[p.178]Aunt Norma called the next day. “Neal’s failing fast,” she said.
“I can come up first thing in the morning,” Ryan answered.
“I don’t want to be a bother. I know how busy you are with your family and your job.”
“No, I want to be there.”
He left at six in the morning, driving non-stop to Idaho Falls. He found Norma and Glenda in the waiting room, crying.
Norma said, “He’s gone, Ryan.”
He put his arm around her. ‘‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
“He went peacefully.”
“Please come into the room with us,” said Glenda.
“Yes,” said Norma, “we want to say goodbye to Neal.”
They walked into the room together. The tubes had been removed, and Uncle Neal lay like a stone upon the bed, his eyes half-open. Death filled the room like a presence, almost palpable.
Norma let go of Ryan’s hand and stood near the head of the bed, reaching out to touch Neal.
“He was a good man,” she said.
“Yes, he was.” He started to cry.
She leaned closer to the body. “Goodbye, Neal. Please wait for me on the other side.” She kissed his forehead.
Then Glenda leaned over and kissed the forehead.
“Goodbye, Daddy,” she said.
Ryan was crying unashamedly, unable to speak. Aunt Norma put out her hand to close the eyes. Then she kissed the forehead again.
“Goodbye, Neal,” she said.
She took Ryan’s arm and led him out of the room.
“I’m very sorry,” said a nurse.
Ryan sat down in the waiting room, taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes. Norma and Glenda left him alone. That was what he needed. He didn’t want anyone to console him or offer to help him. He just needed to be alone for a minute.
A couple came into the room and sat down across from him, arguing quietly about when they needed to leave.
“I need to be getting back to the office,” said the man.
“I think we should stay a little longer.”
She was a good-looking woman, but Ryan couldn’t find any pleasure watching her.
“We’ve already stayed longer than we planned,” he said.
“Then go ahead and go. I’ll get a ride with Dan.”
The man stood up and marched from the room. He was wearing a three-piece suit and his wife an expensive red silk dress. She pulled out a pack of Salems, hesitated, looked around the room, and finally put them back into her purse. Despite her well-manicured, finely-polished nails, her hands were beginning to show her age.
Ryan walked out of the waiting room and down the hall [p.180]to the drinking fountain. The water was warm and he only took one swallow.
He stopped at the rest room. Washing his hands, he stared at himself in the mirror. Uncle Neal was gone, gone completely and forever, and the cold showers after shearing, and the canoe rides on the Snake and the drinking in West Yellowstone were also gone. He had known for years that none of those things would happen again. So why did he feel so helpless now?
A man was sitting in the waiting room talking to Aunt Norma and Glenda.
“This is Bishop Cline,” Glenda said.
He and Ryan shook hands.
“I’m glad to meet you, Ryan. I understand you and Neal were quite close.”
A minute later the bishop went to call the funeral home. They had decided to have the funeral on Saturday.
Aunt Norma was looking much better. She said she’d be back as soon as she put on some make-up.
Ryan looked at the magazines. Was Joan Collins really fifty? Who was leading the Mets to their best season in years? How could you get tickets to the Victory Tour?
He dug into his wallet for his father’s telephone number and went over to the pay phone. Eleanor answered.
“This is Ryan. Is Dad there?”
“Yes, Ryan, just a minute.”
“Dad, this is Ryan. I’m at the hospital in Idaho Falls—”
“How is Neal doing?”
“He passed away.”
“Oh—I was afraid of that. He’s gone.”
“They’re having the funeral Saturday. There in Menan.”
He could hear Clark talking with Eleanor.
[p.181]“You tell Norma we’ll be there for the funeral, Ryan.”
“Okay. That’s good. I think it’s important to her.”
“Ryan,” said Clark, “did you have the chance to talk to Neal before he died?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I was planning on corning out. I wanted to see Neal before he died.”
“I don’t think he ever regained consciousness once he had the stroke,” said Ryan.
