When the dogs come in for supper on the last day of June, Tabinda is missing from the pack, so Jean and the children go in search of her.
Ozan finds Tabinda’s body near the pond where she had a last drink before she died. Ozan looks at her and knows she is dead, and rather than call out to Jean and Raaziyah, he walks back to the house where Healing is waiting on the deck
“Tabinda died at the pond,” says Ozan, sadly. “Her eyes are all gray now.”
Healing comes down from the deck and he and Ozan walk to the pond to see Tabinda and choose a place to bury her.
Three days later at the end of the day, Socrates lies down in the living room with the other dogs and never wakes again.
Healing cannot sleep a wink for several days after Socrates dies because he’s terrified Mendelssohn might die, too. Finally Jean and Jahera take Mendelssohn to the vet who assures them Mendelssohn is in excellent health and will surely live another two or three years, and thereafter Healing can sleep again.
On July seventeenth, Tova, Raaziyah, and Ozan leave with Jean and William for a seven-day trip to Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, the first time in the children’s lives they’ve been away from Mercy. The quintet will wander around North Beach and Chinatown and Golden Gate Park, visit museums, spend time with William’s daughters and their families, meet some of William’s friends, ride on trains and ferry boats, go to a baseball game, stay in motels, and eat Thai food, Indian food, and Japanese food.
On the morning of July twenty-second, Healing is doing the dishes, Jahera is walking around the living room holding and bouncing Zubina, Maahiah is warming a bottle for the baby, and Naomi is sitting at the table collecting her thoughts.
“I have an announcement,” says Naomi, taking a deep breath to quell her nervousness. “As I told you some months ago, my intention was to live for another two years until Oz and Raaz are seven. However, forces beyond my control are now making life difficult for me and I’m certain I won’t be able to live very much longer without medical assistance. Since I do not wish to prolong my life in that way, I am going to leave you sooner than I had hoped by ceasing to eat and drink starting on August second, which is a little less than two weeks from today. As you know, I visited Dr. Hardy yesterday and he has agreed to prescribe morphine should I experience unbearable pain in the latter stages of the process. I’m sorry to bring you this news so soon after Socrates and Tabinda died, but I wanted to tell you before the children return from their trip.”
“Oh Mum,” says Healing, coming to embrace her.
“I have one request, dear,” she says, kissing his cheek. “Before I depart I would like to have a party at which you and Eliana and Turq and Tova perform my favorite songs. A barbecue for our close friends, after which I will eat and drink no more.”
An hour later, Healing and Jahera walk with Mendelssohn, Coosi, Puccini, and Flora across town to visit Marjorie and Darby, leaving Max, Miguelito, and Zoya to keep Maahiah and Naomi company.
“I’m afraid to tell Darby and Marjorie about Mum,” says Healing, gazing forlornly at Jahera. “Darby will be devastated.”
“Don’t be afraid,” she says quietly. “I’ll tell them.”
He nods and starts to cry, and his crying causes Mendelssohn to nudge Healing’s hand to say Don’t cry, Shafi. I’m here with you.
“I thought for sure your mother would outlive me,” says Darby, after he and Marjorie have a good cry. “Remember when I was afraid to keep Dagwood because I thought I’d die before him? Silly me. He lived a good long life, and now we’ve got Pierre. We die when we die. Doesn’t do any good to worry about it. Certainly not once we make it past fifty, let alone seventy and eighty.”
“I’m not prepared for Mum to die,” says Healing, shaking his head. “She’s slowed down some, but otherwise she’s still very much herself. I just… I’m in shock.”
“There’s no way to prepare, my boy,” says Darby, putting a hand on Healing’s shoulder. “Except to be with her as much as you can and love her ‘til the end.”
“As you know,” says Marjorie, smiling at Healing, “I was a hospice nurse for many years and I would be honored to help you with Naomi.”
“Thank you, Marjorie,” says Healing, returning her smile. “Mum will be glad for your help and advice. Dr. Hardy is going to prescribe morphine if she needs it.”
“She probably will,” says Marjorie, nodding. “She might go quickly, but she could live two weeks or more once she stops eating and drinking. We want her to be as comfortable as she can be.”
