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Going the Distance (A 500-Word Memoir Contest Finalist)
by Clifford Garstang
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Summoned home, I made the long trip twice for death: Singapore to Indianapolis.

The first time, my mother called.

"Your father's passed away," she said. After decades of pitched battles, I wondered why she'd euphemize. But she'd endured a lifetime of bereavement: three wars and one lost love, two parents and an infant, departed aunts and uncles. That's how the news came in our family—detached, cold.

I told friends, and they materialized, needing to offer comfort. I told my boss, rearranged meetings, packed.

The flight through Tokyo and Chicago was a familiar blur, with hours to ponder. How many times had I made the journey? Fifteen? More? There was the '70s Peace Corps stint in Asia. It wasn't distance that troubled my father then. He spat labels (pinko, commie) and bemoaned my wasted education. Distance, though, was the attraction, as it would be years later when a plum posting to Singapore emerged. Twelve time zones: as far away as I could get.

The arrangements had all been made. Becky, of my parents' three children the one who had not strayed far, had been saddled over the years with hospital stays, oxygen tanks, and assisted-living placement when my father's needs overwhelmed my mother. Now this. A nurse, she handled everything professionally, detached. Her way of imposing distance when there were no miles to depend on. Kathy came, too, from two states away, unable to refuse when I had traveled so far.

The second time, four years later, Becky called. She'd phoned occasionally during the preceding months with each motherly crisis, each hospital visit. This was different.

"No time to spare," she swore.

I'd made maybe 20 trans-Pacific flights since the last death trip, but few family visits, the gulf as vast as ever despite my mother's appeals. Unlike my father, who had pushed me away, making my choice to live on the other side of the planet simple, my mother had grasped too tight. She alone in the family expected hugs and kisses, while the rest of us settled for a stiff embrace. She alone had offered encouragement and praise, balanced against meek complaints over dwindling letters and calls. Between the pushing and the pulling, though, the pushing had clearly won.

The hospital room was dark, starkly antiseptic, ticking machines glowing biliously. Our mother lay comatose, tubed. Becky directed me to sit bedside, then receded into shadows. Duty nurses nodded approvingly when she whispered, "My brother."

I took my mother's hand, anticipating a response to my presence in the only way her devitalized body would allow: squeezing my fingers. But, no. An hour went by. Did her hand grow cold, or did I imagine that? And then the machines told us she was gone.

"She waited for her son," the nurse said.

The distance was more than a matter of miles. The mournful journey home, back to Singapore, with the road behind me furling cartoonishly, was a trip begun long ago.

Clifford Garstang holds an MA in English and a JD from Indiana University and an MFA. from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, The Ledge and elsewhere. He currently lives near Staunton, Virginia.  He blogs at Perpetual Folly.
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Comments panel
Mary Akers 10.10.2007
Wow. Very powerful essay.
Katrina Denza 10.10.2007
Man, that's a powerful piece. So much packed into so few words. Well done, Cliff.
Kay Sexton 10.10.2007
The value of any memoir is in its truth; this is strong stuff, but utterly compelling. Kudos.
Carla Gericke 10.10.2007
Tragic and telling. Wonderful and insightful, and in so little words.
T. J. Forrester 10.10.2007
Nice piece, Cliff.
Mitzi McMahon 10.10.2007
Wonderful and moving. Nice work, Cliff.
Dorothy Hassan 10.10.2007
Tears in my eyes, wondering why we always leave it too late.
Karen McBryde 10.10.2007
totally intense, the way a concentrated narrative should be, you delivered the very essence of contrasting/conflicting lifelong relationships in 500 words, especially liked, "Between the pushing and the pulling, though, the pushing clearly won," and "the road behind me furling cartoonishly"
Mike 10.10.2007
Man. That's good.
Linera Lucas 10.10.2007
Stunning, concise, moving.
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