Two months shy of the death date my mother had written on her calendar in red pen, Sol and I sublet our studio apartment to an art student for the school year. We’d keep the shop space downstairs.
“Your situation is interesting,” the art student said as he signed the lease agreement. “If there’s a gay kid in the family, it’s always the gay kid who has to take care of the sick parent. I always thought that was because the gay kid wouldn’t have any children of their own. But that’s obviously not true for you.”
I shrugged. “Always great to be the gay kid.” And we packed up the car again for our move across town.
“Let’s make a pact,” Sol said as she turned the key in the ignition. “If we start plotting to murder your mother, we have to move out.”
I laughed. “Agreed.” But I knew she wasn’t kidding.
The house wasn’t a duplex anymore, but my mother’s now-master bedroom was separated from our smaller bedrooms by the dining room, living room, and the huge unusable kitchen.
Our first weeks in the house, I focused on cooking. On the camping stove in the back yard, I made calabacitas, ancho and mild green chile stew. When the doorbell rang and my mother spied one of the hospice nurses, she hissed in my ear: “It’s one of those maidens of death. Send her away.”
We’d moved here to “help,” but what could we do? Our joint tasks included shopping for organic groceries and cooking when my mother was home, not asking where she was going when she left, and being polite to Ronald who came and went at odd hours carrying expensive building supplies and appliances he didn’t seem to know how to install.
“I’m here with electrical wire,” he announced one night after dark. He had a key to the front door. “Anyone know how to wire a place?”
My solo tasks included paying all the bills, keeping track of my mother’s alternative healer appointments, and making sure there was a steady stream of Netflix noirs coming to the mailbox.
Sol, for her part, was to make herself available to move heavy furniture from one end of the house to the other and back again whenever my mother screamed her name.
I stumbled all the time. I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I didn’t take my contact lenses out even at night, didn’t want to get caught off guard.
And then one day a bird fell from the eaves in the front of the house. A dead bird on the cement walkway just before the front door. I didn’t think much of that first dead bird, but they kept falling. Every week, then every few days, then every day. Dead birds, covered with ants when I found them.
I was afraid the dead birds would spook my mother, so I scooped them up with the little garden shovel and buried them in a secret bird cemetery in the back yard.
“Did you always have a problem with those birds?” I asked the previous owner of the duplex when I saw him in the produce aisle at Healthy Wealthy. He was wearing spandex bike shorts. “Falling from their nests onto the walkway every day?”
He bagged his butternut squash, “I always loved those birds,” he hummed. “With their nests in the trees and in the eaves. I can’t remember any falling. Maybe though. Maybe once,” he said as he walked away.
Ronald’s worker, Julio, cried over the bathroom sink. He was one of the men my mother saved from early retrement. He’d lost his only child in a drunk driving accident and I found him there late one afternoon, just crying. “My daughter is dead and my wife is married to someone else and all I want is a loving family around me and Eve has exactly that and she can’t see it.”
But my mother was standing silent out in the hall and she heard him him say that, so Julio wasn’t allowed in the house anymore and the workers who came after that only spoke Spanish and they didn’t cry in the bathroom.
She counted the days to October 18, 2010 and said, “I’ll be dead in seven weeks.”
Then, “I’ll be dead in thirty-three days.”
“I’ll be dead in three weeks. That’s twenty-one days, you know?”
“I’ll be dead this time next week.”
Her voice was always monotone and I didn’t know how to answer her, so I just shook my head and said, “No. You’re doing good, Mom. You’re doing really well.”
I wanted to make sense of these days, but just filled my journal with unconnected notes.
Been here two weeks. Not going well.
I ask Mom if she’s talked to my sister, Leslie, and she says “I’m done with your sister.”
Leslie texts: I am so ready for both those parental freaks to die.
My mom’s getting so skinny. She only eats a few bites.
There’s no way she’ll be dead in a week unless she’s planning to blow her brains out.
She doesn’t sleep
In Paris, Alice B. took care of everything. Gertrude just had to be the genius. All her energy and time—just to be a genius. Sometimes I think, seriously? I’m a genius. Where’s my Alice B.? I have to move boxes, call hospice, pay the bills, pay Maia’s college tuition, take Maxito to preschool, note my mother’s new symptoms. Who’s going to take care of me? When do I get to be a genius?
