MOTHER WENT UP A STEPLADDER

The house is gorgeous now. I sit at the picnic table and look up at the very tall trees that circle the back, the lilies and large-leaf hostas, and the incredible assortment of shade plants. In front, the rhododendrons have begun to sag but the young irises are opening their eyes for the first time.

Out of the blue it hits me that this may be my last summer here.

There isn’t a day that the beauty of this home doesn’t ambush me, summer and winter, and there isn’t a day when it doesn’t feel big, burdensome, expensive, and lonesome.

“Patience,” a voice counsels inside.

I wish I knew what I’m going to do, I snivel.

“Patience,” says the voice again.

Whatever happens, I think I will stay around here, where we will be visited by thunder beings tonight. “Don’t stay in the center of cities or towns; do not be friendly with rulers and state ministers; dwell in the deep mountains and valleys to realize the true nature of beings,” said the teacher of Eihei Dogen, the great 13th century Zen mystic, to his protégé.

The dogs, too, are learning patience after their encounter with the porcupine and removal, between the two of them, of some 800 quills. I looked it up to discover that porcupines have as many as 30,000.

“Stanley died,” I texted my brother and sister in mid-August after we ended the life of my dog of 14 years.

“’Stanley died?’ That’s how we find out about it, just like that?” my brother said. “No warning, no advance notice?”

“Bernie died,” I texted them both in early November.

There’s an anecdote. Henry phones his brother, David. “Mother died,” he tells him.

“’Mother died’? Just like that?” David says. “Couldn’t you have made the news a little easier on me?”

“How?” asks Henry.

“You could have started with a story. Mother went up a stepladder to get the cat. The cat had jumped on top of the closet and refused to come down. When Mother reached for the cat, the cat jumped. Mother lost her balance and fell. It wasn’t serious but she decided to rest anyway. She woke up with a headache and made an appointment to see the doctor the next day. She went back to sleep and died.’”

“That’s not what happened,” says Henry.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you help me prepare for the bad news. What else is new?”

“Dad went up a step-ladder,” says Henry.

Yesterday marked 7 months since Bernie died and in that time I’ve had only two dreams about him. The first came two months after his death. I dreamed that we were both in the house; he was well and healthy, talking to some students or people he worked with in the office, and I was going away somewhere overnight or for a weekend. When I was ready to leave I went into his office: “Okay, I’m off,” I told him.

“Have a good time,” he said in that light, jocular tone he often adopted. “See you soon!” He got up and gave me a peck on the cheek, sat back down and continued to talk to the others, while I left.