This is the first chapter of a memoir covering my mother’s death and two years I spent in Burma. The year is 1969.
Chapter 1, Coming Home
Bangkok. It is the smell of it that differentiates it from other Asian cities. No other city smells quite like this. The scent engulfs me as I walk down the steps from the plane and lays languid in the humidity of the damp silk air, diffused through droplets of water that never seem to dry in the sun, a moist welcoming perfume, an oriental goddess opening up to me in welcome. The air is seasoned with a herb that exists elsewhere in Asia but dominates here as nowhere else. It seems to be a combination of herbs, Cilantro, Tamarind, Thai lime zest and perhaps, or so I like to think, some secret herb with its own unique aroma and flavor. We don’t have it in the West. It is not something that has infiltrated our culture like crunchy tacos. Its incense is almost narcotic, as if such a scent, such a sweet alluring scent, must have some danger in it, as if I can’t trust it to be good, to be kind and nourishing. The smell is everywhere in Bangkok. It escapes from kitchens and dribbles down from tenements like dew from the morning sky.
My mother died last week. I don’t know how or why. The news was telegraphed to Burma succinctly without innuendo or editing. I am going home, home to Maryland, the land of the free. I’m in an altered state of consciousness and don’t feel really present. It’s as if I am watching a movie and the plot is slowly unfolding. This story, like others in my life, will reveal itself to me in its own time, in its own way, to the beat of its own drum and will not be forced. I catalog in my mind the emotions I am expected to feel: sorrow, pain, grief, and guilt for not being with her when she died. Untethered emotions boil up and breach the protective boundaries of my carefully cultivated behavior. She may not have died if I had been there. I could have saved her. The movie is moving so slowly and the actress doesn’t seem to know her role. I am annoyed with her. She is stupid and hasn’t done her homework. If she had prepared she would know what to do. My mother is dead. A reality check tells me that I am coping. I have a flight. My bag is packed. I’m emotionally exhausted. I feel as if my interior soul and being has been washed clean of all other concerns. The thoughts that are now intruding into my conscious self are new. They are open and vulnerable and that makes me afraid. Why am I afraid? Am I afraid of death? It is so final. Sorrow, anger because she left me before I could fix things and because I wasn’t strong enough to fix things, guilt because I didn’t value her intelligence or her love. It was stagnating and strangling me. I feel guilty for having gone to Burma and leaving her alone with only Dad to take care of her. I feel responsible. The plane I’m boarding is a military flight, arranged by my Army husband, and I’m the only woman and the only civilian on board. Closely cropped heads in Army fatigue uniforms repeat like automatic weapons down the aisle. The young soldiers look tough and resigned. They are a lockstep of sacrificial humanity and, although I feel I stand out in my dress and heels, they are oblivious of me. They are going back to Vietnam, to an ugly war and what is only a stop on the way home for me is a final destination for them. Final is a bad choice of words; let’s hope that it won’t be final. They were probably in Bangkok for R & R or some medical problem. Now they are returning to the horror of war.
The pilot has just announced that we will be landing in Vietnam in ten minutes and that there will be a layover of about an hour. He recommends that we stay on the plane unless this is our destination. I swim up through the murky fluid of my emotions and look expectantly out the window. I am kind of excited. I have never been to Vietnam and certainly didn’t expect to ever be here during the war. There is an element of danger, a heightening of the senses. It’s a military airport and there are soldiers in fatigues everywhere, some scurrying about but most seem to be just hanging out and surviving in the tropical heat. They look hot, unhappy and tired. After the soldiers disembark, I’m alone on board. I’m again cautioned not to disembark. This time I realize that “encouraged to stay on board” means don’t get off.
