|Jul/Aug 2015 Nonfiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
Afterward the world was an insult. Sky, earth, people, books, all a dull affront. Phones kept ringing, appointments were made and kept, the sun came up and went down. People said life would go on, and he was numbly angry when he found out they were right. He didn't have words for the feeling at first, and then when the words came they sounded silly, so he didn't say them, even to himself, after that first time he heard them as if somebody else were talking in his head: This all should have stopped, some voice said. It all should have stopped when we put Rita in the ground.
Outside the church he remembered a picture he'd seen that was like the feeling, a painting of Icarus dying. Most of the painting was just the routine gestures of life, ships in a harbor, a man plowing in a field, a shepherd gazing off into some wrong distance, nobody noticing the splash, the legs in the water, the sodden wings. There was a poem about it he used to know the words to. About suffering they were never wrong, he thought as he swung his leg off the bike. He thought about the picture and the poem and he thought that even the feeling, the insult, was ordinary. He thought the word banal. But the word felt hollow, too, next to the feeling the world made in his stomach. It felt too big for him to understand but too small for him to feel.
He locked his bike next to an angel with a writhing devil under one foot, pointing a spear at his face. In school the priest had called it conservation of matter. The priest said that God could make something out of nothing. That is what makes God different from us, the priest had said. We can only make nothing out of something. And we can't even really do that. Matter is neither created nor destroyed. We are particles, the priest said, little bits of matter held in some shape for a little while. But eventually the particles break apart, take some other shape. Matter is preserved, but never shape. The priest said we only know the shapes of things. He said words are the names of shapes. Wind naming wind in a whirl of dust.
He thought about her. He thought about her body, about the strong curve of her hands, about the paper skin above her eyebrows, her smile. He thought how her body shaped a sea, an ocean he had breathed in once. He thought about her in the dry ground of the graveyard in Helena, the sea evaportating into windblown dirt. He thought about his family, her sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, himself. When he was little he had first learned all their names as one wordshape, of which his own name was only the last breath. Annetommarypatkateeileenrollymargijennymarthajohn. He thought of them now and they were like electrons, all flying off away. The nucleus is gone, he thought. His mind could not hold the shape of the thought. He had no name for the feeling that gave him. He thought it might be entropy.
Sweat ran down the back of his neck as he pushed the big oak door and stepped into the cool blindsmelling of the church. His mind shaped a word in the dark.
The sheets hang damp on the clothesline and I run between them, arms outstretched, hands sweeping the sides of a cool white tunnel. The grass is cool under my bare feet and my toes are wet and slippery and the sheets riffle soft across blue sky and the sun is a hazy yellow warm spot wrapped in wet linen. I run and run, up and down the rows, dodging the flapping sheets, hiding behind them. I wrap myself in cool wet cloth, see nothing but a wet white coolness, breathe detergent and water and honeysuckle and sunlight. I am on a ship, in the rigging. I am in a wet white cave. I am in a story and then another story I am on TV I am in the bible I am in a book I am in open sesame and the sheets blow apart and she is there, she is always there, at the end of the row, springy wooden clips in her mouth and a basket with sheets and she bends at the waist and draws one out in strong cool hands, bellies it out against the sun, it fills with warm air and she flaps it twice so the drops of water fly up into the sun and explode into little colors. I am here, I am there, I am a story and another story and open sesame I push my hands between the sheets and she is there. She is always there. She doesn't always see me. But when she does see me she smiles. Her face was closed but when she sees me it opens and I am all there is, we are all there is. She smiles the sun, bright in the cool white tunnel and I am a story and another story I am and then she is there and we are all there is and she is smiling the sun warm and distant and not always looking at me but always there and always smiling even when she is not.
~ ~ ~
I cannot account for my mother. She is too many.
My birth certificate tells everything the state of Montana considered pertinent in 1965: "Rita Ann (Schiltz) Sheehy: Live Births: 10. Fetal Deaths: 5." A mother, boiled down. Ninety years. Eleven living children, of whom I am the last. And five miscarriages she never bothered to mention.
There are other documents. Letters, newspaper articles. An obituary. They outline the image of a strong, smart, funny western woman of Catholic pioneer stock. Rita and her twin brother Richey were the last of the five children of (Grand)Mary MacHale and John B. Schiltz, strongwilled, big-laughed wanderers who met and fell in love in a sea of grass in north central Montana in the early part of the twentieth century. Rita and Richey were born in 1921 in Kremlin, a wide spot on the high line about fifty miles shy of Canada, but drought in the mid-20s drove John B.'s family out of the Sweetgrass to eastern North Dakota for awhile, and then west again to Dickinson, and then finally to Billings, where John B. managed a string of lumberyards and Rita and Richey and the rest became Montanans again for good.
The newspaper articles, some from Montana papers and others from the national press, deepen the picture: Rita in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, a force in Montana politics. Rita in the League of Women Voters, the Democrats' doyenne in Republican eastern Montana. Rita Sheehy chairing the state Board of Health, knitting one of a hundred sweaters at the end of a long conference table, listening to one or another of the officers of the Anaconda Copper Company tell her why they could not or would not comply with pollution standards at their smelter. Rita knitting at the end of that conference table as one by one those men smugly deemed her buffaloed, this pushover, a woman and not even really listening, then one by one discovered that she was not only listening, but willing and quite able to hold their feet to a fire they didn't even know was lit. None of them could see past the caricature described by my birth certificate. "Rita Sheehy," The Wall Street Journal called the board chairwoman who brought Anaconda to its knees, "mother of eleven."
