When my mother turned fifty, she celebrated with a crone ceremony, a New Age ritual of restoring older women’s rightful status as wise, respected elders. Mom’s friends—mostly lesbians with a penchant for dream-catchers and flannel shirts—embraced the croning. On any other night, they were bitter about older women’s invisibility, dejected by their own sagging skin and glacial metabolism. But on that evening in 1994, as the sun set on Asheville, North Carolina, and my mother drew a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the cool November air, they all raised their wineglasses to toast her hard-won wisdom.
“We’ve got a lot of Scorpios here tonight!” she said, as she settled into her easy chair and admired her guests. Mom reveled in sharing the astrology sign with several of her friends. But the Scorpio traits she took pride in—passion, intensity, fierce independence—seemed to make her romantic relationships rocky; not long after the croning, for example, she divorced her second husband, whom I adored.
“Here’s to Farrell,” said a woman wearing a leather vest and a pair of Wranglers. “You always tell it like it is!”
“Farrell makes a great black bean soup!” another offered.
I refrained from making a public tribute, although an anecdote did spring to mind. A few months earlier, my mother and I had been driving to a customer’s house when she imparted one of her conclusions about the meaning of life.
“Security is death,” she had proclaimed. “Security is an illusion. These people who give a shit about their fancy houses and big garages and piles of money—they’re going to die just like the rest of us, and none of us have any idea when. You and I could get in a car accident driving to this cleaning job.”
That year, finishing my English degree, I was paying my bills by working in my mom’s latest business endeavor, White Glove Cleaning.
“That became very clear to me, like this”—she held one palm up, an inch away from her face—“when Rita died.”
Mom rested her wrists on the steering wheel of her 1977 Mercedes to rub lotion on her hands. I pulled my seat belt tighter.
“Your hands are all slippery. Rub the lotion in and then keep your hands on the wheel!”
She rolled her eyes.
Mom’s older sister, Aunt Rita, had tormented my mother in their youth, but her death at age forty from breast cancer had rattled my mother to the core. “Ever since then,” she continued, “I try to live as though I could have thirty more seconds or thirty more years.” She called this philosophy “living on the edge.”
Fifteen years after the croning, my mother and I waited in line together at a U-Haul facility. I was moving in with my fiancé, a reporter I’d met. I don’t remember what plagued my mother that day—her bum knee, the extensive dental work she needed, or general malaise about being sixty-five, single, and financially strapped—but the verve and gusto of the crone ceremony seemed a distant memory.
“Aging sucks,” she said.
* * *
About a year after my mother embraced her inner crone, my grandmother Grace in Montgomery, Alabama, moved to a nursing home. Mom had invited Grace to live with her. But at seventy-six, Grace had no desire to leave Alabama, and my mother would never give up gay-friendly Asheville, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, for the sweltering state of her youth. To Mom, Alabama would always be the land of fatback, girdles, “Colored” signs, and the profuse sweat of the pre-air conditioning era.
At first, Grace was in far better shape than her new neighbors. Each morning she got fully dressed, put on her face, and greeted visitors with a “Hello, sugar!” But in her third year at John Knox Manor, she began calling my mother more often to ask when we were coming to visit.
It was just after dawn in the middle of July 1998 when my mother pulled up to my apartment on Furman Avenue, a three-story building on the fringe of downtown Asheville. I had no elevator, and my neighbors were a shaky lot, but I loved the place because I could sit on the fire escape after dinner and watch the sun set over the mountains.
“Let’s hit the road,” Mom said, grinning behind the wheel of the Mercedes.
I grunted and clutched my thermos of coffee.
“I’ve got tuna fish sandwiches, potato chips, something sweet, and a cooler of Cokes. I never drink Coke, but I like it with my chips,” she said. “I also got us a couple of joints.”
As we rolled onto I-85, Mom popped the plastic nipple on her water bottle and sucked at length before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“I have an appointment at the holistic clinic next week to analyze my foods. I’m very excited,” she said. “I’ve learned that people who have gas are suffering from food allergy.”
Unlike my grandmother and almost everyone else I know, my mother feels no social obligation to hold in her farts. I lit a cigarette and cracked my window.
“Analyze your foods how?”
“I hold each food in my hand and hold my other arm straight out while they try to push it toward the floor. If my arm is weak and can’t resist, the food is bad. If I’m strong and my arm stays up, it’s a good food.”
“I know you don’t believe this stuff. But I’m going to be the medicine woman in the family. I will neither rely on nor trust in the American medical establishment.”
