Man of the House
From the old couch in the den where she’d decided to die, Frank’s mother kept up her side in the everlasting conversation--reminiscence, gossip, political outbursts, spontaneous factoids, plain old yakkety-yak.  His mother awaited death just as she’d lived, stitched into the household’s fabric of words.
Frank had come home to the clapboard two-story where his mother had been born and he and his brothers had been raised.  Originally, he’d planned to stay for a few weeks before his presentation at a deforestation conference in Brazil.  Though he dreaded her decline, Frank had actually looked forward to hanging out with his mom for a spell, knowing they would blab away the days, voraciously attacking any given topic— hummingbirds, heating bills, hummus, habeas corpus, Hummers, and Hannah Corsetti, who’d run off with an Oregon man she met in a chat room.
But the weeks home had slipped into a month.  Then two months.  The only deforestation conference the digital mapper could attend would be a one-man, on-the-spot seminar on re-forestation here on California’s far northern shore.  Since logging had stopped, the forest surrounding the town grew with primal intensity, redwoods, pines, cedars, hemlocks, and firs spreading over the ridges and gulleys, unstoppable as a dripping, evergreen cancer.
A whole season passed, deep winter wheezing into a wet, wind-lashed early spring.   Cut off from his life in the city, his tickets to Brazil canceled, his map programs presented in Rio by an ambitious research assistant, he‘d felt increasingly trapped.  Yet Frank had grown increasingly attached, too, as his mother’s illness worsened.
Trapped.  Attached.  He breathed contradictions now—infantilized in his childhood home but also “the man of the house,” the only brother free to care for their widowed mother through her endless weekdays and evenings of trying to die.
As pain clawed at her innards, her face wracked even in sleep, Frank came to hate being the passive witness.  There had been so many times, late at night or too early in the morning, watching his mother knocked out on the couch, breaths ragged and halting, her forehead knotted in misery, when he’d almost reached for a pillow to snuff her face or counted out an overdose of painkillers.  Left to his own desires, he’d have killed her in her sleep after one week of this torment.  But if he botched it, and she found out he’d interfered with her vaunted “natural” death, the old lady would have killed him.
Single now, childless, Frank’s personal life had none of his brothers’ complexities and obligations.  Yet his days in his mother’s house grew more complicated as her health worsened.  He took over her long-neglected finances, negotiated with medical staff, wrangled prescriptions, and visited precincts of the drug store he’d never seen. He stood red-faced before the cashier—his seventh-grade sweetheart—bearing giant pink packets of ladies-sized adult diapers.  Each hour grew as tightly scheduled as a suburban parent’s.  At precisely 8 AM, the private-agency caregiver arrived to help his mother bathe and tidy the house; at 10:30, a hospice nurse; at noon the med-supply guy, Dan, just checking in to see how her oxygen machine was working—“How’s she doing, hey, Frankie?  I’m gonna bring my wife and kids over to meet your mom”—then the early-afternoon invasion, the Permanent Floating Visitation.
A core group of his mother’s friends, all going back to school days, occupied the kitchen and den every weekday afternoon, gathering around Sophia’s couch to continue the conversation begun almost eighty years before. Most of their men were dead or demented, so Frank’s surrounding society became overwhelmingly female -- companionable and scolding in equal parts.  These old ladies criticized Frank’s coffee as “Yecch! Too strong, boy!” and mocked the meals he brought Sophia on a tray, humble bean burritos, tuna sandwiches, and canned minestrone.  They were a rowdy, funny, loyal bunch of eighty-five year-olds he’d known all his life, but never all at once, every day.  He grew amused and irritated at their incantatory repetitions of minuscule local grievances.  “For Christ’s sake, Sophia, when are they gonna fix that pothole on North Harbor Drive?”
“Beats me, Phyllis.” His mother would sigh through the oxygen tubes in her nostrils.  “I don’t know why we pay taxes, I really don’t.”
