One Wednesday evening last fall, I found myself sautéing sage leaves. I can’t claim to do this with any regularity; my October Bon Appetit just happened to show up as I was trying to decide what to cook for my relatives, who would be getting off a plane at ten-thirty that night. I was looking for food that would satisfy them if they hadn’t had a decent meal since Pittsburgh, that would say “I’m so glad you’re here!” and that wouldn’t reproach them if all they really wanted to do was say goodnight and go to bed. Who wouldn’t fry sage leaves in that situation? By the time I left for the airport I had chilled the champagne and done everything but drizzle the butternut squash tart with the Serrano pepper honey simmering on the stove.
As they came toward me through security, the gate agent was pushing Uncle Don (at 87, my last living uncle on my mother’s side) in a wheelchair. He was wearing his Marines Semper Fi baseball cap and talking to the agent. My cousin Tommy (proud bearer of the title of oldest cousin on my dad’s side) was pushing Uncle Don’s fancy red walker, wheeling his own suitcase, and almost succeeding at balancing Uncle Don’s little blue suitcase on the seat of the walker. Uncle Larry (last living uncle on my father’s side and newly retired from the priesthood) and my brother Paul were carrying, dragging, and balancing the rest of the luggage. All of them looked like they might be rethinking that decision not to check the bags.
That was the last moment anyone looked back on. It was a magical five days, the kind of visit you always imagine having until your real company has replaced their fantasy doubles, set their glasses down without coasters, left the gate open to let the dog run away, and failed to be duly impressed with the view of the mountains from your backyard. This company wasn’t like that. (And if you have ever stayed at my house, rest assured that I’m not talking about you.)
That first night, we didn’t get to bed until four; it was as if we’d all agreed to wring every last bit of life out of these few days together. Thursday night I baked a six-layer cake I’d found in that same issue of Bon Appetit. Nine eggs and fourteen squares of dark chocolate later (this was a serious cake), we were singing happy birthday to Uncle Don, as he turned eighty-eight. “You know,” he said, “you live alone for so long, and then people do something like this for you, it just makes you want to weep.”
Saturday morning I make pancakes (plain old Bisquick and blueberries now that we’ve reached day three) shaped like sixty-fives to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. My husband takes Uncle Don to the casino so he can play bingo, and the rest of us launch into another day of sightseeing. When we meet for dinner later, Uncle Don raves about the two (“not one, but two!”) hotdogs he ate at Wienerschnitzel and slyly shows me the bingo markers he has slipped into the trunk of his walker for the ladies in his “harem” back home.
I forget to warn my relatives not to make eye contact with the mariachis, so soon an orange-haired woman and her husband, who met fifty years ago in their church choir, are serenading us. They sing happy birthday and Una Paloma Blanca, and we’re all fast friends by the time the check comes.
I’m still singing about that white dove flying up to the sun as we walk out of the restaurant and see fireworks exploding in the east against the Sandias. We sit down on a bench in front of the restaurant like we’re sitting on the front porch on Marvle Valley Drive (and I won’t change that to “Marvel” just to make spell-check happy, because that street was misspelled my whole life, and I’m trying to tell the truth here). We watch until the last flare fades.
No one feels like going to bed when we get home, so we turn the Notre Dame game on, play some pinochle, and listen to Uncle Don tell stories about how he met Aunt Ann. For some reason we start googling our birth years. Uncle Don was born in 1924, the Year of the Rat; 1955 puts Paul in the Year of the Sheep. For some reason we find this hilarious. Sometime after midnight we talk about how fast the days are going and call it a night. In bed my husband and I marvel (there, spell-check, happy now?) at how these days are glowing so richly by.
Sunday morning the sky is full of hot air balloons, and I’m trying to decide if I should wake everyone up to see them. The coffee’s ready, and the last thing I expect Paul to say when he comes out of the guest room is “I think Uncle Don is dead.”
But that’s exactly what he says.
I could tell you a lot more about this story; I could explain how the police came and Uncle Larry said last rites and I cooked a pot roast and we all moved into that shimmery borderland you walk in when death reminds you that it’s been there breathing beside you all along.
I could tell you about Uncle Larry’s Christmas card this year, in which he said he’d love to visit again, “with a slight adjustment being that all who arrive together will depart breathing.” I could tell you about Uncle Don’s comment, earlier in the week he died, that some nights he would lie in bed alone and say, “Ok, God, why don’t you take me now, I’m ready,” and how sure I am that he said that prayer that night in my guest room.
I could tell you about all the jokes we make now about the thorough vacation experience available at my house, and about how happy everyone is that Uncle Don died here, surrounded by family, at peace in his sleep after a day that included mariachis, bingo, pinochle, fireworks, and hotdogs.
I could tell you about the envelope the funeral home sent me, full of left-over laminated flag bookmarks with Uncle Don’s obituary on them, and the mass cards bearing the dates October 4, 1924-October 7, 2012, along with the complete text of The Halls of Montezuma, but I’ve said way too much already.
It’s a short story, really.
It’s the one I told the people whose names I found in his address book and called that Sunday morning: Uncle Don came to visit, had a great time, and died.
In her poem “Train Ride,” Ruth Stone writes, “All things come to an end. No, they go on forever.” The lines repeat throughout the poem, and you can feel the train jogging along through the music. I used to think the poem was arguing with itself, trying to decide what kind of a world we live in, what kind of lives we live.
I don’t think that anymore. Monday afternoon I drive my last living uncle, my cousin, and my brother back to the airport. I watch as planes pull away from the planet. I know that when Ruth Stone (who didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was sixty) says, “All things come to an end. No they go forever” she’s not arguing with anyone. She’s just telling all the truth there is to tell about the world.