When I get to the cemetery, I crunch through the ice-encrusted snow as wind rumbles over the expanse. I am not dressed for this. My fingers ache, and I keep blowing warmth into my cupped hands. Here we go:
Meghan Christina Drake
June 17, 1995—October 12, 2017
LIFE ENDS, BUT LOVE LASTS FOREVER
I kneel and tidy up a bit. Upright some overturned mementos, including an owl figurine and a miniature bottle of Woodbridge chardonnay. It’s when I am straightening out the grave blanket that I spot the feather. It’s at the base of the stone, bending like it’s in a wind tunnel but held in place by frost that glues its stem to the ground.
I pluck it. Through my tearing eyes I can make out that the nearest trashcan’s far off. Enough of this. I pocket the feather, then head back to my car’s heat. I drive St. Patrick’s Road to the other side of the cemetery. I’ve one more visit to make.
Norah McNally Chambers
June 11, 1966—September 11, 2001
BE HERE NOW
I forget about the feather until later that day at my house when I throw on my coat and rummage for keys. I take it out and am about to absent-mindedly toss it when the damn thing sticks me. (OK, technically, I stick myself. Quibble.) A pinprick of blood, like I am measuring diabetes. I run the finger under cold water, pour some peroxide on that baby.
That’s when I really look at the culprit. The feather’s white—and I mean stark white—as if it’s been bleached, and the end is serrated like a comb. It’s a snowy owl’s feather. I’ve seen enough photos, thanks to Meghan and Ashley’s obsession. (Ashley’s my daughter.)
I hold it up like I’m consecrating it.
“Hello,” I say aloud in my empty house in the D.C. suburbs.
Donovan Chambers here, a child of hippies who named me after that ’60s singer but I am not mellow yellow, nor mellow anything. I am self-disciplined. I wear a T-shirt that says, “Nobody Cares. Work Harder.” I run (not jog) 20 to 30 miles a week, wrestle with dead weights, do my push-ups and sit-ups. I stand 6 feet three inches, weigh 215 pounds soaking wet. (Full disclosure: I have never, in fact, stepped on a scale in such a state.) Like Cassius in Julius Caesar, I have the lean and hungry look and women want to cook for me. I politely decline. I can do for myself.
But this is not about me. This, as you probably figured, involves two young women dying young. My wife, Norah, and my friend Veronica’s daughter, Meghan. Despite those basics this is not a tragedy. It’s a mystery. In fact, it’s the greatest mystery: Why are we here?
Damned if I know.
So, expect no epiphanies. No reaching for the light. No finding meaning in a meaningless universe. No happy horseshit, in other words. All the loose ends will not be tied up. If the greatest thinkers in history couldn’t figure it out, I sure as hell won’t.
I’m atheist, and before that I was mostly agnostic and before that … I didn’t much care. Drank beer and chased women, mostly. And what were you doing in college? It’s a blur. Memory blurs most of our lives. But some days stand out.
I was 36 on 9/11, the morning I refused to kiss Norah goodbye. We’d had a spat, as couples do. About nothing; about her brother, Fred, hitting us up again and me saying, sure, why not?; and she saying that’s the problem, that I am too easy and time for tough love; and me saying he’s your friggin’ brother, after all; and her saying the baby can hear you; and me saying, so?; and her saying what you said; and me loudly asking “friggin’”?; and Norah shaking her head, ending the discussion; but I am pissed because I realize she’s right.
A minute later, our daughter, 5-year-old Ashley—the baby—comes hopping into the kitchen, excited about another day at kindergarten. Delighted that the sun rose once more. And, thankfully, not asking “What’s friggin’?”
Norah announces: “Kissys! I want kissys from everybody!” She’s by the kitchen door; this is her morning routine. Ashley hops into her mother’s hug and complies. Me, I don’t even turn around. I am emptying the dishwasher.
Norah lets out her “you’re so childish” chuckle. I feel her hesitate as Ashley runs back to the living room and Sesame Street.
Norah says, “You’ll get over it,” then leaves, not quite slamming the door.
She’s wrong, for once. I never get over it.
Some people in the Twin Towers or on the planes were able to call loved ones before they died. Norah worked at the Pentagon as a civilian budget analyst for the Department of the Army. Cremated instantly; her DNA riding the ash.
Strange. We never went to bed angry at each other. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Sure, I read the so-called Good Book; know it better than most believers. I’m especially keen on the parts where the God of love guides one army to slaughter another.) Anyway, Norah and I always settled differences quickly. By the time she’d gotten to work I was already figuring out how to make it up to her, planning a date night.
Somehow, I got through those years. Meds and counseling in the beginning when I could barely get out of bed. I also needed help raising my child and was not shy about asking. My sister and mother Amtraked it down from Philadelphia and stayed for long periods for a couple of years after, but they both had lives that included jobs and other family obligations.
