When we were kids we’d climb aboard my parents’ bed and sail around the world, our faces to an imaginary wind and on the lookout for danger. Slippers were sharks and piles of clothing were shoals. We took turns being captain and sometimes, if a whale was spotted, we’d lower a whaleboat made of pillows. Among the five of us, I was the best harpoonist.
The great ship of our parents’ bed adventured less and less as each of us left home, until finally my mother and father were alone on it and their journeys–if they ever left port at all–were unknown to us. When we came home from our other lives, the bed seemed an ordinary bed, though larger than it appeared in childhood. Was it possible it had grown? My father read the paper lying on the bed. My mother talked on the telephone lying on the bed. Beloved dogs roamed the bed and circled down to sleep on it at night. It became the docking station for my parents’ lives, and ours as well. Somehow if we lost them we expected they would always be found. On the bed.
When my father went into the hospital this past Christmas Eve, I didn’t understand that he might never come out. All I understood was that his side of the bed that night was empty. And the next night, and the next. The room he shared with my mother looked lopsided and wrong. It was clear what needed to be done and I did it, and every night since then I’ve slept in the bed where my father used to sleep. My mother sometimes wakes up in the dark and starts talking. We don’t talk of him, we talk about what time the dog needs to go out, and what we can put together for the next meal, and how much snow the city might get, and sometimes she’ll tell me a dream. In the morning she’ll say, “Don’t get up yet, it’s dark out,” or, “You snore just like your father,” and I wait for her to go back to sleep, then I set my feet down in the shark-infested waters around that great ship of a bed, and the day begins.
Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005. Her commentaries have aired on NPR. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can find her at www.margareterhart.com
Cover Photo: Bastian Pudill