A charming woman. . . a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness.
- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
My mother-in-law died in September, displaying her customary discretion. Cara didn’t like to put people out. My husband Ethan and I were in a hotel room in Boston when the call came, and he didn’t even have to miss any gigs for the funeral.
Ethan and I flew out to Two Harbors, Minnesota to try to explain the whole thing to his brother Spencer. We went in to see the body together because bodies are concrete and Spencer thinks in concrete terms. He is twenty-seven and has the approximate IQ of a three-year-old child, but three-year-olds are pretty deep sometimes.
My favorite unit in my high school bio class was neurology. I loved learning how impulses travel across the gaps between one neuron and the next. Gaps are interesting places. There are so many things that can go wrong: neurotransmitters that can be missing or overabundant, connections that can be missed. Things can fall into gaps and get lost.
When I watch Spencer try to speak, I think about those gaps. He knows what he wants to say long before he is able to force it from his lips. Sometimes he stutters, and sometimes he goes back and starts the whole sentence over from the beginning, and always he ends with the name of the person to whom he is speaking, as if addressing a letter. So, “I want you to watch Dr. Who with me, Ethan.” sounds something like “I. Wuh. Wuh. Want-t. T. T. You. To. Watch. Doctor. To. Watch. Doctor. Who. Wif. Me. Ee. Ee. Ethan.”
We do the best we can. We repeat whatever he says back to him, verbatim. He likes this. It lets him know the letter has been received. We say things like, “Mommy is dead now and so we are sad.” But mostly, we talk about vacuums.
Spencer’s relationship to vacuum cleaners is like that of the first Americans towards the Great Spirit. He also has a lesser fascination with lawn mowers. The vacuum ritual begins with the request for permission from the tribal elder.
“Can. I. Pretend. To. Vacuum. Mom. Mom. Mommy’s. Walls. And. Ceiling. Wif. The. B. B. Bwoo. Rolly. Vacuum. Cleaner. Ee. Ee. Ethan?”
“Yes, Spencer, you can pretend to vacuum mommy’s walls and ceiling with the blue rolly vacuum cleaner.”
Spencer will spend the whole day this way if we let him, which we usually do, our policy towards such matters being laissez faire. He will periodically emerge to make a new, slightly modified vacuuming request. Now can he go upstairs and vacuum his room? Now can he pretend vacuum his closet? Now can he just use the little piece to pretend vacuum his closet?
After a six-hour stint of pretend and actual vacuuming, Spencer spends a while standing in the living room in a trance state communing with the machine. During this time, he brandishes the “little piece” – the handle attachment – while making vacuum-like sound effects. His relationship with the little piece is fraternal, jovial. The little piece mediates. But the “big piece” is the godhead, the center of the mystery, and must be placated. He might reach out occasionally and pet it, but he does not take liberties with it.
All of the dozen or so vacuum cleaners in Spencer’s stable are the two-piece kind; he has little interest in uprights. And each vacuum has a description assigned to it – the blue rolly, the black canister, the old yellow.
After his mother’s death, Spencer made an unusual request to Ethan. It was such a strange thing that it took Ethan a while to understand what Spencer wanted. He said that he wanted to use the blue rolly vacuum cleaner to vacuum his mommy’s room one more time and then he wanted to throw it out. He also wanted to use the vacuum cleaner he had at the group home where he lives one more time and throw that one out, too. But he only wanted to throw out the big pieces. He wanted to keep the little pieces with him forever, “even when I die.”
Ethan said that whatever Spencer wanted to do was fine. Then he asked Spencer, “Is it because of Mommy that you want to throw it out?”
Spencer said yes.
Later on they talked about their father, who had died ten years before of complications of acute alcoholism. Spencer suddenly asked Ethan if Ethan remembered the red lawn mower.
“Wait a minute, Spencer,” Ethan said, “are the lawn mowers Daddy and the vacuum cleaners Mommy?”
Spencer said, “You. Understand. Ethan.”
The subtlety of the symbolism is breathtaking to me: the vacuum cleaner manicuring the domestic sphere and the lawn mower the outdoors. They groom the surfaces; they seem to eat things up. It also reminds me of that old expression: You can either try to carpet the world or you can wear shoes. This expression is meant to admonish oversensitivity. But Spencer is barefoot in a permanent way. I'm not even sure he knows how to tie a shoelace. The vacuum and the lawnmower make it safe to walk.
We took a drive that weekend from Two Harbors, Minnesota to Menomonie, Wisconsin. It was a long ride, punctuated only by a brief stop in the town of Minong to buy their famous sausages, which were located at the back of a terrifying grocery store that catered to the hunting crowd.
Spencer and I sang the following song about this adventure:
Minong Song (Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”)
Minong song, Minong song
Minong Minong song
Minong song, Minong song
Minong minong song
As we headed on into Wisconsin, I asked Spencer to tell me how many vacuum cleaners he had owned in his life. He didn’t completely understand the question but grew very animated. We started to count all the vacuums of his past, with Ethan’s help. We kept having to start over again, when Spencer would get mad or confused.