They would exchange these exact words every afternoon, sometimes several times in the same afternoon, saying the lines with relish like actors rehearsing a beloved script.  Though these gatherings were really a permanent floating deathwatch, the old ladies’ joshing had the feel of a tipsy Sunday social.  They proffered small dishes in glass casseroles, but it was almost always Jell-O in colors like toxic mine tailings.  They bustled around the kitchen only to mess it up, leaving behind half-full cups and half-eaten cookies--“Ha, ha! Frankie, we’re just old biddies now, we don’t havta cook any more!”-- swilling his strong coffee, insisting he supply creamer and sugar and hot water to weaken it.  “Yecch! What’s with this fancy-schmancy fair-trade-organic, Frankie?  Get us some Folgers!”
His mom’s den became their latest cool hangout, and he admired the way her oldest friends understood that their job was to raise hell, complain about men, and treat their failing comrade exactly as they had during junior-high school lunches seventy-plus years ago.
Once a friend had stopped by who wasn’t part of the Permanent Floaters.  She was a beautiful old lady who spoke to his mom of things other than potholes and Coffee Mate—the summer opera tent on the Mendocino bluffs, the open space scheme for the abandoned lumber mill, the sorrows and glories of her sixty-five thousand years of marriage and six million grandchildren and sixty million great-grandchildren.  In the skinny armchair beside his mother’s place on the little couch, she talked about Frank as if he weren’t sitting there at the table, ten feet away, confronting his mother’s nightmarish checkbook and drinking a cup of fair trade organic.  “This one, he’s supposedly taking care of you?  This one, Franklin here?  Never made you a single grandchild, did he?  It’s kind of unusual, unnatural, isn’t it, Sophia?  A grown man trying to care for his mother.”
“That one?” his mother said, the devil flirting in her eyes as she caught Frank’s.  “That one there, that big lug?  The one who puts too much mayo on my tuna sandwiches?”  She patted the plastic tubes leading to her oxygen machine, inhaling deep and slightly pained. “Adele, I don’t know what I would do without Frankie.”
“Mom never had any daughters,” Frank offered.  “So she’s stuck with me.”
“Poor thing,” Adele said, unsmiling, patting his mother’s skinny arm.  “Just how long has that one been without a wife?”
Late afternoons, his mom’s young doctor stopped by on her way to pick up her daughter from school.  She was fascinated by “the process of death” and sometimes remarked on how lucky we were “to be so close Sophia as she neared the end.”  A few times the doctor sat in complete silence in the skinny armchair beside Frank’s mom, holding her hand, expectant, absorbed with The Process.  When she left, she said, “If you’re still here tomorrow, Sophia, I’ll see you!  If not, that’s wonderful, too!”
Some afternoons, the Communion Lady came by, a high-strung woman close to his mother’s age who wasn’t part of the Floaters’ in-crowd.  If Sophia were sleeping when she arrived with the Wafer, she would chide Frank. “How do you expect me to deliver the Sacrament?  Is your mother ever going to be awake when I have a chance to stop by?  Don’t you understand? I have so many more sinners in need!”
“Don’t be upset, Frankie,” his mother, waking, groggy from morphine, counseled later.  “She’s always, always been a troubled person, but she means well.”
This was his mother’s famous magnanimity, the reason her house was filled with of eight decades’ worth of loyal friends, choked-up third cousins, gregarious nephews, adoring grandsons, hand-holding physicians, and a son who couldn’t make a decent tuna sandwich to save his own life, let alone hers.  Once, days before the end, when his mother could barely speak, Frank overheard her as she took a final phone call.  It was an old acquaintance of Sophia’s, a robust but deeply neurotic pariah, lost in the task of managing her deranged husband.  In pain, breathing raggedly through the plastic straws, whacked out on ever-higher doses of morphine, his mother soothed this goofball with gentle white lies in a voice suddenly strong, clear, and warm:  “I know you have the strength to get through this. That’s why we all admire you.  You’re going to be just fine.”