A soldier comes in and sprays the plane for bugs. The odor is nauseating and hangs heavily in the humid air. The doors are open and the air conditioning is off while we are on the ground. The only ventilation is coming from the open airplane door. It’s a struggle to breathe in the tropical heat. I try to meditate so that I’ll be less aware of my discomfiture. The hour wait will be unpleasant and I would rather not be present. The naïve adrenalin rush I felt ten minutes ago when we landed has degenerated into a sleepy stupor. I’m sweating and the air is laden with bug spray and human sweat. Several flies are bothering me and I am more than annoyed at them. Their buzzing demands my full attention. The rough textured cushions seem prickly in the heat. A soldier, probably from the flight crew, runs by and gives me an apple. It’s delicious. The sweet, soft flesh releases its juice and I take sharp bites relishing the wet feel of it. It quenches my thirst and I begin to feel hungry. When was the last time I ate? Was it this morning or last night? From time to time I look outside through the open doorway and want to get off the plane. It must be cooler outside than in the stuffy plane. The soldier who gave me the apple comes in the door and heads for the cockpit. I call him and ask him if I can get off the plane. He says that regulations prohibit it. “It won’t be too much longer”, he says, “They’re refueling now.”
New soldiers board the plane and I sense that maybe we will finally move. The soldiers boarding are clones of the ones who deplaned here. Their faces show no excitement that they are returning home. They look beaten down, angry, and confused. The doors are closed and the air conditioning switched on. I immediately feel cold as the sweat dries from my body. The pilot announces that we will be landing in Guam in five hours. The cockpit soldier hands out box lunches and cans of Pepsi. I am hungry. The box, when I open it, reveals a ham sandwich on white bread, another apple, a package of peanuts and a package of cheese crackers. Fine fare, I think but I know that I should be grateful. I eat the sandwich and the apple and put the peanuts and cheese crackers in my hand luggage for emergency rations. Guam, our next stop, is more of the same procedure we had in Vietnam. It’s hot and humid. They spray for bugs. The pilot announces that the layover will be one hour but it stretches into two. I can’t see much of anything from the open door, a few lonely palm trees and some military looking buildings. I fall asleep and when I wake up, we are on our way.
Next stop is Miami. I’m back in America. When we deplane, I follow the soldiers blindly to wherever they are going which turns out to be a baggage room of some sort. There is a desk where I hand over my passport, shot record and destination card. It is duly stamped and returned to me perfunctorily. I ask a soldier if this is where the luggage comes in. “Don’t know.” he says without expression. There are some chairs lining the wall so I sit down and wait. Big metal racks three tiers high and filled with military issue duffel bags are wheeled in. The soldiers rush to get their duffle bags and swing them down hard. These men are angry. I decide to wait until everything settles down. I spot my suitcase on the top rack but it’s too far over my head for me to reach it. I look around for someone to help me get it down. The soldiers are grabbing their luggage and leaving. I ask several to help me but they rush away. The next one I ask gets it down and goes his way, his face expressionless. I wonder about the soldiers. I would have thought that they would be happy to be back home but they all seem miserable.
I fumble my way to Miami International somehow and am relieved to see the familiar sight of the airport. I locate United Airlines and book the next flight to Baltimore. There is one leaving in twenty minutes and I have to rush. I have been in flight for eighteen hours, passed through several time zones and have lost track of day and night. It seems to be afternoon. My flight is already boarded when I get to the right deck so I go onboard immediately. My seat is an aisle seat. I buckle up and brace myself for the sucking woosh of takeoff. Shortly thereafter, a stewardess comes around to take drink orders. I order a scotch and water. I have been in flight for eighteen hours and my eyes are red from crying the night before I left Bangkok. She gives me a little bottle of Johnny Red, a glass with ice and a glass of water. I pay and thank her. The drink feels good but makes me feel lightheaded and I reconsider the wisdom of drinking it. They serve me lunch and I am occupied in watching the stewardesses’ running back and forth with the carts. Lunch is over and, almost immediately, the pilot announces that we will be landing at Friendship airport in ten minutes. The temperature is sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Coming from the tropics I am dressed for tropical weather. I don’t have a coat. I’ll be okay. I’ll be in the car and then at home. I can make it.
I see my father before I get out of the tunnel that connects the plane and the terminal. He is stretching up, a grey haired crane, scanning the crowd. He’s afraid he will miss me. I watch him until I exit the doorway and, as he catches sight of me; he slaps his sides and grins.
“There you are. You’re looking good, honey,” he says and gives me a bear hug that almost knocks the breath from me. He holds on tight for a minute, reestablishing contact and reassuring himself that I’m really here. I feel the tension in him fall away like rain into the ground. We look at one another through damp bloodshot eyes.
