The wind was not enough to chap my cheeks, it didn’t blow my hair, but going back in for pantyhose made me late for work. Pantyhose aren’t a requirement or even a necessity, but that morning in the lull of the soft winds it felt like a pantyhose morning. My phone beeped as I struggled into them.
I didn’t answer. I know I’m late. You don’t have to tell me or send me a reminder. I’m the one that’s late. I know. I noticed as I dragged the pantyhose up my legs—black and red, horrible but thick—that my nails were chipped. No one else would notice but since I did I couldn’t stop staring. I sagged into the bed, staring at the nail underneath the red. Not even white. Off white. Slightly jagged.
When did it split?
I stumbled from the house and turned on the radio.
It doesn’t rain in Georgia, not in the winter, but the smell of the impending rain permeated my car. My umbrella was in the house; I could see it in my minds eye, laying helpfully in the foyer.
As I turned from the neighborhood my phone beeped again.
“Shit.” I pulled it from my bag, staring down at the message.
I stared into eternity.
Long enough to miss the light. And the next.
Long enough for the car behind me, a dingy red sedan with a haggard-looking soccer mom lifting her middle finger sky high to drive around.
The words were on the screen, bold and unmistakable, but my mind could not comprehend.
I tried to call. Call me. It’s mom. She’s dead.
I tried to call.
Mom is called?
Mom is dead.
My heart speeds up and stops—it does not begin again.
On its own accord my car pulls onto the side of the road and I stumble out of it, my knees hitting the ground, hand clutching the phone.
He answers immediately—yelling rather than talking.
“Where were you? Where are you now? Where are you? Someone has to identify the body. Where are you?”
“Where the hell are you?”
What. Where’s mom?
She’s in the morgue.
“Why?” A muffled, choking sound before he responds. Where is he?
“You need to come to the hospital. You need to be here.” My mind is slow, thinking through a fog or a haze. I’m late. These pantyhose and now I’m late.
“Just—just come. Where are you?”
I watch myself as I stand outside of my body. The eyes cartoonish in their width. Car door ajar, pantyhose ripped from thigh to ankle. A steel gray curtain of rain come to obscure me from the rest of the world. His voice comes not from the phone but from around me, miles away.
It is forever before I answer.
“I—I’m here. It’s raining.”
My sister is huddled in the corridor, crouched really. I walk through cement trying to get to her.
It is just like they said. The corridor? To the morgue? The way they show it in the movies?
Just like they said.
Her eyes lock with mine, but they don’t stay. She releases me and turns away, closing into herself.
I would go to her but I can’t. I can’t comfort her—I’m not her mother.
He runs up to me, his face contorted. He looks like he wants to hit something; his fists are clenched into balls, his normally clean cut suit wrinkled.
I want to comment on his state of dress.
What are you wearing?
“Why are we here?” I inquire instead, my voice echoing down the dark halls, turning corners and escaping us. He pulls back abruptly, a crease between his brow. He sees a ghost. He must have. I have grown heads. I must have.
“Wha—you have to. . .” He stops and presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose.
His ring is back on. They are together again, I suppose.
“You have to identify the body.”
“What? Wh—why can’t you?” He shakes his head wordlessly.
Ah. I’m the oldest. The responsibility falls to me.
“So you haven’t seen her?” He shakes his head again. Surging within me, a wave crashing over my heart—when did it begin beating again—hope.
“How do you know it’s her?” Again he stares. He sees the ghost.
“This is. . .they said it’s just a formality. It’s her.”
It isn’t like the movies. It’s nothing like they said. I don’t go into the room at all. A screen. A small screen. Surely they have the money for something larger? It seems strange to take people for their last image and show them on such a small screen.
Everything you are. And you get a small screen.
A small screen. A sheet pulled back. I step closer, involuntarily. My legs step forward, really. I am again on the outside.
The brows, thick and unkempt. Dark, darker than the curling hair even. They look like hers.
The eyes are closed but the lashes—clumped and short, lashes that anyone would hate, lashes like the ones she hated—those look like hers, too.
The nose is wide, the nostrils thick. Perpetually flared. Even there they are so. Like hers.
