My dead parents have come to see me graduate. They wanted it to be a surprise.
I find myself full of indignity and big words, seeing them standing on the front lawn of my row house, my father with his arm draped over my mother, his ancient camera dangling from his neck by the blue woven strap. They are dressed the same as the last time I saw them. The same clothes I dressed them in. My father in his blue suit and paisley tie, my mother in the dress I liked so much. Even bloated and ravaged with torn skin stretched taut, they are recognizable. They are still my parents.
They are in a good mood for people up so early and also for people who are dead. I am hung over and hang limply in my cap and gown, sustained only by large sunglasses and the thought of the orange juice I planned to buy from the deli on my way to commencement. I did not plan on having guests this morning.
My father eagerly holds his camera out, the teeth collected for his smile apparent through the hole in his cheek. My mother rushes up to my side, I instinctively wrap my arm around her waist. Her head comes up to my shoulder. She stinks of death and mildew. She wipes the lipstick from her teeth and I wipe the sweat from my face.
We smile. My father frames the steeple of the college’s bell tower in the background.
They switch places. My father hands the camera to my mother, rests his hand on my shoulder and puffs out his chest. His left ear falls off and he sheepishly picks it up and puts it in the pocket of his pants. I marvel that my father is still taller and larger than I am. My mother fumbles with the camera, confusing the button that operates the shutter and the trigger that advances the film. She has the lens pointed to the grass and the flash goes off. My father strides across the grass to her, exasperated. He seizes the camera from my mother’s hands and shakes his head. My mother turns to walk to the car. My father reaches for her, but she pushes him away. My father looks at me—for sympathy or solidarity, it is unclear—but the tint of my sunglasses stands between us.
What I really want right now is an egg and cheese sandwich on a roll.
My mother stands halfway between us and the road, her face turned away, hugging herself. My father fidgets with the camera. My roommate staggers out of the house, a tangle of tassels and hoods, and catches us all in the act.
My father pumps my roommate’s hand, gives his shoulder a hearty squeeze. A faint handprint of corpse dirt is left on my roommate’s shoulder. My roommate seems afraid to brush it off. We watch my father try to instruct my mother, once again, on how to use a camera.
—I thought your parents were dead.
At commencement, I can tell where my parents are sitting from the carrion birds circling overhead. Every now and then, I see a turkey vulture dive; I imagine my father beating it off with a rolled-up program.
The sun is burning overhead. I doze off for a moment in the heat. I wake up in time to hear my name announced. Dashing to the dais, I hear my parents clapping from their folding chairs in the back.
I had prepared for silence all along, but now there are two corpses whistling and clapping and it is very nearly too much.
After our mortars have been thrown into orbit, my parents find me. I am sunburned on one side of my face. My mother is sitting in a wheelchair that the two of them have procured from some campus office or station meant to cater to geriatrics.
I suggest brunch and they nod eagerly.
The entire walk down the hill, I am given sympathetic stares as I struggle to push my mother in front of me. I had no idea, I imagine them all saying, he never spoke about this. What quiet courage.
I briefly bask in my unearned respect, but my cheeks begin to burn before too long. No, no, I want to tell them, my mother isn’t actually disabled. She’s just dead. Her ankles have rotten straight through is all.
We go to the diner I don’t usually go to.
I order pancakes and bacon, my parents hold warm coffee mugs between their palms. They signal that they want spoons so they can stir the milk in and watch it change colors. They always used to love to do that. I don’t have the heart to tell them that things aren’t like that anymore. The world is not the way they left it.
I take my sunglasses off and play with them on the table.
—Thanks for coming.
My father leans over the table and rustles my hair.
—It was nice of you.
I look at my mother and she starts to cry big mucusy tears. My father passes an envelope across the table. It’s filled with twenties, the old kind that went out of circulation a few years ago. My parents wrestle their wedding rings off bloated fingers and put them on top of the envelope.
I think about what they will look like at my wedding. Flesh hanging like tissue paper from their skulls. My mother’s ankles grinding to dust as she tries to dance with me. My father rounding the reception hall, camera still slung over his neck like a noose, taking photographs with the one good eye, the one the worms haven’t gotten to. They will look longingly at the piece of wedding cake they’re given, but will explain that it looks too sweet for them to eat.
We wait at the bus station. A miniature dust storm looks like it will roll in at any minute. I dread the possibility of the bus being cancelled or delayed, of having to find ways to fill my parent’s day. My father plays with his camera until I want to knock it out of his hands. My mother keeps finding excuses to touch my face.
Finally, the bus arrives. With great effort and strain, my parents find a way to help each stand up.
—Get home safe.
They hug me, both at once.
As they walk onto the bus, I see the way they hold each other’s hands and suddenly I want to climb on the bus with them and go where they are going. I want to look out the window with my father and have my mother fall asleep on my shoulder. I want to tell them about the last four years. About what it is like to live in this world. I want my father to get upset about how expensive things are, to get upset about how everything costs $100 more than it is supposed to. I want to tell them about the time when I thought I was a Buddhist and made a sweat lodge in the back yard of the row house and nearly died because it was so hot. I want to tell them this story until they laugh so hard they cry.
I watch the bus pull out of the station.
My books were all still packed in the back of the dusty Volvo when I pulled up to the cemetery, the one down the street from the houses where they grew up.
I had prepared for some sort of terrible, dramatic scene. I had prepared for “a bladed wind laden with salt” mostly because that is a phrase I have always wanted to use. On the drive there, I saw storm clouds fermenting in the distance.
I imagined a grand rage, a soliloquy of disappointment and abandonment—one where I would be fire and I would be ice and I would be glorious in my pain. The soundtrack would be stirring.
The rain never came. Nor the wind.
I found them where I had left them. I stood there, hands in my pockets, unsure of what could be left to say. Their markers stood mute before me. I considered hugging the granite, curious to see how cold stone could be in May. A goose honked behind me; a plane passed overhead; the grass rustled; a lawn mower the next hill over began to rumble; a bead of sweat slipped down my back, fell into my shirt; there was a faint ringing in my ears.
There would always be a time before this moment, and a time after.