In the hospital that fall, my mother has almost stopped seeing things, only the occasional beetle creeping near the floorboard. The occasional butterfly flitting at the ceiling. Infection leaving her body slowly like syrup through the IV’s and blood draws. I visit each Sunday for an overnight. The tiny spider in the corner of the shower promises to stay on his side of the water while stinkbugs collect in the curtain sheers.
That fall, animals begin taking over her house. Mice beneath the stove, chipmunks in the basement. Arriving home in the dark, my father finds a skunk perched in the yard above a hole that appeared only days before. Deer leave hoof prints in the frost on the deck, linger in the yard at dawn, gnawing the leaves of fallen trees. They’re bolder, he says, no one is ever home.
In the city, they cut down three trees on my block. Suddenly there are birds I’ve never seen before, begging crumbs on the sidewalk. The moths that ate all summer through my wardrobe grow slow with autumn. Flicker occasionally in the desk lamp. The cats go feral every time I leave them for more than a few days, shitting in the bathtub and throwing up on the bed. Large tufts of hair blow through the empty apartment.
In rehab all through October, the speech therapist asks my mother to name 10 animals—horse, dog, pig. She laughs, compares herself to a sow, rolled carefully in the white sheets of the bed. The solutions come slowly to her, hands placing multi-colored blocks in multi-colored holes. What is your name? Who is your husband? What day is it? She sighs, impatient with the woman who prompts her—goat, mouse, fox.
We learn new animals—this panic that scratches like a rat at my door each week and won’t leave. The finch that catches in my throat and chokes with its bones. Elephant, lion, crocodile. There’s a rabbit inside me that races every time the phone rings. One more? She says. Unicorn.
In poems, mothers are always dying. Poems, like fairy tales, love orphans—their alabaster skin and woesome sighs. Large eyed and waif-like, they wander through hallways unchained by grief. The heroines wallow in their motherlessness. Hang it like a skin from the shower rails nightly. Truth is, I’ve killed more mothers than I’ve revived. They start to litter closets and bathtubs. Young and old. Fat and thin.
The first public reading my mother attended, I assured her, When I say mother, it’s not really you. But these mothers, assembled from random limbs and mechanical gears, get stuck in the poem’s architecture like birds tangled in powerlines. They hover then drop at the feet of daughters untethered to memory. I wish I could say I mourned each one in their flowered house dresses and heels, but they begin to pile up in the poems like fallen branches. So heavy we cannot carry them more than a few feet without stopping. Until we finally—the daughters and I—douse them in gasoline and set them afire.
Mothers, of course, were not always mothers. Mine told me of a childhood tangled with chicken wire and creepy older cousins, their hands wandering up her skirted thigh in the kitchen. Mad grandmothers convinced of men in the trees and spies in the television set. The red house had a tire swing, and that tire swing was always thick with wasps by August. Strawberry fields and sumac patches dotting the flatness as far as the eye could see. Mothers were once girls, or at least mine was, the pearl buttons on her school blouse gaping awkwardly. The unnamed boy she took to prom leaning self-assured against a blue Chevy in the photo while my mother stands uncertainly, hip cocked, in folds of homemade yellow chiffon. She was thinner then, she assures me, but not thin enough, envious of my aunt’s lithe blondeness, my grandmother’s nervous skinny. The high school girls with their pencil skirts and shiny, sharp cornered notebooks. F-A-T embroidered invisibly on her sweater every day, carved on the wooden desktop. Decades later, outside the red house, I’d let the tire dig into my chubby thighs as I coiled the rope tighter and tighter, then pivoted and spun fast, slightly nauseous, until the landscape became a green blur.
In the hospital, the walls are a soothing blue, but all the chairs are uncomfortable constructions of wood and green vinyl. All along, my mother is more asleep than she is awake. The soft whir of her breath below the news drone of hurricanes and forest fires and every horrible thing that could ever happen all happening at once. The trajectory of the world stumbling, a drunk down a darkened hallway.
