The plaque is finally up. My sister sent me the photo of it yesterday.
Her name is there on the wall. And the dates.
The dates. Which represent the facts. They are the unemotional letters and numbers that explain her life. And to a lot of people who look at that plaque, that’s what she’ll be, in the end. A name and two dates. Two dates and a name.
My uncle thinks the name should have been written differently, with the middle initial first, because that initial represents what was originally her first name. But mom always used her actual middle name as her first name and she moved her actual first name to her middle because she didn’t like it. In an email to me and my sister, my uncle wrote an argument as to why the name should have been written the original way. He said it made him sad that it was not. He said it didn’t give him good “closure.” I wrote back a single sentence: “I really hope you’re kidding, but even if you’re not, I only think you’re slightly crazy and I still love you.” Because, really? That’s what he’s going to be sad about? The way her name was written? Which was her legal name for over forty years? Which was the name she liked? Which is the only name I’ve ever known? He wrote back some stuff about F. Scott Fitzgerald and birth names and whatever the fuck. I almost wrote back another smart-assed reply, but I know how these things never really end. They just throw you deeper into family animosity. And he already doesn’t talk to his other sister for some trifling thing that happened decades ago. So I got the second email and I moved it out of my inbox. But if I had written back, I would have said that despite whatever half-cocked shit he fires off in an email, I will still go to his funeral when that day comes because I always looked up to him when I was a kid and I will remember what a fun person he was, and how my mom thought the world of him, and I won’t give two shits what his tombstone says, save for the dates.
The dates. They can tell a meaningful story. Sometimes they can be their own narrative. Like when the first date and the second date are the same. But most of the time, the dates indicate nothing more than an existence. A lifespan. And the story lives in the people that stay behind to tell it.
I was sitting in the dentist chair on Friday, and I was telling my dentist that she died. I had missed my regular January appointment because I was in Dallas taking her to radiation appointments and shopping for assisted living homes and buying things at CVS like adult diapers. And I thought about how long ago that all seemed. And how dream-like it was now.
And I thought about how confused she had been. And how the last day I spent with her, we sat in a Potbelly parking lot after her final radiation appointment and I ate a sandwich and she sipped on a milkshake because the cool felt good on her throat. And we sat there eating in my truck because getting in and out had become a horrible ordeal by then. And the sun was out and the windows were down and Honey was in the back cab eyeing my sandwich and occasionally licking mom’s ear. And across Park Blvd. was a place where I tended bar 15 years earlier. And I said to her, “You know, that’s the place where I used to tend bar.” And she said, “Oh, really?” And I said, “Yeah, it had a different name then.” And she said, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” And she sipped her milkshake and I ate my sandwich. And I had told her that several times before that day, on other visits to that intersection with her. And she always said, “Oh, really?” And she always said, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.”
And that zipped through my head there in that dentist chair. And then I remembered how fastidious she’d always been about dentist appointments. And getting her teeth cleaned.
And that was the thing that did it. I almost started crying. Right there in the goddamned chair. With my dentist holding some metal dentist tool in his latexed dentist hand and wearing a sympathetic look on his mustached dentist face. And it’s funny, because I was fine talking and thinking about it during the week between her death and the service. There was business at hand. Things to be done. I was needed. I didn’t cry at the funeral, either. I don’t think I really even cried while I was standing next to her swollen, still body in that cold, dim hospital room. I mean, just a few squeezed tears don’t count, do they? It has to be a full-on stomach clenching, body-heating, angry fucking sob to count, right? The kind where snot comes out of your nose and your eyes are streaming hot liquid and you drench your fucking pillow with it . And you jab your fist into whatever you can find. And you sweat. And you exhale more than you breath. That kind of shit, right? That’s what counts, I think. That’s a proper goddamned cry.
For the first few weeks when I got back to Jersey I could say, “My mom died.” And it didn’t hurt that much. It was like somebody else was saying it. Like I was an actor filling in for myself. And I liked saying it that way, too. I didn’t like saying “passed away.” That seemed a pansy-ass way to put it.
Now there’s only me saying it. And it doesn’t matter if I say “passed away” or “died” or whatever, it seems to hurt the same amount.
And I’m back at home now. And I’m not needed. And there is as much nothing as there always is. And I’m fucking floundering.
The dates. They give us something to think about when we’re staring at eternity.
We all know the first date. And we’re just waiting for the second one to explain our lifetime. So the people who love us can carve it into stone someday and remember our stories and try to figure out what to do next.