My lame response reflected years of experience. I knew my mother had more, much more, on her mind about the American medical establishment.
“Western medicine does not consider holistic influences on health,” she said. “If doctors acknowledged that healers and shamans are valid alternatives to expensive drugs, it would ruin the whole money-making system.”
I agreed with her in theory, but not enough to exchange my physician for a Reiki master. Mostly I marveled that my mother hung out with people who called themselves “shamans” with a straight face.
“Mother’s a good example,” she continued. “Mother believes getting sick and decrepit is just what happens when you get old. She’s been eating that fried food for seventy years. But I’m going to learn what my body’s telling me and respond accordingly.” She sucked on her water bottle.
“Is your body telling you it wants potato chips yet?” I gestured toward the back seat.
After we ate, my mother removed her woven Guatemalan stash bag from the glove compartment. She opened the sunroof as the car filled with marijuana smoke.
“I’ll never forget growing up in Montgomery with no AC,” she said. “It got so hot, our legs used to stick to the seat of the car.”
“I’ve told you that story before?”
“Yeah. It’s okay.” I put on my sunglasses, leaned my head back, and waited for my mother’s stories to lull me into a half-awake reverie as the car rolled south in the morning sunlight.
“I just never fit in there,” she said. “I was eleven years old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus. That was all everybody talked about. Daddy hired black people to work on his farm and he used to cuss them up, down, and sideways when they started walking to work instead of taking the bus. But I just cheered them on. In my head, of course. I would never have said anything to Daddy. Mother was no better. She used to get so angry because I never understood why the maid had to eat in the kitchen while we all ate in the dining room. She used to say to me, ‘You can’t treat them like they’re white.’ And then the Civil Rights Act passed and they had to let black people come to our church. Well, you know that was the absolute worst thing that ever happened to Cloverdale Baptist Church. I will never forget Daddy standing out front locked arm in arm with the other men to keep those black people out.”
“You saw that?” I said.
“I sure did.” After a moment she barked out a laugh. “Of course, I had my own moment at Cloverdale that I’m sure Mother remembers to this day. When I was nineteen, I wore a trench coat to church on Easter Sunday and just about drove her nuts.”
“A trench coat? What was wrong with that?”
“Oh, honey, a proper Southern lady would never wear a trench coat to church, especially on Easter Sunday.” She drawled the u in Southern, reviving the accent she had worked for years to erase. I loved the rhythms of Deep South speech. When we went to Alabama, every waitress, every gas station attendant, was to me a melodious and magnificent orator.
“What did Grace say?”
Mom laughed, savoring the memory. “She pulled me aside and said, ‘Farrell, that coat is rude, crude, and totally uncouth.’ That was the worst thing she could say about anything.”
If my grandmother had known, back then, that a few years later my mother would leave her marriage to my father and take up with women, she wouldn’t have wasted herself on the trench coat. When my mother came out as a bisexual, Grace began mailing her Bible passages on the evils of homosexuality.
Mom talked on, recalling the piano teacher who smacked her knuckles with a ruler, the time her daddy made her ride a horse and it ran away with her bouncing and screaming on its back. My mother had survived the dark ages of Alabama and spent every day since applying finishing touches to her escape. A clairvoyant once told her that in a former life, she had been burned at the stake, and that in another life, she was a glorious Amazon warrior. My mother viewed her 1944 reincarnation in Montgomery, Alabama, as a major karmic mistake.
* * *
We rolled into the parking lot of John Knox Manor, a facility as straight and flat as the streets of Montgomery, and walked into a long hallway. Grace lived in a small cinderblock square that smelled, like the rest of the nursing home, of Lysol and Latex. She stood up to hug us and then pulled down the waistband of her pants, showing my mother the white plastic of a diaper.
“They’ve got me in this,” Grace said. Her voice was small and melancholy, as if this was regrettable, but something we’d have to accept.
“Why are you wearing a diaper?” my mother said. “Are you having trouble waiting until you get to the bathroom?”
“I’m fine when I hit this button and they come help me.” Grace tapped a plastic remote that rang the nurses and changed channels on a TV bolted to a high corner. “But sometimes they don’t come for a while.”
“What’s a while?” My mother perched on the plaid recliner next to the bed.
“I don’t want to make a fuss. They do the best they can.” Grace squeezed my forearm as though it might give her strength. Her lipstick was faded, and gray roots peeked out of her dyed brown hair.
