Passings in the Night

When Cole’s mother died there had been no indication she was ill. She simply went to bed early one evening while he and his father stayed up to watch Monday Night Football. In the morning, when he came down for breakfast, Cole saw his father sitting on the couch, holding a cup of coffee in the still dark living room.

“Dad?” he said.

“Yeah,” his father said, soft and staring at the floor.

“You okay?”

But his father didn’t move. He kept his head down and only when Cole walked toward him and stood by his shoulder did he look up to his son.

“Your mother’s gone,” he said.

Cole searched the room, looking to the windows at the front of the house and into the woods that ran beside the road. “Where? It’s so early,” he said, scanning the trees he saw taking shape with the first traces of light.

His father rose then, standing so close Cole smelled the coffee mixed with his stale breath. Then his father’s hand pressed firmly on his shoulder.

“No, Son. I mean, she’s gone. She passed away last night in her sleep.”

Cole’s stomach went queasy, his legs trembled beneath him, but he never stopped looking at his father’s eyes—his own eyes—as his father’s grip on his shoulder tightened.

“I’ve not called anyone yet. I wanted to wait until you could go in and see her yourself.”

Light was breaking through a cloudy gray sky, burning off haze. A wind blew against the house, the beeping of a garbage truck could be heard up the road, and birds pecked at the grass in the yard.

“Go on,” his father said, nodding toward the bedroom over Cole’s shoulder.


His mother appeared peaceful, as if she were still asleep, and for a moment Cole wanted to believe his father was playing some cruel, cruel joke on him. But when he took her hand in his and felt the coolness and absence of her squeezing back in its rigidness, he knew it was true. He knelt beside the bed. Her face seemed softer to him than it had in years and the crescent shaped scar under her eye was nearly invisible. He touched it with his finger as he’d done when he was a very small child and remembered all the times she had touched his scrapes with love and care.

He bowed his head, closed his eyes. He thought to how she had made him get up from the couch the night before to give her a hug and kiss goodnight. In the dark room he breathed in the smell of his mother’s perfume, the lotion she used. He took his finger off the scar and rose from the floor, never letting go of her hand. He stood, unsure of what to do, of how he could make some sort of peace.


He’d returned home three months ago after he was downsized from a job he’d never liked anyway. He was unsure of what he wanted to do, of who he even wanted to be, and Boston was a city he could no longer afford. So he packed up everything he could fit in his car and came back home to live with his parents and work for his father’s company. The transition had not been an easy one and in the night, while he was sleeping, his dreams were still set in Boston. The dark murky water of the Charles flowed through each one, as if leading him out of the light and deeper into an unknown territory. Though he had slept in the room until he was eighteen, he found himself disoriented in the mornings, unfamiliar with his surroundings.

Living under their roof and back in Fordyce had been more disorienting than he expected. At a certain point in his life he had assumed he’d never be back here and that when his parents passed away he would have no more reason to visit. Yet, leaving had always weighed on him and it was as if he could never put enough distance between himself and home. It called out to him like some far-off bird’s song, rattling in his head, and he’d remember the mountains and the curves of the roads and the smell of dew-heavy air in spring and summer.

There had been lots of missteps and starts in his life and at one point—his lowest—he was living in Cambridge where he worked at a bookstore and washed dishes at a diner off Harvard Square. When he woke up in the bone-cold mornings before his shift, he’d look out on the snow-dusted streets, the tiny houses packed so tightly together they appeared to be huddled for warmth, and ask himself if he had missed some sign of what it was he should have done.

His father never asked him what it was he searched for, why he took so many jobs that he was overqualified for. In fact, he had never questioned Cole outright about any of the choices he made, but he always felt he was letting the old man down by not pinning himself to a job and embarking on a career. So when he landed the job at Suffolk in development, coordinating alumni affairs, he was finally doing something he thought his father would find respectable, and it wasn’t until then that he had the courage to ask his parents to come for a visit. But only his mother came to Cambridge and the small apartment on Bay Street.

“He wanted to come, but you know Dad. He can’t stand to miss work,” she said to him over coffee.

“I know,” Cole said. “He loves work. He helped build that company.”

“It’s all he knows,” she said. “I worry over him. I worry over both of you.”

