A Play About A Discomfort in Death
By Anne-Marie Keppel
Sam pulls her Mercedes up in front of the cabin and kills the engine. She sits in the driveway listening to the car’s small sounds as the engine cools after the long trip. She hasn’t been home for 20 years. She hasn’t seen her parents in 20 years. She hasn’t missed this cabin for– well, she has never even liked this cabin so she definitely did not miss it after she walked out the door the day of high school graduation.
She looks at the smoke billowing from the chimney and notes that the porch has aged. It looks filthy and she thinks all of a sudden that she should have worn different clothes. Inside the cabin there is one light on over the kitchen table. She knows her father knows she pulled in the driveway. Seeing as they have exactly zero visitors that come to this house he could have heard the car at the bottom of the driveway a quarter mile away.
Sam thumps her thumbs on the steering wheel– now would have been a very good time to have a cigarette had she not quit two months ago. Inside her mother was dying. Her father had written to her last week. Written an actual handwritten letter to her which arrived in the physical mail. She almost chucked it along with the other junk mail but a small part of her guessed the letter contained news that she would have to deal with. News that would disrupt her routine. She had received a similar letter from her father three months prior stating that her mother was getting weak and that if she wanted to see her she should come home soon. So, this second letter meant that things had progressed. She didn’t go home three months ago– it was complex. Her life was complex, her feelings complex, her parents were– simple. They never changed. They lived in their two bedroom cabin, kept to themselves, enjoyed their slow, home-maker lifestyle– the kind of simplicity that drove Sam nuts. The kind of life that she ran from the moment she had the chance.
[Sam sees her father finally stand and stare out the window]
[She grabs her coat and purse, slides her phone into her back pocket and opens the car door grabbing the keys]
Sam: My god it’s freezing.
[Sam crosses the driveway, steps onto the creaky porch and knocks twice. When her father does not open the door she cracks it open and then steps in over the threshold]
Father: You don’t need to lock your car here.
Sam: Yeah, it’s just automatic… [Hangs her coat over the other coats on the hook by the door]
Sam’s movements are stiff as she is overcome by the smells of the house that she grew up with. It smelled like a mixture of cedar wood smoke, oatmeal and small hints of various kinds of oils. She has no idea what to do with herself while her father is stirring something on the stove– she realizes it’s oatmeal. Of course it is.
Father: I figured you’d be hungry after that drive. I made you some–
Sam: Oatmeal. [Smiles stiffly]
Sam watches her father move around the kitchen pulling out the butter, cream and maple syrup, all of which she knows her father has made himself. He looked old. He had aged more than the house had. He was limping and one side of his face drooped slightly.
[Her father puts two bowls of oatmeal on the table and indicates that she should sit and eat]
Sam: I see you got electricity…
[Her father does not answer]
Sam: Mom must have been psyched about that, huh?
Father: You were here when we got electricity.
Sam: No I wasn’t. There definitely was no electricity here when I was growing up.
Father: We got electricity when you were in ninth grade. You said you needed to do homework at night and the lanterns were not bright enough.
[Sam catches her breath, freezing with the spoon midway to her mouth]
Sam: I… yeah, I guess you’re right. I… it wasn’t that I couldn’t see my homework it was that I was embarrassed. I mean, not like I ever had anyone over but–
Father: I know.
[Awkward silence while they eat]
Sam: So, mom’s in bed?
Sam: I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner… I didn’t feel prepared so I…
Sam: I took a death doula training…
Father: A what now?
Sam: [Smiling, embarrassed] A death doula training. So that I could understand what mom is going through. Like, what I’m supposed to do. Or like what you’re supposed to do. I don’t know anyone who has died before.
Father: Sure you do.
Sam: I’m pretty sure I’d remember if I had seen a dead person.
Father: Your aunt Mads died here when you were ten years old. You gave her sponge baths every day for a month. You read to her when she couldn’t get out of bed and you put flowers all over her body when she died.
[The spoon accidentally fell out of Sam’s hand and clanked loudly on the bowl as the memory flooded back.]
Sam: Wow. I… I forgot about that.
Father: There might be a lot of things you forgot about.
