KR OnlineNonfiction

After the Three-Moon Era

The dozen fetuses of the sand shark feed on each other until only one is left to be born.

1
While eating breakfast, I read that some astronomers now believe Earth once had three moons. The scientists have a short list of hypotheses for two moons vanishing: They might have been sucked into the sun. They might have been shattered by the one moon that survived collision. Regardless, those other moons have vanished like glittering charms on a bracelet sliding off a child’s wrist, the night sky empty with places where some arrangement of reflected light might have aligned itself against the darkness.

2
As a gift, decades ago, I had photographs of my father, his three brothers, and sister restored, all of them originally taken when they were twenty-one. My father, beginning in his mideighties, pointed out how they had died in reverse order, beginning with his youngest brother. Each time I visited he made me examine that composite as if I had never seen it. “I’m the only one left,” he said, as he repeated their names, working backward toward himself. “Who would believe that?”

3
In early spring, when I visit during the year my father turns eighty-nine, he sings hymns aloud, tells me he wakes each morning expecting to be reborn, repeating it three times as if I’m the genie for resurrection. He says he hears the brothers I never had softly talking in the small bedroom where I slept while not one of them was born. They whisper, he says, about the way he refused them, saying “never” in the disciplined sign language of the rhythm method, keeping each of them a jealous spirit.

When he sings “In the Garden,” I imagine those brothers, each day, rising to where my childhood window looks out at the rhododendron roof-high, the peace of its curtain, fragments of light that testify like character witnesses for weather. They move their mouths to those hymns that are heavy with sunrise and eternal joy.

The house holds the early darkness and the dry heat of the furnace, and my father repeats the chorus, raising his voice to be heard by those unborn boys who wake him each morning like birds.

4
One of my students tells me she devoured her twin in the womb, a doctor solving that natural crime with the spaced clues of ultrasound. “My mother explained it all to me,” she says. “She gave me a copy of the ultrasound photograph that was taken when there were two of us.”

She confides that she keeps her shadow twin sealed inside a scrapbook she opens on her birthday, leaving the photo face up in her bedroom. For when, she says, her family sings around her cake. For when their voices swell enough to reach her sister.

5
“The face seemed to warm up suddenly, sparkle returned to the eyes.” So wrote a scientist named Robert Cornish in a report to the University of California in 1933. He was working on a way to revive the dead by strapping them to a seesaw and rapidly teeter-tottering the corpses in order to circulate their blood.

A long time he and his assistants had spent at this primitive CPR, working the seesaw as if they were attempting to draw water from a long-unprimed pump. At least once, according to Cornish’s report, their persistence brought a bit of color to the face of a recent heart-attack victim before it reverted to ashen.

Cornish needed to perfect his technique, but human bodies were hard to come by. He began to work with dogs, personally killing fox terriers, naming each of those freshly dead dogs Lazarus, referencing the optimism of the New Testament story. When some of those dogs breathed again, reviving for an hour or two before dying a second time, he was sure he was on to something.

Better yet, Lazarus IV and V lived for a few months. Newspapers reported the story. There was enough excitement and curiosity about his work that a movie was made that spliced in five minutes of footage of Cornish and his dogs. Lazarus IV and V, however, were blind and brain-damaged, inspiring, according to the newspaper stories, “terror in the ordinary dogs they met.” *

6
On my next visit, as an early birthday present, I bring my father a gift, a book that traces the stories behind the composition of more than fifty selected hymns. The words and music for all of the hymns are included, and the book, with its dark, austere cover, has the feel of church about it, as if I should rise from my chair as he opens it, ready to join in singing the processional.

It’s been eighteen years since he lost the glasses my mother made him get in order to be able to read any print smaller than headlines. He squints at a few pages, pauses at those which have the hymns printed on them to read the titles that are printed in the large, Old English text font of the Lutheran hymnal he’s sung from for more than eighty years. Finally, he closes his eyes, one hand resting across a page, and begins to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”

I take my father to dinner, eating in a restaurant so familiar he can order what he’s had three times before without having to read the menu. On the way back to his house he asks me to park on Butler Street for the first time in nearly twenty years. The street is so deserted; there is room for ten cars, but I know to drift up to where a vacant lot sits among the buildings that house bars, a beauty shop, a tattoo parlor, and a long-closed hardware store that still sports its name on the side of the building. He uses his cane to shuffle into the middle of that empty space where the bakery he owned for sixteen years used to stand.

