View From the Mantel
– Fiction by C.A. Parker, “Fire Flower” by Heather Crank –
A shaft of late afternoon light cuts across the patterned oriental rug in the music room. Dust motes dance carelessly in the rays of the dying sun. He looks at me—longingly—as he slides shut the antique pocket doors, closing me in for another night. Another night alone, cut off from the family that I have loved with all my being for over twenty years.
I spent much of today silently watching him across the room. This morning, he was catching up on his journaling, hunched over the blue notebook encased in its odd purple leather cover. He was so often catching up on this. How many days would he look up, his face quizzical, to ask me, “What did we have for dinner last Thursday?” or “What was the movie we watched on Saturday?” Some days, it irritated me; others, I found it endearing. His desperate attempt to document our family’s life together.
As a discipline, his journaling certainly had its advantages. Throughout these recent, grueling years of medical treatments, he kept copious notes every time we met with the doctors. And in his wonderfully obsessive-compulsive fashion, he had all the notes indexed, so that we could look back and remember what was said and when. It was an odd—but lovely—way of demonstrating that we were together on this tortured journey.
Today, without me there to question, I watched him look back at photos and text messages on his phone, trying desperately to recreate what had happened on a particular day. Often I would see a tear form at the edge of his eye as he encountered some fond memory or picture.
In fairness, he has had good reason to be delinquent in his journaling of late. Taking care of me has been a damn-near full-time job. And not a particularly rewarding one, truth-be-told. I have not always been an easy patient.
We’ve worked so hard over the past two and a half years: surgery, chemo, more chemo, radiation, more chemo, clinical trial, more chemo, radiation with hyperthermia. It was endless. And most recently, all Spring, every single day, we drove to Baltimore for five hours of hyperthermia and radiation treatments. We’ve been so exhausted together at the end of the day. So in need of comfort, but unable to hold each other, because the open sores across my skin have been so excruciating.
For two and a half years, the tumors have been eating away at my flesh and my spirit. In the face of that, sometimes it’s felt as though the brave thing to do was to fight as hard as hell; at other times, to let go. I have done my fair share of both. And we have not always been in sync at those points either.
There were moments when he told me just what I needed to hear, and I loved him for it. But there were times when I needed him to tell me that we were going to fight, and he seemed resigned to my demise. At other times, he would encourage me to rally, when all I needed was gentle acceptance of my impending death. The cancer was hard enough, without the added struggle of trying to be in the same emotional space at the same time.
The “same emotional space”—what an interesting goal. It seems like that should have become easier after a quarter century of marriage. We had probably became better at sensing each other’s emotional temper, but that didn’t mean that we were in the same place. Sometimes it meant that we argued more passionately. Sometimes it meant that we acquiesced more easily.
Of late, there has been more gentle acquiescence. What’s the purpose of fighting, when one side is bound to have the last word in the not-too-distant future? He could afford to be gracious. I could afford to be patient. We both needed that.
When hospice wanted to bring in a hospital bed, I was furious. But only for a little while. Of course, it made sense; but it still made me angry. It also made me mad that he jumped at the suggestion so eagerly. Yes, it was hard sleeping in the same bed when my tumors were so intensely painful, and throughout the night someone was always waking up for some reason or another. But it was still “our” bed, and I had a right to be there. How dare he banish me to a hospital bed downstairs in the family room? In fairness, he did at least join me down there, sleeping next to me on the sofa in that ridiculous canvas sleep-roll that I let him buy, like he was some sort of cowboy in the old west. It was part of his goofy charm.
As it turned out, where I slept didn’t really matter that much. By the time that I was relegated to the hospital bed, the end was in sight. Every week—sometimes more often—the hospice nurse would increase my medications to accommodate the steadily increasing pain. For a long time, we used terms like “trying to find the right mix” of the drugs. We continued the pretense that there was a correct balance of medication that would keep the anguish in check. But eventually, we had to acknowledge that the pain was just getting worse and worse, so the drugs had to be steadily increased.
