by Jamie Nielsen
I just looked up mom and dad’s house on zillow
now I’m a mess
My sister sends texts like this now because I’m the only one left. There was a time, before our parents died, when she would have chosen to stand outside in the bitter Midwest winter and smoke rather than confide in me.
Apparently she looked online at what used to be our family home: the house and barn our parents built on ten acres of Michigan farmland, the white pines and sugar maples we planted, the winding paths carved through tall timothy and red clover, the sacred gravesite known only to us, of a field mouse.
I read her text and roll my eyes. To voluntarily look at images of our childhood home is to re-open barely healed wounds, like scratching too soon at the edges of a scab.
For three years we took turns flying back to Michigan to help first Dad, then Mom, with the business of dying. The Cancer Years. We drove them to chemotherapy, radiation and transfusions. We spring cleaned and winterized, working methodically through “to do” lists, cooked and begged them to eat. In the end we negotiated with hospice. We rubbed their cold hands and squeezed their fingertips, watching for them to flush pink again, or stay gray-yellow. Administered liquid morphine with a tiny dropper to the pale lining of the inside of the cheek, where it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. We also cracked horribly inappropriate jokes in the darkest moments, laughing too loudly, tears streaming down our cheeks, noses running, not caring who overheard and took offense. I learned later there’s a name for this: “gallows humor.” Grim and ironic humor in a desperate or hopeless situation.
My sister and I bought matching pinky rings, at a gas station, I think. Small plastic cupcakes with sparkles glued on. We wore them through both funeral masses and both wakes, drinking too much and bearing witness as Mom and Dad’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues unburdened themselves, unloading stories, confessions, and grief over cocktails and deli trays. Just one man, a friend of many years, sat quiet and small on the living room floor and watched a video from Dad’s 70th birthday, crying silently. An island in a sea of voices.
We were left with funeral and crematorium bills, and a home place full of all the physical evidence of lives well lived, which in the end is disassembled and reabsorbed back into the world with terrible and relentless efficiency. We were also left with a sort of tentative new alliance. Untested and strange, it had germinated like a mustard seed, growing up through a crack between the things we thought of then as bigger and stronger: suffering, loss, guilt, regret.
We had to sell. With our husbands and children we cleared out the house and barn, excavating through layers of our childhoods, and then deeper, down into our parents’ lives before we were born, until there was nothing left. It was all cleared out or packed up: a dollhouse full of mouse nests, a pregnancy journal from 1974, baby dresses and sunhat, wedding rings, U.S. Army discharge papers, a frozen watch with a band still echoing the curve of a wrist. My sister was the last one to walk out and lock up. She told me that at the last minute she ran back and emptied Mom’s spices from the kitchen cupboard, dumping all of the dusty little jars and tins (many of them expired) into a plastic grocery bag and taking them with her. To leave them behind felt like an act of betrayal, those tiny mute witnesses of all the seasons of a family.
Neither one of us has ever gone back, but we both dream about it. At first our parents made brief appearances in our dreams, or seemed to be somewhere nearby—just around a corner maybe—but more recently the house has felt empty; the loneliness having spread even there, to the landscapes of sleep. To my surprise I still had a copy of the house key, in my last dream. I stood outside, under a trellis of night-flowering vines, and watched for any movement or light in the windows. Seeing none, I let myself in, and found only a desiccated Christmas tree, coatings of dust, stale air.
In one of her dreams my sister was standing at the bottom of our driveway, unable to go home, when one of the new occupants walked down from the house and handed her a palmful of her own baby teeth. I listen to her on these calls from her new home in Reno, Nevada. I’m still surprised sometimes, and grateful and humbled that she shares these details with me.
Before everything else we were little girls together, with loose teeth and gap-toothed grins. Now we are archivists of a shared history, the only two left linking past generations to the next. I take comfort in knowing that she’s still got those spices, and she takes comfort in my knowing about it. In my knowing all about it.
found a flight to Reno
I sent you the itinerary
we can celebrate ur birthday
About the photographer: Tracy Whiteside is an internationally published Chicago-area photographer and writer who has been sharing her writing for several years. A photographer since 2004, Tracy works in many genres. You can enjoy her irrational mixed bag of images on Instagram @whitesidetracy. Image: Blue and White Barn.
You’ve captured it all so well, Jamie – the dying and clearing out and changing relationships to others and to life. Oh, I wished I dreamt about it. Maybe that will come.
This is stunning, Jamie. It strikes me how a loss can become a bond. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words.
Jamie, beautiful images, as always in your writing. Thank you.
Life, so complex and hard to understand…sometimes not until death concludes. Death, seemingly simple, yet often even harder to understand or accept. Jamie, as always, your voice reassures, soothes, without evasion, and helps with the hard stuff of losing loved ones. And, you remind us of the importance of bonds with those who are still with us. Thanks!