“Have you had any accidents?” My mother’s voice was strained. “Or did they put you in the diaper because they can’t get their ass in here to help you to the bathroom?”
Grace looked down at her fingers, folding her bed sheet into thin pleats. “Sometimes they sit me on the toilet and say they’re coming back, but they don’t. I tried to get up by myself one day and I fell. After that, I didn’t want to be left alone anymore. So they said I should start wearing these, and I said okay.”
Mom gripped Grace’s knees so hard that her knuckles flinched white. “Mother, I’m going to make sure they come when they are supposed to and they wait until you’re done.”
Grace squeezed the waistband of the diaper. “It’s not so bad.”
“No, Mother. That’s not what you’re paying thousands of dollars a month for.” My mother stood and raked her hands through her hair. “Not to stick you in a diaper because they can’t be bothered to help. I’ve seen them out there. They’re not exactly fireballs.”
My mother’s hands shook as she stalked out of the room and turned toward the nurses’ station. Grace and I watched her go. It’s hard to intimidate in Birkenstocks and a fanny pack, but my mother would do her best. When she returned a few minutes later, she looked at me and shook her head.
“I don’t know. I spoke to the nurse, but I don’t know.”
“Thank you, sugar,” Grace said. She eyed my mother up and down. “Farrell, you’ve got holes in your jeans. Can’t you get you a new pair of jeans?”
Mom stared at my grandmother for a moment. “Yes, Mother, I have holes in my jeans. Listen, I know you were raised not to complain, but you need to stand up for yourself. You’re paying them to take care of you.”
Grace nodded, but she was wise to the harsh reality of the nursing home: Complain too much, and you’d really be in trouble. We could easily identify those residents whose family members failed to visit regularly. They wore stained nightgowns or pajamas, their wispy hair unkempt, their wheelchairs parked in out-of-the-way corners with hand-lettered signs on the back: I am not allowed outside unattended!
* * *
In September, when we visited Grace again, she was in better spirits, but content to spend the afternoon in bed. Someone had tacked a leering, construction-paper pumpkin to her bulletin board.
“Are y’all hungry?” Grace asked. “I already ate but they have a good lunch today.”
Mom settled into the recliner and told her we’d already eaten. That was a lie, but we had tried food at the nursing home once and that was enough. It wasn’t just the soft, bland casseroles—meals that were easy on the dentures and could be gummed if necessary—it was the gloom that hovered over the dining room. The residents pushed their tennis ball-footed walkers so slowly, it felt like my mother and I, moving at normal speed, were obnoxiously trying to outrace them. We were a tantalizing blip in their mind-numbing routines, and they stared at us intently as we shuffled green beans around our plates and told my grandmother how delicious everything was.
“Well, if you’re not hungry, get out your notepad, because I want you to make a list for me,” Grace said.
“A list for what?” my mother asked.
“Things you need to remember for my funeral.” Grace reached over and rubbed my knee, as if she wanted to soften her statement.
Unlike my mother, I still viewed mortality as hazy and distant, a philosophical construct unlikely to bother me anytime soon. I had no desire to see death any differently. But the more time I spent in the nursing home, the sharper its outlines became.
“You keep an eye on that funeral home,” Grace said. “Make sure they put me in my brassiere. I don’t want to be—you know.” She waved her hands next to her chest to indicate she did not, in her final repose, want her breasts left to their own devices, sagging around her rib cage.
Mom struck me as an unlikely champion of this particular request. In keeping with her refusal to suppress her farts, my mother also declines to wear a bra, color her hair, or censor herself for the sake of being polite. I fall somewhere in between the two of them: I’ll leave the house without makeup, but never without a full set of underwear.
For the rest of the afternoon, Grace added details for her service: which dress she wanted to wear, which hymns we should sing, male friends who could be pallbearers—those still strong enough, and alive.
In midafternoon, two aides threw open the door to Grace’s room.
“How we doing, Miss Grace?”
“You feeling good? You got a pretty blouse on!”
My mother hated the way they addressed my grandmother as though she were a child. They came in pairs like this when it was time to change Grace’s diapers, which by then she wore all the time. The aides were an ever-changing cast of young women. Burnout and low pay kept anyone from working there for long.
Mom asked, “Mother, do you want us to step out?”
Grace shook her head. “No, you stay.”
An aide stood on each side of the bed. They snapped on rubber gloves and passed baby wipes back and forth, popping gum and laughing as if they were dressing a slab of meat on a table.
