The following morning we slept in. At 10:30 I awoke and plodded down- stairs, wearied by sleeping into mid-morning. There was no familiar smell of coffee, no bustle of breakfast preparation. All was quiet and still dirty from the night before, at least by my mother’s standards. There were three bowls in the sink, bits of noodle and pools of chicken broth were left standing. My mother seemingly hadn’t woken up yet, which was unusual. I checked the couch, her new bed, and found it was empty. A dull crack echoed from the backyard. Then another. I spotted my mother chopping wood in the March cold, wearing her big green coat and white tennis shoes. With every heaving breath and split log, her lungs paraded off sharp coughs. I slipped on my boots and went outside to help.
“It’s cold. We’re almost out of wood in the stove,” she said, wiping her mouth, her back to me. She spoke to the sound of the door closing.
“You’re sick, Mom,” I said, gesturing for the axe once I arrived at her side. “Let me.”
She continued to chop, ignoring me. After four swings and more exhausting coughing fits, she relented.
“Do about fifteen more,” she said, adding a “please” as she thrust the axe handle into my hands. She left me no time to protest or ask when class would start. She knocked the snow from her shoes on the wooden steps and went inside.
Once I’d finished my work, I brought an armful of kindling to the wood burning stove. I placed the bits of wood piece by piece into the black cast- iron behemoth, its belly barely warm. Poking the embers around the new, dry wood, I began to think of how long it’d been since we’d seen our father. I remembered him explaining the act of stoking a fire like it were a voodoo priest’s summoning ritual.
“The flames won’t come unless you surround the logs with hot embers,” he explained in his quiet Midwestern drawl. He initially showed me when I was five, as if he knew I’d have to do it in his absence. With the logs aflame, I shut the grate of the stove and went inside, suddenly upset with my father.
The air inside the house began to circulate, to become warm and dry again. The dishes were still in the sink and my mother was again absent. I rifled through the books and loose paper on the kitchen table until I found my English work, set on learning alone if I had to. Half an hour into my grammar exercises, Catherine came down the stairs. Her eyes were just free from sleep and a yellow lock of hair dangled in sweeping arcs across her fore- head with each step.
“What time is it?” Catherine asked groggily from the bottom step.
“It’s 12:30,” I answered, aware I hadn’t seen or heard my mother for more than an hour.
She was in her bedroom when I finally found her. I was frantic and out of breath after the search. We weren’t allowed to go into her room but after a dozen knocks she came to the door, grimacing.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I just didn’t know where you were,” I said, expecting to be punished for bothering her in her room.
“I’m too tired to come down today; go do your schoolwork. You know where we left off.” At this order Catherine and I went once more downstairs, confused that education had seemingly lost its importance to her.
After a week of self-educating and a never-ending struggle to keep our house warm on our own, Catherine and I realized our mother should go to the hospital. She would not listen, offering only very weak responses about how she felt: “Fine, just tired.”
We went to Joe when he came the next day with the mail, pleading that he talk to her and show her reason. We were scared then, finally aware of what her wavering health meant for us. She was thin and pale. Her eyes had collapsed into her skull; to look into them was like staring into a well. After he spoke to her alone, my mother grudgingly agreed to make her way to the local medical center. Joe told me later that his horror at her appearance is what convinced her to leave. She’d simply ignored her body until it was so far gone. There she was almost immediately diagnosed with pneumonia. They couldn’t do anything to help her on Adak with the tiny medical center that was left. She was taken by plane to the mainland a few hours after she arrived. We waited behind for three days with Joe, waiting for the next supply boat. We rode it back to the mainland, impatiently wondering at my mother’s health. Catherine and I talked loudly, pointing at the seabirds grazing the placid, rippling surface of the water, trying to distract ourselves from worrying. Catherine was five the last time she saw the world outside Adak.
She asked, “Do you remember when we watched the ice break? On the boat with Daddy?”
“Of course,” I said, hoping we’d see more before we made it to the hospital.
Shortly after we first came to Alaska, when Adak bustled, our father found a boat that made tours north, along the glaciers. There we watched the spring shatter the ends of them into the ocean. Once home, Catherine and I had asked our mother to teach us about the ice. It was so alien and we needed to make sense of it. She told us that what we watched was called calving, when the massive chunks of ice cracked into the ocean below with a roar.
“I miss Daddy,” Catherine said, watching her boots kick back and forth as her feet dangled from the high bench.
“I do too,” I said, wondering if he would already be there attending to our mother as best he could. He always did care about us, I never doubted that.
“Do you think Daddy will come back with us when Mom gets better?” Catherine looked hopeful.
“Maybe we’ll all go back with him,” I said, tired of home, of the solitude.
The hospital was quiet when we arrived at 3 AM. The emergency room was brightly lit, barely active itself. A woman holding her stomach and wincing sat on a chair drinking from a paper Dixie cup. Joe told us to buy drinks from the vending machine as he went to the desk to ask where my mother was. He returned in a few minutes with grief in his eyes.