So, I turned to someone else—Veronica.
She and I met in college, dated for a bit, decided that we weren’t suited for each other, but remained friends. Veronica it was who introduced me to Norah. I introduced Veronica to her ex—and yet she still talks to me. Hey, they lasted a good 12 years before he mid-lifed: cheating, drinking, abusing. Veronica and I majored in public administration, and when her marriage tanked I pulled some strings and got her a job in the D.C. She works a few blocks over from my office, and lives 3.7 miles from my home.
Norah had plenty of friends (she could charm the birds down from the trees) but she missed having a Veronica nearby. When Veronica moved to our area, she and Norah saw each other often. Norah nurtured people—that was just her way—and Veronica needed a lot of TLC at that time. Man, did they have fun. They were an odd visual; my Norah red-haired and freckled, looking so Irish that her lack of brogue came as a surprise. And Veronica, a dark-haired beauty who might have just emerged from the Mediterranean.
After Norah’s execution (well, that’s what it was), Veronica became Ashley’s surrogate mother. Veronica’s daughter, Meghan, was like a sister. The girls are—were—only about six months apart, although that six months put Ashley one grade ahead which, in a way, made the bond even tighter. Ashley became Meghan’s big sis.
Norah’s death tapped a well of protectiveness in my daughter that never runs dry. Ashley—who’s now a 24-year-old beauty—couldn’t save her mother but she sure as hell would save everybody else dear to her. And then Meghan died a few years ago.
Ashley’s shaken and so, of course, is Veronica who called me from the airport a few nights ago.
“Do me a favor,” she says.
Veronica’s going to visit her sister in California. The sister’s husband ran off with somebody younger. Surprise! Surprise! Veronica, being Veronica, drops everything.
“I put a grave blanket on Meghan every Christmas,” she says. “I talked to the kid at the florist’s and he promised to deliver it, but it’s a big cemetery and he sounded so damn distracted, not to mention insensitive, like he couldn’t be bothered.”
“I’ll check,” I say. “Give your sister my regard. Tell her she’s better off in the long run.”
“Veronica, she’s better off without him.”
“I need to get all the facts.”
“She is better off.”
What? Somehow something the sister did caused the guy to cheat? Is that what Veronica’s thinking? Isn’t that blaming the victim? People are so damn complicated. Even people you think you know.
Ashley found religion during Megan’s ordeal, or was it religion found her? Doesn’t matter, it’s her life. I am here for her and I say whatever gets you through. I also say live and let live.
But that’s not what Ashley says. She needs to convince me. Maybe she’s trying to convert me, I don’t know. Gently but unswervingly working to save her old man’s alleged soul. My daughter. I tread gingerly. I can’t flat out tell her that there’s no way. I don’t want to soil what comfort she finds in a fairy tale.
“Dad, it’s not about a church. A church is a building.”
“You got me thinking, that’s for sure, daughter o’ mine.”
No, not really.
I wouldn’t have snatched her blankie from her when she was a tot, would I? I wouldn’t have exploded any of the myths that magic up childhood, like the one about a certain fat fellow in a red suit whose name I still won’t mention when speaking of unbelief. I don’t want to drive Ashley from my life. Without her, what’s the point? Don’t have much else.
I did remarry after Norah, but that lasted all of seven months. That second wife turned psycho and, to be fair, I guess, I can be uncompromising. That divorce and my tendency to not give in ruins romance for me, though once in a while I’ll test the waters.
Do the math. I am still a relatively young man in this age when people feel cheated if they don’t live to be a hale and hearty 120 and then keel running their first marathon while drinking their last beer. I mean a loving, long-lasting relationship can happen but, realistically, probably not. I adore women, but am wary of their power. (Or am I wary of my weakness?)
I just don’t have the juice for modern love, anyway. Texting back and forth. Liking Facebook postings. Twitter. Snapchat. This, that, and the third. Asking about your day. I don’t really give a flying hoot about your day, come right down to it. And I don’t want to get my feelings hurt and I don’t want to hurt anybody else’s feelings. Farewell to all that.
See? No juice.
But I’ll tell you who does have juice these days. Fred.
Yes, that Fred, Norah’s bum brother. He wound up marrying for a third time and hit the jackpot with a rich one, who supported him through a doctoral thesis. Fred’s now an expert on everything; just ask him. He works at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and while I forget his exact area of expertise, he knows about animals. I couldn’t be 100% sure that I’d found a snowy owl feather. But Fred could.
We meet at a coffee shop in Georgetown, huddling as if we’re spies exchanging documents. Christmas jazz feeds a relaxed vibe. Presents were unwrapped a few days ago, most of the visiting’s been done. We’re just chillin’ with the hipsters.
