We got the kids’ school pictures yesterday. We send them to the grandparents every year for Christmas: four different addresses. Our mothers, our fathers. My wife shook the pictures out of the envelope, showed them to me: N’s goofy grin, Z’s untamable hair. Three sets of photos. Three sets, not four.
My mother’s death did not leave a gaping hole in our lives. She wasn’t woven into the fabric of my everyday. Instead, my mother’s absence is a series of tiny voids: eyelet lace. One less person to tag on the photo of the kids’ Halloween costumes. One less phone call on Thanksgiving. I decorated our house this weekend with the garlands and lights and red velvet bows that she brought me for the first Christmas after N was born. I snapped a picture on my phone, and didn’t know who to send it to.
First take off your shoes. The carpet is white; it shows every footprint, every pass of the vacuum cleaner. This is why kids are not allowed in here. This is why we do not use this room.
Take a dust-rag – one of Dad’s old undershirts – and spray it with lemon Pledge. Wrinkle your nose at the smell. Survey the landscape: curios collected from places she has been or always wanted to visit. The jade Buddha. The brass cricket cage. The black lacquer bowl. The Russian spoons.
Lift them one by one, starting with the Buddha. Weigh it in your hand. Memorize the mark it leaves behind on the coffee table, its footprint in the dust. Fix it in your mind, this spot. Remember the shape, the angle. Try not to think of the dust, of what it’s made of. (Hair follicles. Skin cells. Cigarette ash. Mites.) Wipe it away, carefully, drawing the rag around the edges of the empty places. Set down the jade Buddha (the brass cricket cage, the black lacquer bowl, the Russian spoon) precisely where it had been, as if it had never been moved. The arrangement is important.
Move to the piano, black lacquer like the bowl, the spoons, the arms of the Oriental-style chairs and the screen with the jade inlays. Black and white, this room, except where the dust has settled. Wipe down the three wooden monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and the dust at their feet and place them – again – where they have always been, sitting on their haunches and minding their own business, not judging.
Thirty minutes is all it takes. Thirty minutes to make it perfect. Toss the rag in the laundry and try not to think of the dust, how even now, it is gathering on every surface.
I don’t know how to parent through this.
Like, there is still homework.
“I have one favor to ask. Just one. Please?”
We were standing by the river’s edge, waiting for a small barge to take us across to Camp Westwind, where we planned to spend the weekend in rustic cabins without internet or cell service with a hundred strangers – all families of children in our kids’ school program. The ground by the pier was a complete bog.
“Please don’t get mud all over your shoes. Can you do that?” I asked my 8-year-old, N.
Small things add up. They tip the scales no matter how light. Smiles on tiny squares of paper, air in my tires. Kisses tossed from the top of the porch steps. All I can give in return are words and golden promises.