Coincidence

December 22, 2017

I’m driving into the high desert east of El Paso. The city peters out slowly. Dark-windowed gentlemen’s clubs merge into auto salvage yards. After that, the world as we’ve made it is reduced to the road under our wheels. A dark line with a yellow stripe in a dun-colored landscape. Sometimes the earth is grown over in scratchy, hay-green stubble. A clump of yucca is a landmark.

The desert undulates a little but the sky—the huge, so-blue sky, feathered with a few clouds—presses it flat. Half an hour passes. There are no verticals out here. Until, far in the distance, there is one.

I’m on my way to see an earthwork, a monumental art project. I’ve been commissioned to write about it, but this slender, vertical thing isn’t it—the artwork is still a good twenty minutes away. I’m from back East, so the work, this place, the desert … they’re all new to me.

“What’s that up ahead?” I ask.

No one in the car answers. Finally, a beat or two later, someone says, “Looks like a road sign.”

“That’s funny,” someone else says. “What’s a road sign doing out here?”

We slow out of habit as the car approaches an empty intersection. Two straight lines crossing in the desert. The street sign, this vertical interruption of the resonant flatness, reads: “STEVE PETRO DR.”

White letters on a green field. An arrow on the sign points north. The words leap like electrons into my brain. Steve Petro is my father.

"For Christ’s sake," I shout, "that’s my dad’s name!"

“Cool,” says someone, calmly. “What’d he do to get his name on a road sign?”

My father has been to Texas only once in his life, to attend my brother’s wedding in Houston twenty-eight years earlier. He knows no one here; he’s not famous. My father is an engineer in New Jersey who’s eighty-seven years old and has had a stroke. And here in this desert, where he’s never been, is a road sign proclaiming his name.

“Nothing. I mean, it can’t be the same Steve Petro. But what are the chances?”

The people I’m traveling with find the sign mildly interesting but not miraculous. By now it and Steve Petro Drive are far behind us, getting smaller each second. Soon we visit the earth art monument, and I am impressed, deeply moved, even. But I’m still quivering with the electricity of coincidence. I make the driver stop the car on the way back to take a picture.

A straight line etched into the desert bearing my father’s name: I need to remember this. I don’t know why, not yet. But maybe it will be important someday, like the bits of rope I keep in the back of my car.

“If you find rope on the beach, pick it up and save it. You never know when it’ll come in handy.” One of my dad’s dictums.

•••

A joyful discovery: when I began learning Welsh (a long story), I found out that in Welsh, my name, Pam, means “Why?” So I’m naturally trailed by a question mark.

“Why?” is a way of demanding that life have meaning. Or perhaps that its meaning be revealed to us. Two very different things.

•••

My father’s stroke shut down major roads in his brain and forged some new ones. He was a civil engineer; he built roads and kept them open when it snowed. When the road crews couldn’t, or wouldn’t, plow on Christmas Eve, he did it himself. Years later, the stroke worked overtime. He’d been so good at crossword puzzles that he’d do them in ink. After the stroke, he could still ink in the down boxes but not the across ones. He’d lost all ability to read horizontal sequences.

The stroke also left him with Charles Bonnet syndrome. It fried the peripheral vision in his left eye, but his brain refused to accept the loss. Frustrated by the lack of sensory input, it began randomly snatching up image-memories and sticking them where visual data should’ve been.

We’d be sitting in the sunroom, and my dad would say, “Well, John just walked out of the wall again.” John was his younger brother who’d been dead ten years.

At first we thought he was hallucinating, but then we realized that John and lions and neighbors were always walking out of the left-hand wall, and Charles Bonnet syndrome was eventually diagnosed. This pleased my dad no end.

“Go find a physicist,” he’d say, “and ask him how come I can generate my own fifth dimension somewhere between time and space.” He couldn’t do crossword puzzles—space was un-navigable, as was remembering his age or counting the number of Chinese snuff bottles on a shelf—but he could still think.

“What do you reckon?” he’d ask. “Is John still alive if I see him plain as day in this room that we built after he died?”

