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  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. No restitution.

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 thought.

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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