Sometimes, peevish, weakened by her suffering and feeling sorry for himself, Sophia’s son, the childless big lug--that one there, Franklin--wished the lovely dying old lady would shine a little more of that magnanimity on him.
The busy weekday routine would be complete when Sophia’s best friend stopped by after her volunteer duties at the community hospital. Celeste, who grew up in the house next door, drove a vast Buick, wore spiff scrubbies, and—like Sophia before her illness—seemed more like sixty than eighty-six.  Frank adored Celeste and her neat, forthright way of locking reality into a half-Nelson and wrestling it to the floor.  Compact, brisk, suffering no fools, and somewhat humorless, Celeste helped a person see that all we could do was go forward.  With a self-possessed sense of her own originality, she would say, “Sophia, I just drove into that pothole on North Harbor Drive.  It’s terrible.  Something must be done.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Sophia would sigh through her oxygen tubes.  “I don’t know why we pay taxes, I really don’t.”
Yet after Celeste left, Frank was left alone to help Sophia get to sleep on the little couch in the downstairs TV den.  After the day’s bustle, the evenings left them only with each other.  He would read to her from the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, but neither of them could get through the simplest news item without editorializing.  “Pah!” she would cry.  “They can’t afford to fix the landslide on 101 but have plenty of money for this stupid war?  Why? Why?” 
He tried to bring the outside world back to her with slideshows on his laptop, snapshots he’d taken on his runs or errands in town—a luscious sky over the breakers on Pudding Creek beach, the first trillium blossoming in Russian Gulch, a ravenous pothole by the high school. They would watch TV, Frank numbly enduring her favorites, American Idol and Touched by an Angel repeats until they could laugh together over the fake news on Comedy Channel.  John Stewart’s jokes about the failed Texas oilman who happened to be President would cause Sophia to despair, “Frankie, why do I have to die while that barraba is still in office?  I cast my first vote for F.D.R.  I named you after him. It’s not fair.” 
Frank needed to be at her side, strong coffee ready, when she woke at dawn twisted in her blankets on the couch, eyeing him with exasperation.  Her dark gaze plainly cried, “Oh God, not this again!  Frankie, no offense, but I don’t want to see you, either.  Why can’t I just die in my sleep?”
“Ma, are you really comfortable on that junky little couch?  Let me order you a hospital bed.”
“No.  Sheesh.  I’m fine.  I like the couch.” 
Together, Frank and Sophia learned that dying “the natural way” was crappy and long and, well, existential.  Early on gray, rainy mornings she would struggle to sit up on the couch, accept the coffee, and sigh.  “I don’t know how I can get through it, Frankie.  Another day.  What do I have to live for?  Why can’t I just die?  I didn’t know it would be this hard.”
The young doctor had hinted that she could swallow as much morphine as she wanted, no one could stop her, but Sophia would have none of that.  So Frank was left to gaze at the gunmetal Pacific skies, his hand rubbing his mother’s back, and for the twentieth, the thirtieth, the fiftieth time, tell her, “Well, you’ll feel better when your friends are here.  When you get to visit with everyone.  And talk about the great doings of the day.  Right?”
“That’s right,” his mother would gasp, wincing away a jolt of pain.  Nodding, a good sport, she’d repeat, “That’s right.”
Near the end, though, after Sophia had stopped eating and drinking and the hospice nurse said it could be over any time, the Permanent Floaters discretely disappeared, obeying some unspoken, ancient code.  Frank’s brothers, their wives and girlfriends, his nephews and their wives and girlfriends, all came up from the city every weekend, ardent, chatty, helpful, bickering and devastated, but it wasn’t the weekend now.  It was the middle of the week, and Sophia had been refusing food and drink since the rest of the family went back to the city on Sunday night.  There were even long silences now.  For the first time, Frank could hear the refrigerator hum in his mother’s kitchen.
