I hadn’t seen Mike in ten years. His hair had receeded farther back on his head, and was completely grey now. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy. He choked on tears as he asked, “What have you learned about all this?” as he swept his hands across Wendy’s kitchen.
He kept his eyes on me as his hand continued into the living room, with all of her Audubon paintings in ornate frames, and her custom crafted cabinets, made of recycled wood from civil war era plantations. Her cookbook was still open. She had made shrimp and corn bisque for dinner, and had cooked it in Auntie Lo’s cast iron pot; it was at least 70 years old by then.
Mike’s mother passed away recently, too. When he asked what I learned about all of this, and swept his hand across Wendy’s kitchen an living room, he was asking for his mother, too.
She had died surrounded by dozens of children, grand children, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren whom she loved. I had learned about her funeral a few weeks later from Wendy. She died three years later with me as her last family member alive. I was trying to stop crying, or at least stop feeling overwhelmed by fatigue and grief. I answered his question without thinking, and truthfully, from a source I was too sad and tired and to see.
“42,” I said.
Or 24. I often confuse the two, and I was tired and not thinking clearly that morning.
We both smiled because the answer doesn’t matter, anyway. According to the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer gave us the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything; and it was 42. But no one knew what the question was.
That was the joke. Everyone in the galaxy fought wars over the question they needed to ask. In the end, there was no point other than to laugh when you could. I had lived by my perceived truth of 24 through war and peace, and the only thing I would wish for differently at that moment is to have laughed more often, and with more people like my mother.
We blew our noses and dried our eyes and talked of things that made us smile for a few minutes. I said that I could answer his question, but it would take a few minutes, and that I’d have to tell a few stories to catch him up on what I had seen witnessed since we spoke last. He said ok, and leaned back against Wendy’s kitchen counter.
He shifted his weight to relieve pain in his hip joints. So did I. He noticed, and asked how my hips were. I laughed and said that I hiked across the Himalaya mountains last year, and had stopped taking opioids for pain, and had recovered from alcoholism.
“How was that?” Mike asked, in his typical stoicism. It was the same voice he would have used when I was a kid and said I had just met Black Spiderman, or that gangsters blew up my uncle’s house. Nothing surprised Mike, so I told him what it was like. He said he was happy for me.
We discussed life, the universe, and everything for an hour. I said his mother first showed me unconditional love, and that,”She meant a lot to me and to a lot of people, Mike. I am a better person because of her,” as I put my hand on his shoulder. He lowered his head and I waited for him stop sobbing.
He looked up and smiled and said, “When I first met Wendy, she was a project.”
I felt a stab of pain. I had never seen it that way until just then. Memories from childhood flooded my mind with a new perspective, and at that moment I realized I had always called Mike my stepdad, but I had never heard him call me his stepson in the 17 years he was with my mother and the almost 40 years he had known me. I felt something release that I did not know had been holding me back. I said nothing, and tried to listen closely. He was speaking as if I weren’t there.
“She smoked, and, man!” He exclaimed, smiling widely now, “Your Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo drank more than anyone I had ever seen. Your grandmother, too. They were drunk every day. Not just a little drunk, but unable to stand straight! Oh, man!” He laughed and waved his hands as if balancing himself, and rolled his eyes back. He added “your” to their names every time.
“Every afternoon. I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know how she survived.” His voice trailed off. He didn’t know how to say that, then. And neither did I. He looked at me and his lips began trembling. “When she found out her liver was failing, I told her she should tell you…”
I looked down and held up my hand and asked him to please give me a moment. I breathed a few times and asked if I could vent for a minute; that would be faster than letting a feeling subside on its own. He said, “Of course, Jason. Do whatever you have to do right now.”
I unleashed frustration that had developed the moment I realized he had known she was dying for three years, but hadn’t called me to help her. I paced in her kitchen, knowing it was now my kitchen and feeling guilty, and shouted rhetorical questions, like “how could you not tell me?” and “don’t you think I would have dropped everything and come here had I known?” and, “Do you think I’d fucking sit on my ass and meditate in India if I had known Wendy was dying?”
I must have said fuck 24 times, and I could have said it 42 more. I finished venting. Mike kept looking at his feet and said, “I’m sorry, Jason.”
