I never sat in the front seat next to my Dad. That was not my place.
The sun was so bright but it was so frigidly cold. I wondered how it could be so cold, so blisteringly cold, on such a sunlit day. Blue skies, you could see for miles. It could have been a blessing from above, an omen of peace, except it was so chillingly cold. You could see it on everyone’s lips before they said a word. The cold. Didn’t seem like the type of day to complain, but there we were. Couldn’t stop talking about the cold. Grousing made us feel connected. A shared experience during a shared tragedy.
The last conversation we ever had was about God. It wasn’t much of a conversation. I’d told her that I was thinking of getting married. I didn’t know if I should tell her. Do you tell someone who is dying about all the things that they’ll miss? Do you make them feel secure in knowing your life won’t also end with theirs, that you’ll go on? Or is it just burdening their soul with more longing to escape the inevitable end?
I told her I was thinking of getting married and the way she looked at me; mother’s pride and mother’s sorrow. Whatever pain was there was quickly masked as she struggled to hug me, her strength already gone. Immediately she wanted to know what I was thinking in regards to the wedding. I hadn’t even proposed yet, but stage four makes you cut to the chase. I told her I wanted a small wedding, close friends and family. She offered to talk to her reverend about having the wedding at her church, her pastor could officiate.
I don’t know why I’m so stupid. I certainly should have known better. Instead of going along with a dying mother’s daydreaming about her youngest son’s wedding, I let myself sour at the idea of doing this imaginary, yet to be even proposed nuptials at her church. She sat up, and with clarity in her eyes and voice she asked me, “You still believe in God, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mom, of course I do.”
I hadn’t believed in God for a very long time.
Everyone bore it differently. My sister renewed her love affair with vodka. My brother remained in the wind. My father, well, I never could read my father. Even as a grown man with a family of my own I never felt more than a boy in his presence. Less intimidating and commanding as he aged, his aura over me or my siblings never really faded. She was the rock that broke his crashing waves. Now she was gone. The tide would calm for now but after a while would soon go unabated. We lost them both that day, but we never really had him without her anyway.
I fidgeted with my dark blue suit jacket. I didn’t own a black one. I thought it was silly to buy one for just one day, one cold day. I should have bought one. There would be more cold days.
The pastor talked about God’s peace and mercy. He did not watch my mother pass. He was not officiating my wedding.
I sat in the passenger seat next to my father. His Oldsmobile rattled with the cold, the vents pumping in lukewarm air as it struggled to heat up. We started down the long frontage road, along the quiet highway, it was dusk and most travelers had turned in for the evening. I stared out the window into the dark horizon. Endless undeveloped, unaltered land, untouched by anything but the cold.
I glanced back at the backseat. My usual and comfortable place. Where I could hide and be at peace. The merciful back seat. Be the youngest son. The child seen and not heard. There was always someone else to be here, in this seat, upfront next to my father. Sister. Brother. Mother. None were here now. Just me and the emptiness.
I felt the need to say something. To reach out. I was in the passenger seat now. This was my place, next to my father. I was consumed by the darkness around us, the emptiness. The cold.
“Dad, what do you think happens when we die?”
“Well, son, do you remember what it was like before you were born?”
We continued in silence, into the darkening night, into the cold.