For the third time this year, the weather man said we got a “hundred year rain” overnight. Alarms blared through our phones earlier, at three in the morning, like syncopated electric trumpets on the end tables: FLASH FLOOD, SEEK SHELTER. I went back to bed.
I woke up again a few hours later, well before my normal alarm, stirred by the late summer sun and its light, leaking through my eyelids. I reached for my phone. According to social media, several of my favorite shops in downtown Warren, Ohio, had more than a foot of water in their basements. I don’t normally get up at dawn on work days, but I was curious to walk the neighborhood and see how the city looks before it is fully awake.
The streets behave so much differently in the absence of traffic. They possess their stillness fully. You can cross the road anywhere you like, not just at the corners. I didn’t see anyone else. No joggers. No dogs on leashes, sniffing at the wet ground. The rain left a thin flesh of mud on the sidewalks, and since I didn’t come across even little cat prints or bike tire marks—I knew I was the first creature to emerge into the day. The first surveyor of the storm. The loneliness of it all soothed me.
The tumor hid in her abdomen, an inert lump of darkness clung to the outside of her descending colon. They missed it. They missed it seven months ago when they thought she had a spot on her right lung. They missed it when they began pinpoint proton beam therapy and chemo. They missed it when they gave her a clean bill of health. They missed it, especially, when they let her ring the little brass bell that hangs near the sliding glass exit doors of the treatment center. My aunt posted the picture of her online, celebrating what they thought was beating cancer.
My grandmother kept the family strong, did what she could, what she believed was right, cut all the cloth on her knees. I didn’t know if I was prepared to see her the way she’d be as she left us.
Three days before she died, I came to visit her with the foreknowledge that her end was likely near. I was not the last to come, but only because my cousin Sara lives in Cincinnati. My aunt said she’s still two hour away.
I couldn’t immediately look at Grandma, so, I took a quick survey of the room. It was more spacious than I had envisioned in the elevator up to the Hospice floor. It fit everyone in comfortably. There was a bench along the double-window where my oldest cousin Jennifer, her husband Jake and their daughter sat, purses and open tote bags piled between them with hoodies and jeans wadded and sticking out. Flower arrangements on the counter. Get-well cards taped to a free standing wardrobe. A single yellow balloon in the corner.
Grandma’s sister Martha sat in her own wheel chair next to her husband in a vinyl upholstered recliner. My sister Natalie had a spot beside Grandpa, who’s padded chair had been pushed close enough to Grandma’s hospital bed, that he could rest his arm on it, while still gripping her hand.
His were the first eyes I saw, and they saw me—the ghost in me—shivered, exposed, caught in the act of haunting. A look that tugged on the corner of the thin white sheet inside me, everything underneath, went cold. I swallowed to keep it from escaping. My aunt told Grandma I was here. She angled her head towards me, but didn’t open her eyes, “Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here now,” whatever malaise had her anchored to that bed, her voice was unchanged by it, though she looked tired and drawn out, gray.
Despite the number of family members already positioned around the room, there was still plenty of space for me and my two girls and their mother. The whole clan gathered around her, “stars at elbow and foot,” just as Dylan predicted. I marveled at it. The choices of a singular life. A standing constellation, the shape of her great labor. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, like you do in the house with a new baby who’s just laid down for its afternoon nap. Death is like this, the next life we all give birth to, it fights to be born in our bodies for its place, just as children do.
My wife noticed Grandma had slid down to the end of the bed, looked pained and uncomfortable. She told me to grasp the sheet beneath her, and we pulled her upright, and readjusted the pillows behind her head. My hand brushed up against her hair. It felt dry and stiff, like wisps of straw. She asked if I was alright. A nurse came in, administered comfort care, upped from the previous dose. Grandma fell peacefully asleep.
It was at this moment, my mother decided to tell me and my sister this isn’t what she wants when it’s her turn to go. She’s decided to start winding down her own time here. She’s been wild-eyed for years. She’s opening a thrift store with her thirty-six-year-old boyfriend. I sternly told her that her death isn’t just about her. I felt the scold well up inside me, and I knew I was probably too harsh when I said it. She looked at me the same way I catch my eleven-year-old daughter doing sometimes. A bewildered anger, a wordless frustration with me. We both knew I was wrong about something, but she didn’t know how to say I was, and I wasn’t ready to concede to it anyways.
I broke into the silence between us by asking what she actually wants when she dies. “Just carry on with your lives. Just carry on like nothing’s happened, ’cause it doesn’t change a thing anyways,” she said. Her eyes didn’t waver. She said it with intention. Her tone meant to cut, passive-aggression, I turned my head and rolled my eyes so she wouldn’t see it.
