Dad Died

When I was little, Dad would get into the car and say, “Let’s get lost.”

“OK,” I’d shout. “Let’s get lost.”

At each intersection he’d ask, “Which way?” until we didn’t know where we were anymore.

“Look,” I’d tell Mom when we banged into the breakfast room later. “Dad bought me a diary with a lock and key,” or “We threw stones in a river from the bridge.”

*     *     *

“Dad died,” my sister said over the phone, crying. “Dad just died.”

I walked out to tell the guests at our picnic table. “My dad just died,” I said.

I didn’t leave right away. What was the hurry? Dad had died. It was over. I sat for a few minutes with my husband and friends. We made a toast to him. I listened to the wind rustling the maple leaves and the guy mowing his lawn across the street and the blood rustling around in my ears. August. It was August.

Then I left to travel the 53 miles from our house, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the winding road to my childhood home, to Mom and Dad’s.

“Do you want me to go with you?” my husband asked.

“No.” I wanted to be alone to cross the Hudson River, to go from when my dad had been alive to the rest of my life.

I drove carefully, mulling over the sentence, “Dad died.”

Dad died. So many ds. Were they plosives? I moved my lips and said it out loud. “Dad died,” and the ds made bursts of air like small, gentle explosions from a cannon filled with confetti. Yes, plosives. Dad died—the d’s soft as pillows, just t’s really, wrapped up in spider webs. Dad died. He died.

Dad. A palindrome—he would have loved that. Dad died. Such a compact sentence—subject, verb, period. A sentence I had never said before that would be true forever now. Dad died.

*     *     *

Dad had been hoping to die since before the nursing home, and why not? He was unable to stand or walk, unable to feed himself, unable to read. For the final few months, the first thing he’d say upon waking in the morning was, “Oh shit, I’m still alive.” No kidding.

He had a dream. “I was trying to sign the check but no one would give me a pen.”

“Sign the check?” I’d ask.

“A check to let me die.”

“Oh, how frustrating.”

“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible.”

While Dad was in the nursing home, I worried about him being safe. I pitied him this rotten ending. At night I’d wonder if he was scared or lonely. I didn’t want to be there with him, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else—there was not a moment’s peace for anyone who loved him.

Still, his death was a surprise. When one’s father dies, it’s always a surprise.

*     *     *

As I inched up to the tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I wanted to tell the toll collector what had happened. Shouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t people be told that everything had changed? I wanted to hand him my five singles and say, “Dad died,” look into his eyes for a moment and then drive off, having delivered the sad news.

Instead I was robotic. “Thank you,” I said. He took my money without looking up.

*     *     *

The youngest of four kids, I was the neurotic one. An insomniac by seven years old, I would fill my bed with books so that when I awoke in the night to a silent house I’d have company. One night, as I lay working my way through Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me for a nickel at a yard sale), there was a tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Dad whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Come in.”

He opened the door. “I couldn’t sleep,” he had a haggard look on his face. He was an insomniac too, and a reader, and neurotic. “I saw your light on. Want a cheese sandwich?”

We crept downstairs and sat together at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating cheese sandwiches, two friends who had found one another in the massive, lonely ocean of insomnia.

Later, as the sky was going from black to dark blue, I climbed into my bed, turned the light off, and fell asleep, the crumbling, five-cent copy of Harriet in my sweaty hand.

*     *     *

When he had still been mostly well, we liked to carry our lunch into Bryant Park and sit under the plane trees with strangers. We’d listen to the live piano music. He was a New Yorker, Dad was, but he couldn’t walk far anymore, couldn’t remember simple things, like where his coat was, so we would take the elevator down and cross 40th Street right into the park, like it was ours, like it was filled with our guests. He’d smile at the music. He’d reach for my arm and say, “Isn’t this magic?”

People die slowly, I understood much later. They don’t die in an instant like they do in the movies. It happens in the most infinitesimal steps—in tiny, imperceptible stages. He was beginning to die even then, although I only realized it afterwards.

*     *     *

He stopped making much sense in the final months, the line between reality and hallucinations blurring. “There’s a man in a field,” he said to me one day. “He’s standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He’s shouting.”

“Is he friendly?” I asked.

“Oh yes. He’s shouting for me to come with him.” He closed his eyes and I thought he might be falling asleep. Then, in a thin, wobbly voice, he began to sing without opening his eyes, stanza after stanza after stanza of a song I’d never heard.

I kept still. If I interrupted, he’d lose his train of thought.