I held back tears; my eyes squinted, and my cheeks twitched. “Thank you for letting me do that, Mike.”
“Of course, Jason. Say whatever you need. It hurts more than any of us know until we loose our mother, too.”
We stopped crying for a while, and we chatted about good memories as we ate shrimp and corn bisque for lunch. It was delicious. We laughed and talked about good meals with Wendy, and big pots of crawfish with his mom and their enourmous Cajun family. I still pronounced her name in a Cajun accent: “Mrs. Ree-Chard.” We laughed and talked about her home town in the heart of Cajun Louisiana, where half the telephone book was “R” for Ree-Chard. It wasn’t a joke; there were even a few Mike Richards, and probably a more than a dozen each of Boudreauxs, Thibadeauxs, and Clearances.
Then we laughed how my family tree was more like a stick, stuck in the mud like Red Stick Louisiana. Granny had left her husband when Wendy was three, and immigrated from Toronto to Baton Rouge to live with her sister and brother in law, Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob, who never had children and had intended to live a cocktail and country club lifestyle all of their lives. They had been like parents to both Wendy and me, and had also lived the lifestyle they envisioned for themselves.
I laughed with Mike, and tried not to show the pain I felt from having heard my mother called “a project,” and hearing a man with a large and loving family unknowingly keep joking about what scared me at that moment: I was all that remained of my family that had immigrated from Canada. Mike’s Cajun ancestors had migriated here 200 years before, but our French Canadian family was new to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, named after the King and Queen of France in the 1700’s, Louis y Anna. Uncle Bob had taken a job transfer from Prince Edward Island to New Orleans. I had just learned that our family ended with me, as of that day. I was more sad than I could express with words.
I kept laughing with Mike, and told him how when Uncle Bob took Wendy and me to Prince Edward Island I was confused because, “Da French people d’er sounded just like da Cajun people here.”
He laughed, and in his best attempt at a stereotypical football fan’s voice said, “Who’Dat! Talkin’ ’bout beatin’ d’em Saints!”
We the rest of Wendy’s iced tea, put away her dishes, and went for a walk to look for the small pet cemetery she and Mike had begun 25 years before. He thought that would be a nice place to spread Wendy’s ashes. We talked as we walked along the golf cart trail.
“After Wendy and I moved here, we couldn’t get a break,” he began. His story hadn’t changed in the 15 years since he first shared it with me, but I didn’t interupt. I listened closely; it helped me not think about Wendy and Granny and Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob and all of the dog graves I was about to see. I had loved them as a kid, when he and Wendy had moved here and I had lived with Mr. and Mrs. Abrams.
“People would come up to us at dinner and ask about their houses I was building. I’d answer, and Wendy would sit there and wait. I couldn’t turn off. It took me a few years to come out of that depression. I didn’t want to get back into the business.”
He pointed towards a row of houses, and told me they had been built by someone who had worked for him when they were a kid, like I had been. I listened for a few minutes as he talked about all of the plumbers, roofers, landscapers, and other people who had helped build everything at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek.
We paused and looked around, each in their own thoughts for a minute.
We resumed walking, and reached where he thought the pet cemetery would be. We stood at the edge of a golf green, about 30 feet from a flag marking the hole. We peered into the woods, and pushed aside branches and thorn bushes. After five or ten minutes, I called out that I had found it.
The small bench we had first placed there had been toppled by dead tree branch. Live tree roots broke apart ground plaques with pet inscriptions. We found the first dogs Mike buried there, Shawn and Kelly, male and female Irish Setters. I saw at least a dozen more plaques in the overgrown pet memorial grounds. The last one was dated 12 years before.
We didn’t want to spread Wendy’s ashes there, so we kept walking and talking. We followed the golf course along the same trail we had walked 30 years before, when Mike and Wendy had first shown me this place, after Uncle Bob had died, and before I left for the army. We came across a cliff overlooking Thompson Creek. Mike paused, and said this was the spot.
We caught our breath and looked over the cliff at the small, winding stream cutting through thick trees. I recognized it. The last time I saw it, there were no houses beside me, and Wendy was showing me where she’d like to build a home, while I looked after Uncle Bob. It was the happiest I had seen her; she radiated the hope she felt.
