(Published in summer 2018 issue of Fredericksburg Literary and Arts Review)
Few of us would deny that death is a loss. Sometimes, however, death is a welcome unburdening, and not just because it ends physical pain or infirmity. Death has the power to strip away inauthentic suffering and reveal compelling truths, if we are clear-eyed and brave enough to see them. Then, death is a gift.
This is the lesson I learned in 1997, the year I turned 35.
It was the Sunday before President’s Day, the second day of alternating sleet and snow, and the third of single-digit cold. The front yard and driveway of the suburban home I sometimes shared with my boyfriend Kent and his sixth-grade son were a slab of frozen slush. Cabin fever had set in: Impromptu wrestling had already toppled a table lamp, and bickering erupted over the suggestion that homework was a suitable way to pass the time.
“Duh, Dad!” said the boy hotly. “Ith winter vacation.”
I suppressed an affectionate smile at his lisp.
“I couldn’t tell,” Kent observed then mocked, “‘Theems’ like school’s one continuous vacation for you.”
The boy’s ears reddened.
“Tomorrow is supposed to warm up,” I interjected to ward off the simmering conflict. “How about we go somewhere?” I found our street address on a creased road map, then penciled in a circle representing a two-hour drive in any direction.
“What does this say?” I asked the boy, squinting over my eyeglasses at the fine print.
“‘Paw Paw Tunnel.’” He frowned. “Ith that a real name?”
A quick internet search revealed that it was indeed real: Paw Paw marked the place where the Potomac River’s historic C&O canal passes through the side of a mountain.
“Paw-Paw, Paw-Paw,” the boy began to repeat nonsensically. “I like the way it thounth.”
His guileless grin settled the matter.
“Paw Paw it shall be.” I glanced at Kent, seeming to nap, his fingers interlaced over his belly. “Should we take a picnic lunch?”
There was a long predictable pause. I knew he wasn’t really asleep.
“I wish I were a dog,” Kent intoned without opening his eyes. “I could sleep in a sunny place all day, nibble a little food, and sleep some more. Wouldn’t have to do a lick of work.”
“I was asking about tomorrow.”
“Whatever you like, Sugar,” he drawled without opening his eyes. “I’m too comfortable to move.”
Too comfortable to move: That seemed to be how he saw our relationship. Time was running out for me to become a mother, but Kent was adamant about not wanting another child. He had divorced his son’s mother when the boy was ten despite his own born-again-Christian mother’s wishes.
“I know I’m going to hell when I die,” he often joked wryly. “But I should’a never got married. I wasn’t in love.” It didn’t help that the boy resembled Kent’s ex-wife, right down to the prominent lisp, or that she traveled so much for her job that the boy had to live with Kent.
Fatherhood seemed like an afterthought, one tinged with guilt and regret. In the beginning I thought I could fix that; perhaps a helpmate would ease the load and make room for contentment. But Kent didn’t need me, not the way his boy so obviously needed a mother.
I didn’t know that at first.
The unassuming man I met at a lonely-hearts dance had blushed at the softness of my flowered frock and pulled back from our first kiss in surprise, his hazel eyes fluid with light.
“Your mouth is exactly the right taste and temperature,” he said with something akin to wonderment.
I found his simplicity beguiling, even poetic. But the wonderment was fleeting.
I had been thinking for some time about leaving my government job. The required travel was a real time-stealer, and I hated the long hours in transit. One afternoon about six months later, I shared my unhappiness and speculated about what I might do if I quit.
Kent was only ten years older than me, but his gray hair and sun-wrinkled face made him look older. He sat with his right ankle on his left knee, nursing a beer-bottle and staring vacantly out the window.
I stopped. “Are you listening to me?”
“Sugar, you know by now my brain ticks better when your clothes are off,” he joked. “C’mon over here and give me a little squeeze.”
His laconic expressions sounded increasingly trashy, and the sweetness of “Sugar” had soured.
But I had seen his tenderness. I knew it was there. For now, I would ignore its absence.
One Friday night I arrived to find Kent’s house cold and unlit, the refrigerator empty, and the boy holed up in his room. When I knocked he bounded out with a look of anticipation that quickly faded.
“Ith my birthday,” he announced, clearly crestfallen. “I thought you were my dad.”
My heart broke at the chocolate around his mouth. It was nearly seven o’clock, and he had not eaten dinner.
“I guess that means I’m making your birthday meal,” I said lightly. “Wanna help?”
When his father pulled up in his pickup truck an hour later, the boy and I were sitting under crepe-paper streamers over the remains of a taco dinner I had managed to scrape together with frozen meat, canned beans, and onions.
“Traffic was hell,” Kent intoned emotionlessly. “What’s all this?”