“The bakery’s been missing so long, pretty soon no one will know it was here,” he says.

“Probably,” I say, an easy agreement. It’s been almost forty years since the building was torn down a few months after the bakery closed. Shortly afterward, the cement we’re standing on was laid over the vacant space to provide parking for people who rented the rooms above those nearby businesses, though now, when I glance up, I can’t see any lights in the upstairs rooms on either side of us and no cars are parked near where we stand.

I half expect him to begin a hymn, but instead he leans on his cane and says, “The house where I was born is gone, and the house where you were born is gone,” sounding so mournful I offer to drive him to both sites, one leveled to make room for a widened highway, the other long ago razed and replaced by a church. With the sound of traffic passing, he seems to hear nothing of what I say.

“Right here,” he says, and when he spreads his arms, I guess that he’s standing at the memory of work-bench, that when he pulls his hands back together and lifts them, the cane dangling from his right hand, he is ready to carry something to the bank of ovens in the nearby remembered room.

After a few seconds he lowers his hands, steadies himself, and asks me to stand closer. He tells me my mother is slicing bread, the cash register behind her, the three of us working together because he is icing a wedding cake just before delivery, spiraling sweetness so thick with sugar and lard around the figures of the bride and groom that no one should eat it, trusting me to balance the three white tiers to the car.

7
After my student tells me about her lost twin, I read that before the use of ultrasound, the diagnosis of the death of a twin or multiple was made through an examination of the placenta after delivery. Now, with the availability of early ultrasounds, the presence of twins or multiple fetuses can be detected during the first trimester. A follow-up ultrasound would reveal the “disappearance” of a twin.

8
The year my father turns eighty-nine, a scientist suggested that the new superconductor was capable of creating a cosmological bomb billions of times more powerful than the atomic bomb. He said the odds were as likely as one chance in ten, at least one chance in fifty, speaking like a bookie about the end of Earth when the superconductor began to operate at full power. The rest of his scare was an explanation of how showers of heavy-mass particles might end us with ultra-dense quark matter, the vocabulary for our vanishing full of unrecognizable nouns.

I wanted to dismiss it, but during the week in which I read that scientist’s warning, two friends my age died on successive days, and I woke on the third to a phone call I believed was one more, as if a chain reaction had begun, as likely, it seemed as the seven billion of us becoming fodder for a brand new black hole because those superconductor scientists were poised on the brink of Genesis, hurtling back to where nothing is alive but the gods.

9
Because his house becomes so dusty, especially the master bedroom where I sleep, I have an asthma attack during two consecutive visits. The next time I arrive, I tell him that I have other business the following day, that I have a reservation sixty miles away in order to be closer to my morning appointment.

And that’s mostly true. I drive for an hour and stay in a motel along the highway I use to return home. It’s a one-hour cut from the four-hour drive, and I’ve stayed late enough that the trip wouldn’t have ended until after 1:00 a.m.

The motel room is clean and free of dust. I watch the late news and sports on the Pittsburgh channel that my father watches each night before he hobbles, bracing himself on furniture and the walls of his hall before lying down in the bed I slept in for thirteen years.

10
In the early nineteenth century there were scientists who demonstrated how electricity seemed to reanimate a dead body. Executed criminals were often used, their faces twitching, an eye opening, an arm or a leg jerking when a powerful battery was connected to particular muscles. There was enough publicity about these demonstrations that’s it’s nearly certain Mary Shelley was aware of them. So Dr. Frankenstein, with the advantages of her fiction, was able to reanimate the dead, standing over the body like a glorious thunderhead, in love with choice.

11
Once a month, from when I was nine until I was sixteen, my father showed slides, projecting them onto the living room wall. He showed the new ones first: landscapes taken from mountain tops; old buildings shot from such a distance that my sister, my mother, and I were barely recognizable standing in front of them; close-ups of flowers he identified, walking up to the image to point out their characteristics with his finger; aging relatives we visited on vacation trips, sleeping in their houses to avoid motel bills. After that he showed old slides, all of them snapped one by one into the metal frames required by the projector. There was never a night when some appeared upside down. Or when a slide jammed, the wall going a brilliant white that made everyone blink.

When I was sixteen, my mother bought him a new carousel projector. In order to use it, he had to unsnap a thousand slides from those metal frames.

12
“I never would have thought,” my father frequently said after my mother died, meaning that he would outlive her.

