THE GREAT UNKNOWN
I don’t know when my parents will die or how this news will reach me. Carrier pigeon? Telegram? Message in a bottle washed ashore? Surely something from another time—as they always were/as they still must be. Or maybe: Morse code tapped out in a flickering streetlight? Sympathy card from a stranger who knew them better than I did? Email from their executor that I will mistake for spam?
Anything seems possible now, as painful/inevitable/unbelievable as anything else. I do not know if I am heir to my parents’ fortunes, good or ill—though certainly I am not an heiress— only daughter/only child never primed to wear her mother’s pearls. Not the real ones, or the unreal ones. Not her purses (they filled two closets) or any of her harsh perfumes.
Perhaps there is nothing of my mother’s that I am primed to wear except her look of desolation as I drove away. Seventeen years since that Boxing Day—and counting, always counting. Knowing the end of all possibles is closer today than it was yesterday, which is always true, and yet. Fearing the news. Hating the news. Wondering how soon I will cry after receiving the news, and how soon I will forgive myself for the painful/inevitable/unbelievable delay.
My settings have always been: drought or bursting dam.
Once, I told a psychologist—the first/last/only one I saw in the Aftermath of Our Estrangement (it sounds like a mini-series, doesn’t it? And very much the kind my mother likes to watch, so gut-wrenched and overblown…)—that I feared my mother’s death, not so much because of all that was unresolved between us, but because I knew her ghost would never give up.
“Alive, I can keep tabs on her whereabouts. Dead, who knows where she can go.” I meant it when I said: “She’ll haunt me forever.”
Bless him for saying: “I think ghosts might be confined to the immediate vicinity of their body’s passing.” Bless his sincerity and simple kindness: “It’s unlikely she can float three thousand miles.”
But then he said the thing I didn’t want to bless him for, though it was at least as true and probably more: “Doesn’t she haunt you now, though? Aren’t you here because you’re haunted already?”
Sometimes in my mind I let my mother die just so I can try to know my father. The guilt may be too much for both of us. In the Aftermath of Our Estrangement, we won’t know how to love each other without her elbows in our ribs, jabbing and jabbing. (Or maybe we’ll eat forbidden food and stroll along the shore, speaking happily of nothing once again…)
I don’t know if he will blame me for her death and/or try to save me from my “sexual proclivities.” I think my father thinks I am his Test, the one God promises all God-fearing men. Has he passed me yet? Will he? Perhaps he only passes me in death.
My parents think I haven’t been back to their “neck of the woods” for all these years. Truth be told, I’ve been at least a dozen times. Cover of darkness. Long flight and borrowed car. My throat constricts cresting the hill to their neighborhood, and I can’t tell the difference between past-as-rope, past-as-scarf, or past as both-at-once: the thing that strangles just as it conceals.
Would anyone believe me if I said—the truth—I have no ill will? In fact, I’m desperate for my parents to live long, satisfying lives, though at least in part because I never want to face their actual ends.
I don’t know which part of this is love—what’s gratitude or guilt or both together, superimposed. Hope and fear make the same hard thud in the night, and the closest I come to prayer is a penny in a fountain at the mall: a toss for stasis, a wish for status quo. Don’t go and leave me all alone with my sorrow!—as painful/inevitable/unbelievable as it always is.
Once, two years ago and counting, Angie and I evacuated during a hurricane. We had driven twelve hours already, away from the sea and high into the mountains. A call came through on Bluetooth, and I saw my father’s name. On the wheel: one button to answer, another to disconnect. Paralyzed, I pressed neither. And so we sat in silence as if he could hear us—or as if she could: one hand clasped over the second receiver, always listening, always ready to burst through on the line.
I don’t know what we would have said or what they would have said. I don’t know what we would have heard or what they would have heard. I only know I let the call ring through to Voicemail. Every day I see the red “1” reminding me I have a message. I will not play it or delete it. I’m afraid of myself and my gaping heart. I don’t know what I would do if I did.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 collections of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, SIX, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, and Skirted. With Denise Duhamel, she wrote The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, and with Brenda Miller, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Julie teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in Dania Beach.