Randall Van Nostrand
One Daughter Weeping
She’d left him alone for the time it took to make a cup of tea. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she splashed her face with cold water and looked out the kitchen window. The houses were dark faces against the streetlight’s pinkish glow. She carried her mug of Lipton’s down the hall listening to the hiss and suck of his respirator. The shawl she’d thrown over the light in the corner of his bedroom to cut the glare tinged everything blue.
She knew he was gone the moment she stepped inside the room. Son of a bitch. After everything they’d gone through, he’d slipped away when she wasn’t there. Don’t want to bother you, she imagined him saying.
Marianne checked for a pulse and switched off the respirator. The silence was a shock. 3 a.m. was too late to call the coroner or the doctor or her sisters. There was nothing to do at this hour. She sat hard on the wing chair she’d lived in for the past three weeks, hesitant to go. It didn’t seem right to leave Father’s body lying by itself. The way she figured, in seventy-nine years his body had never been this alone.
The hall clock ticked. It was a hollow sound she rarely noticed but now found significant. Time marched regardless. She touched his hand. It was warm. After all the pain and waiting, he’d left fast. Death for him had been as difficult as any bad birth. Mama’s was different. She’d died as fast as a snap in a car crash when Marianne was ten. The other driver, who walked away, was drunk. People said things like, at least she didn’t suffer. As if that could comfort three motherless girls. As if losing your life at forty-four wasn’t its own brand of hell.
Marianne wondered if she should tie her father’s mouth shut. She’d read a dead body would freeze into shape. She held his mouth closed for a moment. It seemed disrespectful. She settled for shutting his eyes.
Sitting alone in the quiet room, she gulped back grief and disappointment. After all her effort to be here for him, he’d slipped away while she was making a stupid cup of tea. Did he have any last words? He hadn’t spoken for days. Maybe he’d said something nobody heard. Stop it, she told herself. He got his wish to die at home. That would have to be enough.
Marianne woke, cold and pretzeled, to bright light edging the curtains. She neatened the covers around her father and left to take a shower. Her face in the bathroom mirror was thin and shadowed. She dressed in clean-enough clothes and put the kettle on for tea. At 8:00 she started making phone calls.
Isabelle picked up on the second ring. She was crying before Marianne finished saying, Daddy’s gone. “Does Beth know?” she said. Order mattered to Isabelle. It was why Marianne had started with her.
“No, you’re the first person I called.” Issy continued to sob. Marianne would drown if she didn’t get off the phone. “I have to make more calls,” she said as gently as she could, and hung up. Beth was next on the list. It went to voicemail and she left a message. She called Uncle Arthur and Aunt Nitra, Father’s surviving siblings, and had to stop. The rest would have to wait. At 9:00 she left a message for the hospice people and talked to the funeral home. The funeral home promised to send someone over within the hour.
Marianne supposed she should get Father’s suit and tie ready, but couldn’t face his bedroom. Last night his abandoned body was a comfort. It had been like sitting with the best friend of someone you missed. Now in the shocking light of morning, with other people knowing Jim Louden had passed, everything felt different.
She put a slice of bread in the toaster. The phone rang. It was Beth. “Are you alright?”
Marianne was startled by the question. She didn’t know how she was. “I’m fine.”
“I’ll come as soon as I can.” With Beth you never knew what ‘soon as I can’ meant. She had a medical practice, and a family, and a busy, busy life.
“That would be great. I could use your help.” She hoped she didn’t sound needy. The thought of sitting across from the funeral director with his downturned eyes and moist hands filled her with dread. His father, old Mr. White, had been compassionate without being intrusive. He’d taken care of everything when Mama died. Roger, the son, was more interested in up-selling than easing grief.
The phone rang. It was Isabelle letting her know her plane would be arriving at 4:03 that afternoon. No, Marianne would not pick her up. Yes, renting a car would be good. Yes, no, yes, no—Marianne answered her younger sister’s questions. It was like playing poker. You read the cards and noticed the tells and hoped you didn’t lose the hand on the flop. “If you want an obituary, you’re going to have to write it.” This sent Isabelle on a fresh crying spurt which lost Marianne the hand. Dainty as a daisy, Mama used to call Issy. Marianne thought otherwise. She got off the phone and went to change the sheets in her sisters’ bedrooms and make a grocery list.
At 10:00 she opened the door to a balding young man and a boy who looked about fifteen. They wore dark suits with White’s Funeral Home printed on the breast pocket and faced her with such solemn concern she wanted to laugh. In her father’s bedroom she pulled the curtains open and wished she hadn’t. Sunlight streamed through a fog of dust. The body—it was hard to think of it now as her father—looked empty in a way it hadn’t before. The funeral people busied themselves. Marianne hung her father’s good, blue suit in a garment bag and added Sunday shoes and his favorite striped tie. She found a pair of dark socks without holes and tucked them into the shoes. It was like packing for a trip. The last trip, her mind said in a macabre voice she pushed away. She slipped a fresh linen handkerchief into the pocket of the good blue suit. “He never went anywhere without a handkerchief,” she said to the men, as if they cared.
