The Dead Are Not Dead

Once you’re grown up, you stop making a big deal about your birthday. If you’ve learned anything over the years it’s not to wreck a nice thing by wishing it were nicer.

On my birthday last month I had mail from my sister in Florida and my husband David’s 90-year-old uncle. That was it for cards.

But I also got many shout-outs from my friends on Facebook and what did I care that a spot at the top of their ‘page’ told them it was my birthday? I still felt touched.

I saw my kids and there were presents.  It was all very nice and after they’d all left and David and I were settling in for a quiet night we had an exchange that I think surprised us both. “So did you have a nice birthday?” David asked me.

“Oh I really did! Only… well, my mom hasn’t called yet.”

“I know,” he said with a kindly expression, “but she will!”

“How?” I said, and we smiled sadly because both our mothers lie now under that rafter of satin and roof of stone that Emily Dickinson once spoke of.

Still, what he had said changed my whole orientation.

For some reason I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I lay in our bed for two long hours before doing something I had never before done in our marriage: I left our room and went to the guest room, whose bed felt strange and unaccustomed.

I lay in it for yet another hour. Finally, giving up on sleep, I went and got my laptop and brought it t back to the bed.

I opened up the social network called ‘Goodreads’ and there saw this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping in which she is writing about the ones we miss:

“There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home.”

I had to stop a minute at the tenderness of that phrase: “the hope that the memory will become flesh.”

I read on, to where she speaks of the accompanying hope that “the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

“To stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness”: ah what a touching image! I closed the laptop then and was again stretching out in that unfamiliar bed when I suddenly I realized it wasn’t unfamiliar at all. The bed I was lying in had been my mother’s own bed, the same one in which I had lain during every childhood illness, while she slept across the narrow hallway with both doors open so she could watch me as I slept.

So I had had heard from her after all, just as kindly David had said I would, a realization that caused me to smile, yawn once, turn on my side and sleep like a baby ‘til morning.