“I was orphaned when I was twenty-seven,” says Darby, remembering his hardworking mother who raised him and his siblings on her own. “After my mum died there was nothing keeping me in Ireland. So I came to America, and not liking the looks of New York, I headed west by train and bus, stopping for a time here and there along the way. I almost stuck in Milwaukee where I met a nice Irish gal, and nearly settled in Boise where I had a good drinkin’ buddy, but I felt the pull to move on, and when I got to San Francisco I knew in a minute the Beatniks and outsiders such as myself had fled some years before. So I headed north, hitchhiking with a big old suitcase full of my clothes and curios. And seventy miles south of Mercy, Jim Young picked me up in his old brown pickup and brought me to Mercy and let me sleep on his living room sofa and catch my breath. I know you’ve all heard this story too many times, but Naomi being about to leave us makes me want to tell you again how I was walking down Main Street when who should come walking toward me but none other than Naomi and Ezra and you, Healing, fifteen and handsome as could be, each of you with a dog on a leash. I said, ‘Top of the morning to you,’ and your father smiled his beautiful smile and said, ‘You must be the Irish fellow sleeping on Jim Young’s sofa.’ I said I was, and your mother said, “Do come for supper tonight, will you? We are perishing from a lack of interesting guests.’ And that was how I came to know you all and began to wiggle my way into your good graces.”
Returning from their visit with Darby and Marjorie, Healing and Jahera find Naomi and Maahiah sitting on the sofa laughing.
“May we know the cause of your mirth?” asks Healing, laughing with them despite his sorrow.
“Oh you had a call about a dog,” says Naomi, still laughing. “And when I got off the phone I said to Maahiah, ‘I must teach you how to probe for salient data when you take calls for Healing’, and for some reason this struck us both as profoundly funny.” She wipes her eyes. “Silly me.”
“I shall never have an aide de camp the equal of you, Mum,” says Healing, sitting beside her. “Have you the strength to fill me in on the details of the case?”
“I do,” says Naomi, her eyes sparkling. “The caller was Elvis Oglethorpe, Justin’s nephew. Works at the lumberyard. He and his wife Didi Witherspoon have a new baby, a girl named Fiona, three-months-old. Their dog Bart, a Husky Lab mix, has taken to growling at Fiona, and Didi is terrified he might hurt the baby. Thus they have exiled Bart to the backyard and are seriously considering finding another home for him, possibly with Justin and Helen.”
“I know Elvis and Didi and Bart,” says Healing, getting up from the sofa. “I gave Didi and Bart lessons three years ago when Bart was three-monhts-old. He’s a wonderful dog. I can’t imagine him growling at the baby. Let’s hope it’s not too late to fix the problem. And if it is, I’m sure Helen and Justin and their wonder dog Pushkin would love to have Bart live with them.”
“Or we could take him,” says Jahera, putting a kettle on for tea.
“I suppose we could,” says Healing, starting to cry again. “Didn’t occur to me.”
The next morning during breakfast, Tova calls from Palo Alto to say they are adding three days to their trip to visit William’s friends in Santa Cruz and Monterey.
“Oh I’d rather you didn’t, Tove,” says Healing, anxiously. “Mum is…”
“Let me speak to her,” says Naomi, taking the phone from Healing. “Hello Tova. Listen dear, the fates have conspired to make it necessary for me to depart much sooner than I had planned. We’re going to have a party soon at which I hope you will sing with your father and Eliana and Turq, after which I’ll settle down in my cottage to await the grand finale. I’d very much appreciate it if you and Jean and the children came home sooner than later so we can have more time together before I go.”
“We’ll come home tomorrow,” says Tova, crying.
“Thank you, dear,” says Naomi, sighing with relief. “No need to tell the children about my plans until you get home, and then I will them. How does that sound?”
“Okay,” says Tova, sobbing. “See you tomorrow.”
Naomi returns the phone to the kitchen counter and says, “I wonder if we might organize a trip to the beach today. We could drive to the end of Gulley Road and I’ll walk out a little way on the sand there. I’m not so good traveling on sand anymore but I’m longing to go to the beach.”