“I told him, ‘You gonna be ready for me tonight? Cause I’m gonna be ready for you!’”
The other one hooted. “You gonna be ready. What time you get off?”
“Not early enough.”
I watched Grace’s face to see if their conversation bothered her. But her eyes were closed and her face still, as if she were contemplating something serious.
A nurse knocked and walked in to speak to the aides before my mother had a chance to say, “Wait a minute!” The aides had removed the soiled diaper and placed it in a plastic biohazard bag that did not hide the stench of urine. They had spread Grace’s knees wide open and wiped her with a disposable cloth, then left Grace laying naked and exposed while they paused to listen to the nurse. My mother leaped up and yanked the sheet across Grace’s lower body.
“I know you are very busy,” my mother said, “but can you please take two seconds to cover her? Would you want someone to do that to you? Or your mother?”
The nurse left quickly and the aides exchanged a glance: Let’s finish this lady and get the hell out of here.
“Yes, ma’am,” they said. They finished in silence and patted Grace on the arm. “We’ll check on you in a little while, Miss Grace.”
A few days later, back home in Asheville, my mother and I were cleaning a customer’s house in one of the new subdivisions ringing the city. She started crying.
“What is it?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
She put her face in her hands and sobbed. Sunlight and the rich smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap filled the small foyer. All I could think to do was kneel next to her and rub her back with my hand.
“I just keep thinking, I should be down there looking after Mother and instead I’m here on my knees, mopping this goddamn floor by hand.”
* * *
By October, when we returned to Montgomery, Grace napped frequently. As she slept, my mother and I took drives. The chill of autumn had settled and fallen leaves skittered in the Mercedes’s wake. We drove past Huntingdon College, where my mother, a music major, had spent hours practicing Bach fugues on the pipe organ. We saw Cloverdale Baptist Church. We toured Oak Park, where my mother and aunts used to swim until integration came along to demand that all the city’s children be welcome in its blue water; instead of letting that happen, city officials brought in backhoes and a ton of dirt and filled in the pool. We drove downtown, past the church where Martin Luther King Jr. had preached, remembering all the ugly history that had festered in the beautiful buildings.
When we got hungry, we ate Krystal burgers and fries, and there was nothing better than diced onions and pickles on those little-bitty buns. My mother, who normally hated red meat, only ate Krystal burgers in Alabama. As much as she protested the city of her youth, Montgomery seemed to soften her. Back there, she used words like “adore.” “I adore gardenias,” she’d say as we drove by gardens full of them.
Our last stop was Greenwood Cemetery, home to Civil War veterans, the infamous George Wallace and his wife Lurleen, and everyone on my mother’s side of the family. She parked next to our plot and we got out to stretch our legs.
“I wish you could have met Mama,” she said, palming my great-grandmother’s headstone. Near my great-uncle Joe’s plot, she brushed a leaf aside with her foot. “When Joe died, Mother went to the funeral parlor to inspect him. She found two things wrong with Joe’s body: He had hair in his nose and dirty fingernails.”
This was the kind of family story I loved. “Then what?”
“Mother and Sister went back and forth with the mortician a while, until Mother finally grabbed a pair of grooming scissors and trimmed Joe’s nose hair herself.”
We laughed. That incident, perhaps, explained Grace’s distrust of the funeral home’s ability to give a body a proper viewing.
By a nearby grave, someone had stuck a wreath of fake flowers into the grass. Mom tugged the spindly legs from the earth and held the wreath aloft.
“Can you imagine someone buying this ugly thing and bringing it here as a way to honor someone’s memory?” she said, incredulous. “Bring me a plain old rhododendron any day instead of this tacky crap.”
She clasped the flowers to her chest while I snapped a picture. In her sunglasses, her purple corduroy jacket, and her blue jeans with the holes at the knees, my mother looked happy. These moments of levity, these gulps of fresh air, were the reason we craved our afternoon drives. We left the cemetery and returned to the nursing home, where Grace was increasingly restless. The three of us were stepping over a threshold. Grace was a tiny figure in a white nightgown, her face bare, her hair a fuzzy gray halo.
* * *
Early November. The call came from the nursing home: Grace’s death was imminent. Aunt Jimmie, Mom’s younger sister, flew in from Colorado. We sped to John Knox Manor along with my brother, Michael. When we got there, Grace was sitting up in bed.
“Well, look who it is!” She raised her thin arms to hug us. “I thought y’all were coming tomorrow.”