I felt the sun beating down on our clasped-together hands.

“I can’t remember the rest,” he said and we opened our eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asked. He mimicked my expression of sorrow because it was what lay in front of him, knitting his eyebrows together like mine, his eyes tearing-up.

“Nothing’s wrong, Dad. It’s just nice to hear you sing.”

He began to pick imaginary threads from his shirt and hand them to me.  I took a few and then told him, “You can drop the rest on the floor. The nurses will sweep them up.”

“That wouldn’t be right,” he said, “to throw them on the floor for someone else to clean.”

*     *     *

After the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took back roads the rest of the way; roads Dad and I had biked once. I felt like my heart was wrapped in a thousand blankets beating somewhere outside of my body.

I knew that the moment one’s father died was something a kid owned. It was mine. I owned his death. I was aware, from somewhere outside of myself, that I was in the middle of a rite of passage, something whose effect I would only later understand, and only maybe, even then.

I drove past neighbors’ houses, but those neighbors hadn’t lived in those houses for decades: Mrs. Whitfield’s house, the Rowells, the Giovincos, the Sloans. Everyone I knew was gone. People I didn’t know lived there now. I turned on the radio and then turned it off. Everything but my heartbeat distracted me.

*     *     *

He hadn’t always been perfect. I had hated him for saying mean things to my sister when she was trying to learn her multiplication tables. He was bossy and moody and unpredictable, but later on he asked me over and over again to forgive him. By then I had my own life, and he had mellowed and I wasn’t mad at him anymore. We were friends by the time he began to apologize.

A few weeks before he died, I told him, “I think about you here and I hope you’re ok. I think of you all the time.” He sat there a minute. I couldn’t tell if he had understood me.

He leaned forward the tiny bit that he was able. “It’s time,” he said, “for you to stop thinking about me.”

“I don’t want to stop thinking about you,” I said.

“I should have been dead a long time ago. It’s time you stopped thinking about me now.” He nodded and closed his eyes. I knew he was right. I needed to stay in the land of the living. He was going one place, and I was going someplace else.

*     *     *

I drove in second gear past the nature center where we used to sing Christmas carols with neighbors. That memory hurt, like it was a kite tied to my ribcage, tugging at me, pulling me backwards toward a suffocating nostalgia.

I drove along Spring Valley. The road was so narrow that the August vines seemed to be reaching for my car, trying to yank me into the past.

I turned up the road to Mom and Dad’s house, which I realized was now just Mom’s. As I neared it, the feeling of being pulled back and back by the vines and the kite in the strong wind of the August afternoon intensified.

Dad died, I thought, and my desire to be a child again welled up with such force that I felt the kite string strain and then snap, the freed kite lofting up and up into the windy blue sky. The vines seemed to retract as I pulled into Mom’s driveway, feeling myself re-enter my body. I turned off the car and sat there, thinking about getting lost with Dad decades earlier. Getting lost then had not been scary. Getting lost, if handled correctly, could be a good thing.

N. West MossN. West Moss is a MacDowell fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesMemoir JournalHospital Drive, and elsewhere. She was awarded gold medals recently from the Faulkner-Wisdom Contest for her fiction and nonfiction work. Her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878, is under agent consideration, as is her collection of short stories, set in Bryant Park in New York City. She is currently working on a YA novel. “Dad Died” is her attempt to convey all that went through her mind in the single hour following her father’s death.


The rabbi hands me the shovel, instructing me to invert its bowl before scooping the first mound of earth onto my father’s grave. This is the custom, he explains. To honor our loved one’s memory, we must demonstrate our reluctance to perform this obligatory task. With an upside-down shovel, the rabbi says, his free hand patting my shoulder, you cannot hurry.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get this over with. I’ve never had much patience for the Torah. I am more at home in a deli than in a synagogue, so I think about food. The shovel, as a giant spoon. I remember my father’s dinner plate, how he’d always save his favorite thing for last. Family meals were object lessons in perseverance, fortitude, denial. Dad would not permit himself his beloved mashed potatoes until they sat alone on his plate, the buttery, fluffy white mountain the sole survivor, outlasting lukewarm meatloaf and limp green beans.

Dad is a human garbage disposal, my mother and sister and I joked, watching him peer into the refrigerator to retrieve expired containers of sour cream and salad dressing—not to throw away, but to ladle atop his meal. Paper breakfast napkins were turned inside out and reappeared at dinner, stale bread became croutons for his salad, the last dribble of sour milk was poured over his cereal or into his coffee where it would curdle. While we helped ourselves to seconds, Dad waited to refill his own plate, weighing the odds that a scrap or two might be left behind.