Rita Sheehy, mother of eleven. She is too many, and I am so far away. If Rita is the sun in my family's solar system, then I am the most distant planet, the last to arrive and arcing through a cold, dark Plutonian orbit far from Montana, far from the place I have always called home, the place that gave my mother's life meaning, and far from her who gave it to me. I see her from a distance. And even from a distance she is too many, too much, for an obituary or The Wall Street Journal.
She was always more than one: born a twin, a sister, then a wife and then a mother refracted into eleven children. My eldest sister, Anne, was raised in the fifties in a brand-new neighborhood in Billings, all young parents, small children, sapling cottonwoods planted along the fresh white concrete of Poly Drive. Anne was the only child of a father and mother in their twenties who had survived a war many others they knew had not, and were thus committed enthusiastically to the decade-long party that followed. Anne's mother is a slim, lovely smile of a woman, a high school athlete and it still shows, a smart, pretty co-ed, laughing and talking and dancing at a hilarious cocktail party. A few years before Anne was born, when she was still in high school, Anne's mother once danced so hard at a party that her wool skirt, soaked with sweat, shrank two inches while she was still wearing it.
Anne's mother is eager and exuberant and tinged with sadness. Richey was killed on Iwo Jima at the age of twenty-four, six months before Rita was to be married. Some part of Richey was returned to the Schiltzes at their little house in Billings, enough of him to bury and put a stone over, but not nearly enough for anything else and never enough again. Richey is a ghost in the eyes of Anne's mother. You can see him there, even in the wedding photo, September of '45 on the stairs of St. Patrick's, Skeff Sheehy chesty and brash, big Butte smile beneath a thick crop of dark Irish hair, Rita beside him slim and beautiful and smiling, too, but with that small tightness around her eyes, that little fall at the corner of her mouth where Richey was then and would ever be.
But the young thing in Anne's mother dominated. Rita was fun. Rita laughed and danced, the life of the party, and when the party was over she fell laughing to the work that would define countless hours unremarked by any obituary or newspaper. She cooked and cleaned and marshaled the bottles and buggies and diapers and boots and coats and skates and bikes. She doctored cuts and bruises and croupes and flus. She made clothes on a sewing machine in the basement, laundered them with the diapers and the sheets on Monday in a big tub washer, squeezed them through a roller, dried them on the line out back. Mornings she went to mass and then for a jog or a swim, and in the afternoons she stumped for local candidates and held fundraisers and went to meetings and served on committees for the state. She made homemade pastries for anybody new to the neighborhood, and she delivered meals to shut-ins on Wednesdays. She made racks of thick white bread on Tuesdays, cleaned house on Thursdays, and baked cinnamon rolls and orange rolls and thickbraided coffeecakes on Saturdays. She planted tomatoes and lettuce and beans in the alley and in the late summer she gathered rhubarb for pies, picked all the neighbors' crabapples and made jelly in the fall, crabapple mash in cheesecloth bags hung by strings from every cupboard in the kitchen, thick red juice like sweet blood draining into a hundred jelly jars.
Children fragmented Rita, and she made us whole. Tom was born when Anne was two, and Rita, who had always been more than one, became three. Then Mary made four when Tom could walk and by the time Patrick was born in '52 Anne was old enough to help take care of them, and the ones who came after. We kept coming, and with us more bread, more rolls, more sheets, more rhubarb, more jelly jars and crabapples and ever more bloodthick syrup. Kathleen. Eileen. Rosalie. Margaret. Jenifer. Martha. John. Annetommarypatkateeileenrollymargijennymarthajohn.
My mother is not Anne's mother. My mother is to Anne's what the big cottonwoods on Poly now are to the saplings that had just been planted there when Anne was a little girl. Anne's mother was young, her children still waiting to meet her. But my mother was 44 when I was born, almost exactly halfway through her life. After me, she would always have more past than future.
My mother did not dance like Anne's mother, but she did still laugh, a lot, and she did still work. That sadness in her wedding photos never quite left her, either, but by the time I was born the thing Richey had left in her had nacred over, and she carried her brother like a pearl. In my mother the qualities that defined Anne's mother had deepened, hardened, so that like those cottonwoods on Poly she had parts now, a harder bark and stiffer trunk. The young thing still lived in her, but as it does in a tree, in a thin liquid layer between inside and outside.
But she smiled. Rita smiled with her whole face, with her whole body, and I think she smiled every time she saw me, the very first time, the very last. In that smile were all of us that she loved and kept and lost and kept still after the losing, Richey and Grandmary and John B. and her brothers and sisters and Skeff, and then too Annetommarypatkateeileenrollymargijennymarthajohn.
Rita's smile comprehended us. When she smiled you felt whole, suddenly unlost, formed into a shape. Her smile made you think that what you had been told about God at school might be true, because she loved you the way He was supposed to: for no reason at all.
