Afterlifeby Aida Zilelian
My knees stung from the sharpness of the cold wind as we waited for the car. I helped my mother into the front seat and sat in the back of the car with Effie sitting stiffly next to me. Margo was driving. No one spoke as Margo drove down the block and towards the highway. We were uncharacteristically early, which was a great relief to me. My mother, either oblivious or indifferent to her tendency of making people wait, was mindful to get dressed and ready on time. During the fourteen years of my father’s illness, she claimed that he was always the cause of her lateness. It didn’t matter where she was headed - the pharmacy, a doctor’s appointment or a birthday gathering – she didn’t leave the house until half an hour after she was supposed to have arrived somewhere. Today there could be no excuse. We were going to bury my father.
I was grateful that my mother had decided not to drag out the whole affair. Yesterday was the wake and today was the service and burial. It had been hard enough to endure Effie’s silence yesterday, and I could not imagine tolerating it for the traditional three-day wake that was the Orthodox Christian custom.
When we walked into the funeral home the seats were mostly full. I saw the same faces from the day before. There were also others less familiar, who I guessed I had known from childhood but hadn’t seen in years. The first row had been reserved for us, and we walked slowly towards the front. My mother stood in front of the closed casket and made the sign of the cross. Perched on the far end of the casket was a picture of my father before he had had his stroke. It was the day of his surprise fiftieth birthday party. The photograph had been taken right after he had walked through the doors of the church reception hall where it had been held. He was wearing a navy blue pinstriped suit. His eyes shined with amusement. His smile reflected that of a person who was truly surprised.
My mother sat in the first seat, and I sat next her, followed by Margo and then Effie. I felt Margo put her hand over mine, her fingers still cold from the outside chill. From the corner of my eye I saw Effie’s face, impassive, with no trace of yesterday’s sudden hysterics. I wondered if she had taken the pill my mother had tried giving her yesterday.
A few months back I had come home from work and overheard my mother on the phone. At first, the conversation sounded as if she was speaking with a solicitor of some sort. Her voice was steady and polite.
“Yes I do,” she said. “Yes…..I remember. I understand what you’re saying.” Then there was a pause. “I’m sorry but I can’t do that. Well, he keeps his accordion in his room. And once in a while he asks me to pick it up and put it on his lap so he can play it. His right hand is still good, you know, and he’s a righty…. I can’t put him on the phone now. He’s sleeping.” I could hear the sound of the television from my father’s room. “Goodbye.” There was a resignation in the tone of her voice when she hung up the phone.
“Hi,” I said, as if I had just walked in. “Who was it?”
“On the phone? Dori’s sister calling long distance.” It was startling to see how smoothly she had lied without hesitation. The idea of my father wanting to play the accordion was absurd. His pastimes were reduced to sleeping and watching T.V.
I received a phone call from Margo that night.
We exchanged a few words about how our week was going. I sensed there was something pressing about her reason for calling.
“Does Dad keep his accordion in his room?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s somewhere in a case in the basement. Why?”
She sighed. “I hate telling you these things,” she said. “I remember that after my mom left Dad, he complained to me about her for years. It made me feel awful. So if you’re not comfortable with this conversation let me know.” She stopped for a moment. “Effie would have called herself, but she’s too upset. And she doesn’t know I’m calling you,” she added.
Effie would have never called me about anything. Both Margo and I knew that. Margo had told me years ago that Effie resented me for displacing her as the youngest in the family. It was irrational, of course, but all the same she had always kept her distance from me. “She was also Dad’s favorite,” Margo confided. “And they don’t have the same closeness. It’s been hard for her.”
Margo and Effie are the daughters from my father’s previous marriage. Shortly after the divorce, my father remarried and I was born soon after that. I had once heard a rumor that my father had remarried quickly at the behest of his mother, who felt scandalized by the fact that his first wife had abandoned both my father and her. Supposedly, he was still in love with her at the time.
“Did she call my mom the other day? I overheard a conversation about an accordion.”
“Yes,” she said, sounding relieved. “She has memories of Dad playing the accordion for us when we were little. She wanted to borrow it and figure out a few songs and play it for him as a surprise.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Kind of random, though.”
I wasn’t being unkind. Effie rarely visited since our father’s stroke. The holidays were the few exceptions she made, passing by for an hour or so. I assumed it was to relieve her conscience.
