Oprah will die! Oprah will die! Oprah will die! you think as you pump gas at Gas on the Go on Thanksgiving Day. You mean to send her no bad karma, of course. It’s merely a fact. Still, it seems more shocking than other deaths. Oprah will die! Oprah will die! Oprah will die! you feel like shouting it to the world, waking its citizens from their zombie-like stupor. That would do it, you think—Oprah’s death—more shocking than the planet’s death or War in Iraq. Easier to fixate on at any rate.
Shocking, because Oprah doesn’t seem like the type to die. But then who really is the type to die? No one you know, which doesn’t make sense, of course.
Decide that these thought are unhealthy at best, as you get back into your car, an ancient Toyota Corolla, its backseat strewn with green-and-white Starbucks coffee cups; stray brown-and-silver Hershey Almond bar wrappers as well as scraps of paper no longer immediately identifiable. Looking at them, wonder why you never buy coffee at local businesses as you intend or cut out chocolate or keep your car clean as other more together and progressive people do. Feel like you can never catch up in an important race that you don’t remember entering but still have to win.
As you leave the Gas on the Go to head up the on-ramp to the thru-way, listen to your inner armchair psychologist who traces the origin of what she calls your “repetitive and compulsive thoughts centered on morbidity” back to the fact that your best friend Linnea died suddenly in a boating accident three years ago. She was only 32.
One afternoon you were having margaritas by the lake, waxing poetic about Moxy on Stilts—a local band you’d both been following. Tired from the sun and the drinks, you went into the house to nap. Linnea stayed behind to work on her tan. An hour later, you awoke to a loud crash and screams. Outside, in front of the house, a small crowd had gathered and beyond it, you saw planks of wood sticking up at odd angles, Linnea, dead, speared by the splinter of one, her head dangling from her neck. A drunken boater had slammed into her. He stood, a chubby teddy-bear-like man, dazed beside the wreckage.
Such trauma, a grief counselor explained at the time, has a life-long impact. You believed her then, and you believe her now. Remember that among the many conflicting and devastating emotions of that time, fear dominated many of your most mundane activities. Out on your regular Saturday morning “get-healthy-lose-weight” bike ride, you would think, I could die! I could die! I could die! rolling down the hill near the elementary school that you had previously traversed without thought a hundred times. But up until maybe a week ago, those thoughts had largely subsided. Why their reappearance now? Three years later? And why in celebrity format? Perhaps, the recent deaths of Peter Jennings and Steve Irwin were responsible. Men who did not seem “the type to die,” (a phrase that has become an irritatingly incessant echo in your mind). Men who seemed to have more of a life because they lived in the TV that you stare at many weeknights from six to 11. Odd that someone else could simply take Peter Jennings’ place in the black box without much fanfare. Shouldn’t there have been a year of mourning, a year of yellow ribbons placed on TV sets around the country in hopes that Jennings would return? Should we really give up on the dead so easily?
These thoughts do not make sense. So you tell yourself to focus on more important things like the soldiers dying in Iraq or global warming or even just your internship at the land trust. Know your role there is not exactly the most important, as you merely take notes while your bosses do the heavy-lifting, trying to get big landowners to conserve their land for future generations. Still, if you have to think of some part of your 35 years of life with some seriousness, the internship is it. Unlike any other job you’ve had, it fills you with a sense of mission: you are part of saving the land and, more importantly to you, its trees. Touring the parcels that might be preserved, you find comfort in looking up at the trees’ interlocking branches, holding so many green leaves.
Despite your resolve to stay focused on the saving of the trees or any other substantial matters, your mind returns to celebrity death: Oprah again, then Dr. Phil, Brad and Angelina, Tom and Katie, Jen and Vince (though no doubt they will no longer plan to be buried in the same plot). The celebrity body count piles up with the miles, each more devastating than the last.
Arrive home. Be glad to be distracted from your morbid thoughts by helping your mother clean the rec room: putting away the tray tables used for dinner, stuffing magazines, into the almost already full cabinets of the end tables and vacuuming, all the while listening to your mother complain about cousin Sheila’s decision to skip the sharing of Turkey this year and go on a cruise with her boyfriend instead. Sheila is three years younger than you, and like you, she has a small bust, big hips, mousy brown hair and blue eyes, but while you have an average looking nose, Sheila’s is prominent, making her not as attractive as you. Still, she has always had more luck with men, and you have tried not to let that bother you.
The smell of turkey wafts through the room as you move on to wiping down counters in the kitchen and mopping the floor while trying not to envy Sheila her freedom and, reluctantly, because you like to think of yourself as happy without a man, her boyfriend. Try not to think that it’s been five years since you and Ted broke up, and a boyfriend has begun to seem like a magical charm that you are unable to conjure. Finish up with dusting the glass candy bowls on the end tables in the living room, as your mother continues her harangue.