Michael and I exchanged a look. Didn’t Grace know she was dying? That this was the night? Everything seemed ordinary: cinderblock walls, plaid recliner, a construction-paper turkey tacked to Grace’s corkboard.
“Mother, we wanted to come see you.” Aunt Jimmie poked her hand over the silver bed rails to rub Grace’s arm. “We got here as fast as we could.”
Grace motioned for her water. From a plastic tray stand next to the bed, my mother handed her a quart-size plastic mug with a straw sticking out. We pressed close. This would be the last water she would ever drink… the last conversation she would ever have.
“Farrell, have you found a church yet?” Grace said. “Even if you have been away, Jesus will welcome you back.”
Michael groaned quietly, so that Grace wouldn’t hear. He loved to bait believers into debates on faith, quizzing them why an all-powerful God would deliver terrible fates to innocent people. But tonight, Michael kept his mouth shut.
After a long pause, my mother said, “I find my church in nature, Mother. In the woods, on my hiking trails.”
Grace nodded. That seemed to satisfy her. She did not know my mother was often high when she communed with the forest, and that she also consulted psychics, Buddhist monks, and people who claimed to channel Native American energy. Grace handed my mother the water mug, settled into her pillow, and closed her eyes. We leaned forward, holding a collective breath.
Her eyes popped open. “Have y’all ever seen that Jerry Springer? Isn’t that the biggest mess you ever saw?”
“Jerry Springer?” I said.
Michael and my mother laughed.
“Yes, he is, Mother,” Jimmie said. “He’s a real mess.”
Grace smiled and tilted her head in the direction of the television. “I like to watch him.”
We tingled with a strange mixture of relief and disappointment. Grace had rallied. No secret of the universe would be revealed tonight. The spell was broken, the room again an ugly box, unclean and claustrophobic.
Michael elbowed me and whispered, “Are you hungry?”
Aunt Jimmie checked her watch. “Well, Mother, we spent six hours on the road, so if you’re feeling like you’re going to be fine, we might want to think about dinner.”
Grace waved us on. Even though it had been years since she had covered her dining room table with Sunday china, she still believed in the importance of a good meal. “Go eat. I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”
I hugged Grace, a little longer than usual. We walked in silence toward the red EXIT sign, listening to the dim beep of machines, an aide’s white shoes swishing down the hallway, an occasional burst of laughter from the nurses’ station.
The four of us picked up Krystal burgers and drove to Motel 6. Michael and I ate while Aunt Jimmie unpacked and my mother waved a smoking bundle of sage around the motel room.
“Let’s go to the Capitol Grill tomorrow,” Jimmie said. “I haven’t eaten there in years.”
“We don’t have time for a sit-down lunch,” my mother snapped. “I’ve got to call all these people to tell them how Grace is doing. I have a list a mile long.” She stuffed her clothes in the dresser and shoved the drawer closed.
“Mom, do you want to talk about your feelings?” Michael said. He’s a social worker, which is useful when you want attentive listening and free advice, but annoying when you want to complain without someone calling out your delusions and self-defeating behaviors.
“I’m tired, just tired,” my mother said, her face crumpling. She slumped on the slick flowered bedspread, dug inside her fanny pack, and blew her nose on a faded yellow bandanna. “It’s exhausting doing all this. They don’t take good care of Mother. They don’t even brush her teeth regularly. And that fakey, sugary way they talk to us—Oh, Miss Grace, oh, Miss Farrell. They don’t give a shit. I’m the only one who ever worries about anything.”
“I worry,” Jimmie protested.
“But I’m the only one who does anything.” Mom folded her bandanna and tucked it inside her fanny pack, which struck me as unsanitary.
“Let me help,” Jimmie said. “Relax, Farrell. Have a glass of wine.”
“Better yet, I think I’ll roll me a joint,” Mom said.
I followed her out to the car, where she rummaged around the Mercedes’s cavernous trunk. “I don’t know about Jimmie making calls. She can be flaky.” She found her stash bag and slammed the trunk.
Back in the room, Jimmie was studying my mother’s to-do list. “Call Myrtle.”
“Grace’s sister-in-law,” Mom said, leaning over the dresser to sprinkle marijuana on a rolling paper. “She’ll want to visit tomorrow. But we don’t have time.”
“I’ll have some of that,” Jimmie said.
“I don’t know about letting you smoke,” Mom said, frowning but handing the joint to my aunt anyway. I could gauge my mother’s mood by the size of the joints she rolled. This one was firm and round, with little leaves poking out of the end.