“I thought I’d be with Ruthy by now,” he repeated once he passed seventy-five, and he described an afterlife that seemed to be so much a physical continuation I thought he expected to play golf and tend a garden forever, having time to master the sport he’d taken up in his sixties, enjoying fresh vegetables for a billion meals. By the time he was past eighty, I suspected that he worried about finding himself revived as the decrepit man he was becoming.

13
In 1964, when I was a freshman in college, a scientist named James McConnell published the results of his experiments with flatworms. Flatworms were stupid, difficult to teach, but he’d rehearsed them until the brightest reacted to light, learning its link to a simple shock that McConnell supplied. He pulled aside the best of those slow learners and halved those pupils to see whether their heads or tails, both of which survived, could exceed the coin flip of chance. And later, when they were completely regenerated, he doubled those gifted students again into dozens of nervous worms, ones that quivered as soon as the light flashed to prophesize the imminence of pain. They were learning, it seemed, to anticipate the agony of an artificial sunrise and the relief of darkness. Finally, eager to discover whether learning could be physically passed from one generation to another, he fed those that had mastered the simple association of light with pain to those without such training. The success he began to claim was that what one worm had learned could be transferred to another by a regulated cannibalism.

Here, he declared, was the possibility of outrunning the slow meander of evolution. He saw the future of humanity in the precocious curling of worms, memory a matter of gorging to omniscience. There were people, subsequently, who dreamed of their children feeding upon them, how their fear and love and knowledge would be passed on to their children, keeping them, in one sense, alive.

14
“Pretty soon,” my father began to say at eighty-five, “I’ll be the only one who remembers the old days.” He told me his “growing up” stories over and over until it seemed as if he were feeding me his memory. I was a willing listener. I didn’t tell him that this was my version of revival, passing through the memories of future generations.

15
The things my mother wore:

Before we drove to church, white gloves that held a tissue to open the car door to keep them from being smudged. The new pair she kept in a box until the next wedding, Easter, or Christmas Eve. The two pairs with three embroidered lines. The one pair with tiny, glittering appliqués.

While I walked into church with her each Sunday, not yet complaining about compulsory attendance, the black veils attached to her hats. The way she could make the veils flutter if she tilted her head and exhaled. How thin the cloth strands were, allowing her space to see the hymnal as she sang each hymn in alto’s harmony as if she were in the choir.

In the years before illness took the weight off her body, the girdles she wore with every dress. The sound of elastic being tugged down at the end of each Sunday. How she exhaled behind her closed bedroom door.

16
Vanishing twins may occur in as many as one of every eight multifetus pregnancies and may not even be known in most cases. In one study, only three of twenty-one pairs of twins survived to term, suggesting intense fetal competition for space and nutrition. In some instances, vanishing twins leave no detectable trace at birth. More than one amniotic sac can be seen in early pregnancy. A few weeks later only one.

17
For a few years, the headless woman was a staple at the county fair. Justina, she was named one summer, and the pitch man claimed she’d lost her head in a faraway Egyptian train wreck. One year her name was Tiffany, who’d been decapitated when her speeding car ran under a truck. The last one I saw in person was Britt, the bikini girl, beheaded by a shark, so lucky, like the others, to die near a doctor who could save her.

Impossible, I said, by that time in junior high school, but just after I spoke, Britt shuddered, letting me know she was suddenly cold. “What she deserves, dressed like that,” my mother observed. Britt’s alien silhouette was shadowed on the wall behind us, a threat of flexible tubing twisting up like new plumbing from her sliced, scarf-covered throat.

No matter their names, by then I understood that those women’s headless bodies were always going to be young and sexy, preserved for study as if research was driven by lust. The old and the heavy were left headless; nobody repaired boys who were reckless, a thing to consider. “Those women aren’t angels,” my mother cautioned. “Don’t you forget that.”

Which was fine with me. By that September, I was an eighth-grader who wouldn’t admit that all I wanted was a brainless whore who knew only what touched her—my fingertips and tongue, my lips and warm breath. Right then I was wishing that if there were miracles, I’d rather have my body saved than my soul.

18
Some mornings I want to do CPR on the bodies of the exhausted words. Nithing. Aboulia. Viduous. Squirk. Their denotations are so distant someone has published them to make a profit from the obsolete and rare.

Yesterday I saw marbles for sale in a museum gift shop. I plunged my hands into the bin and remembered aggies and oxbloods, cat’s eyes, steelies, and glimmers, the names I’ve heard no one use for decades. I loitered nearby, wanting to see if even one child would choose them for souvenirs instead of a toy he could remote control. They might as well have been strands of hair plucked from the saints of our least urgent needs.

