In All of Us Together in the End, Virginia author Matthew Vollmer places a routine call to his father just before Christmas 2019 and is surprised to hear his usually unflappable dad say, “Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you. Some weird stuff’s been happening.” Vollmer knows that his mother’s recent death has been hard on his father, but what he doesn’t know about are the lights “appearing after dark in the woods where my father lived,” Vollmer writes, “a stone’s throw from our family cemetery, on a hundred acres of wilderness bordering national forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina.” The lights blink and dance randomly, can best be seen through an open window, and all but disappear when his dad picks up his phone to film them. Weird stuff, indeed.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Vollmer worships his parents. He describes them in glowing terms as kind, faithful, selfless, and accomplished people of deep religious faith. As a child, he admits, “I just wanted them to be more human, because then I’d have less to live up to. Because when I measured myself against my parents, the distance between who I was and the kinds of people they were seemed insurmountable.”
This gulf is widened further when, as an adult, he finally rejects his parents’ Seventh-day Adventist faith, a belief system that grounded and sustained their family all of Vollmer’s life. His abandonment of the religion pains his parents but does not in any way diminish their love, although his mother worries that they will no longer be “together in the end,” if the glory of heaven is denied to her disbelieving son.
Vollmer paints a gently quirky picture of his fun-loving mom, from her ability to touch her nose with her tongue, to her affection for peanut-butter-and-applesauce toast and Maxwell House International Café instant coffee, to her disdain for slow drivers and Willie Nelson’s braids. When she is diagnosed in her mid-60s with dementia, then Alzheimer’s, and finally Parkinson’s disease, she begins a decade-long decline, which he dubs “the Great Forgetting.”
He writes poignantly about its impact on her caretakers, especially his dad, who stoically bears the burden of her daily needs with gentleness and compassion: “…if and when you lose your mind, the whole world slowly goes dark. At night, windows become opaque and reflect twisted apparitions. You can’t say what you want because as soon as you start your sentence, you’ve forgotten what you wanted to say: the words vanish in your mind and your mouth downshifts to mumble. Forget writing, you can’t figure out how to use a pen. Nobody knows what’s going through your mind, but the consensus seems to lie somewhere between ‘not much’ and ‘probably more than we can imagine.’”
When the lights appear three months after his mother’s death, Vollmer’s response is to throw himself into researching the eerie phenomenon. He seeks advice from books, websites, friends and colleagues, an Episcopal priest, and even a shamanic psychotherapist, who insists that his mother is “keeping part of her electromagnetic field in this astral dimension” as a message to his dad. Other theories include aliens, fairies, swamp gas, fireflies, and foxfire. He writes, “I learned that lights whose source could not be identified had gone by many names. Corpse candles. Flying flame. Foo fighters. Ghost beacons. Night suns. Spook lights. Spirit lanterns. Unctuous vapors.” Meanwhile, his dad seems unbothered by and perhaps even takes solace from what soon becomes a semi-nightly ritual.
All of Us Together in the End is a memoir about accepting both the certainties of life and its mysteries — whether natural or supernatural. The imprint of parent upon child, the loss of faith, and the devastation of grief are important aspects of Vollmer’s journey toward healing and acceptance, as he comes to grips with his early religious training, his own personal beliefs, and the power of love to cover not only a multitude of sins but, it seems, a certain amount of spookiness.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.