The eve of your fifty-fifth birthday.
How can I let another day pass without writing about you—you, my best friend for forty-two years? I owe you a chapter. A whole book! Yet writing seems ridiculously unattainable these days. Nothing profound or melodic ekes or leaks from my pen. I write only lists. On waking and sleeping and swimming, I write mental lists. When I’m smart enough to stop what I’m doing (waking up) (obsessing), I write the lists down. On paper. There’s no order or organization to this process. It’s as random as hot flashes. Lists that include who to call. What to remember to do. Packing lists. The never-ending fix-it lists. But the topics are all interspersed.
Call Dr. G
Teeth 9:30 Tuesday
I think about having separate pages for the different categories, which would involve finding a notebook probably buried in the bills that accumulated after I left Hawai`i for California. For my last visit with my stepfather Ed. The ones that have arrived since I’ve been home spill over the kitchen table onto the floor. I don’t pick them up. Or pay them.
This is when I would get you back—the reverse tease. For eight months you would have gloated over the fact that I was old and you were still young, then tomorrow we would be the same age. It was especially good on these marker birthdays—you would taunt me for turning thirty-five, forty, fifty. Eight months later I would get to call you and remind you that you were now old—I would say something funny. Though humor is a concept as far from my imagination these days as good writing. Were you still alive, I could find humor, because your joy was irresistible.
That’s an odd concept, as well. Not finding joy—well, yes, that is, too—but me teasing you about getting older having something to do with your joy magnet. You’d tease me on my birthday because I suddenly jumped a year ahead of you. I teased you on yours because, like it or not, you always caught up with me. Every year you caught up.
Until last year, when you weren’t turning a year older, when you weren’t there to call. Then it wasn’t funny anymore.
Tomorrow, another marker birthday. Fifty-five. But I will still be older than you. I will always be older than you. Two years. Three. Four.
My first father was sober eleven years longer than I was clean. I used to say I hope that never changes. What I meant was, what I was thinking was: I don’t want either one of us to go back out—him drinking, me using—ever again. That was the only way I could see that eleven years changing. Until he died just shy of his twenty-ninth AA birthday celebration. Next year he would have made thirty years sober—imagine that. (I know you can’t, never could, never will.) Next year I will have nineteen years clean. (You couldn’t imagine that either, could you?) Ten years less than him. It is possible that as the years tick by, when I die I could have more time clean than he was sober.
Anything is possible.
Like two dads dying in the same year.
Like you dying at all.
I brought Ed upstairs this evening. I was going to watch a movie and I thought he might like that. On a glass tabletop that rests on rattan—such common furniture here in Hawai`i that Ed and Tyler and my mother and I would find it at yard sales for single dollars—on the glass tabletop I placed Ed. He’s still in the Save the Cougar Foundation canvas tote bag I purchased in the Denver airport after seeing Ken at college in Colorado last year (when was the last time you saw Kenney? Before we started calling him Ken. And Tyler, what about him? Either one of my sons, your hānai nephews. Hānai—you remember what that means, right? It’s like emotionally adopted. You were hānaied by my whole family). Inside the tote, Ed is wrapped in several plastic bags; within those is the dark velveteen bag with its gold tassels in which the funeral hall gave him to me. That bag holds a brown-paper-wrapped box with a white envelope taped to its side, making it legal to carry Ed around.
He’s heavy. I carried him through the airport, accompanied by Tyler, and got stopped by the STD, or whatever you call them, people. I expected this. “He’s mine,” I said, as the young white uniformed male standing behind the woman at the scanner scanned the line of passengers.
“Is it cremains?” he asked, not looking at me.
I wanted to say No, it’s not cremains, it’s my father. I wanted to tell the whole story: not my biological father who died March 31st—his ashes will be spread only partly in Hawai`i and not until October—it’s my mother’s other husband, my other father, who died on August 11th, four months after my first one, three weeks before my dead best friend’s birthday—my hānai dad I would say in Hawai`i where no one would need an explanation but at the Oakland airport in California I wanted to explain Ed and hānai, which means so much more than stepfather: it means Ed, who has been more father to me throughout the many years he spent with my mother than my “real” dad was, ever, my bio dad who until the last years even sober was distant, separate, and then things changed when we all ended up back in Hawai`i, both fathers and my mother and my younger son Tyler, who is standing over there, and me, but I knew the man didn’t want to know my story. Not a single detail. He didn’t look up from the package he was placing on the table to read even the tiniest bit of story in my face.
So I said, “Yes.” And then asked him a question. “How did you know it was cremains?” [itals, or tee early?] I said, using the silly marriage of words that is, what, more convenient than saying cremated remains?
He still didn’t look at me. “The color,” he said, indicating the computer scanner with his shoulder.
Sure, of course, the color. What color I wanted to know. If it was a five-pound bag of flour would the scanner read a different color? I wanted to know that, too. But he didn’t want to talk as he started to unpack Ed on the table just slightly out of the way of the flow of living, breathing people, me watching, going shit is he gonna unwrap him all the way, Tyler now sitting on the bench around the corner where people put their shoes back on, fearing, I imagined, that I might say something that would embarrass him.
The man offloaded two bags of Peet’s coffee from the Cougar canvas bag.
“To help with the smell,” I said.
He looked at me, finally. “He kinda smells,” I said, to make sure he understood about the coffee, realizing as I spoke that this might be just the sort of thing from which Tyler was protecting himself by not standing there beside me. “I didn’t expect that,” I said.
“He’s in three plastic bags,” I added. “For the smell.”