I watched while the ancient words of trespasses and hallowed came back, followed by remembering that my mother kept my first-clipped hair and fingernails, that she told me I could have them some day when she was gone, though more than twenty years after her death, those things are as lost as the ancient words for miserly person, loss of will, empty, and embrace.

19
At eighty-nine, my father gives up his cane for a walker. Because he is embarrassed by his weakness, I have to convince him to go to the familiar restaurant. I park by the front door and leave the car running while I help him stand. I unfold the walker and set it up for him, telling him to go inside while I park the car.

When I return, he hasn’t moved. During dinner he says, without any prompting, “When you have just one son, there’s no room for anything terrible to happen.”

20
I mention to the student who absorbed her twin that my daughter sent me ultrasound photos of both of her yet-to-be-born. That I stuck those photos among cards and snapshots and short lists of things-to-do on my refrigerator, not telling her my daughter asked not to know their sex, her two daughters old enough, now, to study their early selves like scholars of prebirth.

21
Things my mother used:

Two stationary tubs in which she moved the laundry from side to side, rinsing until she lifted each item and guided it into the wringer, the tight space between the rollers squeezing the water from our clothes, preparing them for the light.

The clothesline woven between two steel clothes posts cemented into the backyard. Dozens of wooden clothespins to suspend our laundry above the small lawn through the afternoon from March to November, above the cement cellar floor in winter, where they hung for two or three days like ghosts of ourselves.

Her flatiron. The water she sprinkled to keep its heat from scorching, pressing everything, even our underwear, before she let it retouch our bodies.

22
My daughter has painted a sky of chairs that sparkle like redundant constellations. Her heaven is moonless, the chairs, she says, ascending. The sky bleeds from one side from the wounds she imagines on an adjacent panel, one that waits nearby, brilliant with light. Her two daughters, ages seven and four, dream of painting it blue, a sun shining the chairs invisible.

23
Things my mother did for my father:

Turned on the television. Changed the channel and adjusted the rabbit ears until he could make out the Pittsburgh Pirates or a football game.

Let him read the newspaper at the dinner table, the sports section spread out by his plate while she talked to my sister and me through dinner as if we were a family of three.

Dialed the black, rotary phone in the kitchen. Called him when the person he wanted to speak to answered.

24
When my mother died, my father called no one for months, complaining that “Everyone has forgotten me.”

25
On the way to visit my father, I pass the former site of West View Amusement Park, gone more than thirty years into apartments, a grocery store, the fast foods of familiar franchises. I park where the roller coaster turned sharply before it reached the road and West View’s business district. When I close my eyes for a minute to imagine the park restored, one passerby raps on the window to ask if I need help.

26
The science of the three-moon era:

The enormous impact that spawned our moon could have sent other satellites into orbit as well. They likely remained in their orbits for up to a hundred million years. Then, gravitational tugs from the planets would have triggered changes in the Earth’s orbit, ultimately causing the moons to become unmoored and drift away or crash into the moon or Earth. The tugs from the other planets are very, very tiny, but they changed the shape of Earth’s orbit, which changed the effect that the sun’s gravity has on the moons, which destabilized the lost moons.

27
Things my mother left behind:

Four black veils attached to hats stored in a box under a thick comforter high on the steps to the attic. Five pairs of white gloves, two pairs in boxes, unused.

Deep in a drawer of lingerie, two girdles untouched for a decade.

A washing machine with a wringer attached. A hundred feet of clothesline. Eighty-seven wooden clothes pins. A flatiron. The glass bottle with a sprinkler’s head on top. The bottle clear, the head light green.

28
There is a haunting poem by W. S. Merwin called “For the Anniversary of my Death.” It begins: ”Every year without knowing it, I have passed the day / when the last fires will wave to me.” Anyone reading those lines surely considers the anniversary of his own extinction.

It’s less stressful to research the date and place some species we’ve never seen died for good—the final great auk on Eldey Island, the last Labrador duck outside New York.

Even more exact, the ones exhibited like the lone Carolina parakeet that collapsed on February 21, 1918, at the Cincinnati Zoo. The final dusky seaside sparrow dying on display inside DisneyWorld, June 18, 1987, those one-of-a-kinds living for months or years without seeing a body like their own. The rest of us moving on without them, the world made irrefutably new by one more emptiness.

