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Dear Paul,

When your hospice nurse called, I was drumming my fingers in a parking space at a Bixby’s drive-thru, aching for the large, 550-calorie caramel cappuccino I ordered online. Anything to get me through Mom’s 4:00 cocktail hour. Overeaters Anonymous reframes a pig-out as a “break ” and I’d been on an OA break for five years, ever since we all agreed that Mom should move back to Akron from Florida, after Dad passed away. Next to me on the passenger seat sat the ruins of my break, many empty paper cups encrusted with dried whipped cream. The Mom Project, all that shopping for her special soups, measuring out her pills, handwashing her undies, was eating up my OA time, and, yes, I see the irony. The other collection inside my little Mazda was a stack of plywood squares. Custom-made birdhouses were—still are—my new retirement venture. Creative but not too “old.” But just as the phone rang, I was feeling old, and berating myself like Dad did when he missed an easy putt.

“For God’s sake, Anna,” I muttered, checking my hair roots in the visor mirror, “you’re sixty-five and dating is long gone, so why waste money on hair dye? Who besides Parrot and your very old Mom ever notices you?”

I mean, I’ve never been svelte, right? But after the twins raced off and Ken and I finally divorced, I started to date a little. Like last week’s pancake-faced jeweler with his mounds of salt-and-pepper hair falling every which way, hair which I actually admired because my once vibrant and auburn mop had collapsed into a hairdo of thin, pointless waves. At a Starbucks, this guy stood abruptly, hoisted his khakis with his thumbs, then threw down a twenty and strode off. All I did wrong was ask him if his hair was real. Once, you and I would have been laughing hysterically about Mr. Pancake on the phone. “And get this,” you’d interject, reporting about a botched concert rehearsal, your ADHD bassoonist who always came in three measures too late. On and on we’d go late into the night, while I graded physics papers in front of Saturday Night Live, and you marked up piano scores over a martini. That was all before you started hating me.

The hospice nurse had the same calmly urgent tone of ICU staff we remember from when Dad was dying. “Is this Anna Wistern? Sister of Paul Wistern? He’s asking for you to come now.” Now? I banged on the steering wheel. Which “now?” Did she mean “now” that your brother is no longer ghosting you? Or was it more like, come “now” because he’s dying?

“Is anyone with him,” I barked into the cell phone.  “His manager, his kids, his husband, Dan? How is he? Is Joan there?”

Your ex-wife Joan would be there if your girls were there, and so would Kent, your manager. Immense talent had made you famous. Four albums. Three European tours. A professorship at Juilliard.

Before she could answer me, another question screamed to be asked. Right from Terms of Endearment—remember how we scoffed at Jeff Daniels bending over Debra Winger? — I asked, “How much time does he have?”

The answer took an eternity. Meanwhile an acne-faced teenager in a Bixby uniform began rapping on the car window, holding up my coffee drink. Poor hapless kid. I waved him off like a policeman directing traffic away from a gruesome accident. Couldn’t he see I was waiting to hear when my brother would die?

“One can never really know when death calls,” but you were days away from dying. That’s when it got real for me. That’s when the whole, mind-boggling audacity of death drove a cannon into my old Christian fantasy that miracles do happen, and life just might go on forever. Dad, the determined engineer, had this fantasy. Dad, who on the day before he died, lying miserable and resentful in the ICU, wouldn’t let Mom move him to hospice because “there still could be a chance.” His feet were already a pale blue.

“Tell my brother I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I told the nurse, then I collapsed over the steering wheel, turned the car off, and heard a soft whirr of sorrow, like the wings of starlings, begin to escape from my throat.

I knew you were sick. Two years ago, you called me with the news that your slow-growing prostate cancer was no longer slow, then added, a casual afterthought, “And we’re never going to speak again, you and me, because I just want to focus on my family now.” I was in my condo, repotting Mom’s many Christmas cacti, and suddenly I couldn’t talk or breathe. One pot fell to the floor, its clay vase broke wide open, and, even though I worked lightening-speed to protect the little fine cacti roots from the air, it never bloomed again.

