Three Sets of Keys
Good Sunday morning Substackees, from the Hudson Valley. The above image greeted me at 6:30. It’s been a beautiful and interesting holiday, I hope for you too, and if there was good pie, that’s a bonus. I am currently obsessed with Pie for Everyone, Recipes and Stories from Petee's Pie, New York's Best Pie Shop, and made the below pies from recipes therein for the holiday. No one complained!
When I say interesting I mean in the conversations, including one that clarified a book project I am noodling on. I am also reading Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, which I super highly recommend. I reviewed one of Schiff’s previous books, The Witches, several years ago and found it to be all the things I love in a book: readable, informational, vivid, arch. Now I want to read everything of hers. Tell me which ones! Interesting, too, was watching the adaptation of Fleishman Is In Trouble, another book I loved.
There’s a line in the series where the lead character explains that making $300,000 a year would be a lot of money anywhere except for the forty square blocks of Upper East Side Manhattan where his wife insists on living. A month ago, on the last warm day of fall, Matt Welch and I walked around a lot of these blocks, poking into unknown spots (the city’s oldest library!), absolutely loving the grandeur of the buildings, the history not so much whispering to you but shouting. But as for living there? Hoo doggie, no way no how.
There was also tragedy this week, in that a friend’s husband died suddenly Thanksgiving morning. She had just posted a photo of their table set for the holiday on Instagram, inviting any strays over for the dinner. She and I had our babies the same month, she three weeks before me. When I visited her and her newborn in the hospital, she was eating a paper cup of ice cream the nurses had just brought, the coveting of which must have shown in my eyes, as the baby’s father ran after the nurse and said, “Can we have another for that pregnant lady?”
Her husband’s death made me remember something I wrote a few years ago. One of the sets is gone now, and another, he did not leave any keys, but I have his wallet.
Three Sets of Keys
I tuck three sets of keys in the zip pocket of my purse. I did not used to do this. For years I did not know where the keys were, if I even had keys and if I did, what drawer I’d put them in. For twenty years it did not matter, I did not need keys, ringing the buzzer brought the doors flying open, happy screams, food on the stove, talk, oh, let me hold the baby.
The doors have changed. The people inside have grown frail, apologetic for the frailness, thankful for every tiny kindness, too thankful, too laudatory about our beauty, our strength, that we know how to get the phone working. I tell them, stop; you did this for us, the difference being my brother and I would grow tall, whereas they are growing small.
We have watched two others die, they wizened like apples; I flew across the country for the first death, to be at Dave’s bedside. I watched him die. I had seen someone die before but not like this. There was so much beauty at the moment of death, near audible like a sip through a straw rushing into the night, the skin on his face going taut in an instant, and the color of beeswax.
Back home, I tried to better recall where I left the keys, keys that had grown from two sets to three, in addition to my parents I now had my best friend’s, what with the parents moving to smaller places, and also, she said, so you have a place to de-stress, plus it’s closer to the hospital.
The hospital from which your mother calls in the middle of the night to say, come, I don’t think I will make it. She makes it—you knew she would. You are not so sure about your dad, who on the last day, earlier today, you found pinned between kitchen and hall, one hand on each wall, knees collapsing. He had given away none of this as you let yourself in the door, had called, “Hello, Nan!” as though all was right. And when I found him and asked, how long have you been there? He said, not long, and, it’s this damn plantar fasciitis, which you both know is ridiculous; you get him to agree, yes, it’s also something more, some weakness, and you make suggestions, about getting help, and he makes the ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ face, and you both go back to watching “Escape from Alcatraz.” This is what he does now, he watches movies; he escapes inside them. I try to have a sweet goodbye but he does not want anything sentimental and I wonder if he really does not want it, or if he is going to cry if he thinks about my leaving, as I nearly do as I let myself out the door.
I am not afraid of dying. I am not afraid of my parents dying. I am afraid of the approach, I could say (as I type this on the airplane home) like planes coming in for a bad landing, and there is that, there is the ricketiness, the unsteadiness. But the plane analogy is wrong. They are each walking a road alone, my parents, no matter how we prop them up, say we are there, bring the food and the Tylenol and the walker and clean up the splats on the bathroom floor. They are walking alone. I see one lurching toward the end, dogged, head down, the other looking around, wondering, is there a turn off? Can I make it?
I know where the keys are now. I keep them zipped in the pocket. Someday, there will be two sets, and then one, and then, perhaps, none. Time moves faster, now that we have a view of the road we will be on, are on, the road I did not consider when walking in the door, handing my ten-week-old to Dave, watching her speak on and on to him, and he to her, watching as they spun connection.
These metal keys, these keys in my hand, say, I am welcome here, I came from here, I come to you now, using the key you entrusted to me. And when these keys no longer fit, when the locks are changed, when others are behind these doors and others carry the keys, where do I go?
When my daughter was an infant, I several times woke in the night weeping uncontrollably, waking with what seemed to be cobwebby star-stuff stuck to me, as though I had just been transported from deep space, where the truth had been revealed: the most important thing, the only endless thing, was my love for and connection to my child. Her existence placed me on a continuum, a silver cable I previously knew nothing about, could know nothing about, but which I now knew was infinite.
My place on the cable let me see only ahead, but of course our parents are there, right behind, beaming the way, fading back into the blackness, as we all will fade, but never gone, not possible to be gone.
It’s a comfort to know this, but still, the temporal, the day to day, the fear and the wonder, the keys in my hand, destined to be memento.
for my father, and for Richard Ross
Wow! Beautiful. So ready to read this, which i didn’t know until i did.
That is a stunning sunrise -- we early risers know how good they can be! -- and a powerful essay.
The pies look terrific -- there was a chocolate/pumpkin pie around here which was great.
I am trying to remember how I heard about "Fleishman Is In Trouble" -- I really enjoyed the book, actually remember very few details, so therefore interested and curious about the adaptation. I'm one episode+ in, so far, so good.
Your title -- the keys -- is just right. I've never actually physically carried the keys, but I identify completely. So sorry to hear about your (and your friend's) loss.
"Afraid of the approach" -- yes, "walking a road alone" -- yes. I wish I'd had these phrases and thoughts years ago -- this brings back Thanksgiving 1987 in particular, and other times as well. Thank you.