I am living on raspberry lattes and mediocre egg salad from the deli downstairs next to the gift shop. Count the calories in each and toss the remainder of the sandwich in the trash. All along, we make jokes about her dying. I need a new phone charger, I say. Without missing a beat, she says, Maybe your new mommy will buy you one. We watch the world unravel on the news like a girl spinning at the top of a circus tent rope. We become habit. Clockwork. My early Sunday bus ride, Union Station silent and empty as a tomb. My Monday return in the midday rush. Each thing a paper clip holding it all together. I obsess over routes to work that may or may not hold disaster—the accident waiting to happen if I veer from the usual. The faulty scaffolding takes me out. I step off the curb and in front of a bus. Step on a crack, my mother’s back grows soft and useless as framework. Her body slumped in the bed and leaning to the right.
After every plane crash or similar disaster, I am fascinated by the people who narrowly avoid death due to traffic or faulty alarm clocks. Spousal arguments or bad seafood. The narrower the margin, the more harrowing and exquisite. The woman who forgot her keys and had to go back and missed the plane by minutes. The man held up by the old lady scooting her walker through the door who missed boarding by seconds. Or more so, the ones who stumbled, blind and dumb, into catastrophe.
Some deaths are slow and purposeful in their killing—heart attacks, cancer, the slow drain of the body as it ages—but more worrisome, the things that swing wildly, occasionally making contact. My grandmother fell over her dog, broke a hip, and died of a blood clot. There’s a reason I walk the same route home every night in the dark. A reason I eat the same breakfast each morning, counting every set of steps I go down carefully. At no point can I say if only x hadn’t happened, the map of my day set tight and unwavering. My mother sliced her foot in the summer on the driveway. Now, an infection makes its way up through the body and settles in her brain. She’s better, then worse. Then dead.
At 14, in my blue diary each summer, I did body math. If I lost 10 pounds by August, I got X. If I lost 20, then Y. Bribed myself with cassette tapes and Guess sweatshirts from the mall, where we rolled through weekly, the sweet plastic straws of Slurpees pursed between our lips. My mother urged me toward the back of the store, but I was steadfast in my pursuit of 10’s and 12’s—my size 16 plus a sad corner littered with tropical prints and elastic waistbands, the mannequin pinned and clamped into generous folds of fabric. In the dressing room, I tried to convince my body into smaller and smaller garments until I was sobbing. Later, we ate giant pretzels and watched $2 movies and forgot it ever happened. But each night I amended my math. Bargained with the body to become less. Until I’d rip the pages from their blue, cloud covered spine, and start again.
In the nursing home, swallows make shadows on the wall outside as the leaves turn gold, then red, then gone in the night. The halls are filled with slumped figures, abandoned enroute from the cafeteria. My mother’s meals are tidy in their tray and brought three times a day. It’s a racket, she says, laying down her spoon when the nurse says she should eat more. All my life people have been telling me to eat less. She takes a few bites then pushes away the tray, her appetite dwindled to nothing. My father folds her sandwiches in plastic and tucks them in the mini fridge. Soon its insides burst with peanut butter and tuna salad and half eaten applesauce.
When I was a teenager, we tried new diets weekly. The thin broth of cabbage soup. The thick chalk of strawberry smoothies sweetened with NutraSweet. Tiny diet aids shaped like caramels. Left alone on summer breaks, I chewed Dexatrim and succumbed to bagels, toasted one after another and slathered in butter. I was thinner then, but not thin enough, my body busting the seams of jeans shimmied into on my back every morning before school. Food was something I pretended was nothing while, in fact, it was everything. The pattern of starvation and binge wove into my bones. I flipped through magazines and eyed the weights of young actresses and models like they might bite me, their skinny thighs shredding through my summers.
We lost then gained. Then lost again. I ate wilted salads in the cafeteria at lunch covered in vinegary French dressing, a single tomato staring up at me. After school, I gorged on cupcakes—chewed in the mouth, then spit into a napkin. I hid them in the bathroom garbage. Hoarded wrappers from secret candy bars in the depths of my closet next to dirty novels and shoplifted lipstick. My diary with its calorie counts and poems about cats.