On the morning my mother thought she would die, she marched out into the living room in her leopard-print robe.
I was sipping black coffee.
“Get a load of this,” she said as she handed me a piece of paper. A printout of an email from Leslie. “For the record, I merely told your older sister as nicely and as rationally as I could that I thought she ought go back to college and finish her B.A. in anything or come and live with us here. Excuse me, but what is she doing with her life? And look at this. This is the thanks I get?”
From: Leslie Gore
Date: October 18, 2010
To: Eve De Bona
Subject: Re: reality
When I said “never bring it up again” I meant just that. I am never going back to college and I am never moving to that godforsaken high desert.
You are a broken record.
Stop telling everyone what they ought to do and what they ought to want and listen for a change.
If you want to see me, buy a ticket, if you don’t want to see me, never mind, I would probably need six months of therapy to get over your abuse anyways.
See you in the next lifetime.
“In the next lifetime?” my mother said gravely. She pointed to the brain tumor under her eyebrow.
I texted my sister: I can’t believe you just contracted for another lifetime. I’m so done with her after this one.
That night, I dreamed of the mountain lion I’d never seen. The lion paced around the yard, slept, waited. I tried to scare the lion away through the windows. I told Maxito and Sol to keep the doors closed so it couldn’t get in, but the lion came and went as she pleased through the dog door in the laundry room. No one seemed afraid. We all knew the lion was just looking for my mother. And my mother wasn’t home.
I opened my eyes in the dark of the bedroom. Sol snored softly next to me and my mother’s silhouette was in the doorway waving a giant kitchen knife over her head. I nudged Sol, but she didn’t wake. Maxito’s room was across the hall. I felt a familiar calm kind of panic, racked my brain for what I was supposed to do or say next to make sure nobody died tonight. Surely my mother didn’t want me to laugh. Not now. Or did she? “What are you doing, Mom?”
The clock that glowed green from my nightstand told me it was just after 3 a.m.
“Look what I found,” my mother whispered. She held the knife by its wooden handle and it glinted, a little, in the moonlight. “In my new dishwasher.” She hummed a few lines from The Sounds of Silence and grabbed the tip of a knife with her free hand, moved the blade against her throat. “Knives like this don’t go in the dishwasher. Do they, Tiniest?”
I was careful to move very slowly as I got out of bed. “Of course the knife doesn’t go in the dishwasher.” I moved closer to her, kept my voice low and calm. “I don’t know how it got there. It was a mistake. Give me the knife?” I held out my hand for it.
My mother glared at me. “You wish I were dead.” She pressed the blade into her throat now.
“I don’t wish you were dead, Mom. Give me the knife. I’ll wash it properly in the sink. With organic soap.”
She narrowed her eyes, turned the tip of the knife toward me now, pointed it at my chest, but held it steady a half-inch from my skin. Nobody likes the tip of the knife pointed into her chest, but relief flooded my veins: I recognized that look on my mother’s face. Just a glimmer of bright behind her eyes. And I knew what I was supposed to do. I laughed. So she wouldn’t stab me.
“C’mon, give me the knife, Mom.”
She smiled wide, showing the one dead tooth on the right side, stepped back as she loosened her grip on the handle and let me take the knife. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” she laughed. “If I was that crazy?” She smiled as she backed away, kept smiling and backing away.
Her figured disappeared and then her shadow disappeared. I poked my head into Maxito’s room to make sure he was still alive, watched the rise and fall of his chest in the light of the half moon.
In the morning, three dead birds huddled frozen on the front step.
The cold season was coming.
And I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the birds that needed burying.
ARIEL GORE is the editor and publisher of Hip Mama, the original alternative parenting magazine, and the author of seven other books of fiction and nonfiction that endeavor, each in their way, to tell the truth about love, violence, creativity and caregiving. She teaches writing online at LiteraryKitchen.com and peddles zines at Hipmamazine.com. Based in Santa Fe for the past four years, she and her extended queer post-hipster family are headed back home to Oakland, Calif. Her new memoir, The End of Eve, was published by Hawthorne Books on March 1.