Nor did we speak again. Being ghosted is nothing like surviving a toe-to-toe, in-your-face argument. Being ghosted means being pushed over the lip of a bottomless, silent canyon into a kind of unending free fall, becoming greatly obsessed with why. Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Why did you ghost me, especially when you were sick and I could help? For your whole life I was so present, even when you came out. Maybe I didn’t attend enough of your concerts, like that last one, recorded at Sarasota Springs. Maybe I sent too few birthday dolls and Lego sets and graphic novels to Emma and Nora. Okay, no question that I pulled too little for your help after Dad died, and Mom went in circles with death notices and death benefits and what to do with Dad’s tie tacks, saxophones and golf clubs. It’s true that, very quickly, I became her best girl. Present and perfect. Golden and good. So good it was hard not to glow when Mom, reclined and tearful on the couch in the sunroom, bleated to a group of neighbors bringing casseroles, “I don’t know what I’d do without Anna.”

Let me confess something else. Instead of immediately booking a flight and rushing home to board Parrot, stock Mom up with incontinence pads, and pack a bag, I hesitated. Why didn’t you call me yourself? Was I facing a last shitload of hostility, on top of the pile from fifteen years ago?

We were in Florida at Dad’s eightieth birthday celebration, and you hadn’t come out yet. Our two meaningfully engaged, over-scheduled, and debt-loaded families tumbled into a preciously decorated VRBO condo in Naples where every wall and table surface was covered with faux nautical décor. You, the meticulous composer, had arranged everything. I was glad, relieved, nearly giddy with not having to be our aging parents’ go-to for prune juice and good Scotch, eager to steal time with you on that wonderful wraparound deck, trade stories, crack each other up. Forever, you and I had been solid soul mates, a pair of opposite but attracting forces, as they say in physics. Me, too serious, needing your levity, gobbled up by raising twins, teaching, and keeping my hodgepodge marriage together. You, mad musician and moody, seeking out my steadiness when your kids were being kids, or your concert reviews weren’t top flight.

The fight started at dinner. Mom and Dad wrinkled their noses at your choice of take-out French cassoulet and white asparagus salad, even that wonderful raspberry coulis you and Joan worked so hard on. With our kids sitting stiffly around a long dinner table, Dad ignored my frantic hand signals while he heaped praises upon my teacher of the year award, and our boys’ acceptances to the University of Michigan, even Ken’s election to Akron’s city council. Your girls sunk into sullen boredom. Emma began pushing back her cuticles with the back of her spoon, while Nora arranged and rearranged the tall salt and peppershakers, as if they were chess pieces in a death match. Across from me, staring down at your plate, your shoulders twitched and turned like you were wringing someone’s neck under the table.

That turned out to be my neck. Right after dinner you steered me onto the patio and slammed the glass slider. At first, I was just dumbstruck and annoyed, definitely not on high alert for an attack. We had been downing vodka tonics as we usually did to get through Mom and Dad’s events, and my eyes were not on you, but on a spectacular view of the sun, just reaching its melting point on the horizon. The sky was blazing in orange and raspberry.

“Where were you all day?” Your mouth was twisted with rage.

“Boating! Ken wanted the boys to get a better look at the sea.”

“I couldn’t find you! You just disappeared. I looked everywhere, even drove into town. We like boats too! Instead, we sat here all afternoon with the folks, listening to story after story about why Long Boat Key is the best place on earth. We had nothing to do! ”

“Nothing to do?” The memories of many obligatory trips I made to Florida went off like little bombs. “You couldn’t talk and catch up with Mom and Dad? Oh, that’s right, you see them so often.”

I have, as you know, Mom’s blazing sarcasm. In her family, tending animals and crops came first, and caring for children’s feelings was last, especially children’s anger, which had to be dumped into a black cauldron and boiled down to a few bitter words. You were more like Dad, the tempest. Pacing like a prosecutor, you railed and ranted about how often I grabbed Mom and Dad’s attention for me and my kids. Some other inclusionary and exclusionary stuff came up, about me never asking you for opinions about my career, me never visiting you, me not including you in long chats I liked to have with your girls. You were yelling and arm waving so close to my face that I was like one of those limbless, numbed out punching bags, knocked sideways again and again. When I wasn’t scared, I was astonished. I remember thinking that an outdoor light beamed down from the upper reaches of the beach house just like a spotlight on a prison yard. Meanwhile, in the beach house, our parents were laughing it up in a raucous game of poker with Joan, Ken, and the kids. Once, Mom opened the slider and peeked her head out but when she saw we were fighting, she ducked back in. I can still see the white vertical blinds rocking and swaying as Mom closed them tightly. We were on our own. Parentless.