“I love you, Dad,” I say and hug him again.
“Well, let’s get you home.” he says. “It’s sure is good to see you. I was watching and watching and I didn’t see you until you came out the door.”
“I know. I saw you trying to find me.”
“You saw me. Why you little devil! You have hawk eyes. I couldn’t see you for anything.”
He grabs my hand baggage and we walk the long hall holding hands. He leans in and whispers, “We held the body. You can see it tomorrow. And then we will bury her. I knew it would be important to you to see her. Is that right?” I feel a chill as if she touched me.
Thanks Dad, I didn’t think I would be able to see the body. It’s amazing that they held it for a whole week. I want to say goodbye in person but catch myself. “I’m sorry I took so long. My passport was with the Burmese authorities and I couldn’t leave Burma without it. In the end, I had to leave without a return visa. The Embassy pulled a lot of strings to get it back that fast. I’ll have to go through the whole process again so that I can get back into Burma.“
That’s not anytime soon, is it? You can stay awhile, can’t you?”
“No reason why not! It’s good to see you, Dad.”
I clutch his hand to my waist, covering it with mine, and hold it tight. I’m here, I’m here, I think, I will help you now. Tears are pressing against the back of my eyes. I feel vulnerable and on the verge of a maudlin state but, if I cry, I may never stop. I brace myself. I don’t want to walk through the airport crying. I look at him and he curls up his lips in a sad little attempt at a smile. I feel loved and want to help him. He’s sniffing, a nervous habit of his.
We’re racing down the hall as if there’s a fire somewhere. I squeeze his hand but he wiggles loose and grabs me around the shoulders pulling me into a sideways hug. I lose my step and feel clumsy and off balance.
“I love you, honey. It is so good to see you. This is a sad time, though, a sad time. I wish it could have been under other circumstances.”We descend the escalator and come to the baggage pickup.
“Can you get your bag yourself, honey? I’ll go get the car and bring it around front. Will you be okay?”
He rushes out the door with my hand luggage. The baggage hasn’t come yet from our flight and I lean against the restraining rail, feeling suddenly and overwhelmingly tired. It had seemed like such a race to get here but now that I’m here, I feel let down. I’m lightheaded and tell myself for the second time that having the scotch was a bad idea. I wonder if Dad smelled it on my breath. More people come into the enclosure. I slip off my shoe and stretch my toes. They are a little swollen, and as I put the shoe back on, I can smell my feet. I look around surreptitiously to see if anyone else noticed but they all seem self-involved. I probably do smell. I’m clammy and filthy from the long trip and need a bath.
I spot my suitcase and haul it off the moving baggage train. An airport porter appears and asks if I need help. I wave him away and haul the bag out the double glass doors to the street. Dad sees me and waves his arms in the air as if he is signaling from a great distance although he is only a car length away. He rushes over and takes the suitcase. I’m happy to yield it up to him. I feel dizzy.
We get into the car and pull out of the stopping space beside the curb. Dad watches the signs carefully. He’s unfamiliar with the airport and nervous in unfamiliar situations. He wants to be in control. He doesn’t speak again until we leave the highway and turn onto a local road.
“Sure does,” I say. I feel that I am at home now. He always says that when I come back from somewhere
“Not much has changed but then you’ve only been gone two months. That’s right, isn’t it? You’ve been gone about two months?”
“Sounds about right. Where’s Mom? Is she at the house?”
“Oh, oh no, honey. She is at the Funeral Home. You took me aback there for a minute. I thought that you thought she was still alive. We had a funeral mass on Thursday. You won’t see her till tomorrow. Did you think that she would be at the house?”
“My mind’s spaced out. Remember Granddad. He was laid out in the parlor. It seems like a long time for the funeral home to keep her. It is nice they did it. I didn’t know they did that. It makes sense that she would be at the funeral home. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
I’m covering. I did feel she would be home, in the kitchen cooking my homecoming meal. Her physical self seems almost here, here where I can touch her.
“Okay, well, you’ll see her tomorrow. I arranged a special viewing at 10 am.”
“That’s great. Thanks.”