29
Simultaneously, during the three-moon era:

The crescent moon of anticipation,

The half-moon of mercy,

The full moon of joy.

30
When my wife and I are dressed and healthy, her body temperature registers eight-tenths of a degree colder than my ordinary one of 98.6. She shivers in any weather below seventy degrees. Occasionally, in central Pennsylvania, she wears gloves in May and September. It’s not much good joking about how she’s farther from fever, how sweaters become her, how her jackets are stylish and smart. Or, if I feel the need to use a bit of trivia I picked up from the local PBS station during halftime of a football game, to bring up the Thomsonians, who believed all sickness was caused by a deficiency in body heat, claiming that every disease could be cured by a medicinal steam bath.

It’s something to consider because three months past ninety, my father is wrapped in two late August sweaters, the furnace growling in his delirious house where each plant has wilted like his short-term memory, and his stove, for the past year, has been covered by signs that say NO in large letters to lower the probability for fire. My wife and I have driven the two hundred miles to Pittsburgh the day after our own discussion of aging, meeting with a woman who specializes in elder law, the legalese of wills and trusts for the future distribution of whatever assets we have, the talk turning to assisted living, comas, and long-term vegetative states, while air-conditioning chilled my wife to putting on the jacket she carries, even in the heart of summer, for overcooled rooms.

Afterward, walking outside to the surprise of warmth, she didn’t remove her jacket. “How could you stand it?” she said.

“She made everything seem hypothetical,” I said. “It was like we were talking about somebody else who was going to fall apart and die.”

My wife hugged herself in the late afternoon sun. “I mean the cold,” she said. “It was absolutely freezing in there.”

31
Within one of those annotated lists featuring “famous last words” is the final one spoken by Dr. Joseph Green, a nineteenth-century English surgeon. Upon taking his own pulse, he managed, according to The New Book of Lists, to say “Stopped” before he died.

My father, by the end of September, has been moved to a facility for the nearly dead. He has a room with a door that doesn’t lock, and the first time my wife and I visit he is wrapped in a flannel shirt and one of those sweaters from August, both buttoned to his throat while the heat hums from three baseboards on a warm fall afternoon.

My wife places her jacket on a chair. My father, nearly deaf, guesses at what we say. “That’s good,” he comments from time to time, imagining, I’m nearly certain, that we’re telling him about how well we’re doing or what our children have accomplished. “Nothing much going on here,” he says at last, but he has begun to take his pulse every ten minutes or so as if he expects to hear, like that dying British doctor, the moment it will stop.

Finally, I tell him he’s been in this building before, that he and I visited years ago because he had made a significant gift to the foundation that operates this facility. “That’s good,” he says, reaching for his wrist, and I lean close to say, “Let me show you something special” before I wheel him to the elevator that takes us one floor below to where I remember the chapel is located.

He doesn’t react to the brief journey. My wife helps me navigate his chair between a set of pews in the chapel, and I wheel him to the window he purchased fifteen years ago, a stained-glass mural in memory of my mother who, at that time, was already more than five years dead.

He doesn’t recognize anything even when I set him inches from the plaque that states his name and hers. I ask him to read, but despite this prompt, he doesn’t seem to understand. My wife, who stands nearby, bends down and reads the words aloud, shouting into his ear.

“How about that?” my father says. “It’s for Ruthy.”

“Yes,” I say, “you paid for it.”

“How come I’ve never seen this?” he says, and I wish I’d brought along the photograph of him standing beside the window the day it was unveiled.

My father stares at the window for a minute, and then, without taking his eyes off it, he begins to reminisce about my long-dead mother. He settles on listing old gifts he bought for her—a set of pearl earrings, a Sunday-dress, and a piano, all of them things that my sister helped him pick out.

He doesn’t mention the one time he asked me to help. In late November, for their fifteenth anniversary, the gift of wax fruit he’d somehow set his heart upon. “Each piece will last and last” is how he put it. I was eleven years old and didn’t ask him to reconsider his choice. I thought the fruit looked real, the colors blended to look just short of ripe, as if, when he arranged them in the wooden bowl that sat on our kitchen table the following day, they would be perfect,

My father handled the apples and pears; he hefted the peaches, bananas, and bunched purple grapes. He seemed to be weighing them. Finally, he made a small pile of assorted wax fruit on the department store’s counter top, estimating, I thought, the size of our kitchen’s wooden bowl that was usually full of opened envelopes and advertising circulars that featured store coupons my mother intended to use.