He kept getting stuck on one particular vacuum, the Old Blue Vacuum Cleaner. He told us that he had broken it. Then he started crying.
“It’s OK that you broke the old blue vacuum cleaner Spencer,” we kept saying. “It’s OK.” But he kept crying.
“Mommy. Got. Mad At. Me. Ethan.”
“Mommy got mad at you, Spencer?” Ethan said, gently.
“Mommy. Got-t-t. Mad. At-t-t. Me. When. When. I. Bwoke. The. Old. Bwoo. Vacuum. Cleaner. Ee. Ee. Ethan.”
Ethan reached back to touch Spencer’s arm. “Yes, well back then Mommy was drinking a lot. I’m sorry if Mommy was mean to you when you broke the vacuum cleaner.”
“I. Bwoke. The. Old. Bwoo. Vacuum. Cleaner. And. Then. You. Went. Away. To. New. York. Ethan.” Right after Spencer had broken the vacuum cleaner things had gotten seriously dark. Cara began drinking in earnest, fell down some stairs, and ended up in the hospital. His beloved brother Ethan went away to college. Spencer had convinced himself that the dissolution of the family unit was initiated by the breakage of the old blue vacuum.
Ethan said, “Spencer, it’s not your fault that I left home, OK?”
I said, “Spencer, Ethan left home to play jazz.”
Ethan eyed Spencer in the rear view mirror. “I had to go to the big city, Spence. I was growing up. Just like you went to live in the house with Sue and Dan when you grew up. OK, Spencer?”
“Oh. Oh. Kay. Sarah. And. Ethan.”
The vacuum grand finale happened the next day when we got back to Cara’s house. Spencer spent the whole day with the blue rolly vacuum cleaner, pretend- and actual-vacuuming until the house was immaculate in reality and imagination. I heard him confer with Ethan in the kitchen and then Ethan came to me where I sat on the couch.
“Sarah, he wants you to go out with him to put the vacuum in the garbage.”
“Me?” This was an unusual request. Spencer follows his big brother around like a little puppy. He has eyes only for Ethan.
Ethan nodded and said, “I asked him if it was because you are a woman and he said yes. Vacuums are a feminine thing.”
“Vacuums are the mother.”
“Right. And lawnmowers are the father.”
I put my coat on, because you don’t go outside in Two Harbors without putting on your coat, even if it’s only to walk to the trash shed. Spencer was standing in front of the door, waiting for me. I felt honored.
I put my hand on the puffy arm of his coat. “So, we’re going to go throw out the vacuum, huh, Spence?”
“You. And. Me. Are. Going. To. Throw. Out. The. Bwoo. Rolly. Vacuum. Cleaner. Sarah.”
“OK, then, Spence, let’s go!”
I opened the door for him and he made his way outside and carefully down the ice-covered steps. Spencer’s movements are clumsy, like a big bear cub, but he never seems to fall. We crunched down the gravel driveway to the shed. There were already many bags of garbage there, filled with broken clocks, half-eaten boxes of crackers, bags of old screws, mismatched Tupperware – cleaning out Cara’s house was a long, sad process.
Spencer put the Big Piece of the vacuum cleaner down on the gravel, cradling its long plastic tube in his arms. He had already removed the Little Piece and stowed it safely away in his room. We stared down at the Big Piece in silence. It sat there like a little robot. Spencer held both of his arms in front of him, palms up, with the tube draped across them, as if he were holding an infant. After a while, I sat down cross-legged on the ground. Spencer cocked his head at me.
Was there something I should be doing or saying? The Kaddish?
“Gee, Spencer.” My voice sounded funny in the still, cold night air. “I’m glad that you asked me to come out here with you.”
He did not respond.
“It was a really beautiful vacuum cleaner.”
He remained silent but began to hinge forward at the waistline, still cradling the tube in his arms. It was an awkward bow, the kind of pose a heroin addict strikes on the subway, nodding out between stations. What was he doing? He kept holding out the tube as though offering it up. Did he want me to take it from him?
I got up and reached out for it.
He jerked back. “No! No. Sarah. No!”
“OK, Spencer. I’m sorry.”
He continued to shake his head angrily and grip the tube to his chest. “No. S. S. Sarah. No!”
“Shh, Spencer,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s OK.” I put my hands in my pockets and stood still. He eyed me suspiciously for a moment before resuming the forward bend. He tilted perilously far, offering up the tube, until he was almost bent at a ninety-degree angle.
Then it fell from his arms. It hit the gravel with the sharp, abrupt sound of earth hitting a coffin. I felt my eyes fill with tears. I put my hand on his puffy arm as we trooped back to the house, vacuum-less. Spencer did not look back.
When we got back inside the house, I couldn’t stop crying. Spencer was worried. He made his sad clown face.
“It’s OK, Spencer,” I said, smiling. I didn’t know how to explain my tears to him. He had just taught me how to grieve for Cara. “That was great. What you did was really beautiful.”
He looked over at Ethan, confused.
“You’re a good boy, Spencer,” Ethan said. “You’re a good boy.”