"life is short
in spite of your plans
so tell the girls they're pretty while you can
'cause one day they're gone
and all you got left
some empty bottles and an old country song
plays on and on ..."
The beginning of the end began on Friday, August 24, 2007.
She went in for an MRI. Her left ear felt plugged up. The doctor, our cousin, an expert in the ears and throat and nose stuff, seemed convinced she just had some fluid in there. Maybe, at worst, something called an acoustic neuroma; a small tumor of the inner ear. Nothing to worry about.
She came home with the pictures in an envelope.
"You look?" you asked.
"Nope," she answered.
She retreated into your bedroom.
You opened the envelope, took the pictures out, and held them to the light.
You could see a large gray blob sitting in there, right behind where the left ear should be.
"You're not a doctor," my sister said. "Don't draw any conclusions."
"It's crazy," you said. "There's this huge, uh, blob there. That's gotta be a tumor or something. It covers half the picture."
"You're not a doctor," my sister reminded me.
"It might look really bad to you, but, really, if it was something that bad, Micheal (our cousin, the doctor) would call you."
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Stop freaking out. It's probably not as big a deal as you think."
"You look at those pictures?" you asked her.
"One of them looks a little funky."
"I'm just sayin'. One of 'em looks weird."
"I'm sure it's nothing. Michael would have called us if it was something bad."
"Let's go to dinner or something," you said. August 24th, 2007.
"My mom will have to watch the three of them.That's a lot."
You wanted to go out to dinner with your wife.
"She'll be OK. Let's go out. Just ask her."
She asked her.
She said yes.
We drove up to a restaurant in a little town about a half hour away.
The night before the Travers.
Even fifteen miles and thirty minutes away from Saratoga Springs, the place was packed.
We waited at the bar. You inhaled a couple of beers. She had a glass of white wine and then a glass of seltzer. You inhaled another beer or three. Your nerves were shot, what with that blob on that picture.
They sat you down, finally.
They read out the menu.
Lots of stuff, vegetables and meat, raised on local farms.
She got some chicken dish, You went for something with hand-rolled pasta and sausage.
There was some polenta involved at some point.
The two of you ate in near silence.
Her beauty in the candlelight nearly overpowered you.
The waitress brought crayons, to draw upon the paper tablecloths.
You drew a heart, and in the middle of it wrote, "Dave Loves Lauren."
She drew a heart, and within it wrote the names of out children.
A shiver went up your spine: you knew, in that moment, that she loved our children more than she loved you, and you loved her more than anything; you knew you loved her more than she loved you.
You thought of the blob on the MRI; what could it mean? It couldn't mean anything good, right? Blobs on MRIs generally never mean anything good.
She smiled at the sight of the names of her children upon the paper tablecloth.
You had this awful feeling; this feeling that she was not long for this world. This feeling that the end was nigh. The feeling that things had been set in motion, things beyond my control.
Something goes on this time of year: the light in the evening sky, the angle of it brings you right back to late summer, 2007.
You remember things. The morning light that came in the morning of the day when you found out what the blob in that picture meant. The morning light that came in the morning your father called to tell you John was dead.
Overdose, you asked.
Nope. Fell down the side of a mountain. They said by the time he hit bottom he wouldn't have even known what hit him.
It's that time of year. The angle of the sunlight has something to say, it stops you from living in the moment, and brings you back to some other time, to days slipping further and further into the past.
The end of summer and its cousin, Death, breathing down your neck.
And the rest of them, the ones who didn't live through it, they ask what's wrong with you. They wonder why you seem down; they wonder why the person they grew to know and love has disappeared for a while, turned into something else, into someone else.
It's not, you've decided after some rumination, an indulgence, an excuse to wallow.
It's the angle of the sun's light; it shouts down everything else, it shouts down today and tomorrow. It demands you account for it in some way or another.