Mike took a breath and said, “Thompson Creek drains into the Mississippi…” his voice trailed off. He lowered his head and breathed slowly.
“Thank you, Mike. This is perfect.”
We didn’t talk. I cried, and I don’t remember how long. We walked back to Wendy’s house, and set a time to spread her ashes into Thompson Creek, by the woman’s first tee on The Bluffs golf course. We chose 9am, before golfers would begin their game. I said I’d send out a message to the other three people who would join us; they had been waiting for us to pick a time and place.
We looked around Wendy’s kitchen and living room again, and shared a few funny stories. I told him about how I had lost a lot of his business when I was a kid; His advertised his business in the telephone book as MR Homes, and when I answered the phone, I told a lot of people that they had called the wrong number, that no Mr. Homes lived there. We laughed about that now.
At the time it wouldn’t have been funny, because the real estate market was crashing and Mike was entering bankruptcy. Federal interest rates skyrocketed to 13.7%, then crashed down. Some people won, and some people lost. Mike was loosing hard while I was in high school, and he and Wendy decided to use my family’s retirement account for a risky real estate venture on a remote creek an hour from Baton Rouge. The project was successful, and a famous golf course was built, and many dream homes were constructed. I inherited one of those mansions when Wendy died; Mike had been generous with their parting, and she benefited financially, and had died a millionaire in a mansion on a hill overlooking a place I would have loved to fish in as a kid, or that day, with my stepdad.
“Mike,” I asked, “‘What’s the difference between you and your family now, and you with Wendy?”
“The love I feel for our daughter,” he said without hesitating. He smiled the widest and most genuine smile I could remember on him and took out his phone and started looking for his daughters wedding photo.
Ten years ago he had called her his wife’s daughter. I let him look for the photo. I had seen the one I suspected he was seeking. Some of his family had visited Wendy’s room in intensive care and showed me their favorite photo of Mike. He was looking at his daughter, smiling, with a tear on his cheek. He held her hands in a waltz, the first dance of her new marriage with her father. He was still smiling as he browsed through what seemed like hundreds of happy family photos.
I was happy for him. I realized I had mistakenly assumed he considered me his stepson, but he was still my stepfather. I was happy for him, and at the same time I felt a sadness for myself as a kid, like sadness happening 30 years ago, and a relief that was not unlike removing a sock with an elastic top, and realizing you hadn’t noticed the constriction around your leg until you felt the relief.
He found the photo in what must have been a hundred family photos, and looked back up at me. I listened. He concluded, “The happiest day of my life was her wedding. The next happiest will be seeing her hold her first baby, and seeing her know how good it feels to love something other than yourself so much.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, and looked down as I said, quietly, “I’m happy for you, Mike. I’m sorry… I need to be quiet for a moment… Give me a moment, please…” He held my forearm kindly, and said nothing. I was grateful. A few minutes later, we continued walking without saying anything more about Wendy or his family.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I walked around Wendy’s house, reflecting on my previous thoughts on the question. My thoughts took a life of their own. I cursed her for not telling me, and myself for not being the type of person she could tell. I sat at her desk, looking at her perfect script handwriting. She had prepared details of her financial matters for me. She had taken care of everything. She hadn’t wanted to be a burden. She had loved me as best she could.
On her desk were photos of my wife from 20 years before, and one from me in the first Gulf War. She had a stack of my letters from the war, addressed to WAR, with a smile drawn near my signature. Next to the photos was a box of 20 years worth of written notes and letters. She hadn’t used email or her phone much. She was old fashioned, like that.
She had a room dedicated to Uncle Bob’s photography equipment, which she kept serviced and ready for use. She had always wanted to travel, and to take photos like he had.
She used Auntie Lo’s cookware, and had classic Cajun cookbooks on her shelf. I pulled other dishes out of her freezer to thaw: shrimp gumbo, crawfish etoufee, and vegetarian bean soup. I found Auntie Lo’s fine china from Wendy’s custom china cabinet, made from repurposed wood from civil war era plantation homes in Saint Francisville, the closest town to her home on Thompson Creek. I dusted off the plates, and laid out plates and cutlery for six people.