So this was how she was going to do it.  Alone with Frank, she’d kill herself from thirst and starvation on the little couch.  She squirmed, though, wiggled, got up, and lay back down, only to rise again in despair and discomfort.  “Sunset syndrome,” the hospice nurse had called it.
“Ma, you can’t get any good rest on that damn couch.  Let me order a hospital bed.”
“Maybe I should get into that armchair, Frankie,” she said, eyeing the narrow, rickety rocker as if it were the ship to salvation.  She tried to struggle up.  “Let me try it.  Come on, help me.”
Though he knew better, Frank gave it his best shot, gently trying to raise his supine mother in his arms and transfer her to the chair, which he’d shoved next to the little couch.  But Sophia was dead weight, and he couldn’t budge her, just jostle her uncomfortably from side to side, scaring both of them.  “Ma, come on, no. You won’t be happy in that chair, anyway.  It’s too narrow.  You’d be even more miserable.”
“Okay, okay.  Frankie, can I have some…pills?”
“Sure, but you can’t swallow the pills dry, can you?”
She shook her head, gulping breaths, exhausted from their futile effort, but still over-animated, jumpy.  “I don’t think I can swallow at all any more.”
“I can mix up some of the morphine pills into the Jell-O that Phyllis brought.”
“Celeste brought it.”
“That Celeste brought.”
Out of her sight in the kitchen, smashing the morphine into iridescent purple gelatin flaked with orange peelings, Frankie started to cry and couldn’t stop.  He couldn’t stop the stuck replay of what had just happened, their failed journey to the stupid armchair, that worthless destination she’d craved with childlike desire.  It slayed him that such a little wish was beyond both their capabilities.  It slayed him that after losing the outside world, her daily walk with a mob of friends down the old logging road past Virgin Creek, her coffees at old schoolmates’ houses, Mass every Sunday, her volunteer stints and social clubs one by one, she even had to lose the indoors.  His mother hadn’t been able to make it upstairs for months now, and there were no bedrooms downstairs.  No more upstairs, no more kitchen, no more bathroom, not even that stinking armchair he was going to hack to pieces and throw into the alley as soon she died.  The whole universe of one vivid, curious, gregarious human life reduced to that couch.
It slayed him, the change in the past few days, how she failed to react when he tried to divert her attention to what she could see from the couch:  the stormy skies outside, the brief, brilliant intervals of sunshine, the hummingbirds.  She didn’t cry out in outrage when he gave detailed crime-scene reports, complete with photo evidence, about the stray cats invading her garden.  The woman who all her life rhapsodized over an ordinary blue sky with a couple of clouds scudding across it —“Oh my God!  Frankie!  Come and look up at this, it’s like a paradise!”— now barely nodded over his excited exhortations, then shut her eyes.
Worst of all, she didn’t care about the amazing, gigantic white tulips that had just exploded from a planter box.  White tulips, Celeste claimed, that Sophia’s mother had planted more than sixty years ago:  “I remember the day Marija dug up that planter box and laid in the bulbs.  Her family had sent them over from Croatia.  Marija couldn’t understand why they never bloomed.  Right after that, that summer, she died.”
“So maybe,” Frank ventured, “Marija is saying goodbye to her daughter.”
“Or maybe,” Celeste said, staring at the resurrected tulips, “she’s saying hello.”
Frank ran out into the rain to snap a close-up the huge white rain-filled tulip chalices to show his mother.  But Sophia only chuckled feebly and shut her eyes.  “She’s shutting down, Frank, leaving the world behind now,” the hospice nurse had explained.  “She’s going inside, leaving us.”
He couldn’t stop.  He shoved the Jell-O aside and hurried into the bathroom to stuff a wad of toilet paper over his eyes and nose, trying to stanch slick slides of tears and snot.  He chomped his jaw on a washcloth to snuff the sobbing.  He sat on the toilet lid, hands clamped hard on his knees, head down, forcing deep, deliberate breaths until the bawling stopped.
