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  • Big-Shot
  • Jan Shoemaker (bio)

My father began dying a year ago this Labor Day weekend. It would take him six months to work his way out of the world but we, my sister Sue and I, didn't know that when we found him lying on the floor beside his bed. "Dad," I asked gently. "What happened?"

"A big-shot slipped me a mickey," he groaned, trying and failing to heave himself up. Big-shot? Mickey? Had he been watching old gangster movies on cable during all of those insomniac nights that had followed one another over the past few years, gray and vaguely threatening, like suspects in a lineup? "He thinks he's a big-shot," my father continued, sure of his facts, "but he's not."

Sue and I told the paramedics who arrived a few minutes later about the big-shot and we told the nurses and the cardiologist at the hospital and most of our friends—and we laughed about it edgily and sometimes hysterically and often weepily through the ensuing miserable months and we laugh about it still. We should all give our stumbling families in our confused, final days so preposterous a gift—some mad claim or delusion for them to cling to and laugh over—and so draw breath again.

We buried my father amid a cluster of small trees in a flat, suburban cemetery that holds the remains of so many people I have loved and love still. I leave notes on the marble slab that marks his grave as if it were the Wailing Wall, notes that have always disappeared when I return although the small stone I slip them beneath remains. Contrary to the claims of that old children's game, stone covers paper—and outlasts it, like Housman's enduring bone.

I don't suppose endurance is everything—God love the Buddhists for helping me try to see and believe this again and again. Nevertheless, most of us hang on for as long as we can. Even Douglas, the one tomato plant I [End Page 93] potted this past summer, (my family names everything), threw his lot in with existence—proclaimed his enduring Douglas-ness—with what was surely a heroic effort after my husband, Larry, halved him with a shingle while he was reroofing our house. Douglas lived to pass on his seed with Darwinian determination in the form of half a dozen ping-pong ball–sized tomatoes and so placed a claim on the future—Dougla-fying it. Douglas, in fact, persisted in living in a rickety way straight through September, looking a lot like an old man I often see at my favorite bookstore—spindly and stooped—but dressed nattily in just the way I have threatened to dress Larry some day if his senility strikes before my own—in a cardigan sweater with elbow patches and a small, smart cap. Douglas and his contemporary bibliophile—both bent on making it another day.

In the wood bowl full of birds' nests (which I so often find just where I'm about to place my foot) that sits on a table in my living room there is a phial of blue sand from a Buddhist mandala. Not long ago four Tibetan monks, bikkhus from Dharmasala, the Tibetan refuge in India, visited the university in my town. For a week they sat silently on the floor of the college art museum, one on each side of a square mat the size of a card table, blowing brightly colored sand through thin pipes into intricate patterns surrounding the sacred image of a beloved bodhisattva—a buddha of compassion. We—the members of the community who went to college and know how to treat art and support its preservation, ogled it and murmured our praise. We crept up until our toes touched the mat but the monks, who create these fragile mandalas as a form of meditation—a study in impermanence—paid us no mind. They blew silently, tapping their slim pipes, and when they had finished, when the mandala was complete and perfect, it seemed, as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel or Monet's Water Lilies, they lifted the...