I remember a stranded feeling, which set off a kind of mysterious, physical longing for you, like the panicky and muscular pangs I used to have as a mother whenever one of my children’s teacher or coach called to report a gaping wound or an oddly crooked limb. Bending over my phone, I booked an overnight flight and began to drive home, ticking off logistics. Board Parrot at the shelter. Buy Mom more incontinence pads. Use the small blue carry-on. You were too sick to restart another fight, I reasoned. You wanted to say goodbye, not good riddance. “Now” was the golden present, rising like a phoenix over the past.


Mom, face still smooth at age ninety-one, was relaxing in her recliner when I arrived with supplies in hand at her independent living apartment. She was impeccably dressed as usual in a Navy velour leisure suit, with matching Navy sneakers. Reminders of Dad are everywhere:  glam shots of her and Dad from yesteryear, their hasty World War II marriage in Nashville, their first anniversary at the Copacabana in New York, the last one on the golf course at The Villages. Every picture is inscribed with “All My Love.” Mom gestured at two full wine glasses of moscato on the coffee table and proceeded to regal about the day’s wins at bingo and mah-jongg. In my 1X brown sweatshirt and jeans, I perched uneasily on an adjacent Queen Anne chair, like a pudgy, swollen sparrow in the company of a sleek, majestic blue jay.

Giving Mom bad news meant twisting with anxiety, and your near death was hardly just “news.” You remember. Unspooling the awful, everyday details of a less than perfect childhood—me flunking a spelling test, you spilling the lawn mower’s gas tank, you putting your adolescent hand through a door in an argument with Dad—always felt like we were inflicting something terrible upon her, ruining her day, exposing her incompetence. As she stared at the weather news channel, I drew up a milliliter of courage from moscato.

“Mom, listen, sorry, but I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

I was leaning toward her chair at a commercial break, reaching for her blue-veined hand. The skin over her large knuckles was like an onion. Dried, cracked, delicate.

“What??” She drew upright, her eyes sparkling with fear. “Wait, let me turn this down.” She punched uselessly at the remote. “This damn thing. You have to get me a new one.” I gently unfolded it from her hand and turned off the television.

“Sorry, Mom, but Paul doesn’t have much longer to live. Hospice called me.”

I slumped back into the chair, relieved that part was over. Mom dropped her head down into one of her ever ready handkerchiefs, the ones with flowers embroidered at each corner. She rarely cried, you recall, even when we knew she was invisibly breaking down, behind the walls of her stoicism. Now her thin shoulders were shaking, her whole body convulsing in little heaving motions. Watching this rare expression of Mom’s emotions, my own grief swelled and spilled like an errant ocean wave into the empty space between our two chairs, and a magnetizing desire for Mom and me to embrace lifted me out of my chair. Wrong move. She looked up, saw what was coming, and frowned. I had crossed some invisible line, a line drawn no doubt by her own stalwart mother, mother of ten, and her mother’s mother, a Southern woman whose house and farm and who knows what else was ransacked by Yankee soldiers. By the time my arms reached Mom, her muscles had hardened. Hugging her was like doing a downward-facing dog onto a board.

As I eased back to the Queen Anne, Mom refolded her handkerchief into a square, tucking it into the side pocket of her Navy jacket. She stared up at the ceiling.

“This explains it,” she said, nodding.

“Explains what?”

“That I haven’t heard from him in months, and that he told you first. He wanted to spare me from hearing his voice. He wanted you to tell me, knowing I’m so fragile.”

I shrank into my skin, feeling the old childhood guilt for burdening her.

“So, Mom, listen, there’s a little good news. I’m going out to see Paul. Tonight.” There was a flight at 10:55 that evening, arriving early morning into Denver, and from there I would rent a car and drive straight to the hospice in Fort Collins.

“You are?“ Her head turned sharply, and the space between her eyebrows knitted themselves together.