[Thick heavy silence]
Father: Like how much your mother and I loved you. Doted on you.
Sam: [awkward whispering] No, dad, I… I remember that…
Father: But, do you Snow? Do you really?
[Sam flinches at the sound of the name]
Sam: Dad, I don’t go by that name any more… [her voice tapers off]
Sam’s father puts down his spoon, dropping both heavy elbows on the table and rubbing his temples and eyes with his thick age-worn knuckles. Suddenly his shoulders are vibrating, jerking, as he silently sobs.
Sam’s eyes fill with tears and she suddenly feels as if she is a child again. Struggling with a fluttering stomach, she feels nauseous. She made her father cry. She didn’t recall ever seeing her father cry and yet… she’s not so sure she remembers anything clearly right now. How could she have forgotten such big events from her childhood? The only memories of growing up that she rotated in her mind were ones of embarrassment, hand-made clothing she had to wear to school and lunches that didn’t look like everyone else’s. She had never tasted a Twinkie or watched TV but she could help birth a lamb, heal thrush on a horse and tell which direction a storm was coming from even before the cows did. She could gather honey and make a candle from their wax. And… she could sing. Her father used to tell her that she sang like a songbird. But she hated those things when she was in middle school. And by the time she was in high school she could hardly stand her parents– they represented total failure to her. She was smart enough, and pretty enough and as soon as she got out of this town she was going to make money. And lots of it. And she did. She got everything she wanted. So, then why was she feeling so empty right now?
[Sam stands up from the table and brings her dish to the sink]
Sam: Can I see mom?
Father: Let me clean up here and make myself some tea. We’ll both go in together.
[Sam nods and walks slowly to her old bedroom across from the kitchen. She pulls the long braided chain attached to the lightbulb]
Sam: Wow, dad, you guys left this exactly the same, huh?
[Dishes clanking in background]
[Sam marvels at the books on every wall. She never realized that her bedroom was actually a library. She looks at the handmade quilt on the bed and huffs out a little sentimental laugh.]
Sam: [speaking loudly enough that she hopes her dad hears her] This quilt brings back memories. Gosh, mom’s stitches are so even. It looks like a sewing machine did it, but we know better!
Sam sits on the bed which creaks under her weight. Did it always creak so much or is that just because she weighs more now? She bounces a couple of times. She looks up at her Jane Austen collection and pulls down Jane Eyre; she cracks it open and takes a deep breath. It smells the same. She flips the pages to the front and runs her thumb over the autograph. She had forgotten. Her parents had given her the entire collection– autographed first edition. She reshelves the book and takes out Charles Dicken’s autographed A Christmas Carol and holds it to her chest. Her favorite.
Clutching the book she moves to her closet. She takes out a small dress that is hanging there. She remembered wearing it– when she was about six or so. She remembered the blue being brighter… but she had never realized that the pockets were embroidered so beautifully. Happy blue jays were splashing in puddles on the two front pockets and tiny pink and yellow flowers and green embroidered grass lined the bottom.
She was engrossed in her memories of wearing her mother’s handmade designs and didn’t hear her father cross to her room.
She hangs the dress back up and glances at a box on the floor- a box of photographs and artwork from when she was a child she realizes. She follows her father out of the room.
Outside the wind has picked up and is rattling some of the windows. Sam lays A Christmas Carol on a table next to the woodstove and wraps her arms around her shoulders and holds them there. She is suddenly aware of how heavy her body is. Like she has to make a conscious effort to put one foot in front of the other as she crosses the room. She’s not sure if she’s cold or if she’s scared.
Her father stops outside of the closed bedroom door. And turns toward his daughter without looking her in the eyes.
Father: She’s close. I just want to warn you. She’s close.
Father: I expect she’ll be laboring through this storm and then by morning…
Sam: How, how do you know that?
[Wind is howling outside and small bits of hard snow begin to pelt the north windows.]
Father: You know it too. [He looks her in the eyes] It’s time to remember what you know.
Sam stares wide-eyed at her father as he opens the door to the room that is illuminated only by a candle and a small crackling fire. They only used the second fireplace when it was an exceptionally cold night– or if it was a special occasion. Sam thought maybe it was both tonight.