As an invalid, my mother is more conscious than ever of this body that must be moved by others. The heft of her rear in the sling that lowers her slowly into the wheelchair. The body that must be turned on rotation every three hours. Bed sores blister on her hip and the nurses arrange her legs neatly and precisely like matchsticks. The body she cannot escape, cannot whittle into submission. This body that expands and contracts like a bloated heart.
Eagerly and often, my mother would tell the story of how she once caught my sister and a cousin burying slugs in a makeshift grave at the corner of the house. Both of them knelt down and serious at their task. Tiny fingers wielding a kitchen spoon in the dirt. Small things were always dying, inside the house and out. The gerbils stiff with wet tail, the finches that lived only a few weeks then grew still in their cages. The hamster my mother once accidently killed, caught in the basement dryer vent. The yard filled with dead pets, one after the other.
I was sixteen when I begged my mother to allow the sweet but feral black cat in the house because I was sick of disposable animals. Soon the house filled with cats circling our ankles as we stormed over laundry baskets and un-vacuumed floors. Squabbled over sinks filled with dishes and heaps of coats on dining room chairs.
As an adult, I’m reasonably neat but sometimes go weeks without really cleaning a thing. Teacups grow moldy in the kitchen sink. My hair lingers in the shower drain. In this city, adulthood is a mess of takeout wrappers in the trash, the couch covered in cat hair. I’d make a poor wife, I joke, a poor mother to imaginary children, their knees grown filthy from crawling around on dirty floors.
Often, I dream she comes to clean my house and begins rearranging the furniture until I no longer recognize the room.
My mother once stood in front of a hotel mirror and told me she had always hated her body. The globes of flesh. Its wavery folds. I was in my twenties and only then learning to live in my body, like a house I was unsure of at first but inevitably claimed as home. My fingers sought out the furthest corners and discovered an exquisite warmth. By then, I’d stopped dieting. I expanded in my house until I lived wholly inside it. Filled my plates at every dinner party. Loved rough men, their fingers digging into my thighs. Loud men, who came inside me with a bellow. As if this spreading body were an open field, a soft muck. She told me my father loved her despite her body, so I fucked men, some who loved me only for my body. Men who grabbed my ass in elevators appraisingly. We made out in the bathrooms of cafés. And in this way, I was invisible inside the house. The doors bolted and the windows dark.
My mother spent her final moments on a hospital gurney, mid-turn. All of November’s knives in her. I make lists of suicide scenarios for my geriatric years, but everything sounds horrible. A friend and I talk about euthanasia, for ourselves. 65? 70? Childless, we are unburdened by worries of reckless daughters or feckless sons. We won’t fret over no one coming to our deathbeds, because the point is no one is coming. No one running the length of hospital hallways in heels. No one heavily climbing the stairs. Our bodies smooth, undamaged, ravaged only by years. And who wouldn’t want to die beautiful? Strewn across the bed in your best dress? I’s dotted, arms crossed. Suitcase packed carefully and waiting by the door.
For a while, I sleep with my bags still packed. I go fishing for hand lotion and find my mother’s hairbrush in the side pocket, accidentally purloined in the rush of those final visits. Collect various bits of her for safekeeping—faux sapphire earrings bought in the hospital gift shop. A candle. A busted open carnation. But for months, I keep losing my own things: keys, pens, batteries, pairs of plastic sunglasses.
For a while, I sleep dreaming of women in white gowns lining up to jump quietly off a cliff and into the sea. This, and the location of every lost thing I’ve ever owned suddenly found alive and completely, perfectly intact.
In the end, my mother stops eating at all. Tries to dwindle the body down to smallness. To make it go out like a light. My father prods her with peanut butter and omelets. Smoothies full of ground almonds and protein powder. She requests donuts and Chinese food but takes only the tiniest bites. Says she’s given up on this life. This world. This body carried like a sack from bed to chair and back to bed. The body she grows tired of dragging behind her like a heavy animal. The body and its bloat and decay. The body that fills then empties on schedule, her conversations with the nurses a series of questions on meals and bowel movements. How is the body doing today?