The day was bright and unaffected by her father’s death. Marianne pushed a cart through the supermarket. She threw in eggs, bacon, and a chicken, salad makings, a few cans of soup, and yogurt. She added soy milk for Isabelle, who was a vegetarian and lactose intolerant. The market was noisy. Marianne felt out of step with the happy world. A lady behind her on the check-out line asked her a question. She struggled to understand, then turned away without answering. The woman mumbled something about stuck-up people. Marianne didn’t care.
Isabelle arrived in a flurry of tears. She dropped suitcases in the hall, threw arms around Marianne, their bones bumping, and hugged her tightly without comfort. The house shrank. Marianne put the kettle on for tea. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” Isabelle said over and over. What had she expected? From the day they’d learned Father had stage four lung cancer, death was the only outcome. Facing the torrent of Isabelle, Marianne drooped.
“It was lucky Father died when he did,” Issy said as she sipped tea doused with soy milk. “His timing was amazing. Rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard don’t start until next week.”
“Oh.” Had he known about the rehearsals for her play? Could he have timed his death to Isabelle’s needs? She was his favorite.
The front door slammed. “Hello? Marianne?”
“Beth,” Isabelle said as if the Mounties had arrived, and threw her arms around their oldest sister. “Daddy’s gone,” she sobbed.
“Yes,” Beth said, holding her for a long moment, patting her back. “He had a good life.” She untangled herself and went to Marianne and folded her into a hug. “How are you doing?” Marianne leaned into her older sister and felt something hard and tight give way. She sobbed on Beth’s shoulder. “Brave girl. Brave, brave girl,” Beth murmured, stroking Marianne’s straight, dark hair.
“I’m sorry,” Marianne said, pulling away when she could get herself under control. “I got you wet.”
“It’s okay.” Beth looped a strand of Marianne’s hair behind her ear and grinned. “At least you didn’t puke.”
“That’s disgusting,” Isabelle said. She turned spikey when the spotlight moved to others.
“It’s why they make babies so cute. Otherwise who’d ever change a diaper?”
Marianne flashed on their father, such a private man. He’d hated wearing diapers and she’d hated them with him. Then he’d stopped caring, which had been worse. “How’s the baby?” Marianne asked.
“Growing. Lucky for her she got Harry’s looks. Cassie and Nancy treat her like a doll. Michael is still complaining she’s a girl. They’ll be here day after tomorrow for the funeral.” Marianne opened the refrigerator and pulled out the roast chicken. “No, you don’t.” Beth flung her coat over a chair. “We’ll fix dinner. Right, Is?” and Beth launched into dinner-making action.
Marianne, as hollow as a whistle, sipped her cup of Lipton’s and watched her sisters from a far-away country. The house cramped with their voices. She tried to care about Issy’s part in The Cherry Orchard and sympathize with her latest apartment woes. She tried to show interest in Beth’s kids and in how well the practice was doing. She picked at a small pile of salad. “You don’t like it?” Issy said.
“No, I do. It’s good. I’m not hungry.”
Beth looked ready to fight for Marianne’s hunger but changed her mind. “You’re exhausted. Why don’t you go to bed?” Marianne did as she was told, relieved not to be the one in charge. She lay in the dark and listened to her sisters’ voices float through the heating duct. Isabelle was talking about her. “What will she do now?” It was unusual for Issy to think of someone other than herself. “She can’t live with me. My apartment is too small.” Oh well, she hadn’t really been thinking of Marianne.
“I imagine Father left her the house and she’ll stay here or sell it to get started again.”
“He said he was going to leave it to me.”
Beth sounded skeptical. “Well, even if he did, wouldn’t you want her to live here?” The furnace turned on and Marianne couldn’t hear Issy’s reply. Sleep took her in a wave of exhaustion.
The sleep didn’t last. She lay in her small quiet room, listening to the hall clock wage war against the silence of time. She thought about the hours at Father’s side, counting his uneven breaths. Regardless of what the doctor, or the hospice nurses, or her sisters said, she knew she’d failed him. They all had but Marianne was the worst. She’d promised they wouldn’t let him suffer. And still, when it got bad, when he was drowning in the failure of his lungs, she’d been helpless. “Morphine, he needs more morphine,” she’d said to the doctor, trying to keep her panic at bay. “He’s in pain,” code for we have to get him out of here, we have to help him die. They’d increased the doses and still he’d lived.
“I want to go home. Why am I still here?” His voice was a rasp. He hadn’t meant Burns Street.
“I’m sorry,” she said, awash in guilt. Later, when he was too weak—to speak, or turn his head or take a sip of water—he’d open his eyes and she’d see him looking from the prison of his body. He was suffering and she couldn’t end it. She’d failed him when he needed her the most. No wonder he’d slipped away when she wasn’t looking.
