Chapter 22

(1995)

Given the circumstances, Laura’s parents were understanding about our new timeline. We had come over on a Sunday afternoon and shared my mother’s desire to see us wed before her passing. Mrs. Welch had shared the story of her own mother’s illness and passing and how she had not made it to her college graduation and what a regret that was.

We began to receive R.S.V.P cards daily until the last week of our preparations when a trickle dwindled to a full stop. More than 200 friends and family planned to attend; enough to fill the modest sanctuary and cost my parents a fortune in ribeye steak and chicken marsala for the reception.

I let Laura plan the ceremony except for the prelude; I wanted my parents’ prelude: “Trumpet Voluntary” by Jeremiah Clarke. She planned hymns to sing, a full communion, hired a soloist to sing Malotte’s famous Lord’s Prayer. She picked flowers to honor both her mother and mine. All these decisions I left to her, not because I didn’t care, but because she had been thinking about this event most of her life; she knew what she wanted, and I knew that I wanted her to get whatever she wanted.

On the day of the wedding, we cloistered ourselves in our parents’ homes. I don’t know all that went on in her preparations, but I did send a dozen red-tipped white roses with these verses by John Boyle O’Reilly entitled “The White Rose.”

The red rose whispers of passion,

And the white rose breathes of love;

O, the red rose is a falcon,

And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud

With a flush on its petal tips;

For the love that is purest and sweetest

Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

I had very little to do. I’d already picked up my tux. Mainly, I waited around visiting with a few close relatives and ate sandwiches and drank lite beer. My brother Mike and his wife Susan had flown in from Des Moines, and we enjoyed catching up.

My dad carefully documented the day with a video camera, interviewing anyone who would tolerate it. He asked me if I had any final words before tying the knot. I was in such a daze both from the beer and from the enormity of the agenda for the day—the one where I say I do and make Laura my girl until death would one day part us—that I was at a total loss for words.

But my mother was the real star of the day. Since the day we shared our engagement with my parents, her health had begun to decline at a steady rate. She was weakening, but she still managed to bring life to the day. She read from the Bible about love being patient and kind. She read palms, an old trick she had learned in Honduras during one of several missions to Central America. And after lunch, she had champagne poured for everyone, including a fourteen-year-old cousin whose mother had held her tongue out of respect, and gave a toast.

She raised her glass and addressed the room with all of the life she could muster. “My son, a man with great prospects, a great mind, and most importantly, a great love for my future daughter-in-law, stands before us today soon to pledge a life of caring, faithfulness, honoring, and cherishing. May he be as great a husband and lover as his father, and may he devote himself to bringing joy and comfort and peace to Laura and to whoever should cross the threshold of their home together. Drink every last drop this very moment as the young lovers will of their bodies and souls tonight. Cheers!”

All present raised their glasses, saying cheers and laughing chugged the champagne. Soon after, my mother kissed me and was helped upstairs to her bedroom, where she would rest until the ceremony.

When the time came, I went to my old bedroom and began putting on my tuxedo. A soft knock came at the door as it had many times in my life growing up in that room. I knew it was my dad.

He said, “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not. Perhaps you can help me with this tie,” I said.

He came near, smelling of Old Spice and peppermint, and began tying my bow tie with precision.

“Son, I’m going to tell you one of the secrets to a good marriage. When your mother and I were engaged, many well-meaning family and friends told us something that they have probably told you already as well. They said that we should never go to bed angry with each other. Well, we tried that in our first year of marriage. We had so many fights because when two people built like your mother and I come together, it is like two rivers joining in a rush of white water rapids. We would fight until the early hours of the morning but to little avail. Rarely did we come to an accord. We just wore each other out until one of us–usually me–would surrender until the next one.” He finished my tie, dusted my shoulders, and squeezed them, “But you know what we learned? It is much better to go to bed angry. In the morning, we rarely still felt angry and were in a much better frame of mind to discuss our problems. This happened frequently for a while, but eventually, it became a rare thing for us to get angry with each other. Fighting is not bad, son, but there is a loving way of doing it. At some point, you have to know when to give a little bit, when to say, ‘You know what? I care far more about you than I care about being right about this.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I said, looking him in the eye. “Can I ask you something?”

“Anything, James.”

“How is it that you can smile and laugh when mom is dying?”

He pooched out his lips and took a breath, as was his custom when pondering something deep, and said, “Gratitude.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m grateful for every bit of life your mother and I shared together and if given a choice between a long life with a lesser woman and a shorter life with your mother, I choose your mother every time. She is the most extraordinary woman—person—I ever knew and my best friend, and I think that’s more than most men will ever get. It will carry me through to the end of my days. I hope you will feel that way about Laura, and there are no guarantees, son. You may have her for seventy years or fifteen. Make each one of those years count.”

The ceremony was mainly a blur for me except one very clear moment, a moment which is engraved on me as if I were gold. The trumpet voluntary began. The pastor lifted his hands, and everyone stood up to turn to the back of the church. The ushers opened the doors, and she appeared. I am not good at describing dresses, but I know that it was white and adorned with mother of pearl. She wore a traditional veil. Her face was a lesson in grace and beauty. Her father appeared next to her, and she took his arm. As they reached the halfway point between the door and the chancel, where I stood with Bijan, Zach, Tyrice, Spencer, Terrence, and Mike, a little girl of four or five began crying. Laura stopped, knelt down, and gave the girl a flower from her bouquet. The girl stopped crying and sniffled. Laura kissed her on the head and stood up, and as she continued to walk toward me, the little girl said, “Mommy, that angel gave me a flower.” Laura looked me straight in the eye, and I saw a brief vision of our life together, and we both smiled.