After about two hours, having come straight from work without dinner, we decided it was time to go. Our kids behaved themselves admirably, no bickering or complaining, but every child has a limit and I could sense they were near it. Everyone hugged us, then went around and hugged us again. I noticed grandpa couldn’t keep his head still. He told me that he loved me, and reminded me to keep loving Christ. He has seen so many more things than me. Life is kind of how we just keep seeing more and more things, thinking about them and holding them and talking about them until we don’t remember what things are anymore.
As I came to the end of my early morning walk the sound of running water was everywhere. Inescapable. Deafening. In the absence of the normal neighborhood noises, cars passing by or lawnmowers winding their way through people’s lawns, it was all I could hear. It was grasping out towards me. Something in me arched back to it. I wanted to know if I could be ebbed away to wherever it was going. Deep into the ditches, the runoff bouncing off open drain pipes, always flowing to the lowest point, looking for the dark somewhere far below us.
Above, the rustle of black squirrels breaking into bird feeders—the crack of acorns and sunflower seeds. One of them spotted me and froze. We locked gaze. I thought about just how far removed from nature I am, because the way it looked at me made me anxious, apprehensive about its next move. Its dark, unreflective eyes. They know what I do not. The pull of reflexive thought and instinct.
The next yard over was so flooded, two white ducks were able to swim in it like a pond. It was deep enough for them to float above the blades of grass. A pair of pale feathered, hungry ghosts dunking their bright orange beaks down into the mud beneath them, searching for snails or worms flushed out by the flood. Their species originates from China, the Pekin’ Duck—an English mispronunciation, brought to the States by sailors because of how hardy the birds were and how quickly they grew to full size. It was originally known as Shi-Chin-Ya-Tz or ten pound duck. It has become the common duck of North America, despite not being from here. Its power is in its ability to flourish, even in foreign lands, as it can adapt easily to new surroundings and new environments. I thought about how that is the single greatest asset of any species, its flexibility, its prowess at handling change. The more rigid and austere a creature is, the more precious and delicate its needs—the higher its chance for extinction. We are not exempt from this.
As I drove to work, NPR ran a story about the city of Chennai, India—its sixth largest—ran out of water today. An official from their local government said, “Only the rain can save us.” After a string of dry seasons in a row, the underground wells have gone dry. Trucks with water are enroute from United Nations’ relief store houses. They’ve been preparing for this. Everyone knows what is happening, and why. Someday it may be us, here—the droughts will come for us too.
After I clocked-in and mindlessly pulled my phone out of my pocket, I saw the date. It hit me that today, August 28th, is the seventeenth anniversary of my family’s move from my home town in Florida. That was my junior year of high school. My adolescence split right in half. Below that, the time read 8:03 am, and then a text notification from my sister appeared. It finally happened. Grandma passed away. It happened about a hour earlier, according to Natalie who was there beside her. Sometime earlier, while I was still out on my walk, the world changed and I hadn’t noticed. I always thought there would be a tell, that something would feel different, but it didn’t. The bottom didn’t fall out. The earth didn’t open up. The ghost remained.
Grandma had asked to die at home. She said she wanted to go home for it. It was one of her last few requests she made as a person. Grandpa decided he couldn’t let it be. He had to keep on there at the house after she’d gone, and he didn’t want to see her in the rooms like this. He knew he’d still see her, coming in and out of the kitchen or the linen closet. He doesn’t want to see her laying in the bed, thin and stretched like a kite. Grandpa decided the hospital is to be the place where death lives. The sanctum of the dying, separated from the daily scaffolding of life, the two should not touch. He doesn’t want to let it out into the rest of the world, and he believes if he can keep it here—than this is where death will stay. For him, even now, eighty-three-years-old, death is something he wants to contain.
I didn’t make it back in time to see her a second time before it happened. It’s strange how the last words we get to say to someone, they won’t hear, even though we bottle them up like they will. Jars of pressed June bug juice, pickled lantern prayers—no one eats any fresh bread for days. The last time we touch them on the hand, kiss them on the cheek, only we will feel it. And we will only feel it—acting upon the other, a pressing of living flesh to the quiet, a momentum unreturned, like a large rock sticking out of the ground, immovable and solid, it has no desire for our contact, nor any aversion. Everything we can know about it is deduced. In place of a voice it has only sediment.
The whole day at work I thought about her. Even though I felt like we had been fairly close, as a grandson in his thirties can be, Barbara Henderson and I were very different people. She never smoked a day in her life. She never came home late or drunk and then had to drag herself to work the next day, hungover and in day-old clothes. She never cursed out a co-worker, in good humor or in a rage. She lived as clean a life as any person can, and was apart of the Pentecostal church during an era known as the “holiness movement.” They didn’t believe in wearing jewelry, cutting their hair short, or even going to movie theaters. I knew there were parts of my life she didn’t approve of, but she never said anything of the sort.
A co-worker and friend of mine, Greg, who operates a machine across the shop from me, said his mother was the same way, proper about everything, and even so, his dad outlived her by ten years—drinking a pint of Jameson daily and smoking like he couldn’t swim upstream. She had to sit up and wait for him, even in Heaven.