“Yeah, finally, he wants to see me,” I said sheepishly. For several long seconds, she was quiet, her head swiveling to gaze onto the balcony, where I had bird feeders. Her mouth was tight as she slowly turned her head back to face me.

“Well, Anna, I never gave up hope he would survive. But Paul and I once had a talk about goodbyes. Given the situation, we decided it would be too hard on both of us to say a final farewell. Actually, seeing me break down—and I would, it’s unnatural for a mother not to—would make it harder for him. I didn’t tell you about our decision because he asked me not to.”

I put down my moscato, wiped my mouth on a cocktail napkin, and gazed around for my coat, hoping Mom still had candy from bingo winnings in her desk drawer, and I could steal it without her withering looks at my ballooning body. “Oh, I could make the trip physically,” Mom was saying into the stale ether of her apartment as I slid the Hershey bar into my pocket, “but, emotionally, it would be much too much on me.”

Then she searched for my eyes. “But with poor Paul at the end now, someone should go.” She held out her hand, as if to invite me onto a winners’ platform and join her as the second-place finisher. Good and golden, I kissed the back of her hand. The deal was sealed.

In the taxi ride to the airport, I looked up the definition of “someone” in the Cambridge English Dictionary. It refers to a single person when you do not know who they are or when it is not important who they are.

On my flight to Denver, I watched the rosiest moments of my childhood begin to die. Hours of playing House with you on the linoleum floor in the lower level–me, the Mom, you the baby, and our endless Monopoly games on Sunday mornings, waiting for our parents to wake up, me loaning you green twenties, refusing to let you quit. As teenagers, before I abandoned you for college, leaving you to grapple with our parents, we whispered “here he goes again” at the large oak dinner table as Dad damned the labor unions and John F. Kennedy, and Mom the housewife jumped up like Pat Nixon to serve him everyone’s seconds of mashed potatoes and pot roast.


The hospice was just like you and Mom and Dad, classy and embellished, a stately, white-pillared brick building with immaculate landscaping, hiding the pain on the inside by looking good on the outside. Each of its wings curved back toward the reception desk, like a four-leafed clover, as if luck had anything to do what was happening behind each door. You must be in the worst-off section, I guessed, because the receptionist, in a crisp navy and white striped blouse, tipped her head in sympathy when I said “Paul Wistern.” Padding quietly on thick green carpet toward Room 26, my eyes trespassed into rooms where listless, collapsed figures with nose prongs hooked to oxygen tanks, were tucked into beds. Their rumpled visitors slumped beside them, many asleep. Outside Room 26, an older man in a disheveled suit slept on a chair, head tipped back against the wall, mouth open. Ken, the manager, I assumed. Your door was slightly ajar, and I froze, like a rabbit on the edge of a wide and dangerous walkway, desperate to dart back into the small warren of my life with Parrot and Mom. In case I faltered, I looked down the hall for a nurse, anyone to hold onto me as I crossed the threshold, but it was eerily empty of life. Pushing on the door, I walked in. It was a dimly lit, oversized room. My eyes scanned it very closely to avoid seeing who I had come to see. A green and white striped sofa on one wall was strewn with backpacks and coats, and the coffee table was topped with stained paper cups and half-drunk water bottles. Another long table on an adjacent wall was surrounded, surface to floor, with flower arrangements, some of them elaborate and fancy, a few stuck with giant cards and balloons. On the third wall was a massive bed, which Emma and Nora were bent over. In hooded sweatshirts and jeans, they had their backs to me, one adjusting a blanket, the other arranging a pillow. Suddenly, they sensed a visitor and turned in tandem, eyes growing wide. Emma, your oldest, touched her sister’s shoulder, and they moved apart to grant me passage to the bed.

There, was a person. There was a very thin man, not you. You, a strong-shouldered guy at an early age, were someone who always looked good, Mom’s kind of “good-looking”: neat, clean, church-ready. This person was lying very still on his side, nearly naked, eyes closed, thin legs drawn up into hollowed middle. I choked on alarm and shock and swallowed back tears. This, now, was you.

“A nurse called, said he wanted to see me,” I whispered to the girls. To my relief, they came instantly toward me for one long, anguished, tearful hug, and then, as Joan and Dan appeared in the doorway, wide-eyed, the girls rushed the door to keep them from entering. We were alone.

