The young reporter’s first job
was editing the obituaries.
For the elderly,
they were celebrations of life;
for the young,
they were a mourning
for all the life
they could have lived.
Paige Bookbinder wasn’t much of a public speaker (privately, she rocked it), but the words she put to paper would endure longer than the voice in which she spoke them. Learning to overcome her fear of speaking in front of a group of any size would enrich her life now, even as the words she’d leave behind for others to read in their own minds would ensure her legacy.
Her authorship had once meant something, but when she worked for the one who only cared if she was the subject, she realized that she had to write something so great, someone else would be compelled to write about it.
Her dad saw it as paying her respects; for him & her mother’s mother, the daughter went, but never alone, for she paid her respects every day she continued to be someone her mother would respect. She didn’t need to see Mom’s name on a slab to remember her, for those who tended the graves of the fallen— whether in combat or long after they had honorably served— honored the stones of the dead that appeared to burst from the gums of the earth like teeth, so polished & white, the enamel worn off in places. Some markers had crosses, others, stars of David; some had infinity symbols, for belief in infinite beginnings, others, atomic symbols, for belief in a finite end; innumerable other symbols of faith or unfaith were unfamiliar to her, though she took comfort in knowing that in this hallowed ground, these men & women, despite who they served, were equal because of what they served.
Who will be there to read the latest story I wrote, however unaccredited? Who will be there to share my newest find from the bookstore? Who will be there to listen to me at a poetry reading when Dad cannot?
Who will be there to call, worrying when I haven’t phoned in a couple of days?
Who will be there to binge-watch Big Love with me when I finally have the time? Who will be there to say, “If I hear that one more time . . .” when I claim I am the Energizer bunny? Who will be there to keep me company on the deck while Hannah is being a leaf-gathering and nest-making mama bird?
Who will be there to make lame-o “mom jokes” that were only funny in the way that Alice from The Brady Bunch is funny? Who will be there to give me a reason to pray the car doesn’t break down somewhere because she’s wearing her zebra housecoat? Who will be there to shake her head at me when I brag about not having tan lines?
Who will be there to yell at Dad about his driving when no one else is in the car? Who will be there to yell “Be sure to tell them ‘hot fries!’” at Dad while he’s in the drive-through? Who will be there to yell at Dad when he tries to pull the bait-and-switcheroo with off-brands from the grocery store? Who will be there to yell at Dad?
Who will be there to eat Dad’s overcooked and underseasoned food? Who will be there to ask me to get her a cup of ice because she doesn’t know her way around the refrigerator? Who will be there to try my Grandmother Bernadean’s chocolate roll recipe, when I’ve finally perfected it?
Who will be there to outnumber Dad when he insists he’s right about some obscure fact? Who will be there to remind Dad on how he’s hardly ever right about anything because he’s as stubborn as a Missouri mule? (We come from the “Show-Him” State, you know.) Who will be there to ask, “Is there an echo in here?” when my dad and I say the same thing simultaneously, being on the same wavelength and all?
Who will be there to go with me to the World of Coke and the Campbell Peach Festival? Who will be there to stay with me in the hospital when I am sick while my husband takes care of our daughter?
Who will be there to tell me I am beautiful, just because I am theirs? Who will be there to tell me about myself, before I remembered myself? Who will be there to tell me about Dad, before I was a gleam in his eye?
Who will be the proud mama when I finally graduate from college? Who will be there for the Hannah Boo birthdays yet to be celebrated? Who will be Grandma to my Hannah Banana?
Who will be the other mother to see me bring my Ryan or Madeleine into the world? Who will be there to see them not only be good but do good in it?
Who will be you?
There were so many roles you filled that no one will be able to play the way you did; some, no one will be able to play at all.
There will just be your empty chair, for you are neither here nor there, but elsewhere.
Yet the distance between us, between hello and good-bye, is simply a wrinkle in time— a wrinkle that will be ironed out someday, after I have lived my life— the one you taught me to live.