Yet the woman who smiled that smile at Anne and the one who smiled it at me might almost be two different women, two mothers. And between Anne and me are nine other children, nine more blind men grasping at the elephant, and so eleven Ritas, eleven mothers, and now each is locked in the memories of my individual brothers and sisters. Private. Personal. Incomparable, even incompatible. What her body made whole is now in pieces. And she was always more than one.
Matter is conserved but nothing else. Particles collect into a shape and then scatter into the air, into the earth, and before you register the absence of the first shape they have already coalesced into another. This moment, that moment. This life, some other. Some other flower, some other seed, some other root. Some other sister to some other lost brother, some other wife to some other husband, some other mother to some other son. Some other smile, some other pearl.
~ ~ ~
She is going. She will be gone a long time she says but not too long, to Helena, something with the Board of Health, she says. Her hard heels clack on the floor and her legs are hard in stockings and her clothes are hard, her face is hard like when she's not looking at me and she has powder on her face and waxy lipstick and the lines on her forehead make a v above her nose and when I look up I see her jaw jut out and her teeth grind noiselessly. She kisses Dad quick and she walks with her suitcase to the door and I am pulling on her hand and crying I don't want you to go. The others are all around, pulling on her, pulling this way and that way and talking and laughing, she is hard and she grinds her teeth and she walks hard out the front door. I am pulling on her hand and crying I don't want you to go. She stops on the brick steps outside, looks down at me. Her forehead smoothes and her teeth stop and she sits down with careful long legs on the brick steps and pulls me to her and my cheek rubs against the scratchy hard fabric of her jacket and she says she won't be gone long and it's bad to cry and then she opens my hand and taps my fingers one by one with her forefinger johnny johnny johnny and slides between the last two oops! johnny oops! johnny. She smiles and we are all there is. Then she is walking with Dad to the station wagon and she is hard again and she is going away and I don't want her to.
She sits in the dark on the recliner. I can't see her face, but it feels hardset in the dark, feels angry, and something else, too, that isn't angry and I am drunker than I thought I was, feel drunker every minute I sit here across from her. I say no Mom I didn't drink we were just. The words are thick in my mouth, in this quietness and not in the car with the radio and my friends where I laughed about what I would tell her, ate handfuls of beernuts because we had heard it would kill the smell. Emerging from the noise and smoke of the car, laughing, and then the car gone and me standing in the quiet street, then walking across the lawn, feet heavy, brain heavy, thinking of what I will say to her when I get inside.
Inside another part of me watches, watches the words roiling around in the thick liquid in my head, watches the things I think and the things I say and compares them to the things I do. The part of me that watches is not drunk, is different from the boy who sits heavily on the couch. The part of me that watches sees the boy chewing gum slowly like a cud, eyes heavy-lidded and stomach churning, slurring no no no we weren't, we weren't, we didn't. The part that watches sees her in the dark, sees her feet curled and knotted, her hands kneading the arms of the chair, jaw jutted and teeth grinding slightly, her forehead tight with anger and something else. The part of me that watches knows she waited for the boy, waited most of the night, wondering where he was and what she could do. The part of me that watches knows that she is here instead of the boy's father because she wants to be kinder than the boy's father knows how to be. The thing that isn't anger is in her voice when she says the thing that gets me is you're lying to me. You're sitting there, right in front of me, and lying to my face. The boy doesn't know how not to lie. But he doesn't want to lie anymore so he doesn't say anything. She rises from the chair and the boy notices that she is older than he thinks of her but only for a second and then the boy does not see but feels her looking at him in the dark and then he feels her turn and walk out of the room.
The boy sits in the dark alone. Then he stands up stiffly and concentrates on his feet so he won't stumble as he walks across the living room and up the stairs to where he sleeps. The boy hears trains clanking and moaning in the switchyard. The boy falls onto the bed in his clothes and begins to spin, the room spinning, the crucifix on the wall and the little airplanes on the light and the clock and the clatter of boxcars spinning, spinning. The part that watches knows the spinning will stop when he goes to the bathroom to be sick. The part that watches does not spin but is still and quiet and moans slow like a train. He wishes he had not lied. He wishes things were different but knows now that things are not different, and the part that watches knows that he must always remember this.
~ ~ ~
We say all kinds of things about dying, but mostly we don't mean them. Or we think we mean them, or anyway we think we ought to mean them because they seem like the kinds of things we ought to think and so ought to mean. But as soon as we say them we know there's a hole in them, a hole in the words, and it is the same hole we said the words to fill. So we say more words, but there's a hole in them too, and so more words and more again but the hole just gets deeper. Better not to talk about it, then, we say to ourselves, but even that has a hole in it and there's another hole in the silence we fall into. It doesn't matter what we say. But we have to say something because of the silence, because what we say is always some kind of lie and that is bad, but what we do not say is always true and that is worse.
