When E. H. and his parents moved to Harlen, E. H. cleaned cars for a car dealership. I was told that he was a perfectionist, digging out the errant crumb between car seats, making sure that consoles shone, that white walls of tires were like new.
Like his mother, E. H. was stubborn, of those times I witnessed, sometimes clashing with his mother on basic issues–whether he could go somewhere, if he should see someone or not, take out the garbage. Usually his mother won and E. H. would storm out, angry at the injustice of it all, his face crunched in an expression of frustration. But not the issue regarding a girlfriend. E. H. won that battle, even though the girlfriend and E. H.’s mother seldom encountered each other. His mother thought that all the woman wanted from E. H. was what little money he had.
Small towns breed information like weeds. Some sprout in crevasses and remain there; some infuse the entire garden and destroy whatever can be harvested. What a son or a daughter or a neighbor did the night before usually makes its way to parents quickly and easily, especially if the parents are well known and even if the information is embellished or slanted.
After his father died, but before his oldest brother passed away, as E. H.’s mother aged, she wanted someone she could trust to take care of her and her son. Three of her other children had died: a child in infancy, a daughter, and her second oldest son, who had suffered brain damage after being assaulted on the streets in Las Vegas. She turned to my older sister, her ex-daughter-in-law. E. H.’s mother sold her house in Harlen and bought a one-story home right across the street from my sister in Kalispell where for the next few years both E. H. and his mother lived.
The bridge between my mother and E. H.’s mother was maintained even after my mother died. One of my mother’s brothers drove both E. H. and his mother to Montana, helping them become situated in their new home, and it so happened that I was visiting my sister at the same time that they arrived. I was surprised that my uncle helped in the move, but I must say that E. H.’s parents knew most everyone too in the small area in and around Harlen.
That weekend when my uncle and E. H. and his mother arrived, when I was in my 50s, was the first time that I found out that as a child I had an invisible playmate. I was setting the table for lunch and my uncle was helping in his own way, when he said to me, “You’d better set a plate for Mr. Deetz.” I said, “Who’s he?” All looked at me, my sister, E. H.’s mother, and of course my uncle. Then he said, “Don’t you remember your imaginary friend, Mr. Deetz?” He continued to tell me that until I was five or so, at every meal, I had to have a plate set for Mr. Deetz at the table. I guess I was so explicit as a child when I told anyone about him, for my uncle said that he was tall and thin and wore overalls.
For quite a few years, my sister has been married to someone whom we all like, a kind, considerate man, and that someone also helped with transitioning both the mother and the son from one culture to another. He took E. H. and her son places, repaired things that needed done. For the next few years, there was consistent traffic between the two homes. Four of my sister’s five children live in and around Kalispell, and they also spent time with their father’s mother and brother: meals at others’ homes, holidays, camping in Glacier, huckleberry and blueberry picking. And when E. H.’s mother became ill, all came to her aid.
E. H.’s mother seldom mentioned the deaths of her children in my presence, but I assume, and I hope, that she and my mother and my older sister shared confidences. It would have been tough to have suffered all of those deaths and be silent. In that way she was like my mother, hoarding memories as if they were gold, afraid of airing them especially to those who would not have the slightest inkling of the emotional underpinnings. Besides not doing so saves emotional energy.
But Kalispell was not Harlen, and after his mother died some years later of cancer, E. H. moved back to Harlen where once again he cleaned cars, rode his motorcycle, and dated. My older sister arranged that an old family friend of E. H.’s parents helped E. H. with whatever he needed, eye appointments, groceries, housing, a friend that is still helping E. H. during his final stages of life.
After E. H. was discharged from the hospital after being diagnosed with leukemia, he couldn’t understand what was happening to him, even though I’m sure many tried to inform him why he was sick. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to hear and speak, not to read well enough to understand what is going on, but still to be conscious of changes in one’s body, to be essentially alone in this world, without means and agency, to depend solely upon the will of others. Like most of us, E. H. possesses the ability to feel pain, loss, joy. He understands death, for at this time E. H. was the only one left in his family, his oldest brother dead from alcoholism.
In Harlen, the man to whom my sister entrusted with E. H.’s care, to guide him, make sure that he had enough spending money, that his bills were paid, picked up E. H. from the hospital. There were adjustments to be made, but still E. H. struggled to understand what was happening to him, demanding answers, more than likely by persistent gesturing, by repeating vocalizations.
But this man instinctively knew what must be done, even though I’m sure he weighed the consequences. One afternoon, he took E. H. for a ride, driving by this place and that. They wound up at a cemetery near Harlen. There he stopped the car and through the windshield, he pointed to the graves, the variety of stones immobile in the cold autumn wind; and then he looked over at E. H. and gestured at E. H. to indicate that he too will lie there.
That moment we will all face, sometime a second before death; sometime we will have immense warning but death too soon sneaks upon us. From that point on, it’s the decay of hope, the demise of experience, the beginning of acceptance or rage.