Fred had texted me a few days before: “I have no doubt that it belonged to a snowy owl. Do you want it back?”
Damn right, I do. Hence, this meeting.
Fred’s about my age; that is a couple years older than Norah. He looks nothing like her and I know that Norah sure as hell would have taken better care of herself.
Fred did kick the sauce about seven or eight years ago. Give him that. But he’s used food to satiate oral fixation. He wears baggy clothes and his sneakers come unlaced too often. He also smokes and the tremor in his hands has gotten more pronounced. I notice this as he slides a small brown manila envelope over to me I tuck it into my shirt breast pocket.
“DNA doesn’t lie,” says Fred. “Where did you get it?”
“The woods,” I say hastily, realizing that I haven’t come up with an alternate reality or, more to the point, a convincing lie.
I tell him the name of a park not too far from my home.
“A snowy owl. Man! It is very rare that you find one down this far. He’s a mature male. I wonder if there’s a female in the picture?”
He taps the bill of his baseball cap up a bit, squints at me.
“Can you show me exactly where you spotted it, Donovan? Can you take me there?”
“What? Why? Now?”
“You know, when you can.”
“I can’t do that,” I say.
“Can’t do that,” he echoes.
“I mean, I could give you an approximation.” I repeat the park’s name.
“That doesn’t limit it much.”
I tell him I found the feather somewhere along the path of my usual five-mile run, but I can’t remember where.
“You stop for stuff when you run?”
“It fluttered by me and I snatched it in mid-air.”
He calculates, because now it might have fallen off an owl in flight.
Oh, what a tangled web….
I ask: “How about some time we walk it together?”
“I’ll call,” I say, having zilch intention of ever taking that walk.
“Sure, I guess that works,” Fred says doubtfully.
He’s on to me, but hasn’t quite given up.
“If we can find that owl it would really be something significant to document,” he says. “There are a lot of ramifications inherent in migratory alterations that would lead such a raptor to journey so far off….” Yada, yada, yada.
Me? I still don’t know what I am going to do with this find. Do I tell Veronica and Ashley? Do I feed a myth that blinds them? That binds them to superstition?
That there’s a God who loves us and yet lets daughters and young wives die; who loves us, yet stands back and watches suffering; who loves us but isn’t through with us even after all this because there’s this place called hell, you see? I try to protect those I love from such a God.
I was not privy to everything that went on between Ashley and Meghan during those last horrible months of Meghan’s life, but I do know that Meghan’s belief expanded with the cancer, growing to eventually push fear aside. And that’s what sucked Ashley in. Her dying “little sister” believed and that led Ashley there.
“Dad, it was horrible and beautiful at the same time. It was like some light inside her. Like she couldn’t wait to be an angel.”
“You’ve been through hell,” I said.
And though my daughter’s conversion (there’s no other word for it) rattles me somewhat, there are worse ways of dealing. Ashley joined a church, does volunteer work. Up until now, she’s dated feckless, interchangeable young men, with feckless, interchangeable names, and she learned to lower expectations.
Recently, from what I can infer (because she keeps this stuff mostly hidden from me), some of the stallions in the congregation have sidled up. As a father, I am conflicted. I don’t want my daughter’s life dictated by hocus-pocus conjured by some Iron Age charlatan. (C.S. Lewis says that the Christ story comes down to this: lunatic, liar, or lord. He left out bullshit.) On the other hand, a good Christian suitor who’ll show my daughter respect looks mighty fine to even an atheistic da.
In an alternate universe (the existence of which, if it could be proven, would shatter once and for all the God myth), my daughter might have responded to intense sorrow—to the unforgiving fact that she cannot really protect anybody—with self-destructive behaviors. So that didn’t happen. So that I am grateful for.
No matter what we cling to, we all eventually wind up stumbling through grief, a room with sketchy lighting and furniture that somebody’s always rearranging. We hold on to what we can, trying to get bearings. Veronica still hasn’t thrown out a lot of Meghan’s things.
“I should, I know, Donovan,” she says.
“There’s no clock running,” I say.
“I am not going to be one of those morbids. I promised Meghan. Throwing out her clothes, though, that was hard. Still not finished. I still have a closetful, or so. But the owls?”
The stuffed owls. The porcelain owls. The velvet owls. Owls made of wire. Owls constructed with sea shells. Meghan and her owls. She’d fallen in love with the snowy owl Hedwig in the Harry Potter books. That fired obsession. Books on owls, owl documentaries, visiting different zoos just to see the owls. Meghan wrote her college entrance essay about owls. She sure as hell would have had one as a pet except that it’s illegal in the United States. It’s illegal even to own an owl feather. (Shhh!) Meghan and Ashley, who’d also caught owl fever, used to talk about living for a few years in Great Britain just so they could own one.