And still, I wasn’t ready to go. My daughter is just done with college. I want to see what kind of work she finds that will give her a sense of meaning and quench her deep desire for justice. My son will be starting his junior year of High School. I want to watch his soccer games this season; he’s been working so hard. My Love and I just started watching “The Essex Serpent” on television. Who will watch it with him? I’m not done; I’m not done; I’m not even close to done.
I knew it wasn’t a good sign when my sister-in-law began coming to the house more regularly. I love her so much, and she’s such a comfort to my mother; but it didn’t bode well that she was skipping work to be with us… with me. Since the beginning of my diagnosis, it’s felt as though she thought that I was a goner. That was frustrating, but it was also true.
The day before the end, she came over to spend the day and the night. She had planned to give my Love a break by sleeping on the couch and letting him spend a more restful night upstairs in our bed. But I could tell that he was worried I wouldn’t make it through the night, and that I’d go when he wasn’t there with me. It was a silly worry, but sweet.
In the end, he slept on the couch with his sister up in our room. I did give him a little scare when I stopped breathing in the middle of the night, just to keep him on his toes. He called for his sister, and eventually the two of them decided it was a false alarm.
The next morning, their brother arrived, laden with candles and flowers. Immediately, he cleared the side table, littered with medications, gauze pads, syringes, and medical tape. They found a lacy table cloth and set up what looked like a small altar—a little hokey, but peaceful all the same. I could see the conflict in my husband’s eyes: grateful for his brother’s support and sensitivity, and frustrated that it had not occurred to him to do the same.
It was a quiet day, with a lot of waiting. This whole process has been a lot of waiting. But that was fine with me; I had nowhere I needed to go, and I was in my own home, surrounded by my favorite people.
In the early afternoon, my other sister-in-law dropped by with our nephew. They had lived with us for most of the first seven years of our marriage, and our nephew had been like an older brother when our daughter came along. We haven’t seen him in a while; he’s been away at school. He’s become such a handsome, accomplished young man, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of almost parental pride.
What will my children be like a year or two from now? They’re already my favorite people: so insightful and interesting, and both with such sharp, hilarious wits. Will they find love? Will they discover work that elicits their passion and gives them a sense of meaning? Will my death scar them, leaving them trapped in the melancholy that already dogs their steps? Or worse—will my memory fade so that I cease to be a part of their lives at all? The thought of losing them makes my soul ache. It is a far greater fear than whatever lies beyond.
The afternoon lingered on. I could hear my brother-in-law tell my sister-in-law that I had “stalled.” Of course I’ve “stalled”! I’m not trying to go anywhere! I like it right here, right where I am. This is my place; these are MY people! “Stalled” indeed.
In the end, I went quickly. I was in desperate need of a cleaning, having filled my diaper (another profound indignity of this process), and the sores on my back were bleeding. My Love and his sister got me cleaned, but it was too much stress on my ravaged body. A few more breaths and I was gone.
And yet not gone. Still here; still watching. Watching my frail, broken body cool. Watching my beloved family cry and hold each other. Watching the evening sky darken into night, the lights flickering on over the back porch where I loved to sit. The flowers in my glorious garden prepare for their evening’s rest, their delicate fragrance floating on the summer air.
The rest of the family quietly retreated to give my Love and our children a few minutes with my body. More tears, more holding each other. My heart has always broken to see my kids cry, and this was torture, being unable to hold and comfort them—worse, to be the cause of their distress. They’ll need to figure out how to comfort each other now.
There was an interlude during which people made calls and shared the news with family and friends. Who got notified, and how, seemed a rather haphazard process. As much time as they’d had to make some lists, I would have expected a little more organization. But I was always the planner in the family. Ah, well, that’s not my battle any more.
What is my battle, at this point? I’m no longer in pain, which is lovely; but I’m not really feeling anything except cut off. Should I be looking for that bright light that life-after-death books are always talking about? If it’s around here, it’s not obvious. Maybe I’m not ready to go yet?
The family continued to sit around my body in silence for a long time. I watched my mother getting fidgety and uncomfortable, but no one seemed inclined to call hospice and have my body removed. Finally, my Love broke the silence, telling a funny story about me. Pretty soon, everyone was exchanging memories and laughing together. It was all so lovely and sad and poignant. His brother got up and started fixing food.