“Frankie, are you okay?” she called, hoarse.
“Yeah, Ma, I’ll be there in a sec,” he called back from the toilet, amazed at the calm, normal man’s voice broadcasting from his crybaby face.  He slapped it with cold water, placed the drug-laced Jell-O on a tray, and turned off lights as he returned to her, hoping to hide his red eyes in the den’s TV-glow dim.  He busied himself with his back to her, moving her porta-potty from here to there, making fake adjustments on her oxygen machine, doodling with the baby walky-talky that connected his room upstairs to her side table.
“Frankie, are you really okay?”
“I ran six miles this morning, Ma. Virgin Creek beach all the way to Cleone.  I took pictures so you could see how high the tide was.  Plus, I got you pictures of the deer on the headlands at McKerricher, and the seals at Laguna Point.  Yesterday I swam laps for a mile.  Almost a mile.  If you knew how okay I really am, you’d faint, Ma.”
“Sure…I’d faint all right.  Frankie, will you sleep downstairs tonight?”
“Sure.”  This caught him by surprise.   “Isn’t the baby speaker thing working all right?”
“It’s okay.  I just wish you’d sleep down here, in the living room, okay?”
“Okay.  Sure.”
“Good.  I want you close by.  Just tonight.”
“Good.  I love that couch in there.  I really do.  I take after you.  A couch sleeper.”
She sighed, then formed the faintest trace of a smile.  “I’m sorry you had to give up your life, Frankie, for so long.”  She inhaled quick, shallow breaths.  “I’m sorry you didn’t get to go to Brazil.”
“Brazil?  Brazil?  I can’t stand Brazil!  I was lucky, Ma.  I got to go to a much better place.”
“Here.  Come on, try this Jell-O, okay?  You’ll feel better.”
She assented with a nod, a flash of open, dark eyes under raised brow.  Gently, Frank began to spoon the purple goop into her open-wide mouth.  But she coughed, sputtering bits of Jell-O back onto his hands and wrists, and waved his spoon away.  “Aagh, I can’t swallow, Frankie,” she said, her syllables all mushy, her mouth full like a refusing baby’s.  “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
“Don’t be sorry, Ma, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Frankie whispered, and began spooning the purple mess out of her mouth.  He patted her lips clean with a cloth, then sprayed her throat with the little water spritzer they used to keep her lips and tongue from getting too dry.  “I’m so sorry.”
His first thought was, how will we get the morphine into her now, before she really starts to suffer?  What would the evil tumors feel like, undrugged, when she was already this miserable on morphine?  It was obvious that he was out of his league now; the hospice nurse and the doctor had to act fast, syringes, drip feeds, whatever, first thing in the morning.  And no more of her wiggling and shifting on this damn old couch.  “Ma, I’m gonna order a hospital bed in the morning.”
Amazingly, she didn’t fight him.  She just sighed and nodded.
In the morning, after the months of agonized slow decline, things happened fast. Dan the medical-supply man delivered the hospital bed minutes after Frank called.   But Frank could hardly get the garrulous Dan to say a word as he methodically set up the bed in the den.  As Sophia passed in and out of struggling sleep on the couch, he refused Frank’s help and seemed locked-up inside his task, grim and angry.
With the bed assembled, Dan barked instructions, snapping levers and pulleys and warning Frank of its quirks. It was only when Frank signed the paperwork on the front porch that he realized Dan was red-eyed and stricken.  He swiped away fat, swift tears.
Frank clasped his shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Dan.  You must have to see so much of this…I’m sorry.”
“It’s not that.  It’s your mom,” he muttered.  “She’s a great lady.  I wanted my little girl to know her.  I hate to see Sophia go into the bed, man.”
