fog of the weeks before your father died, on the day that our youngest needed to have blood drawn for a routine appointment. We were so tired already from the back and forth between his house and ours, working and running errands during the loud days and then sitting quietly with him in the evenings while he pulled away, slowly, with intention. At her lab appointment, our four-year-old lost her mind, screaming and thrashing against the stern technician’s attempts to place a needle. Afterward, we took the girls to the arcade in the strip mall next door to recover. I felt sad as we entered that empty space in the middle of the afternoon but at some point, I looked across the room at you and I smiled. I saw you in the glow of the car video game, the little one in your lap, and I realized that there was no other place in this world that I was supposed to be at 4:30 p.m. on a gloomy Monday. For a long while after I got sick, I wondered if I was paying for something that I’d done in a past life (as in, my twenties). Seeing you in that moment—still in your suit hunched over a tiny steering wheel—I realized that you would not love me as durably or steadily if I was paying for past transgressions. Your love helps to illuminate the good things about me that I struggle to see. The past few years have turned me inward, reorienting me toward what I hold most dear. You, my love, are what I hold most dear. You and our girls and our home and our trees and the skies above the Hudson that we look at every morning when we rise.
I hope it doesn’t sound morbid to you, the fact that our love story involves so much death. I believe that the absence of the people we love has made their impressions more pronounced. Your mother is everywhere. I wear her light green scarf—and remember the scent of her perfume that persisted for years in its thinning fibers—to places where we need her. At your father’s bed, the pearls on his neck became more distinguished, as did the usefulness of things he shared and we resisted while he was alive; they creep out in your voice. I have no doubt that you’ve considered what life would be like without me, anticipating what might feel hollow and what would remain.
We are told and understand fleetingly that the state of things changes. Our house would be familiar to those families who lived in it during the hundred years before we arrived, but for now, for these precious moments, our little pearl on the Hudson has our mark. The sycamore is changed but its roots remain, steadfast, in the ground beneath our home. I wonder how far they stretch beyond our half acre. Parts of our village will flood again and again and yet, people will rebuild. In the end, perhaps only the foundation of houses and shops will remain, like a little Atlantis. Your mother is in a different state, lighter, and now your father, and some day we will be as well.
Watching you with your father on the day that he died changed the way that I feel in this world. Should the disease return, should I get sick again, I now understand. While it’s cruel to have you play this role once more, you will guide me and hold my hand and stroke my head in the way that you know I love, and tell me what I need to hear to pass gently. You will tell me that I was good enough and that I did enough. You will carry me on in the way that you do your parents. You will remind our oldest that I am in her weird little pinky toes and her sensitivity to the world, in the ease with which she is startled. You will tell our youngest that I am in her truest smile and her need for human touch. You will help my parents to see and feel me in these places. You will help them all to see God in our trees and river and the people around the tables at which they sit and in the memories of things that were. In the split seconds of quiet between movements and words, in the space between breaths, you will help me to be in two places at once.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.