Two years ago in the spring, my father pushed himself away from my table, hands laced over his belly, saying he’d had enough to eat. We had just finished our Passover Seder, one of Judaism’s most symbol-laden meals. We dipped vegetables in salt water that represented the tears of Jewish slaves. We ate matzo, unleavened bread meant to remind us of the Jews’ hurried escape from Egypt. We used the tips of our pinky fingers to spill red wine onto our plates, one drop for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. We concluded dinner with the song Dayenu. Dayenu, loosely translated from Hebrew as “Enough,” gave thanks for the many triumphs permitting the Jewish exodus. At the end of every verse, we sang a round of “Dayenu, Dayenu” signifying that each of the many miracles, on its own, would have been sufficient. Dayenu, our Passover Haggadah text said, was about more than praising God. It was a song that examined the status-quo mentality of always wanting more. Instead, the chorus urged us, raise your voices in gratitude for what you have.

Dad patted his midsection, saying he’d had enough matzo ball soup, enough brisket, enough potatoes. It was the first year he had turned over the role of conducting our family Seder to my husband. My father’s old Haggadah was stuffed with Post-Its and newspaper articles. His Seders were full of digressions referencing everything from the Talmud to the L.A. Times. Each piece of notepaper or newspaper pulled from its pages meant another few minutes tacked onto the Seder run time. Growing up, my sister and I flipped through our Haggadahs under the table, counting down the number of pages we’d have to endure, pressing the books against our bellies to stifle the rumblings until we got to the long-awaited line of boldface, italicized type directing Seder participants to eat the “Festive Meal.” The two of us had never gone more than a handful of hours between meals in our entire lives. Nevertheless, at our Seders, we cupped a hand, whispering into each other’s ears, I hope Dad hurries up, I’m starving.

My husband’s Haggadah had Post-Its, too—indicating the sections and paragraphs we could skip. Our children, who hadn’t received a formal Jewish education and were being raised in a non-religious household, were happier, and Dad didn’t seem to mind. My father was tired lately. He had become quieter. None of us knew that a tumor had been growing inside his stomach for months. If Dad felt something was wrong, he didn’t let on. Instead, he joked. “Dayenu!” he grinned. It didn’t occur to us that his hand might be pressing down to still hunger or pain. A hand on the belly meant Dad was full, and that was that. We’d never questioned why Dad didn’t take a last helping before asking whether everyone else had already had enough. We’d never argued with him when he said he’d be happy to scrape the layer of mold off the top of the old cream cheese for his bagel. The new package, he’d say, is meant for you. That was the kind of guy Dad was. Why would Passover be different?

My father was as cautious and measured with the information he offered up about his childhood as he was with the portions he took onto his plate. There was one story, though, that he told again and again. It was 1944, and Dad was eight years old. His father was dead, his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and he was in hiding with his aunt and uncle, living in the basement of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest with several other families. One day, a bomb ripped through a nearby building. Plaster rained down from the ceiling in jagged chunks. No one was hurt. Most important, my father said, someone had thought to cover the pot of cabbage soup simmering on the stove. Because of that, the food was salvageable. “We were lucky,” Dad said. “So very lucky and thankful. We got to eat that day.”

The Nazis didn’t manage to kill my father. Many years later, Dad’s own body let him down, in revolt against itself. Cancer, alarming in its ordinariness and stealth, was an indiscriminate and efficient assassin. The morning my father died, on a borrowed hospital bed in my childhood bedroom, his robust body was whittled down to not much more than the essence of a body, to the idea of one, to mottled skin stretched over brittle bone. I thought of my grandmother, dead at forty from typhus contracted in Dachau, as I held Dad’s hand one last time. With its papery skin and feeble pulse, it was so delicate and insubstantial I felt as though he might float away if I let go.

On a hill at Mount Sinai cemetery, overlooking the Holocaust memorial, I’m holding a shovel instead of my father’s hand. It weighs five pounds, then ten pounds, then one hundred pounds, then one thousand. I scoop the dirt, hearing the hollow thud as it hits my father’s casket, and pass the shovel to my mother and sister. Beside us, a line of my male cousins assembles, suit jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up against the punishing 101° August heat. One by one, they perform the ceremonial burial, shovel bowl-side up, flipping it back over to finish the job. Brows dripping, temples throbbing, forearms rippling, backs hunched over in shirts turning translucent with sweat, they move an enormous mountain of displaced soil back into the grave. No one speaks. The pine box holding my father’s body is obscured and the thuds become muffled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt atop more dirt. My father would be embarrassed by their exertions. I can hear him urging: please, please don’t go to all of this trouble. Don’t wear yourselves out on account of me.