“Don’t worry about me, Mom. I’m okay.” He saw the wind outside swirling snow off the roofs of cars.

“That’s a mother’s job. That’s what me and your father both do.”

“He’s not happy about this,” he said, raising his eyes around the apartment.

“He thinks you’re capable of more.”

“I have a good job now. I thought he’d be happy about that.”

“He wants you to go back to school.”

“For what?”

“For whatever you want. You used to think you wanted to be a biologist.”

“When I was eight.”

“That’s not true. You can do whatever you want. People say that all the time, Cole, but for you it really is true.”

He turned from the window when she said this and took in her eyes. She smiled at him, warmly, with encouragement, and then drank her coffee.


Usually, this was the part of the morning where Cole, a week shy of thirty-two but feeling much older, readied for work by standing up from his bed and working out the knots in his back that had come with working in the freezer, loading and unloading pallets of food off trucks. The coroner was in the house and he was getting dressed to go back downstairs. His bones cracked when he bent over to pull his socks on. Looking in the mirror at his haggard face, the scrawl of a beard on his cheeks, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do now and his eyes seemed lifeless, lamps gone dark.

At the kitchen table, the coroner was filling out a report and drinking coffee. He watched the man’s pen move across the page in a flurry of checks and hurried notes and he realized, almost in that instant, and in a way that amazed him, what his mother’s death meant. There was no one left to work out the silence between him and his father. There was no interpreter left to relay messages. Who would tell both men that they loved each other?

The coroner stood, closing his folder and taking his cup to the sink. “I believe that’s everything,” he said.

His father was at the dining room table, staring blankly out the window at the woods and road and it was left to Cole to acknowledge the man. “Thank you,” he said. “My father wanted me to ask about a cause of death.” This was a lie but he thought it would sound better if he phrased it that way.

“Can’t be sure. An aneurism in all likelihood. Would he like an autopsy performed?”

The words shivered him. Cole ran a hand through his hair, unsure of what to answer, and afraid to ask his father who had still not stirred. He’d not said one word after he called 911.

“Tell you what,” the coroner said, reaching into the breast pocket of his shirt. His face was fleshy and pock-marked, his jowls shook as he talked. “Have him call later this afternoon, after he’s had some time. After you’ve both had some time.”

Cole nodded and took the man’s card. “Thank you,” he said and stepped outside with the man. Two attendants from the funeral home were lifting his mother’s body into the back of a blue-gray hearse.

Cole followed the coroner to his vehicle. “We’ll be in touch,” he said, shaking the man’s hand and felt how soft and smooth it was. So much so that he had to resist the urge to wipe it against his jeans after they were through.

The coroner drove off and Cole turned to the funeral home attendants, never taking his eye off the back window where his mother rested inside.

“We’ll take good care of her,” the older man said. He wore a set of thin gold-rimmed glasses. His son was with him, just a few years older than Cole, and was standing by the car. He looked impatient and unpracticed compared to his father. “It’s a very tough time for you,” the father went on. “We understand that. We want you to know we will do our best to make your family as comfortable as possible.”

“Thank you,” Cole said for what seemed like too many times in such a short span. His mother had died and so far the only thing he’d been able to say about the whole affair was a string of thank-yous to people he’d never met or seen before until today. He’d not even had a chance to talk to his father about it.

But he shook the man’s hand, surprised at the strength and firmness of his grip and the sincere condolence it conveyed.

Then they too were gone and Cole was alone in the driveway. The beech tree limbs shook in the breeze. He looked to the window but his father was not there, though the smudge of where his fingers had been was visible under the bright sky.

Inside the house again, from the hallway, Cole ducked into his parents’ bedroom and heard the water running in the master bath. He called for his father and the old man stuck his head around the corner, a mouth full of toothpaste, his hair combed, and a fresh shirt on.

“Where’re you going?” Cole asked, walking into the bathroom.

“The funeral home,” his father said, spitting into the sink. He cupped a handful of water up to his mouth.


“Yeah,” he said. “Why?”

“You don’t want to talk?”

“About what?”

“Mom,” he said. “What we’re going to do?”

“What can we do?” he said. He put the toothbrush in its holder and flipped the light off, moving past Cole.

