“Look over there at Mrs. Tierney and the girls. You take your sister over and thank them for coming. You know it couldn’t have been an easy errand to come here and pay their respects with her father in the state he’s in.” The mornings proceedings had worn away at my patience with obligatory pleasantries and so my natural instinct for instant deference to my mother’s orders had been severely impaired. I uncharacteristically hesitated, “What are you standing there like a stump for? You deaf now? Go on I said. I’ve got plenty to attend to before the viewing is over.” My mother’s mechanism for psychological self preservation had always been stoical industry. Let’s just call it her own twist on the ancient Irish tradition of emotional detachment. One day, while covering the anatomy of the brain in biology class, I could imagine her neurons congregating into a dense knot resembling the egg sac in a spider’s web, forming an impregnable vault where all her childhood traumas and vulnerabilities are sealed away. In the name of science; I’ll have to demand to see the autopsy report in the event of her passing although, I doubt any of us will outlive her. “Thanks for coming Mrs. Tierney.”, I mumbled halfheartedly while staring at the floor like I had dropped some change. My sister’s boredom twisted her ankle in and out, leaving her foot looking like a washed up fish flopping around on the shore. I put an end to it with a squeeze of her shoulders. Something I must have learned from my mother. “Your father was a very sweet man. There are few like that in this world. And now they are even rarer. It falls on you now to care for little Marie and your mother. You know that don’t you?” I had heard some variation of these respects delivered what seemed like a thousand times. This was the first time It had sounded completely selfless and sincere. The look out of Ms. Tierney’s green eyes cut my sarcasm off at the base of my brain, beating it to my mouth. One thing’s for sure I couldn’t look away, ” Me and Marie and ma, we really do appreciate you coming here Ms. Tierney. On account of your father I know it can’t be easy to get outta the house.” The production of comforting strength projected on her face began to soften as her eyes swelled with sadness. “I hope your daddy gets all fixed up Mrs Tierney.”,interjected my sister. “Oh thank you, honey, I..uh..have to go. So many things to do at home.” It must have been too much to hear those words come out of Marie’s cherubic little face. Something about a child’s innocence. I don’t know exactly what it is but, the same thing that makes the pedestrian four letter word gut-busting hilarious, can apparently render a grown woman and mother of two a completely devastated mess. “Nice Marie.”, I spat at my tiny charge. “I just want Mr. O’brien to get better.” I loosened my tie, leaned against the door frame in the bustling hall, and sent her my reply on a sigh,
” He’s not gonna get better Marie, He’s gonna die.”
People had been easing the pervasive anxiety over thoughts of their own mortality stirred by their attendance of the burial with drink, food and song for a good while now. Still, they made certain any member of the clergy in attendance knew they were only celebrating the life of the deceased in the name of that eternal soul and its memory, but absolutely not enjoying themselves in the process. Old man Flanagan stoked the emotions of the crowd about every fifteen minutes with the inebriated exclamation, “An Irishman is dead!” The overwhelming cloud of grief the attendees had carried into our house from the cemetery had begun to clear. It had only been a couple of hours since my father’s funeral but one could feel the world begin to turn again, moving under our feet, as if his casket was some sort of key and the same mechanism that lowered it into his grave was somehow involved in spinning the gears that drive the heavens. Mom was busy in the kitchen with Marie cooking her lamb stew. I hadn’t had much interest in food since I got the news of the accident. My father used to sit with me at the table long after dinner was done and all the dishes had been cleared. No matter how tired he was from work, he would ask me about my day at school and listen to every word of my response with the same look he’d have on his face when he watched the news. If it was only to humor me, it made me feel like a little king regardless. “Micheal! If you make me call you to dinner one more time you might not live to regret it!” While I fought to hold on to my melancholy, my mother was beginning to make it clear her patience with it was beginning to wane. As I walked into the kitchen Marie was right on her hip like always, pretending to help with the setting of the table. The steam from the brimming pot of brown stew crawled up my face and made my stomach whine. My body had exhausted its capacity for tear production and so, my mind would need not expend any more of its focus on repressing them. The smell settled the waters of my thoughts allowing the sensation of hunger to float to the surface. My mother’s prayer appeared to go on for hours but as torturous as this act of self control was, I dared not interrupt my mother’s communion with the creator. Whatever intimacy she denied us was dedicated to the father, son and the holy spirit. “…Amen. I want to see these bowls clean you heard me? A lot of children in this world starving. And don’t think they’re all in China