My mother and father died on the same day, eighteen years apart.
“You know what today is, right?” my brother Joe asked me as we sat on either side of our dad’s bed, touching his hair and cool forehead, saying our last goodbyes while two men from the funeral home waited to take his body away. One of the men, hulking in a suit like Tony Soprano, stood frankly outside the bedroom door; his partner huddled in the shadows of the house, like those black-clad figures who scurry in and clear the stage in between scenes of a play.
“Yeah, I do,” I answered, smiling at Joe across our father. Nestled among white pillows in the center of the bed, he looked less like a cancer patient than a pharaoh. Our stepmother, an artist, had wrapped his body in a bolt of pale Japanese silk she kept among her treasures in the basement of their house. Now she, too, waited for us outside the bedroom, along with our half-brother from our dad’s first marriage.
That seemed right, just then—they represented the beginning and end of my father’s family life; Joe and I, relics of a middle era that often felt, to me, hushed away because of how our mother died. Exactly eighteen years earlier, she’d ended a decades-long struggle with depression by taking her life. Common date aside, her death and my father’s seemed as opposite as could be. On February 8th, 1994, a tremendous blizzard blanketed our New Jersey town in white. Now, just twenty miles away in Rockland County, birds chirped outside my father’s window in decidedly un-February sunshine. A starker contrast still, of course: Mom had wanted badly to die, and Dad had been desperate to live.
“Of all days… how crazy is that?” my brother mused, wearing the same incredulous—and, could it be, happy?—expression that I sensed on my own face.
“It is crazy. I like it,” I said decisively, without understanding what I liked, really, or why. At thirty-one, wasn’t I too old to be moved by some childish idea of my parents “reuniting”? And yet the coincidence felt like a rich fact, one I would soon find myself sharing with my husband, with friends—even with not-so-close friends. Always with the preface, “I’m not superstitious, but…” But what?
Over the next day, we all sat around the house, collectively restless. When Dad was sick, there had been things to do. Fetch more ice chips. Turn on MSNBC. Turn it off; he was tired. Go to the grocery store and stock up on whatever citrus soda he could stand at that moment—and hurry, before the window of tolerability closed! For months, I’d had the feeling that if I could just fill the order, I could stave off the inevitable. Now, there were no orders left to fill, nowhere to go. Except, maybe—thanks to another coincidence of the date—one place.
My childhood best friend, who still lived just minutes from where we’d grown up, was scheduled for a C-section that day, though in the storm of my dad’s passing, I’d nearly forgotten. “Katie’s having her baby,” I said, passing around my phone’s recent photo of her bulbous belly. “I’ll text her ‘good luck’ and see if she’ll be up for visitors.”
A good sport, my friend consented to being visited by a pack of mourners, so the following day my stepmother, my husband, Joe and I headed over to Jersey to see her and her new daughter. A piano tinkled a lullaby through the corridors of the maternity ward, and flowers, cookies, and stuffed animals filled the hospital room. The baby snoozed. The juxtaposition of birth and death wasn’t lost on anyone, but it was a happy visit. My stepmother left early, which perhaps emboldened Joe to propose an idea.
“Can I ask you a weird question?” he said as we walked to the hospital parking lot. “Mom’s buried less than a mile from here. Do you want to visit?”
My blood jumped. How had I not known she was so close by? The answer was obvious: in eighteen years, I’d only visited her grave twice. Joe visited regularly, though, and over the years, he’s initiated all of our sporadic conversations about our mother. I have trouble saying the word “Mom” aloud.
As a child, I’d loved her urgently, as though I knew that each day, each month, she slipped further away. In her final year, when she entombed herself in the darkness of her bedroom, I stood sentry outside the door, though I never asked if I could help her. When, on her last, last day, the blizzard closed my school at noon, I trudged home to find our house locked. Her car was there, a mound of powdery white rising up from the driveway. Everything still, silent. I punctured the quiet by pounding on the door. She was inside but wouldn’t answer, or perhaps, by then, couldn’t. (Which was it—which do I want it to be?) I walked to a neighbor’s; the news came after dark. After that, a double beat of guilt and shame pulsed through me when I tried to speak about her, so I largely stopped trying.
Though I often felt bitter about Mom’s time in our family having been swept under the rug, it struck me, then, with my brother’s proposal hanging in the air, that I had done much of the sweeping.
“Sure,” I said, looking from Joe to my husband. “Let’s visit.”
And so the three of us found ourselves standing over the light gray stone that read “Beloved Mother,” pressed flat into the earth, smaller than I remembered. I brushed dead leaves from its face. Memories bubbled up, not just to my mind but to my tongue. I told my husband details I’d never mentioned before about the day my mother died: the blizzard, the dread, the gentleness in my father’s voice as he broke the news to Joe and me, the three of us clinging to each other on my father’s bed.
As I spoke, I felt as though I were slowly unclenching a fist I’d been making for years. That was why the identical date meant so much to me: it gave me a way to talk about losing not only my father, but my mother, too—permission I rarely granted myself. It hitched my past to my present, underscoring all that was lost, but also all that had changed: the help I couldn’t give to Mom, I gave to Dad. The goodbyes I didn’t say to her, I said to him. I didn’t have to be superstitious to know the coincidence was a gift.