Google isn’t always your friend. Google tells me that the owl is a symbol of wisdom, patience, secrets, mystery, and observance. Owls are magic. And snowy owls? They represent desire for pure unfettered knowledge. Owls are ever watchful. Remind you of Someone?
That I found that feather by Meghan’s grave is something that Veronica and Ashley should know. It’s a story that must be told. To them. I get it. And yet, I resist.
The odds of me actually stumbling upon that talisman by that particular girl’s grave are…. Well, I’ll leave that to Fred. He’d break it down. It’s like the lottery. They say that the chances of winning the Powerball are something akin to being struck by lightning twice and getting attacked by a shark within 24 hours. (Talk about a tough day.) And if you’re at all familiar with the lives of many of the lottery winners, there seems to be ample anecdotal evidence for comparing that “good fortune” with horrible life events.
So, no, I will not show them that feather. I make my stand against the God myth. At least for now. What good could it do?
I take that manila envelope and place it carefully in my little lock box, where I keep all the important papers. You know, passports, birth certificates, death certificates, insurance policies. My plan is to write a note detailing how I found the feather and stuff that in there too. I’ll be gone, by then, one with the void and Ashley can do with the information what she will. That’s the plan.
Then comes today. Another day that will always cut through memory’s fog.
I get this call. I am off work and I hear “this is so and so from Watchamacallit University Hospital.” Ashley’s med school.
“Mr. Chambers, you need to get here right away. Use Uber.”
Ashley had been blindsided by some 84-year-old woman who should not have been driving. It’s bad. By the time I arrive, they had induced a coma and moved her from intensive care into her own room. (That’s called pull.) The doctor, one of Ashley’s teachers, is in tears when he talks to me, and that’s not fair because it forces me to be the strong one.
“I’m not God, Mr. Chambers,” he tells me at one point. “Ashley’s healthy. She’s young. We got to her in time. I’ll be able to tell you more later in the day.”
The plan is to keep Ashley in the coma for about 12 hours, until the swelling goes down.
“Of course, the swelling could go down well before 12 hours, that’s the hope,” the doctor says.
I am looking at my daughter during this conversation. The oxygen mask fits tightly over her face, her brow’s furrowed like she’s trying to figure something out, and her hair clings wetly to her skull.
I go out to the hallway, text mine and Norah’s siblings. By the time I re-enter Ashley’s room, relatives are catching flights, heading toward train stations.
I know about comas and hearing. My vigil isn’t a silent one. I whisper to my daughter as I hold her hand, and sometimes I am interrupted by one of Ashley’s med school friends peeking in, saying a prayer. I’ll take it. Whatever anybody wants to do that they think might help, I’ll take.
The hours wane into that stillness between 2 and 4 a.m. and there are fewer visitors, the lights have been turned down, and even the obnoxious chatter at the nurse’s station recedes somewhat.
And that’s when I tell her. It’s a tough decision because why bring up cemeteries and friends who’d died young to a girl fighting for her life? Before then my chatter, which I tried to keep natural with my natural voice (and, thereby, discover why celebrities say that it’s difficult to “play themselves” in roles), had been about some good TV shows and quirky little art-house movies that get a buzz. I’d been recalling vacations we’d taken, skiing in Vermont, swimming in the Atlantic off Maryland, sharing bottles of wine with her and Meghan and Veronica and laughing long into the evening about life’s absurdities. Trying to keep it real, as the kids say. Telling her about my new exercise routine and the cooking class I’m taking and how it makes me want to not eat anymore.
I watch her face, but nothing seems to register. She probably can’t hear me. Some patients in comas can, and some can’t. I decide that Ashley can’t. That’s why I tell her, finally, about that feather.
My segue is relating the call I’d gotten from Veronica. Veronica to the rescue, rescuing her sister in California! It’s so Veronica.
“Veronica asked me to do her a favor, Ashley,” I say.
And I tell her. The feather. The meeting with Fred and … here’s where I stop.
Because you want to know if a miracle occurred, right? You want to know if God’s love worked through the Parable of the Owl. You want a happy ending and, failing that, you want any sort of ending. You want to make sense of it all.
Did my daughter survive? Did I become a believer? Did Ashley continue through med school and lead a life of healing the sick and comforting the mournful? Did she find Mr. Right eventually and am I now a doting grandfather? Did Veronica cry tears of thankfulness when she heard the story? Is there really a heaven beyond this veil of tears?
Why should I tell you? Does He tell us? Anything? Why does He not reveal Himself?
Come down from that cross!
Only this much I shall disclose.
Fred and I do take that walk.