“She’s a teacher,” your mother says. “She could go during the summer. I don’t know how your Aunt Patsy stands it.”
Two hours later, look around the table and think all of these people are going to die. Do not necessarily feel grateful for this thought. Round will go the sweet potatoes, the turkey and other fixings including the broccoli smothered in that thick orange, sticky cheese substance, aptly, you decide, known as Velveeta. The near rhyme to Cheeto, making for a class of pseudo-cheese substances all named with a long “ee” sound—really their only resemblance to cheese.
This dish your mother has made since the 70s. As you pass it along without taking any, remember that just moments before the company arrived, you said the dish needed to be scratched or at the very least updated. Thirty years of Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters with the same vegetable dish you noted and suggested that it’s time maybe to replace the Velveeta with cheddar at the minimum.
“Nobody eats it anymore,” you said. But your mother said, “It’s tradition,” and you detected a tear in her eye before she said, “You brat,” and laughed.
You felt your heart fill then, heavy with burden and wished those feelings away. It’s only a vegetable dish for God’s sake.
Now diving into your mashed potatoes, feel bad about criticizing your mother, wish you could take back your expressed desire for cheddar rather than Velveeta. Your mother is in her late 60s, and she will not be around forever, and if she wants to serve a manufactured cheese product in a dish, is it really necessary to fight with her about this? To fight with a woman who will die?
Your Aunt Patsy reminds everyone to say grace. Your entire family stops, puts down their knives, forks and spoons, makes the sign of the cross and says quickly and in unison and with some embarrassment at what seems to be a slightly unwelcome reference to the depths of human nature: “Bless Us O Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Everybody again makes the sign of the cross. Knives, forks, and spoons are picked up again, and talk resumes.
You try to listen to the table conversation. Your sister and your cousin Bill’s wife Betty are discussing their favorite TV shows, specifically the latest America’s Top Model Competition, which featured the models dressed up as celebrities like Donald and Ivana Trump (even though Betty points out indignantly the two are no longer together). Unfortunately, apparently without a dose of imminent death, talk of celebrities does not hold your attention. So you focus in on the oldest member of the assembled contingent: Aunt Patsy. Right now she’s listening to your mother, nodding and smiling with her small, dark blue eyes that can only be described as merry. Your dear Aunt Patsy will die. And then what? Your Aunt Patsy, the sanest member sitting at the table, the Aunt who always ignores tense situations and sagely remains quiet or tells just the right amusing story—about meeting really the nicest man from of all places County Kerry in the parking lot of Sears who it turns out is related to great cousin Margaret—with such delight that everyone forgets, at least for the moment, exactly what well deserved old ax they were grinding. Your sister, for instance, who last Thanksgiving refused to help set the table on the grounds that you are always manipulating her into doing things for you. You were indeed guilty of this when you were 11, and she was eight and you got her to go on the death coaster three times despite her protests, screams and even tears. You quite sincerely told her that you would not love her anymore unless she accompanied you on the death coaster. But that was 20 odd years ago, and your sister, you think, needs to let go of it already. Unfortunately, the idea that your sister too will die intrudes on your self-righteousness
Your baby cousin Patrick, who has his father’s startlingly light blond hair, asks you to pass the stuffing. He smiles at you and laughs. And for a moment, Thanksgiving is just about food and family again, instead of impending death. But only for a moment. Your mind quickly returns to its morbid watch. Your Aunt Patsy will die. Aunt Patsy who puts even your father on his best behavior, making him talk about the movie Toy Story rather than focusing on your lack of employment, or worse in his book, your lack of ambition. A long-time, unspoken accusation made ever clearer to you on your 35th birthday just weeks ago when, without the presence of Aunt Patsy or other mercifully distracting extended family members, your father gave you a book written, he explained, by a prominent psychologist and called Think Big.
You were left speechless by his gift, and then indignant, yelling, “That’s insulting.”
“No, it’s not,” your father said. “I heard him speak. He was interesting. I thought you’d find him interesting. Don’t be stubborn now and miss out on important advice.”
To which you could only reply, “It’s insulting.” Your inability to speak, making you feel like a sputtering engine: full of energy but unable to fully function.
Now wonder if you were stubborn, if you should read the book. But really, in the end, believe that you have indeed thought big, perhaps, too big, been too ambitious, thinking you could switch from career path to career path with ease until you found the perfect fit—not truly understanding that time really does pass so very quickly.
Mary Lannon has work published at Story and in the Irish Echo. An Associate Professor of English at Nassau Community College, she is at work on a second novel while looking for a publisher for her first, “An Explanation of the Fundamentals of the Derivation of Dilapidated Brown Station Wagon Theory aka How I Became A Scientist and Discovered the Truth About Getting Stuck in the Wrong Universe by Miranda J. McCleod.”