The first thought I had upon hearing that Ruth was dead? “Did I do that?” I had wished her dead for so long, and now she was. Colon cancer finally killed her. She’d fought it for years, on death’s doorstep one day, back on the treadmill the next. Deathwatch 2004 we called it initially, though she didn’t die until 2008. In death, now as she had in life, Ruth agitated me, inscrutable and maddening. Even though we had never been friends, our lives were intimately entwined, and I often felt trapped in a relentless dance with her—the same steps over and over and over.
We were on vacation, Taylor and I, on our annual trip to the Oregon Coast when the call came, beckoning us home for the funeral. Ruth cut everything short when it came to my kids. Taylor upset, because at 14 she thought she should have been contacted directly. Trust me, I would have preferred not to be the bearer of this bad news.
In my fantasies Ruth generally died in a car wreck. Her five-year-old van had over 300,000 miles on it. That van, full of toys and treats, her clothes, toothbrush, old woman shoes. Stuffed animals and children’s books. Sports equipment. Balls, racquets, running shoes. Games. She had a house of her own, but lived on the road, in between our home and hers.
I did not believe the cancer would kill her. She seemed invincible, omnipresent, immovable.
How many times had I driven past the large wooden church on the corner and watched as black-draped mourners filed in? How many times had I wondered what unfortunate soul inhabited the casket being extracted from the back of the hearse? I hadn’t been to many funerals in my life, just the expected ones, never for someone so much a part of my everyday life. And never for someone I actively wished dead.
Now I tried to find a parking space so we could join the long black line into the church for Ruth’s funeral. I could barely keep my soul and body together as I prepared to confront the death of the woman who had hijacked my family. I kept reminding myself I needed to be there to support my children.
“I wonder if there will be a casket,” I said to Nancy, my wife, as I waited, not patiently, for the old people in front of us to hobble their walkers out of the parking lot. I peered intently at the old couple, certain I recognized them but so many years had passed, I couldn’t be certain.
“I hope it’s not an open casket,” Nancy commented. “She wasn’t much to look at on a good day.”
“She was such a scientist though,” I said, surprising even myself with my equanimity. “Maybe she donated her body to science. She loved taking those anatomy and physiology students to see the cadavers, though I can’t imagine her naked on a stainless steel gurney for some random college kids to carve on. For a PE teacher and a coach, she sure had a fear of being naked in the locker room.”
I recognized Ruth’s profile well above the chrome rim of the casket as soon as we entered the sanctuary. Her faced looked weirdly green. I took a deep breath. The church and the people swam before me–I could feel my soul disengaging from my body. Too many people from the past. Two of my ex’s longtime friends handed out funeral programs and attempted to usher people towards seats. I let Nancy take the program and tried not to make eye contact, still uncomfortable 12 years after our divorce.
“Where are my kids?” I surveyed the pews, expecting to find Anna and Taylor sitting with my ex, Narcissa, their other mother, near the front, where the family usually sits. They were as close to family as Ruth had.
“There’s Anna,” Nancy pointed to the middle row, front pew where Anna sat among a long line of her good friends and schoolmates. Most of these kids had grown up with Anna, and some had been with her in school since daycare. All of them knew Ruth, knew what she meant to Anna. I was relieved to see Anna was nearer to the foot end of the coffin and not directly in front of Ruth’s strangely green face.
“That’s weird. Where’s T?” I frantically scanned the rest of the church. “I can’t believe she’s not here.” I started to grow indignant on her behalf. Figured, I thought to myself. She always came second with Ruth–I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been forgotten at home.
I swooned (not in a good way) to recognize a cadre of Ruth’s former field hockey players–all mullets and capped teeth, awkward in their funeral attire. I averted my gaze again and then bugged my eyes out at Nancy, our universal signal for “help me!” She took my arm gently and guided me toward an empty pew.
“Let’s sit down before your head explodes,” she whispered. We sat a couple of rows behind Anna and her friends, and I thought I should say something to Anna, at least let her know I was here. I stepped forward and put my hand on her shoulder.
“Hey sweetie,” I began but had no idea what to say next. She knew how I felt about Ruth, not the entirety of my pain, but she knew well enough I did not much like Ruth. How could I convey that in spite of my anger and disdain for Ruth, I deeply felt Anna’s hurt? “I’m so sorry, honey. I know she meant the world to you.”
Anna, just two months out of high school and within a week of going off to her first year of college just stared at me blankly. I knew she must be completely unmoored by this. In spite of my most vigorous efforts, Ruth had been her primary parent–her biggest cheerleader, her most unfailing supporter, her own personal chauffeur and ATM. And, I suspected, the primary reason Anna had chosen a school a good seven-hour drive from home. Anna knew it was time to start cutting the cord, but I knew she wasn’t prepared for Ruth to just be suddenly gone. I patted her inelegantly on the shoulder and hugged the friends on either side of her, relieved to head back to my seat, on edge because I still didn’t see Taylor.
Nancy poked me when I sat down and pointed to the casket where a woman I did not recognize was trying to put a tennis racquet in Ruth’s cold dead hands. Ruth had donated much time and money to Anna’s high school tennis team over the past four years. Evidently, this woman had been charged with expressing the team’s appreciation.
We could not look away as she first positioned the racquet so it stuck out of the box as if Ruth might be holding it, and then as she rearranged it so the strings crisscrossed Ruth’s head and the racquet framed her green face. Not happy with that look, she attempted to put it behind the body where it simply looked ridiculous. The woman also had a folded pile of clothes, green sweats, and she attempted to wedge these in the coffin as well. Nothing said goodbye like a good racquet and a set of team tennis sweats. There was no way for the tennis accessories to look anything but weird and the woman mercifully gave up, but I do think Ruth would have admired her persistence.
Throughout the funeral service, I keep telling myself that I was young. Too young and inexperienced to have known about Ruth. And optimistic. Hopeful. Naïve. Twenty-five years of therapy later, I know that all I could do was leave, but not all choices are obvious or easy. I stayed. We both stayed, hoping for a place in Narcissa’s life. Ruth provided the money. I provided the sex. Ruth had history and everyone else could see that she was part of Narcissa. I couldn’t have Narcissa without Ruth, but I didn’t see it.
Narcissa’s friends asked how the three of us were getting along. I didn’t understand. Why the three of us? Ruth’s part of the package, they said. Narcissa didn’t warn me. She denied the truth if I asked. I learned slowly. Something about being in the 1980 Olympics. I’d written a paper about that boycott. I was a junior in high school in 1980. Narcissa a 29-year-old member of the US Olympic Field Hockey Team. Ruth her coach. Bitterness. I didn’t know field hockey.
We started as an affair—sexual attraction, a broken relationship. And hard to get. I dated a girl my own age then. Finished graduate school. What now? Two degrees in English. I wanted to be a writer. Narcissa found that sexy. The Girl My Age wanted to be a writer too. Whom to choose? I played it both ways.
When The Girl My Age started driving by my house at midnight and yelling obscenities from her car window if she saw Narcissa’s truck, when she started calling me at 1 a.m. asking if I were alone, I chose Narcissa. Stable, settled and starting a family. I thought those were my dreams too. I often consider the path not taken. I did not count on Ruth.
Ruth raised my children. Her ubiquitous presence drove me out of their lives as she became a puzzle I couldn’t solve. There were too many pieces. I couldn’t see how it all fit together. I should have known, should have seen it that first night when she arrived, unannounced, immovable. She never left. How could I have known?