by Robert Cowan




See Dick and Jeanne meet at Syracuse. They
played house on Falcon Avenue. They had
fun. See Dick and Jeanne have three

children: R. the dog, J. the cat, and R. the
teddy bear. See Dick and Jeanne have a
smashing time. Smash, glass, smash! See

Dick and Jeanne separate in 1974 and lead
parallel lives for forty years, 23 miles apart,
in the Taconic trees.



Intubate, sino-nasal, metastatic, yervoy,
pulmonary embolism, DNR. Terms and
Conditions with which we sought no

familiarity that fall. The worst was
cremains—the ashes. She said it so matter-
of-factly, the death-trafficker, like it was

frog or spatula, the parlance of her trade.
Ashes mostly of the cardboard box his body
was in, not ashes of his consciousness. But I

pushed it out of my mind with a new word
my father had recently taught us: bract—a
modified leaf with a flower cluster at its

axil, as on an amaranth, the imaginary
flower that never fades. I hope my mother
dies tonight, I had said to my wife, walking

once more from Sloan-Kettering to the 6
train, such suffering. We had said goodbye
for a week, so it was now shadow time. Dad,

though, never knew what hit him—eighteen
days in the ICU from an operation gone
wrong. Strange to say goodbye to someone a

million times and then get cheated out of the
last one. Jeanne d’Arc had studied graphic
design and Richard the Lion-Hearted

forestry before spending months as a fire
lookout and switching to Greco-Latin
philosophy. But in the library he built there

is no copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives—a
series of 23 pairs of biographies of famous
figures arranged in tandem to illuminate

their common virtues or failings, 23 pairs of
case studies, of choice and consequence, of
Greek X and Roman Y, of moral actors, not

historical agents—and no account of Jeanne
and Dick. Now they have lived pluperfect
lives: the past perfect or preterite, from

modern Latin plusperfectum, formed by had
+ the past participle. Lives in the pluperfect
tense, parallel or not, denote actions

completed prior to some point in time that
has now passed. As in: He had died on All
Souls’ Day. As in: She had gone 23 days

later, the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Mom was buried at Sleepy Hollow
Cemetery, at the foot of Janis, her best

friend from the second grade. No
Washington Irving tale of fear, just base
realism. We’re inhuming her, I thought,

which sounds like enhuman, not dehuman,
not unmask someone so generously and
torturedly wrought. We scattered Dad’s

ashes toward the end of the North Fork, at
his childhood pond, walking for a long way
 to the pristine spot—a perfect blend of

water, sand, trees, and tough love sky—but
it was shallow and, instead of dispersing, the
ashes just settled on the bottom of the pond,

a little cloud of him, spectral and uncanny.
Their bodies don’t exist; they dissolve, they
rot; their minds—fecund, fragile, free—

don’t pulse. Not sure their souls do since
both ceased to believe long ago. I can’t feel
them very clearly. Maybe that’s something

to come later. Maybe they’ll touch me, like
the streetlights that I make go out, make
themselves manifest at different points in

my life. Or other people’s. Or not.



In winter, in Grumpy Old Men, Jack
Lemmon has a heart attack and the camera

cuts to him on a ventilator and I see back to
my father machine-breathing and my mother
being wheeled up to his bedside to say

goodbye, with a huge tumor in her forehead
like a smeared flesh tennis ball. Days
numbered. We only number days at the

beginning and the end, it seems. I leave the
television, sit down on the toilet with my
underwear around my ankles, and weep in

the dark. There is the imagical thinking
thinking in images. Not nightmares exactly.
Sleep images. Of my father with forty extra

pounds of fluid in him, his arms spread in an
inverted U. Punctures, openings, gruesome
drains, surreality. Finally turning off the

ventilator like opening a blood sluice, like
watching an HD TV fade to black and white.
There is guilt for not being more

sympathetic to people whose parents died
prior to mine, the difference between
sympathy and empathy clearer now. There is

nonlinearity. There is Dad at Northern
Westchester and Mom at Sloan. I can just
drop by each and visit with them for a while

on my way to work, but there will be no
more calling on them. There is joking that I
would never forgive him for making me

read Misty, a horse book for girls, but that
spring, we went to Chincoteague to see the
wild horses, two herds—one managed, one

not; one that has cowboys and doctors to
check in on it, one that lets nature take its
course, just as we have all taken ours. We

had all been so close, laughing and crying
and holding and loving, even singing, but
then, after all the rituals were over, in the

wake of the wakes, we were all so distant,
unsure what this misty new constellation
is, missing its two focal points, with such

gravitational pull. Stars’ light takes so long
to reach us that, even if we know they don’t
exist anymore, we can still pretend space-

time isn’t warped. Figures of coursing
horses and avenue falcons, of woman
warriors and kings. See Dick. See Jeanne.

There! There they had been! So I took two
things from his house: a tie I bought him in
Edinburgh, made of the tartan of the

Colquohon clan, from whom we are
supposedly descended, and a framed picture
I took in Shigatse, of a solar-powered teapot

fabricated by monks. When I came back
from that trip and showed him all the
pictures, he asked me if he could keep that

one, the one of the Tibetan teapot—the
fascination of invention, of hand-tooled
ingenuity. I stared at his rough-smooth

hands as he held up the photo, smiling.Mom
left me her mother’s ring: my brother and
sister the sapphires flanking me. I had

stared at it on her carefully moisturized
hands all my life, special because I was the
diamond, but unsure I would have my older

siblings at my sides through the smashing
times, feeling her stroke my head while I sat
on the floor while she talked on the phone.



Now, on Sunday evenings like this, they are
extra dead. They’re never going to not be.
Right? All weaker and stronger now. A new

experience to think of them together, but I
can’t bring myself to talk to either of them,
as some do. There is relentless constancy in

knowing absence. Ten minutes here or there,
ten minutes of life, to catch my breath,
would be perhaps do-able, the ads on the

subway for elder care facilities assuring me
that they’re going to be fine, that they’re in
good hands, that they’re going to be well

taken care of. Will one ever again
experience the same level of happiness? One
must. Because now I can do anything I want,

it doesn’t matter, a weird feeling of
liberation, now I can finally commit murder,
go to prison, be homeless, crowned,

canonized, an actor, a Wall Street guy, the
obligation to be the best of who they were
and more dissipated. I’m free to die without

them losing a child, which is supposedly the
worst kind of death.Worlds look differently.
Did I get reading glasses right after they

died so that I could look over them at
people, at things, at ideas, like my father
looked at us? To read the world. Looking at

23 days, 23 years, 23 miles, 23 pairs of
lives. How does one re-establish equilibrium
with a prime number? And how will I ever

free myself, free any of us—you or me or
our children, our grandchildren—from the
crushing awareness of time?




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