The end didn't sneak up on us. There was no particular turning point. When the arc is not sloping upward it is sloping downward, and eventually even from a distance you notice. One day you see that your mother can't really walk anymore, or not very far. At first she leans—on you, on Dad, on car doors and railings, countertops, lightposts. She manages not to be a problem for anybody, making sure she is always near one of those things to lean on, and she orchestrates her days around paths she makes for herself. But she still goes to mass every morning and swims her laps, she still irons the sheets every week on the mangle, and she still makes bread and rolls. And she still laughs over coffee and smiles every time she sees you.
Another day you notice that she's not leaning on things, but just leaning, no longer really able to maintain balance upright. Some other day you're in Seattle and you get a phone call, your dad, telling you Rita is having some problems and she's coming out to have surgery. She does come, and for a couple of weeks the distance closes and your dad is in town and you're seeing him every day and you're going to see your mom in the hospital, and she looks tired and gray and small and out of context in the plastic bed without her makeup, without her own things and her own people around her. She is angry and sad. She is scared, too, and you've never seen her scared and don't know what to say about it. Dad says that she anticipates pain, and you say after eleven kids she probably at least knows what she's anticipating. But that is just a thing to say.
It's not the end yet, just the beginning of it, just the arc bending down. They take her uterus in Seattle, and they operate on her bladder, and they start trying to say why she can't quite stand up. You start thinking that maybe it's because of you, all of you, all her kids, who beat up her body inside and out and robbed her of all the things she willingly gave. Calcium. Other things. But that's just a thing to say to yourself, a reason for something that doesn't have a reason, and telling yourself that she may get back to where she was before is another thing to say, so you say that. She leaves town smiling and laughing, with a fistful of pills and a bellyful of advice, neither of which she will take. She goes back to Montana, where she makes sense and her smile belongs, and you know that it isn't the end but you can see the end now. You say that, too: I can see the end from here. But you feel the hole in it. Even the things you know, you don't know.
When it's all over it has the shape of a story, one thing leading to another thing, causes, effects. Living it was like a time lapse movie of starfish you saw once: like starfish you crawled around blind in the dark, bumping into things, feeling your way from moment to moment, not even appearing to move at all. But memory makes the film speed up, and then it seems somehow to have all had a purpose, a direction, even a point: you and the starfish, hungry, seeking. Still, you can't say what the point is, can't find any moment where it was revealed, and some part of you knows that even the shape memory gives it is a kind of lie, a way of making meaning out of a thousand accidents. And there again is the hole, in the things you can't say, and then again in the things you do say. You can feel it. Aching and dark.
But one thing seems to lead to another, over weeks, months, years. A month or a year or five years after the hospital in Seattle there's a phone call from your sister to say that your mother has fallen down the stairs in Absarokee. You call the hospital but she's all drugged up and wrapped up with medical people, and she sounds angry and scared again when she hands the phone to Dad. Dad speaks quietly. He tells the story carefully, making sure to get the details in, to get things in the right order and not leave anything out. He says it was early and she was walking to the bathroom, wasn't even going down the stairs, but she lost her balance by the staircase, went all the way down, twelve hard pine steps to the concrete floor. He tells how he found her unconscious in the dark with her face bashed up and her arm pointing the wrong way. He laughs when he tells how he thought she was dead, but you know he's not really laughing. You laugh, too, and you say who's going to mangle now, but that is only something to say and you are not really laughing either. Inside the notlaughing is the hole again, only now something solid is taking shape inside it, something words won't touch, and it is the knowledge—not the idea, which you have had for a long time, but the knowledge, which is different—she is going to die. Not now. Not today. But she is going to die. And when you know that, when you feel that one solid thing in the dark, you know that it has always been there in the dark and it is the only thing there and something inside you begins to harden itself to meet it.
You laugh about it. As she gets better you joke about it with her and she jokes with everybody. Who's dead in the paper? she says to your dad at breakfast. She reads the obituaries of her friends every morning. They always say they died after a heroic battle, she says. Puh. Heroic battle? More like a minor skirmish. Then she does the crossword before mass. The joking makes you feel better. But inside the jokes is still the hole, and inside the hole is that hard thing, and inside you another hole and another hard thing echoing laughter.
Speed up that starfish film and it's one thing after another. Phone calls, text messages, an email in the middle of some night, early some morning, sent from a time zone you don't live in and you read it at work. You're at a movie theater in Massachusetts when she has a stroke in Helena. You're in a bed in Vermont when she has a worse one, and you're writing in a cafeteria when you get the email about it. You make calculations around the hole and the hard thing. Should I go now? Should I wait? You catch yourself thinking what your calculations mean—that you want to be there now but you want to be sure to be there when she dies, and you are afraid you'll time it wrong, miss... what? Another moment of her life when you've already missed so many? The moment she dies? Your considerations are meaningless—this moment, that moment—but they give you something to say to yourself. You begin to know that most of things you say to yourself are only a spell you weave around the hole and the hard thing.
