The sun is leaving me for the day. It is the closest friend I have anymore, and it never speaks. I'm sitting on the redwood deck my husband built over two decades ago. It is due for a new finish, but that will wait for the summer. This place has been neglected in the past, when it served only as a summer home. But now that I have moved here, I will have the time to make repairs. Time, after all, is all I have.
I've always managed to neglect the present, which, at least lately, has led me to regret the past. Quite a complimentary pair of personality defects. Oh well.
I say that whenever I reach an impasse of personal realization and pride: Oh well. It keeps me from admitting I'm wrong even when my errors are clear, which in turn keeps me from having to take responsibility. It's quick and evasive and can sound pleasant even when I'm not. A wonderful phrase.
I retired from my professorship after the spring semester. I taught western religion at a mid-sized university. To teach religion: what a thought! But this is what I thought I did for years. We would look through the Bible, read Augustine's writings, and Aquinas's, and those of a dozen theologians. But I never taught religion. I taught words. I taught histories and rhetorics and cultures.
I never saved a soul. I never taught religion.
But not having one myself, what could I expect? I was raised in a churchgoing family, a good family, and my parents were religious. But it wasn't something they could teach me any more than I could teach my students. Besides, my students weren't seeking salvation: they were seeking knowledge. Just as I was.
In the spring, I plant my flowers, which is how I've spent the day. My once white gloves are dark with the earth and rest on the deck by my chair. The view from here was once magnificent. Only a hundred yards to the North, the field ended at the feet of a stand of trees which proceeded to the peak. But now only treetops are visible above the neighbors' privacy fences, and the mountain is occluded by split-level homes with windows larger than those in churches.
My home is perched on one of the few naturally level spots on this entire mountain. We chose the lot together, my husband and I. A rare event: us doing something together. Or maybe I should say having a unified purpose was uncommon. After all, we did things "together" all the time. Hard not to when you're married. We drove out here one summer, about thirty-five years ago, to spend some time at the lake up north. We stopped in the town beneath the mountain for gas, but then stayed for a picnic lunch, and soon decided to spend the night. The morning found my husband and me hiking up this slope, stopping right on this small field. We looked over where we had come, looked how high there was yet to climb, and just enjoyed the view and air and trees, and each other. I didn't mean to suggest before that we were never in love. We were. We were until his death last spring, I think. But we had just forgotten to remind ourselves of it. We took for granted that all those years of marriage were a strong enough foundation for anything, and just quit building.
We lay and laughed on the field on the mountain until mid-afternoon, until we had to turn back before night caught us. David looked over the valley again, and I thought for a moment that was what love looked like: his eyes looking from the mountain with a something that could have been tears immune to gravity hovering in them. More than a longing. A belonging, but with a knowledge of parting.
"I wish we could live here," I said.
It was an approval for him to pursue the thought. We had commented all day how wonderful a place it was, but neither of us had imagined we would ever return. But when I saw his face, I thought we could capture forever that moment, and I wanted nothing more.
There were the most elegant flowers on the edge of the field in a corner created where two boulders met. Sometimes I remember the color as yellow, but wonder if they weren't really pink. Just a cluster of two: a cross between lilies and some hearty wildflower, maybe. I picked them and carried them down the mountain with me. With all the excitement of thinking of buying the field on the mountain I forgot about putting the flowers in water until we were packed and on the road. It was too late by then, I decided, and didn't bother asking David to pull over at a station. I'll see plenty of them when we build our home on the field, I thought. They withered in the back window while we drove on.
I don't know for sure what they were or where they came from: only that they were of the simplest beauty, and that I've never seen one since.
For years, I've been trying to grow a garden, but at this elevation, the cold kills all my efforts. Every time I get something planted, a cold snap comes. I was never much of a gardener, anyway, and haven't made too many beautiful things in my time, but, still, I wonder if Someone isn't having a little fun at my expense.
Maybe that's all life is: a cosmically grand and wry comedy. A slapstick with so many of us catching pies in the face, but only One throwing them from a distance.
I prefer not to think of it that way, though.
The one creation of beauty to my credit was not formed alone. It was a daughter. Mine, his. Even with this, though, a pie in the face. We created, and then we tore asunder. Love me. Become like me. Worship me and me alone. Pretend you are the creation I fool myself into believing I made. Pretend you truly came from me and not Someone else, and emulate me, not Him. But if parents are deities, then families are polytheistic, and children see the subtle war of the gods every night after school.