“Dad,” Cole said.

“Yes,” he said, sliding change from the top of the dresser into his hand.

Cole wanted to tell him how empty he felt. He wanted to ask his father if her death felt real to him, if he had already processed what the next step was, and how they went on from here. But in the face of the old man, all his stoicism, he could only say, “The coroner wants to know if you want an autopsy performed.”

“No,” he said. “I’m going now.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” Cole said.

“If you want. There’s probably not much to do, though.”

Cole looked at him, unsure what his father meant by saying this to him. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to sit with her.”

Cole stepped closer to the old man, eyeing him, wanting to feel something more than just the loss between them. “Do you want me to call the coroner and tell him?”

“No, I’ll do it,” his father said. His eyes were already traced with darkened rings. Then he stepped toward Cole and again put his hand on his shoulder, but this time he patted him there and shook him a little. “It’ll be okay,” he said and walked into the garage and Cole heard the door opening and the car starting. He watched the Buick move up the winding road toward town, leaving Cole in the big lonely rooms of the house.


His father had not made it easy to ask for the job.

“Do you know how many men come to me in any given week looking for work? There aren’t six men put together as smart as you working in that freezer.”

“I need the work,” Cole said.

They were standing outside, beside the grill, and the drippings from the burgers hissed and made the fire rise.

“Your mother and I sent you off to school so you wouldn’t need to work a job like that. You’ve got a degree from one of the best damn schools in America. Doesn’t that count for something?” He flipped a burger and looked at Cole.

It did count for something, and though he had spent most of his twenties being shiftless and wandering far more than he sometimes thought he should have, he had finally settled into a life in Boston he’d had to give up.

“Please, Dad,” he said at last. “I just need some work for a spell.”

“I can’t promise anything,” his father said and pulled the burgers off the grill. “You better see if your mother needs help,” he said, pointing at the kitchen window, where she was cutting vegetables.

Cole walked off, wondering the whole time if his father was standing there and shaking his head in disappointment. He had built a life for Cole that was nothing like his own childhood and this gave Cole great admiration. He had done that by working an insane amount of hours at the office. Ninety hours some weeks and he developed a reputation among his friends’ parents for how often he wasn’t home or at Cole’s ball games. Work ethic, though, wasn’t the only thing that set the old man apart. It was the chances he gave people to work and make a living. When Cole was only nine and ten, he would go to the office with him on the weekends and on those short rides up the interstate he sometimes told Cole about the country boys he had hired who drove the trucks or that worked in the warehouse. He knew all these details about their lives, the children they had or had lost, the hollers where they had grown up and where their kinfolk still were. He had more in common with these men than he ever did with his fellow executives and Cole came to understand his father never stopped feeling like a poor country boy himself. He wanted those men to have as many chances as he could give them.

So it never surprised him once they arrived at the office and he had broken free from the rows of cubicles outside his father’s door and was roaming the large warehouse, tracing the familiar labels from television commercials—Lays Potato Chips, Campbell’s Soup, Frosted Flakes—all the way up to the ceiling, that every other worker he ran into always said the same thing. “Let me tell you something about your daddy. He’s the best man.” It didn’t matter that Cole’s father kept no pictures of him or his mother on his desk; they always knew who he was and they always wanted him to know just what kind of man he had for a father.

His mother tried to ease his worries as she always had, taking up for his father, explaining in ways the old man couldn’t what it was he expected from Cole. “He thinks you’re too smart for your own good,” she said, then added, “He may be right.”

It had been her idea for him to ask for a job. She had smiled when she told him to do it, and before he had the chance to object she cut him off. “You need your father,” she said. “And he needs you too.” His whole life she always gave Cole these edicts that seemed so melodramatic and solemn and he had to laugh them off—and she did too—but he knew deep down how much she meant them.

He pictured her face, the big puffy cheeks, a feature she hated. “I have a moon face, don’t I?” she often asked. “No,” Cole told her, lying every time. The house was filled with black and white pictures she’d taken over the years and Cole found himself looking at one of him when he was three. He wore a pair of cutoff jeans and held an outstretched paintbrush to his father who was covering a wall. It was always her favorite.

