September 2, 2003. The phone rings and my sister says, “You’d better come now.” Sound like a line from a sentimental movie? Not one my family ever starred in. Not one in which I’d have chosen even a minor role.
My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous year. A life-time smoker, she would not survive the thirteen months of poisonous treatments. No doubt that, coupled with fifty some years of epileptic seizures and the panoply of required drugs she swallowed, made her no candidate for long life. Ever the palm-reader, she predicted an early death. 70 is not bad, right?
To come now means a willingness to sit with my mother as she dies. Because I hate flying, because too abrupt, too jarring, because I no longer fly home, I decide to drive from Wyoming where I have lived since 1983. Thirteen and a half hours to Seattle will give me enough time to grieve and be pissed off at my mother. Thirteen and a half hours—getting up before the sun, heading over the pass above a valley I now call home—will keep me wary, guarded. At that time of day, wildlife cross the road before you can stop: the porcupine or mule deer, a roost-bound owl or chipmunk, suddenly crushed in my mad rush to be there now.
When I am in a hurry to get to Washington, I drive south to I-84. For a time, this route follows the Snake River toward its confluence with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities where my family lived in the early 1960s. It seems natural that I again live close to the Snake, close to the continent’s headwaters.
When I am in a hurry, I shouldn’t stop, but do: to take photos. Near Craters of the Moon a strange gold light seeps under the clouds and across the green dawn’s sage. Outside Hill City, Idaho, towers of cumulus stretch into the blue zenith. How can I not stop.
Soon the Snake will veer abruptly northward through Idaho toward Lewiston before turning westward again, and so I leave that drainage to cross the high desert country of Oregon, through Baker City, and eventually bridge the subdued Columbia at Umatilla.
When I have more time, I hug the Washington river bank before heading north through the Horse Heaven Hills, drawn to the undulating earth, picturing horses with their manes and tails lifted, racing the wind. But there are no wild horses and the only now that means anything: my mother’s last breath.
There is never a question about not going now, though I have a full-time job as a bookkeeper. My mother will die three days later, after midnight on September 6, at home, with me stretched out beside her, my sister’s best friend pressed to her other side. Both of us whispering over her body that takes her away—one soft breath at a time.
Connie Wieneke’s poetry and prose has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in Talking River Review, Camas, Split Rock Review, Pilgrimage, Stand, as well as anthologies. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and received two fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council. Since 1983 she has lived in Wyoming, where she has worn various hats.