Used to Be
Used to be, it was all your parents' fault. They'd screwed you up, made you neurotic, given you complexes and things like that. They'd screwed you over, too, or someone did; it's bound to happen sooner or later. And/or, you did it to yourself. Now, it's biochemical.
Monotheism, the scientific method, the germ theory of disease – they were all the rage when I was young, and they were things you could get your head around. Things you could understand, pro or con. Now, they're old-fashioned. Old-fashioned, like the drink, which was before my time, but mixed drinks are back. I read that in the newspaper.
There I go again. Newspaper. Might as well be Amish. Might as well dial a telephone, drop a dime.
Like the song says, I had my dreams like everyone else. They were out of reach then, and now they don't even make sense. It's too late to be young again. But I have a family, I have a job. Who could ask for anything more?
I lie a lot these days. The truth is just too implausible.
The truth is, I have an ex-husband who died. I had an ex-husband and he died, that's what I have to get used to saying. My ex-husband died a couple of weeks ago, a couple of months ago, and when it gets to be a couple of years, will I still be talking about it? Will anyone want to hear? They don't much want to hear about it now.
He had a heart problem, but he had that for a long time. Then he got something new – new to him, I mean – and it didn't go well.
Lifestyle, our son said.
Daddy, our daughter said, in such a complicated tone of voice.
Something that sometimes happens to some people, the doctor said. Just one of those things, which was my parents' music. Gossamer wings, which is not the way a trip to the moon turned out, but they knew that, they were just joking. Who's joking now?
Our son and our daughter, did we screw them up? No doubt about it. But they dress themselves, feed themselves, support themselves with jobs they're not ashamed of. They're fine. No children of their own, though. Let's not exaggerate; they're not that sure of things.
Then again, most of the things I was sure of turned out to be, how can I say it? Not entirely true.
I took a leave of absence from my job and went to Florida to take care of their father. Was that a new idea? It was, because everything old is new again. Drove him to the doctor, new; did the grocery shopping and cooked the meals, not new. Cleaned. Watched him sail off in a boat made of pretty pills, not new, but it wasn't always like that, it was only sometimes like that, and I'd sailed too, though I could always find my land-legs, after.
Took him for a walk on the beach, slowly, slowly. (Once-upon-a-time, it was the wonders of nature, in those rushes, down by that riverside.)
Watched him fade, watched him repent, watched him release. New, new, new.
"At least it's not an organ, he said when he asked. A joke. "Who knew that they were fungible?"
Which they're not, exactly, which is why, if you need one, you go to your family. Which is not how it's supposed to be. You're supposed to use your body to make your kids' bodies, not the other way around.
But an organ wouldn't have helped. That was good, in a way. I couldn't have stood it if one had said yes, and how'd they have stood it, if they said no?
Ended up, I didn’t even give the marrow, or rather, they didn't take it. (Alls I could give was permission. They're the ones with the anesthesia, the hollow needle. All I have is bones.) They didn't want the marrow. He was too far gone.
The kids came to the funeral, we didn't screw them up so much that they skipped that.
When I got back to work, everyone asked, how was it? how are you? They had to ask, because they're nice, but they're young, most of them. Ex-husbands (ex-fathers) they knew about. Death? Well, no. Made them nervous, and why not? I make them nervous already. They're afraid that I might reminisce, remember, might make them feel the still-warm, still-moist breath of the recent past, their scary precursor, on their pretty necks. Might make them suspect that their own dear present will end, one day, too.
I'm so sorry, the young people told me nicely. Sorry for your loss, one said. It's what they say on tv; fake cops, fake doctors. The doctors in Florida didn't say that, but that's because they didn't get the chance. They weren't around when it happened, just me and then the funeral home people. The funeral home people were sorry for my loss, too, but probably glad for the business. Then again, Florida, a good locale for funeral home people.
Good locale for my ex-husband, too. Gentle weather, plenty of people who wanted to tell their stories. He liked hearing stories. Liked telling stories, too, and for a long time I liked to listen. So did the kids, but we all got tired of it.
We loved each other and we tried. You can ask for something more, but you might not get it.
When I got back to work, the computers were down, so we all went out. Failure, now, that's a holiday. We had coffee, or coffee substitute. Not Sanka, like my mother, chai latte, but you get the picture.
I heard that we're going to be downsized, a young person told me. Ha ha, I said, my grandma got smaller but women don't do that anymore.
No one laughed. Most of them didn't get it, and the ones that did, didn't think it was funny. Or else they think I am.
The young person was correct. There's going to be a golden handshake, or a gilt one, anyhow; silver, brass, whatever. It's time for me to go and let the young ones take over. Stop confusing them. And for the sake of the payroll, of course.
It's ok, though. ("Ok" means: "inevitable.") I have a nice apartment, nice cat, nice-enough money coming in, if I'm careful, and I'm always careful, now.
My children are careful too; maybe that's what goes on my tombstone. She raised careful children. Written in stone. Bad or good?
There are books I've meant to read, restaurants I've meant to try, free afternoon lectures at the museums. My apartment is in walking distance of lots of things, because I thought ahead. Movies, but you don't leave the house for those anymore. Bookstores, ditto. Groceries? doctors? So far, so good.
You can think ahead, and you can see ahead, a little, but, turns out, you can't see far enough ahead to get a good enough look at the things that are going to matter.
I'll go to yoga, improve my balance so I don't fall and get old before I'm really old. Don't want to be a burden. I'll think of a way to tell my children, when it gets to the point where I don't know where I am, don't spend all your money keeping me there.
They'll say, Mom, it will be ok.
I'll learn a new language, or say that I will. I'll paint the living room, clean the closets, write that letter to the kids: the jewelry isn't valuable, the furniture isn't valuable, but that one chair is, by our standards, even though we didn't know that when we found it on the sidewalk. That crocheted bedspread, stored in that old duffel bag, my grandmother made that. Feel free to give it to charity, throw it out. Despite everything, I never could.
The little blue glass vase is from a thrift store. No monetary value at all. I'll tell them that, but not why it's precious, what it does. It's this: a rose climbs over my neighbor's fence. It has pink flowers no bigger than your thumbnail, very fragrant, and the neighbor says ok. I put a little pink rose in that little vase, on the shelf over the sink in the kitchen. Eye-level, nose-level, when I wash my coffee mug, breakfast bowl, dinner plate. Pale blue glass, dark green leaves, pink petal and that sweet smell – it's the best thing in the world, but how will they know that? How do you put that in a letter, attached to your will, that described the value of your things?
That's a picture of the four of us, looking happy. Check inside the frame, I've already made copies
Don't live in the past, my son says. Darling, I say, I don't live in the past, but I have to tell you, because this is the way it goes: it lives in me.
Kate Kaplan lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Santa Monica Review, The Roanoke Review, Ascent, and elsewhere. She's studied at Sarah Lawrence College, UCLA, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers' conferences, and is currently a student in Warren Wilson's MFA program.
"I come to writing as a reader. Reading (and life) inspires me to write."