"I visited your father's grave," my mother said when she last called. "And I gave his headstone a good kick."
This is the sort of joke we share, my mother and I. Survivors of an undeclared war of attrition. First my father went. Then, my brother. My mother and I live with the awareness that one of us is caught in oblivion's crosshairs. One of us is next in line. We're not quite sure what one of us will do without the other.
"He's still dead," my mother will phone and say on the anniversary of my father's or brother's death. "Looks to me like it's permanent."
She reads the Psalms every morning. She is of the generation of women who say without irony, "I lived for my family." She endured my father's and brother's mortal defections with greater dignity than I. Asked how she's done it, she says, "It's my faith."
I loved my parents with a love that bordered on idolatry. They held the answer to the mystery of my appearing in the world. Because they loved me without question, because their love wore the everyday simplicities of lower-middle-class life -- my father's work clothes smelled metallic, my mother's apron, when I wrapped my arms around her, smelled of bleach, hand cream, and onions -- this mystery seemed knowable. With my father's death I figured my chances of solving this mystery dropped by 50 percent. I now doubt that my mother has the answer.
On the day my brother's body was delivered to the crematorium, I took my mother on a long drive through the part of south Oregon where my family had resettled. The clouds were low and blackish blue. Bright green fields and hills stretched around us.
"Stop the car," my mother said. "I can't breathe. I know they're burning his body now. I can't bear it."
I pulled off the road. My mother ran from the car, through deep gravel, down to the bank of the South Umpqua River. I ran after her. Rain and hail pelted down on us, icy beads clinging to our faces, ice water fingering its way down our necks.
"God, why did this happen?" She clenched her fists. She stared at the river. "Why did we ever come here? Why did he have to die?"
For a long while later, whenever she spoke of my brother, she talked about "my son's death." This went on until I reminded her, "You mean your eldest son's death.
"You had two sons. I'm still living," I told her. "At least I was the last time I checked."
"You've got a point," she said.
Apple-cheeked and jolly, hobbled by weary joints and bones, my mother, I now see, has always played for keeps. I know I have my father's dreamy melancholy. I hope I've inherited my mother's strength.
While my father was in the last stages of his illness, I told him I had to go home, to return to San Diego for two days, but would be back. He grabbed my arm and pulled me close.
"Your leaving is going to kill me," he said.
I took my mother outside, to the redwood deck, slick with moss, that wrapped around the house.
"There are right ways and wrongs ways of dying," I told my mother. "And I don't think Dad's doing it right."
"Cut him some slack," my mother said, pulling a pair of blue rubber work gloves from her hands. "This is the first time he's died."