Settling into a white plastic chair next to the bed, I began to search for you, feature-by-feature, age-by-age. The sensitive musical boy, the ironic, rebellious teenager, the earnest man and father, the newly anxious gay man, the steely conductor-musician-composer. Childhood never leaves the body. There was the diagonal scar over your left eyebrow, made by Johnny Neuman’s accidental hammer. There, your full bottom lip, chapped with small craters, the lips that used to quiver as a little guy when Mom scolded you hard for not closing the cover on piano keys you could barely reach, or for feeding the parakeet a well-meaning lethal dose of lettuce. There were your long fingers with the wide finger pads that played Fantasies Impromptu at age ten, at the speed Chopin intended.

“Paul,” I said softly. No response.

I leaned closer. Your skin color was a pale violet-grey, and the hairs of your unshaved grey beard were beginning to curl. I got closer still trying to close the inches and years of distance between us.

“Paul, it’s Anna. Paul, you asked me to come.”

I reached over cautiously and carefully touched your shoulder, jiggling it once, twice. No response. Your body rocked against my gentle pushing, like a sack of grain. I had the terrifying feeling that you had chosen the moment of my arrival to die. But just as I was about to leap up to shout for help, I saw your chest rise and fall in several breaths; it was even and strong, not the breath of someone dying.

The pure fear of moments ago dissolved into frustration. You were still ghosting me. Feeling that push over the edge, I nearly went into free fall again, but this time I caught a handhold. You were still very much alive, you rascal, my wonderful, maddening brother.

“Paul,” I started again, my hand reaching for yours, which were balled up under your chin. “I flew as fast as I could when I heard you wanted to see me. I love you, Paul. It’s me, Anna.”

You opened your eyes, finally. They were as I’d remembered them: eyes slanted downward, holding two deep brown pools, the irises a shade lighter than the pupils. Seeing you seeing me brought so much relief that I felt like moving right onto the bed. In fact, I was just about to edge alongside you, when your gaze stopped me cold. You weren’t looking at me. Your eyes were boring through me, aiming beyond my own pupils into my head then out the back of my skull. It was like you were working out some large, unanswerable question. What is this happening to me? What will it be like to die? Will I have to see Dad? Time seemed suspended, and even if we never talked again, I thought, or never healed our rift, at least this private, intimate moment of bafflement between us was precious and real. In a very slow but clear voice, you began speaking. You asked,

“Where’s Mom?”

I swear that I heard the whish of the catapult that took my heart and flung it across the room. Where’s Mom? Where’s Mom? In Akron, carrying out the plan you and she secretly made together. Where’s Mom? Already signed off. You want Mom? Read the giant $15.00 card from her I see propped on your nightstand, the words Get Well written by a pair of doves in gold glitter.

Golden and good, I said none of that. Instead, with shards of hot guilt raining down like sleet in hell, I sputtered out Mom’s story about you and Mom agreeing that you wouldn’t say a final goodbye in person. Silently, I wondered if any of that story was even true, then decided it wasn’t; I should have seen through it, and instead of kissing Mom’s hand, I should have twisted her arm to fly with me to your deathbed. Then, suddenly, it was childhood all over again. I was twelve, accused of pushing you down and punished for it with a flyswatter, when you had actually pushed me first. I heard myself trying to prove I was innocent of the crime of not bringing Mom. How could I read between the lines? Who knew that of course it was Mom, not me, who was wanted? You began twisting on the bed away from me, softly wailing. I tried to calm you down, offered to call Mom herself, and then whipped out my cell phone to have her set the story straight, right then and there, to affirm that you both decided she wouldn’t come. This made you wail even louder, and I found myself looking over my shoulder for Dad to appear, to put an end to this nonsense.

Your family heard the commotion and flooded into the room. The hospice nurse arrived and threw an accusing glance in my direction. She tried some pills, took your blood pressure, led us all aside to explain “this period of agitation” which often precedes the beginning of the end. Embarrassed not to be Mom, I tried to be a good Not Mom. I adjusted your covers upward against the chill, then downwards, when you squirmed. I listened and soothed while you babbled and cried incoherently about how awful you had treated everyone in the last few weeks. You began complaining, demanding different positions, a new pillow, more morphine. I role-played high priestess, taking your hands between mine, thanking you “for preparing a heavenly house for Mom when she dies,” feeling disgusted with myself. We both knew that was a fairy tale.