Cole wanted to cry over his mother’s death but he couldn’t. No matter how cold and hollow he felt, how broken apart he was, the tears did not come. He wanted her to know just how much he had loved her, and loved her for never giving up on him. He wanted to know what she would say to him about his fear of dealing with his father. What could she tell him when he admitted that he felt he would never measure up to the old man? He compared his own lack of accomplishment next to his father’s and it raced through his heart. His life versus his father’s. It was the thing, in the empty house with rooms full of memories, he saw he had always been doing.


The smell of flowers and air freshener hung in the air. The carpet was marked with lines from vacuuming. Cole’s father was sitting in a high-backed leather chair with brass rivets along the seams. He stayed quiet while Cole paced back and forth, reading the funeral home’s brochure, looking over the wallpapering and pictures, again and again. It was restless waiting, especially when his father said and did nothing.

Finally, he asked his father, “Did you talk to Mr. Kirby?”

“Just for a moment. He said he needs a dress for your mother to wear. Can you pick one out?”

“You don’t want to?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to leave.”

“I can do it if you need me to,” he said.

“Thanks. You should go on,” he said. “You don’t need to be here.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Cole said. “Have you gone down to see her?”

“No,” he said. “I will after they’ve prepared her.”

“Are you all right?” Cole tried to read his face, but there was nothing but impassiveness.

“I’m okay. There are some arrangements that’ll need to be made. You should call the church and tell them about your mother. Her friends, too.”

Cole nodded. His father was picking at his cuticles. “Dad,” he said after a moment. Cole’s father raised his head.

“Do you need anything? Something to eat? Drink?” But these weren’t the real questions he wanted to ask. He didn’t know how he could simply sit there and do nothing. He wanted to know how the man could spend a life with someone and the moment she was gone not react in some way other than silence.

“No, no. Go on,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Just do those things for us, okay?”

Cole stood and put his hands in his pockets. “Should I leave now?”

“It’s up to you,” his father said, standing. “Don’t feel like you have to stay with me.”

He seemed to be ushering him out the door. Cole nodded and the two men looked at each other, unsure if they should hug or embrace and neither making a move to do so. Finally, Cole, patted his father’s arm and said he’d come back later to check on him and then he walked outside into the breeze.


Only once did he ever remember seeing his father angry and that was after a big fight with his mother. He had come home from baseball practice, hearing the shouts through the windows of the house as he walked up the driveway. He opened the door to see his mother crying, two glistening streaks of tears running down her face but her chin was pointed straight at his father, who was leaning back against the stove.

“Go to your room,” he said when he saw Cole. “Now,” he said when Cole stood there, blinking and turning his head back and forth between the two of them.

The shouting continued once Cole was in his room and the last thing Cole heard was the slamming of the door and his father’s car moving away from the house. He lay in bed that night waiting to hear him pull the car into the garage below his bedroom but it never came. Three days passed and still Cole never heard from him. Not even a phone call home. On the fourth night, Cole heard the car outside his window but not the garage door opening. Then his father’s footsteps were downstairs, his Florsheim shoes clicking against the hardwood floors. The shower turned on in the spare bedroom and moments later, as he stayed still in the darkness, tracing the edges of the ceiling fan with his eyes, his father’s car started up and the sound of the engine moved farther away from their home. In the morning, on the kitchen counter, four new hundred-dollar bills were placed. Below them was a note that only said, For groceries.

Even then as a twelve-year-old boy it said something to him about how he should act if he ever found himself in a similar sort of conflict. It reached out to him almost as strong as any hug he had ever received from his father, assuring him that he would take care of them no matter what happened.

Their reconciliation was quick and no one, not even his mother who loved to talk to Cole about all the details of her life, ever said anything about it. His father had simply shown up one day at Cole’s practice, the white sleeves of his shirt rolled to the elbows and his tie loosened at the neck. “Ready to go home?” he asked as Cole walked up. Cole’s throat clenched when the old man spoke the words, and he’d only been able to nod, and then his father’s arm was over his shoulder, patting his back, and guiding him toward the car.