After a couple of hours, my Love called hospice, and they sent a timid-looking man over to pronounce me dead. It wasn’t too much later that two young African-American men from a neighborhood funeral home arrived. When had he made arrangements with a funeral home? I feel as though we should have had a conversation about that.
The young men were very quiet and respectful. They invited people to leave, noting that it’s sometimes hard for people to see family members put in a bag. My Love—stubborn and never wishing to appear weak—remained, along with his sister and brother. The young men smoothly navigated my body into a bag and slid it onto a folding trolly that they deftly maneuvered outside. My Love followed them out, watching as they loaded me into the van and drove away. We had a family tradition of standing in the driveway and waving as family would drive off after a visit. It felt like that, except I wasn’t coming back.
After that, there was a lot of darkness and waiting. Waiting and more waiting. And then there was the fire. Was I in hell? All of whom I have been, consumed in hungry, violent flame. Gone. Ash.
Darkness. More waiting. I appear to be in a plastic bag, housed in a small plastic box. This is what I have been reduced to? A couple pounds of ash? This body that had been admired and sought after (and done some of its own seeking as well!). This body that had borne two children through hard labor. This body that had laughed and danced, that had cooked and feasted, that had dug its fingers into rich soil to plant living things. Is this what I am now?
Had we discussed this? Did I want to be cremated? It makes some practical sense, and he was always practical. But what happens if there’s an actual bodily resurrection and I NEED MY BODY? I’m screwed. Did he think of that? Dumb ass. In fairness, I’m not sure that I would have made that conversation easy. It would have felt too much like giving up. I wasn’t ready to have that talk. And then it was too late to have.
A familiar voice. My Love. Talking to a woman who doesn’t sound familiar. It’s a warm, caring voice, but with a crisp and business-like edge. She opens the box revealing the bag, as though eager to demonstrate that I am all here. What does that prove? This bag could be full of the collected contents of the funeral home ash trays, the cigarette butts carefully discarded.
But it’s me. I’m going home.
And now, I sit on the mantle in the music room. In a plastic box on the mantle. A plastic bag inside a plastic box on the mantle. You couldn’t have sprung for a G—D— ceramic urn? You cheap son-of-a-bitch. That’s not fair. But he can’t possibly intend to leave me in this thing indefinitely. Over twenty-five years, he’s surely learned that I appreciate a little style.
At least I’m in the music room. This was always my favorite place in the house, with its soft gray-green walls, dark wood, and fireplace. So many Christmas mornings here, surrounding that fireplace, opening presents, and laughing together. So many quiet dinners here with our kids. But I’m realizing now how under-used the space is. It’s so lovely and peaceful, but perhaps too dark and prim for everyday use. Each morning, he pulls back the pocket doors, opening the space between this room and his library, where he spends much of the day writing and reading. He always comes across the room, with a cherry, “Good morning, my Love,” kissing the plastic box.
I noticed the other day that he had started reading “Lincoln in the Bardo.” He’s always loved Abe Lincoln and has developed a fondness for George Saunders. In his head, I think, it was something to read about processing grief. I’m not sure that it’s accomplishing what he had hoped. He doesn’t seem to be enjoying it as much as he anticipated.
Is that where I am? In the Bardo? In a holding place between one life and the next? I’m not sure that I’m ready for a next life. I sure-as-hell wasn’t ready to let go of the last one. I’m still not.
It’s oddly comforting here. I can hear the faint sounds of our children upstairs. Our daughter is generally listening to music, often singing loudly, with abandon. Our son loves music with the same passion, endlessly picking through guitar riffs on his new instrument. I also hear him later at night, when he is gaming online exuberantly with his friends. Their boisterous trash-talking rolls down the stairway on waves of laughter. Sometimes my Love sits up late in the library reading, his face illuminated by the gentle glow of the reading lamp I bought for him.
In the morning, I hear his heavy tread as he gathers in the morning paper, and then retreats to the family room to sip his coffee while he reads and does the crossword puzzle. That was our usual ritual together. We called ourselves “Thursday people,” because that was as far into the week as we could reliably complete the puzzle. Fridays and Saturdays were hit-or-miss, often a little beyond our reach. Will he still be a “Thursday person” without me?