“Everybody was here. My family, anyway. My sister, Gerry, Boots, and Marie and her two, Judy and Bud. Irv and Ann didn’t come down from Syracuse. We had a full house for a couple days. The neighbors have been wonderful. They brought over food all cooked so we didn’t have to worry about that. I haven’t got a headstone yet so don’t wonder about it. I didn’t like the ones they had and I thought they were all too expensive. I want her to have something nice.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. I wouldn’t have noticed anyway. Whatever you do will be right.”
“Well, here we are. How does the old homestead look to you?”
“Looks like home, Dad.”
I pause before entering the house. Mom hadn’t been the easiest woman to live with. People said that she was ‘high-strung’. She lived the life of a hermit, cooking and cleaning for Dad and for me too when I was at home. Dad took her to church once a week to the six o’clock mass and to the supermarket once a month. Other than that, she didn’t go out. Mom had diabetes and Dad said that he was afraid she would go into insulin shock if she went out alone.
My mind jumps back to the last time I saw her. She had seemed different to me, calmer and more serene except that her hands were twitching uncontrollably. I asked her about it but she only smiled. It was the serene smile of Buddha. Strange! There was something wrong with her thumb. It had been broken but Dad wanted to go down to the shore and didn’t want to be held up. I was angry with Dad for not taking her to the doctor. If he had broken his thumb, he would have gone to the Doctor. Now, I don’t know. Am I still angry? Can I feel anger and sorrow for him at the same time? I remember that she looked nice and I complimented her. She didn’t usually take care of herself and had dressed up for my visit. I felt flattered that she had taken the trouble. The visit was formal. She said she was peaceful. I thought it a strange thing to say but I told her I was happy for her. I convinced myself that peaceful was good.
“Well, here we are. Home, sweet home. Your old room is still the way you left it. Kay cleaned it but nothing has changed. Let me carry your suitcase up for you. What do you have in here, rocks?”
“Sorry, I packed some books so I wouldn’t be bored.”
“There are plenty of books in the basement. Hey, have you read the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper?” He looks at me as if he is imparting very important information. “Now there’s a good writer for you. You should read him.”
Every so often he asks me if I have read Cooper. He doesn’t seem to remember that we’ve had this conversation before. “I read him a long time ago.” I say. As a boy he had loved Cooper and would not rest until I read them all. I did it to please him. I thought the Cooper’s books verbose and boring. I thought they would never end. Dad still likes to talk about the characters. As a young girl, when I walked in the woods, I would pretend I was Princess Tenderfoot or Princess Stomp on Ground.
“Here you go.” He plops the suitcase onto the bed. “I’ll go down and see if I can rustle something up for dinner.”
“OK, I’ll be down in a minute. I want to change clothes.”
My room smells clean, cleaner than anyplace I’ve been since I left home. I rummage through the suitcase and find jeans, a sweatshirt, socks and tennis shoes. As I take off my dress I notice a stale, sour smell on my body. I throw the dress into the back of the closet, an old habit. I change clothes. I’m weary and, when I glance at my face, dead eyes peer out from heavy lids. My cheeks have fallen. I’m too tired for a social smile. As I go down, the squeaks in the stairs amuse me. They are exactly where I remembered them to be. I had memorized them so as not to wake my parents. It didn’t work but I kept trying. Dad is in the kitchen. We’re having left over spaghetti that a neighbor brought over.
“How do I do this, Honey?”
“Humm. I think we can mix it up all together, put it in a pan and heat it. Easy peasy. Oh, you know what?”
“Do you have some tomato sauce? This is dry.”
He pats my shoulder and says, “Well Honey, you seem to know what you’re doing. Your old man will just get in the way. I’ll wait in the living room. Call me when it’s ready.”
Well, how about that? I think to myself. That’s what I’m good for. He always said that I have to learn my place, that I’ll have a tough life if I don’t accept the fact that I’m a woman. He’d remind me that according to Freud, a woman who wanted to do something that wasn’t domestic was suffering from penis envy. Anger pulls me down. I feel a weight pushing on my shoulders, shoving me down until my knees are level with the floor. The committee in my head tells me that it’s my duty to take care of him. The commandments tell me that I must honor him. Anger and frustration rushes into a compression chamber in my brain. I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold it in. If I can’t control it, my body will detonate and bits and pieces of me will spray the space around me. My words disperse in amorphous air. There was a short hiatus when I was feeling warm toward him but I need to remember, I’m his servant just like Mom.