It wasn’t that easy, getting Sophia into the bed.  Some Medicare rule wouldn’t allow Dan to help, so Frank and the hospice nurse struggled mightily, slowly shifting her dead weight over to the lowered bed using an improvised swivel made from her gathered sheets.  They hoisted Sophia, finally, and cranked the bed up, raising her head as her body sank into the soft mattress.  “I like this,” she said, taking a great breath, then shutting her eyes.  “I like it here.” 
Those would be her last words.  She almost immediately lapsed into a semi-coma, occupying the den’s center like a shrunken, inert, sleeping refugee on a barge.  The great conversation was over.
Just as immediately, Frank lapsed into false ecstasy.  She was comfortable!  She was safe!  Everything would be okay now!  He combed her still-dark hair with his fingers, nudged her oxygen tubes more fully into her nostrils, and studied her serene expression, her peaceful, regular breaths.
Frank called his brothers with the great news: “She’s gone into the bed!” he exclaimed, as if some cure had erased her tumors.  With the morning helper, the hospice nurse, and now the doctor all present, Frank felt superfluous.
Taking advantage of a break in the rain, he decided to take a morning run down at a coastal forest preserve.  A dirt path led from the beach into a wild green ravine, then up a ridge high above the creek.  The preserve had been won back from the lumber company decades before, a once-ravaged clear cut grown to a dense redwood jungle in less than the time it took Frank to pass from childhood into middle age.
At the ridge top, something dead in a thicket, some unseen, decomposing creature stank up Frank’s turn-around point.  He buried his mouth and nose into his fleece hoodie and hurried back among the dripping ferns and fallen, worm-busy deadwood.  Though the rain had held off, his face was wet from the steady droplets seeping from every mossy branch, leaves spitting at him as he thwacked his way along the narrow, swollen underbrush.
Out of nowhere, Frank’s ecstatic energy failed.  He stumbled to a halt in the open, needle-mulched understory of a redwood grove and leaned against a mossy trunk.  His brain replayed the Jell-O catastrophe from the night before, an image he couldn’t banish, the sticky, ugly mass stuffed in his mother’s aching throat.  The horror of scraping the food and medication away instead of providing it--the withdrawal of nourishment--the end of all help.  He knew, he knew he was here all along to help her die.  That was the deal. But now that death pressed close, it felt like stone-cold defeat.
He had gotten through it by casting himself as The Man, his mother’s savior.  What did that make him now that he’d lost her, death’s lackey?  Cancer’s agent?
More flashbacks attacked as he pressed himself, paralyzed, harder against the tree trunk.  On that crazy swinging-sheet hammock he and the nurse had used to catapult her onto the bed, his mother had briefly eyed the paradisiacal destination, the bed surface, like a little girl halted before a looping jump rope, hungry for her chance to leap toward the other side.  And Dan’s red-eyed anguish hacked into Frank again--over and over, now, he would have to relive his own loss in the mirror of others’ grief.
That afternoon, as he paced around the too-quiet house alone with his unmoving, mute mother and counted the hours until his brothers and nephews would arrive from the city, Celeste’s big Buick pulled up, same time as every day. 
God.  How would he ever tell her?
But as she approached the porch still in her scrubbies and hospital tags, he saw that she was holding back, reluctant, grim.  She knew.  All the Floating Permanent Visitors must know by now.  Celeste came in without knocking, without niceties, and quick-stepped toward the hospital bed.  Caught short by Sophia’s placid, lifeless aspect, Celeste hesitated, hitching her breath, rigid.  Then she softened, her hand going to caress Sophia’s head.  “My friend,” she muttered, as if to herself, “my friend…”
Frank and Celeste both turned to a commotion at the still-open door.  It was the Communion Lady, her official wafer case held out, an offering.  “Is Sophia finally ready for the Sacrament?  Don’t tell me she’s sleeping again.”
“Please. Can’t you see? Celeste quaked, holding onto the hospital bed’s rail for support as she turned back to regard Sophia. “She’s going to be sleeping forever.”