“I’ll call Justin and Diego,” says Healing, picking up the phone, “and see if they’ll meet us there and carry you close to the water in your Adirondack chair.”
“Good thinking, dear,” says Naomi, sipping her tea. “I haven’t seen Justin and Helen in ages and I’ve been missing Diego. He’s so busy these days with his photography and teaching.” She looks over the tops of her glasses at Healing and Jahera and Maahiah. “One of the collective’s great achievements, don’t you think?”
“Without a doubt,” says Jahera on her way out the kitchen door to have another cry in the garden.
“Shall we take a picnic?” suggests Naomi, smiling at Maahiah. “You’ll come, too. Won’t you, dear?”
“Yes,” says Maahiah, clearing the breakfast dishes. “And I will prepare the picnic.”
Shortly after midday, the sky free of clouds, Maahiah and Jahera walk Mendelssohn and Coosi from the house to Gulley Road, while Healing and Naomi drive there in Healing’s little old pickup. And waiting for them where the Gulley Road dead ends at the beach are the mighty Justin Oglethorpe and his beautiful wife Helen Morningstar, along with strongman Diego Rodriguez, a photography instructor at the community college.
When Naomi is settled securely in her sturdy Adirondack chair, Diego and Justin transport her across the sand to the shore of Mercy Bay, the surf mellow today.
Healing and Jahera unfurl two large beach blankets and the humans gather around a feast of hummus, olives, flat bread, cheese, slices of avocado, and sautéed vegetables courtesy of Maahiah, along with fish and chips and wine and lemonade from Big Goose, Helen and Justin’s pub.
“Oh the glory of this place,” says Naomi, smiling at the shining sea. “You know… for the first ten years we lived here, Ezra and I brought Healing and Jean to the beach every day, save for the stormiest of winter days.” She turns to Healing. “The pull was irresistible. Remember?”
“And it remains my habit seventy years gone by,” says Healing, nodding in thanks to her.
“Irresistible,” says Diego, who just now learned Naomi is going to die soon. “Like the tide going out.” He looks at Naomi. “I’m gonna come see you every day. Okay? Teresa will want to come, too.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she says, smiling at him.
“The big question is, why don’t I come here every day?” says Justin, wiggling his toes in the sand and looking at Helen. “You bring Pushkin almost every day.”
“He brings me,” says Helen, laughing. “I’ll start begging you to come with us.”
“I tell myself I have too much to do at the pub,” says Justin, shaking his head. “Which is nonsense.”
“What we tell ourselves about ourselves is what we will become,” says Naomi, smiling at Justin. “You may quote me.”
“Remember when I used to think there was nothing to do here?” says Diego, grinning at Healing. “I was gonna move to LA, you know, where all the action is.” He laughs. “I didn’t know anything when I first started working for you guys. Nothing.”
“When we first moved here,” says Naomi, looking across Mercy Bay to the bluff beyond which is the coast highway, “and our house became a mecca for those seeking alternatives to separatism, Ezra and I soon realized there were two kinds of people: those who felt there was nothing to do here, and those who found Mercy a canvas on which to paint their own reality. And though I know it is simplistic to divide humanity in that way, I still do.”
“How could anyone come here,” says Helen, gazing at the waves spending themselves on the shore, “and not be inspired?”
“Because they only see what they’re told to see by the media and society,” says Diego, nodding. “It’s like when I take a bunch of new students out to shoot pictures for the first time, you know, a few of them start taking pictures before we even get out the door. But most of them wait until we get to where we’re going. And then they look around and say, ‘What should I take a picture of? Why did you bring us here? This is just a street in the town. What is there to see?’ And I always remember what Healing taught me about not criticizing people, so I don’t argue with them or tell them they’re blind, you know, and instead I tell them what Jahera taught me, that a great picture doesn’t have to be some big thing or something obviously fantastic. It’s about the light and the way the forms relate to each other, and the thousands of details that make everything so compelling.”
“When I hear you speaking, Diego,” says Naomi, holding out her hand to him, “I am so very glad I got to watch you grow into your genius.”
Diego takes Naomi’s hand and feels blessed by her.
