My parents are gone. They walk the earth no more. My father died of lung cancer in 2007 and my mother went the same way in 2011. Their bodies were cremated and turned to ash, and no trace of their existence has been left behind.
And this disturbs me because with each passing year, their images become more turbid in my mind, as if their faces are shielded by expanding gray-black clouds. I try to retain what I remember—my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose, my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.
I often listen for their voices in the wind when I go walking in my neighborhood. While looking up from the sidewalk, I wonder, “Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze the voice of my father (Francis), whispering, letting me know he’s still
around … somewhere … over there?”
Does a squawking crow perched in a leafless maple tree carry the voice of my mother (Carmella), admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?
Resorting to a dangerous habit, I use people and objects as “stand-ins” for my mother and father, seeking in these replacements some aspect of my parents’ identities.
A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint embodies the spirit of my father, burdened by debt, playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff. I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell, if only to discover who resides there.
I also recall the memory of spotting an older woman standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines’ cake mixes in a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night.
With her short frame, dark hair and glasses, she cast a similar appearance to my mother. Yet as I write these words I question the veracity of the memory. I ask myself: did I actually experience this scene or invent the figure of the woman because I missed Carmella and wanted to see again? The incident—real or imagined—conjured another reminder of my mother, as I would often go to the grocery store with Mom after we attended the vigil Mass at St. Peter’s Church in her hometown of Rome, New York.
So while the truth of this memory cannot be authenticated, I seem to remember the woman scanning the labels of the cake mixes, perhaps looking for a new flavor, maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet or Lemon Supreme, just something different to bake as a surprise for her husband. An absurd desire struck me—I sought to claim her as my “fill-in” mother. I wanted to reach out to this stranger in the store, place a hand on her shoulder and tell her how much I missed her.
I conclude I am torturing myself with this twisted personification game. My parents are dead and possess no spark of the living. And I can no longer try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
But selfishly I am afraid if my parents disappear from my consciousness then I too will become invisible. The reality of a finite lifespan sets in as I calculate how much time I have left. My dad died at age sixty-four and my mom passed away at sixty-six. I am now forty-seven. Will I live beyond the mid-sixties mark? Do I have twenty good years left? I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that, unlike both of my parents, I am not a habitual smoker.
When I witnessed the cancer consuming them, transforming their bodies into shriveled husks, I realized that although death takes different forms, it achieves the same goal—always, without exception; we all end up in the same place.
This reminds me of an incident I experienced when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, from 1998 to 2006; one sunny weekday morning a woman ran a red light at an intersection and her compact car slammed into my used, root beer-colored Honda Accord, crushing the front end and passenger side. My car was totaled and towed to an impound lot and I went there to retrieve some items I had left inside (although I think I forgot to grab my golf clubs from the trunk).
I remember the property owner took me in a golf cart to my vehicle, which was parked, or more accurately dumped, somewhere in the middle of the lot. Driving on the lot, I witnessed row after row of smashed automobiles, disfigured with shattered windshields, collapsed roofs and twisted bodies. It seemed reasonable to assume people had died inside many of those cars, as the human body could not have survived the impact of the collisions, as evidenced by the damage.
I came to two conclusions after leaving the impound lot. I thought the department of motor vehicles of each state should require all motorists to tour these vehicle graveyards before issuing any drivers’ licenses. I believe it would make us all safer drivers. The second observation was that we all end up in a similar impound lot—which can take the form of a plot of land in a cemetery, a space in a mausoleum or an urn after cremation. Our damaged bodies give out, succumbing to cancer, stroke and heart failure; or we die in car wrecks, falls at home or workplace accidents. We’re all equal in death; once again, there are no exceptions.
Yet we grapple with this central fact of life; we rebel against it, trying to delay death, hoping to stretch our years through exercise, deep breathing and gluten-free or Mediterranean diets.
And we hold on to our loved ones after they have departed this realm. And while this is a natural response, we find our post-death memories unsatisfactory. Our thoughts and reflections about our deceased friends, brothers, sisters, spouses and parents can never constitute a living relationship.
Losing a parent puts you in fraternity you cannot join until your mother or father dies.
This deep ache of loss can only be understood or shared with other members of the group after you experience it. And the death of a parent marks a new chapter in life; it signals the knell of mortality. I heard my parents’ postmortem voices mingling into one and calling out to me: “Listen up buster, time is fleeting. You’re no different than us. We died and so will you. So if there’s something you want to do with your life, get busy doing it. Right now.”
My wife, Pam, often dreams about her deceased mother. In one dream, Pam described how she and her mother, Flordeliza, held hands while stretching out on a bed and gazing up at a night sky filled with stars. In the unconscious sleep world we can alter architecture to suit our needs, and I imagined Pam’s dream bedroom came furnished with a retractable roof like the one at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
In the dream Pam apologized to her mother for having been a “bad daughter.” Flordeliza squeezed Pam’s hand and said, “Don’t think that way. You were a good daughter.” And then Pam said she saw a shooting star and told her mother she hoped to win the lottery someday. After she awoke in the morning, Pam jotted down some numbers she recalled from her dream. I think she used them in some lottery tickets she played, but we’re still waiting for her to hit the jackpot.
I wish I had such vivid dreams about my parents. I never do, and I have trouble recalling their physical features. It’s as if my mind has deleted their images because I no longer need that sensory information.
I’m proud to say my parents were decent and honest people. They worked hard, suffered health problems and died too young. Their time on earth ended, and I can’t extend their existence with my musings about them.
I have to let them go. I have to dismiss the need for physical ties while holding on to the memories they left behind. And I have to trust in my Catholic Christian faith and believe their souls endure in the glory of heaven.
I also realize forgetting about my parents becomes an impossible and undesirable objective. I can’t force myself to do it because it means turning my back on my family, my identity and myself. I carry their spirits with me, even though their physical presence is gone. I remember the love they bestowed and the lessons they taught me.
And on the night I purportedly saw the woman in the grocery store aisle, I did not speak to her and she did not notice me lurking nearby. But as I moved farther away from her, I could not resist the urge to turn around and look at her one last time—just to make sure my mother’s “double’ was still standing there. I would like to say she lifted her head and smiled at me, but she never diverted her eyes from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.
Francis DiClemente lives in Syracuse, New York, where he works as a video producer. He writes in his spare time and is the author of three poetry chapbooks. His blog can be found at francisdiclemente.wordpress.