“Oh.  Oh my.” The Communion Lady edged forward, hiding the wafer case behind her ample waist.  “Should I tell Father to come by for Last Rites?”
“Why don’t you?” Frank said, all his annoyance vanished into sorrow for the Communion Lady, for the awkward moment, for the weight of her terrible errand.  “That would be wonderful.  Thank you, and thanks, too, for all you’ve done for my mom.”
“Oh, Frankie,” she blurted, tearful, and hurried out. “It was nothing.”
“Truly nothing,” Celeste said, stretching up to kiss Frank on the cheek.  She followed the Communion Lady out.  “You’re just like your mom, Frankie, much too generous with people.”
Was he? Frank thought of himself as somewhat of a prick, prone to brood, quick to judge.  And a poor choice for caretaker, too much mayo in the tunafish, too little morphine mashed into the Jell-O.  Selfish, too, secretly glad this long ordeal was almost over, glad that he could soon resume his own life, back in the city, re-connect with his own floating permanent mass of friends, re-connect with his colleagues face to face rather than in urgent, cramped e-mails, re-connect with sex and good restaurants and indulge the adult freedom of a man without a wife or children.  Or parents.
A tantalizing shaft of sunlight lured him past his motionless mother on the hospital bed out to her entangled rainy-season garden.  He’d spent many hours hacking back the feral ivy or pruning both the fruitless avocado tree and the freaky, rangy oak grown from an acorn his dad had tossed inside a junked washing machine basin.  A wild rose sent a stubborn cane, thick with nasty thorns, to twist high into the oak.  The white tulips exploded upward in a crowded, collapsing planter box.
The petals caught the sun, audacious as beauty-queen smiles.  Sunshine.
Almost embarrassing in its luxury, life’s forgotten grace note, gilded light dazzled the yard, spotlighting colors he’d lost track of during all the gray storms and squalls—burnt-orange nasturtiums, cream-gold roses.  He knelt down so he was face to face with the giant white tulips and whispered, “Hi ya, Grandma.  Hi, little Marija.  Wish I could’ve known you.”
He thought of how Sophia always choked up whenever one of her sons asked her what their grandmother had been like.  She’d never offered much detail or anecdote, just a sense of irretrievable loss.  Over and over she told the little tale of her mother dying on the couch in the living room, victim of mysterious ailment.  “When the doctor came out of the room, he pulled us kids aside.  ‘We think she died of something we don’t understand yet.  The cancer.’”
Mystified as a kid--why so much raw feeling after so long?-- now he kind of understood that eternal tenderness, that loss in his mother’s eyes when she reflected on her own mother.  He snapped off a tulip stem with his thumbnail and shook the rain out of the blossom.
Clouds sifted over his mother’s house, thin and vanishing, the billowing blue sky for once winning out. Off east, the horizon was sharp, washed by weeks of relentless rain, the jagged tree-lined ranges pressing so close—pine, fir, redwood silhouettes— he could practically smell the far wet boughs.
He slid back into the den.  He placed the tulip into the crimp of his mother’s tense but motionless fingers, then dropped his lanky frame on the couch, imagining it still warm from his mother’s three-month occupation.  Waiting for the priest and his brothers to reach the silenced house, he jolted at the words that voiced, unbidden.
They were true, and he whispered them: I like it here, too.

LEE PATTON developed an accidental career as a mystery novelist, while publishing literary short fiction and poetry, all after a ten-year spell as an accidental playwright.  In non-fiction, he's focused on political satire, adventure travel and environmental reportage.  Bred on California’s North Coast, now a Denverite, Patton has a knack for the right place at the wrong time—caught at the Iron Curtain just after Chernobyl, Vietnam during avian flu, India days after the Mumbai attacks--he left Rio the day before Carnival and arrived in New Orleans the day after Mardi Gras.