The mouth with the full lips. Its slightly parted. I stare at that longest. Perhaps its cold in there. Surely I should be able to see breath.
Out here I can see my own.
But the mouth does not move. Nothing moves past it. No breath expelled across the lips.
My brain cannot process the image. It looks like her. The eyes are closed but the lashes look like hers. The nose. The brows. The hair, pushed back in a style that she would never consent to, that looks like hers, too.
But it isn’t her.
Two days ago her eyes were open and bright. Her teeth glinted in her small, brief smile. She asked about muffins. Whether or not we wanted to take home muffins. Blueberry and some sort of oat.
We didn’t. Her muffins were awful. Are awful.
I shake my head once, then twice, and then like a mechanized doll I cannot stop shaking it.
No. No. No no no no no no no. That’s not her. That’s not my mother.
I see my sister stand from outside of my body. Her shoulders are heaving but no sound passes her lips either. Perhaps that is natural given where we are.
Hands that are not familiar grip my shoulders.
Get your breath off of my neck, I want to yell, but I can only form “no.”
That’s not my mother. That’s not her. That is not my mother.
His eyes meet mine and suddenly I am silenced, the breath taken from me. Not by him. It is just removed, gone.
A bespectacled man with downturned lips steps into my line of vision.
“Is that your mother?” As if he didn’t hear what I said.
Again my mouth moving on its own, disassociating itself from my brain.
How can it be? No. No. That is not my mother.
“What are you wearing?” The voice is thick and cloudy, almost like my sister’s voice but older. It came from her, though.
I stare down at myself. The pantyhose are ruined. I will never wear them again.
Fuck you, I want to yell at them. Fuck you. You’re ruined. You waste of time you stupid pieces of shit.
“I thought it might rain,” I respond and she nods. To her it makes sense. The image is gone from the screen but ironed into my mind.
I glance up the corridor as a woman with a clipboard walks briskly toward us. She talks. We listen. I sign papers. I listen.
She keeps referring to the body and she uses my mother’s name. But that isn’t her. That is not my mother.
I escape to the restroom—how have we gotten to a funeral home—and pull out my phone.
I dial her number.
She does not answer.
There is a rumor that she took a gun and put it in her mouth.
She was listening to the third act of La Traviata. As Violetta died, she closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
She was wearing white. My sister heard the sound and ran to the room. The door was locked. The gardener and the neighbor—a friend and ex lover—helped break down the door.
You could barely tell that that was what she’d done, at first.
My mother never locked doors. When we were younger she removed our doorknobs—I was 13, he was 10, and she was 6. She removed every doorknob except for the entry doors.
There are no closed doors in my house, she slurred, her heated breath coming in waves against us.
We stood silently, made of stone.
If we were silent she may pass us by.
My mother didn’t have a gardener. She did at one point, but he actually did become a lover.
It didn’t end well.
She hated gardens, after.
My sister hasn’t lived with my mother since she moved away for college. She didn’t finish.
She’s still finding herself.
My mother claims—claimed—the wrinkles, the deep lines that formed around her mouth—were due to my sister’s finding herself. The ones between her brows—those belong to me.
My mother hated white. She wore it once, for her first wedding. She wasn’t a virgin—hadn’t been for years—but my grandmother was old-fashioned. She let out the midsection before the wedding. The dress was still snug.
My grandmother managed to stay out of every photograph.
My mother pretended to know Italian. She didn’t.
She was listening to La Traviata. That is true. She didn’t understand a word, not until she dated Charlie, a “real” Italian. She liked the way he whispered in her ears.
I told her he was only whispering a menu and he probably found the interpretation in google. She frowned at me and rolled her eyes.
She didn’t own a gun.
She did keep every prescription she was ever written. Every one. She never threw away a pill.
I told her they were all expired. She said medicine didn’t expire.
I was wrong. She was right.
She took them all, probably during the first act.
She probably drew her last breath with Violetta.
That part was true, also.
The jagged edge of the scar raises slightly on the thumb of my left hand, a small break in the smooth whorls of my fingerprint.
Amidst the lie of memory, the sensation of drowning holds. The location changes—a pool, the ocean, the lake behind Grandmother’s house. The last seems most likely; we spent many summers there locked outside with the two-word command “go play” booming from a faceless depth before us.