Back at my house, platters from Canter’s Delicatessen await the mourners. There are pinwheels of roast beef and corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese and muenster. There are containers of pickles and pepperoncini and olives, coleslaw and potato salad, mustard and mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. There are baskets of rye bread and challah and rolls, plates brimming with chocolate chip and cinnamon rugelach and rainbow sprinkle cookies. There is coffee, regular and decaf. The excess suddenly makes me nauseated with shame. I picture my father standing at the end of the buffet, last in the long line of people winding out of my kitchen into the living room, where the early birds already sit in folding chairs, balancing sagging paper plates atop their knees. My father waits patiently, content with maybe half a pastrami and cheese sandwich, one pickle spear, a tablespoon each of potato salad and coleslaw, a broken cookie. At his own Jewish funeral, where a shortage of food would be inconceivable, Dad still wants to make sure there is enough for everyone else.

Once the guests are gone, I wander through each room, picking up a crumpled napkin here, a coffee cup and a nibbled quarter of sandwich there, sweeping cookie crumbs off a card table into my cupped hand. But I can only busy myself for so long. Back in the kitchen, the silence becomes a roaring in my ears that makes me dizzy. I double over the sink and weep, enough tears to fill cups of saltwater lining dozens of Seder tables. When I lift my head, I picture my father standing right beside me. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s retrieving the used plastic forks and knives from the trash. He wipes each one with a soapy sponge and rinses them off in the sink. As he dries them with a dishtowel, he tells me they’ll come in handy when I pack his grandchildren’s school lunches. He divides up the leftover lunchmeat and cheeses, asking to borrow a black felt-tipped Sharpie so he can carefully label each Ziploc bag before stowing it in my freezer. Maybe you can have a picnic, he says. Or another dinner, for a rainy day. Sweetheart, he continues, because that is what my father has called me my whole life, don’t let any of this delicious food go to waste.

No, Rabbi, I am not eager. I have not had anywhere near enough.

Melinda BlumMelinda Gordon Blum’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesLive Wire, and The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write.” A lifelong Californian, she lives in Hollywood with her husband, two sons, and two cats. Her favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Time Enough At Last,” about an avid bookworm who, along with his books, survives an apocalypse—only to break his reading glasses.

Requiem for a Marriage

“To James, In Requiem,” the wedding present ditty reads.

I open a yellowed envelope and find it tucked in a “Wedding Congratulations” card dated April 10, 1948, signed by twenty-seven people. My father’s coworkers at his engineering firm perhaps? None of the names seem familiar. A lavender orchid decorates the front of the card, with this verse inside:

+++++++Today’s congratulations

+++++++Carry with them, too,

+++++++The very best of wishes,

+++++++For years of joy for you!

It’s something my mother wants me to have, apparently, one of the few cards included in a haphazard stack of old photos she pressed on me the last time I visited her in North Carolina. A confused jumble, some in envelopes that are blank or mislabeled.

Alone in her apartment she pores over old boxes of memorabilia, reshuffling and sorting them according to some system only she can understand. A day later she’ll tell me that they’ve been moved, though the housekeeper wasn’t there, or that a box is empty that was full before. Sometimes she reads old cards to me on the phone, touched by the preprinted sentiments on Hallmark birthday cards and valentines my father sent her long ago. Probably she will tell me this wedding card was stolen, a few months from now.

She is often confused. She calls the management of her Independent Living complex to report that two brown jackets have been stolen. That a black blouse that isn’t hers has mysteriously appeared in her closet, and what should she do with it? That her nursing pin, which she’s forgotten that she gave me for safekeeping last year, is missing from her jewelry box. That someone has substituted a different pair of binoculars for her husband’s. “I’ve never seen these before,” she tells me. “I can’t find your father’s binoculars anywhere.”

My father died five years ago, making the title of the sixty-year-old mock “Requiem” somewhat startling. The rollicking rhymes are typewritten on a sheet of white business paper, folded in half and then in half again to fit inside the wedding card. They were probably composed by some wag at the office and read aloud at the wedding reception. Or maybe my parents chuckled over them in private when they opened their gifts after the honeymoon. It’s nineteen-forties humor—the carefree male has relinquished his freedom and suffered a kind of death by capitulating to the demands of marriage:

+++++++That Jim, to whom all the maidens looked,

+++++++For rescue from the shelf

+++++++Should go and get himself be-hooked

+++++++Is a sad commentary on himself.