Sam walks to her mother’s side of the bed and instead of sitting in the rocking chair that has been placed there she squats down next to her.
Sam: Mama, it’s me…
Mother: You came… you came…
[Sam begins to cry]
Sam: Yes, mama, I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m here now.
Mother: Oh, my baby… [begins whimpering]
Sam: Mama, please don’t cry. Shhhhh
From the other room the electricity flickers and Sam looks up at her father. He doesn’t seem to notice or care as the electricity goes out. They’re in near total darkness now except for the single burning candle and the fireplace across the room. Outside the bedroom door she can see the flickering of the other fire in the woodstove dancing on the woven rug.
Sam: It’s so quiet.
[Just the fire crackling sounds]
Sam: Dad, what if we need a hospital?
Father: We don’t need a hospital, Snow.
Sam: But is she in pain? Does she need morphine? Do you have any meds for her?
[Her father grunts]
Father: She’s been through labor before. She not only pushed you out without a hospital but she’s helped birth and death every animal that we have had on this property. She’s as much a part of this land as the trees that surround us.
Sam: But, is that what she wants? She doesn’t want any meds?
Mother: [whispering] No… no honey…
Sam: What about you dad, do you want meds? When it’s your time?
Father: No, you’ll not need to worry about that. Your mother and I have woven so deeply to each other and this land, we draw strength from what surrounds us and let the wind take from us what we don’t want. You hear that storm out there? She’s come in to take your mother to her great peace.
Father: We don’t have any fear about death, Snow. I know lots of folks out there in the fastness of the world are afraid to let go of what they have claimed here. But not us. That old oak that fell down last year broke my heart — I thought it might kill me to live here without its companionship. But you know what? Its body is the very thing that is keeping us warm right now. It’s still companioning us. Just in a different energetic form.
You coming home was the only business we needed to finish up and so… thank you… for coming home.
Mother: [barely audible] I love you Snow.
Sam suddenly feels claustrophobic. Like she is in a creepy novel with people who look like her parents but instead of the annoying imbeciles they were supposed to be, they are kind and wise and interesting. And they… love her. Why did their eccentricness make her feel unloved? Had she transferred the feeling of being unloved as a misfit of society and put that on her parents? She’d been gone for 20 years. What had she been doing for 20 years? Sam suddenly feels like she doesn’t know herself. She feels angry and mortified and dizzy and she was feeling it all rise up in her throat.
[She stands up quickly.]
Sam: Excuse me. [Fumbling through the dark she crosses the room to the bathroom and throws herself on to the floor clutching the toilet bowl]
Sam: [Whispering] What the fuck is wrong with me.
Her phone falls out of her back pocket and for the first time since arriving she looks at it. It’s so bright she squints until her eyes adjust. 5:52 pm. No service. It has been pitch black out since she arrived. December 21st in the north is dark. She puts her phone face up on the floor in front of her and stares at it. One elbow still propping up her head on the toilet seat. The image behind the apps is of her standing alongside her new Mercedes dangling the keys. Behind her, the bustling NoHo. She had been so proud. Owning her own car in addition to the bank account and lifestyle she had crafted for herself was her final accomplishment. The screen goes black and she’s pitched into darkness once again.
She begins wondering how old her parents are. She starts thinking about her father saying that her mother will be gone before morning. She tries to remember how old they were when she left. She knows they were old parents– that was abundantly clear and added to her embarrassment that her parents would never be cool in any way. They attended holiday concerts at school but always sat in the back and looked so frumpy. They paid no attention to trends. At least they didn’t smell. She was always glad they didn’t smell like farm but there were certain smells that stuck in Sam’s mind that made her think that others might think they smell. Sam wracked her brain.
Sam: [muttering] How the fuck old are they?
She recalled something about her mother being in her mid forties when she had her and she knew her father was older. My god. Her mother must be in her mid eighties… which would mean her father was older than 90.
Her head began to spin again. She tried recalling the information from the death doula training she had done. She couldn’t remember a single thing from it right now. She wracked her brain. The stages of the dying process… grief… discomforting during caregiving… she couldn’t recall a single helpful thing.