Our play consisted of the dangerous practice of the dead man’s float.
My cousin taught us. In order to play dead and look believable you had to relax.
More experienced actors opened their eyes, boldly staring apparently into the murky brown-green depths.
A rumor grew that if you stared for long enough and thought “I think I see a dead man” you could see the date and manner of your own death.
I went first. My body was simultaneously cold and sticky hot; briefly I considered bowing out but we were there with the cousins for another week. Mom would be leaving tomorrow and coming to get us in six days. I wouldn’t dare face them without being able to properly float as a dead man.
The water was cool and calm, lapping over my body and enveloping me in a familiar comfort. I relaxed, wondering if I could drift off, telling myself that I could probably float for at least a minute and a half before I would need to breathe.
I opened my eyes. The immediate burn shattered the calm—from miles away I heard the screeching of loons, but they were swallowed almost immediately as the calm of the water shifted, beginning to strangle me in a murderous caress.
I opened my mouth to scream and took in water; flailing my body began to burn, the pain rushing from my limbs into my brain.
Dying. I’m dying. I thrashed about, suspended in life for what felt like eternity.
Cool arms dragged me to the surface; vaguely I was aware of Mom’s familiar warmth, her lips pressing against me, coupled with the sting of her repeated slaps across my cheeks.
When I came to I saw the wrinkle in between her brows first.
Our eyes met, the familiarity of hers softening me and steadying my breathing. My entire body ached as I struggled to sit up, my throat soured with acid.
Mom’s eyes held mine until I steadied my body; she reached back her hand and slapped me, her palm colliding with my face with a force that caused lights to burst in my vision. My ears rung from the pain and the embarrassment. The cousins, aunts, Grandmother, my siblings, neighbors—all were there.
“Don’t you ever do that again! Don’t you ever do that again! Do you understand me?”
My eyes burned again, this time with the unforgiving pain of unshed tears. Fleeing into the house Mom’s face froze in my mind, the angry curl of her lips coupled with the unabashed fear in her eyes.
She found me in the closet of the room my cousin and I shared. I was staring down at the cut on my finger, deep and fresh, scarlet flowing gently and dripping onto the pale carpet.
She sighed as she slumped down beside me, taking my hand in hers wordlessly.
She pressed our fingers together, side by side.
On her hand a fresh cut blossomed, the still-flowing blood seeping into her own whorls.
“I have one, too.”
In the now I reach for the memory, gripping it to me.
I lay in her closet among her things, picking at the old wound. Not even a scab. Just a scar.
Memories lie. Memories change. In my memory I tell her I hate her after. Right after she says she has a cut I tell her that.
I hope the memory is wrong. They lie. They aren’t perfect.
We weren’t perfect.
Hate was strong. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t.
In the now my ears ring. I hear the words that I hope I didn’t say. They showed me her face. They should have showed the hand.
I could go back. I would go back. I would ask to see her hand first. Before she even noticed me bleeding.
I wouldn’t say it. She wouldn’t believe it.
I wouldn’t have the scar.
I never laugh when it rains. A family trait; rain has never crept into the laugh lines of my face. I’ve never stood in a rain that I thought was warm and comforting.
I stand in the rain now, missing her.
She would yell now. Something about paying for me to go to the salon only to mess up my hair.
Then it would move into selfishness. We were always selfish. She could have gone to Broadway. But we were selfish.
Was she thinking about that when she died?
She was alone. She knew she would be.
But she made an appointment to meet with friends. I don’t know them. She never kept friends for very long.
She knew they would worry. She wanted them to.
Did she mean to leave this behind?
She didn’t leave a note. That makes it worse. I have composed the note for her.
It is short.
“Finally. I can be someone.”
It sounds like her. Something she would write. Something she would want written.
My best friend stands beside me, close enough so that I can feel her heat, but far enough so that I don’t think she’s touching me.
There is no sensation that burns like that of a grief touch.
The pity will drown you far faster than the tears.
“She was brave,” she mumbles. Her words come out so softly that I wonder if I’ve imagined them.
They sound like my best friend’s words, but it feels like my mother would say it.