either, right on the other side of town. There’ll be no room for waste in this house.” Her words were muffled by the sound of my mouth making short work of the tender chunks of meat and potatoes. “Micheal!”, she barked, castigating my feral gluttony. ” Eat like a human being for God’s sake. Keep eating like a wild dog and I’ll have to keep you on a leash like one! ” The exclamation point on her last sentence froze me in my seat. There was no defense against her charge as I peeked at her from behind the bowl I was holding over my face like a guest at some kind of soup kitchen masquerade.”Sorry Ma”, I uttered lowering my head partly in shame, but more so due to the thunderous belch I was trying to snuff out in my throat before it escaped and ended the presently tenuous civility of our family meal. “Things are going to change for us. We never wanted for nothing because you father worked so hard for his family. And although he is with the angel’s now, we aren’t so lucky. I can’t tell you what’s down the road for us but I will tell you this we have to stay together and help each other because one thing is for sure; life will not get any easier from now on.” An air of silence had come over the room as my mother punctuated her last handful of words by driving them into the stained mahogany of our dinner table like nails in the cross. “Do you understand me?”, we nodded in recognition with our hands on our laps. ” We will all miss your father. He was the magic in this house. We all know that. I know that I can be tough on you, and sharp with my words but it’s the only way I know to love you, not because I don’t. “I know you love me mama.”, Marie squeaked as her feet swung back and forth in front of her chair. “I know sweet pea, I love you too”, she comforted my sister, while glancing over at me with a gravely resigned look. ” Ma, I’m sorry…” “You two can go on if you’re finished with your supper. I won’t need any help clearing the table today…go on.”, she cut my apology off at the knees like a warhorse. My gallant steed bled out beneath me. I slid out of my chair and walked slowly out of the kitchen, my hands in my pockets tracking blood down the hallway. I carried with me a curious anxiety, for as I turned away from the table the last glimpse of my mother seemed like the view out of the back of a departing train. As I stood still there for a split second, looking at her stare into nothing, gripping the sides of the table the way you’d expect someone in a restaurant to do at the first tremor of an earthquake, she seemed to be zooming away from me on a trip she did not want to make.
I loved to read. The only thing my father enjoyed more than telling me those stories was asking me about what I was reading. It wasn’t like my friends’ parents who would ask them what they did at school and instantly flip up their newspaper to not leave any ambiguity over the rhetorical nature of the question. Pop would almost interrogate me about every character’s intentions. We would play a little game where he would say, “I bet I know what happens next. Don’t tell me.” His predictions ranged from the intriguingly accurate to the absolutely ridiculous. We would both laugh at the silliness of the latter, and he would play slap me around as he plead with me for the ending, but he really didn’t want to know, because he had too much fun playing our little game. Now that he was gone, I wondered who I would share my stories with. I shut the book I had dug my nose in and stretched my arms up into the ceiling until I could feel the muscles of my back tug on at the top of hips. Every time I did this stretch and felt that tension build across the back of my ribs I imagined that when I dropped my hands I would discover that I had sprouted wings, like that brief exertion was all they needed to break through the skin stretched thin over my shoulder blades. I was willing to settle for a walk to get some blood flowing through my legs again. As I passed the door to my father’s office I heard the shuffling of papers and sliding drawers. The first thought that came to mind was that he was back. This was all just a misunderstanding or an elaborate prank. Pop was both a skilled and cruel prankster. I reached for the doorknob with a slight tremor of nerves radiating from the lump in my throat to my fingertips. “If Pop’s in there he’s gonna kill me.”, I thought. His office was a world unto itself, forbidden to all but him. He would disappear into it for hours at a time. Me and Marie hated that door, simply because as long as we could remember it would take Pop away in the middle of a meal or a joke,with the same maddening ring of his private line, and when he finally emerged from his commercial isolation it would always take a while for the seriousness to come off of him like steam as a drink slowly brought his warmth back . I leaned into the creaking off those old hinges with my shoulders in my ears. There was no ghost, my father was still gone. It was my mother making all the racket. Instantly, I knew neither one of us were supposed to be there. At first, I felt like an accomplice, compelled to hurry her out of the room for both our sakes. But then, a hot anger came on in my head like the red light in a photographer’s dark room. Pictures of my father wearing a grim, disappointed expression faded into my consciousness. “Ma, what are you doing? This is Pop’s stuff! Stop messing with his stuff!”, I had never raised my voice to