She picks herself up off the floor and checks her phone– temporarily blinded again she sees there’s 20% battery left. Makes absolutely no difference, she thinks. No internet. No cell reception.
She carefully walks back across the dark bathroom into the livingroom and leaves her phone next to the Christmas Carol and walks gently back to her parents room. Each floor board groans its own unique melody and the door adds to the symphony as she enters the firelit room.
Her father is laying in bed next to her mother. They looked so very old.
The room was quiet except for the crackling fire and pings of small hail on the dark windows. Sam couldn’t recall the last time she had heard such silence.
Father: [quietly] Sweetheart, I have tea brewing in the kitchen. Could you bring the cup for me please?
The word sweetheart coming from her father’s mouth tightened her heart. When was the last time someone called her sweetheart? She had been no one’s sweetheart for years now… a decade or more…
[Sam nods and mumbles an acknowledgement]
In the dark kitchen she fumbles around until she finds the matches and lights the candle on the table. She carries it over to the tea and removes its brewing contents leaving it on the counter. It smelled mushroomy and like fresh earth which turned her stomach a little.
Sam: Here dada. [ hands her father the cup]
Father: Why don’t you go sit by the fire Snow. I bet that book you brought out of your room was A Christmas Carol.
Sam: Yes, actually, it was.
Father: We are peaceful here, you’re mother and I. There’s nothing to do and nothing to worry about. Just you being here is the comfort we need.
Sam knew she could not recall anything from her death doula training at present but she was quite sure that her father’s calm, loving sentiments were not the norm in most situations.
[Sam leans over and kisses her mother’s warm forehead.]
Sam: I love you mama.
Father: We love you very much Snow. We have always loved you and been so proud of you.
[Sam’s rush of tears surprise her and she sniffles which sounds very loud in the quiet]
Sam: Thank you dada. I love you too.
Sam gently closes the door and sits in the chair next to the fire and picks up her book. It’s too dark to see the words so she lays a blanket and couch pillow on the floor in front of the fire and props herself up to read by the firelight. She’s relieved to be by herself for a minute. She listens to the wind howling outside. It’s familiar to her like she remembers it and it remembers her… She remembers then that there was a time when she was happy here. She remembers the woodland animals… they were not frightened of her. She remembers her mother saying that they wash their clothing with fresh brook water and natural unscented soap so that they are not strangers in the forest. “The forest smells fresh and clean and like the light and energy that it is!” She recalls her mother saying. “If you want to smell lovely, Snow, pluck a wild rose and put it behind your beautiful little ear!” And then she would tickle her.
Sam drifted then… she let the wind and snow drift her back in time, tumbling over and under and inside out until she found herself seated in front of the old oak that was once the King of this land. And when the tree spoke to her she did not question it.
Oak: Do you know why you were named Snow?
Sam: I… know it had something to do with my birth…
Oak: Indeed. Your birth into this world was a struggle. I witnessed your mother’s cries and moans as the wind howled through my branches. It was very cold that winter. Very very cold with little snow. Your father had used up all of their water stores bathing your mother for the only thing that soothed her was being in a hot tub of water. Jug after jug he boiled on the stove and transferred into the tub. But that meant that there was not much water for drinking and bathing the babe once it was born.
Sam marveled up at the tree. Why did it look so iridescent? So radiant? Like every branch expressed its own little halo. She held up one hand offering it to a low branch and it reached out– receiving her touch.
Oak: Your father prayed for snow to come so that he would not have to make the long trip into the town and leave your mother while she labored. He could sense that the snow was coming, but when, and how much remained unknown. You were born just before sunrise and when your parents looked out upon the morning there was a heavily blanketed field of glistening snow. It had been a long dark night of birthing but it was followed by the warmth of the sun and the gift of snow.
Sam: Yes, I remember that now. They said it was the happiest moment of their life. That the glisten of the sun on the snow matched the shining in my eyes.
Oak: You are remembering. You are remembering all that you were- all that you are. You have made no mistakes Snow. What matters is only where you go from here. You can allow that or fight against it. The choice is yours.
