Death at the Paw Paw Tunnel Melanie Smith / Memoir
Few of us would deny that death is a loss. Sometimes, however, death is a welcome unburdening, and not just because it ends physical pain or infirmity. Death has the power to strip away inauthentic suffering and reveal compelling truths, if we are clear-eyed and brave enough to see them. Then, death is a gift. This is the lesson I learned the year I turned 35. It was the Sunday before President’s Day, the second day of alternating sleet and snow, and the third of single-digit cold. The front yard and driveway of the suburban home I sometimes shared with my boyfriend Kent and his sixth-grade son were a slab of frozen slush. Cabin fever had set in: impromptu wrestling had already toppled a table lamp, and bickering erupted over the suggestion that homework was a suitable way to pass the time. “Duh, Dad!” said the boy hotly. “Ith winter vacation.” I suppressed an affectionate smile at his lisp. “I couldn’t tell,” Kent observed then mocked, “ ‘Theems’ like school’s one continuous vacation for you.” The boy’s ears reddened. “Tomorrow is supposed to warm up,” I interjected to ward off the simmering conflict. “How about we go somewhere?” I found our street address on a creased road map, then penciled in a circle representing a two-hour drive in any direction. “What does this say?” I asked the boy, squinting over my eyeglasses at the fine print. “‘Paw Paw Tunnel’.” He frowned. “Ith that a real name?” A quick internet search revealed that it was indeed real: Paw Paw marked the place where the Potomac River’s historic C&O canal passes through the side of a mountain. “Paw-Paw, Paw-Paw,” the boy began to repeat nonsensically. “I like the way it thounth.” His guileless grin settled the matter. “Paw Paw it shall be.” I glanced at Kent, seeming to nap, his fingers interlaced over his belly. “Should we take a picnic lunch?” There was a long predictable pause. I knew he wasn’t really asleep. “I wish I were a dog,” Kent intoned without opening his eyes. “I could sleep in a sunny place all day, nibble a little food, and sleep some more. Wouldn’t have to do a lick of work.” “I was asking about tomorrow.” “Whatever you like, Sugar,” he drawled without opening his eyes. “I’m too comfortable to move.” Too comfortable to move: That seemed to be how he saw our relationship. Time was running out for me to become a mother, but Kent was adamant about not wanting another child. He had divorced his son’s mother when the boy was ten despite his own born-again-Christian mother’s wishes.
“I know I’m going to hell when I die,” he often joked wryly. “But I should’a never got married. I wasn’t in love.” It didn’t help that the boy resembled Kent’s ex-wife, right down to the prominent lisp, or that she traveled so much for her job that the boy had to live with Kent. Fatherhood seemed like an afterthought, one tinged with guilt and regret. In the beginning I thought I could fix that; perhaps a helpmate would ease the load and make room for contentment. But Kent didn’t need me, not the way his boy so obviously needed a mother. I didn’t know that at first. The unassuming man I met at a lonely-hearts dance had blushed at the softness of my flowered frock and pulled back from our first kiss in surprise, his hazel eyes fluid with light. “Your mouth is exactly the right taste and temperature,” he said with something akin to wonderment. I found his simplicity beguiling, even poetic. But the wonderment was fleeting. I had been thinking for some time about leaving my government job. The required travel was a real time-stealer and I hated the long hours in transit. One afternoon about six months later, I shared my unhappiness and speculated about what I might do if I quit. He sat with his right ankle on his left knee, nursing a beer bottle and staring vacantly out the window. I stopped. “Are you listening to me?” “Sugar, you know by now my brain ticks better when your clothes are off,” he joked. “C’mon over here and give me a little squeeze.” His laconic expressions sounded increasingly trashy, and the sweetness of “Sugar” had soured. But I had seen his tenderness. I knew it was there. For now I would ignore its absence. One Friday night I arrived to find Kent’s house cold and unlit, the refrigerator empty, and the boy holed up in his room. When I knocked he bounded out with a look of anticipation that quickly faded. “Ith my birthday,” he announced, clearly crestfallen. “I thought you were my dad.” My heart broke at the chocolate around his mouth. It was nearly seven o’clock, and he had not eaten dinner. “I guess that means I’m making your birthday meal,” I said lightly. “Wanna help?” When his father pulled up in his pickup truck an hour later, the boy and I were sitting under crepe-paper streamers over the remains of a taco dinner I had managed to scrape together with frozen meat, canned beans, and onions. “Traffic was hell,” Kent intoned emotionlessly. “What’s all this?”