February 2, 2014
I’m alone in the one-story ranch house in which I grew up. Later I will
sleep in the very first bed that I could ever call my own. Until yesterday
I was relegated to a fold-out cot as the house was packed with Mugginses,
some of whom planned to stay long enough to see me off tomorrow. But a
blizzard was bearing down on northern Illinois, causing me to urge them
to head out before driving became hazardous. The family had suffered our
quota of loss for 2014, after all.
Like Hamlet, I have subsisted on leftover funeral meats (and beer) since
the abandonment. I spent a long, quiet day toggling between watching the
snow pile up and plowing through a backlog of day-job stuff. All I do nowadays
is day-job stuff, in some vain effort to get my faculty colleagues to like
me enough to leave me alone.
Tomorrow, expected to be a brisk, clear Super Bowl Sunday morning, a high school friend will pull over to the curb out front and pick me up, as he was wont to do so many times in the Seventies. Crubble-crubble-crubble his tires will go, as they find purchase atop the loose snow. It is a sound
we never hear on the Pacific coast of Japan, where snow accumulation is
rare, and thus a sound I associate with the little redneck town that I
am about to pull out of once and for all, like Peter North pulling out
of one last rectum in order to devote the remainder of his career to heterosexual
By summer, this house will be stripped of all its furnishings and rendered
unrecognizable. I’m told the real estate market hereabouts is booming thanks
to a major new employer, so perhaps someone else will be sitting at this
built-in counter by summer and typing his/her own drivel.
Two days ago
I stood in my all-purpose Tragedy Suit (the jet-black outfit obligatory
in Japan for both funerals and weddings) next to the pine casket selected
ten days earlier by Mrs. Muggins, my sister and me to contain the sparse
remnants of Mom Muggins. I went through a series of jokey snapshots of
her parenting stylings in the form of one-liners. As the jokes were tailored
to the audience, the material had its intended effect. “Good thing we’re
in a funeral home,” I observed mid-eulogy, “because I’m killin’ up here,”
thereby adding one last infusion of fuel to my legendary status among the
That night, three generations of Mugginses and an even greater cohort of
cousins, who had lost their own mother, the elder sister of ours, just
two weeks earlier, swarmed around this very kitchen table in a drunken
celebration of the ninety-something siblings that had brought forth this
furry Caucasoid horde.
Two weeks ago
My mother had the loudest oxygen machine in the tri-state region. It was
wheezing and coughing, wheezing and coughing, relentlessly forcing its
sustaining gas on her via a face mask when Mrs. Muggins and I sauntered
into the hospice room at the nursing home. We were followed soon after
by the giant, tattoed home helper who had enabled Mom to keep living here,
at her home of fifty-some years, through the end of last August, and then
by her minister. Observing this unexpected sequence beginning with visitors
from the Orient and culminating with a clergyman, she managed to croak
out, “Wow, I must really be sick.” We charitably assumed she was deliberately making a funny, and,
as it would surely be her last one, gave her the full Ed McMahon treatment.
Her TV, at the far end of the room, was tuned to afternoon soap operas,
but was easily ignored with its volume so thoroughly drowned out by the
damnable oxygen machine. During one desultory period, as the sun started
slipping through the blinds, I turned and noticed two seemingly naked young
men making out in bed. “Jesus, Mom, what are you watching?” I cried, and
swiftly switched her to the Hallmark Channel just in time to hear the Waltons
warble their tedious good-nights. Later, I would date the start of her
final downhill slide to that time frame and think, Crap, maybe gay porn was all that was keeping her alive.
Communication did not come easy to her with that oxygen mask. Most of the day, it was the four of us: me, and these three incredibly essential women in my life: Mom, sister, wife. There was something oddly familiar about this four-way dialogue featuring one muffled speaker, but it was several hours before I made the connection to South Park.
The next day brought a sum total of two discernible utterances: “I love
you,” and then, toward evening, “Can I go?” We took the latter hopefully,
as it was, after all, the very purpose of our visit to see her “go” without
further discomfort. But it turned out that she just wanted the staff to
help her urinate.
By the third day, communication was limited to slack-jawed indications
of “yes” or “no,” so that the pop-culture reference shifted from Kenny
to Captain Christopher Pike—the TV version, with the charred head and shoulders
stapled to an airport check-in kiosk. Not a bad trade-off, if you think
about it. Whereas Kenny did little but suffer one excruciating demise after
another, Captain Pike eventually went on, courtesy of the veiny-headed gods, to a new and able-bodied life in paradise.
On the fourth day, she was no longer responsive at all, and the staff advised us that often the terminally ill, rather than waiting for family to gather, in fact bide their time till loved ones leave so that they can get down to the whole tiresome dying business on their
own terms. So Mrs. Muggins and I returned to Japan and sister drove back
across the state line, and scarcely had we arrived back at our respective
homes when the word came, causing us to plan our returns.
A great philosopher once said, “We all die alone.” Okay, it was George
Clooney. But still.
Two Months Ago
“Mommy,” I said, “I don’t like my job anymore. The other teachers are mean
“Oh, dear, that’s too bad,” she said into the phone of her room at the
nursing home, which she was, by then, thoroughly enjoying. (“I don’t have
to do dishes!”) “I know you have friends over there, but you always have
a home here, too,” she continued. “You can always come home to us.”
That remark was a little hard to soldier through, as I was the only party
in this conversation who knew the following truths: That I don’t actually
have friends here, for one thing. I have strategic alliances at the university,
but no friends. Also, that there would be no home there in Mortonville—or
really, anywhere else in the Great Satan—to come back to, because there
soon would be no her. If the rapidly failing heart didn't see to that first, the sinister dark
mass growing in her abdomen would gleefully do the honors.
The reader might find it unseemly that I, at age fifty-eight, should tax
my ailing mother with petty gripes about the mean kids at school. But during
those dark days last autumn it had occurred to me that a good mother is
a terrific natural resource--one not as infinitely renewable as I had once
let myself believe, but an abundantly giving resource all the same, and
also a resource that, unique among natural resources, actually enjoys being
Eight Years Ago
I’m sitting around this same kitchen counter with Mom Muggins and her now
equally dead older sister. My first memoir as Josh Muggins has come out
but, as it details one unseemly sexual escapade after another, including
extramarital ones, I was keeping that news to myself. That, after all,
is one of the primary functions of a pseudonym.
“So, are you writing anything these days?”
No, I report, I have sort of given up on all that after my foray into journalism petered out. In reality, the book has climbed into Amazon’s top 10,000—big whoop, the reader might say, but a promising start for an unknown writer proffering a self-published memoir with practically no promotion.
“Really? You’re not ever going to take it up again?”
No, I insist with some irritation. I am quite content to be a mild-mannered
“What a pity," she sighs. "You’re such a good writer!”