The next afternoon, while my mother was changing clothes after church, he dumped all of the paper out of the bowl and placed the mess on the dining room table. With his right hand, he swept his breakfast sweet-roll crumbs into his left and shook them into the wastebasket. He ran hot water into the stained coffee mug he used for a week between washings, a habit, he’d told me once, that he believed was his gift to my mother because reusing it reduced the number of dishes she had to scrub every day.

Finally, he spread that wax fruit out like a set of trophies. The grapes were the last to go into the arrangement, lying on top, the overhead light reflecting off their surfaces. “Isn’t this a pretty picture, Gary?” he said when he’d finished. I heard my mother coming down the hall. Before she entered the kitchen, he added, “Just think. They’ll look beautiful forever.”

32
The vanished twin can die from a poorly implanted placenta, a developmental anomaly that causes major organs to fail or to be completely missing, or there may be a chromosome abnormality incompatible with life.

33
For a year or two, just after that wax-fruit anniversary, I was fascinated by pretending to be dead. “Soon enough, your time will come,” my mother said, catching me holding my breath in front of the sweep hand for seconds on my bedroom clock radio. “Kid stuff,” she said. “You should know better.”

After that, I was more careful about my secret pastime, one that moved past simple breath-holding. In a library book, I studied what the mystics did to appear as if they’d stopped their hearts, shutting down the pulse with a block of wood under the armpit, pressure that worked like a tourniquet. I kept the book in my desk at school, but I mastered that technique well enough to simulate a stilled heart. I laid fingers to my wrist as I died, coming back again and again to briefly muffling one part of my autonomic system, dying in my room, or better, among trees in the game lands near our house, lying down where somebody, some day, might discover me. I stared at the path I’d taken to whatever small clearing I’d chosen, imagining hikers who would turn curious or eager or absolutely afraid, everything so still for seconds that I believed in the power of leaving and returning, the comfort of being sprawled like the nearly drowned, doing CPR on the self, taking that first great gasp and bringing my heart’s beat back after someone laid fingertips to my wrist, holding them there in wonder.

34
The second time my wife and I visit the nursing home, I notice that my father has no pictures of my mother in his room, which means I have two more pictures of her in my house than he displays. “Do you want a picture of Mom?” I ask, and he shakes his head.

“It won’t bring her back,” he says, for once not saying “That’s good,” and when I show him the wedding announcement I’ve discovered between the pages of a book about the national parks he had sitting out in his living room, he can recite all four paragraphs from the local weekly newspaper. “Thanksgiving, 1941,” he says. “Dorothy Seitz, maid-of-honor. Ruth Lang, given by her brother Karl. Mildred Van Wegan (nee Lang) attended from Michigan. The Reverend Blair Claney officiated.”

How many times had he read that notice in the twenty years since she’d died? “We had the long weekend for our honeymoon,” he says. “And a week after that, the war.”

It’s nearly Halloween by now, and the children of the nursing home staff wear costumes and go from room to room to do an indoor trick or treat. My father, because he can’t hear or he doesn’t read the facility’s weekly newsletters, doesn’t understand, so he has no candy on hand. Regardless, he seems fascinated by the princesses and vampires. “Remember Frankenstein?” he says. “I saw it in the theater as a boy. Boris Karloff. That was scary for a boy my age. And then he was in all those movies about trying to raise the dead.”

“It’s a wish that’s always with us,” I say, but he doesn’t hear.

“Remember Frankenstein?” he says again. “I saw it in the theater as a boy. Boris Karloff. That was scary for a boy my age. And then he was in all those movies about trying to raise the dead.”

I consider showing him the wedding notice again.

Nearly twenty-one years ago, after my mother died at home, my father told me, “Your mother didn’t want a hospital. She’d just seen her sister in misery with the tubes and machines and all that coming to nothing.”

This week, when we talked on the phone, my sister has told me that his chart says Resuscitate where a choice is asked for. Thirteen years ago, nearly eight years after my mother died, my father’s heart was stopped during bypass surgery. For a year, each time I visited, he showed me his scar. “The things they can do,” he said. Within the next few years, his brother and sister died of cancer. “There has to be a limit on miracles,” he said at the time. “Maybe it’s one for each family.”

When we get home, I look up Boris Karloff’s films. Sure enough, there are some that sound as if they repeat the plot of a doctor trying to raise the dead. The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man with Nine Lives, for two. The plots feature grave robbing and secret serums for curing cancer and providing eternal youth. The common denominator is Boris Karloff as the mad scientist, not the reanimated body.