“We’re celebrating that you remembered to come home,” I quipped, hoping the boy would laugh.
“‘Ith my birthday,” the boy said pointedly. “Did you forget?”
“Oh yeah, that reminds me.” Kent wrestled a twice-folded card from his jeans pocket and tossed it on the table.
Inside was a twenty-dollar bill.
“Don’t spend it all on candy,” he said. “Did your mother call?”
“No,” said the boy. “I think she’s on a busineth trip.”
Two hours later when his mother still hadn’t called, I was indignant—at both of them, I would have realized, had I the capacity for unflinching honesty. But it was easier to be angry at her.
“I don’t get it,” I groused after the boy went to bed. “How does a mother forget her only child’s birthday?”
“She’s not cut out for parenthood.” Kent’s sigh was melancholy. “For that matter, Sugar, neither am I.”
I ignored the implications of his words. I still thought I could change him.
President’s Day arrived in a blaze of sun, as promised. After two hours in the car and a picnic along the way, Kent, the boy, and I arrived at Paw Paw, a deserted place that seemed once to have been the point of several convergent railroads. A few miles out we found the entrance to the C&O canal’s footpath with only one other car in the lot. The ice in the canal was glass-hard along the banks and murky in the middle where it had melted and refrozen, and the trees along the frozen dirt path were bare and leafless. But the air was bright and clean. I walked briskly toward the tunnel while the boy happily trotted ahead, his freckled cheeks round and red.
As was usually the case, Kent trailed behind.
As we got closer to the tunnel we could hear a dog’s echoing yelp.
“Sometimes dogs bark when they’re afraid.” A furrow creased Kent’s brow. “It probably dudn’t like being in that tunnel. Or could be it’s cornered a muskrat or a squirrel.”
“As long as it doesn’t bother us,” I said carelessly and began to chase the boy, howling playfully as we darted and ducked along the path.
The tunnel opened into the side of the mountain under a craggy face of blackened granite. When we had walked several yards on the icy path, the boy and I stopped so Kent could catch up. He turned on the flashlight and paused to shine it on crumbly old bricks that oozed stalactites of yellow slime. At the tunnel’s other end the opening seemed to float like a silvery disk in a sea so black that I could not see my hand before my face and so still that I could feel the pulse in my head.
The dog’s intermittent yelping was louder now, but the narrow tunnel distorted the sound and darkness swallowed the flashlight’s weak rays at only a couple yards ahead.
We continued to walk and soon heard garbled voices. The flashlight picked up first the legs and then torsos of a heavy-set woman and an adolescent boy leaning over the splintered railing. A black German shepherd was straining against its leash, and in the gelid green water five feet beneath them a medium-sized collie was frantically flailing.
“We didn’t even know she fell in,” the woman exclaimed, her tone apologetic. “She wasn’t on a leash.”
Kent shone the flashlight on the water. Confused by the pitch-dark and the echoing voices, the dog had swum opposite the direction of the tunnel’s entrance and was fruitlessly pawing at the brick wall. When she saw the beam of light, she began to bark and paddle toward us, her ears flapping eagerly.
Kent pointed the light toward the entrance to guide her out. I could not make out his face behind the blinding glare, but I heard him speak with a startling gentleness.
“C’mon, girl.” Under cover of darkness his southern drawl was almost melodic. “You can do it.”
My eyes grew hot with tears at the tenderness I had not heard in some time. The dog responded to the loving tone as well; almost miraculously, she began to swim in the right direction, her ears excitedly flapping.
It worked that way for several minutes, with Kent murmuring encouragement and the dog paddling, and then Kent calling to her more firmly when she panicked and resumed pawing at the wall. But the lengthy immersion in ice-cold water was taking a toll. Increasingly disoriented, she began to shriek.
“We’ve got to get her out!” the woman cried. “Do you think the water is too deep to stand up in?”
We stared helplessly over the railing at the canal’s cloudy depths.
The woman’s son broke the silence. “I know how to swim, and I wanna go get her!”
“Hold on a minute, son,” Kent said quietly, using a word he rarely employed with his own boy. “Maybe I can try to reach her.”
I held the flashlight and gripped the back of Kent’s jacket while he squeezed under the railing. The collie’s plaintive yelping now mingled with the gurgling sound of her head slipping under the water. Kent whistled and strained to reach for the dog, but she did not respond. He pulled himself up over the railing, brushed off his jacket, and took back the flashlight.
“I just cain’t see to get a foothold. It’s too dark and the bricks are loose.”
The woman leaned farther over the railing and called to the dog, her voice now broken with sobs.
“I don’t care,” her son shouted, “I’m going in after her!”
I heard the swish of his parka and reached out reflexively to grab him.
“You can’t jump in,” I said, “you’ll drown too!”
