For All We Know
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I took a picture of my son when he was two years old, blowing a dandelion. His cheeks puckered in the sun, his eyes squinting, his invisible breath just catching the flyaway seeds. He stood in the backyard of the old small house we lived in on Garfield Avenue when he was little. The sun, now, is in the past, like the small boy and the dandelion. Fifteen generations of dandelions have lived and died since then. His father and I have divorced. We’ve moved. He’s just about to graduate from high school. I’m not even sure where that photo ended up. But I remember taking it, that moment, his blonde hair impossibly bright in that light.
Today, he played a Mozart piece in a piano competition in the river town of Marietta, focused and serious, his blonde head bobbing. He rushed through the swirl of notes as if they were the only things in the world. And really, they were. I sat and listened, watched this boy, this man, with his music.
This is what he sends into the world now: notes, as momentary as dandelion seeds, as true.
My mom shut the door on my finger thoughtlessly, going to open the gate on our dirt road, the gate between the Maxwells and the Bowens. I had my hand up there on the corner of the door, where she’d told me not to put it so many times before. And this was why: this long, excruciating moment. I cried out. She turned back, looking at my finger bent through the metal crack. She opened the door and gathered me in her arms.
My mom carried me hurriedly up the road, to where a rusty metal pipe leaked fresh creek water onto the sand. She lowered me to the ground and held my throbbing, bleeding hand in the water. Her breath came in heavy, frantic gulps. I gasped at the coldness of the water. But even in the midst of the shattering pain, I lapped up my mother’s attention. The fact that, for the moment, I was everything, the only thing. Me and my finger, there in the creek water. The rusty pipe. My mom’s worried grey eyes watched me, waiting for the pain to pass.
This is what happens, with pain. Swiftly it arrives, as if it had always been there. And maybe it had. Maybe all those pain-free moments of watching ribbons of sagebrush pass out the car window, of lazily taking in sunlit squirrels on the deck through the sliding glass door on a Sunday morning – maybe those moments are a lie. The twist of a vertebrae, the slam of metal: these are a kind of broken bedrock. Reliable. Familiar. True.
My son, fourteen. In a raft of his own. On the New River in West Virginia. I’m not sure what possessed me to take my children rafting on the New River, to assent to my son getting his own raft. They called it a “duckie.” A raft like a small kayak. He loved it.
My daughter paddled with me in my double duckie. I didn’t think we’d have any problems. But I worried about my son. As we pushed off, he smiled, gave me a thumbs up. He knew I was worried. He didn’t care.
Most of the section of the river we paddled was calm and uneventful. The late summer heat and dryness had lowered the river to something just above a stream.
When we approached Surprise Rapids, though, I knew we’d be seeing some whitewater. My daughter and I took the rapids first, following our guide’s advice and pointing directly into them, the water splashing and rocking us until we landed in the pool below. I looked back and saw my son cresting the top of the rapids, and then nothing. He’d flipped. I couldn’t see where he went, but I saw his boat floating, forlornly, near us.
“My son!” I screamed. “My son flipped! Someone help him! Where is he?”
Rafters near us smiled.
“It’s OK,” a man called. “He’s right here. We’ll get him.”
I saw my son swimming, the sun and the water lapping on his strong arms. Fourteen, but strong, I saw, maybe for the first time. He clung to the other raft, and they helped him get his paddle and climb back into his own.
“Are you OK?” I called.
He smiled at me, shaking his head and spraying water everywhere like a young dog.
“I’m fine, mom,” he said. “Stop freaking out.”
And so I did. We paddled on.
My mom always wanted a plain pine box. So here’s what she got: a smooth, solid pine casket with pine needles etched on the top. Heartbreakingly beautiful, really. And to think we got it at Costco. The guy at the funeral home was a jerk about it.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you buy mass-produced caskets like that,” he said.
What could go wrong? How would they not measure up? I was too muddled from grief to understand his meaning or to think of something to say in response, but not muddled enough to give in to his tactics.
We ordered the casket and had it delivered, and the funeral people laid my mom out in it, because that’s what they do, if you tell them to. They take delivery of mass-produced caskets (which are not at all like, presumably, the hand-carved wonders in their showroom), and they lay mothers out in them, and they arrange things pretty well in the end.
We stood out there in the shade on that August day in the desert. And despite the dusty haze, we could see clearly in the distance the mountains where we had grown up, the mountains my mom loved, the mountains with their granite, their sagebrush, their piñon pines swaying in the late afternoon breeze.
This is, perhaps, all we have: parents and children. Children and parents. Now, in my 40s, my mother gone, my son getting ready to leave, I walk in the muddy, March woods behind my house. Red-tailed hawks roost high in the trees, waiting for wary rabbits. The snow beneath my feet crunches, and the cold woods huddle around me, like children watching to see what I’ll do next. I walk forward through late winter’s fresh air of mystery, looking for cardinals on the branches. Their red feathers always seem bright and out of place in the Ohio forest, as if they got picked up by tropical winds and found themselves here, among foreign maples and oaks. But they live here, as do I.
We’re never truly alone. Molecules, specks we can never see, swirl and embrace us. Oak and maple trees circle us. Birds call out. The whittled wood of branches makes way for our passage. The snow rests before us. And even the rabbits, small and vulnerable, manage to live more than they die.
We nestle, all of us. Even as we think about everything out there, everything still left to discover.
– Vivian Wagner’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Zone 3, The Pinch, Willows Wept Review, McSweeney’s, and other publications. She is the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music and teaches English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.