After breakfast the next morning, Healing and Jahera go to visit Elvis Oglethorpe, his wife Didi Witherspoon, their baby girl Fiona, and their dog Bart.
Elvis is forty-four and very tall, Didi thirty-nine and petite, Fiona three-months-old and rosy-cheeked, and Bart a four-year-old mix of Husky and Lab in whom the Husky genes predominate.
Didi and Elvis invite Healing and Jahera into the cluttered living room of their little house at the north end of Mercy – Didi holding Fiona who is in a very fussy mood this morning.
“May I?” asks Jahera, holding out her arms for the baby.
“Please,” says Didi, handing Fiona to Jahera. “She’s being a pill because I’m being a pill from lack of sleep and only one cup of coffee so far today. Thank goodness there’s more on the way.”
“Fiona’s usually pretty mellow,” says Elvis, yawning. “But she woke up five times last night so we’re kinda groggy this morning.”
“Welcome to my life,” says Didi, yawning, too. “You guys want coffee?”
“No, thank you,” says Healing, noting that Fiona ceased to fuss the moment Jahera took her from Didi. “We just had breakfast. Where is the marvelous Bart?”
“In the backyard,” says Elvis, wincing a little as he says so. “Like I said on the phone, he’s been acting weird around the baby so we’re keeping him outside until we figure out what to do.”
“How does he act weird?” asks Healing, looking around the house and seeing the unmistakable signs of overwhelm.
“He growls at her,” says Didi, grimly. “Scares the crap outta me.”
“Shall we go see him?” asks Healing, looking at Elvis.
“Yeah,” says Elvis, gesturing for Healing to follow him.
So while Jahera stays with Didi and Fiona, Elvis leads Healing through the disaster of a kitchen and out the back door where Bart comes rushing up to Healing, tail wagging.
“Hello big boy,” says Healing, petting the affable pooch. “What’s this I hear about you growling at Fiona?”
Bart spins in a circle and grins wide-eyed at Elvis.
“He thinks we’re going on a walk,” says Elvis, petting Bart. “I haven’t had much time for him since Fiona was born because I’m working fifty hours a week now to make up for Didi not working, and Didi only has time to walk him when my mom or Helen come to help with the baby, and then she usually just crashes, so…” He smiles sadly at Bart. “Sorry guy. We’ll go on a walk later.”
“I’d like to see how he behaves in the house,” says Healing, slipping Bart a chewy treat. “May we?”
“Yeah,” says Elvis, despondently. “It’ll freak Didi out, but… lemme tell her he’s coming in with us.”
“Before you do, may I ask you a couple questions?”
“Yeah, sure,” says Elvis, wearily. “He’s such a good dog. I’d hate to lose him, but… Didi says he’s a monster around the baby. I haven’t actually seen him act that way, but she says he growls at the baby, so…”
Bart drops a soggy tennis ball at Healing’s feet.
“What changes did you make in Bart’s life when Fiona arrived on the scene?” asks Healing, throwing the ball for Bart.
“Well like I said, we don’t walk him enough now.” Elvis shoves his hands in his pockets. “And Didi keeps the hall door closed when he’s in the house. Or she did before we moved him outside.”
“He used to go down the hall?”
“Oh for sure. He slept on the bed with us.” Elvis yawns. “But when we started getting up three or four times a night to nurse Fiona, Didi said he was always in the way, so we moved him out to the living room, and now he’s outside. If we still have him when it gets cold I guess we’ll keep him in the garage.”
“Any other changes?”
“Not really,” says Elvis, yawning again. “Except he’s not allowed on the couch anymore.”
“That’s where Didi sits to nurse the baby and she doesn’t want Bart bugging her and Fiona.”
“Was Bart often on the couch before Fiona arrived?”
“All the time,” says Elvis, laughing despite himself. “He sat with us when we watched television, took naps there, and when he was bugging us in the kitchen we’d say, ‘Go to the couch, Bart.’”
“So the sofa was his comfort zone,” says Healing, nodding in understanding.
“For sure,” says Elvis, nodding.
“Any other changes you can think of before he was exiled to the backyard?”
