Seals in Winter
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship
– William Blake
We floated to my mother’s funeral in a 1965 Cadillac Calais coupe, white, shark fins in the back, red leather interior. Our chauffeur was my friend since age thirteen, Mark, who made small talk with one hand on the wheel. My father stared blankly into space and my girlfriend, Tina, looked out the window. She and I we were dressed in black, ill-fitting, borrowed clothes. Mark wore a white brocade shirt with a black onyx bolo tie, looking like a surfer version of Gary Cooper.
I felt like I was both in my body and somewhere outside the car. Mark asked me something and I stared back, as though he were talking through a long tunnel. I couldn’t track the conversation in the car and looked back at Mark helplessly. He seemed to pick up my thoughts and continued the conversation without a break. He had offered his car to take us to the funeral home, cemetery and repast at my sister’s house. It was potluck. My dad didn’t want to spend the money feeding sixty people in a restaurant.
Mark was a brother to me, both of us basically growing up as feral children in the cow town of San Jose. We had an ease in each other’s company and laughed effortlessly together. Our friendship, spread over time and distance, had sustained long separations and years of no contact. He was a master electrician and I had lived a gypsy existence as an actor before making my home in New York City.
We stood in the corner of the funeral home; Tina chatted with my sister and my father walked around, looking lost. He introduced Mark to my relatives, “Do you remember Mark, Mike’s friend from years ago?”. Everyone nodded, but one uncle remarked sarcastically, “Oh yeah, he and Mike stole his aunt’s Porsche.” This wasn’t completely accurate. Mark’s aunt did lend us the Porsche for an errand, but we were having so much fun, we neglected to bring it back. Driving through the foothill curves of Alum Rock Park, we spun out, narrowly missing going over the edge and tumbling into a ravine fifty yards below. As the years went by, the ravine got deeper, and we drove the car faster with each retelling of the story.
We had arrived in San Jose for a California Christmas and a vacation at the beach. Instead, death interrupted our vacation plans. I had been pressured to come home sooner by my mother but told myself it was another moment of her crying wolf. She had a lifetime habit of announcing her imminent death and I questioned why this time should be different. It was November when she asked me, but money was tight, and I wanted to bring Tina to meet my family for the first time. I told my mother I would be there for Christmas. On December 23rd the call from my father came as Tina and I were leaving the apartment to get a cab to the airport. “She’s in the hospital, she’s asking for you.” We arrived six hours later.
The sunlight streaming in the windows of San Jose International Airport was blinding, the hopeful rays of the Golden State. My sister was waiting to pick us up and she hugged me close to her as we walked off the tarmac. She was dressed in bright floral colors and combined with the brilliant daylight they gave the somberness of the occasion a surreal feeling. She drove us straight to the hospital. We walked into my mother’s hospital room. I opened a curtain and saw my mother, pale, in a washed-out green hospital gown, sleeping. I sat by her side; Tina stood awkwardly at the end of the bed. My mother opened her eyes and took me in, looking briefly at my girlfriend.
“Hi, Mama.” I said.
She smiled and said, “Hi, Darlin” in her Southern twang. I made the introductions. I gave her water, asked how she was feeling. Her answers were brief, as if talking were an effort. But she did manage to say, “My hair is a mess; I must look a wreck.”
I took her hand and said, “Mom, you look like a beautiful angel.” Her face showed a whisper of a smile. We spoke briefly and she told me she was tired. “Spend some time with your father and come see me tomorrow.” I was confused by her response; it was out of character for her to not want me to stay close to her side. I looked into her eyes but couldn’t read her, her face leaving no clues as to why she would want me to leave her. I told her we would come tomorrow with presents and celebrate Christmas Eve, as we always had in the past. She smiled as I kissed her cool forehead. I walked out with Tina and turned back, but my mother eyes were closed, the only sound the beeping of her heart monitor.
I returned home and we joined my father and sister for dinner at a local restaurant. We planned to go to the hospital the next morning, bringing balloons and presents and I was relieved that we had made it, that I would have some time with her. As we returned from dinner, my sister opened her door to the sound of the phone ringing. It was Mom’s doctor, letting us know she had died twenty minutes earlier. We stood in stunned silence in the entrance of the house. I had presumed that death would wait and I was wrong. The fierce reality that I would never again be able to tell my mother that I loved her hit me. I felt released from years of manipulation and sorrow for the relationship we never had, and I had longed for.