*     *     *

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation. My mother Peggy was still a teenager, a lively, pretty, and somewhat giddy young nurse. Nine years her senior, Jim was a staid engineer, bookish and antisocial. She always said he was handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Tyrone Power. She thought it was glamorous to be dating an older man. Shortly after they started seeing each other, he left on an extended voyage to India and the Middle East to earn his engineering license as a machinist. That was exotic too, getting postcards from Calcutta and Port Said. “Missing you!”

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation.

When they finally married, he was thirty, she was twenty-one. Their age difference isn’t apparent in their formal wedding portrait. She is regal in a flowing satin dress with seed pearls stitched around a scalloped neckline. Serious and proud, he stands erect beside her in full tails and pinstriped trousers. My mother was 5’9”, my father not much taller. I don’t know if she was wearing flats, but I know that she did when they were dating. She looks very beautiful, her brown hair in waves, her expression serene. He is indeed very handsome, his hair jet black, his face pale. There is a solemn purity in their expressions as they look forward to their unknown future together.

*     *     *

She gave up her nursing job when she became pregnant. By the standards of the day, she’d made it. “All of the other nurses were jealous,” she told me. She was married to a prosperous professional; they’d decorated their Jersey City apartment in daring modern style, with freeform orange glass ashtrays, a tailored studio bed with abstract figured upholstery in browns and yellows, and Dufy and Picasso reproductions on the walls. She was surrounded by wedding presents, and Jim was always buying her modern copper jewelry.

There wasn’t a lot to do, though. She wasn’t keen on housekeeping. She liked a good gossip but all her friends were busy at the hospital. When their baby girl was born she had her hands full. “I’ve got my hands full,” she told the grocer. “Our new baby is a handful,” she told the dry cleaner. Motherhood wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. The baby shrieked all day long, and while she knew it was just colic, there were days she thought it would drive her mad.

+++++++However, inasmuch as he

+++++++Has dashed their hopes thus down the drain,

+++++++The only compensation we

+++++++Can offer for the ball and chain

+++++++Is this carving set…

It was hard to say who was more bound by the ball and chain. Jim was still free to work and move around in the world, while she was confined to the house and a squalling infant. Jim took over child care in the evenings, walking the baby back and forth, back and forth in their tiny living room, but life just wasn’t all that much fun any more.

He seemed bent on changing everything about her that had attracted him to begin with, criticizing her loquacious high spirits, suggesting that she read more, learn more about modern art and music. He recommended a more severe hairstyle, with her hair pulled away from her face. They were saving to buy a house, and went out less. He’d never liked to dance the way she had anyway. It was her idea to start a penny budget, recording each day’s expenses on a notepad, and then transferring them to leather binders for financial projections. It was something to do. Her mother had warned her that maintaining household finances was going to be difficult. “You’re not going to be able to spend all your salary on clothes anymore.” Managing their money made her feel grownup.

+++++++Is this carving set, ostensibly

+++++++For cutting meat—but could

+++++++Be used, to set him free

+++++++If things by any chance should?

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

*     *     * 

Soon enough they moved to the suburbs, another child on the way, and she became a suburban housewife and mother in the PTA. For a while she enjoyed the domestic flurry, trading recipes, cooking pot roasts and meat loafs, and tuna casseroles. Bent over a Singer sewing machine in the upstairs master bedroom, she produced two seersucker nightgowns for her daughter, and a red felt skating skirt, complete with appliques of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. She and three of the other first grade mothers did a high-spirited can-can at the PTA talent show that they rehearsed for many weeks before the event. They were giddy with laughter.

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

But the other mothers were busy with their own children and households, and she was often lonely during the day, spending afternoons watching soap operas on TV, waiting for Jim to come home from work in the city. “General Hospital” was her favorite. She left the TV on all day—“for company,” she said.

Evenings, after his long commute, Jim was increasingly impatient with her need for conversation, preferring to settle in with a scotch and the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m reading, Peggy. Can’t you see I’m reading?”

She drank a martini, and then a second, and couldn’t seem to refrain from interrupting him. “Jim? Oh, never mind.”

She worked on a book of crossword puzzles, started up again. “Joan called today. You won’t believe what Harriet is spending on their new living room set.”

