What You Can’t Know

I don’t know how to do this. I keep reminding myself that nobody does but I have decisions to make: when to go home, for starters. My 47th birthday is Friday; my great niece isn’t born yet. Everyone wants to know when, Dr. Perl said, but no one can tell you that. So how long do you stay in a room watching her snore, oblivious to your presence? How long is dutiful, how long to repay her for your own life? I put her folded laundry away, wash my own socks and underwear in the sink.

I read.
I try to decide.
I talk to my wife about what to do.
I try to concoct a plan to get my hair dyed blue.
I respond to emails from students: yes, you can have an extension on your paper.

Suddenly there are 24 hundred hours in the day, all of them weighing too heavily.

It’s not when I’ve done what’s right. It’s not even when I’ve done what’s right by me, or for her. It’s more – how do I wait? More, how do I do this with grace? It’s more: could I ever be okay with leaving knowing I might not see her again? It’s knowing I will most likely get the call once I’m back in Wisconsin, based on what odds there are.

It will never feel right to go now, no matter when now is. There is no way to be there when she chooses to slip away. I may just be washing my hands, or typing this thing.

There are no guarantees of anything at all but this forward-moving, inexorable time, all the time, and the living going on living and the dying going on dying. Death is a giant fuck you to control freaks like me.

There is no easy way to do this. There is a way to do this, but it’s wrong. Every way sucks. I am offended by death for being so much, so terrible, but also nothing more than the passage from one minute to the next. I told people after my father’s death that the colors of the world changed. Now, I worry they will blanch, fade, disappear altogether. There is still no way to imagine a world without him in it and yet here I am, in this unimaginable world. It is spring in New York. It is spring in Wisconsin. Somewhere in the light of my mom’s eyes it is still the spring of her own life. Somewhere in there she has just met my father. Somewhere in there they have just conceived me; somewhere in there she is watching them fold the flag in tribute to his service to his country.

And that’s what goes: another link in the long chain of human memory, another lifetime further away from the first person who heard recorded sound or who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge or rode a train or heard a violin played the very first time, a not endless but exhaustively long line of links that lead to the start of things.

There is no way to do this. I’ll do this, with grace or inelegantly, with composure or keening or denial. Joe Heller once said he felt better about dying once he realized people dumber than him had done it. The same is true for mourning, I guess.

I still don’t know when to go or how to go; I still don’t know how to do this.

Here we go.

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.

2 Comments

  1. Helen, when I knew my late husband was near death, I chose to go home. I wanted my last memories of him as a living being. In this way he is still alive in my memories. So, if you should have to leave, your memories will be of her as a living soul. May God grant you peace. Love you. Ashley

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