Later in the morning, he’ll return to the library, this time parting the pocket doors and coming over to give me a kiss. He often shares a little news about what he and the kids did the previous night, or what is on his agenda for the day. Then he’ll retreat to his library to work. Most of the time he’ll be at his old roll-top desk, just out of my line of sight, although I can still hear him easily enough. Occasionally, he’ll sit in his worn, leather recliner, where we can see each other. I still get a warm feeling when he looks at me, although now the looks are tinged with sadness.
Finally. He purchased a wooden box for me! It’s an oak casket, not quite a perfect match for the other wood in the room, but not a bad effort. Inscribed on the cover are my name and years (are they likely to forget who sits on the mantle?) and a flower, a nod to my love of gardening. It’s a little corny, but a sweet thought.
We seem to be settling into a routine. Now that school has started, the random feeling of summer has modulated into a regular pattern. It’s comfortable and familiar. I miss seeing my son’s soccer games, but I get reports on them. I miss living into a TV series with the family during dinner, but I don’t think I’d like the one that they’re watching now, anyway.
I’ve been reflecting on my placement here on the mantel. My Love’s mother died quite young—also of breast cancer. Sadly, I never met her. My late father-in-law was a serious procrastinator, and even though he had a family burial spot, he never had his wife buried. He kept the ashes in his home until he died. We used to laugh at this, seeing it as a sign of his procrastination struggle. Now I’m not so sure. My Love has never procrastinated. Quite the opposite. Generally, I think he moves too fast. But now he seems very reluctant to find a resting place for my ashes. The funeral home owner gave him a contact and phone number for the cemetery that I like. But he never calls. It’s almost like he needs me here.
The cemetery that we had discussed is not far from our house, an easy drive. The family could visit whenever they wanted. I had envisioned myself in a lovely, modest stone crypt, surrounded by landscaped lawns, and pensive statuary. Or perhaps a hole dug under a tree, handfuls of clotted earth falling with dull thuds. Is that what it will take to set me free, to go on the whatever is next? Does he need to let me go?
Is his unwillingness to part with my ashes keeping me here? Am I keeping myself here because I’m not ready to leave? It doesn’t seem like either of us should have that power. It feels like the next step should be obvious: follow the light, find Jesus waiting, seeing “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (to quote one of my favorite Tolkien lines), something. There should be a better system in place.
For most of my life, it felt as though the next step was obvious. Go to college. Follow up with a master’s degree, since the school offered to pay for it. Grab a law degree to ensure marketability. Job, marriage, kids, all the next steps were clear. But what happens now? I’m just not sure.
I don’t really want to go. But I don’t want to spend eternity on a mantel either. Well, probably not eternity. My Love will die, eventually. Our children will put our ashes somewhere, eventually. I guess I can wait. I’ve got nothing but time.
C. A. Parker has studied the shakuhachi (an end-blown Japanese flute) and the martial art of Aikido, for over twenty-five years, in the United States and Japan. His debut novel, SONG OF THE SAMURAI, about the legendary shakuhachi master Kinko Kurosawa, will be released in October 2023 from Running Wild Press. Prior to life as an author, Dr. Parker spent his career at the intersection of spirituality and social justice, and he has spent many years exploring the commonalities between Christian and Buddhist contemplative traditions. He lives in Washington, DC, with his two amazing and creative children, and two rescued pets (a grumpy old dog named Chewbacca and a neurotic cat named Luna).
Heather Crank is an award-winning visual artist and designer, who is equally comfortable and successful in the worlds of fine art and business. Her films have been showcased at the Guggenheim, SUPERNOVA Animation Festival, Meow Wolf, Night Lights Denver and RESFest, and her clients have included firms in the tech, motion picture, music, and educational spaces. Highly versatile and skilled, her specialties include motion design, and graphic design. Heather holds a BFA in graphic design from the California College of Arts, and is a recipient of the Adobe Achievement Award as well as a silver IDA. Follow Heather on Instagram and connect with her on LinkedIn.