My family decided to have the calling hours and the funeral on the same day. It was a fairly efficient choice. I come from a long line of ministers and a handful of Appalachia-born, Johnny-Appleseed church planters too. My grandparents pastored a number of small churches, and on the day of her memorials, it was a nearly a constant stream of former congregants, fellow pastors and even some bishops came down from on-high to pay their respects to her life.
All the relatives, including me and my sister, spread out in little pockets from the church entrance all the way to her casket. Visitors got to see and talk to every one of us without anyone getting overwhelmed. No one directed us to do it that way. It’s just in our blood, how to do these things. Even in our grieving, we found ourselves caring for them, as they came through like a lazy river, pooling around us in little eddies and then peeling off with some invisible, incredible current to the next, eventually, wading in their grief, they’d float down the shallow creek to Grandpa. He sat on a tall stool, cane leaning behind it, his arm resting on the edge of Grandma’s little wooden boat. From morning till night, we ferried hundreds across.
I didn’t cry once the whole day. My wife and my sister told me that it’s normal. However people react to grief is normal, they told me, some can’t stop weeping, overcome with emotion, while others go inward and silent. Everyone else cried that day. During the service, my uncle Rick got so choked-up during his eulogy, he couldn’t finish what he had started to say, and had to close with a prayer instead. Nothing came in me. It’s the one thing I feel sorry for. Even my mother’s boyfriend, whom I barely knew, sat on the front row next to her in a green camouflage jacket and tan work boots, and sobbed till his face was raw and wet. When they called us up to say our final goodbyes, even my little nephews had tears and red streaks carved into their faces. Nothing. I knew it was sad. I knew there was a hole now, a hole in the fabric of this world, a chasm-like stricture where warmth and love had been. I kept waiting for it to come, but the well was still dry.
The only official responsibility I had that day was pallbearer. My Aunt Doris asked me in such a way, that I felt like she wasn’t sure how I would respond to the arguably minimum of requests. After the service ended and we carried her down the middle aisle of the sanctuary, I thought about the city of Chennai, its people. The words of its mayor, Only the rains can save us. I kept repeating them. Only the rains can save us. They rolled out of my mouth silently over and over again. I just wanted to feel their shapes in my mouth, a prayer, a desperate admission of a need beyond recourse. My spirit at the center, the eye of a dust storm, turbulent and wrecking, and a bulbous calm underneath. A wraith of words meant as hope. A terrible whisper in the maw. Only the rains can save us.
In the ensuing weeks, my mother confessed something to me privately that the entire family had been thinking, myself included. She thought, surely, Grandpa would be the one to go first. We weren’t worried about Grandma. She was the strong one, the capable and decisive one. She took care of Grandpa their whole life. She still had her hearing and could get in and out of a car without help to steady her. Grandma was so adaptable, surely, she would be ok. She had adjusted to iPhones and texting, knew the current roster for the Cleveland Indians every season, and, despite being conservative—knew there was room for uncertainty on many issues, even if she didn’t see her way into that room.
Some of her final concerns she spent breath telling us about, was how Grandpa hadn’t gone to the grocery store in more than thirty years. He hadn’t cooked a meal for himself. I don’t collect these things to shame him, it’s just that it blew my mind, how different a few generations become. Grandma told her daughters to make sure their dad didn’t go without eating, or subsist only on packs of Twinkies and diet cream soda—his favorite snacks. Secretly, in her heart, there were doubts about how he would adjust to a life without her in it, or whether he could at all. It wasn’t a secret fear for him, because he kept saying it to us, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Every time he looked at me, I told him it would be ok, because I didn’t know what else to say.
The truth is that I haven’t got a damn clue how it will be. The truth is that it will probably be a nightmare, that he’ll start sleeping in the recliner with the TV on. The days will start blurring together. He’ll miss two or three of his regular hair appointments. The sulfurous quiet of time will creep into the house, the car, and every article of clothing he has. The lawn care company will come and the coarse rumble of their mowers will spread the silence out in little waves. The truth is that our family’s efforts to visit and see him will never be quite enough. How could they be? We aren’t what he is missing, even when we are.
It’s October now, and my fear is that I have lost the ability to adapt. Unlike Grandpa, what I may have misplace is something dark and internal. Emotionally, if I were one of the species plucked from far eastern shores by sailors, I wouldn’t have made the long journey home across the Pacific. I worry that I am numb to my environment, a static player in the field, watching things change around me—turned coat leaves, uncolored and brittle. The chill and fog of a new autumn. Painted pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns lined up on the neighborhood porches. The crisp shock of frost on the grass. Street lamps running later into morning, and buzzing to life earlier in the afternoon. Family members embarking for shores other than this world. The rising level of old oceans. Encroaching tides of undrinkable water. Flooded basements and empty wells on opposite ends of the earth—unable to touch them, or let them touch me.