There was a time in my convoluted youth when I thought I was better than my mother, that she was a slave but I was special, that it would be different for me. I thought he liked me more than Mom and I asked him one day. “If a boat overturned in rough waters and you could only save one of us, which one would it be?” Mom had glared at him. She spit out, “See what you’ve done.” “What kind of question is that,” he had asked. He answered that he wouldn’t be able to make a choice. ‘Why did I ask him that?’ I was so afraid of being a woman. Would I be a slave too? When I went through puberty, everything changed. He treated me differently. I learned his lesson, the hard, ugly lesson. I’m sorry I was mean to you that day, Mom. I was careless of your feelings. I was thinking only of myself. It was hopeless. I was trapped. There was nowhere to go, no way out.
I climb up on a stool to get down a can of sauce, wash the top with soap and water, rinse and dry it before opening it, my mother’s ritual before opening a can. I smile to myself. This is for you, Mom, and I hold the can up as if I am toasting her. She was right. To be certain it is clean, you should do it her way. I dump the sauce into the spaghetti mixture and cover the pan with a top.
I raise my voice to be heard in the living room. “Do we have anything for a salad?”
“Don’t know, honey, look in the fridge.”
When I open the refrigerator, I’m stunned. Something is wrong, very wrong. Her insulin and needles are missing. She’s not here. She’s not coming back. I want to cry because the bottles aren’t there. It seems so final and sad. Not yet, I tell myself. I have things to do. I pull out some iceberg lettuce and a cucumber. I look over at the windowsill for tomatoes. There are none. Neighbors sell tomatoes and sometimes other vegetables. They leave them close to the street with a little moneybox. I feel overwhelmed that I know these intimate details of my mother’s life. The tomatoes are on the windowsill, the insulin and needles are in the refrigerator door and cans should be washed, rinsed, and dried before opening them. I make up two salad plates and get the bread out for my father. For him, every meal must have white bread and coffee.
“Do you want coffee, Dad?”
“That’s a girl. You got it. I knew you could do it.”
I put the coffeepot on the stove to perk. It will be ready soon. Everything seems poignant to me and I feel myself well up again. To prevent it, I get out the butter and salt and pepper and set the table. We seem to be ready. The tablecloth is plastic, red and white plaid. The trouble with home is that it’s so homelike. We sit down and Dad asks me to say grace.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”
He winds spaghetti around his fork using a spoon as an aide and strains to get his mouth around the large wad of pasta. His mouth is small. It’s hard to get his teeth around the food. I know the problem. I inherited his small mouth.
After dinner, we do dishes together. He washes and I dry and put away.
“Can you tell me what happened or would it be too painful?”
“No, honey, I can tell you. I need to talk about it.”
He pauses with his hands in the soapy water and looks at me. His face flushed red looks as if a minuscule layer of skin, less than a millimeter, has been rubbed from his face. He’s vulnerable and open. Red veins lace the whites of his eyes. He seems locked in time, standing with his hands suspended in the water. He’s finished. He shakes his hands and opens the drain to release the water. I offer up the tea towel I used to dry the dishes and he dries his hands.
Finally, he says, “We were at the shore.”
“Oh, so she didn’t die here?” I reach for his hands across the table.
“She went into shock, just like she always does. You know what it’s like.”
I nod yes.
“I tried to give her orange juice with sugar but she wouldn’t swallow it.”
I’m concerned. If he had forced orange juice into her when she was out, he could have smothered her. The cure for shock was always orange juice with lots of sugar. This was the fastest way for sugar to enter her bloodstream.
“I guess she couldn’t swallow. I didn’t know what to do. She was too far-gone for orange juice. I was outside working on the bulkhead, you know. It needed some patching. When I came in she was on the kitchen floor. I got that medicine out.” He looks to me for support. “You know that stuff that you inject into her in emergencies?”
I nod again. “Yeah, I know, the black bottle. I can’t remember the name either.” This wasn’t to be used very often. It was hard on her body and bad for her heart.
