Later, Emily will refer to it as the Winter of Death, record Seattle rainfall as a fitting backdrop. December kicked it off, with her father’s notable decline which, at 94, could hardly be argued; but saddens her beyond belief. Emily and her dad were comrades in arms, living all those years with her drunken mother before she succumbed to her rotten liver, an event not nearly as sad as what faces Emily before Christmas. “Do you think I’ve failed?” her father said, from bed confinement.
Twenty years ago, Emily had written a poem about the much-dreaded day her father would die. The poem was called “Losing My Father,” and brought life to the idea of each body part shutting down and the hopeful notion some parts would keep going and be passed on. The poem was immediately published, but Emily never showed it to her father, who didn’t understand modern poetry. The title would’ve alarmed him. She wanted no metaphorical implications associated with the title, it was simply about him dying, and now there she was, accepting a death preparedness booklet from hospice titled, “Gone from my Sight,” with a rudimentary graphic of a ship leaving shore on the turquoise cover.
Her recent stepmother, Fanterra, weeps by her father’s bedside every afternoon at three, holding his unresponsive hand. Though Fanterra, with her seven rings, rinsed-orange hair, silk caftans, and feathered clacking mules is hardly Emily’s “type,” Emily has loved her these past two years. Mostly because she’s made her father happy, but also because she is an unbothered survivor, taking life’s curveballs in stride, and Emily likes to think of herself that way, despite her decades of therapy.
Fanta, as her dad called his “bride,” has found an obscure soap opera channel and watches Torrid Horizons, each day at two. Emily feels that the overwrought emotion in the show encourages the bedside wailing, though Fanterra is authentically distraught. Her father is comatose in the comfortable nest of morphine.
After being asleep for eight days, her father dies. The hospice nurse takes Emily’s hand and says, “He did a fantastic job transitioning out,” as if he’s competing for a prize. Fanterra, red-eyed and in a nightgown, stays bedside for the hour before the body transporters arrive, then becomes a machine of efficiency, solidifying her plans to move near her daughter in Santa Rosa, calling movers, disconnecting cable TV. She writes small notes in cursive on violet-smelling cards to all her friends at Golden Court Retirement Villa (“Five Star Fun!” the entry awning reads) and slips them under doors up and down the beige hallways. She thanks “the help,” as she refers to the staff, with a potted mum delivered to the break room.
Emily knows better than to think she can manage reading her poem at the wake, so she prints copies and sets them on the buffet table for people to take, a kind of souvenir. Fanterra moves to California the day after the wake; too fast for Emily, losing her father first and now her stepmother.
Fanterra relocates to a retirement complex one mile from Charles Schultz’s home and studio. Giant statues of Snoopy and Charlie Brown greet Santa Rosa airporters, and the information booth is set up like Lucy’s psychiatric stand. “All I gained was a patio,” she tells Emily on the phone the first night. Just hearing her voice punches the absence of her father and now Fanta right through her gut.
“There’s a gecko on my porch every morning,” Fanterra says, first thing every call. She pronounces the lizard’s variety Geico, like the car insurance. “I think it’s your father reincarnated.” Emily doubts her reptile-hating father would come back as a gecko, but she goes along with it. “He doesn’t move when I open the sliding door, just looks up at me with those robot-blinky eyes. I tell him all the news,” Fanta says, somewhat breathless; “Like how I’ve been assigned to eat meals with those three biddies he’d have nicknames for. How it never rains here. How much I miss him, which is an ache taller and wider than Everest and cannot be measured by scientists.” Fanterra prides herself with what she calls “my poetic dialoging.” Emily always hangs up in tears, filled with emptiness.