The man pulled other items from the canvas tote—my journal and the book I thought I would read on the plane—and then the things I had placed in Ed’s bin not for the smell but for convenience as I pushed him along the steel table leading up to the scanner—my belt and small handbag and thongs (rubber slippahs from Long’s—you know that’s what I mean, don’t you—not the kind of thongs you wore right into your fifties). The cremains were lifted from the canvas and, as I held my breath—this not for the smell but out of fear that this stranger would disrobe my package entirely—placed in a bin separate from the items that had touched him.
“I have to run all this through again,” the man said, his white shirt bringing out the paleness of his skin.
I nodded. Of course you do.
“Why?” I said. I looked over at Tyler, who was watching me warily.
“To check for chemicals.”
I nodded again as if that made perfect sense: someone hiding the ingredients for a bomb inside the ashes of her father. Yes, I could see that that would be a concern—me in my middle-aged capris and flowered Hawaiian blouse with my surfer-boy son and my hānai dad’s cremated remains—I could see that a suspicious lot we certainly did make.
Then I thought, Ed would enjoy this. He would ask more questions. He would want to go look at the screen, see the color he had turned, probably take a photograph of it and later, after some digital enhancement, post it on his Web site “Self Portrait.” Ed was an excellent photographer. He and my mother, a potter back then, met at an art gallery opening. But you know this story. Remember sitting at that brewery on Kaua`i, me as usual the only one not drinking, unless my bio-dad was present, you and my mother and Ed swapping old stories of how you met your current loves? You’d met yours at a funeral—I’d forgotten until just this minute – only you would do that. And then die. I listened, having no story to tell. Now my story is you—the longest relationship I’ll ever have with anybody not blood-related – you, then Ed the photographer. Both gone.
After I thought of Ed’s self-portraitI became careful, watching that man unwrap Ed, not to say much more out loud, to him or anybody else. Not even to Tyler, when we got on the plane after they let Ed and me leave Security. Only you get to think I was a little nuts. You thought this for most of our forty-two years together. And you know I thought it about you, too. Endearlingly, true, but also I thought you were nuts because you kept taking those damned pain pills and drinking and throwing up bile and you wouldn’t listen to me even though I’d been-there-done-that and had stopped and could vouch for the fact that life is better clean than it ever was using. There is no morning after. It’s just morning. It may be a shitty morning, like when someone dies, but a raw morning is still just a morning. So I didn’t speak, even as Ed went through the scanner the second time there in the Oakland airport. He probably got to watch from outside, as well (I’m expecting that he’s still interested in such things, even though he’s There now, and not Here). And I remembered, as I waited for him to show his true colors to a machine, that when I brought you through the airport security line, they didn’t stop me or check you twice. Why not? Were you a small-enough package that you didn’t warrant concern?
Your sister only gave me a portion of you, which, if truth be told—and I’m doing a pretty good job of it so far—I have wanted to wear. Or eat. I want you that close to me, closer in physical proximity than we ever got in forty-two years of best-friendness. But here you are, a small package wrapped in a pretty blue scarf my mother purchased just for you at the gift shop at the Stanford Cancer Center in California—because she and Ed were already there for him by the time of your memorial service, and I missed the service because I had just been in California for Ed’s first weeklong chemo session and had to get back to Maui to my classes and I couldn’t leave my students stranded any longer, not now in the week before finals, so I missed your service and my sister went instead and when you arrived at my mother’s house via my sister via yours, my mother wrapped you in blue. Blue for your eyes—it just occurred to me why my mother chose that color. She’d stopped potting but she has never stopped looking at color, and you and Ed had the brightest, most intelligent blue eyes. Even using, that part of you shined.
So here you are, in your blue scarf that I have yet to unwrap to see what’s inside, what your sister wrapped you in and mine carried you in to my mother’s California house and I carried you in on the plane. I will see what’s inside the blue scarf—and inside the save-the-cougar bag and plastic bags and dark velveteen bag with its gold tassels and the brown-paper-wrapped box—soon enough, when my mother, sisters, and sons, who will all be here, and I prepare you and Ed for your final splashes into the sea. But first you are here on this table in my strange cozy little Hawai`i living room, which you never saw—you didn’t come to see me in this house because you knew you’d have to stay clean and sober if you visited, that or I’d take you to the hospital, and I wish I had, either here in Hawai`i or there in Oakland, where you lived and died alone on the floor of your small house. But you are here now, and draped over the blue package of you is the stuffed-animal bobcat you gave me when my part-bobcat cat died.
You loved that cat. You loved all cats. The stuffed bobcat has been with you since I brought you back to Maui (slipping you easily through Security), and now next to you I place Ed, still in his mountain lion tote bag. Ed loved cats, too. You and Ed, cat lovers, side by side on a yard-sale table, in the presence of cats.
Back in California I had asked my mother—whom you always called by her first name, never Mrs. anybody even though that’s what your mother wanted you to call mine because it was proper, but my mother wasn’t proper, she was almost a hippie and you loved her—I asked her if she wanted Tyler and me to take Ed back to Maui for her. I thought it might be easier for us than for my aging mother deep in grief who would make the flight alone a couple of weeks after us and I was concerned about Ed’s weight and possible harassment by airport employees though I didn’t mention the smell. She said she’d think about it. I had to ask her again when I was doing my final packing. He was on my list:
Zip-loc for t. paste etc.
Jeans from dryer
She said yes then, expressing relief. When I told Tyler I had Ed he was less than thrilled, carrying my other bags to the car, leaving Ed for me. And he sat apart from me during the Security check.
But Tyler loved Ed. So did Kenney. Ed’s hānai grandsons, your hānai nephews. They loved you, too. And they loved my other father, who died in between you and Ed. Three important deaths within twenty months of each other.
Tyler was twenty-one when you died; he is now twenty-two.
You were fifty-three.
You are still fifty-three.
You will never be as old as me again.
And I just bet you’re up there laughing your ass off about that.