Eighteen hours later at midnight, drained of energy and any hope for reconciliation, I readied myself for a final farewell. The hospice staff had assured us that death could be as long as a week away. To give us a final moment together, your family trudged out of the room. You were lying very still on your back with your eyes closed. We were alone. This was it, our last moment. Standing at the foot of your bed, I took several, uneven breaths, tears flowing with each one. Just go over, say I love you and kiss him goodbye, I told myself. But instead, an unexpected sea monster rose up, dripping and ugly. Maybe I was just roaring mad. Maybe I felt desperate for us to see each other as brother and sister, one last time.

“Paul.” I started sternly. “Paul, open your eyes and look at me.”

Your eyes stayed closed. I roared again.

“Paul, stop this. Look at me, goddamit!”

This had no effect. Your eyes seemed more shut tight than ever.

Incredulous and embarrassed at my own behavior, my steam petered out. I began pleading.

“Please, Paul. I don’t want to remember you like this. At least let us look at each other. It’s our only chance.”

The room was utterly still and dark except for a small beam of light from the ceiling above you. “ Please God,” I prayed silently, “Jesus, Mary, Mother of God.” I commanded, “make him see me again,” knowing full well that the prayers of nonbelievers are never answered.

Not only did you refuse you made a point of refusing. I think of it now as your triumphant moment, your ultimate liberation from needing anyone, your final “fuck you” to the family. In the clear, devil-may-care voice of a teenager, you said, “I’m not opening my eyes, because you want me to.”

Devastated, I fled the room and slumped into the soft arms of your family members waiting for me outside the door.

At airports, I usually head for the darkest corner of the nearest Starbucks where, as a fat person, I can gorge myself in privacy on shakes and shortbread while waiting for my flight. Instead, God must have glanced down for a minute, because, instead of Starbucks, I was mysteriously drawn to a soaring, two-story birdcage in the center of the Denver airport. Paul, you used to love our serial parakeets, “serial” because we had a knack of losing the birds during cage-cleaning sessions on the outside clothes line, or accidentally choking them to death with bits of carrots and meat when we ran out of birdseed. On a bench next to the birdcage, I began whistling the little ditty I’d programmed into my singing bird feeders, to draw the chickadees, and in a few minutes, some caged canaries began flying directly toward me, whistling back. That musical mélange drew a little crowd of children, including a small tow-headed boy who stared not at the bird, nor at my fat, but at my mouth, and soon he began imitating my whistle. With his mother abiding this, soon he almost had the tune. When she had to pull him away after a few minutes, I was oddly sad.

Buckling into my window seat for the flight home, I couldn’t quiet down a certain knocking fact. That, if not for my own selfish need to make peace between us, I might have persuaded Mom to come with me so you could die in peace. As the plane ascended, I commanded myself to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t comply. I was forced to look instead for food treats. When the flight attendants began ignoring my call light after giving me all their M and M’s and almonds, I began waving my credit card for tiny bottles of Scotch. One bottle efficiently deleted the past two days, and the second bottle sent me into a lovely, long soothing spin in a carnival teacup. As I broke the seal on the third bottle, midair over Chicago, a pretty middle-aged woman with long brown hair, wearing a red and black herringbone coat, carrying a fifties-style beige handbag with a silver clasp, walked past my aisle and smiled at my stare. As she took her seat rows behind me, a memory swelled in my chest, like the engorgement of milk in my breasts I remembered from the boys’ infancies. It was painful, yet as soon as I let everything flow out, I knew I would feel relief.