*I read this poem—originally titled “Who Will Be You?”—at a student poetry reading at Pensacola State College in March 2018, one day after my mother, Betty Ann, was buried.
Christal had grown up as the replacement child, the third of Mr. & Mrs. Lord, for their first had been taken & given back to God. When Christal broke that barrier & turned back time to have a chance to rescue the girl whose death had given her life— she saw her own life floating away before her eyes & drown out of existence. She thought of all the memories that would be wiped out, even her very existence, but in that last second, she knew it was better to save a life by curing a death, even if it meant preventing a birth, & so she pulled the girl whose face she knew as well as her own, but whose face had remained frozen at the age of eight, from the dark waters that now engulfed them both. Flooding in tandem with the memories of living in her dead sister’s shadow, Christal had lived, in another life & dimension, in her living sister’s light, where she was no longer the replacement child, but the surprise one.
His life was spent seeking absolution, hers, validation. She sought what she needed through God’s images, but he, through God Himself.
He was a hospice worker who sought to make comfortable the ill & comfort the well. She was a pathologist who only dealt with the cadavers that she disassembled. He saw his patients as whole, even as she saw her “visitors” as parts of one. She couldn’t deal with the grieving family members any more than he could deal with the body after the soul had left it. Their vocations– his, a calling, hers, a trade– was all the reason why he came home to an empty, fifth-floor walk-up, & she surrounded herself with the presence of so many who were so full of life.
Money was the only thing that ever came between them; he made not enough, & she made too much.
A bottle of White Diamonds perfume next to the last paperback you were reading, left on your crowded nightstand with something as completely random as a piece of junk mail serving as a bookmark; a Coca-Cola in the fridge, half-full— “an accident waiting to happen,” as Dad would say; a half a pack of cigarettes with the lighter inside, every book written by Lori Copeland and Kathleen Woodiwiss, a hutch filled with Coca-Cola memorabilia. So many reminders of the things you enjoyed in life remain, their disuse telling the story that even though you don’t live here anymore, your memory does, for it is protected from the elements of decay, even as it is preserved in the minds of those who knew you best.
Her life began as a brief birth announcement, followed by a series of Owen Mills poses, blurry candids, & unfocused, jittery videos. Then there was the grainy color newsprint photo in The Patriot Press of her holding up a certificate & wearing a medallion for placing first in a Constitution calligraphy contest. For many years, that was akin to her 4 touchdowns in 1 game. She never got a write-up in the arrest records, for that was a legacy she didn’t want to leave; rather, she lived up as a subject for several human-interest stories— as the girl who sold 6701 Girl Scout cookies because of a YouTube video that turned those processed disks into decadent desserts; as a college graduate who crowdfunded her way into creating an endowed scholarship for creative writers in memory of her sister, whose memoir, Lessons from Mother Goose, gained notoriety posthumously; in her silver-haired, golden years, as a woman who made old tee shirts into rag rugs for the homeless, in memory of the brother she’d lost to addiction, whose inward riches had turned to outward rags. And then she finally told her own story by writing her obituary, for she always had to have the last word.
He had been there to see him leave the earth but not to see him put into it, & I was angry at the world that had not magically changed because someone was no longer in it.
In burying my father, she had buried, it seemed, the last facet of her old self. She had gone from a grieving widow to a blushing bride-to-be in the matter of an hour,
& no one from the LDS Church knew of the quickening of Patrick Nolan’s soul to the Spirit World.
The first ceremony would be a civil one, followed by a spiritual one. Just like everything else, the marriages of other churches were the preparatory marriages, & Mormon marriages, the sealant.
Because my father had died, my mother would live as she pleased, but hadn’t she always? For if one had already enjoyed the intimacy of marriage without taking the vows, then how special could making it legal be? For what was marriage but a representation of monotheism— of being subject to one entity till the death of oneself or the death of the other.
I was a hollow vessel where Mother’s empty words echoed, taking no delight in what I had dreamt of for as long as my eyes had beheld the glory of David Dalton.