We destroyed her.
There's no use in crying over spilled milk. My mother used to say that often, which implies she had ample occasion to do so. Looking back, I suppose she did. But maybe life isn't defined by what happens in it so much as by how you deal with it. There had to have been as many accidents, mistakes, and tragedies in my mother's life as in anyone else's, but she stayed kind and optimistic through it all. Maybe people aren't so much to be thought of as compendiums of events and dates and certificates of birth and death and all in between, but as characters: personalities.
That makes sense. I am not a college professor, anymore, but just a. . . just what I have been all my life, regardless of jobs or houses or paychecks. My daughter, too, is a personality. She can hardly be anything more to me. I don't know her last name, only that she married years back. I don't know her profession, or even if she has one. I know nothing of grandchildren, and probably never will, and probably don't deserve to. I'd only proselytize them to me. I'd only destroy the beauty which came from the beauty I destroyed long before. I would only obliterate the chance of expiation in this new generation.
My daughter took the best of both worlds. From my mother, sweetness to others; from me, a bitterness -- which she returned.
The sweetness could also have come from David. It was wrong of me to include him in the blame. He didn't destroy her. I did. The constant coercion to please me is what ruined her. David loved her as she was for who she was: not a list of accomplishments, but a daughter. He was a good father, but we didn't work well as parents. He never said it to me, never told me to let her be herself, but that's the lesson she learned from him. If he had let me raise her my way, I wonder who my daughter would be now. I wonder if the situation would be the same.
Probably. I would still have driven her away -- either by seeing what I am like and detesting this, as she has, or by becoming it herself. Neither could do anything but smother love. So it is not my daughter who harbors the hate. I have enough to give away, and the intended send it back.
The mountain is dark, except for a faint last wink from the sun as it sets in the valley to the West. I pick up my gloves, and rise to go inside. I am cold as my last friend leaves me. Good night, dear Sun. Come back tomorrow.
The wind barrels down the mountain like an avalanche. It raids these houses and roads like a bandit, rummaging through our yards, scattering the order we have raked our lives into. It summons us to our doors and windows to see if someone is tapping on the glass -- but it is only a swirling void waving the arms of trees against the houses. If you step outside, it washes about you, tangling your hair, breathing on your skin, and somehow reaching inside you -- like Nostalgia -- and holding your breath won't stop it. It stirs debris behind your clenched closed eyes and rigid frame. Violates recesses not forgotten but stored away like a trunk in the attic -- things you cannot discard, but which you don't care to view. Like seasons, settled, until the wind blows.
Shivering only tickles its malicious purpose. On those days, the wind is my enemy. It causes torment outside my house, breaking branches, tipping flower pots, rattling fence gates -- like a pack of jackals. But its most devious trick is keeping me inside the house and inside myself. Taunting, haunting, reminding, reaffirming the void so deep, so unforgettably recent.
I loved you, David, even if I neglected saying or showing it for so many years. It was never gone. It was only misplaced.
I never treated him right. Lord knows how it started, but it never ended. He resented my professorship. Not the position, but the requirements. It took my time and left so little for him. I didn't treat him like a woman should, I know, though he never said it. Except once.
He just wanted some time from me. Just some love.
"I don't see why we can't spend a few weeks at the mountain house," he said.
"I've told you, David, I'm writing an article. I can't write up there."
"Can't write up there? What better place could there be for it? No distractions, no. . . "
"No distractions? Of course. That's right, Dear, no distractions. No roads or television. Just fishing and hiking and the scenery. No sir, no distractions. Why, I'm sure I'll be able to get this article done, and maybe two more while we're there. When you aren't constantly begging affection and wanting all my time, that is."
He almost gave up right then. He never pursued a fight, except that once.
"That's right. I am always begging your affection. I do want to hold you and be with you and pretend every now and then that we're more than two people who share a house. I want you to be my wife. But I have to beg for it, and that's not how it should be. That is not how it should be."
I looked at him with my most faux-sympathetic eyes and said, "Oh well."
My "oh well" is something of the dark twin of my mother's "no use crying."