“Peg, I’ve been working all day. Can’t I have a little peace?”

+++++++The cocktail set, will also help

+++++++When with potent spirit filled,

+++++++To recapture that carefree self

+++++++Now relinquished and willed.

She never felt like cooking or cleaning any more. She’d discovered that exertion gave her hives. Complaining of allergies, chronic colds, and fatigue, she began to spend her days in bed. The drapes were always drawn while she napped and watched the soaps. Her children tiptoed into the house after school, their voices hushed. When Jim got home from work, she pulled a housedress on over her nightgown and settled downstairs on the living room couch with a martini and cigarette to complain about her day.

“I just don’t have any pep today. I don’t understand it. Of course I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment for Thursday. We’re going to try a specialist. I think I’m allergic to something, and Dr. Williams does too.”

He never questioned her multiplying ailments, but they fought about her talking, they fought about who was going to make dinner.

“You know I get hives from the hot stove,” she said.

More often than not, he threw down the newspaper in disgust and strode into the kitchen to improvise a meal.

Sometimes he didn’t, and she announced, “It’s do-it-yourself night, kids!”

Tensions escalated when the children became teenagers. Their son rebelled against his father’s authoritarian control by flunking his classes. Their daughter mouthed off about her mother’s hypochondria, her father’s politics, American imperialism, and life in suburbia.

Jim retreated in angry disappointment from all of them.

For a while after the children left for college, Peggy emerged from the bedroom and developed her own social life, playing bridge in the evenings, earning a Life Master certificate in duplicate bridge tournaments. Jim declined to play bridge, or to engage in any activities she excelled at. They continued to bicker, and soon her lethargy and chronic illnesses returned. Both children moved thousands of miles away when they married. They rarely came home, and their parents never traveled to see them.

*     *     *

The first time my husband visited my parents, he was astonished. “It’s like a war zone.” My father had taken over the food shopping and cooking completely after his retirement and became enraged when my mother peeked into the kitchen. “It’s under control, Peg,” he said, banging pots and slamming cabinet doors. At the dinner table, he was angry when she interrupted him. She fumed when he rebuked her. They fought about what to have for dessert. About the correct way to load the dishwasher. About our plans for the next day. There were no victors in their skirmishes, the product of decades of simmering tension and sniping.

It was hard to explain to my husband why they stayed with each other. It was nothing like his large extended family, where squabbles were short-lived and everyone was always gossiping and giving advice. Maybe there is no explanation.

The times. Their Catholic upbringings. My father’s strong sense of duty. The energy my mother had invested in her self-diagnoses and self-delusions. Inertia. Familiarity. Fear of being alone. Habit.

*     *     *

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost. The missing objects they shared have taken on exaggerated sentimental value. The carving set. The martini shaker and glasses. “We had cocktails every night,” she says, proud of their sophistication, forgetting the discord. The silver pitcher that she wrapped tightly in cellophane after their wedding and never used. The pewter chandelier that hung over the dining table in their house in New Jersey. “It was just lovely. Remember that chandelier? I was surprised neither of you kids wanted to take it when we moved.” The ceramic ducks they bought on their trip to Spain. “You haven’t seen the ducks, have you?” she asks every time we visit, though her rooms are overflowing with boxes of knickknacks that have never been unpacked.

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost.

She sorts through mementoes and scrapbooks of their life together, lost in nostalgia for the fictional marriage she has created. Eyes narrowed in concentration, she shuffles stacks of old greeting cards that she pulls out of their envelopes and strains to read with her bifocals. She mouths the verses out loud, setting her favorite cards aside so she can repeat the ritual again a week later.

“The man was a saint, a real saint,” she likes to say, shaking her head in rueful regret at his passing. Her requiem for James.

*     *     *

I write scenes of my parents’ life together, holding snippets up to the light, selecting, rewriting, rearranging. I choose some to keep, others to toss back into my box of jumbled memories to look at later. Do I see through a glass darkly when I reveal the unhappiness of their union? Was there something I didn’t hear, under the prolonged cacophony of their disputes? A requiem is an act of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead, yet remembrance doesn’t always bring repose, for the dead or the living. I search for insight as I create my own fictions of the past, I look for resolution, but sometimes I think I’m no closer to understanding what kept my parents together, or why our family fell apart.

“Peg, could you please just be quiet? Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”

“I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. She has published creative nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana ReviewNinth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review, and fiction in Lunch Ticket, Confrontation, Tampa Review online, and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at