“No.” Elvis frowns. “He was fine for the first month until I had to go back to work. That’s when he started growling. Like I said, I haven’t actually heard him growl at the baby, but Didi said he did it all the time and it scared her to death.”
“Lastly,” says Healing, petting Bart, “were Didi and Bart close before Fiona arrived?”
“Close?” says Elvis, taken aback. “They were like best friends. He was more her dog than mine. She picked him from the litter, babied him, trained him, walked him every day. She took him to you three or four times. Remember? That’s what makes this so sad. She hates him now because she thinks he’s gonna hurt the baby.” He grimaces painfully. “You think maybe he’s jealous of Fiona? Why else would he growl?”
“I don’t know,” says Healing, petting Bart. “If you will forewarn Didi, we’ll bring him inside now and see what develops.”
When Bart enters the house he finds Didi sitting at the dining table drinking coffee and doing things on her phone while Jahera is sitting on the sofa holding Fiona.
Bart trots over to Jahera to say hello and Didi jumps up shouting, “Get away from her, Bart! Get away now.”
Bart gives Didi a hurt look and slinks to the far corner of the living room.
“Why did you do that, Didi?” asks Healing, mystified by Didi’s behavior. “He was just being friendly.”
“Because he growls at her,” says Didi, glaring at Healing. “Maybe not that time, but he usually does, and then Fiona starts crying and I freak out. I can’t handle this anymore. We’re gonna have to get rid of him.”
“Of course I haven’t been here when Bart growls,” says Healing, exchanging looks with Jahera, “and I certainly don’t want to endanger Fiona, but I’m confident I can teach Bart not to growl at Fiona, and I’m also absolutely certain he would never intentionally harm her. If you will allow me to try.”
“Okay,” says Didi, trying not to cry. “But keep a hold on him, okay?”
“I will,” says Healing, holding out his hand to Didi. “Come sit with me on the sofa and we’ll start anew.”
“Okay,” she says, taking Healing’s hand and allowing him to guide her to the sofa. “I haven’t had much sleep since the baby was born so I’m kinda raggedy.”
“I understand,” says Healing, seating Didi beside Jahera. “Now take Fiona from Jahera and I will sit beside you.”
When Healing and Didi are sitting side-by-side, Fiona fussing and whimpering again, Healing says to Bart, “Come here good boy and meet your sister. Come on now.”
Bart gives Didi a fearful look and stays on the other side of the room.
“You will need to invite Bart to come meet Fiona,” says Healing, speaking quietly. “Last he heard from you, you didn’t want him to come near you.”
“Come on Barty,” says Didi, tearfully. “Come say hi to Fiona.”
Bart slowly crosses the room to Healing, and Healing takes hold of Bart’s collar and gently encourages him to come close and smell the baby.
Fiona continues to whimper, and Bart makes a high musical tone in his throat that Healing knows is Bart expressing sympathy for the baby.
“See?” says Didi, fearfully. “He’s growling at her.”
“Quite the opposite,” says Healing, petting Bart. “He hears she’s distressed and he’s saying he wants to be of assistance to you.”
“He is?” says Didi, gazing at Bart in disbelief. “He’s not growling?”
“That’s not a growl,” says Healing, looking at Bart. “Is it, Barty?”
Bart wags his tail and makes the high musical sound again.
“Oh my God,” says Fiona, bursting into tears. “I’m so sorry, B. I didn’t understand you.”
“I would also suggest that you invite Bart to avail himself of the sofa again,” says Healing, standing up. “This has been his favorite place since he was a puppy and it is now where you sit with the new puppy, so to speak, and he’d like to be here with you. If you don’t want him in your bedroom at night, I suggest you make the sofa his nighttime bed and train him to sleep here as you trained him so well to do everything else you want him to do. No need to keep the hall door closed. He’s a very smart and obedient pooch.”
“I remember those weeks and months without sleeping when my son was born,” says Jahera, smiling at Fiona wiggling in Didi’s arms and no longer whimpering. “How difficult it was to relax and just let things be. Even so, you’ve done a marvelous job with your child.”