“I don’t know what color it was. We always keep a bottle of that stuff in the refrigerator. It’s expensive. Costs me an arm and a leg, let me tell you. But we always had it on hand. Anyway, I injected it into her but she didn’t respond.”
“Where did you inject it? In the arm?” When I left home she started to do her own injecting, in the stomach. Dad said he couldn’t do it, that he was just a man and what did he know?
“Yeah, in the arm. Every other time it had brought her out of it but this time nothing. She just lay there.” He shrugs and holds his open palms up to me. He wants me to understand. He wants my approval. He says, “I didn’t know what to do so I called an ambulance.”
“Where from? Salisbury?”
“No, from the island,” he says with a little smile, as if he were proud that Hooper’s island could support an ambulance. “Some guys got together and volunteered. They came pretty fast, I can tell you. We put her on a stretcher and took her to Salisbury. I don’t think it’s much good.”
“What’s not good?”
“It’s not a good hospital like Saint Agnes’s. It’s not Catholic either.” He shrugs again and looks at me for help. I nod that I’m listening. “What could I do? She needed something fast.”
“It’s the nearest hospital probably.”
“Well, we took her to Salisbury. I rode in the back with her, you know. They gave her glucose and she came out of it. The doctor said she was OK so we brought her back home. It was quite a night. We had all those people up half the night.”
“That’s what they volunteer for, Dad, for emergencies.”
“I know. It makes me uncomfortable though. I kinda felt bad, keeping all those people up and then to have them tramping through the house seeing all our business. I don’t know what they think of us.”
“They probably thought that Mom was in shock and that they were needed.” I’m annoyed about all this concern for the local yokels when Mom was the important one. He seems more worried about them than Mom. I’m angry but I try not to show it. I want to get the full story. He’s over his head, I think.
“Yeah, that’s right. We sure needed them that night.”
“What happened at the hospital? Did they give her a glucose drip?”
“Yeah,” he says. “She was okay. When we got home she was walking around and talking to me. We got into bed. I was anxious and couldn’t get to sleep. You know how I can get.”
“Yes, I do.” I smile at him as if he is a good child.
“Whoa, this is hard.”
“I know, you can tell me later.”
“No, no time like the present.” He pauses and then says, “She passed out again.”
“Again?” I exclaim.
“Yeah, again. She never did that before. I gave her another bottle of that medicine.”
“What medicine? The black bottle?”
“Whatever I could find. I thought that it would bring her back.”
“There were two bottles of that medicine?” That’s odd. Mom never kept more than one on hand at a time because it was expensive. She never wanted to waste money. Maybe he gave her insulin.
“Well, anyhow, I gave her another bottle of it. I thought that it would help but nothing.”
“Wow, that’s scary. That’s never happened before. Every time before she was fine after she came around. What did you do, call the ambulance?”
“No, I was too embarrassed to call them again so I took her myself, in the car.”
“Why didn’t you call the ambulance?”
“I didn’t want to bother all those people again. They’d been up half the night.”
“Dad, they wouldn’t have minded. It was an emergency.”
“I didn’t want those guys seeing our business so I dragged her out to the car myself.” He says firmly. “It was hard dragging her, let me tell you, and getting her into the car all by myself? That was hard, too.”
I hold in my frustration. I don’t want him to see it. “What did the doctor do this time?”
“He gave her glucose again but it didn’t bring her out of it. I was mad. I told that doctor he was no good. I was beside myself. I didn’t know what to do.”
“I bet you were upset.”
His hands go up to his face, covering it. He stays that way for a while, taking deep breaths and letting them out again. I get up and go over to him. I put my arms around him from the back and hold my head next to his. I’m surprised by the feverish heat emanating from him, his hot face silky wet with unchecked tears. I’m crying too. He turns around and we hold one another. He pushes me away and goes into the bathroom. I can hear the water running. He stays in the bathroom for ten minutes. I call to him. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay, honey. Just give me a minute. I’ll be out in a soon.”
“Okay, take your time. I just wanted to be sure that you were alright.”
He comes back into the kitchen.
