Watching Gray Skies

Cloudy Evening In Seattle, June 2016

I don’t know if it’s actually going to rain. Wunderground says it will later tonight – there might even be thunder – but I still can’t tell if I should go outside and water the tomatoes.

It’s hard to tell what the weather will do. Two days ago I went for a walk in the sunshine and sweat through my clothes before I reached the end of my block. Today, little droplets of water collect high above our heads but aren’t heavy enough to fall on us. Yet. The air fills with the threat of it; the promise, if you think of it another way. We need the rain, of course. My lawn is already a crisp, dormant brown and it’s only the beginning of June. I am terrified of what is happening in the forests. How many acres of tinderbox are we living near, again?

It’s no good for us to be starved of precipitation. This isn’t California drought conditions, of course, but I don’t live in California. I live in Seattle, where the joke is it rains nine months of the year. We all know that’s not exactly the truth, but this isn’t an outright lie, either.

Gray summer skies are a world apart (solar system apart?) from the oppressive bleak of winter. At least the days are long so if the clouds do somehow part late in the afternoon we can sit in a momentary sunbeam. We become a city of cats, purring ecstatically as we loll about pretending to be aloof. Pretending, as if we could, that we are all okay.

I wear a pink shirt, trying in vain to conceal my personally un-sunny skies. I meet friends for lunch and make horrible jokes about my family to relieve some of the pressure that comes from being relied upon so intensely. I laugh to feel good because otherwise I would revert to feeling absolutely nothing at all.

The nothingness stretches on like the seven months of desolation we tried to leave behind when the first of the crocus blossoms pushed their stubborn heads through cold Northwestern soil. But even late spring, even summer comes with a sometimes of gloom. Juneuary, we monku, as if it doesn’t happen every single year. As if this is not where we actually reside.

An email comes from the lovely woman at the mortuary, letting us know that Mom has arrived. What she means is she has received my mother’s ashes, signed for by someone at her office before being handed over by a completely ordinary postal worker. As it turns out, the US Postal Service is really the easiest and best way to ship cremated remains, wildcard TSA agents keeping us from confidently carrying her on our flight back home.

Putting my mother in the mail is exactly something I have joked about, the way we used to joke about putting her in a home when she was still alive. And truthfully, I still think it’s hilarious in the darkest, gallows humor way that is the most comfortable for my oft-grieving family. I mean, it is hilarious when you think of it. “Honey, I mailed those medical bills like you asked, and also I shipped your mother priority, what’s for dinner?”

But then it happens. Mom is in the mail, being handled by the same folks who couldn’t get my book to me on time last week; who consistently put my neighbor’s mail in my mailbox and vice versa. It stops being funny in the exact same way putting my Mom in a home stopped being funny when we actually had to do it. I hold my breath from the first moment my husband says he’s getting ready to Ziploc bag and bubble wrap her plastic travel urn (and did you even know about that, my goodness) and rely on I don’t even know what to keep from wrapping myself in a cocoon of blankets in the cave of my basement bedroom. I keep moving, but I don’t know how.

I wear pink shirts, or purple shirts, or a bright blue Madeline tee-shirt that seems to always get a smile. I need to mask my impenetrable gloom in a soft cotton rainbow, else I risk falling into a bog of  incapacity. I need to feed my son lunch and pick my daughter up after school. I need to take her a snack and smile at her friends as they play for a while in the bushes in front of the huge, sturdy building made of brick. I have no time to loll in a cocoon.

It’s okay, it’s okay I keep repeating inside my head. She’s been gone five years now and we have…not exactly been looking forward to this step so much as needing to accomplish it for so, so long. We need, at last to lay Mama at rest. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. Get her a gorgeous koa urn she would have loved if she was still here to love. It’s okay, it’s okay. We need to make a million tiny arrangements. We need to, after all this time, say goodbye.

It’s okay.

It’s not okay, of course. How could it be?

I sit in front my daughter’s school listening to the clang-clang-clang of a piece of rope beaten into a flag post by a strong but inconsistent breeze. The clouds still threaten, still promise, but release absolutely nothing. I laugh at the children, their sometimes frustrating antics so cheerfully ordinary. One of the little ones, built like a tank and always ravenous, does some football warm-ups he’s copied from his older brother. When he’s done he beams and we Moms cheer for him. He rushes over to us and I offer my hand to him for a high-five. Instead of clapping his chubby hand to mine in jubilation, he presses his sweet freckled face against my palm. I feel his warm breath against my fingers and my arms tingle with chicken skin. I am jealous of his cheerful innocence.

“Beep,” I say with a giggle. It is surprising but also completely unsurprising when tears collect along my eyelashes. I keep them from falling, but only just, much like the clouds hanging on to their raindrops.

The kids keep playing, their merry games turning into caterwauling at predictable intervals. My daughter and I pack up to go to her music class. Afterwards, the teacher tells me how much improvement there has been. What excellent, excellent growth. My eyelashes hold back the tears again. I thank my daughter’s music teacher for her instruction and usher my daughter out the door. She yammers on about her lesson then asks if we can get a cookie from the bakery across the street. I want to say no because I can’t possibly talk to another person. I say yes because I promised a cookie in exchange for her good listening ears, and she held up her end of the bargain.

I take a steadying breath and hold up mine.

In the morning, the sidewalk is just barely damp with evidence last night’s precipitation. The brooding clouds have dissipated and the sky is a bright, crayon blue streaked with cartoonishly perfect clouds. The warmth is a relief but I know it is only a respite. Beyond the peak of my neighbor’s roof I see bright white thickening into a steely gray. The sky is doing what does because it is the sky and this is how it is. It is inconstant because that is the only way anything grows. I know this. It is okay.

We give the final approval for the lettering to be engraved on the front of my mother’s urn. I double-check the dates of her birth and of her passing, telling  myself they are just numbers. This is just a task in a list of tasks and I know how to check things off a To-Do list, goddammit. My mother taught me that if she taught me anything at all.

I watch the clouds on the horizon, wondering if our idyllic June morning will shift into a dark, soggy afternoon. I contemplate the tomatoes in the back yard again. Was last night’s smattering enough to see them through, or should I drench them with the garden hose just in case? It’s hard to tell what the clouds will do. Sometimes they just hover like a blanket, blocking out the sun but not crossing Water The Garden off a list that also includes Proofread Mom’s Death Date and Pick Out A Picture To Put In Her Niche (Remember: It Will Represent Her Entire Life).

I am not okay. All of this is not okay. Not that it matters, of course, whether or not I am okay with Mom being dead. With Mom getting cancer, being put in a home, fighting until her fight was lost. I wasn’t consulted on the matter. None of us were. All we could do was watch, and wonder, and check tasks off a list while the tasks shifted from taking Mom to chemo to putting her remains in the fucking mail.

Gray clouds on the horizon shift, pulling the perfect white ones with them until the sky is nothing but a sheet of blue above my  head. I water the tomatoes, cheering at the yellow blossoms representing the hope of a summer bounty.  I don’t know if any of them will actually bear fruit, but I do know that their whole job in this world is to try. All I can do is make it a little less difficult for them to make it in this strange, inconsiderate weather. I can watch the sky and do the next thing on my list of Things To-Do based on what I see ahead.

It sounds so simple when you say it like that. But every single one of us knows that it’s not. It’s really, really not.

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