Someone who's never dealt with serious loss, or tragedy, tells you about some hundred-something year old neighbor they had once. About how Mrs. Whateverhernamewas told her that she lived so long because she never looked back.
You want to say, what sort of person never looks back?
You wouldn't even want to be the sort of person who never looks back.
The angle of the sun's light: lower, and faster, as August draws to a close. The sunsets come quickly now, reminding us summer's over and fall's on the way. The angle of the sun's light, shining down on the corner of summer and fall and ready to take a hard right into the mysteries of autumn.
The angle of the sun's light hits you just right and you're back in your dining room, late summer 2007, and there she stands, in a long, flowing, red and white skirt and a white button down shirt. Her face scrunched into worry, fear, even. She'd seen the blob, too, by that point. You'd arranged a party in honor of your second son's first birthday, She looked down at her watch; some guests hadn't arrived on time.
You wanted to say something to her, but the words never came. You seemed certain she knew that she might not live to see his next birthday, and the weight of that knowledge inhaled any words that might have formed at the base of your throat.
She glanced at her watch again. She commented on the late arrivals; I know I said five-thirty, she said. Maybe they got stuck in traffic, you said. You glanced at each other, trying to pretend neither of you had seen the blob.
Six years on, and it seems like six days, these days, what with the angle of the sun's light. The days end now like they did then, and those days then seem close enough to touch. That one year old boy turns seven in a few days. She found a model of the Titanic as one of his birthday presents. A fellow therapist in her department criticized her for encouraging his interest in the Titanic. Whatever, he's obsessed with the Titanic these days. You've even let him watch the movie about it.
He talks about little else right now. You figure it's some way of working out what happened to his mother; the woman in the red-and-white skirt and white button down shirt staring anxiously at her watch in the moments before his first birthday party. He wasn't quite fifteen months old when she died. He has no memory of her, but he knows she existed, or, exists. Exists, in family memory, in the ether.
The last week of August; the last rose of summer withers on the vine. You take your oldest son to see The Travers at the old racecourse in Saratoga. Been running races her since a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Something about that thrills you. You remember taking him here as a baby, you remember taking him here with her, late August, 2007, the beginning of the end, the day after she got that picture of that blob taken, the day so hot it seemed you all could see steam rising off the track.
The Derby winner, Street Sense, gutted it out, a supposedly hopeless longshot lapped onto him all the way around there.
Yesterday, after a long afternoon of buying him food and drink, you wound up betting on a supposedly hopeless longshot to win the Travers. He asked, at one point, why you seemed so quiet, and you think about trying to explain it, but you can't. You can't tell him about sitting here six years ago with his mother; you can't.
You bet the hopeless longshot, Moreno, his trainer a Cajun dude who likes to say things like, "I ain't bringing no one-legged chicken to a rooster fight," and he breaks on top and leads all the way around the track at 31-1. The Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, sneaks up the inside rail and takes the lead and you think you're done. The crowd roars. Your son looks at you, and you tell him you need the 31-1 shot to hang around. The sight of his mother, rooting home her picks in the 2007 Travers, haunts you.
The longshot fights back, and somehow subdues the Derby winner. A hundred yards from the finish he surges to a clear lead. You start screaming, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, and just when you think he will pull off the upset - and by the way, the vernacular upset was born at this very race track, in 1920 - of the century, another horse storms toward the line late, very late, to nip you in a photo finish.
Did you win, he asks.
Well, he says, you came close.
Yes, you did, you think.
You think of his mother, sitting there with the two of you, as the summer of 2007 drew to a close.
You wonder how he thinks of her, how often, and, well, how.
You want to tell him about how you remember being there with him, late in the summer of 2007, at the beginning of the end. Of how none of you could have guessed she had less than three months to go.
So you didn't win, huh Dad? he asks.
No, you answer.
No. Then again, you did win, you think. You're here. You're alive. You're happy. The angle of the sun's light might bring you down for a week or two, but that's alright. Summer's about done, but you're here. You're alive. You're happy.