I want to ask, “what part? What was brave?” but I don’t want an answer.
What if she says leaving. Making the choice.
Taking death into her hands.
I don’t want to hear her answers, what she feels was brave, so I don’t respond.
We choose the gravestone together. I remember one that we saw years ago, when Grandmother passed away.
Grandmother was old. Older than Mom. It wasn’t as much of a surprise.
When we saw, “how terrible it is to love something that death can touch,” Mom drew in a breath, held it for longer than I thought was possible. When she let it out it was cold as it swept across my cheek.
She was calmer after. Somehow those words made her calmer.
I choose them for her stone. It won’t be ready in time. But she will be there where I can find her for when it’s ready.
The rain begins as I stand in front of her space. The space that she will occupy. I lay on the ground next to it and the director stands looking away without judgement. As if he’s seen it before.
That death can touch.
It grips me.
Death grips me.
I wonder if she’s here. Or anywhere. And then my mind empties and I can only think about the rain. Wondering if it can do what Grandmother’s lake could not.
Later when I leave I search myself.
Am I like my mother?
The rain did not finish the work of the lake.
I find myself relieved. I take a breath, let it pass over my lips when it has cooled in my lungs.
I am glad that the rain did not.
They fill the pews and spill into the corridors, emanating a chill that would rival the newly formed grave. As I pass mechanically, simultaneously counting the steps and searching their faces they avert their eyes, futile attempts to hide themselves from me, the windows of their unfamiliar faces drawn and shuttered against us. I look to them vainly to mirror my grief, to ascertain what grief should look like—perhaps what mine looks like–but I find only shuttered windows and granite countenances.
When they believe I am not gazing absently at them they purloin glances like beggars, lifting her memory from me.
“She’s so strong,” they’ll whisper amongst themselves about me later, relieved to be free from the burden of my sorrow. I glance up, quickly, catching widened eyes and tight smiles. The eyes dart away, followed by shudder.
Perhaps death is catching.
Swallowing hard, I smother the stone that forms in my throat; my nostrils flare and acid burns my eyes, but stoic and still I remain. A lone tear threatens to escape, and so I cast my treacherous orbs downward, staring at the absurd lucidity of my Funeral Shoes.
Loving Mother. These words catch me off guard. Cast out from an unfamiliar mouth. Cold and damp, the words settle over me echoing in my ears. Loving Mother. Loving Mother.
What did I expect? Of course I knew this part was coming. He reaches for my hand, I reach for hers. Our grips are so tight that it would hurt, if we weren’t here. Now the sting is a blessed distraction, a release for phantom pain, that distant ache. With them gripping me—us gripping each other—it can be shared. The burden of grief is shared.
I am faintly aware of my name being spoken, the thousands of eyes that find me.
They exude a loathsome sadness that I want to cast back at them, and it makes me ill to find them all here. Who are they?
He helps me to my feet, and graciously I glide to the podium. The sickening smell of flowers threatens to overtake me. A thousand poppies, white and innocent, leer up at me. Who sends flowers? Why? They smell like death, and I hold my breath against them.
In solemn silence I stand for a moment, my heart thrashing in its cage.
Why am I here?
Why did I agree to stand here, to do this? I take a moment and look down upon my audience, imagining again their eagerness to assess my grief—to steal stories of her, to make her belong to them. That’s what this is for. She doesn’t need it. Of course she would want it. She would want us to stand here, mourning her. She would want these people to regret her passing—real or imagined, no matter—she would welcome this attention all the same. She would want our minds to be empty save for thoughts of her, only her, regrets for all we did not say, all that we did not do to please her, to love her, to make her whole.
All of the beautiful things in life my mother taught me.
Mentally I have spoken the words a thousand times, coaxed them gently from my lips, letting them fall like white poppies themselves, numbing me and marking where she fell. But now they are stuck, and the lie of her lies exposed before us.
“M-my mother. Loving mother. Wife. Friend. Sister. Daughter. She would be so happy that you all are here. My mother was. . .beautiful. She was the middle child, between two brothers.” Why am I saying this? Surely if they know—knew—her they would already be familiar with this. Surely they don’t care. “She was young. And. . .complex.” I pause here. My heart pounds ever harder and the blood rushes to my ears.