Coming back from the hospital after knee surgery you call her on a cell phone and she tells you she wants to die. Flat like that, simple like that, and afterwards the only thing that surprises you is that it took you so completely by surprise. This moment. Now. You swing into action, ready to do something that matters. You go home and pack. Your wife makes reservations while you grab the crutches and the icepacks and drugs you'll need to get your busted knee on a plane. You hightail to Hartford and get on a flight. There's a delay in Minneapolis. An hour layover turns into six hours, six hours turn into an overnight bump. Your wife explains to the women at the ticket counter that you have to get to Montana—now! Mymotherisdyingnow!—and they try to help you. There's no flight to Helena, so you end up flying to Great Falls. You land early the next morning, and you drive to Helena with your wife and your sister. You are in time. She is alive when you get there, but in pain and unable to get out of bed. You leave your bag at the door. You go into the bedroom and tell her you are there. You kiss the paper skin above her forehead and she smiles and tells you she will die today. You sit down to wait.
She is in and out of consciousness, just aware enough to resent the hands on her, to resist the indignity of it, the pain and the puke and the shit. You are no help. You try to help your sisters take care of her, but she does not want a son touching her in the way she needs to be touched, naked, covered in excrement. You embarrass her, so your sisters do the hard, good things, holding her, rolling her over, cleaning and comforting her with the same cool strong hands she had comforted you all with when you were children. You sit on the stairs between the kitchen and the bedroom and listen.
After two days she is awake and eating soup, no longer saying she will die. On the third day she rises, puts on a robe and comes to sit in the living room to talk for an hour or so before dozing off in a chair. On the fourth day she dresses and puts on lipstick and you realize that you can't stay. Your wife has to go back to her job and so do you. Her life is back and you have to admit that your life is not here. You feel extra. There's nothing for you to do. Only her death could justify a longer stay. But she is alive, and starting to smile and joke again, and there is no need for you now.
On the plane home you feel happy and relieved and foolish and useless. You replay the preceding four days in your head and you feel ashamed. You kick yourself. You were morose. You are angry at yourself for having come only for the death, for not knowing what to do with the life. For not ever knowing. You joked too much. You did not joke enough. You did too much, too little, did not know what to do, what to say. You berate yourself. But all that is just something to say, something you tell yourself in the dark. As the sun goes down behind the plane you lay your temple against the cool window and your mind quiets. You fall toward sleep and the words dissolve and you feel the hard thing inside and over the edge of the wing the dry prairie five miles below unrolls out of a darkness endless and empty and silent as the bottom of the sea.
She wants me to take the wheelchair back to hospice. She says she's done with it now she's feeling better, she wants the chair out of the living room and then we can talk about returning that hospital bed. Amanda the nurse hovers, quiet and professional, messing with the blood pressure cuff. Mom says they say I'm sick, but I feel fine. I don't need all this. Amanda sits next to Mom's recliner in a hardback chair. She holds Mom's wrist and looks at her watch. Mom kneads her hands. She looks over by the secretary and sees it over there, shiny steel and plastic. John, she says. You be sure to bring that wheelchair back to hospice today. Amanda catches my eye for a second, but we don't say anything. I don't need that thing, she says.
I ask Mom where they keep the tree and she says it's in a box in the attic. I tell her I'll put the tree up today. That'd be nice, dear. She smiles. I'll do the rest, too, Mom, if you tell me where the stuff is. The holly and the bells. I like the lights. She says the stuff is all upstairs somewhere. Amanda checks her urine bag. She undoes the bag and pours the dark brown piss into a beaker. Then she hooks the bag back up and hangs it on a little hook on the walker. Amanda asks is the catheter comfortable. Yes, it's fine. It slipped a little last night. Dad comes in the back door, home from mass. He walks into the living room holding a small metal container that looks like a cigarette case. Amanda sees him and quietly gets up and walks out to the kitchen. I walk out, too. Dad says blessed art thou among women. Mom sits quiet in the chair, looking up at him. He says pray for us sinners now. I sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the paper. He says body of Christ. Framed in the doorway I can see her sitting forward in the recliner, expectant, like a little girl at the rail. Amen she says, and she takes the host in one blue-veined hand and puts it in her mouth, then makes the sign of the cross.
Later I sit at the end of the living room putting together the tree. I connect the aluminum poles, and then I gather the branches. They are bundled with rubber bands. The big ones have blue paint on the tips, so you know they go in the bottom. The others have different colors, red and yellow and green, to tell you where they go. I put the pole into the stand, and I take the rubber bands off the blue branches. Mom is in the recliner at the other end of the room watching TV. The TV is very loud. Mom turns toward me, smiles. Don't get too far into that, she says. Remember we're going to the Bistro today. I tell her I remember. I take the blue branches one by one and lay them out around the pole. I have to bend each one, pull the little wire needles apart to make it look real. I hook the twisted wire tips into the holes in the pole to make the bottom of the tree. I look over at Mom and she is asleep, her head on her shoulder. The TV is very loud.
I am on the green ones when Dad gets back. He says looks almost like a tree, and I say well poems are made by fools like me. Mom is awake again. She looks over at me and sees the chair. John, she says. I want you to bring that chair back to hospice this afternoon. I don't need that thing. I say I remember. Mom says remember we're going to the Bistro today and Dad says yes, we are going, we should go right now. Dad goes to the bedroom to change for lunch. I gather the rubber bands, the little baggies and small boxes. I put all the little stuff in the big box I took the tree out of. I pick up the box to bring it upstairs. I walk by Mom with the box in my arms and she is frowning and clicking the remote. John, she says. Will you get that TV? This thing isn't working. I put the box down by the stairs and I go back and press the power button on the set. The room becomes very quiet.