Hers meant things will be all right despite the little accidents in life, so don't let them bother you. Mine means things are not going to change despite the little problems in life, so get over them.
And David did, or tried to. I was always too busy reading papers or articles or going to conferences. But being a woman in the academy was not easy, and that's what it took to get to the top of my field. Lot of good it did me. Where is my fame and power? Where are the colleagues I so impressed? They've gone on without me, ever pursuing their elusive knowledge. And where is my family? My husband is dead, and probably happier in the grave than he was for years with me. My daughter? My daughter is in the valley, and I am on my mountain.
On clear nights, I can sit on the deck and see the glow from the city a hundred miles away. The city where she lives -- as far as I know. She could be gone, could be anywhere in the world, could be dead. But she was there last I knew, and that is where she is for me, now. Memory locates, and doesn't amend until replaced by new memories. The glow is her glow, the city hers, and the distance between belongs to us both . . . but was a gift from me.
She used to call David, I know. He told me, but never repeated what she'd said. She asked him not to. That used to make me angry -- that he wouldn't tell his own wife about her own daughter -- but if love is loyalty, then the two of them were bound to each other more strongly than to me, and rightly so.
I didn't go to David's funeral. I wanted her to be able to go and not have to deal with me. The occasion was sad enough. Not surprisingly, either, I didn't care to be around people right then. David's passing was something I had to go through alone. Like everything else.
I've sat for hours and imagined her life. I've seen her husband as I picture him and the children they might have in the house they may live in. I've seen her laugh with her family. I've seen her open presents on Christmas. I've seen the children take their first steps, the dinner at Easter, the sprinkler showering the freshly mowed lawn. I have seen her life as best I can from this place, and I am happy for her. I only wish. .
If I had. . . I'm so sorry, Baby. If I could wish on a star, it would land in your yard and your father would be there, and I would be there, and we could just try again. We could just try again to love each other all the same and I promise I wouldn't ruin it this time with wanting more love than anyone else, because I know now that no one deserves any more love than anyone else, and if someone did, it wouldn't be me. I know now how to love you. I know after being with myself and no one else for so long that I could love you for being you, and not measure you against me, or anything else.
I know what it is to be alone, Baby.
No use crying over spilled milk.
My friend, my sun, smiles over me now. Hello, dearest. You will never know what a long thing a night is.
Another day in the dirt. More hopes of something blooming because of my effort. But if the rain floods these seeds, or the cold kills them, I will plant again and again until flowers grow here. I will not leave this world until I make something beautiful again. But what a woman must do is the greatest a woman can do: raise a beautiful child. How, I ask myself, can I do that now?
David never left me, never even threatened to. I don't really understand why, which, I think, points to the fact that it was love that kept him with me. I've never understood love. It has this quality of persistence. David tried and tried to make things better, and when I wouldn't let him succeed, he was there, anyway. He learned to live in the world I occupied, because he wanted to be with me.
But why? Lord, I was so damned cruel to him.
Like I said before, though, we were in love. That's another part of love I don't get: why he would spend so long waiting for me to show I loved him again. Maybe -- and I only wonder at this -- but just maybe love and memory live in the same place. Maybe love told memory not to let go, and memory told love not to give up.
If I love my daughter, then a persistence will see me through. Not a goal for myself like the love I had for my work, but a goal for her. That's what makes love so adamant: it won't let you give up when you want something for someone else. If it were only for yourself, you could surrender. But when it's for someone else, you can never give up, because you can't be sure they've had enough.
I won't say I understand love, but I think I know enough about it to let it help me find her.
After decades of diligent study, I've learned only a handful of things which can serve me any purpose now -- and I may never even have the chance to use them -- but I keep them secure in my memory, which I am beginning to think must be somewhere in the heart, and not the mind, and visit them every day so I will know them when I need them. One of these treasures is what my mother always said about there being no use crying over spilled milk. I know my mother didn't make that up, but she learned for herself what it meant for her, and though, due to the many times I heard her say it, I could never have forgotten the phrase, I still had to find what it meant to me. And I have. I can look back and reminisce and regret and wish to God I wasn't the person I was to my loved ones, but that is all past. I cannot change it. And the present? It seems I have always been determined to convert it into a past I could lament.
What milk is spilling now? What quiet, precious essence is flowing ever further from me?