How did I fit her life onto this tiny index card?
What about all of the things I’m not allowed to say?
I’m not allowed to talk about my first memory of my mother. It would tarnish her. It’s rude to speak ill of the dead—even if it is true. Lie. You lie about the dead. If he was a crook, you say that he was a shrewd businessman. If she was a bitch, you say she was strong-willed. If she was your mother—I hear her voice.
The bible says honor your father and your mother. My children have never honored me.
“She would be so happy that you all are here,” I finish. Briskly I walk back to my seat, avoiding their eyes—and her. I have not looked at her since The Day. When I sit, I think I see movement, and finally my eyes lock on her coffin. I am only feet away, on the second row. The First Mourners usually take their rightful mourning place at the front, but, without speaking about it to one another, we chose two rows back.
In case her illness was catching.
In the event death is contagious.
There is singing now, and I gaze upon her, staring at her chest, wanting to catch her breathing. She was a week ago. She was breathing then. When she offered those horrible muffins. How is she still, so still now? Where is she? Is she anywhere? Does she know we are thinking about her? That I am thinking about her? I force my eyes downward, again, angry at her for controlling me. Angry at myself for mourning her improperly.
Through the haze we follow the coffin out of the church, watch as she is placed in the back of that depressing car. I hate hearses. There is something so profoundly grim about the loneliness of them. We are forced into the Mourning Limo, and we make our slow drive to the graveyard. I wonder faintly why cars have stopped—these people don’t know my mother. No one cares enough to piss a fire out when you are here, but when you’re gone, they stop traffic.
We sit stiffly, graveside. The air is cool and still. The day is plain, the sun absent. Not rainy, not sunny. Just plain. The grass is spongy and damp, and I am aware of tracking the Georgia red clay that my mother so despised onto the fake green grass that keeps the chairs, which are covered with a strange blue carpet. I presume the carpet is meant to comfort The First Mourners, but it only makes me uncomfortable. One homily was not enough for her evidently, because the preacher, a forgettable, small man must again speak.
He pronounces her name wrong. This surprises me; not because she was an active churchgoer–she wasn’t. But because her name is so common. How do you fuck up such a common name so badly?
There is a glint bouncing from a gravestone–JONES–who has been here long enough to look a natural part of the scenery. To presumably find peace. The sun has appeared from behind the film of clouds. I wonder if this should give me hope. Find light in dark places or something. It doesn’t, and I don’t. My uncle stands, gazes at myself and my siblings, says something fierce and passionate. My ears are still ringing, so I don’t hear him. When his mouth stops moving, I nod forcefully, and attempt to look as veiled as possible. He takes a clod of dirt—so soft it is almost mud, really—and tosses it into the hole. It is sad, but comical. Now he has dirt under his nails, mud on his hands to take with him. How symbolic will he find this later? When he discovers the mud stuck to his snakeskin shoes. He isn’t used to this climate; he’ll shit himself when he realizes they’re ruined.
We stand shoulder to shoulder, and watch, silently, as mourners move around, speaking in hushed voices. They pick up a flower here, a plant there. Two women reach for the same peace lily. There is a stare battle before the smaller woman decides to settle with a few cloying sweet roses.
We do not move. Stoic and serene we stand, as the flowers and plants are picked away. They have lowered her into the ground, and my throat hurts so badly I think I will be sick. They have not yet covered her, and I am struck by the need to yell.
Wait! I have something to say. We’re not ready yet. She’s not ready. I’m not ready.
My brother, perhaps sensing my anguish, grabs my hand once more. I grab my sisters, and she grabs the air and holds on to nothing. The three of us stand this way as people come up. They take hugs, kiss cheeks, give us sad, encouraging smiles.
I stare down, willing my eyes to pierce the wood that holds her. I think the words, hoping she can hear them from where she is, hoping she feels my anger.
I hope that when I grow up I can be half the mother you think you were. Guilt, unbridled and unwelcome, holds me, overtakes me, and refuses to let me go. Truth appears behind the guilt, swallowing me in its cheshire cat smile.
I love you. I love you. I loved you.