I turn to go get the box. John, she says. John. I stop by the recliner. Yes, Mom. John, she says. I'm so glad to see you. It's nice of you to come.
I'm glad I came, too, Mom, I say. Merry Christmas.
She sits forward. Her knuckles are white where she pulls herself forward on the arms, and her back doesn't touch the back of the chair. John, she says. I'm so glad you came. You know how much I love you. You know we love you. We love to see you.
I know, Mom. I do know. And I love you, too. More than I can say. So I won't even try.
She smiles. She reaches out and takes my hand. I don't know what to say. I kneel on the floor. I take her hand in both my hands. Her hand is cool and thin and soft, almost without muscle and knitted with blue veins. I am kneeling and she is looking down at me now and smiling, and her eyes are blue and full and wet and the loose skin around her eyelids folds into little tents above them. You are here, I think. She doesn't speak. We are here, I think, you and I are here we are here now and I see you and we are all there is.
When Dad comes back I get up off my knees. I feel a wet pulse in my eyes and something is tied up heavy in my chest. I take the empty box upstairs to the attic, and then I come down and put on my shoes on the stairs by the kitchen. When we leave Dad goes first down the back stairs and Mom goes next, leaning heavily on the railing and then on Dad. I come up behind to hold the door. Mom gets halfway out the back door and turns. John, she says. This afternoon why don't you take that wheelchair back to hospice. I don't need that thing.
I remember, I tell her.
~ ~ ~
Here is the thing.
The day after Rita died my brother Tom and I sat talking in the kitchen on Rodney Street. The house felt strange, as if during the night somebody had snuck in and replaced every object in it with a replica of itself. All the things were still there. But every thing was different. Rita was gone from the chair where she had laughed over coffee and the crossword, where she and Skeff had bantered over who was dead in the paper. She was gone, too, from the bed down the hall, where she had lain for the week after she closed her eyes from the last stroke. Tom was there when it happened. He heard her fall, found her on the bathroom floor. Her eyes were open, but she could not keep them pointed in the direction she wanted. She lay near the toilet and Tom said she seemed to be looking at something she recognized out of the corner of her eye. Then she closed her eyes and she never opened them again. Now she was gone and all that was left to remind us of her was everything there was, and the one thing there wasn't it was all pregnant with, like the shadows of things in the dark.
It's funny, Tom said. Five minutes before I would have fought off a grizzly bear if it threatened her. All of us, the kids and grandkids, had been hanging around Rodney for a week while she starved to death in the bedroom. I was in Vermont getting ready to go to work when I got the email from my sister, spelling out very straightforwardly what had happened and what the likely outcomes would be. I called to get an update, but there wasn't much to add. Mom was in her own bed, unconscious, breathing raggedly and unresponsive. Her eyes were closed and her face was slack on the right side. Twenty-five hundred miles away I went to work. I taught my morning class at ten and wondered afterwards if I should call again, but I knew there was no news. I met with students about their senior projects, read papers, prepped a novel for my afternoon class. I taught again at one-thirty, and when I got out at three I called Dad. Rita was still dying.
Dad said it was lucky Tom had been there. If he hadn't been, Dad would not have been able to move Rita onto the bed, and he would have had to call 911. If the EMTs had come, they would have brought Mom to St. Pete's and put her on an IV. She would have stayed alive indefinitely then, unconscious and in limbo in a strange room, but hydrated and fed through a tube. Because Tom had been there, she would die in her own bed, surrounded by her family, as she wanted. An accident had saved us all from having to decide to remove an IV, from having to kill our mother instead of just watching her die of hunger and thirst.
We talked logistics. Should I come, Dad? Should I come now? He didn't know. You should talk to her, he said. I think she can hear you. I stood in an empty classroom in Vermont, looking out a window with a phone at my ear. I could hear gasping on the other end of the line, could feel it, her breath, the bare minimum of being alive, and I knew Dad had put the phone down near her ear. Mom—? My voice sounded tinny in the receiver. Her breath was a hole to pour myself into. I said something. Words. When Dad came back on the line I told him I'd be there by morning.
For a week we came and went, pulled to her. My sisters bathed her, dressed her and changed her linens. We sat around her bed talking and laughing. We told old stories, shared memories, joked. We said to each other that she could hear us, and we laughed for her. We sang songs, sometimes all together and sometimes just one of us, my father or one of my sisters, old songs she would have danced to once. We prayed, the rosary in the evening with Dad, and each our private prayers, silent, like animals, fingers on the loose skin of her arm, or touching her face. We took turns sitting with her at night. We wet her lips and tongue with a damp sponge on the end of a stick. Sometimes she seemed to struggle with some opponent, her good left hand clawing at an invisible thing beside her in the bed. She labored to breathe as her throat dried out. But mostly she lay, quiet, eyes closed, pupils moving sometimes behind the lids.
She became beautiful again. All the lines on her face, the past and the future, the worry and the laughter, disappeared. She lay there like a brand new thing, like a whole other thing, breathing, living, dying. We gathered around her like elephants over bones, touching, waiting, eventually silent.
