Breaking the News

Rebecca McClanahan Click to

Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot (a multigenerational memoir) and a revised edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively.  A recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize and the Glasgow Award from Shenandoah for her suite of essays The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop.

She has that look on her face again: the etched brow, the tight mouth. She is trying to work something out in her mind, a mind that travels I know not where. But I know what my mother is about to ask. Usually it happens in the evening, after my father has left his recliner to sit beside her on the sofa, grasping her hand firmly, as if to ground her in the now. The now in which they are a frail and fragile pair, set adrift each morning—he with his cane and she with her walker—to wander these rooms, waiting for the door to open and someone to enter, as I have just entered, with lunch or dinner or flowers, bearing news from the land outside their door.

By the look on my father’s drawn face, I surmise what has happened in the hours I have been away. She has asked him the same questions she is about to ask me. Over and over she has asked him, and refused—silently and without anger, which is her way—to accept his response. So why not try again, with this new person who has just appeared on the scene? This woman who has brought their dinner, who looks familiar to her, who—yes, I see it in her eyes now, today she knows I am her daughter, she will ask me! Certainly a daughter will bring the right news.

“Enter: Messenger” almost never portends good. Ask Oedipus, Eurydice, Romeo, Medea, Creon, the Queen. Guilty or innocent, they all clamor to know. “What’s the newest grief?” they ask. “Give sorrow words.” Mother releases Dad’s hand and leans forward on the sofa. “I need to know something,” she says. Her tone is matter-of-fact, without any emotion I can discern. She takes a deep breath, releases it. “I need to know if and when my parents died.”

When means little to Mother. She’s like God in that way, the God of Abraham, I mean, of whom the Psalmist wrote, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” Each morning, ten minutes after eating, she asks if breakfast is ready yet. And when I return from a brief trip to the grocery, she exclaims at how much I’ve changed and how she missed me. So if I answer, as I have before, that her mother has been gone thirty-five years and her father twenty-six, it will have little effect. It is not the when; it is the if  that always stuns her. Each grief, however old, is the newest.

Years ago, before her mind left on its own journey, Mother told me that she still thought of her parents every day. I fear that it will be the same for me, years from now, or months, when I too am an orphan. “Every single day,” she would say. She had cared for her mother for two years, and in the last week of her life my grandmother suffered deeply. “Her eyes were like tunnels of sadness,” Mother once told me. “I’d never seen such pain before—so quiet.” My bereft grandfather lasted twelve years, with hardly a day when Mother was apart from him. Toward the end, he was escaping out the door—Lear loose on the heath— in search of a bus to catch or a young woman to pursue with candy and flowers, or, seated on his favorite chair, an imaginary chorus of listeners to regale with poems he recalled from childhood. His final exit was a hurried affair, executed while Mother was gone for a few days to visit her grandchildren; a stranger delivered the news over the phone.

“If. And when,” she repeats. Her lifted eyebrows place her in time. And the sudden glint of light across her brown eyes: Hope. Expectation. The innocence of a child who knows only this moment. For in her mind she is their child now, their youngest, waiting with her big sister for their parents to return from the auction. Or from the county fair, where her father is showing his best heifer. I think of the messenger in Macbeth, who keeps delaying the news of Macduff’s slain family—the “tidings . . . heavily borne.” Heavy, yes. But bear it you must, if you are the messenger. Some days I feel its weight, like a stone set deep in my chest. But today the news feels lighter, and more terrible for its lightness, its fragility: an egg, balanced impossibly on the edge of its shell. The slightest move and it will break. Macduff’s messenger, before he breaks the news open, answers with a lie that tells the truth: “No, they were well at peace when I did leave them.” But if I tell my mother that her parents are well at peace in Indiana (almost true, as their headstones are there) she will want to pack right now for the trip, she misses them so.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” I say. Dad winces. He knows what is coming, which may be why he has chosen to sit next to her, so as not to see her face as the news settles once again. The egg inside my chest shifts slightly. “Your parents are dead.”

If it were my father receiving such news, there would be tears, the blessed catch and release of tears. And then we would be done. My mother’s brown eyes fill, always, but rarely spill.

Now one of her hands rises to her chest, the other to her mouth in a classic gesture of grief. “Both of them?”

I nod.

She gasps, then slowly releases the breath. Some days, the litany continues—her brothers, her sister, uncles, aunts, her own dead child—until her mind is swept clear of the past. Today, though, there is only silence. Yes, I think. We are done here. Please, let us be done.

But she is not done. “My father?” she asks.

I nod yes.

She crosses both arms over her chest. “My mother too?”

“Your mother too. I’m so sorry.”

Another deep breath, and she moves one hand to her throat. She swallows, audibly. Swallows again. I know what is coming. If and when I ask this question myself, decades from now, I know what I hope to hear.

I lower my head and look down at my lap. When Mother speaks, her voice is scratchy, ragged. “Did she. Suffer?”

I lift my head to meet my father’s eyes, red-rimmed and rheumy. Then force myself to look directly into my mother’s: “She went out quickly. There was no pain.”

Her hand moves from her throat to her lap. “Good,” she says, nodding. “That’s good.” She places one hand carefully over the other. For the moment, both hands are at peace. Her eyelids are growing heavy, she needs to sleep. When she wakes, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, it will be a new day. The doorbell will ring, the door will open, and there they will be—her mother in the pink cotton dress with the rickrack trim, her father in his best white shirt—and she will hurry to greet them.


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