Two weeks later, Emily’s best friend Carrie sends an obscure text to several friends saying, “Things are much worse than we thought,” about her husband lying on a bed in a suburban hospital. Emily had mailed a card of recovery wishes to the house the week before, knowing he’d be going home after the severe bronchitis was tended by medical professionals. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years ago and forecast a good decade left, so any hospital time should be temporary. But talking to Carrie on the phone post-text, she learns it’s a different disease, more complicated and rarer, a disease that should get a speeding ticket for its velocity. Atrophied chest muscles, food filling the lungs, only ventilator respite until their daughter can fly home from Antibes. Carrie, her friend since senior year of high school, is stand-up-comic funny, able to find humor in the blackest incidences – her first miscarriage, her brother’s missing war leg – speaks in a monotone voice and Emily promises to visit the next morning. But the morning is too late, the call comes from a family member assigned to the phone tree, just seven hours after they’ve talked. The morning’s darkness feeds Emily’s grief, a depressing shroud. Would bad news never stop?
Selfishly, Emily worries this event will disrupt her annual trip to Arizona, then quickly admonishes her thoughts in the face of duty to her friend. The trip to the resort outside Scottsdale is her one treat each year, where she feeds the spa’s coffers, drinks Prosecco by the pool, and shops for sandals she won’t be able to wear for three months when she gets home. Emily loved Greg, Carrie’s husband, and can’t believe she won’t see him again. Her selfish thoughts about her trip over a lonely bowl of dinner oatmeal are flooded with guilt as she alternates between loud sobbing and spoonfuls of cereal.
A fat black fly buzzes to a blind blade covering her tiny kitchen window. She only has flies in August. The fly travels from the blind to a canister lid. A fly in March? “I get it now,” she says to the fly, “You’re Greg.” She smiles at the fly and thinks of Fanta bending over her pink shoes to talk to her porch gecko. Normally she’d get out her swatter, but she leaves it safely in the drawer. “I didn’t know you were that sick,” Emily says to the fly.
Her cell buzzes a text, the phone-tree friend saying the celebration of life for Greg will be in May, when all can conveniently gather. Carrie and Greg have five hard-to-round-up children and new grandkids. She gulps at her second glass of Syrah. The fly zooms toward Emily and lands on her glass rim. “Oh Greg, you sweet man,” she says, because this is how she’s always felt about him, in fact insanely jealous of Carrie’s good fortune for the first few years.
Greg the Fly is so close she can see the iridescent green wings and his line-drawing legs as he balances on the rim of the glass. Then he makes a miscalculation and backfloats in her Syrah, “Oh Greg! Falling like you did at the football game!” His disease had monkeyed with his balance in the last year. Emily rushes to get a spoon from the unsorted top drawer and flips him onto the counter, wine dots like blood staining the white Formica. Still on his back, she flips him again and says, “Go Greg!” He totters on newborn legs, unbothered by her shouting. He staggers a few more steps then flies back to the blind. The black dot of him is blurred through her tears. She can’t call her father to tell him about Greg, either the dead Greg or the fly Greg, Her father had loved Greg too, and treated Carrie like his daughter, but her father is now a tiny lizard traipsing around wine country in California.
At the resort, the front desk clerks, usually a collective abundance of friendliness, seem indifferent. Her room looks out on a parking lot, instead of her usual view of the eighth green, where she can watch the polyester seniors analyze their putts. The pool is crowded with children yelping and a couple grandmas in corners feebly participating in Marco Polo. Emily, once in the water, is reminded many are probably peeing in the pool.
“Ew! A bug!” a goggled boy next to her screeches. A black fly is bobbing near the edge. Emily makes a swatting motion at the child and says, “Go away, I got this.” The boy ducks underwater. Emily scoops her hands under Greg and tosses him up on the concrete edge. He wobbles in the puddle. Emily watches, sadness in her gut like she’s eaten a rock salad. She smacks her hands on the water in the fury of her grief. Then she ladles a batch of pool water on top of Greg, “Die!” she shouts to the struggling fly; “Just go ahead and die!” Tears streak her cheeks but are indistinguishable from the water already there. The children pay her no mind, but sunbathing mothers look over the tops of their fashion magazines. Emily pours one more water scoop to finish him off, then she plunges underwater, eyes open, and sees the flailing and standing stick legs of the children. Emily surfaces in a corner, eyes stinging, and yells, “Marco!”
Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction are published in monkeybicycle6, Clackamas Literary Review, and others. She is a recipient of a Washington State Poets William Stafford prize 2005, a Pushcart Nomination, and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. www.marthaclarkson.com