A sunbeam spilling onto Sam’s closed eye lids made her stir. She noticed first that she was cold- the fire had gone out. She noticed next that she was stiff from sleeping on the floor. She noted also that there were no noises coming from her parents room. Good she thought. Let them sleep.
Inspired by her dream talking with the Oak she restarted the fire– impressed that she still remembered how to do it. She tried the lamp to test the electricity even though she was sure that the light that went out last night had never been turned off and it was not on now. Still no electricity.
She grabbed the pot of water that had been boiled last night and hung it over the open fire to get it going again. She sat in front of the fire tending to the little flames until there was a hefty bed of coals. How sweet to be a fire tender she thought. Such careful, slow tending. She rocked back and forth and began humming. She didn’t realize she was doing it for a moment or so and then laughed out through her nose when it dawned on her.
Sam: Ha! [laughs aloud] I haven’t thought of that song for years!
It was in that song that she remembered foraging in the forest when she was little. She was always collecting things. She carried two different baskets. Some things were just for her to play with and make pretend stews and potions and went into one basket. Other things she had been sent out into the forest to gather that her mother cooked and made into delicious meals- those things went into the other basket. She always hummed while she collected and when she returned she and her mother would go through each item and talk about what it was and its medicinal properties or particular gifts.
“Everything has a gift Snow. Poisons can be medicines and medicines can be poisons. It’s all in the usage, intention and dosage.”
Sam suddenly stopped rocking and stared hard into the fire. Her stomach lurched. Her blood suddenly running stone cold she ran, fumbling toward the kitchen to the brew that she had removed from her father’s tea last night. She lifted it to her nose and gagged. She smelled again. Destroying Angel. Funeral Bell. Wolfsbane. She drops the concoction spilling its soggy blend to the counter and floor.
Sam: No. No, no, no, no, no…. No dada, no. Not both of you.
It’s then that she sees a note on the counter with her name on it. She stares at it, unable to move. She can’t touch it. She doesn’t want to move. She doesn’t want to breathe. She doesn’t remember HOW to breathe. She forces herself to grab it and when she does she her movements are as clumsy as the legs of a newborn lamb.
First, I want to thank you for coming home. This was the best gift you could have given your mother and I. We are so very proud of you and all that you have accomplished. Though we would have been glad to see you far more often than we did, know that we are not resentful. Your mother and I each had a rough start to life and did many things that we regretted- but the best decision we ever made was having you. I can tell you now that you should waste no time regretting any decision you have made. The way forward is through love. The only thing that matters is love.
This next part is going to come as a shock. We have never been poor. This is the life we chose to live. You see, both your mother and I had a full life where we made lots of money before we had you– and we still have it. Or, rather, it’s now yours. We could not have given it to you sooner. You needed to grow, push back at us, become your own strong person. Which you did. I don’t believe you would have been happy if we had just given you all the money you could ever desire– and we certainly were not going to change the lifestyle that we chose to live. So, your mother and I decided this was probably the best way for everyone’s lives to unfold. You’re not too much younger than your mother was when she decided to leave her fancy city life and move to the cabin with me. You’ll have the chance now to live how you wish to live. You’re probably learning now, if you haven’t already, that it’s never about the money… although it seems like it. It’s about the space in your mind. It’s about love, feeling love, exchanging love.
Now, on to practical things. I’m 93 Snow so don’t feel like I’m gone too soon. There’s no life for me to live here without your mother. We’ve both had a good and beautiful life. It might feel like a lot to have both of your parents gone at the same time…its going to feel like you’re flailing like a newborn, which in many ways you will be, but don’t fight it. Tend to yourself, tend to nature. Your mother and I were only partially here anyway. Our energy lies within this land, the trees, the wind, the sun…
And, because I’m a practical person I’ve already dug the hole in the back yard facing the mountains. Bury us together. Put the work in– it will feel good. Shovels are in the shed. Your mothers outdoor gear should fit you. The paperwork is already done. I even got our old geezer of a doctor to pre-sign the death certificate. (Best to keep that fact to yourself) Just drop the papers off at the town clerk’s office the next time you go into town.
And our gift to you, Snow, after this long dark night… this is your new birth day. Go look outside…