On the Third Anniversary
Age of Decedent: 57
Last night, I dreamt of my mother. Not as she was at fifty, but as she must have been some thirty years ago: long dark hair, smooth skin, and soft hands. I had never seen her so young, except in photographs. But there she was, bundled in a wool cap and scarf. We skated on Tueller’s pond, the air cold and crisp on the tongue. She cut long, clean slices in the ice and I followed clumsily. Wait, I cried. Wait for me. With a single twist, she flipped, facing me, reaching for my small, mittened hands. When it’s cold enough, she said, the river will freeze, and we can skate as far as the river takes us. My pick caught and I flung forward. But where her arms might have caught me, there was nothing there. My mother had gone. I was alone on the ice.
I wake to cold, December air. The blankets and sheets have shifted off of me in the night, I am naked in the dark. Clair sleeps soundly beside me. I kiss his sleeping dark head and steal from the bed. The floor is cold too. My steps rise forward to the tips of my toes. I scramble blindly for my slippers, but they are not beside the bed. I do find my clothes though. My fingers catch on the rough glitter of my cocktail dress. Yes, that’s right. We went to a party last night. The alarm clock on the nightstand glows faintly red. 5:16 a.m.
Time of Death: 5:16 p.m.
The boys will wake soon, but Clair will sleep in; it’s a Saturday morning. I forgo the search for clean clothing and lock myself in the bathroom. I catch a glance in the mirror. Do I look hungover? Will the boys notice? Are they even old enough to notice? I sigh and rub my eyes. Marshall is nine. TJ is only five. If they ask, I’ll say I had a nightmare.
But it wasn’t really. It was the nicest kind of dream. The kind you wish you could live in forever.
TJ cannot remember his grandma. Marshall remembers a little more. Playing checkers in the den. Ice cream at the park. The truck she gave him that Christmas. Ten days after she died.
Date of Death: December 15, 2012
We saw my parents twice a year. Christmas and Fourth of July. Which meant Marshall only saw her twelve times in his whole life, maybe fifteen, counting the times they made special trips out to see us. Fifteen times in six years. We should have made the trip more often. What’s a seven-hour drive, when you only have six years to remember someone for the rest of your life? We lived in Nebraska then, in a small little town where Clair worked as an extensionist for the University. We’ve since moved back to Evanston to be close to Dad. He’s 62 years old, but he moves like a horse too old and broken to work anymore. Grief did that to him.
Residence at Time of Death: 106 Broken Circle Drive, Evanston, Wyoming
I turn on the shower and let it run until the bathroom is cloudy with steam. The fog distorts my features in the mirror and for a minute I see Mom in my reflection—that young beautiful woman I saw in my dream. I have her hair, her long, lithe body, but my face is all Dad’s. Short, squarish nose and crooked teeth. These are gone, obscured by the condensation. I press a hand to the mirror, waiting to feel her touch through the glass.
“I miss you,” I say. But of course, there is nothing in response.
Decedent: Arlene Campbell Carlisle
The shower patters behind me, but I cannot bring myself to enter. I fear that if I shower, I will wash the dream from me, and if I wash away the dream, perhaps I will wash away one more memory of her. Did we skate on the pond, just the two of us? Did she catch my little hands in hers and pull us in circles around the pond? I don’t remember. I don’t remember. And what about the river? Did we ever follow it as Mom had promised? Maybe Dad will know. I resolve to call him later today, and this puts my mind to ease. I slip into the hot, steaming shower and press my back to the wall.
I take longer than usual, and yet I’m not even sure I remember to shampoo my hair. It’s all lost in the fog around me, the fog inside me. Perhaps I’m still a little drunk. My head presses at my temples. I should eat something, drink some coffee. Maybe I’ll make breakfast for the boys.
I dress quickly, the cold even more biting now that I’ve known warmth, and make my way downstairs. The TV sings with Saturday morning cartoons. Marshall lounges in his father’s armchair. TJ is passed out on the couch.