By the time we reached the hotel room that night, I was pretty well plastered. We may have had sex, but I couldn’t have been very able. The only thing I remember clearly is telling her I was sorry as she tucked me under the covers. She shushed me gently and caressed my face before I passed out.

Our honeymoon was in Puerto Rico. It was two weeks of lovemaking, pulled pork, fried plantains, lazing in the pool or on the beach with the finest Pina Coladas I had or would ever have, but when we got back, I received a call from my father.

“Son, come to the house,” was all he said.

We packed up and took the next flight home. On the car ride over, as I white-knuckled the shifter, she put her hand on mine for a while, then on my shoulder. It was the day I had been dreading for a month.

For some unknown reason, I kept thinking about the time when I had overslept for the choir bus that would be taking us to San Antonio for contest. I was awoken with my mother’s voice right in my face saying, “You are in deep shit, James! The bus is waiting in the street outside our neighborhood and your ass better be on it in ten minutes.” It wasn’t the kind of memory I would have chosen for that moment in my life, but it was somehow a comfort to me. She had loved me in many ways. When she dropped me off that morning, she said, “James, I hope you are using a rubber with that girl. She deserves at least that respect from you.”

As I pulled into the drive, my father was standing on the front porch to greet me. He was not smiling, but his eyes were kind and bright. He gave me a big hug and led me inside. Laura hesitated, but he said, “Laura, my dear, you are a part of this family now. We want you to be present.”

We climbed the stairs to my parents’ room. The equipment that had been monitoring her journey to death was gone from the room. My brother Mike was sitting down next to the bed, holding our mother’s hand and crying quietly. She was unconscious.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked.

“Oh, she began fading a week or so after the wedding. She’s been unconscious since I woke up yesterday morning. It won’t be long now.”

Mike stood up and gestured for me to take his place. I sat down and took her hand. Her breathing was very faint, her face pale and peaceful. I felt Laura’s hands touch lightly on my shoulders.

“Mom,” I said, beginning to choke up. “I know you probably can’t hear me, but I’m here. I want you to know something. You were a good mother to me and a good wife to dad. I may not have learned all of the lessons you’ve tried to teach me yet, but I promise that, given the time, I’ll do my best.”

She died early in the morning when all of us had gone to sleep but my father, who kept a vigil for her as he had for me all the nights I had stayed out past curfew; waiting quietly with a book until he could finally close it, take off his reading glasses and say gently, “I’m glad you made it home.”

My mother had carefully planned her memorial service. It was at the Presbyterian church officiated by the same pastor who had just two weeks earlier pronounced Laura and me, husband and wife. He read scripture and poetry, and at her request, Laura sang her favorite song: “O Holy Night.”

My father, intent on saying something, walked to the front of the church and opened his arms as if to speak a big-hearted word, but there were no words. He put his arms down and began nodding and crying until the pastor came up and touched him on the back, saying quietly, “Phineas?”

My father sat down next to Mike and squeezed his leg and weeping soft sighs, continuing to nod.

To conclude the service, we were asked to open our hymnals to “Morning Has Broken.” I sang what I could and listened to the rest. The words, “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning God’s recreation of the new day,” stuck with me for a while. I wondered at the word recreation it’s double meaning of creating new again and taking pleasure in living, and I knew that she had wanted us to think about that.

Afterward, at the house, my father brought out a small, narrow box. In it was a bottle of 25-year-old Highland Park single malt scotch, which he pulled out with great care and sat on the coffee table. He turned to the fireplace and put another log on it, its essential seasoned woodiness warming me as I looked steadily at the bottle. He then brought out crystal tumblers for each of us; Mike, his wife, Laura and myself. He pulled the cork and inhaled the fumes briefly before pouring a couple of fingers in each of our glasses.

“This was a gift from my father on our wedding day. It was to be opened at the death of either your mother or mine. I thought it a morbid gift at the time. It’s been packed away in my study; it’s presence like an angel of death waiting to come forward and claim one of us and comfort the other. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it’s meaning in our lives. How it had aged in the barrel, becoming sweeter, more complex. It is also ephemeral. Its long life will be over tonight in just a few sips.” He then raised his glass and said, “To Cynthia, until we meet again.”

Its smooth, toffee’d, honeyed, peaty softness warmed my belly as I took my first sip of the drink. It was nearly as light as breathing the air of the Puerto Rican beach I had just come from, but far more nourishing. It satisfied something that nothing or no one else could. I knew it wasn’t likely that I would taste another drink quite like this, and on some level, I knew I would spend the rest of my life trying to recreate this moment.

When the bottle was empty, he put another log on the fire and selected a book from his collection, Plutarch. He put on his reading glasses and thumbed through it for a few seconds until he rested on a page, and then he read aloud.

“The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.”

“Your mother read this once to me when I was going through a rather gloomy time in my life. I was planning my dissertation and was struggling with having an original thesis. I read many books and studied many experiments, but to no avail. She encouraged me to put the books down and create something. I said, ‘Well what do I create?’ She said, ‘Build us a doghouse.’ I said, ‘But honey, we don’t have a dog.’ So we bought a dog.”

“Are you talking about Avogadro?” said Mike.

“Yes, we bought a dog and named it Avogadro, as in Avogadro’s Constant, and as I built his house, I began thinking about the relationship between Avogadro’s Constant and Plutarch’s idea about ignition and the dank gloom of my mind was kindled into a new fire–and a thesis. Your mother, as I’ve said, was the most extraordinary person I knew.”

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