Out under a big maple downtown, the orange and brown crabbed leaves coming down all around me in the fall damp. It’s mist and dark, the hissing car tires on the wet street, ending up face to face, a small club, the world chugging, turning and steaming by around us as we searched for the words we already knew.
Three of us, a small triangle with one at each point, all members in the fraternity of parents too recently dead.
There is no secret handshake, no ring or pin for this club. But there is a knowing look that passes back and forth, a sinking, settling understanding of one small facet of one other.
One of those universal moments that you can look back at and clearly divide time into the “before” and the “after.” Been there, done that, have the invisible mark.
Cleaning out houses and drawers and closets, packaging up clothes and dividing up the contents of kitchens. Estates and lawyers and all of it in a strange world of hollow motion, hardly believing how definite everything is. How quickly the solidity of houses you knew for half a lifetime become the thread of memory.
It’s hard work, and it’s often done fast: some people take no prisoners, move quickly, save little. Their value is in memory, not things.
Others find it nearly impossible not to save everything: it’s not always with the argument that each thing kept will be useful, either. There are totems in kitchen knives and apple-slicers, in coffee grinders and old, too-worn hats. Sometimes memories live in things.
It’s the mucking out of lives, the setting of memories in amber. The memories are sharper, yes, but they are also now unwavering, unchanging — fixed and done, stories that have ceased developing.
Stories you will get to tell repeatedly, but that are more stage-play than family drama.
Think of this as a warning: a friendly warning, but a warning nonetheless.
The world changes. People change. You can watch parents fade, watch their lives become more complicated — and make yours more complicated in the process — and even reach that clear point where you know it might be better for all if they faded faster.
But you’re not much ready for what’s next, no matter how much you believe you are. It is a sharp black line that you won’t see until you are across it.
I remember years when my grandfather — my mother’s father — died, and I remember my mother saying, over and over, that it was for the best, even though her face made clear that however hard things had become, she wasn’t convincing herself.
I remember my father clearing out his parents’ house — the end of the crabbed handwritten letters from his father that tumbled through the mail slot in the front door at least once a week, small close writing on both sides of the page to save postage — and I remember my father coming back with fistfuls of old coins that he, their only son, had found in bags and boxes and closets where they had been salted away, just in case.
I don’t suppose I was perceptive enough to notice the change in either of my parents, that feeling you get when roots, however diseased or disused, are suddenly cut.
I wish I’d known. I wish I could have said something.
But the only way for me to know would have meant, implicitly, being too late to let them know.
I think sometimes that the world is full of small victories and small defeats, punctuated with big, live-battering shifts that change your direction and, in the process, change you.
I await with silent dread the next fraternity I’ll end up joining — I don’t know which one it will be, but I know there are plenty out there.
And there are no doubt plenty of other people who share each one of them already, and when I get there, their eyes will look into mine with that stare that clearly says they already know.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.