My daughter? She is gone. Oh well. But there I betray myself. I could try to give up now before taking the responsibility, but I know this need to find her is not for me. I can say I don't know where she is or how to find her, or even who she is, now, so how can I even start to look for her? I can say that she never could love me and I never could be worthy of her love, anyway, so why try finding her, why try building some way over or around this pain? I could martyr myself in my own self-pity by proving I've been immune to love all along. Or I could find her.
I have found my own truism. I have unearthed my own treasure from the desert sands of my life. It is another of those few things I have learned. Want to know what knowledge I finally found, though perhaps too late? Listen: You can't win a race of the heart with your mind. Simple enough? Then why do I see so much of me in so many people? Why do I want to tell them all and make them understand? Why will they have to learn for themselves?
This may sound strange coming from a teacher and writer of informative articles, but I don't think we learn as readily as we think we do. We memorize easily enough. We read words from texts and know what they say, but to know what they mean, we must first come to the same conclusion ourselves through our own experiences. Then the words engraved in our memories are engraved in our lives as well. The words we finally find, and think If only I had seen them sooner I wouldn't have had to have gone through that, are vivid paintings of our own mistakes. But there's no other way. Who can tell you the flavor of chocolate until you've tasted it yourself? Reading words written by others won't actually take you anywhere: at best, they're a map of where you, too, might go. We must discover for ourselves -- which isn't so bad. Experience is what makes us human. Otherwise, we would be encyclopedias.
Morning again, and again I am in my garden which never grows. I have been considering something: Maybe the work of beauty I need to effect is not a creation at all, but another destruction. What good is there in creating love when hate stands in the way? Can they both be in the same place? I don't know, but I think there must be an eradication of the hate I have so casually distributed to her. And maybe that's what love is, more than something which brings two people together: something which keeps all else out.
I must span the chasm I've created. I must give my daughter the love she deserves, and must destroy the hate. But how?
Whatever happened to those beautiful flowers which grew here? Some things just happen naturally and can't be re-created no matter what amount of effort you put into it. Some things we take for granted, I suppose, and abuse. Again, there's nothing new to that thought, but it took me a lifetime to learn what it meant to me.
Night. No sun. Alone. No David, except in my heart: Memory. Nothing in my heart, except memory. And a little love. Just enough for me -- something I've searched for without myself while it lay within. Just enough for her.
Funny. Love and hate seem to act the same way. When you give hate, you receive it again. When you give love, the same. No matter which you give, it takes only a little to receive an abundance in return.
Alone in bed with my thoughts, which revolve about the same thing: how to find my daughter. . . If this is a thing of love, then it is of the heart. If it is of the heart, then the mind has no place in this search. The heart tells me to find her. Where? Where memory last knew her. In the city. Call the last number you had for her, the heart says. Work from there, it says, all I have is a memory. No deduction. No logic. Just a memory. Follow me, the heart says, and you will find your daughter.
The heart and its memory urge me to leave my bed, and I do. I follow them to the den and turn the desk lamp on. I know where it is. My heart knows. It's written on an envelope which I had ready when I called information to find her a year ago -- when her father died. But her aunt called me that same day and told me she'd asked for me not to contact her. She could get all the information through her aunt, so I had no excuse to call her. But I put the envelope in the desk, thinking someday I'd have something to say to her. I finally do.
I sit in the chair on the deck, in the fading blue-black of night departing, with a blanket around me and an envelope in my hands. Come friend, dear sun, and see the smile on my face. It is a timid smile, painted with hope, but brushed by uncertainty. Still, it is a smile, and I want to share it with a friend. And there is more, dear sun. There is someone I hope to have you meet, if she will let me. There is a chance I will take today. And if I have no luck, I will try again and again, and I will not leave this world until I have done something of beauty. I have asked my heart to give me strength to do this, but it said it has no strength: it has only humility. And that is how this must be done.
Good morning, friend. You are finally waking. And so am I.
Eric Prochaska is an English lecturer at the University of Seoul, South Korea. Hailing from Iowa, then rural California, and also rural Arizona, he tries to instill the natural beauty of the world around him, as well as the often hidden beauty of the people in that world in his stories. His stories have appeared in small literary mags, as well as the on-line "Seeker Magazine." Contact the author at email@example.com.