“Hi, Myrtle, this is Jimmie…leaving tomorrow…we came here thinking she was going to die and now she’s not so we’re trying to switch gears –”
Mom dragged her finger across her throat and hissed, “Get off the phone!”
Jimmie quickly told Myrtle goodbye and hung up. “What?”
“‘She’s not dying so we’re trying to switch gears’? It sounds bad, like it’s hard for us to get with the program that she isn’t gonna die.”
“But it was, Farrell, it was a shock!”
“I know that, Jimmie, but it doesn’t sound good.” My mother stalked off to the bathroom. “That’s why I make the phone calls.”
* * *
Grace lived on. Just after Thanksgiving, my mother returned to Montgomery. She arrived at night and drove to the nursing home around six the next morning. When she entered Grace’s room, she saw two aides hauling her limp body into a wheelchair, her face twisted in pain.
“Farrell, they’re going to kill me but they’re going to get me in the shower,” Grace said.
I don’t know what my mother said to the aides, but I imagine the look on her face was enough to stop them instantly. While they maneuvered Grace back into her bed, Mom planted herself in front of the nurses’ station.
“My mother will not be going to the shower today!” she yelled. “In case anyone hasn’t noticed, my mother is dying!”
It was the last battle she fought, against the senselessness of dragging a dying woman into a wheelchair before daybreak and hosing her off in a tiled room because that’s what the schedule dictated. Grace did not go to the shower again.
Two weeks later, she died. Mom got the call after we had finished cleaning for the day and I had gone home to make dinner.
“The nurse said she seemed to go peacefully, while she was sleeping,” my mother told me over the phone. She paused, and I knew that when she spoke again, her voice would tremble and crack. “She died all alone. After everything I’ve done, I wasn’t there when it mattered.”
I heard a long, low sigh and I fidgeted with a wooden spoon. Words skittered through my mind but none assembled themselves in an order that seemed equal to the moment. Finally I said, “You did your best.”
My mother’s voice caught. “I know I did. It just—it never seemed like enough.”
We were silent for a few moments. I felt that a dynamic was shifting, that the attention of the universe would now move from Grace and my mother to my mother and me, and that this phone call marked an uneasy step forward. Through my window I saw peach-colored clouds and purple streaks enfold the mountains.
“I’d better go,” I said. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay, puddin’. Talk to you tomorrow.”
* * *
For all the attention we had paid to Grace’s final ensemble, you’d think we would have looked sharp ourselves when we returned to Montgomery for the funeral. But my mother had gained weight and had to wear her Elastopants, and she insisted on wearing her Birkenstocks.
“You can’t wear Birkenstocks to a funeral,” I said.
“I can and I will. Especially because today I am putting on a bra,” Mom said, adjusting her blouse in the Motel 6 mirror. “That’s the last little thing I can do for Mother.”
Aunt Jimmie emerged from the bathroom and my mother inspected her outfit. Her skirt was navy, not black, and her shirt had thick black-and-white stripes like a convict’s. This wasn’t long after Alabama made headlines for reviving its prison chain gang, a coincidence I pointed out and Jimmie did not appreciate.
“You can’t wear that,” my mother said.
“It’s all I have. I had to pack in a hurry so I threw this together.”
“It looks like it.”
I had accidentally forgotten my own clothing at home in the rush of last-minute packing. I wore, instead, a pair of Michael’s pants, the cuffs rolled up as though that were the fashion, which it wasn’t.
We threw ourselves together in the mirror’s unflattering light, crowding the bathroom sink and sharing makeup as if we were readying for the prom. The inadequacy of our clothes and, perhaps, our residual high from the joint the night before gave the scene an odd hilarity. We laughed, not like anything was funny but like everything was absurd. Then we felt guilty, and cried, and laughed again.
Grace had outlived almost all her friends and family, so we were a tiny group in the funeral home. My brother joined the pallbearers to shoulder the casket outside. The best I could do for my mother was to stand by her side and gaze into the valley myself. I pictured her in a bed, littler, with white hair, wearing a diaper. One day, we would look at each other in a room profound with silence and recognize all that had been. And then she would be gone.
This preview was a privilege, I suppose, laced with terror. But measurement of the days ahead would not stop me from squandering them, nor would it reveal what may be required of me. My burden is years in the distance, its particulars unknown. But I can imagine its heft, a body I will carry for as long as I possibly can.