“Well, you tell Norma we’ll be there for the funeral. I appreciate your calling. I know it isn’t easy. I remember I couldn’t make any phone calls … when your mother died.”
“I know, Dad, I’ll see you Saturday.”
He and Aunt Norma and Glenda went to Wood Funeral Home with Bishop Cline. The place had been completely remodeled since Ryan’s mother died. A viewing was set for Friday evening with another one Saturday morning right before the funeral. Aunt Norma was having a viewing despite Uncle Neal’s wishes against it. You couldn’t fault her for that. A family prayer would follow the second viewing, then the funeral, then the drive to the cemetery for the dedication of the grave.
They got back to the house late in the afternoon. Going through the garage, Ryan saw Uncle Neal’s fly rod, reel, and fly collection. Then his coffee mug sitting on the counter and his ash tray on the table, his empty beer bottles in the corner. Then his issues of Field and Stream in the magazine rack, his glasses on the bookcase. The pictures on the wall showed Neal and Norma and the girls at Disneyland; Neal fishing near Pond’s Lodge; Neal, Clark, and Ryan at the trailhead on their way into the Wind Rivers.
Ryan could remember Norma taking that picture, telling them to have a good time. He felt lonely for her as she walked back to the pickup alone.
[p.182]Norma went into her room, where she would see Neal’s clothes, his comb, brush, pipe, and a thousand other objects to remind her of the finality of things.
What did you do with a person’s objects when he died?
You could only keep a few. Most of them you would have to give away, or sell, or put in the garage.
Ryan sat heavily on the couch, Glenda in her mother’s chair.
“Thanks for everything you’ve done today, Ryan.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve done much, though. At the hospital it was Aunt Norma helping me.”
“It has helped her tremendously to have you here.”
“I hope so.”
“Will you be able to stay tonight?”
He looked at his watch. “Oh, I don’t think so. I need to be to work in the morning.”
“I hope you can have a safe trip back to Salt Lake.”
They sat in the room not speaking, the hard evening sun shining in Ryan’s eyes. All he had to do was adjust the venetian blinds, but he didn’t have the energy. He wasn’t capable of walking to the blinds, driving his car, or even crying. He just wanted to close his eyes and let his head fall back on the couch.
Glenda, dry-eyed most of the afternoon, started to cry. He should have done something—spoken a compassionate word, put his hand on her shoulder, but he was too exhausted. After a moment she walked into the kitchen. Then someone knocked at the front door. Ryan answered it.
“I was so sorry to hear of Neal’s passing,” said the woman.
“I’m from the Relief Society, and I’ve brought in some dinner.”
“We appreciate that. I’m Ryan Masterson.”
“You must be Neal’s nephew.”
“Didn’t you live with Neal and Norma at one time?”
“Yes, about twenty years ago.”
He helped her carry the food into the kitchen.
[p.183]“Oh, Sister Wells,” said Glenda. They embraced, both of them crying.
He walked back into the living room, sat down in the sun, and started to cry, crying for his mother, who had died so young. He remembered how Rose’s mother had brought in food from the Relief Society that night and shared his sorrow.
Norma must have heard the talking. She came out of her room. She and Glenda and Sister Wells cried. They all loved each other. That was the only thing that could help you at a time like this. It was useless to tell a person that the departed had lived a good life, or that there would be reunions beyond the veil, or that death was a trial of faith. If you had no one to love you, you had no consolation. That was why Rose’s mother had saved him. And he hadn’t seen her since 1964. It was a cheat. Who could tell you life was fair when you had to lose people you loved?
But then who had ever claimed fairness had anything to do with anything?