At 3 a.m. she pulled on sweats and a pair of socks and padded into the kitchen to make tea. A car passed, probably one of the Durhan boys home from a party. The kitchen lights buzzed, the refrigerator hummed, the clock over the sink clicked. Marianne was forty-one years old and still waiting for her life to start. She didn’t regret moving home to help him. She was, after all, the obvious choice. Issy had her career and Beth had her family and medical practice. Marianne was the only one without something important to do. She’d seen it as an opportunity to set things right with him. At first, they’d tiptoed through minefields of past mistakes and recent failures. But the evening the electricity went off was different. He told her how he’d joined the navy on a dare and how he’d met her mother. She told him about the poetry she scribbled on the backs of envelopes. They made progress. Now she missed him.
She took the cup of tea into Father’s bedroom and sat in the wing chair returned to its place by the window. The bed, stripped of sheets and blankets, looked naked. She wrapped the blue shawl around her shoulders. Marianne wished she’d been here when he took his final breath. She wished he hadn’t died alone.
She woke with a crick in her neck and a blanket tucked around her shoulders. The door to Father’s room was closed. She put on his old flannel bathrobe and discovered his missing watch in the pocket. She’d looked everywhere for that watch. She fastened it onto her wrist though it was too big and stood at the door listening to Beth teasing Issy about something. She’d always been better with her than Marianne was.
“There she is,” Beth said in an oddly bright voice. “Coffee is made and water for tea is hot. I’m making pancakes. How many do you want?”
“None for me, thanks.”
Beth shook her head. “You’re too skinny. As a trained medical professional, I’m prescribing pancakes.”
“She’s already been to the store for blueberries,” Issy said, looking up from the arts section of the newspaper. Issy was not a morning person. “You better eat something or she’ll make us miserable.”
“I will,” Beth said with a smile. She spooned the batter onto the hot pan. It sizzled. “I’m making yours in the shape of a bunny. Cassie and Nancy love my bunny pancakes.”
Marianne fixed a cup of tea and sat in her usual place by the window. The forsythia bush was clothed in yellow, evidence spring was trying to win. She picked up the front page of the newspaper. Father always started with the sports section. She corrected herself: when Father was alive, he used to start with the sports section.
Marianne poured syrup over a stack of misshapen pancakes. She ate an ear. It was good. Beth kept up a fast and steady stream of conversation despite Issy’s dirty looks. “There’s a lot to do for the funeral so we are going to divide and conquer. Issy, you’ll be in charge of the flowers and calling anyone who hasn’t been called.” Issy grunted. “Marianne, you’ll have to tell Issy who you’ve contacted already. Also, you and I are going to deal with the funeral arrangements. Roger White and I went to high school together. I’m certain we can get him to give us a deal. Have you called Ed?” Ed was the family lawyer. Marianne shook her head. Beth was in hyperdrive. “Okay, I’ll deal with him. Oh, and there’s dad’s accountant. What’s his name, Ted? Tony? Toby? Have you called him?” She hadn’t called anyone like that. Hadn’t been able to face the after parts of Father’s death, all those details of a life finished. Beth waved the spatula in the air. “So, you haven’t called the accountant, whatever his name is, right?” Marianne nodded, her chest tight. “We’ll have to get a death certificate as soon as possible. When Harry’s mom died it took forever and that slowed everything up. I’ll go through Dad’s ledger and make a list of his accounts and credit cards so we know what needs to be canceled. You haven’t done that either, right?”
“Right.” Beth was a steam engine without brakes. “Slow down.”
“There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time. We have to get moving.”
“I know, but you’re driving me crazy.”
“So much of this could have been figured out weeks ago.”
“Fuck you. Where were you and Issy when Daddy was dying?”
Beth looked shocked. “I have a family. I called every night.”
“Yeah and I was here alone changing diapers and dealing with bed sores.”
“You had hospice help,” Issy said.
“Four hours a day. That left twenty hours of just me and him.”
Issy looked put out. “You should have said something to us.”
“I shouldn’t have to.”
“It was hard for me to get away with the baby and the kids and the practice.”
“I know Beth, you have a life and I don’t.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“It’s the truth. I get it.”
“If you wanted help you should have asked for it,” Issy said, sounding righteous.
“That’s great coming from you, Is. Every time we talked you went on about your auditions, and how busy you were, and how you couldn’t afford to be out of town.”
“But you could have said something instead of playing the martyr.”
“You’re right, Issy. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Marianne’s hand shook as she placed her fork on the table and left the room. In her bedroom she wrapped her arms tight around herself and sat looking out the window at the muddy yard. She felt heavy and out of hope.
The knock, when it came, was soft. “Sorry,” Beth said to Marianne’s back. The bed wobbled as Beth sat next to her. “No one could have taken better care of him than you did.” Her voice caught.
Issy sat on the other side. “I’m an idiot,” she said in a ragged whisper.
They leaned into Marianne, their shoulders pushing into hers, making a sister sandwich. Marianne felt their shared sadness, their history, their frayed nerves and broken hearts. They were three sisters fused together by grief. They were one daughter weeping.
Randall Van Nostrand’s stories have appeared in Chantwood Magazine, Bards & Sages, East of the Web, and Musepaper. Her debut novel, Vanquishing the Night Horse, is in final edits. As a former New Yorker, she’s ridiculously happy to be dwelling on a mountain and writing like crazy.