At the gravesite, the wheat-colored daylight against the rolling foothills stood in stark contrast to my numbing grief and guilt. Tina tried to offer some comfort but seemed distracted and uncomfortable surrounded by the reality of death and my loss. Mark took both my father and me by the arms and guided us back to his gleaming, white Cadillac and drove us to my sister’s house. I sat by her pool, a plate of food untouched on my lap and stared into the clear blue water. I struggled to reconcile the ironic gift my mother had given me. She was a woman who had clung to me intensely, but as she finally faced death, asked me to leave her side so she could die alone. I felt cheated by her in some weird way, because she died and denied me a final chance to heal our relationship. Mark sat beside me at the pool, both of us holding the silence between us. “You know what, man? We need to get you the fuck out of here. You need a break.” He finished off a bite of sausage and looked around the back yard. “Let’s take your lady and drive out to Santa Cruz, then take the coast to San Francisco. We can crash with my mom and her boyfriend and trip around the city. It’ll be like the old days.”
I nodded and walked over to my father. The past week of funeral planning and visiting relatives had put us both on edge, and we had snapped at each other from time to time. I held his hand and told him we were heading out for a few days. I felt torn about leaving him and he seemed to sense this. He said that it was a good idea, to not worry about him, that my sister would look after him if he needed anything. My father’s unexpected moments of kindness always took me by surprise.
We drove across the mountains on Highway 17 to Santa Cruz; Mark knew a bar on the beach at Aptos, so we stopped for drinks. Tina was delighted by the beauty of the Pacific and buzzed by the margaritas. I had a Herradura on the rocks with a splash of OJ and Mark ordered the same.
Tina, margarita in hand, waded in the waves. Tina and I hadn’t been together as partners for long. I felt bad for her; she already had to deal with the awkwardness of meeting a family for the first time and then my mother died suddenly. She didn’t know what I needed at that moment and I didn’t know how to ask. But Mark knew. It dawned on me that the longest relationship either of us had over the years was with each other.
We drove up Highway One along the Pacific Coast. The air was filled with clean salt breezes, the waves of the ocean lit by the setting sun. Tina talked endlessly about the beauty of the coastline and rolling hills. The car winded down the twists and turns of the road, past Pescadero beach, through the town of Lobitos. Mark regaled Tina with stories of our teen years and twenties, telling one funny story after another of near catastrophes and weird close encounters we had with locals while traveling up this coast road to San Francisco. A fog bank rolled in as we pulled into Half Moon Bay and Tina wanted to pee, so we stopped at a clam shack near the beach. The bay was filled with huge rock formations, covered in seals barking in conversation with each other. While Tina went to the bathroom, Mark and I walked down to the shore. The fog swirled in drifts around us, cutting off our vision of the car and road on the cliff. I took off my shoes and waded in the water, and the childhood memory of the days spent on the boardwalk at Santa Cruz washed into me. I knelt in the water and started to cry.
Mark was silent, simply putting a hand on my shoulder. The only sound was the rhythmic wash of the waves. Then he spoke quietly, as if to himself.
“You know, both of us got dealt a raw hand on our mothers this go around, it’s not like
you weren’t a good son.”
I felt both a pang and gratitude for his saying that.
“I wasn’t there for her, but she was always trying to play me. She never wanted me to be
an actor. I don’t know what she wanted other than for me to stay home and keep her company.”
“Well, we both know that wasn’t going to happen. At least she didn’t try to rip you off
like mine did.”
There was break in the fog and we could see the seals on the rocks, silent sentries watching us. Mark helped me stand.
“We did alright. Sometimes you just have to create your own family, because the one you got is too fucked up. We’re survivors, you and I.”
I felt my heart crack open and I was able to really feel how closed it had been. I had become so practiced in my defense against my mother’s manipulation. I had defended my path in life for so long that I had missed something. I had never allowed myself to believe that people outside my family loved me. I had cut others off who had offered love and support, without strings attached. I had expected everyone to use any vulnerability or signs of weakness against me. I was wrong.
We walked back up the road to the car. Tina looked at me and hugged me as I walked up to her. My mother’s death had shined a light on the wall I had created in my heart. I had never let anyone close enough to see me, to really know me. I held Tina close, realizing that I had started to put that wall between us before we had a chance to learn to love each other. I glanced at Mark, but he was gazing out at the ocean, watching the waves coming to shore. He was my friend and that was a gift.
We got back in the car. Tina sat in the back as I rode shotgun in the front with Mark. I wouldn’t know then that our friendship would endure for more than fifty years. It would last through divorces, lost jobs, my own brush with death. Our friendship would be a constant, a distant lighthouse through the journey of my life.
Mark turned to me. “We good?”
I looked into my friend’s face.
Michael Cannistraci began his creative journey as an actor. Having graduated from UCLA, he worked for thirty years acting in theatre and television. In mid-life he answered a new calling and completed a Master’s degree at Hunter College School of Social Work. He currently works as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. His essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Literary Medical Messenger and Evening Street Review. He lives with his wife and muse in New York City.