Field Notes: Several months ago, Mackenzie and I moved from Utah to California to pursue medical treatment for her advanced lung disease. This past weekend, I took a quick trip back to Utah (without her). The things I brought back (of the things left behind) filled two suitcases – odds and ends, books and boots – all tinged with a new respect for the tandem sensation of change and loss. Here’s what happened and when:
Saturday, October 8, 2016 – 8:42 AM
No alarm. I wake up to the faint yet familiar sounds of mom clanging her way around the kitchen, rummaging together a breakfast that, by the sounds of it, includes ingredients that are chopped, whisked, and fried. An omelet, I’m guessing. The sleep is still on my face and on my mind, I’m not quite sure where or when I am. It may just be the fog of the Tylenol PM I took last night, that I’m taking more often to stave off insomnia (is there anything worse than a ticking clock in a dark room?). I know the furniture I’m on and surrounded by but it’s in a new house; a condo, where mom is finally freed of all that comes with a feral yard and leaky roof, freed of a house with more room than sounds to fill it. As habit goes, I reach to the left of me, my body turning over, only to find a mound of pillows staring blankly back. No feeling, no “nice to see you”, no breathing. I slept alone.
After months of sharing nearly every waking hour with no more than an arm’s length between us, I’m states away from her – states of mind away. I hear the rustling, I feel the sun coming in, I’ve mentally put together the day’s outfit, but I’m still. The crippling sense of not being needed settles over me. I’m temporarily without my tasks and I don’t know what to do first, or for whom.
Saturday, October 8, 2016 – 9:37 AM
Driving with mom. There are two unfinished structures puncturing the low-hanging sky that will add to Provo’s UVRMC hospital, where my Grandpa (the first Henry) died and where I (the last Henry) was born. They’re performing construction on University Parkway, adding an additional lane by taking out the walking path where I jogged for 6 months in order to lose the 40 lbs I gained as a missionary in Florida. A gaudy new building usurps the University Mall parking lot once home to Joe’s Crab Shack, where I stole a salt shaker in the shape of a Coke bottle on a dare from a friend I haven’t seen or talked to since he and his wife had their third kid and moved to Virginia for dental school.
We drive passed the house in the cul-de-sac of 850 North where, over the course of years, I found and buried parts of myself, said hellos (some forgettable) and goodbyes (some forever). There, I grappled with the young adult task of distinguishing my voice among the others and came to learn that home is a smell, almost as much as it is a feeling. 1042 East 850 North is the house where I cried over heartache (new and stale), laughed at dinnertime farts (never mine), re-watched Academy Award acceptance speeches (Aaron Sorkin: 89 times), and tried to make sense of sports for the sake of following along in the many conversations between the other men in the house. One Christmas morning, sitting and opening gifts in the living room where the blinds were incorrectly measured for its four windows (two facing north, two facing east), my little brother sneezed directly in my face. And in other hours of other days, I made peace with the ghosts of my parent’s past.
In August, the house sold at asking price.
Saturday, October 8, 2016 – 11:14 AM
The Sundance General Store is selling a single pillow sham (or was it a baby blanket?) at 75% off, originally priced at $350.00. Mom shows it to me in disgust and I compound her disgust with greater disgust because that’s what you do when you feel wronged (or have been). We poke at things until mom eventually buys an infinity scarf and I buy a stained glass star. Both for Mackenzie, because they remind us of her. And because that’s what you do for someone who’s been wronged.
There’s a new ski lift, the cost of hot chocolate is up, and there’s now a picture-taking spot next to a folksy Halloween sign most likely painted by the same person who fastened it against the piles of corn stalk. There are no more apples in the lobby and there are new concrete slabs where mud was: one outside the deli to provide more seating for diners (it’s about time) and one at the base of the ski runs that holds a fire pit (gas-powered?).
I worked here for five years and, after a wandering hour, only recognize two faces. But even then, they’re different too. The October light is the same.
Saturday, October 8, 2016 – 10:15 PM
Today I’ve climbed in and out of the car about two dozen times, all without going to the trunk for extra oxygen tanks, without timing my errands in 6-liter air flow increments, without queuing directions to the nearest pharmacy or blood lab, without checking and then re-checking my flex spending account balance (what did we do with the time before all that? What do I do with it now?). I only took one trip up the stairs and I didn’t have to carry anything except my wallet and phone that hasn’t rung in a few hours. I’m not tripping over air tubes on the way to the bathroom, not having to close the doors behind me in order to hear my thoughts over the dull churning of the oxygen concentrator. It’s all creating a mingling of what life was and what life will one day be, the times and logistics awaiting us on the victor’s side of illness.
I call Mackenzie (she, trapped in the land of tubes and tanks) but no answer. She hasn’t had a girl’s weekend in a while.
Sunday, October 9, 2016 – 1:15 PM
Mom doesn’t hold conversations exceptionally well over the phone. Or in texts. Or in email. Or in crowds. Like me, her fullest self is communicated either one-on-one or by pen, without filter. This makes almost every reunion a respite from the story break. We talk about what happened, how it felt, what was said, who brought the pesto salad, how long it’s been since so-and-so has talked to so-and-so, what I think about it all. There are lists of things we likewise don’t talk about (what happened, how it felt, how long it’s been, what I think about it all). But even so, as it probably is with most families, we still talk about the forbidden – only in unspoken beats that hide behind the mutual agreement to let what is be, with the scent of truths latching on to what is said.
I love talking to her. We think the same.
Mom walks faster than I remember, has less to say of some things and more to say of other things. She lets me look for books (as if I need more) while she weighs the value of buying this or buying that – a place in which she revels; making concise decisions, alternating possible futures, controlling an outcome. Slightly terrifying to slowly recognize more and more of your mother’s mannerisms in your own (also slightly comforting). But slightly terrifying because of its proof that – even you – can’t escape the dyed cloth from which you’re cut. Blood is thicker than bleach.
Sunday, October 9, 2016 – 4:15 PM
Staring too closely at the woman sitting next to you on a plane can quickly label you. But looking at her hands is something you can keep to yourself. And a woman’s hands will tell you almost everything you need to know, i.e. woman to my left: ginormous diamond wedding ring (her husband is either really smart or really lucky. Or both), Pandora charm bracelet (she has two kids and apparently loves kayaking), faint Sharpie writing on her palm (she’s busy), a two-week-old coat of clear nail polish (she’s honest), and a thick scar across the knuckle on her right thumb (she was close to her father – or had brothers – or joined a roller derby in graduate school to help make ends meet).
I want to talk to her and test my theory, but her headphones are all that’s needed to keep our worlds from elbowing each other. I want to ask her what her husband does for a living, if her kids could please explain to me who Zendaya is, how much of her old self she’s been able to maintain over the decades, how much of growing up means letting go, if she misses her father. Because I’m nosy that way.
I want to tell her how I’ve never been away from my wife this long and how I can’t sleep alone and how I went to the movies and kept scanning the crowd for her face. I want to tell her how saying goodbye to my childhood home kills me a little, how I’m slowly becoming my mom, how seeing again the October light in the mountains nearly stops my heart. And how I’ve kept a white-knuckled clasp to the place I’ve called home all my life only to have it lose a portion of its resemblance. To have a place look the same, smell the same, give off the same noises but not the same tone, and altogether betray the memories you once wrote in stone. How hearing, “maybe it’s you who changed” is meant to help but doesn’t. Because that’s why we want to share personal information with perfect strangers, to finally feel honest.
Sunday, October 9, 2016 – 5:22 PM (Pacific)
Mackenzie picks me up from the Oakland airport in her pink Costco pajamas (home).