Death is material. I have never been more acutely aware of the physical fact of her body than I was there, in the last week. Words foundered on the hard shoal of it. It was hard to think Rita anymore with her there beside you in the bed, or Mom or even Mother. Her breath insisted that she was not an idea but a thing. She was eyes and skin and lips and muscle and bone. She was cells metabolizing oxygen and carbon. She was a fire burning. She was water and earth. She was blood and air. She was a heart beating, a heart stopping. She was dust to dust returning.
In the dark she was physical, not metaphysical. A configuration of particles, a brief triumph of the centrifugal over the centripetal that had held out for ninety years. In daylight we sat around the room telling stories and laughing, singing songs and praying, and it seemed then like she was something else, like we were something else. But late at night in the dark I sat in the little chair by her bed, stroking her forehead, holding her hand, waiting, and I would listen to her breathe and know she was a body, a thing in a world made of things, and I was another thing and my family, everyone I loved, more things, all of us particles revolving still around the accidental well of gravity her body had created. She would stop holding soon. She would dissolve, and then we would dissolve, too, fast or slow. Matter would be conserved. Nothing would be lost. I would think then that there was something beautiful in the randomness of the whole thing, something miraculous about such a lucky accident, and even something hopeful in the reliability of matter. But that thought shattered like the rest against the sound of her next breath in the dark, the sound entropy makes when it always wins.
I wasn't there when she died. I had gone to my sister Kate's house to sleep, since I had agreed to sit with her very early the next morning. When Kate shook my ankle in the dark I thought I am late. I have slept through my time. Only as we drove down Rodney did I think she is dead. She died during the Rosary. My father was saying the Hail Mary and my sister was holding her hand. She exhaled. Then she did not inhale. By the time I got there it was over, and when I walked into the room and saw her body I knew it wasn't her. I walked to the bed, put my hand to her cheek. It wasn't her. I kissed her forehead. It was warm and like soft paper still. But it wasn't her.
Her body wasn't her. I sat on the bed across from her body, surprised, knowing it. A moment before she had been there, and in the next moment nothing material had changed. Everything, every thing, was still there. Every molecule that was in her body a milisecond before she died was still there a milisecond after. But she was gone. What was left was only everything, only every last thing that had made her up, and all of that was only an empty husk on the bed. I thought empty, and then empty of what? For a breathless moment I knew, felt, the illusion, the unreality of things. But when I took my next breath I was a man sitting on a bed across from the body of his dead mother. The knowledge evaporated, leaving me with a feeling like you sometimes have when you wake suddenly with some dream's thought on your lips, but when you say it in your waking ears it sounds like nonsense. There was something other than what I could see and hear and feel, something more real than her bones and her flesh, something that was different from those things because it could be lost, and when it was lost you knew it was all there was to need, all there was to know, all there was to love and live for. But draw a breath and the world rushes in, and what was knowledge becomes a thought only, an idea only, a word. Soul is a word like other words. Mother. Rita.
When I came back to myself I had missed her. I had been crying for I don't know how long.
It's funny, Tom said to me the next morning. Five minutes before I would have fought off a grizzly bear if it threatened her. Five minutes later I just shrug. Two strangers walk in, zip her into a sack and take her away in a truck. I can think of nothing to say. Tom is quiet, too. We sit on either side of the chair empty of her, sipping coffee. Outside the sun is rising. In the alley kids walk by with backpacks, heading to the junior high. I hear the kids laughing outside the glass. I hear my sisters laughing quietly in another room. I think of how Rita loved the sound of laughter, would have gone to where the laughter was. Out of the corner of my eye I see her empty chair. Somewhere, I think. Somewhere near here, in some building, in some room, somebody is unzipping the bag, laying her body on a table. Doing things to it. Cutting it open. Dressing it up in her clothes.
I say to myself it doesn't matter. What is in that bag is not her. I watch the children walk to school and I try to remember the thought I was trying to think, the word I was trying to say, the thing I was trying to mean.
The church is quiet and cool and dark but for the candles and the angled sunlight filtering through stained glass. The oak pew creaks when he shifts his weight forward to lean on his knees. He bows his head and hunches heavily over the kneeler. He has forgotten how to pray.
He knew so many when he was little that he is surprised he doesn't know how. He knows Our Father and Hail Mary, but when he says them in his mind the words all run together, whoartinheaven and thywombjesus and it doesn't feel right. He remembers the beginnings of some others, or he can finish if somebody else starts. Oh my god I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, he says in his head, but he can't remember what comes next. Something just punishment. He tries to clear an empty space in his mind for what he wants to do.
He was angry when she first died but he is not angry now. There had been things to do, work, students, papers, books, talk. People had been kind. They had stopped by his office one by one like at a confessional to say they were sorry, to ask about her, to speak about their own mothers. They were kind and he kept busy and the insult subsided and the world moved forward but now it was summer and he had time on his hands and it felt like there was a small black hole in the sky just behind his head, and every time he turned to see it it moved out of sight. It felt like there was always something lost in the corner of his eye.
