||As Michael gunned
his late model two-door onto the freeway, switching immediately over
to the far left lane, he checked his features in the mirror. He was
conventionally attractive, in that he didn't have any superficial
flaws—his face perfectly suited for his vocation. It wasn’t
the sort of face you looked twice at in passing on the street, but
it had an intangible attractiveness to it nonetheless. It was non-threatening:
attractive but not too attractive. He checked his teeth for errant
food or coffee grounds.
He was on his way to cold-call a potential client—just show
up on the business's doorstep, and turn on the charm. Michael, an
experienced salesman, knew that getting an appointment was seventy-five
percent of the deal. Managers were busy. The general public, who misunderstood
the importance of sales people in the overall scheme of the economy,
had disdain for people like him. But if you met a potential client
face to face, politeness and social rules dictated that they at least
hear you out. After all, you had gone to all the trouble of coming
to their place of business in person. And Michael’s charm knew
no boundaries. He smiled at himself in the mirror. All clear and clean.
Nothing botches a deal like an unappetizing bodily secretion, or leftovers
between your teeth. Bodily functions were unprofessional.
In the café, his regional sales manager had given him the address
of a large company, one that had thus far kept below Michael’s
radar. If you were a large business in the greater Seattle area, you
could be sure that a visit from Michael Irwin was imminent. He picked
up the address, scratched onto a menu from the café, and double-checked
it. A strange area for a big company, Michael thought; he was fairly
certain the neighborhood was purely residential.
As he sailed along in the passing lane, Lake Union to his left, he
tried to remember how much time had passed since his mother's death.
It had been in the fall…October or November; but had it been
two years ago, or three?
The whole situation had been a fiasco. Although his mother's health
had been declining for more than a year, Michael was totally unprepared
for her death. Not in the emotional sense, particularly, but the practical
sense—both holding equal weight, when all is said and done.
She had been in and out of the hospital numerous times, but Michael
was slapped by surprise when he received the call from her doctor,
telling him that his mother was near death. Not only near death, but
practically sitting on death's lap, life expectancy now measured in
hours as opposed to months, or even weeks or days. Medical science,
he realized—after apologizing profusely for having to cut short
a meeting with his third largest account—for all its touted
advances, was still barely adequate at predicting many things, particularly
the myriad consequences of spreading cancer. Which organ would grudgingly
facilitate it next, how long doctors could assist the organ in functioning
with machines and chemical potions, before the predictable outcome
was reached. Cancer was an agent of death, and thus, like death, never
lost. Perhaps postponed indefinitely, but ultimately, victorious.
And this particularly adamant cancer had appeared from nowhere. There
was no life-long habit of cigarettes to attribute it to, no industrial
plant upwind from her home of twenty-seven years. The only culprits
were an intangible God or nature, so it was either omnipotent will
or a random occurrence in an unfeeling universe. No person or entity
to sue to make sense of it all; nowhere to point the finger of blame.
So there he was, hastily making preparations for his mother's immanent
and immediate funeral, all the while trying to track down and contact
relatives from Minnesota to Iowa. Long lost aunts and uncles and cousins
that Michael knew only from stories at least two decades old. All
of this, and he was almost the sole comforter. His mother had a handful
of friends, but friends' obligation to the dying were far less consuming.
They rotated through occasionally. But, like Michael's mother, they
were in their sixties, and the uncomfortable reminder of mortality
could only be addressed for short periods of time.
In the end it was Michael alone who stood watch by his mother's death
bed during those last few hours, sometimes taking calls on his cellular
phone—arrangements. He would excuse himself and step out of
her room into the sterile, eerie calm of the hospital hallway, and
make the arrangements: plans for the soon-to-be-deceased. Plans for
his mother, hooked up to a jumble of plastic umbilical cords and breathing
laboriously not twenty feet away.
But the most shocking revelation came within minutes of the end. Loretta
Irwin, mother of Michael, widow of Paul, had requested a minister.
She wanted the final rites from a Man of God. To Michael's surprise,
she seemingly out of nowhere began talking about God, and meeting
him in heaven. ‘Going home.’ His mother who, as far as
he knew, hadn't been to church in decades.
‘No atheists in foxholes, or on death beds,’ Michael had
But more disconcerting than the revelation, was the fact that he hadn’t
been able to track a minister down. Not one that would be able to
make it to the hospital in time. Protocol dictated that the church,
and minister, would be alerted some time beforehand. Had Michael,
or his mother for that matter, actually set foot in any of the churches,
or been in contact with any group or person associated with a church,
all matters would have been methodically handled matter-of-course.
However, the church did not keep tabs on all of the terminal cases
in local hospitals, and their religious affiliations. Religion, Michael
found out, was a two-way street.
To make matters worse for Michael, not only was his mother dying,
but he also had to tell her that he couldn’t even grant her
last request. He could only whisper ‘I’m sorry’
into her ear, over and over, while she pleaded and moaned softly.
‘It’s OK,’ she had finally said. ‘God forgives.’
That was the last thing Loretta Irwin said to her one and only child.
It had stuck in his brain for nearly five minutes, before being pressed
back by the necessity of addressing immediate practicalities. He hadn’t
thought of those words again until that very moment, driving his car
down the teeming freeway, trying to remember how long it had been
since his mother died.
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