“I know. But she’s trying,” Margo said. “I’m sure you gathered from the conversation that your mother told her she couldn’t borrow it.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why?” Margo asked. Her voice was sharp now, hostile.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Well, if keeping that accordion to herself is going to make her happy, then let her have it,” she said. “And I told Effie the same thing. But I know her, and she’s not going to let it go. We both know it’s not about the goddamn accordion.”
As usual, I was embarrassed by my mother’s bizarre behavior. I could not account for any of it. Even before my father’s stroke she was obsessively private, oddly paranoid. If we were ever to take a trip upstate to our vacation house, she would instruct me to never tell anyone. If she unexpectedly needed to fly to Florida to check in on a tenant in one of the condos we owned, I would hear her lying about her whereabouts if people asked. One time the two of us took a two-week vacation to Italy together and she made sure Dori, her helper, didn’t answer the phone. It was easier to avoid questions rather than invent lies, and she didn’t trust Dori to do the latter properly anyway.
Sitting there, listening to Father Gregory give the sermon, I thought about my mother and the freedom I had imagined for her after this moment. Aside from Dori, a Hungarian woman, who had lived in the house with us during most of the years during my father’s illness, my mother had been his sole caretaker. The stroke had paralyzed his left side and he had never recovered. I knew the speculations circulating among our friends and the church community; they faulted my mother for indulging all of my father’s stubborn desires. He insisted on returning home from the hospital months before his physical therapy treatments had been administered, and she had allowed it. She fed him his meals instead of encouraging him to feed himself. She sent away countless physical therapists from the house because he wasn’t in the mood to be disturbed. Eventually, he stayed in bed most of the time and was propped up in bed by my mother so he could eat or watch television. Never once do I recall him sitting in his wheelchair.
A close family friend told me once, “You know what they say about someone who wasn’t sick a day in his life: when you fall, you fall hard.” This grim assessment of my father’s condition was no comfort, and worse still was the knowledge of the type of man he was before this all happened.
During the many years of his self-imposed confinement, I realized that my father had been more active than the typical one. When we went to the beach in the summer he would carry our belongings to the sand, and then run towards the ocean, leaving us behind to set up the blankets and the large umbrella. He’d return almost an hour later and help us build elaborate sandcastles and fortresses. He made a sled one winter and pulled me through mounds of snow and then packed the snow to build snowmen. Upon returning home on Sundays after church he would change into his work clothes and pull weeds in the backyard, trim bushes and mow the lawn. I was his helper then; he swept the debris into a large Hefty bag while I held it open. I miss the simplicity of those afternoons and of my willingness to help him. I miss being young enough to know better than to question his character. I will always wonder what made him surrender himself to the new life he had succumbed to.
“Who wants to play a game of volleyball?” he would often ask when setting up the net at the house he had bought in the Catskills Mountains. My sisters, teenagers at the time, usually declined, and I would find myself standing behind the net with him as he taught me how to serve the ball. Maybe they thought it was corny to play volleyball with him. Maybe they were spiting him for re-marrying and confusing their lives even further after the divorce. I don’t know.
The same cold wind from the morning whipped through the cemetery as we stood around the casket. There were many people huddled together, some of them forced to stand barely within earshot of the ceremony. None of us cried; we had been waiting for the inevitability of this moment. It was incredible to imagine that he had lived such an insular life for so long; I don’t know what had sustained him. I watched him being lowered into the earth and thought of him wearing his pinstriped suit.
On the way back home Effie turned her back to me and stared out the window, as if searching for something amidst the scenery of the trees and gray winter sky. My mother and Margo were discussing the details of what needed to be done once we were home, because family and friends were coming to pay their respects. I chimed in that I would help, and was relieved to have something to do. I wanted to avoid Effie. I dreaded a continuation of yesterday’s outburst. When she entered the house she had collapsed on the kitchen floor, as if suddenly the floor had spun out from beneath her or all the bones in her body had liquefied. Margo had been there to lift her up and help her onto the living room couch. I stood frozen in the kitchen, her violent sobs like jolts of electricity running through me.
“I loved him more than any of them,” she almost screamed. Her words struck me. All the years I had been around Effie, she seemed so contained, so removed and indifferent to all of us. I envied Margo and yet felt spared. She had an inherent quality that drew all of us to confide in her, and yet the burden of that role seemed equally tiring.