I put the plates around the kitchen island; there was plenty of room in her spacious kitchen. I looked down at all that remained of all of my family on Wendy’s side; she had been the last one, and she would have felt the same for 20 years. I wondered if everyone would have made different choices if they could have seen what I saw now.
I sat down on the floor and cried as I reflected on what I had learned the past few days. I had seen the bank ledgers, and the unused airplane tickets, and other paperwork from Wendy’s neat and well organized things.
I learned that after Mike left, Wendy took classes at a local college, and become a master gardener. She offered to help her neighbors with their lawns and gardens, and they wrote her thank you notes. Some gave her wine, not knowing she drank too much, but knowing she loved talking about wine with them.
She introduced herself to families that moved into The Bluffs community, and offered to walk their dogs while they were working or on vacation. They had written her thank you notes, too, and had given her wine in appreciation.
She fostered dogs at the nearest animal shelter, the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society, taking in abandoned dogs and loving them until they could find a permanent home. She had fostered a fluffy little dog named Angel and searched for the perfect home for 14 years. Angel passed away after 14 years with Wendy, a few months before I had left the country for while.
I found her ashes in a tiny wooden box; it had a brass tag that said “Angel.” I pulled the box off of the shelf, dusted it off, and placed it next to Wendy’s ashes. I had picked them up from the funeral home earlier that day. Her box weighed 1.8 pounds, probably close to how much Angel had weighed alive. I held both for a moment, and truly understood how little of us remained in our remains.
I found Angel’s hair ribbons, and placed them next to the boxes. They were purple and gold, and had Louisiana State University’s logo on them. They were in all of the pictures of Wendy and Angel that were framed, on the night stand in her bedroom.
For two years, Wendy had been designing a shaded garden, down the hill of her back yard and overlooking the fishing pond, as Angel’s resting place. Last year, she added a bench for breakfast. This year, she planned a bird bath, and plaque for her Angel.
Her estate was in perfect order. Her retirement account was laid out, and a ledger had kept track of our family’s life worth ever since Granny immigrated from Canada in 1958, when Wendy was three years old.
Wendy died two years after retiring. I had just inherited their life’s work. I had done nothing to earn it. I would have given it back for one more moment with any of them.
I found Granny’s gold watch. On the back, it said, “For 30 years at Copolymer.” There was a photo of her at her retirement party, with a note: “Hey Wendy! We made it!” Wendy kept it in her jewelry box, with her retirement watch from Exxon. Granny’s was tiny, barely able to fit around the wrist of an eight year old girl.
I smiled, and thought of the eight year old girl I’d give the watch to.
I wrote Wendy’s obituary for the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper, summarizing her life and death in a few sentences. I read it at her eulogy, on the banks of the creek. Mike and the three friends who knew part of Wendy’s health and history joined us.
Mike and I walked down the path from the woman’s first tee. I went first, and helped him over a spot that was slick from exposed wet clay. He slipped, and balanced himself on my shoulder so that he did not fall into the creek. I was happy that I came down late last night to inspect the path; I had served in recon in the army, and old habits are hard to break.
We laughed about movies we had seen where wind blows ashes back into people’s faces, and we poured Angel’s ashes first, and kept the small box near the water, away from wind.
Thompson Creek is wide but shallow, and its water flows so slowly that her ashes sank to the bottom. Two old engineers discussed hydrodynamics for a minute, and chose a spot farther from shore, to pour Wendy’s Ashes where water flowed a bit more, closer to the center. We poured Wendy’s ashes
Thompson Creek flows into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and joins all oceans on Earth. We stood back, and watched pieces of Wendy and Angel break off and slowly drift downstream. Wendy went faster, but there was less of Angel to go, so they’d cross the rainbow bridge at the same time. They’d leave Saint Franccisville together, and see the world together.
We put our arms around each others shoulders, and stood in silence for a few minutes. Both of us favored at least one of our hips as we walked back to the three women waiting for us. Everyone said the best peace we could at that time, wished each other happiness, and went home to our families.
Wendy was born Wendy Anne Rothdram. She smiled or laughed when she said being WAR was better than being a WARP’ed by the Partins. She died Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. She gave her only son everything he needed to be happy, and he loved his mother. She passed away happy, and surrounded by people who loved her. That’s her story.
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