I was eight and you were five, and our family was still living in that trim, tri-level house in Akron. One night I awoke to your crying. My upstairs bedroom was open to a view of the living room just down a short flight of stairs, and there you were, in yellow, footed pajamas, sobbing on the couch, your little legs dangling over the edge. I yelled for Mom and Dad to come but nothing, not a peep. I called louder, in my biggest girl voice, but no one answered. You cried louder with each bout of silence. I wriggled out of bed and willed myself to stand in the doorway of our parents’ bedroom, where they were surely dead. The bed was empty and made up tight, the two bedside lamps still lit. The clock read 12:30 A.M.; I had just learned to tell time. I twirled around and called again, “Mommy! Daddy!” but louder this time. The only answer was the sound of a child’s imagination as it flings open the gates of violent possibilities. Mom and Dad had either been kidnapped for ransom, or ghosts and witches, or robbers had killed them. I rushed downstairs into the living room, jumped on the couch, and grabbed onto to you. Keeping you calm made me calmer. Protecting you, kept me protected. You tipped your head onto my shoulder, and then with your brown, bottomless eyes, you looked up and asked,

“Where’s Mom?”

I didn’t know so I didn’t answer. Acknowledging my own fright would have scared you to death. Instead, I put my arm around you, and spooled out all the fairy tales I knew, like Snow White, and Three Billy Goats Gruff, and when those ran out, I made some up. Then, I made us airplanes like Dad taught us to do with typing paper, flying dozens of planes frantically about the living room, sailing them across the breakfast bar into the shadowy kitchen, then, carefully down into the unexplored lower level, where Mom and Dad might lie mangled and murdered. Time passed uneasily while we played, but it didn’t bring our parents. Droopy-eyed, we crawled back onto the couch, and fell asleep. Finally, I heard Mom and Dad rattling at the back door. They came up the stairs from the lower level, smiling arm in arm, and, seeing our red and bawling faces, started to laugh. Dad hung up his World War II flight jacket in the front closet and went room to room, stepping around our airplanes, turning out lights, bolting doors, checking the stove in case Mom left a burner on, which she often did. Mom rushed over, shrugged her red and black herringbone coat onto the floor, and crowded between us on the couch, her hands folded on her lap.

“Oh, now stop crying, kids! Sillies, we were right next door, playing Canasta with Ronnie and Rita!”

“But you didn’t even check on us,” I wailed, scolding her. “You didn’t even tell us where you were in case anything happened!”

“Now, that would have made you more scared!” Dad said loudly over his shoulder, as he hustled himself upstairs.

Several weeks later, they did it again, and again you asked, “Where’s Mom?” and guessing that our parents were at Ronnie and Rita’s did nothing to calm my fears of kidnappers, ghosts, monsters, and the whole house burning to the ground, with us in it.


You died ten days after I saw you, and there was no funeral. “Dad’s request,” said Emma, “because he wanted to be remembered for his music, not some silly, fancy funeral.”

To stave off a guilt-ridden grief, I built bird’s-nests over the next week, compulsively, and after all that sawing, screwing, sanding, and painting, I gazed with satisfaction inside the finished boxes, imagining each one filling up with straw and grass and leaves, and then some tiny eggs, followed by hatchlings which needed to be fed constantly by two exhausted parent birds, weary but relentlessly dutiful, taking turns flying in and out with worms and bugs. Most birds, especially the females, follow Nature’s requirement. A few don’t. A fellow birder told me, after she tried to feed an orphaned nuthatch with a medicine dropper and tweezers, that it almost never works. These orphaned birds die because anyone who tries to step into a mother’s shoes to care for a hatchling is usually rejected.

Two weeks later your family flocked to Cape Cod and flung your ashes into the sea. After I move Mom to assisted living, where someone else is at her beck and call twenty-four hours a day, that same swath of ocean is where this letter is going, as a swirl of white confetti, and I’m buoyed by the wild hope that the stories within these pages adhere to what remains of you, and never disappear.

About the Author

Patricia Carino Pasick

Patricia Pasick is an Asian-American writer based in Ann Arbor who, after decades of non-fiction writing, is now venturing into long and short form fiction. Formerly a clinical psychologist and family therapist, she began her publishing career with Almost Grown, published by W.W. Norton, which has sold 25,000 copies to date. Other pieces have been published in The Sun. After ten years working in Rwanda, a collaboration with a Rwandan survivor became Gloria, a creative non-fiction story in "Memoir (And)." Her themes are almost always about the intergenerational legacies of translocation and trauma. She has drafted one novel, about a romance between two cousins in Nashville, ruptured by an accidental shooting, and is at work on a second, about the deportation of an intermarried Filipino-American couple in the 1920's. A proponent of life-long learning, she workshops with the former editor of Tri-quarterly and his students in Chicago.