I am most uncomfortable with that body. Not the body that writes poems and wears dresses, but the body that eats and shits, that fucks and rots. There’s no escaping it. Its heavy, flesh covered mess always with us. A chaotic structure of bone and sinew, of organs and teeth. So many things could go wrong with the imperfectness of its machine. Consciousness huddling in the attic, hoping for the best, while water takes us floor by floor.
Over the winter, my father packs my mother’s clothes carefully away like dolls. Winter coats and jewelry box contents, bras worn gray and thin from wear. The sum of a life measured in socks and nightgowns, in blouses missing a single button each. As her daughter, I want nothing, but then only because I want everything. My closet small and already overstuffed. This hole so much larger than I have things to fill. Floral bedspreads and unused tea towels, broken wicker wreaths and thrift store paintings of churchyards filled with flowers.
It gets easier, someone tells me during the holidays, but how to account for the ridiculous number of unidentifiable electric cords, a hundred tea lights, a dozen half-used bottles of scented lotion. Where to put the curtain rods and wrought iron garden sculptures. Whose house large enough to contain everything we will forget existed once. My own home filled with books and dresses and too many cats, the closets neat but precariously structured and stuffed to the brim. My open spaces claimed by ghosts and balled up sheets of paper. Every light bulb burned out in every room.
Last week, I read that a vast percentage of the body is entirely new at any given time—blood cells, tendon, epidermis. That even our bones are breaking down slowly and replacing themselves every few years. The broken ring finger of my childhood no longer an indeterminate crack in the metacarpal. Like the commonly accepted myth that every seven years or so, we are essentially new persons, the credit of our bodies wiped clean and spotless. But our parts still harbor holdouts. Like the woman in the quaint Victorian as the skyline springs up around her. Ova and neurons and the lens of the eye. At any given moment, most of my body has forgotten most every man I’ve ever slept with, but my tail bone still aches from a fall in the snow a decade ago.
I speculate that in seven years, all of me will have grown used to this motherlessness. Each element of my body swept clean and new. But the holdouts, no doubt, grow shifty with their intentions. The synapses misfiring at unexpected moments. The face in my mirror hers more than it ever was mine. The sudden flood of panic like a cold wave sluicing the shore. The dreams that flare all night—her dead, then alive, then dead again.
The morning it happened, I woke with unusual and untimely cramps. As if this body, torn from that body 40 odd years ago, felt it again from 100 miles southeast. When she breathed her last, I was walking down Michigan Ave in the sun, stopping to snap a blurry picture of the last autumn leaves outside the museum. Later, I tossed the orange flowered dress I was wearing into the trash. Too summery for early November. Too scant and bright for a trip home to cremate one’s mother. I’d never be able to wear it again without thinking, this is what you were wearing.
Already, my skin has mostly forgotten the word mother. In winter, it grows dry and flakes away, each particle replacing daughter bit by bit during the night until eventually I wake without thinking about it. Sometimes, I’m hours into the day before grief knocks me against doorjambs, the back of my office chair. Already, the body shedding what I remember of touch to the January landscape.
Mostly, from my place in the city, I imagine my mother is still alive. Moving about the rooms of the house, not ghost but flesh. As if she stepped out of the room and we mistook her for gone. As if we could open the entryway closet in a flourish of colored scarves and dove feathers and she’d reappear. Fully formed from ashes, finger by finger, limb by limb. When I was seven, I dreamed she abandoned us, leaped over the white wooden fence behind the garage and disappeared into a field full of wildflowers. For months, I cried in my bed at the memory of it, clutching its sharpness against my chest until the edges dulled.
Even now, mothers undo me. In grocery stores, on television and magazine covers. They coil like a spring in my memory and strike. Each day dangerous in the in betweens: bus rides, traffic signals, waiting for the elevator.
The woman in the funeral home asked me if I wanted to see the body, and I declined. My last memory of her waving goodbye from a wheelchair transport as I drove away. Her vision groggy with meds, slumped in the chair. How to reassemble the body, so far gone—the leaden heart, the antiseptic drip. To reattach hope like a balloon to the wrist. How to rewrite the history of the body and render it new and undamaged.
From the city, I write her moving through rooms in the pre-dawn, collecting her coffee, the remote. The day arrives totally spotless each time, again and again.