Miles was probably out looking for a job. Ross was worried about the project Ryan was working on. Aunt Norma could sit at the viewing if she wished. No, she wanted to stand. Neal always walked softly into the flock to pick out the next sheep for shearing. The bookmark in his Field and Stream didn’t mean a thing any more. In the last twenty years Rose’s mother had probably taken hundreds of casseroles to families, giving love to sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers. The Mets had lost three in a row, the Sports Illustrated cover already dated. It took five hours to get home if you drove the speed limit.
You lived out a life full of events that had nothing to do with each other. And none of it had anything to do with fairness. But you played along and pretended things were just how they were supposed to be. By going back to the office he would reveal his willingness to playa game that made no sense at all.
[p.184]Ross was a rationalist, claiming that cause and effect ruled the universe. That showed how much he knew.
Norma tried to get him to stay but he told her he had to go.
“I have a favor to ask,” she said. “I’d like very much for you to give Neal’s life history at the funeral.”
“Well—I—I’d be honored. Of course, I’ve never spoken in a Mormon church before.”
“Don’t you worry about that. I’m sure that you’ll do just fine.”
“Okay. I appreciate your asking me.”
“Neal was never much for keeping a history,” she said. “But I kept a Book of Remembrance for him. I thought it might be helpful to you.”
She handed him a long, thick blue binder.
“Thank you, Aunt Norma. I’ll be back late Friday or early Saturday.”
“That will be fine. And please bring your family.”
“I’ll see if I can.”
He drove into Idaho Falls, parking near the temple, where he could see the river. He picked up the book Norma had given him. The opening page was in her handwriting. “Neal and his brother Clark grew up on a farm in Hibbard, Idaho, and had a very happy childhood there. It was eighty acres, and the Teton River flowed through their pasture. They both learned to swim in that river and taught their children to swim at early ages.”
The Teton River. He had been seven or eight years old one summer when he hiked down into the pasture with his dad and Uncle Neal. It was a clear, hot day. When they reached the river, Neal suggested they take a swim.
“But we don’t have any swimming suits,” said Clark.
“We never needed ’em when we were kids,” said Neal.
Clark smiled. “I guess we didn’t.”
[p.185]Neal had already started to take off his shirt. “C’mon, Ry’,” he said. “We’re going in.”
Laughing, Ryan started to take off his shoes. “With no clothes?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Neal, taking off his tee-shirt and shorts. “Last one in’s a rotten egg.” With that, he took a flying leap into the nver.
The Teton started near the Wyoming border, flowing north, past the mountain range, then west, to Rexburg, where it joined Henry’s Fork, ran through Hibbard and turned south, merging with the Snake just out of Menan.
Ryan got out of the car. It was almost dark. He walked to the bank and stared at the water. Behind him was the hospital, where Neal had died, and the temple, where Rose had wanted to take him.
He stood there listening to the river. When he came up for the funeral he might stop and see Rose’s parents. They probably lived in the same house on 14th Street. Rose’s dad still wouldn’t like him, but it would be worth it to see Mrs. Richards.
He dismissed the idea just as quickly as he thought of it. Rose might be there, and he didn’t want to see Rose. He didn’t want to meet her children and shake hands with her husband.
Aunt Norma had been right: it was better that he and Rose hadn’t gotten married. But they had loved each other; no one could deny that. It had been a lot more than kissing in the car. It had been Rose returning some of his best serves, always remembering his birthday, asking him to be careful when he took canoe trips with Uncle Neal, helping him with Latin. It had been Rose holding his hand at the hospital when they got the news about his mother, sitting with him at the funeral.
They had loved each other, had wanted to have children together and spend the rest of their lives with each other. So [p.186]how was it that they had resolved to never see each other again? Maybe Ross was philosopher enough to make sense of that, but Ryan never would.
He drove to a pay phone and called Catherine.
“Uncle Neal died, didn’t he?” she asked.
“I’ve just had a feeling all day long. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing okay. I’m coming home now.”
“It’s getting late. Are you sure you want to?”
He told her he would be careful. Then he drove across the Broadway Bridge and past the Westbank for a last look at the river before heading home.