There's this episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye is stuck in Korea while his father, who I think lived in Maine, was having surgery. Anyway, Hawkeye starts telling Dr. Winchester about when his mother died, when he was a kid. Something about how his dad started making breakfast for him when his mom went into the hospital, and by the time he was having French toast, his mom was dead. I don't know, maybe I got the details mish-mashed, but it isn't really that important. The point is, my dad doesn't cook.
My mom always cooked breakfast for me, every morning, even though she had to be to work by seven-thirty. She was a secretary at the high school in town, and that kept her very busy, but there was always something ready for me, usually something simple like oatmeal or eggs, but sometimes waffles, and always pancakes on the weekend. Then one evening the ambulance came for mom, and the next morning dad got me up and put a bowl of cereal in front of me before rushing me off to the baby sitter.
When you're five you don’t really understand what a hospital is for, everybody just told me that my mom was going there "to get better," so what was I supposed to think? I got to go visit her every day, and they had this nice little waiting area with toys for kids like me -- it was kind of like going to the park. Then one day we didn't go to the hospital, we went to my grandmother's house. No slow and steady build-up from oatmeal to scrambled eggs to French toast, just the same cold cereal every day. And that was what life became sort of like after that, cold cereal.
You don't understand anything when you're five, not really. I could say the word 'cancer,' I could spell it out in my awkward, blocky penmanship, but I didn't really know what it was. People got sick, they got to stay home from school for a couple of days and eat chicken soup, then they came back, and I was probably seven before I really understood that mom wasn't coming back -- people had told me already, sure, lots of times, lots of people, but I didn't really understand it. You can know things for a long time before you really understand them, and -- although I’ve known death for the better part of my life, now -- I've come to the conclusion that for death, for dying, that state of existence is permanent. We can know what it is, sure, and we can do our best to wrap our minds around the idea, but we don’t really understand it. Nobody does.
And dad never did cook me breakfast, either. At least not that I can remember, maybe once or twice. My grandmother always made breakfast for me when I stayed with her -- which got to be more and more often as dad started to spend more and more time at the bar. Pancakes were something I remember her making really well. After she passed away those weren't really an option, and I learned to make breakfast for myself.
It took dad another twenty years to drink himself to death. I'm thirty now, and don’t think about either of them nearly as much as I used to. Dad comes back to me off and on, usually when I'm driving, telling me not to be an ass about the high-beams and to watch out for the deer, especially in the fall. Sometimes at work. Sometimes in church. But I see mom nearly every morning at about six, just about the time I'm fixing breakfast.