That evening, after Margo and Effie left, I was sitting with my mother in the living room. We were watching a game show. She muted the television.
“They’re going to come to me asking about the will and your father’s belongings,” she said. At first, I wasn’t sure who she was referring to.
“Margo and Effie?” I asked.
“Who else?” she said. She sighed and leaned her head back on the couch.
I wasn’t sure what to say. My mother never discussed the family’s finances with me. It was a mystery how we had lasted this long with no income.
“Why can’t they have some of his things?” I asked innocently. I felt guilty for wanting to bait her into talking about the accordion, but was too curious to contain myself.
“Because they are his,” she said simply, as if ending the discussion.
“But I’m sure they would like something to remember him by,” I said.
“Who does?” she asked, and sat up abruptly. “Effie? Is this about the accordion? Did she call you and ask you about it? That’s his accordion.”
“I don’t know about the accordion. But he was their father and they should have something to remember him by,” I repeated, hoping the words would penetrate.
“They had him for years before you and I came along!” she said, pounding her fist into the couch. It made a soft tap against the fabric. “And she still had him for years after that.”
I didn’t know who ‘she’ was. I guessed it was Margo and Effie’s mother.
“In his heart,” she said, reading my mind, tapping her fingers to her chest. “And I took care of him. I took care of him for almost as long as they had been married. Finally it’s all mine. Ours,” she added.
I thought of what Margo had said to me on the phone about my mother keeping the accordion and it making her happy. I wanted to tell her that my mother wasn’t happy, and hadn’t been happy for a long time.
We had just finished setting out the food when the doorbell rang. As my mother had anticipated, there was a small crowd that almost immediately flooded into the house. I spent most of the first hour collecting people’s coats and making sure there were enough folding chairs for them. My mother and Margo refilled drinks and made sure no serving plates on the table went empty. I guessed this custom was also for the grieving family; it offered a helpful distraction after such a somber day. It pleased me to see our home filled with so many people who had known my father.
As the hours passed I wondered for how long they would all stay. While I made my way to the kitchen I heard a little gasp coming from the dining room. My mother called me over.
“Can you go to the spare bedroom and see if we have another of those cotton table cloths? Someone spilled soda. It should be in the linen drawer.”
I guessed people were not planning on leaving as soon as I had hoped. I walked into the spare room and turned on the light.
“How’s it going out there?”
I jumped. Effie was sitting on a lounge chair in the far end of the room. Next to her was a table lamp that was turned on.
“Fine,” I said. I rummaged through the linen drawer hoping to find the tablecloth and leave the room as soon as possible. I became more frantic in my search, unable to control my hands as I sifted through the layers of neatly ironed stacks.
“You can’t wait to get the hell away from me, can you?” she asked.
I turned to her. She was wearing a black dress and tall black-heeled boots. She had pulled back her long hair and it was tied in a sloppy bun. Her brown eyes seemed larger and clearer than I had ever seen them.
“Can you blame me?” I said, my facing burning with the boldness of my honesty.
“I guess not,” she said, unsurprised.
“I know Margo called you,” she said. “About the conversation I had with your mother.”
“Yes,” I said. “I can’t do anything about it.”
I was annoyed at her for choosing this moment to bring up something so petty that could be dealt with later. The stubbornness of her will made her horrible outburst from the day before seem dramatic and most of all, orchestrated.
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” she said flatly. “It’s the only goddamn thing of his that I want. And I don’t plan on coming back here.”
I thought she would say “ever” to punctuate her sentence. She was tragic-seeming that way. I expected she was trying to manipulate me.
“It won’t make much of a difference, really,” I said. “It’s not like I’ve ever seen much of you.”
“He used to play that accordion for us when Margo and I were little,” she said. “I’m sure she told you that as well.” I didn’t say anything. “I would like to add,” she said, and her voice started to quiver, “that it was because I loved who he was to us then that I couldn’t bear to see what he had become. What she had allowed him to become,” she said. I could feel the venom in her throat. “It was so convenient for her once he got sick.... to allow him to stay that way. Then she could have all the control, despite the burden of taking care of him, having all the control was what she wanted. And – ” she broke off, her words coming out in short bursts, “all I want….. is that goddamned accordion!” The tears spilled from her eyes and she didn’t bother wiping them away. I could barely look at her. “I keep thinking of him playing…… and Margo and me…. dancing circles around him, laughing like two innocent fools. What the hell did we know then?”