At this point I’d go to the kitchen and get us both ice cream—or, depending on the hour, a Grey Goose martini, his drink of choice. When I came back I’d entertain him by posing questions: “What if lightning hit the house and all our brains were fried and the whole family had Charles Bonnet syndrome. How would we know memory from space?”

“What if lightning hit everyone in the world?”

“How do we know it hasn’t?”

Four years after my father died, my brothers and I moved my mom from her assisted-living apartment in New Jersey to a nursing home in Connecticut. She was ninety-five. A urinary tract infection had rampaged through her body with the wrecking-ball force of a stroke. From one day to the next she lost the ability to speak and walk. She never recovered her legs, but when speech came back, we discovered that her dementia had amped up from forgetfulness to a kind of space-time confusion that my father never truly experienced.

It isn’t a bad thing, really. Now she has more visitors than the living world alone can provide. My grandparents. My Aunt June. And, of course, my dad, whose lunch of cottage cheese and fruit she never finishes fixing.

The second time I visit the nursing home, it’s for a meeting with my brothers and my mom’s caregiving team. No one knows me by name, and my mother has yet to start speaking again. I arrive early and decide to go for a walk around a small round pond below the main building. I’d glimpsed turtles there on my first visit and want to see more. My dad was a turtle lover and has made me one too. He used to bring them home to his backyard pond and feed them bread and my mom’s chopped meat.

"Never turn a turtle around if she’s trying to cross a highway. Take her to the other side. Turtles only go in one direction and like to follow straight lines." Another dictum.

I park in the half-full lot nearest the nursing home. You access the pond through a lower overflow lot, in which there’s only one car in the farthest-away space, blocking the pond’s entrance. “Of all the stupid places to park,” I think, annoyed. I begin to walk around it, but a woman sitting behind the wheel calls to me through the open passenger window. I’m startled—I thought the car was empty.

“Excuse me,” she begins, “are you looking for Pam?” I take in straggly grey hair, shoulder length. Nearly every other bottom tooth is missing.

“Uh … sorry … ” Confusion silences me.

“I said, are you looking for Pam?”

“I am Pam.”

“Oh,” she responds, thoroughly unsurprised. “Well, Pam just came by and said she’d be out walking around the pond, picking up rocks. Go on, now. If you hurry you can catch her.”

What a coincidence, I think mildly, the way you do when you park next to a blue Honda CRV at the supermarket just like yours. Another Pam who picks up rocks! For the past decade I’ve been creating installations of rocks I pick up and coat with liquid photo emulsion, print in the darkroom, and then put back in the environment—under water, usually, or sometimes in the snow or rain—and then record their deterioration. It’s an eerie business, contrasting our snapshot lives with the near-eternity of geological time. Essentially speeding up mortality so I can record our return to the environment with my camera.

I call the rocks “petrographs” after my last name, which means “rock” in Greek, and in honor of my dad, who was a mineral collector. “A happy coincidence,” as a gallery director once put it.

As I begin walking around the pond I can see immediately that there is no one in sight but the turtles. There are no rocks to pick up, and there is no other entrance or exit but the one I used.

A splinter of concern slips into my mind. As I round the pond, I gradually recognize the feeling. It’s familiar from youth and dreams: the sense of having wandered to the point of being lost.

I know where I am. The sun is shining, the nursing home looms above. I can see my brother’s car arriving. And yet I feel impossibly far away. The image of an eclipse darts across my mind. A phenomenon anchored in natural law yet brimming, despite the most scrupulous intentions of science, with supernatural portent.

Put it another way: at what point does coincidence end and meaning begin?

As I hurry away from the pond back into the lower parking lot, I notice the car is gone.


My nephew Stephen and my dad at his backyard pond ca. 1990, pictured
on an underwater petrograph printed on metamorphic mica schist.

In physics, coincidence has several meanings, one of which refers to two or more signals simultaneously in a circuit. I can account for one of those signals circuiting the pond at my mom’s nursing home. Me: the flesh-and-blood Pam. But the other one? I like to imagine the question mark that invisibly dogs my name breaking free, racing downhill as fast as punctuation can go just to get there before me, to leave a message with the woman in the car so I couldn’t miss its query. This time, this one time, it would be ahead of me. I would have to confront it.