35
During the 1950s, a Soviet surgeon named Vladimir Demikhov sewed the heads of puppies onto full-grown dogs. Both heads were alive. The puppies even lapped milk with their tongues, though it ran from their severed throats. This is how we will be revived one day, he said, meaning with the hearts and lungs of others. Tissue rejection killed those dogs in a month or less.

Those puppies must have wondered why the milk dribbled out behind them. Their heads remind me of old dolls, the way their rubber faces, always with their one expression of breast hunger, could be squeezed loose from their pink, sexless bodies.

Those full-grown dogs, on the other hand, must have been aggravated every moment by the nuisance of a second, useless head.

36
I’ve made a list of the times I might have died, yet, as my mother always said, “Lived to tell about it”:

Pneumonia—four bouts, each one relieved by antibiotics.

Being a passenger in a car driven by drunks or speeders—a good many times before the age of twenty-two, surviving each trip unscathed and discovering, months or years later, that several of those drivers eventually killed themselves behind the wheel.

Falling asleep while driving—not me, but the man who’d picked me up as I hitchhiked, a cornfield fortunately level with the highway at the spot where he left the road.

The list doesn’t seem extraordinary except for the time that I braked my Volkswagen hatchback hard when a trailer truck I was passing suddenly veered into my lane. The hatchback locked into a four-wheel drift, lurching sideways across the median strip and through two lanes of oncoming, limited-access speeding traffic, somehow missed by all of them before the tires, just as miraculously, caught on the opposite shoulder as I spun and ended up facing sideways.

I took a breath and chose a break in the traffic to cross back to my lanes, swerving into the passing lane where I’d been seconds before. Two miles later I exited and found myself behind that same truck at a stoplight. The truck driver climbed down and walked toward me. It was summer. The car wasn’t air-conditioned. My window was open. He bent down and said, “Fuck, I’m so sorry. You must be sitting in it.”

It didn’t take his shaken expression to convince me I’d had something like a last-second pardon.

37
In November, I read that another new oldest living person has been certified, beginning her bout with the condensed celebrity of age. As always, the biography opens with the frequencies of cigarettes, beer, and deep-fried dinners. Nobody mentions those faraway villagers who once helped to sell yogurt based on its connection to longevity. The rustic-looking peasants in the television commercials were seen enjoying yogurt while the announcer claimed most of them were over one hundred years old and that some of them were 120 or more.

I think of Joice Heth, the slave who nursed George Washington, yet lived to be displayed by P. T. Barnum at 161. Her secret, Barnum explained, was thinness, just forty-six pounds on her ancient frame, as if fasting, not yogurt, was the best defense against death.

My father is approaching half his former weight of 210 pounds. No matter what’s served, he cleans his plate; he craves a nightly snack. He hoards the cookies and candy he refused for more than eighty years, making himself sick with overeating in his nursing home room. “Like a little boy,” he says, and then he weeps.

He tells me the woman two rooms away, just turned 101, barely leaves her bed, her bald scalp shimmering pink as a wound. “Ten more years of this,” he says, “imagine,” the future palpable enough to flop belly-first across his bed, the mattress sighing while the well-fed constellation of inevitability blinks on above the horizon, dragging the dark by its hair, shoulders bent against the weight.

I turn on the television and find a football game, but he slumps forward in his wheelchair, staring at a spot on the carpet between his feet. It’s no wonder the shrieks of Earth, as scientists say, can be heard from space, such collective terror slithering along our tongues as we struggle to recall even the wrong answers that blink, strobe-like, in the brain until we nearly choke on confusion, our mistaken guesses speeding skyward, humming like the panicked prayers of the dying.

And now, after more than eight decades of devotion to his church, he says nothing about eternal life, not even the back-lot pearly-gates-set piece of childhood. He says less and less, his sentences shrinking like cheap trousers until, during this visit, we share the long conversation of the unsaid, rehearsing the future.

38
Sometimes there are verifiable revivals. It has been confirmed, for example, that a man in Chile woke in his coffin. Sitting up, dressed in his finest suit, he asked for a drink of water before rejoining his family.

Sometimes, however, one revival comes carrying the direct consequence of loss: My student, years ago, was tagged incorrectly after an auto accident, his parents discovering the dead body of his friend when they were asked to verify his identity. Eventually, they were escorted to a private room so that the parents of the other young man, just arriving with anxiety and joy, would not cross their path. “Inconceivable” was how a colleague put it when we heard how they had to be told that a mistake had been made, the mother and father guided, at last, to confirm what everyone now understood to be the truth.

