It is contested territory. Right now she has two thick horns atop it. Dying can turn the most flamboyant into their most feared demon.
R who works with her in the daytime puts oil (olive, coconut) on the horns, which G, who works nighttime, complains about.
I just want to clear my record, R tells me, I’m not the one putting her hair in braids, don’t listen to everyone.
The two dreadlock horns: thick thwarted heart shapes with the narrow point starting a half-inch from the head, a whorl of origin matted in a tangle of desire unmet. This is the pain of dying, the asymmetry of desire met by the outside world. The hair dreams of length, the imagination of flowing chestnut locks, the hair testifies to everything. Instead the ends find one another, swirl, the tangle replicating what happens inside to the ganglia of a mind fed by cannabinoid, opioid, and morphine.
Morphine is the best: it doesn’t knock her out anymore, she can still converse.
What a long protracted dying does often—not always—is bring out the singularity of the person. In this case: her sweetness, a young hopeful girl forever ready for the party, lower teeth jutting forward as if thereby she could catch life, chew off some last twist of sweetness. This was the stilled underbite she used after someone complimented her, or at any moment of savoring, the lower part of the face bunching into the pleasure of a squirrel, the smiling clenched underbite with the teeth, eyes sparkling, loving the shared enjoyment. A face used when she was recognizing some silliness in both self and world but that the world was there to savor. Teeth not especially straight or white, because that would have been a literal evocation of the childhood she did not have, the one her mother craved, good with thimble and the quick patch-up job, so that the other sister, the one who stayed in the nation’s heart with a swimming pool paid for by coupons, as the caustic-tongued grandmother said, the good daughter who gave the gift of scores of children, great-grandkids swarming around in rituals of weekend fun metabolism, sport food and more, a pool outside and inside a pool table surrounded by glass jars holding chocolates and jellybeans, the older sister through whom the difficult grandmother’s loving energy flowed, she has that, she has the kids with the straightened noses and white teeth.
But what my mother has in her dying is a new wisdom, she gazes distantly. I tell her, without going into the kind of detail she loves, the kind she would hear and repeat back, some of the stories she has told me of her childhood: how school offered the kind of reward, an end of horizon, a place to be recognized.
O yeah, sweetly, as if encountering a distant shard of the self, a wraithlike figure flitting on the moors.
In death recognizing the lineaments of rewards that have come her way.
Only alluding to some about her mother: the time she had been caught touching herself and mother and father held her down, poured mercurochrome on her groin so that her walk to and from school was wreathed in fiery shame, head held high, tall and straight in a skirt with long crimson stains down the back of her knees above her bobby socks and the penance of desire: having to answer questions all day.
This story my mother only told me in upstate New York long after I was the age she was when she had me. Angelic, she showed up after the birth of my second daughter, sitting there rocking because I was nursing and we were together and for once and for all I needed to know the story, to find out how the cord of maternity had been cut, the grisly, evil sentence.
Her own mother: born in St. Louis but more of Minsk and the scrub-face, hush-up-don’t-cry harshness of pogroms, the centrality of home life (tenet of Jewishness) when shoved to the edges of every civilization.
To my mother’s credit, though the umbilicus had been cut, she wished to spare kids the tale of how the cord had been cut. I had to pull the story out of her: who had done what to whom, what her mother knew and did not want to find out. What made early childhood so hard. The mercurochrome. The having to clean up her own vomit.
O yeah, my mother says, dying, wonderingly, with that exact sweetness of being a young girl.
Every morning at five a.m., a performance and war take place in the same zone. It takes place for no one but me, choreographed by the oddities of human quirk and history, in a privately darkened room, a wild struggle. This battle with victories and war announcements takes place on the calves of my mother, with insurance having brought to her home Rona: gloved hands slide up bones with unguent drawn from the teats of sheep.
The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
In that psalm of David, the sheep are suddenly splayed face-down in the fields, delighting in and accepting their limitations.
Like a caul of grace, some great wondering humility has come over my mother. Perhaps she has accepted the basic sheepishness of our humanity. We graze, we savor, we move on, we pause in wonder.
And so she submits, grateful, to the warm ministrations of the hands of Rona, someone born into the world who follows the Mormon church and does good while narrating all that she does, an echo. Is a deed good if it is not narrated? Perhaps this has to do with a quirk of the church or herself. Your mother so happy, she dancing with her dead husband, Rona will sing at the wake, doing a cha-cha to demonstrate my mother freed of her earthly cares.
But before all that, something has been dropped into the world, the two of these in the predawn, such a strange quantity, a pair not in mortal combat: Rona strenuously narrates what she is doing, vicious spasms of movement as she raises the leg, sets it down, her commentary thus:
“Shu-kah, sugar, see what we do, let’s show ET what we do!”
The skeleton legs obey, rotors of joints, my mother prone, staring up as if a wreath of crumpled flowers hang over her and she cannot have her attention veer off, a woman motionless but forever striving toward a goal.
“Shu-kah, see what Rona does EVERY MORNING?”
The legs bent and straightened.
The truth is I often lack the stamina for viewing the performance.
Around the dying, I have found, you often find a certain kind of person gathered close, the moth-eaten hunger of someone to be recognized. This being as true of me as any helper as anyone visiting. Because death is so asymmetrical, one needs to feel recognized by at least one set of eyes, depending on one’s belief system: worldly, divine, neighborly, self-congratulatory.
I am visiting the dying, I am helping the dying, the dying saw me.
Some of us are born into having a mother-hole, and perhaps it is clear my mother is of the tribe of poorly mothered daughters. In a poverty-stricken immigrant ghetto in St. Louis, her own clever mother would have been a journalist, someone hard at work at a typewriter, using that caustic incisive wit to incite revolt, but instead lost herself in sharp-tongued gossip at a canasta table. This grandmother lost the universality of kindness along the way. She had four children, pitted her eldest daughter against the others: there was the eldest good daughter, there was my mother who was the one who got farthest away, using her mind as her passport, there was the one who was burnt by critique, who loved frogs, lost a son, and ate herself to death, and the favored son who ended up in jail for cleverness, the one for whom the state of Mississippi changed its blackjack laws.
As she gets made up for the visit of the Baptist chaplain whom R calls my mother’s boyfriend, with his earring in one ear, his divorce and four kids part of his precociously world-weary baggage, who says that she has become his friend, her smile is that of the sweet debutante her own mother wished her to be, the one raised high in the photo by the fraternity boys who voted her their black-ringleted queen. My mother—the last monstrous myth, the one that will keep her alive much longer—feels forever that this hospice chaplain is her date.
She has narrated his arrival thus:
He likes to come see me …to talk of theater and friendship …he has other people and things to do but he likes to see me …
I tell her, as in Sunset Boulevard, she is ready for her close-up. She misremembers the film, quotes another, her closed hand creeping up to her neck. Six months later his voice on the phone echoes: I loved your mother, there are always certain patients whose being is much bigger than whatever life they have, and it doesn’t matter if they are angels or monsters, you love them forever.