And so I do. But okay, I give up: what exactly is the question?

I’ve told the story about the two Pams at the pond over and again, seeking insight. Some say, “Hell, that’s just a coincidence. Why are you wasting your time thinking about it?” Others are adamant it’s a message.

Some think the woman was a psychic or a witch (no one at the nursing home recognized her from my description, and confirmed she couldn’t have been a patient). A few people have questioned my mental state or asked if I might have dreamt the encounter. (Just fine, and no, no way.)

It has to mean something. It’s not everyday you’re encouraged to hurry up, go on, go through the gate and enter that metaphor just up ahead. Go on now! You’ll find yourself.

The ancient Celts didn’t understand time as a line, as we do, racing away from a starting point toward an end one. They saw it, and consequently the arc of human life, as circular. Everything and everyone, not just days and seasons, recycles and repeats, is destroyed and renewed. Experience is round like the earth itself.

Theoretical physicists agree: time bends. But pam, Pam? Why would it curve suddenly, switchbacking its tail like an eel on a sunny Tuesday morning in September at Masonicare in Connecticut?

And what if I’d caught myself on that round path with the turtles and frogs in quiet attendance—what message would I have received? Or … let’s wade further into the uncanny. What if I’d been the one with the message to deliver to my younger (or older) self? What would I have said?

•••

While I was writing this essay I came upon these stanzas by the British poet Philip Gross in a poem called “Epithalamium, with Squirrels.” An epithalamium is a poem celebrating a wedding.

… always meeting
ourselves coming back
around the corner like the skyline

of a wild surmise.
And whether these new

Sudden selves we are together are
The nouns, or whether
Now we know that particles are spin,
Vibration and momentum, it’s the verb
Of us that is the one true thing …

Let’s consider "the verb of us that is the one true thing": matter made energy.

My father died in 2012. My mom spent another year in the house they’d owned for more than fifty years and then moved to assisted living. By then every room—my dad’s lair, the basement, especially—was barnacled over in stuff that had to be pried loose. Marble columns from a bank torn down in the 1960s; my dad’s naval officer dress uniform; my mom’s oil lamp collection. About a thousand safety pins and rubber bands. And don’t even talk to me about the small lengths of sea-faded rope squirreled away in the garage.

On my last night in the house—this place my parents brought me home to when I was three days old—I scrubbed the basement floor until I sat and wept from every kind of exhaustion. I was alone and it was eleven p.m. I dropped the sponge with a splat and headed upstairs to sleep on the cot my brothers and I had propped up in my old bedroom.

At the foot of the stairs, I realized I’d left on all the lights in the back of the house. Without thinking, I retraced my steps, turning them off front-to-back, so that I had to walk through the house in complete darkness to get upstairs.

The last light I shut off was the brightest, the big central dining room chandelier. Testy, spent, sad, I thought, “Too damn bad, the darkness doesn’t scare me.” And then I spoke aloud. “But there aren’t any ghosts here anyway.”

At the very moment I uttered those words, I touched the dimmer switch for the chandelier. As I did, a bolt of blue-gold lightning shot from my fingertip across the dark, empty expanse of the kitchen and exploded in a ball of pure brightness over the sink.

I stood stock-still in the silent house. I think I was waiting for a replay to make sure it had really happened. Had it? Absolutely. I’d seen the lightning streak and the ball of fire, I was sure of it.

“Nice pyrotechnics, dad,” I said aloud, trying—and failing—to sound offhand and sarcastic, only half-kidding as I pictured him chuckling in a nearer-than-expected fifth dimension. I thought it would be comforting to hear my own voice, but the words echoed eerily in the dark.

My father had died about fifteen feet from where I was standing, in the room where we used to eat ice cream and drink martinis. It would be very like the amateur physicist in him to make a point about matter turned into energy. On the other hand, the last thing he’d want to do would be scare me out of my wits.