It was hard for Cole to look at his father and not remember how he looked that day. Still young, still strong. Some part of him always believed it was his father who made everything better, despite his quiet ways and unwillingness to talk. As he got older, he knew he could never know the entire story, the words that are exchanged between a husband and wife and the promises they make to themselves and for their children. But he never let go of the idea it was his father who went to his mother. It was the money on the counter, perhaps, the sight of it, that fueled his belief.


Cole went back to the funeral home at eight in the evening, bringing a dress for his mother, and some dinner, and letting his father know the obituary would be in tomorrow’s paper. The old man nodded in affirmation at the last piece of knowledge, and ate just half of the sandwich Cole brought. They sat together in the room where the visitation was going to be held, staring at the space where the casket would sit. It was lit with two soft overhead lights, and already the front of the room was filled with peace lilies, bereavement wreaths, and the petals of countless flowers.

“I can’t believe this,” Cole said, only to break their silence.

His father didn’t respond. He looked at the old man’s jaw, then his hair, grayed on the edges and thinning on top. The wrinkles around his eyes weren’t visible, though. He was younger in the light. He thought about his leaving so many years ago and how he had never come to his room and said something to him. Why didn’t he wake his only child in the middle of the night to tell him it would be okay? It had taken everything for Cole to not race out of his room and into the kitchen to grab him. As a boy, he thought that had been bravery on his part, how his father would handle the situation but here, in the dim light of the funeral home, in the company of his father, he knew it was only cowardice. Because what would he have done if he’d gone out to him only to have his father squat down and tell him he was never coming back?

The next three days were going to be filled with cards and warm wishes. Serious handshakes, somber hugs. He’d been to a dozen visitations in his life, but couldn’t once remember ever actually attending a burial. He thought of the pair he and his father would make, both dressed in black suits, each showing the other in their features—the past and the future. Beneath them his mother lay on a cold table somewhere, while in the back of the funeral home, the director and his wife were probably just clearing the dishes from supper, settling in to watch a movie before a long night of peaceful sleep.

“I’m going home,” Cole said.

“Good,” his father said. “You should. Get yourself some rest. Thanks for coming by.”

“Thanks?” he said.  “She’s my mother. I loved her too.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. I’m glad you came by. You didn’t have to.”

Cole didn’t know what else to say other than that he was welcome. Then, “Are you coming home soon?”

His father half-grunted and shook his head.

“You need some rest, too,” Cole said, but his father didn’t turn to him again.

Cole put his hand on his father’s shoulder, remembering all the strength once held there when he was a boy and then he left.


There had been a woman in Boston. They had been drifting apart for a while by the time he lost his job and if he had honestly thought he could salvage their relationship, he would have stayed. But she wasn’t ready. That’s what she told him. She didn’t know about marriage, she didn’t know about him the way he said he knew about her. They had friends visiting from out of town and they had taken them to the North End for pizza and sightseeing. She told him all this inside a bakery while their friends toured the Old North Church. His face had gone flush with anger and embarrassment and a pit below his chest opened up with a burning, melting pain. It was the first and only time he ever felt the physical ache of heartbreak. The breakup had made going home easier, but he had moved enough in his life that he knew he couldn’t outrun his problems. She was still with him in his thoughts far more than he wanted. He had thought to call her and tell her about his mother, but when he picked up the phone all he could do was trace his finger over her name on the cellphone’s screen. She was the only person he wanted to talk to and yet he couldn’t call her. They had parted on good terms, made promises to keep in touch after some time had passed, but he didn’t know what he would say to her. Comfort me, he thought. Come back into my life and comfort me, he wanted to say, but her decision had been that she didn’t want to be a part of his life anymore.

Clutching the phone, he walked through the house and turned on lights. He went to every single room, flipping every switch, and when he looked out the windows it was so bright he couldn’t see the night in front of him. Then he went outside to the road, each window glowed in front of him. Had it been just a week before and had he come home to this sight his mother could have been in any one of those rooms. Had it been just months before he would have still been in Boston, in the arms of the woman he thought was going to make him happy for the rest of his life.

He sat down in the middle of the road and pulled his knees into his chest. The sky above him was cloudless and it was an endless field of stars. He took in one big deep breath and exhaled. Finally, he thought, the tears would come. But as he continued to watch the windows, hoping for the passing of a shadow, some sign of movement, his eyes only welled.


