How Wagner’s Mother Died


It happened one summer – a sticky Kentucky Sunday on our boat, the Buttercup. The sky was robin-egg blue. Dad lectured, “Kentucky Lake is a manmade thing that backs up the Tennessee River for 184 miles. It’s a giant spigot to control floods on Ohio and Mississippi rivers, generating power…”
I begged him, “Please, it’s summer break! Who wants to know we’re on a lake dam?”
“It won’t kill you to learn about energy in this day and age of global warming.” Wearing baggy khakis which typified his weekday, mechanical engineer look, he yanked another boat line.
My twin sister, Kate, kicked off her flip flops, took one and shook it at him. “Dad, you’re depressing me, stop before I get rough!”
“You never quit,” I told Dad, “you should see a therapist about that.”
“About what?” he asked.
“About a personality bypass,” Mom shouted.
I sprayed a mouthful of deviled eggs over that.
Sails filled above our heads, rocking the boat into motion. Madam Butterfly played on a Sony boom box my Mom operated. My Mom, Claire, a trained opera singer, sang to the three of us. I often considered how she replaced dreams of singing at the Met to raise us. I wondered if she missed performing on stage; wondered if she longed for the attention she received from an auditorium of strangers. She cleared her throat with a sip of bottled water, sat tall, then sang a few lines when her voice broke.
I started to sweat, but got it together. Even a glassy-eyed expression would spoil plans to treat this sail like it was any other. That was hard. She wasn’t the captivating performer with radiant blond hair she used to be. Her hair had thinned and she’d lost over ten pounds from chemotherapy and radiation. Gypsy lady, Dad called to cut her off. Mom picked up his cue to stop Madam Butterfly. No one cared for a tragic opera today.
“Okay, this one’s for Jude, there was an old lady who lived in a shoe,” Mom said. “She had so many children she didn’t know—”
“Who to sue,” I said.
Kate giggled while I pulled the tiller, steering us from a passing speedboat.
My Mother watched the boat go by, then shifted to her meditation on the water. Her Egyptian silver bracelets jingled in the wind. Ever the overdressed opera singer, her brassy hair framed her cheeks. She couldn’t have been more different from Dad. He wore tightly-tucked, short-sleeved shirts that reflected his 1950s personality.
Claire said his views were dustier than his compound miter box. He even argued with a seven o’clock TV weather person. How the hell can Joel Bartley forecast a 64% chance for rain? He didn’t get the digital age, computers, or what I was all about.
“Punishment for mutiny is a walk down me plank,” he said, from the side of his mouth, in his Captain Hook impersonation.
Kate smiled, “Yeah, bring on Johnny Depp to my rescue.”
After a morning of sailing, we reached a bend in the lake where Dad uncleated the main sail. It luffed. I dropped anchor so we could eat lunch near an embankment that smelled of bay leaves. Cicadas cra-a-acked in Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Seemed like they were right there in the boat, but I couldn’t see ‘em.
“Could a crew member hand me my tuna mandwich from the cooler before the humidity gets to it, also?” Dad bellowed.
I side-armed the bagged sandwich. Kate caught it in flight. She pulled the sandwich from the bag and took a bite.
“Hey, little girl!” Dad said.
“Interception on the fifty!” Kate said. She made a show of Dad’s sandwich.
Dad leaned toward Kate and turned over his 7-Eleven plastic cup of ice water on her bare legs, “There you go, missy: Liquid air conditioning. Captain’s compliments.”
Kate sprang from her seat, yelping, slinging ice cubes in Dad’s direction with bullet accuracy.
Looking at Dad in those khakis made my sweat drip. I stood up in my Quicksilver, surfer-style trunks and did an arching dive into the water. Even five feet under water, I felt vibrations of motor boats going by. I did my long underwater swim trick—a stunt everyone had seen a dozen times. I’d swim around the boat then sneak a breath under the bow for air then submerge again. They said it gave the impression that I’d disappeared…like I’d turned into a fish or sea turtle. After a few minutes, Kate would spot me underwater. I was waiting for her to do her thing—fling the life preserver to mark where she thought I was. I had run out of air and surfaced some twenty feet from the boat. I looked around. She hadn’t thrown the oversized donut. Then, I heard, “Dad, quick. It’s Mom,” Kate screamed.
Still treading water yards from the Buttercup, I heard Mom’s bracelets jingle again. Then, I saw it. Dad jumped to her side. She’d gone flat on her back to the deck. It looked as though he had started CPR. Distracted, I didn’t notice the motorboat rounding the lake bend, buzzing behind me.
Suddenly, Z-z-z-klam. Everything went white. Then black. The boat glanced my head. I don’t know how long it was when someone got to me. My head throbbed and ears rang or vice versa. Someone pulled me through the water with a head and arm hold. I coughed and saw it was Kate in a life vest dragging me to the boat. I still wasn’t conscious enough to know that one emergency had become two. Kate frantically helped me up the boat ladder. I hacked up water and realized she saved me from drowning. I still think that Kate being my twin had something to do with her sensing my sinking. She couldn’t have seen the motor boat hit me while she was turned toward Mom.
Breathing heavily, I watched Kate move to Mom, still sprawled on the deck. Still. I moved closer to her, to where Dad was. As Dad did CPR, I gripped Mom’s left hand as though that prevented her from slipping away. He shook her shoulders, then put his ear to Mom’s soaked chest. I saw panic in his eyes.
“No pulse.”
Dad locked lips to hers, performing CPR again.
“Fight, Mom,” we called to her. Kate searched for a pulse.
Dad cradled her whispering, “Come back,” stroking her wet head, rocking in a melancholy trance. I talked to her half-open eyes and felt eons older than fifteen.

Other things died that day. The wind disappeared and the boat motor stalled. Those cicadas got louder, moving closer. I imagined they rejoiced in their rattling language, “One person dead, three to go. One dead, three to go.”
Time had ground to a halt. Mom’s body lay beside us, half covered by Dad’s sailing jacket, with blond hair splayed under the jacket’s edge—confined on that lake with death.
Dad and I worked to get us home quickly.
It was explained to me months later that her cancer wasn’t detected when it could have been. Science had come so far, but no one benefitted from its latest advance, the sequencing of the genome in 2003. It was supposed to change everything. What would it take to unlock its power and put that knowledge to work? Whatever it was, on some cellular level, I vowed to do just that.

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