Three in Morning
“In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn.”-Burial II, The Book of Common Prayer
The alarm on Peter Evans’s phone rang and he shut it off. He had already been awake for three quarters of an hour. Outside it was clear and looked as if it would be a lovely spring day. It was March 25; the day of his father’s memorial service. Three Sundays ago, his father had died, at 10:00 in the morning, after a long bout with colon cancer. It had also been a lovely day when he got the call from his mom, a call he had nearly four years for which to prepare. He had expected to completely lose it, but he simply stood still in uncomprehending silence. It took his girlfriend to rouse him and even then he remained impassive. She cried.
Peter had flown in from Chicago early yesterday morning and spent the night at his mother’s house. He was in his old room, which, aside from a few paintings, looked very different than it had when he lived there in middle school, high school, and a few months after college. Both his older brother Seth and younger sister Chelsea, who still lived at home, were in the house too.
Peter got up, showered, and dressed. He was speaking at the service. Though he had been mulling over what to say for weeks, he had yet to write anything down. Joan Didion’s book about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, had come out recently and somebody had given him as a gift. He had yet to read it, but thought his memoir of his father’s illness and death would be called The Year of Fucked Up Shit. While there is no such thing as good timing when it comes to these things, this colossal loss exacerbated the instability already present in Peter’s professional and personal life. As he told his psychologist, “People who try to explain my mood or behavior with my dad forget that I was already unhappy before this started. This just made it worse.”
As he tied his tie-a striped Oxford that Peter had given his father for Christmas-he contemplated an opening. He was going to lead with a quotation or a poem. Not Dylan Thomas’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Everyone seemed to do that. His father had not been much of a reader, so he didn’t have much to choose from there. Something from The Bible maybe. He adjusted the completed the Windsor knot, put in a tie pin and went to his room where he picked up his notebook and began to write quickly, occasionally stopping to cross out a word or move a line to a different spot. This was his second eulogy. The first had been for his grandfather three years ago.
Peter ripped the page out from the notebook, folded it, and put it in his jacket pocket. He realized that he had not cried yet. It was more a blankness than a deep emotional upheaval, a grim reminder of finality and the inscrutable suffering attached to this life. His watch read 9:44. The service was at noon. He went downstairs to eat something
The bright sun woke Chelsea up. She groaned and looked at her clock. 8:05. She was sleeping on a futon in her mom’s room, something she had been doing since her father’s death. Her mom was already up. Chelsea had stayed up late with some of her cousins who were in town from Washington and gamely took her out to a movie and Denny’s. It had been fun, though there was a certain uneasiness and everyone seemed to want to say something, but didn’t.
Chelsea had experienced that feeling several times over the past weeks, with her friends, with relatives, with people at school, church, and her job. She felt a little bad for them because they genuinely wanted to help, but had no idea how to. “I’m so sorry” was as far as most people got. A few tried to be optimistic with comments like “He fought for so long” or “It was great that he got to see you turn 18.” Chelsea appreciated peoples’ attempts, their flowers and cards offering sympathy for her loss, even if it was little comfort and she had to start repressing comebacks like, “It also would have been great if cancer hadn’t killed him at 55.”
She had started to hate the word loss, which sounded trivial. You lost a set of keys or a baseball game, not your father. The vocabulary of grief was woefully inadequate to her feelings, something she found out when she tried to write an essay about it in her advanced composition class. She quietly started crying half-way through and was excused for the day.
Chelsea threw off the duvet and searched around for her slippers. She put them on and checked her phone. She had 9 text messages, all from friends who were expressing their hopes that everything would go well today. She replied to a few and then went downstairs. Her mom wasn’t there and she didn’t hear her brothers. There was a fresh pot of coffee and a pink post-it note in the shape of a heart: “Went for a walk. Love you.-M” Chelsea poured herself a cup and went outside to the back garden. Her father had loved working out here and shortly before he became seriously ill had built a small pond around a cherry tree. It wasn’t running now and, in fact, had only run successfully once. She walked over to the little rock wall surrounding it and picked a few branches out of the water.
No one had touched the yard in weeks and the grass was badly in need of trimming. Two chipped Adirondacks sat on the patio, next to a covered grill. Chelsea sat down on the little wall and sipped her coffee. She had only turned 18 last month, a senior in high school. She had prayed that her father would see her graduate. He did see her get her license, after failing twice. The first time she ran a red light.
She got up and walked back to the house, pausing for a minute to look at the remains of the play structure they had built, now an area for mom’s plants. She sniffed the mint and took a spring, which she put in her mouth and chewed for a moment before spitting it out. Chelsea went inside and into her own room. On her bulletin board was a list of the colleges she had applied to and whether she had heard back or not. She was still waiting for NYU and Northwestern, the two she most wanted to attend. She was leaning towards NYU because it was farther away and she had some relatives in the city. At this point she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for higher education that she had in the fall, the apogee of which was a high SAT score and a booster club scolarship. College seemed less like an exciting opportunity and more of an escape.
Chelsea went to get some more coffee. She sat down at the kitchen table, looked at the bleak front page of the Sunday paper (car bomb in Iraq), and waited for her mom to come back.
Seth’s alarm went off after nine. It was pitch black in the unfurnished basement room where he had spent the night. He had taken a sleeping bag and pillow to the room and slept on an old mattress that had once been in his and Peter’s bunk bed. He got up and turned on the light. The room, which had been a study was now a sort of all purpose junk storage closet that also functioned as a loose museum of their family. Photos and clothes they had out grown, toys and yearbooks, textbooks and records, calendars and papers filled up most of the available space. Seth had to clear off boxes of National Geographics and some Star Wars figures to use the bed.
He had found that death had imbued ordinary objects with unexpected meaning and poignancy. The other day he had pulled a receipt out from his wallet and because the date was pre-death, he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out. He also found this with any magazines he had around the house whose dates were earlier than March 25. The death of his father had closed off a part of his life, one that continued to call to him, but which he would never had again. Maybe this was why he clung onto any scrapes that were a reminder of this time. It was not sentimentality, but compulsion.
He opened the door and went out into the ex-family room. There was still a couch and coffee table, but they had moved the TV, stereo, and DVD player upstairs for his father. Seth moved some laundry out of the way and sat on the couch. They used to have Friday night pizza nights down here when they were younger. Usually they’d watch a Disney movies, like Apple Dumpling Gang or Swiss Family Robinson. Seth and Peter had an ongoing fantasy about their family shipwrecking on an island, riding ostriches, building a tree fort, and fighting pirates.
Seth felt like lighting a cigarette or having a drink, but knew it wasn’t appropriate. His father had touched neither. He didn’t hear anybody else upstairs and didn’t really feel like leaving his basement sanctuary. He had written out what he was going to say months ago. When he imagined it, he was standing by the grave, dressed in a black suit. But they had his father cremated and his remains were in a small white box in his mom’s closet. Out of curiosity, he weighed it a few days ago. It was about 12 pounds. Seth signed and went upstairs to prepare for the day.
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Portland Fiction Project
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