In the morning there was no trace his father had come home. Cole had fallen asleep on the couch with all the lights still on. He called the funeral home and they said his father was still there. Cole dressed and drove to meet him. When he arrived, his father was where he had left him, sitting in the same chair, in the same pose, and he wondered if he had moved at all from the spot or gone outside, at least, into the air and paced. The next two days it was the same thing. He refused to leave the funeral home and every time Cole came by to check on him, his father always seemed surprised by his presence. Mr. Kirby told Cole he’d seen similar grieving before, but nothing quite like this.

“He sits all day,” he said. “He doesn’t speak. He must have loved your mother very much.” Cole knew he said this in a tone meant to let him know his father’s grief was, in some way, honorable.

Cole handled most of the details of the visitation and the funeral, his father agreeing to everything he put in front of him and signing all the forms. On Thursday night Cole greeted the people who came to the funeral home, standing up for each person to shake his hand or give him a hug after they had viewed his mother and accepting their soft-spoken words. His father, clean-shaven and showered, sat beneath him. What Mr. Kirby didn’t know was that while his father mourned, Cole had been shuffling through old pictures of himself, his mother and of their family and he too had spent restless nights, but Cole’s were spent in a house that hadn’t been home in a long time and that now took on an even more distant attitude with his mother’s death.

His father had hidden and by the last night of the visitation, Cole was unable to even look at the old man. He cut a small figure. His handshakes were limp, his eyes lost in some other place. And of all the things Cole had ever felt guilty about in his life, none of them compared to the contempt he held for his father in the dim funeral home. Though Cole had not seen him shed one tear, he looked at his father’s grieving as a weakness. He was the one that should have handled the details. Instead, he had forced Cole to be as stoic and reserved as he was and as they drove out to the cemetery inside the funeral home’s Cadillac, Cole knew this was what he resented most.

The familiar shapes of the mountains that set the boundaries of Fordyce rose up before the windshield in the distance and the land’s pattern seemed to wrap around him like some warm quilt. Side by side they sat in the car, each man looking out his own window, and side by side they stood at the funeral, while a small crowd of friends and family gathered.

The preacher read the Psalm and gave a meditation on death, mentioning a few personal aspects and stories about Cole’s mother. He didn’t listen. Around him he watched the people nodding, praying with the preacher, clutching purses and tissues in their hands. There had been moments in the last few evenings when all Cole wanted to do was shake his father, to pull him out of the chair and drag him outside, and ask him what went on inside of him—I’ve known you all my life but I don’t know who you are or what you want. But he didn’t know how he could do that. He had come back to Fordyce with so much shame and for the first time in his life his father wasn’t the strongest person in the room.

Then the preacher quieted and Cole felt the finality of his mother’s death being laid upon his shoulders. His father was stone-faced and he noticed in his expression, in a way he knew shouldn’t have surprised him, how wrong he’d been. For three nights he had laid in bed once again, waiting to hear the old man come in the door, the jangle of his keys being laid on the counter, his footsteps on the stairs toward his room. He had stayed in bed with his hands behind his head, staring at the dark, listening so hard, so intently, his head hurt, but not once did he rise from his spot and run to his father. Just as he had when he was a boy, he waited on him to make everything better. His father in just three days time had withered away under the soft lights of the Kirby Funeral Home while Cole had been unable to say the simplest words to him. They had both failed each other. And in the clear day, with the sun growing brighter by the minute, as if he could see it pulsing in the blue-dream of sky, Cole began to feel his mother everywhere in his thoughts. She bound the two men, pleading from the other side it seemed, for them to move toward each other.

Then his father’s hand was at his elbow, the grip pinching into his skin, and Cole led them both to the casket. Sweat trickled from his temples. His father leaned into him and as he bent over with his free hand to scoop up a small patch of dirt, the grip on Cole’s elbow tightened. The old man held out the dirt and his hand shook over the casket and his whole body was buckling, pulling down on Cole’s arm, but Cole stood firm, widened his stance by a half step. He watched his father open his palm and, like smoke, the tiny granules spread into the air, and the two men stood at the grave-site while everyone in attendance drifted away, leaving them alone.  end