The boy wrestled free and scrambled into his mother’s arms. I searched fruitlessly for Kent’s own boy, invisible in the darkness.
Kent had again turned to the dog, but it was too late. She could barely keep her head above water. Her soaked brown fur swayed like heavy seaweed, and she rocked drunkenly from side to side, too weak even to yelp.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said somberly. “She’s nearly gone.”
Then he again surprised me by unceremoniously clicking off the flashlight and immersing us, all five, in several minutes of total blackness. Nearby the woman and her son sobbed. The only other sounds were the lapping of the water and the agitated thumping of the German shepherd’s tail against my leg.
As a child, I was not unfamiliar with the unbuffered tragedy of accidental death. One summer night when I was nine, a neighbor boy came to the front door and asked for my father. It was nearly bedtime, and we had been sitting cross-legged on the floor in the blue cast of the television. My mother held us back as the boy reported that a dog had been struck dead by a car and lay at the bottom of the hill. Roused from where he had been sleeping in his easy chair, my father slipped on unlaced work-boots and hurried out the door. He returned a little while later, emerging from the black night cradling the corpse of his beloved hunting dog in a blood-soaked quilt. It was the first time I had seen my father cry. The next morning, I and my sisters huddled at the window as he dug a backyard grave.
“He was one hell of a dog,” my father said gruffly to no one in particular when he came in, and then, “You kids stay away from that grave.”
The silence as he walked away was shattering.
Now the woman and boys and I scrambled silently ahead of Kent’s flashlight beam to make our way out of the tunnel, emerging blindly into the sunlight. The woman covered her face with her hands and sobbed, fallen tears freezing like tiny beads in her long hair. Her son ran a few yards then dropped to his knees. He clawed handfuls of rocks from the frozen ground and flung them onto the icy canal.
“I hate that tunnel! I’m never going in there again!” he screamed. “I hate it, I hate it!”
I again searched for Kent’s boy. He hung back, his hands stuffed in pockets and his face round and white.
“We’re thorry,” he said in a high thin voice.
I wanted to go to him, but I knew better. He would cry, and his father would tease him.
The woman mumbled thanks and called after her son, who was now sprinting down the path.
Kent had emerged from the tunnel grim-faced, silent, and covered with yellow dust.
“Why’d you turn off the flashlight?” I asked softly.
“There’s enough bad in the world,” he said without meeting my eyes. His voice was rough with suppressed emotion. “Kids shouldn’t have to watch a dog drown.”
A routinely indifferent man had made compassion sound effortless, and I had glimpsed the longed-for softness.
I put my arm through his elbow to hug him. “That’s a good father.”
“Don’t get all sentimental on me,” he laughed uneasily, drawing his arm away to wipe his running eyes and nose. “I know what you’re thinking. But this doesn’t change a thing.”
“What do you mean, change what?” asked Kent’s boy.
My eyelids fluttered to shake off the tears that swelled suddenly, as much for the boy as myself.
“Change what?” demanded the boy.
“We have to go back through the tunnel to get to the car,” I said with forced resolve. “There’s no other way back.”
It was a deft switch.
The boy zipped the hood of his coat over his head to hide his tear-stained cheeks and threw himself at his father.
“I can’t go back in there!” came the muffled words.
“Well, you’re too big to carry,” Kent laughed. “I keep telling you to lay off the candy.”
“Don’t start fussing,” he capitulated, “I’ll let you hold onto the edge of my coat.”
They entered the tunnel in tandem, Kent holding the flashlight and the boy’s hood still zipped like a mask over all but his eyes. When we came to the spot where we had been standing minutes before, the boy broke free and ran ahead. The flashlight beam had picked up the bloated carcass of the drowned dog drifting like a water-logged carpet at the periphery our vision. None of us looked at it directly, as if avoidance could somehow protect us from further anguish—the kind of magical thinking I had been practicing all along.
We walked in silence for twenty minutes, slipping and sliding over the slushy ground. Then we stepped out of the tunnel—first me, then the boy, then his father, who looked back momentarily with no indication that he had noticed my tears.
I wiped my eyes. It had become an impossibly blue day, the very evergreens seeming to pulse with life. The boy pulled back his hood and his cheeks pinked up. I drew his arm snugly through mine and nodded ahead, a gesture that said I was ready to put the tunnel behind us.
But not just the tunnel. I had the sudden and certain realization that my relationship with his father must end. It wasn’t Kent who was stuck; it was me. Those glimpses of softness in our early days had seemed to hold the promise of more. But sometimes—for reasons that are both stunningly clear and unbearably opaque—there isn’t more. Sometimes a glimpse is all that is offered because there’s just not enough of a good thing.
The boy whose arm I encircled knew that. Kent knew it too.
And now, irrevocably, so did I.