I walked out. I could hear her muffled crying continue as I walked down the hallway.
I ran into Margo as I headed towards the kitchen, realizing I was returning empty-handed. She gave me a questioning look. I shook my head and kept walking.
“Where is Margo?” my mother asked when she saw me.
“In the bathroom,” I said. “I don’t know.” And before she thought of asking or looking herself I added, “The tablecloth wasn’t there.”
She let out a breath. “It’s just as well. It seems like everyone is leaving.”
I wanted the day to be over. The ceremonious show of it all had begun to unnerve me, and I wanted to be alone.
After everyone left, my mother went to bed while Margo and I did the rest of the cleaning. I didn’t ask where Effie was, but knew they weren’t staying the night.
“She’s just upset,” Margo said, reading my thoughts. “I told her to lie down on the sofa in the spare room until I was ready to leave. Will you be okay with the rest of this?”
“Sure,” I said.
I had no desire to talk about Effie or my mother or my father even. The finality of everything crept over me, and I felt a sudden relief.
“I’ll tell Effie to warm up the car,” she said.
When she left the room I went downstairs to the basement. As a child I always found each room to be mysterious, filled with unusual collections of things that were old and misplaced. The pantry was filled with canned food, and in a small box were two pairs of ice skates, most likely Margo’s and Effies, a cardboard box filled with buttons, and a bag of dolls, which were also my sisters’. The laundry room, which smelled strongly of soap, had plastic bins of clothes sealed and stacked against the wall. There was the kitchen, which was devoid of any unexpected oddities, where my mother still fried food to keep the smell from the upstairs area. My father had built the kitchen when he had married his first wife. There was even a sitting area with a television. And all the way in the back was another room where my father kept his things. I had found a locker years ago, and in it was his army suit and a collection of records dating back to the fifties and sixties.
It was that room that I went in. I had forgotten how musty it was. I stood in the darkness grazing my hand along the wall until I found the light switch. I saw the case almost immediately. It was as I had remembered it. It was cumbersome in size – large and black, the leather old and cracked. When I lifted the accordion, it almost fell out; I had taken for granted that the case was latched. The inside was also worn and lined with a deep red velvet material. The accordion itself seemed to be in good condition considering it was probably thirty years old, if not more. When I pressed one of the keys, it emitted a low sigh.
Although I wasn’t even born yet and had never seen him play the accordion, I imagined Margo and Effie as children dancing in the living room and my father sitting in his armchair with the accordion strapped to his chest, smiling and playing, the innocence of their youth captured in a reverie of time.
I realized I had to clasp the latches and carry it upstairs without my mother hearing. Once it was in my arms I went slowly up the stairs, hoping she couldn’t hear the creaking floorboards from her bedroom. I wasn’t sure if Margo had left, but I opened the front door and felt the frigid air hit my face. When I saw Margo’s car double-parked outside of the house, I started to run. It was a clumsy race to the door of the backseat. Effie was sitting in the front.
I rapped at her window quickly, trying not to drop the case I was balancing on one arm. She turned and looked at me, startled and annoyed.
“Open the back door,” I said, huffing. If it wasn’t the weight of the accordion or the cold air that was rattling me, it was my nerves.
“What the hell is that?” she said, and clicked the automatic lock.
I opened the door and carefully placed the accordion behind her seat on the floor of the car. I was terrified my mother would come out and easily spot it on top of the backseat.
“What is that?” she asked again.
“It’s the accordion,” I said, and left.
Margo was leaving the house as I ran back.
“I was looking for you,” she said. “Where did you go?”
“Just to say goodbye to Effie,” I said. Remembering what she had said about never coming back to see us, only I understood the gravity of my words.
I gave her a quick hug and went inside.
Usually at this time I would hear the sound of the television from my father’s bedroom. I thought about my father and how he had been bed-ridden for all those years. Before his illness he had seemed a man of lion proportions, leaving all of us with the illusion that he was invincible. Before he died he had barely been able to sit up on his own and didn’t speak much. I don’t know if it was because he refused to communicate or was no longer able to. In truth, I had prayed for him to be released from his life because I knew that for him it was not worth living. I felt that I had betrayed my mother. I knew she was sleeping. The house was still.