“Oh thanks,” says Didi, smiling through her tears at Jahera. “Everything just blurs together these days and it’s hard to know if we’re doing the right thing. I feel like such an idiot screaming at Bart.”
“Not at all,” says Jahera, putting her arm around Didi. “You’re doing fine.”
“Come sit where I was,” says Healing to Elvis. “And invite Bart up on the sofa with you.”
Elvis sits beside Didi and she hands him Fiona.
“Okay B,” says Elvis, nodding to Bart. “Come on up. Be gentle now.”
Bart hops up on the sofa and gazes bashfully at Elvis.
“You can be up here now,” says Elvis, petting Bart. “Just gotta be gentle when the baby’s close.”
Bart looks at Fiona and wags his tail.
“You can give her a kiss,” says Elvis, presenting Fiona to Bart. “Be gentle.”
Bart looks at Didi.
“It’s okay, Barty,” says Didi, sighing with relief. “I just didn’t understand what you were saying. Go on.”
Bart gently touches his nose to baby girl’s cheek and she makes a sweet little mewing sound that makes Bart smile in delight and wag his tail.
The next day, as glorious a summer day as there has ever been, Naomi sits in a wicker armchair next to the wooden bench in the center of the vegetable garden while Tova and Healing and Jahera toil nearby, and Ozan and Raaziyah enjoy carrots they’ve pulled and then washed with the garden hose.
“Would you bring me a carrot?” asks Naomi, beckoning to the children. “And tell me more about your fantastic journey?”
Oz pulls a carrot for Naomi and two more for himself, Raaziyah pulls two carrots, too, and after they wash the gorgeous orange things, they go and sit on the bench and happily eat carrots while telling Naomi about the ferry boat ride they took from San Francisco to Larkspur and back to San Francisco again.
When the exciting tale has been told, Naomi says, “I have something important to tell you. In a way it’s sad, and in other ways it isn’t sad.”
“What happened?” asks Raaziyah, gazing wide-eyed at her great grandmother.
“Well it hasn’t happened yet,” says Naomi, smiling at Raaziyah, “but after the party next week, I will be at the very end of my life, and I’m going to be sitting in the garden and resting in my cottage until I die. I hope you’ll come visit me because I won’t be coming into the house anymore or going across the street. But that won’t be until after the party.”
“I don’t want you to die,” says Ozan, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “You seem fine to me. Maybe you just have a cold.”
“Everything and everyone has to die one day,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Ozan as he climbs onto her lap. “Like these carrots. Remember when they were tiny seeds and you planted them and covered them with soil and they didn’t sprout for a long time. But then they did sprout and they became seedlings and we had to thin them so some of them could get big. And now you’ve pulled those big ones because they came to the end of their lives. I started as a tiny seed, too, as did you. And I grew on the earth for ninety-four years, which is a very long time, and now I’m at the end of my life.”
“But I don’t ever want you to die,” says Raaziyah, standing beside Naomi and gazing at her.
“I know, dear,” says Naomi, caressing Raaziyah. “But I have to die. It’s how the universe works. Things are born and die, and more things are born and more things die. On and on forever.”
Raaziyah starts to cry and runs to her mother.
Ozan remains on Naomi’s lap and says, “But you won’t die until after the party, and that won’t be until next week.”
“That’s right, dear,” she says, kissing him.
Ozan muses for a moment. “Will we bury you in the maple forest and plant a maple tree for you?”
“I would love that,” says Naomi, crying a little. “However, it is more likely I will be cremated and you will spread my ashes in the trees.”
“What’s cremated?” asks Ozan, snuggling close to her.
“Ask Healing, dear,” says Naomi, closing her eyes. “Time for my nap.”
So Ozan goes to Healing and asks what cremated is, and after Healing explains as best he can, he agrees with Ozan that it would be preferable to bury Naomi in the forest of Japanese maples.
“We’ll ask Sheriff Higuera if it will be okay to bury her there,” says Healing, his vision blurred by tears. “Ruben.”
“Is Ruben coming to the party?” asks Ozan, wondering why they have to ask Ruben about burying Naomi where she wants to be buried.
“Yes, he is,” says Healing, holding Ozan close. “We’ll ask him then.”