“This has been pretty hard on your old Dad. You live with someone for what, twenty-five, twenty-six years? It’s like a big piece of me is gone.”
“I know, Dad. You’ve still got me. I’m still here and I love you very much.”
“Oh, I know, honey. You are a great comfort to me. Hey, how about a little schnaps?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’ve got some Southern Comfort. It will go good at a time like this.”
He reaches under the sink for the bottle and I get two glasses from the cupboard and put them on the table. He pours and takes a tentative sip.
He smacks his lips. “Ah, that’s good. Just what the doctor ordered.”
I take a sip. It’s sweet, mellow and fruity. The warm, silky alcohol slips down my throat. I think this will probably knock me out for the night.
Then he glares at me, his jaw is set and ready for battle. His small blue eyes bond me to my chair. I’m jolted alert.
“That doctor didn’t know what he was doing. He acted like I had done something wrong. I demanded an autopsy.” He raises his voice. “What was wrong with that guy? He made me furious.”
He pounds the table with his fist. The table shakes and things skitter around on the slippery vinyl tablecloth. I sit and wait for him to calm down. Spitting it out and with his index finger pointed at me, he beats out the words, “If that doctor had known what he was doing, she’d be alive today.”
He half rises from the table and curls over me. I can feel the heat of him. His body is tense and his face flushed. This is his story of what happened. He might be warning me to believe it. I’m very quiet and wait for him to continue. Did he give her insulin? I wonder. After a while, I say, “Oh, an autopsy. Did you think that necessary?”
“Yes, I did”, he says emphatically. “She would be alive today if he was doing his job. He shouldn’t be in practice, that guy. He didn’t know what he was doing. If she had had a proper doctor this wouldn’t have happened.”
“What was the result?”
He looks confused as if he doesn’t understand the question. I try again.
“What was the result of the autopsy?” I ask.
“They said the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by insulin shock.”
I’m trembling, bumped around on an unpaved, unchartered road. There is no precedent to follow, no mentor to teach me. I am the warden of my own emotions but they are always new and palpable. It’s impossible to regulate them or to become expert in their handling. Discordant music sings in my brain. Something is wrong. What? I cross my arms and clench them, my fingers making indentations, whitening the flesh. I lean forward, hang my head and begin to rock. Why did you die, Mom? No answer. She has nothing to say. An image of Dad’s watery, deep-set eyes full of glee smears across my conscious mind. He loved it when he was able to fool Mom or me. Breathe. Stay balanced.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, just give me a moment.”
After a pause, I say, “It’s no good second guessing, Dad. You don’t know for sure what happened. Maybe he did a good job. Maybe it was just her time. She wasn’t a very happy woman.” Why am I doing this? I’m comforting him.
“That’s true, honey. She wasn’t happy but it was the diabetes that did her in. You should have known her before.” He smiles as if at the memory. “She was the sweetest thing and boy, how she loved you. She used to play with you for hours on end when you were a baby.”
“I never knew her without diabetes, Dad.”
“She was a wonderful woman.”
“Yes, she was and a good wife to you and mother to me.”
“And I loved her.”
“I know. I loved her too, Dad.”
“Well, that’s it.” His forehead contracts as he looks up at me, his pale eyes questioning. “I didn’t even go back to the island. I came back here and called the priest house.” His voice tonally deepens when he mentions the church. His eyes explore mine anxiously seeking my understanding. “I talked to Father Burgess and he told me to have her sent to Walter’s Funeral Home. It’s right up the street. It’s a Catholic establishment, you know.” He holds up his hands, open and stretched beside his face. “I was so confused. I didn’t know what to do.” Abruptly, his hands cut sharply down to his lap.
“You did a good job, Dad. I wish that I could have been here with you.”
“Yeah, it would have been nice to have you here.”
He covers my hand, his palm dry and calloused. The freckled skin on the back of his hand is reddened from the sun and so thin I can see blue veins and tendons showing though. I feel tender towards him. He inhales deeply and lets out the breath slowly and evenly, making a slight, almost inaudible noise deep inside his chest. The sound is soft and humble like a cat seeking attention. His voice slides higher and sharper.
He says, “But you are always somewhere on the other side of the world. We had an awful time getting word to you. We didn’t have a telephone number or anything.”
