Sweat rolls down my back and pools into my bra. It’s mid-June in southern Missouri, the heat and humidity an oppressive blanket. Inside, my throat feels clogged with desiccated leaves; a lump the size of a walnut wedges into my gut.
Fact: Tanned arms held out various Smartphones, gazes misdirected, as a generation of cousins pressed their faces together at my mother’s funeral.
I smile as shutters click, a conditioned response, but inside the tang of bile bubbles in my mouth. Who takes family photos at a funeral?
A welcoming breeze flitters past, ruffling our hair; a rainbow of blonde and brown, natural curls and chemically straightened, and as it does, I taste her in my mouth, rolling my tongue over the grit of guilt and pain and disappointment.
It’s been ten days. Two-hundred and forty hours of wrestling with the logistics of death, of explaining things to my children, of living when she was no longer.
And yet this is okay, the alternative unbearable. This is how she must have felt the night she crammed candy-colored pills down her throat, her lips parched and parted in desperation to end the pain, to extinguish the life force from within. She topped the mountainous pile of pills in her belly with a substantial swig of alcohol, a coating of dairy cream.
We’re told the fourteen day old scene was “quite serene,” that they had seen worse. But I hadn’t. The gift of a varied imagination is a blessing and curse as gruesome images expand exponentially.
Grotesque vignettes flittered across my lids a million times in those intervening hours. I saw her lying on her bed, her face in a state of ghoulish decomposition.
Until the day of her funeral, I never thought about the last time I would see my mother. In my imagination, a loving bedside scene, mom softened in body and spirit from the harsh realities of her life, the stunning realization that it was over, this hell she had dragged us through. The skin of her hands would be paper thin, a web of blue-violet rivers leading to her heart. She might have pulled my own hands—showing the wear and age of an older woman—to her lips and brushed them with a kiss, that said more than she ever could—that she was sorry for the squelched childhood, for the hateful words, the immature actions, threats, and manipulations.
This is not the way it goes.
She is fifty-six. I do not see her hand; I do not see her face, either.
My last glimpse of my mother is her remains contained within a metal box, one someone might keep a roll of quarters and a stack of singles for a garage sale, customers crawling along with a lifetime of prized possessions tucked in their arms. I won’t see her face one last time.
There is no body.
Somewhere lodged within, my mother felt a psychic connection to the supremely grotesque acts contained within the barbed fences of a concentration camp, her body thrust into a furnace to disintegrate into bits of bone and dust.
She would have detested a cremation.
Fact: Flesh-eating bacteria invaded her body post-mortem, carving a hollow. The 1000-watt smile dimmed to a mouth filled with graying teeth, loose and wobbly like tombstones, her high cheekbones the color of clay, protruding; a gelatinous canker developing on the side resting on the pillow.
And yet I feel unease that her body has been reduced to a chalky grit that fits into a metal box. I accept that the last time I saw my mother was at the airport, a caravan of vehicles depositing loved ones at the curbside, a hasty hug good-bye, my children in the backseat watching the exchange, a traffic director urging me forward.
Briefly, from the rear view mirror, I glimpsed her as she presented her ticket to the person at the counter, and then slipped inside. Later, she accused me of not loving her, of not repeating those words back to her like a parrot as she exited to the car.
If she uttered those words, I did not hear them. Or perhaps, they rolled off her tongue and I chose not register because they’re said in vain, another empty promise.
It’s been several months since we buried my mother. I have not talked to anyone from that day. Until the phone beckons me closer, a life-line tugging me like a magnet. I dial. It’s a number I am not accustomed to dialing, but it bounces back like a boomerang, the digits flying off my fingers like nobody’s business.
“Hi, baby,” the pitch and timbre sound like my mother’s, so much that for a moment I think I am speaking to her. I must swallow the lump in my throat and spit something out.
“Hi—I wanted to call. See how things are going.”