my mother but as soon as I felt the urge to pull them back into myself, I felt the requisite strength to heave them at her widening my shoulders. She didn’t say a word, only looked at me, pulled in a deep breath and exhaled shame. ” You don’t know, you don’t know a thing.”, she shot back , sounding as if she were addressing the house itself. Her hands resumed there frantic search as she dug into ever drawer and shelf like a manic mole. “You’re just a 14 year old boy! You’re soft, your father encouraged it in you. And you loved him for it. So I’m the one you hate, but I only did my best to make you strong because I knew this day was going to come and what am I gonna do with a 4 year old little girl and a damn bookworm that might as well have been born one… Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” I was right in front of her by the time she was finished and to see her like that ripped any fear of her I had hanging over me. I stood before her a bold young man, with a long repressed handful of words burning on his tongue like hot coals in an inquisitors dungeon. ” You are the one who hated us. You always hated us because he loved us more than you.” I felt a bolt of lightning strike my cheek and the next thing I knew, I was laying in the corner of the room with her shaking that fist full of thunder at me. “What do you know about me and your father? Huh? You ever wonder while all those lovely stories your father would tell you were about the old country? Why he would always change the subject when you asked him something about when he grew up? He couldn’t bring himself to remember that’s why. He sure was a storyteller your father. He could make up a lie so pretty he wanted to believe it himself. Look at this house, look at this town, we’re all in his story Micheal. The story about the upstanding Mr. Joe Shannon and his lovely wife and children. It wasn’t in me to put on a mask for all of you, for all of them! How do you think it made me feel to realize I wasn’t good enough anymore, he wanted the wife he made up, the life he imagined. How much do you have to hate somebody to do that to’em?” As she sobbed into her hands I struggled to make sense of what was happening. Some of the words she had just spoken were recognizable, I could process them individually, but I couldn’t make sense of her outburst in it’s entirety. All I knew was that I had never seen her like this, her whole body collapsing convulsively into every snotty yowl. There was a foreign feeling seeping from a spreading crack in my resentment, one I had never associated with my mother; it was pity. I crawled my way to her lap, my cheek still throbbing with the venom of her chastening slap. This iron lady, despite her frigid disposition was the immovable stone of my life, and now she was simply a legend crumbling before me like the ruins of the Acropolis. My hands dragged themselves up her shins, over her knees tentatively, as their shaking made it seem they could give way at any moment, and then to the hands covering her sobbing face, collecting tears like a fountain of sadness. There was still a bit of uneasiness being so close to her, but before I knew it she had draped herself over me. A kiss on my head convinced me of what a thousand comforting reassurances from my father and friends could not. It was in this moment that I came to believe in my mother’s love, and its profundity was more frightening than any disciplinary threat she had ever made or delivered on. What I had believed my whole life to be an untraversable and barren gulf between us was now flooding with her anguish. “I’m so sorry for this, but you can’t be a kid no more Micheal. You have to be a man. You have to be strong.” I was weeping now. The cliché was now a rite of passage. And somehow I knew, as my mother’s mouth warped to form her next words, that the tale of my childhood had run out of pages. “Answer me this Mikey what did your father, God rest his soul; what did he do for a living.” I scanned her face for the rest of her question and answered in befuddlement, ” He was a… a businessman.” She nodded solemnly, pressing her eyelids into the top of her cheeks. “And tell me my beautiful boy, how was it that your father passed?” “Ma…”, I wept in protest of the cruelty of her line of questioning. “He was in an accident Ma! You know that..c’mon stop… just stop.”, her response to that answer and my impassioned pleading for mercy was identical to the first. Only this time, she shrugged me off of her and lifted the top of my father’s Desk in a way I had never seen a desk open. She than reached both her arms into the ornate woodwork of my father’s sacred alter and like a knight of lore, removing the enchanted heart of a vanquished dragon, pulled from it a pistol and a bottle of brandy. She smacked them into the desktop like she was playing a game of spades as she spoke to me with her head hanging in regret. “This, was your father’s business…and this, is what let him live with it.” So many layers of illusions I had accepted as reality, as my world, were falling away so quickly I thought that this is how the trees outside must feel like in the middle of fall as they shed their green youth and wilted slowly in wait of a winter they had no assurance would ever end. “And one more thing you need to know son, is that your father ain’t die in no accident, but whatever trouble he found on that road outta the city; it’s sure to find us soon enough.”