This last thought stuck. While my skin still registered the shock of strangeness—goose bumps made my arms into topographical maps—a visceral relaxation swept over me. I trudged to the cot and fell asleep in seconds.

•••

What to make of these last gifts from my parents? (Let’s call them that.) I press on them for meaning, but it slithers away like mercury. So I revel in the exceptionality they’ve conferred on difficult rites of passage. The way they’ve infused my middle age—the time of lost parents, when wonder grows weary—with a charged atmosphere of mystery, of treading beyond the pale of ordinary experience toward a place of revelation. All last autumn, after my encounter at the pond, I was haunted by a recurrent image. I saw myself going about my daily business atop a giant disk, like an old turntable, that for the first time since my early twenties, perhaps, had revolved a half-turn or so. I didn’t understand the consequences of the spinning, I was just aware of the mental image and the imagined motion.

Is coincidence the endgame of unconditional love?

My father, after his stroke—and then my mother, during her three years in assisted living—struggled through scorched and worn out synapses and poor eyesight to write my brothers’ and my names and phone numbers in shaky block letters on the pages of pocket notebooks and dog-eared mini yellow legal pads. They did this every day, over and over. Copying them out so they wouldn’t forget how to reach us. I still have one or two. I couldn’t bear to throw them all away.

Maybe, just maybe, the real Steve Petro Drive is the drive to connect—“Only connect!” said E. M. Forster—and in the afterlife, that drive no longer looks like a yellow legal pad. It has an electrical charge and looks like lightning.

Is a bolt of lighting a phone call from the dead?

Here’s one for my dad’s cocktail hour speculations: if my path crossed his in the desert after one of us had become energy and the other remained matter, what would that intersection look like? I’ll rephrase that as a question people have been asking for years: is love a form of energy?

I’m visiting my mom at the nursing home. It’s a beautiful day in July, and we sit outside, picnicking on sandwiches and chocolate peanut butter pie. Afterwards we move into the sun and I hold her hand. She has macular degeneration and is nearly blind; feeling my hand in hers is comforting. But suddenly she turns to me with concern.

“Where’s Pam?”

“I’m right here, mom. It’s me. Remember? I’m Pam, your daughter.”

“But there are two Pams.”

“No, only one. Just me.”

She considers this. A moment passes.

“Paaaaam!”

“Mom, I’m right here. I’m Pam!”

She looks at me as if seeing me with intense clarity. “No,” she explains carefully, “everybody’s Pam.”

It would be a mistake to put this down to “simple” dementia. I think she’s speaking a kind of truth. We had a similar exchange two months earlier as I was giving her a manicure. (Pink, always the palest pink.)

“Where’s June?” she asked me. My aunt—my favorite aunt and my mom’s younger sister and best friend—died in 2008.

“I don’t know, mom. I really wish I did.”

“And Dorothy?” Her other sister.

“She’s not here either.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Pam. I’m your daughter, Pam. June and Dorothy are your sisters.”

“No. Pam, June, and Dorothy are all Pam.”

“What? No, I’m the only Pam.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“We’ll have to tell Pam.”

No, mom! I’m Pam. I’m your daughter—you’re my mother.”

My mom considers this. “Well, I guess that seems to be the case.”

Here’s what I think. Dementia strips away the denotative definitions of the words we toss around every day and reveals what they really mean to us, individually. To me, Pamela Petro refers to the unique individual whose body I inhabit: daughter, writer, partner, professor. But to my mom, “Pam” is the nearest source of comfort and kindness. The nearest female confidante, companion, helper.

In my mother’s nursing home, I am multiple. There are many kind nurses and aides who are all Pam. Perhaps this is what the woman in the car at the pond was prophesying: now that your mother is here, you are no longer unique.

And maybe that’s why the turntable revolved. It was releasing me from the yoke, the blessing, the burden of my mother’s fierce and once singular love. It was bending what I’d perceived as the line of my life into a circle.

And if I walk that circle again, down by the pond, and encounter either the older or younger version of me (or both, wouldn’t that be something!), what message will I relate?

I’d tell them the same thing. “New dictum: don’t worry about whatever you’re worried about. Everybody’s Pam now.”