I listen as she talks about sorting through my mother’s home, the emotional toll rocking her body and spirit. I hear it in her voice: weary and exasperated. Frustrated. She speaks of the struggle of going through my mother’s belongings, of emptying out the house. “I can’t do it alone. But it’s the only way.”
“Your husband?” I ask hopefully. “Jennifer? Jill?”
“They have lives of their own.”
I know this, but maybe in shifts they could work together for the common good.
“And Grandma is no help whatsoever. She takes each object into her hands, holds it to her face, inhales your mother’s scent and wants to talk.”
A pinprick snakes my back. I shudder. No mother should endure the excruciatingly painful experience of sorting her deceased daughter’s belongings.
I think for a moment that I will go to Missouri, work side by side with my aunt and grandmother. This is what good daughters do.
I know how the key would fit into the lock, first a jiggle to the left, a turn to the right. A ribbon of pain would wind through, a dulled sense that what I was doing will never be enough. I’d slip inside, the stench of betrayal singeing my nose, a whiff of decay. I would glimpse the same childhood photographs displayed on walls and side tables, a decades old photograph of me in my nursing whites; her knitting and sewing.
I do not go. I do not see these things. I do not know my mother’s life.
Tired. Weary. Confused. Numb.
“The hazmat team needs to come in first,” my aunt tells me.
My gut rolls over. This is something for blood splattered on the wall, brains blown out; not my mother.
“We’ll call someone, a service.” She says it with such finality, a clean, orderly way of taking care of things.
Silently, I nod, accepting this plan.
“And then I’ll go in, do a cleansing first—something spiritual. I’ll open the windows, light some candles, air it out.”
I recall when my mother moved into this place. She said, “Leslie, it has such good energy. I’m going to make a wonderful life here.”
My aunt continues, “We’ll hire someone to come in and sort through your mother’s belongings—give it to charity. It’s what she would’ve wanted.”
It pains me to think of some woman outfitted in something my dead mother once wore on her battered frame, the fibers woven with psychological pain, cigarette smoke threading its way into the pores of their skin.
I think of the treasures she had cluttering up her home, the dolls in the closet used as models for sewing miniature couture given to young girls like my own, the tiny toy stove that will cook nothing, not even a morsel of hope.
Ghouls: They slither in clearing out the homes of the dead, piling whole lives into boxes and garbage bags and lug them into donation trucks stamped with the name of the charity emblazoned on the side like Miss Mary Sunshine. The tasteless remains are left to wilt alongside the curb, like my mother molting inside, her body a desiccated cocoon.
Again, the thought crosses my mind: I’ll do it. Five hundred miles and a lifetime of estrangement don’t bother me.
But they do.
I will not leave my children. I will not leave my home, my life, my husband. For a moment, I am proud of my tenacity, to put the people I love the most in this world above my mother. And then, I falter. In what manner does my decision become selfish?
Aunt Sue does not push, she doesn’t even suggest. But I can hear the plea in the space between her words, “It’s so hard.”
My mouth twitches.
“The hardest part is her sewing room.”
I know the space. A room wedged between her bedroom and the living room, the window blinds askew, a place for the cat to perch. I see the bookshelf loaded with titles on self-love, spirituality, the color of her parachute. Tucked on a low shelf is the pastel quilted binding of my baby book and then next to it—my sister’s.
I see the pocket-sized bright blue spelling dictionary in my mind’s eye, its edges bent and scraped, the orange price-tag from Skaggs still affixed in the upper right hand corner.
That spelling dictionary, with pages and pages of words might be the only thing I long for from my mother’s home. Not the dishes she ate her last meal on, not the baby book with images of a newborn me wrapped in a receiving blanket, it’s not the rosebud sheets, or the photographs scattered on walls, and not her sewing.
I do not want her personal affects. I do not want anything with her skin cells or bodily fluids trapped within.
And while I realize the spelling dictionary may contain partial fingerprints and the smell of dust that may or may not be remnants of her skin, it’s the love of words and story that got me through when she could not. This is what I long for.