“Pancakes sound good?” I ask, leaning in the open frame between the living room and kitchen. TJ snores softly.
“We had cereal,” Marshall answers, without looking away from the TV.
I find the cereal spilled across the counter and the milk jug sitting by their half-eaten bowls on the table. Mom made breakfast every morning. Sometimes just hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper. More often, a hearty meal with hash browns and sausage on the side. I’m not sure Dad even makes breakfast anymore. I’m not sure he eats. His frame is thin and sagging on his bones when we meet up with him later that day.
Spouse: Roger Carlisle
“It’s been three years,” I tell him. I haven’t asked about the dream yet. “You’ve got to move on with your life.”
We sit at a park bench, huddled together against the cold. The boys skate on the city-run ice pond with Clair. The rink opened early this year, the cold already fallen like a curse. It had been cold in Nebraska too, but not like this. The dark gloomy skies, and cold, cold wind that never stops. It whips at us, pulling tears from our eyes and then freezing them to our cheeks. Dad wipes his face. I wonder if he might be crying for other reasons.
“I just think… what would she do? What would Arlene do, if our places were swapped?”
“She would live her life, you know,” I say. I am certain this is true. Mom had lived a long, happy life, though it had not been long at all. Some people believe hearts have a limited number of beats. If Mom was predestined to have fewer than most, at least she had used them wisely.
Cause of Death: Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
“I know, and that makes it worse,” he murmurs. “I don’t know how to live without her, but she’d be fine without me… I wish it had been me. It should have been me.”
His head droops. His chest falls and rises unevenly. He is crying. I slip my arm around his, my fingers in his hand, and squeeze.
“This time of year is hard, Dad,” I say. “But you’ll get through it. We’ll get through it.”
I don’t tell him of the dream I had, or how when I watch my boys skating with Clair, I see a different pond, one I haven’t been to in years. I wonder vaguely who owns Tueller’s pond now, and if it’s still called Tueller’s pond since the Tuellers are dead and gone? Instead, I rest my head on my father’s shoulder, and feel the bone inside. His bones, my bones. We share these things. And if I share bone with him, then I share bone with Mom too. Dad tells me I should skate. Maybe he needs to be alone, or maybe he remembers that day on Tueller’s pond too. Because when I strap on my skates and skim slice after slice along the surface, I feel her there. In my long willowy body and dark hair bundled in a gray wool cap. TJ follows me clumsily.
“Wait,” he cries. Am I crying? Or is that the wind again? “Wait for me.”
I shift my weight, and I turn easily to face him. He smiles. I take his small mittened hands in mine and we weave back and back, carving circles around the ice.
“When it’s cold enough,” I say to my son, “the river will freeze, and we can skate as far as the river takes us.”
His eyes widen. “Really, Mom? Is that true?”
I don’t know. But I say yes anyway.
6 replies on “On the Third Anniversary”
I loved your story. I lost my mother in 2020 after a battle with dementia and your story made me wish I had been able to skate with her.
This a beautiful story. I love that the narrative was woven with the facts from a death certificate. It certainly reminds us that facts don’t ever tell a story. The people that go on living tell the story. Lovely read.
Beautiful, smoothly written. Glides along nicely like the skaters in the story.
I wonder was it a real dream? I believe loved ones visit us in dreams. My Dad passed away end of December 2020 so I really relate.
Thank you for such a gentle yet powerful story of the impact of your mother’s death on you and your father. The clinical report format in juxtaposition to the personal tenderness worked.
Recreating your dream for your son made the story. I often think about what my daughter and granddaughter will remember when I’m gone–I hope they have fond dreams like you did.
So many face death of a loved one in isolation now. Many share your feelings of loss. I do.
Your picturesque words were a pleasure to read. Beginnings matched with endings are marvelous.
Truly powerful story, brought tears to my eyes.