“Your father is here; he’ll be coming to see you in a coupla’ minutes. Let’s just sit over here.”
As we sat, Catherine and I were too distracted by thoughts about our father to worry about our mother.
Our father entered the waiting room—the specter from almost a year before, an eternity to a child. He’d aged less than our mother and he looked happier, not so beaten-down by the world. Joe stood to greet him and took him to talk out of earshot. Our father never took his eyes off us as he spoke. After they talked he shook Joe’s hand and Joe went to the front desk again. Our father came over, crouching down on his knees to see us at eye level.
“Come here you two,” he said with tears in his eyes, his arms outstretched. We both got up and quickly met his embrace. He hugged us for what felt like minutes in the sterile fluorescent lights. He let us go, sitting down on one of the metal chairs, beckoning us to sit next to him.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t around much. It’s just after the divorce I didn’t know if you’d wanna see me; you stopped sendin’ letters,” he quietly went on, not giving us time for the word ‘divorce’ to sink in. “I… I need to tell you some- thin’,” he said, his throat quivering.
Catherine and I exchanged confused looks.
“Your mother, she died last night. She was real brave, but she was too weak to keep fightin’. I’m sorry,” he said, waiting for us to react.
I’ve heard people say that when they were told someone they loved died that they thought it was a joke. They sort of laughed, said their Come on and It’s not funny until the horror of truth slowly sunk in. I reacted that way, begging my father to admit his lies while my sister cried, too young to doubt her father.
We both went to sleep that night in the hotel room my father and his friend were staying in. The television that would have normally interested us was overlooked. We were drained of emotion. We were tired and out of tears. We slept better than we should have on the hard springs of the mattress, un- der the creased comforter depicting moose and beavers happily living along a stream.
The next morning our father introduced us to his silent companion, our step-mother. She was a small woman with black hair in a pink parka. Her name was Denise. They had been married for eight months. He was shocked and guilty that our mother hadn’t told us about the divorce, about the apology he’d sent along with last year’s Christmas gifts. She just signed the papers and quietly sent them back. She never even flinched or hinted at the change to us. I sometimes think that if she lived, she would have let us go on believing that he was just too busy for us, working away across the country. In truth, he hauled cargo around North Carolina and the rest of the southeast, a job much less grand than the cross-country escapades he told us about in letters. He would apologize to us for the rest of our lives.
In the time that we waited for the plane to North Carolina we heard news of Thomas Chaplin, a boy around our age who died in a plane crash heading back from a supply run with his mother. She survived for four hours in the barely-warm-enough March ocean, clinging to one of the plane’s pontoons and holding onto Thomas’ hand as if he were still attached to it. The rest of him was found 30 meters from her. The boatman who plucked him out with a tuna net had to hold the boy’s mother back as she tried to graft his hand back onto his flesh, as if it would restore life in his frozen body. It felt like our home had become a place where only death existed. For some reason, even years later, this image stuck with me more than my mother’s death. I don’t imagine her on the glistening morgue table we never got to see. Instead I picture Thomas Chaplin bobbing on his back like a week-old county fair goldfish. It’s strange, what memory deems important. As we flew to the East Coast, our mother was buried in Adak among the bones of the natives and the military men who’d died in their short stay. My father didn’t have any more time to spare or he’d lose his job. Nobody but Joe and the island’s only priest attended her funeral.
North Carolina was a monumental adjustment. Denise was patient with us. She waited for us to come to her when we’d finished mourning our mother. She would prove to be a good parent. She grew to love us and we came to love her. Catherine and I went to public school and did well. Our pale skin tanned in the hot sun. We adapted. Our father pleaded with us not to blame our mother for letting her pride keep us in the dark about their divorce, for letting herself die. It was difficult. I hated her for a long time. Now I don’t. It’s simple like that. It’s hard to know if I can ever love her, considering that she only lives in my memory now—only in the kind of dreams I want to end that never do.
Catherine graduated high school early and moved to New York City. She wanted to see the lights and to experience something new. I stayed close to home. In my freshman year at UNC I decided I’d like to become a social worker, to try and help kids who were displaced by tragedy. Catherine and I were not orphans; we were something different. We were like the ice that we watched fall into the sea all those years ago, when our family was still happy and intact. We longed for the way the freshwater cavalcaded into the salt, ignorant to what their mixing meant. We floated as two pieces shorn from the same whole, wanting everything new but only decaying with it. We were inundated by the promises of warmth and new places until we dissolved into it with everyone else. We were the late spring calving: the son and daughter of an unimaginable wasteland. We drifted south far too quickly. We had our freedom, but was it what we needed? What we deserved?
Dean Tripp might be a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He’s studying creative writing when he’s not at home in Argyle, New York ignoring nature. He plays too many video games and binges Netflix ad nauseam. While he has never been published, he hopes that one day he can so that he may get into the exclusive club in Heaven that Kurt Vonnegut sits in, drinking whiskey and being sad. He doesn’t drink tea.