He’s right and should complain. I was so caught up in the helix of my own excitement and freedom that I simply forgot about them. I picture in my mind an embarrassed Dad trying to explain to his sisters that he didn’t know how to reach me. They would have been incredulous, indignant that I would treat my father so carelessly.
“I’m sorry, Dad, but we had only been there two weeks when it happened. Mail takes about a month from there. I promise to get you up-to-date information on how to reach me in the future.”
“How did you get the word?” He asks, accentuating the word, did, with anger.
“The Red Cross. A telegram came into the MEDT office and they knew where to find me.”
“And where were you?” He sounds like an interrogator, tentatively considering indignation.
“I was at a luncheon. The Ambassador’s wife always gives a luncheon for any American women who are newcomers to Burma.”
“Fancy Smancy. Don’t go getting a big head. You’ll think you’re too good for your old man. What I want to know is how they knew you were at the Ambassador’s house?”
“I don’t exactly know. I thought it strange, too. MEDT, the Military Equipment Delivery Team, may have known because they keep an eye on where I am. On the other hand, maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s the cars and drivers they keep an eye on. They don’t allow me to go out alone. I always have a car and driver with me. Besides, there’s the Burmese spy network. Any Burmese who talks to a foreigner has to make a report to the Burmese government. Most people just don’t talk to us. I wouldn’t want to talk to us either if it meant making a report.”
“Really?” His eyes widen. He’s interested and the anger within him begins to subside. The corners of his mouth rise up a quarter inch, and the curves of his lower cheeks push out. Frustration and pride enters his consciousness simultaneously; he’s chagrined and forced to accept me along with my flaws. I’ll never be who he wants me to be.
“Yes, I was intimidated by the whole luncheon thing. I was afraid I would make a faux pas and then be embarrassed. George and MEDT would be embarrassed and maybe the whole United States government would be embarrassed but then again, I’m not that important,” I say looking up at him through my eyelashes.
“You could never embarrass them. Anyone with any sense in their heads would like you.”
“Oh, Dad, you should have seen that house. It was huge, the biggest house I’ve ever been in and it had extensive grounds, landscaped beautifully.”
“You seem to be really impressed.”
“I was. I really was. The table was a mile long and set with fine linen and silver. I was so far away from the hostess that I couldn’t possibly talk to her.”
“I’m glad they found you. I didn’t know the Red Cross did that sort of thing.”
“I didn’t know they did either.”
“You must have been upset.”
“Knowing that the body would be held was comforting. I’m grateful you did that. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, honey. I kinda knew you would want to see her.”
“The next day I got another call, from a Marine. He said that Mom was buried yesterday and I fell apart. I screamed at him as if he were responsible for digging the grave himself. Poor guy!”
“That isn’t true. Why would he tell you something like that?”
“You would have to have been there to understand. Two messages came in. MEDT got the first one. The embassy received a separate message a day later. The two messages were different. The one that came into the Embassy was garbled. The Marine read the garbled message to me. He was just doing his job. I felt really bad.”
“That’s OK, honey. I’m sure he understood. At a time like this anyone would be upset.”
“Later the Marine called to apologize. He didn’t need to apologize. I was embarrassed. It was my fault really. I heard the news on a Friday but they couldn’t get the Burmese bureaucracy to release my passport for another week. The Burmese take about three months to process a return visa so I had to leave without it. Thank God, they did give me my passport.”
“I remember that visa was a big to do for you.” He rounds his mouth into an ‘O’, looking at me askance to emphasize to do. “They had you running all around the place. You know, honey, you’re amazing. You go off to these countries as if it were nothing. You haven’t told me anything about Burma. What is it like there?”
“I’ll tell you later, Dad. I’m too tired now.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot going on and you must be tired from your trip.”
“Yeah, I’m ready for bed if it’s alright with you.”
“Sure, honey, you go ahead and get some rest.” He stands with one hand resting on the wall and watches me go up the stairs. When I’m halfway up, he yells that the viewing is at ten tomorrow morning. The burial will be right after that.
“”OK. I love you. Goodnight and God bless you.”
“Goodnight and God bless you, too, honey. See you tomorrow.”