He liked it in the church when there was nobody there. He liked the way the dark silence opened up to him after the bright sunlight and talk outside, liked being small and quiet in the pew under the vaulted ceiling. He liked how the statues always seemed to be looking at him, no matter where he was, and he liked their sadness, the way their carved marble eyes looked as if they could see the hole in the sky, as if they were looking right at the hole in the sky when they looked at him. He liked to sit in the quiet without a priest or anybody else among the pitying stone.
For a long time now he did not know if he believed in God, but when he said that to himself in his head it seemed hollow so he didn't say it anymore. When he was little he thought God would do things for him, and when he prayed then, when he said all the runtogether words in his head, behind them he was really just wanting things. A bike. A birthday. A spot on the team. Things that eventually he mostly got. Things that were easy so God was easy too.
He clears a small space in his head and he tries to think of his sister Anne. She is tan and young and she is wearing a red bandana and a cigarette dangles from her slender fingers and she is smiling in the sun by a lake. He holds the picture in his mind as long as he can. He says her name. It sounds loud in the dark church. Anne.
Later he wanted other things, things that were bigger and harder, things he couldn't quite say in words. Those things he mostly didn't get, or some of them afterwards you couldn't tell whether you got them or not or even whether you wanted them if you did. Even what he wanted got hard to say in words or even to want behind other words and so he eventually stopped asking God for it, and when he got older it got easy to see that there wasn't a God, that the whole thing had been silly. He would still go to church but usually not to mass anymore. Mostly he would sit in empty churches on weekday afternoons wondering why he was still there. Sometimes he would try to pray but he forgot how a long time after he forgot what for.
He clears another space and sees Tom in his Navy whites on the lawn on Poly Drive. He holds the picture and says Tom. He sees Mary with short bleachblonde hair sitting on the front stoop in the summertime. He sees Kate and she is holding a baby and she and the baby both have dimples. Mary, he says. Kate.
At her rosary he had said all the words again. When it was time, they were all still there. Hail Mary full of grace. Forgive us our trespasses. He said the words with the others and when he heard them his mind slowed down. A TV in the lobby scrolled through photos of his mother, young, old, smiling, and it made him think of one of those time-lapse movies. As it was in the beginning is now. Her body was in a coffin up front next to the little podium. There was a kneeler in front of it and before anybody had got there he had knelt there and tried to pray, but the body seemed like one of the pictures on the TV and he couldn't think how, and then people had come and he didn't want to pray in front of them. Our life, our sweetness and our hope. Then he said the words with the others and it felt like this might be all there is, just things and pictures of things and words and that empty place he was starting to see in the corner of his eye. To thee do we cry. Moaning and weeping in this valley of tears.
He holds his brother in his mind. Pat wears cutoff jeans and no shirt and he is riding a ten speed down Rattlesnake Canyon in Missoula in the fall. Eileen has a baton and white boots and she concentrates on turns under the cottonwoods in the front yard, serious face snapping to the right just after she squares her shoulders. Rosalie runs along the path by the ditch with blackwing grasshoppers gliding all around her. Margi stands like a coiled spring in the corner of a gymnastic mat gathering force into her shoulders for a tumbling pass. Jenny walks beside him on a bridge that looks like it's made of pepper shakers, and there is a serious v in her forehead that disappears just before she laughs. Martha wears sunglasses and sits on the edge of a pool watching two darkhaired boys splash and laugh. He holds them, one by one, for as long as he can, and then he speaks their names into the empty church.
He had been lost for a long time, lost enough and long enough to grow tired of the things he said to himself. He wanted there to be a God he couldn't quite believe in, but he did not want things and he did not want kindness and he did not want to be forgiven. He had said once to himself that we invented God not so we could have somebody to forgive us for our lives but so we could have somebody to forgive for them. That seemed almost right, but hollow, too, and so he didn't say it now. He thought about how if there was a God in the beginning how lonely he must have been, how it was wrong to think that the Word in the beginning was I Am when really it must have been Who is There, somebody else, some other thing to love and lose. The God he wanted to believe in was that God, the God who said all the secret names of love into the darkness. The God who knew that love was a name and loss was the thing it named and said the name of love anyway.
He clears another space. His wife is there, young, at a bus stop in Seattle pulling a glove over her right hand with a grace that makes his heart stop. He holds her as long as he can. Jill he says. His father sits wearing a string tie in a straight chair beside a tiffany lamp reading a book that lies on the table beside him. He holds him. Dad, he says.
A man had told him once that words were really things, the bones of things, and if you dug far enough into the words you would find something real and solid at the bottom. That man had said that that was why we said remember, that remember meant just what it said, putting pieces together. The man had said words had to be said, had to be shaped by tongues and lips out of living breath, that words like that had all the power and reality of things, and more, because they could pass from one tongue to another. He wasn't sure if he believed the man.
In the clear place in his mind he holds her. She is smiling. She is smiling like the sun and it seems to him that she is always smiling even when she is not. He holds her for as long as he can. And then he says her name.
Rita he says. Mom.
After awhile he gets up to go. He genuflects quickly at the end of the pew. By the door there is a little book, and he pauses and then writes all their names in it. He dips his hand in the water and makes the sign. When he steps outside the world feels hot and busy and too bright. He squints, blind. His forehead feels cold where the dot of holy water is evaporating.