Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.
Afterwards, over dinner, my Dad said, “While I was sitting there I thought of a title for a short story.”
“What is it?” I asked, looking up at him from across the table. His eyes were red and his hair sprouted wildly from the back of his head.
He spread his hands out in a ta da motion. “The title is: I wore long pants to Maggie’s funeral.”
“Hmmm,” I nodded, nibbled on a tortilla chip. “But don’t most people wear long pants to funerals?”
“You’re not listening,” he said. “I. Wore. Long. Pants. To. Maggie’s. Funeral.” He said it slowly, sing-songy, like a poem. “Doesn’t it resonate? Don’t you want to know more about Maggie? About the author and the pants? About why it matters?”
“But I already know why it matters,” I said.
Last Sunday as I was leaving I’d said, “Tell me if you want me to be there. Just call or send me a text. Let me know.” She’d nodded, my sister, and her eyes had filled with tears.
As the words left my mouth I’d known they’d been the wrong ones. I knew I should have said, “I will be here tomorrow.” I should have said it confidently, with finality, like my absence was out of the question. And what I would have said without saying was, I will bear some of your pain.
So I pulled her small frame to my chest, hugged her, corrected my mistake. I said, “I will be here tomorrow at 1:30. Do you want me to come earlier?”
“No,” she’d said. “1:30 is just fine.”
It was a painfully blue Monday. Cold, but the sun was warm. My sister sat on the front porch with Maggie. Maggie ate Oreo’s and drank water from a small white bowl.
“Hi Maggie,” I said cheerfully, “Look what Aunt Kim brought you.” I held up a paper bag filled with cheeseburgers from McDonalds. I shook it. Maggie twitched her nose in the air.
“How are you holding up?” I asked my sister.
“Okay,” she said. “As good as can be expected.” She patted Maggie’s head and then broke a cheeseburger into pieces. “We’ve had a good day. Maggie had steak for breakfast. We went for a long walk. I’m so glad the sun is out for her.”
I sat down cross-legged next to Maggie. I scratched behind her ear. Her breathing was heavy and labored.
“Did Dad put pants on for the occasion?” I asked.
My sister laughed a little. “Yep, I think he did.”
I was in Spain when my Dad had surgery. It occupied my thoughts as I walked the Camino de Santiago and I prayed hard for his safety, believing (did I believe it?) that somehow I could alter the outcome.
I’d called him from my hotel the day I reached Santiago. “I prayed for you at the tomb of St. James,” I’d said. “Actually, I’ve prayed for you all over this damn country.”
“Good,” he’d said. “I’ll take all the prayers I can get.”
I was still in Spain when he came out of surgery and entered rehab in the hospital. I’d call his room every night, via Skype, the connection weak and echoing. I’d hear the nurses come into his room, their voices small and tinny like they were at the end of a very long corridor. My Dad sounded old and weak. “It’s because of the tube,” he insisted.
“Ask your doctors about your voice.” I’d begged him. “Ask them why it’s hard for you to speak.”
“I will,” he assured me, though I knew he probably wouldn’t.
I was in Belgium when I learned of the complications. Hospitalized. More surgery. My sister in Seattle flew home. My other sister, the one at home, sent me email updates. I’d wake up in the raw hours after midnight in a panic and check my email, terrified of any news.
The vet arrived right on time. Maggie sat by the window in her favorite spot. My sister lay beside her and held Maggie’s head in her hands. The vet gave her two shots, the first to relax her, the second to stop her heart. Maggie was here and then she was gone. We all cried like babies and passed a pale blue box of Kleenex around the room. My sister cried for Maggie. I cried for my sister. My Dad sat on the couch in his unpressed pants, the braces wrapped tightly around his legs in the same place we’d cling to him as children. My Dad cried longer and harder than all of us.
The hole in the backyard was already there. We wrapped Maggie in blankets and carried her outside. The hole was filled with snowmelt and my sister climbed into it with a plastic bowl to bail the water. She moved with purpose. I could tell that she’d run through these steps a thousand times, that they’d kept her up at night.
When the hole was free of water she climbed out. The soles of her boots were thick with mud. I squeezed her shoulder. She gave me a small smile. “It’s just hard to let her go,” she said. “I love her so much.”
“I know you do, honey.”
I asked if she wanted me to lower Maggie’s body into the hole, to cover her with the rocky clay soil of my parent’s backyard, but she wanted to do it on her own. My husband and my sister’s boyfriend broke up frozen chunks of dirt with shovels, swinging them like axes, happy to do something. My sister removed Maggie’s collar and picked her up like a child, lowered her body into the ground. I stood there silently, crying. I wondered how my sister got so brave.
“Let’s go to dinner,” my Dad said after my sister and her boyfriend left. “I’m going crazy trapped in this house.”
I nodded. “We might as well. You’ve already put pants on.”
My Dad looked down at the pants on his legs and the basketball shorts crumpled on the floor beside him. He laughed. He has always laughed through pain.
We gathered his walker, his cane. Slowly he navigated the living room, the three stairs leading down into the garage.
We drove down the streets of my childhood. The sky roared the fiery colors of sunset. The trees were bare and boney, exposing the places I’ve seen my whole lifetime: The neighborhood pool, the empty tennis courts, the two-story houses normally veiled behind the lush green leaves of warmer times.
“It’s karma that you were here,” said my Dad.
“You know, like when the universe does something on purpose? Your sister needed you here. It was good that you came. She won’t forget it.”
“I’m glad I could be here for it.” I said. “I’m glad you were here for it too.”
My Dad patted my leg, his own legs stretched out stiffly before him. For the rest of the way we drove in silence to dinner.
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