And sometimes revival can be extraordinarily terrible: Primo Levi relates that during his days in a Nazi concentration camp, he was assigned to dispose of bodies after a gassing. On one of those occasions, a girl rose from the dead tangle of the gassed, and his work crew was saddened past despair because there was never charity in the camp, all of them knowing she would be returned to the gas, unbearably understanding what was coming, her resurrection so dreadful it would madden the living.

39
Some animals have returned from the dead, resurrected after a century extinct like the Cebu flowerpecker or Jerdan’s Courser, both of them sighted and confirmed by the radar of science.

It’s the work of Thomas, such confirmations, as close as laying fingertips to wounds. Consider the naturalist on Fiji who searched for Macgillivary’s Petrel.

His optimism as he set out to lure the lost from extinction’s deep privacy. He spent a year sounding its call like a prayer against absence until one morning the long-missing bird flew into his head as if he were the object of desire.

Consider, too, how to present that news, breathlessly beginning, “Listen.” What’s next to say? Each thick history of belief is crammed with illustrations that depict the loneliness of the single sighting, the man, recently, who claimed he had seen the ivory-billed woodpecker sixty years after its case was closed tight by science. Without corroboration, he’s become the prophet for improbability, someone with a camera who sits still and loves the silence of expectation while every faint flutter of color turns into the promise that phantoms whisper.

40
My wife and I visit my father a few days before Christmas. He nods off at short intervals, a signal, I’m sure, that something serious is decreasing the amount of oxygen that is reaching his brain. During the four hours we are there, the only thing he responds to is an old album of photos. “Everybody in here is dead,” he says, able to name his sister and his three brothers, his two best friends, and three girlfriends, one of whom, near the end of the album, is my mother. His head sinks, one hand resting on her picture. I measure his breathing until he snaps back.

I talk to him by phone on Christmas, calling when I know my sister is there so she will answer and tell him it’s me. Twice, as we speak, I am sure he nods off because there is more than a minute without a response, not even a “That’s good.” Two days later, while I’m interviewing candidates in San Francisco for a position at my university, he dies.

His minister tells me that my father has fallen back into resurrection’s arms, his body surrendering its balance to the trust exam of eternity. He is intent on convincing me that all’s well, that the dead are always revived. He doesn’t ask me if I share that faith.

41
Some scientists speculate that small, asteroid-sized objects would have lasted the longest as the lost satellites. “They would have looked more like Jupiter or Venus in the sky than a satellite,” one scientist has said. “They would have resembled very bright stars.

42
After all the post-funeral things are settled, I make two last visits to my father’s house, keeping them as short as possible, the asthma attack-inducing dust an issue, now, in every room. What I want most are photographs, especially those that help to deny the never of what is irretrievable.

I spend half of that time in my old room rummaging in boxes from department stores that closed decades ago. Inside one from Horne’s are photos so unfamiliar that I barely recognize myself from ages six to eleven. After I look at others in the box I can tell that the photographs were taken by an uncle, that they were stored in my bedroom closet after both he and my aunt had died. My father, about ten years earlier, had claimed all of them from another empty house.

My sister, a church choir director, keeps the book of hymns.

43
The moon, recently, was a celebrity, full and a few miles closer than usual, enough to bring two neighbors outside near midnight. A perigee moon, science calls it, the tides heaving up higher as well.

Looking at his watch, one of my neighbors suggested “Auld Lang Syne,” but I was alone with remembering the approach of planet Melancholia in a film I had seen the year before, how, for one perfect night, it was sized exactly like the moon, the sky brilliant with the fascination of malevolence and the approach of oblivion.

44
Today I woke with the coffee maker set to 6:00 a.m., its cough driving me out of sleep like a smoke alarm. Within an hour, three birds flew into the living room windows, one of them dead in the iris, the other two missing. A neighbor says it’s three flights of the same bird, but I remember the music of those thumps, the variation of size and speed, and I see the colors of the vanished above the trees, shades necessary as water as I stand beneath them, my face upturned to spaces they have left in the sky.

 

Note:
*I originally came upon some of the odd histories in Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese.

Gary Fincke
Gary Fincke's latest collection of personal essays, The Darkness Call, won the 2017 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and was published by Pleiades Press. Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Prize for Short Fiction and the Ohio State Journal Prize for Poetry, he has published thirty-two books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.