We watch “The Golden Girls” in bed. I am 21, too old to lay against my mother, old enough to sense her leaving. My body clings to her side, while her fingers untangle hair at the nape of my neck. She laughs at something Sophia says, and my gaze turns from the TV to an open closet door, to her clothes crammed so tightly no light can shine between them. A forbidden fear shakes loose. My mother will not grow old like these women on television. Is she afraid? Should I be afraid? I am about to ask. Her name hovers on the edge of my lips, and I sweep her T-shirt with my hand. Before I can speak, her eyes roll to the back of her head. A hum, like flies swarming, fills the silence between us.
So this is how it happens, this is how my mother dies. Tonight, in her bed, in front of me while a Nick-at-Nite laugh track snickers. Nausea swims hard through my stomach. But I dial 9-1-1. I force out words I’ve wanted to say since January, when her transplanted kidney rejected,
“I think my mother is dying,” I tell the operator. A stranger. How easy it is to say these words to her. I think. I have said. As if I do not know for sure, do not want to be wrong.
And then, my mother is dying. As if I am certain, and cannot be wrong. Other words follow: juvenile diabetes, chronic organ rejection. As I speak, I look to a finger print smudged wall. I am too cowardly to look death in the eye. I place both hands on the bed because my legs shake. I do not trust them to hold me. I do not trust at all.
My mother is dying. Dying.
I want her final moments to be different, special. I want a hospital room, and relatives encircling a bed, like in the soap operas she watched when I was a girl. Days of Our Lives. Another World. I want all the clichés ––– labored breaths, a final “I love you,” a starlit room. I want a rabbi to mark the threshold between this world and the one to come. Holy, holy, holy. For a moment, I turn from my mother and look toward a row of size-five shoes lined execution style against the closet. I am wrong about so much.
I am wrong about this night. My mother is dying. She will die soon. But she will not die now. On this night, she revives before paramedics storm the house. No robe covers her. No time to gather clothes. I pretend these men do not notice her sweat-damp thighs. They do not see the braless outline of her breasts. When they smirk at one another, I look to her shoes once more, to the safe beige carpet beneath them.
“What happened?” My mother asks, in a childlike voice. She looks like she has just awakened from a nap.
I sweep hair from her face, as if she is my child. But I have no answer to her question. I’ve rescued her from diabetic insulin reactions since I was six. I don’t know what caused her seizure tonight. We are new travelers in this territory of acute organ failure, bystanders to a body bent on betraying itself. After seven years of relatively good health, her transplanted kidney and pancreas have rejected, without warning, midway through my junior year of college. In those good years following her transplant, when I was in high school, I did not know we lived on borrowed time. When I was 13, I believed her experimental kidney and pancreas transplant had saved her because she proclaimed this gospel to anyone who’d listen.
“I’m a walking miracle,” she told rooms of prospective organ donors. “I’m cured.”
Miracle. Cures. The tenets of our faith; myths writ large upon her body. Myths exploding at our feet.
During my teenage years, I never knew her transplanted organs had a shelf life, never imagined her body would bloat like a corpse when her transplanted organs rejected. Her pancreas went first in July 2001, followed by her kidney in January the following year. It all happened so fast, like a lightening strike in the middle of a perfect day. And then, her skin yellowed before she actually died –– alone, in her bed, in the middle of a dream I hope never ends.
On this night in the in-between-time, I say “thank you” to no one in particular, while paramedics strap her to a gurney bound for an ambulance whose sirens awaken all the neighbors. I button up a jacket, then drive her minivan to the hospital. Silently, I steer her car beside cornfields and abandoned farms, past a shopping mall that is also dying. As I pass the mall, lit up beneath white lights, I roll down a window. It’s almost closing time, and a few cars dot the parking lot. A microbrewery opened near the mall a few years ago, and the air tastes like stale toast, burnt and sour.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glance at a file folder on the passenger seat. This folder contains lists of my mother’s medications and her dialysis diet food restrictions: no grapefruit, no melons. I think a slice of cantaloupe could kill her, and I fear any mistakes by hospital staff. I cling to the delusion that she might survive, and I call my delusion hope. I will need to give these papers to a floor nurse after she’s admitted. I move my hand from the steering wheel to the folder, pat it lightly. I am her mother, her daughter, her doctor, and her nurse. I am desperate for relief that will not come. Desire runs hot on my skin. My hand moves back to the steering wheel, grips the plastic hard. My knuckles numb. I won’t let go.
After I leave my mother in the hospital, to sleep beneath a frail blanket, I fall asleep in a house without her, a house I’ve always called “my mother’s house,” a house made strange by her absence. House, home. She’s the silence, the crucial difference, separating these words. I have no home without her. When she appears in my dreams, I am not surprised.
My dream mother, my fantasy mother, is not sick or dying. She’s never been better. No need for an insulin pump. No need for a wheelchair. No need to rest and catch her breath. So, of course, it’s shoes we need in the dying shopping mall, shoes we hunt for, shoes to carry us out into the gleaming, miraculous night, a night where sickness cannot touch us.
But I can’t find any shoes that fit.
Neither can she.
We are like Cinderella’s stepsisters in the scary Grimm’s fairytale she read me years ago. We cram our feet into too-small slippers and pumps. We slice the skin of our heels.
And then, no shoes in hand, we’re at a swimming pool. My mother wears sunglasses and a black bathing suit. Red polish glistens on her toes. She wiggles them, tilts her head back. Wind rises up from the water, rocks the raft back and forth. I remember she can’t swim. I run to the pool. I am about to jump in when the raft tips.
Screams awaken me. They’re coming from my mouth. I am disturbed and relieved.
My mother is dying. She is not yet dead. I throw my blankets to the floor and walk to the bathroom. I pass her empty bedroom where sheets lay in a body-shaped heap on the floor. I look away. I do not want to acknowledge her absence, or make it permanent by imagining her death. Death, dying, dead. I could say. I should say. But I am afraid to speak these words. I am afraid if I say the words, I will make her dying real. I will have to look death in the eye. I have some version of the swimming pool nightmare every night. Always, I want to save her. I want to save her like I have never wanted anything. Desire floods me, and I cannot see beyond this wanting, into a time when I will no longer want her. More than anything, I want to hold our remaining moments in my fingers, tug them back like a rope, never let her go. But each moment flies from me, carries her further away.
In this time of her dying, my mother has told me her fate rests in “God’s hands.” She believes in the God of her Torah, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God we invoke in this season of Passover, the God who led Moses from Egypt. In the last week of her life, she’ll summon her remaining energy to make a Seder for me and her. We’ll dip our fingers in grape juice, name the plagues. Dam. Tzfardeyah. Blood. Frogs. We’ll end with the worst plague, the one that sparks a sharp shiver through my heart. Makat Bechorot. Death of the first born. After dinner, I’ll sleep fitfully, trying to envision her God, the God of miracles, the God who parted the Red Sea. I’ll close my eyes as if, by squinting, I can make this magical, miracle God appear. All I’ll see is the blur of my eyelids, a blue flicker of moon shadow.
The morning after the pool dream, I call in sick from my internship at a news wire service in D.C. I make up a story about a virus I’ve contracted, a 24-hour thing. I don’t know why I lie. How can I say, “my mother is dying” to someone else when I can’t say these words to myself? Dying. Such a simple word, the kind of participle I diagramed in ninth grade English, just two syllables. Dy-ing. All I have to do is whisper them. Dy-ing, dy-ing, from the Old Norse deyja, “to pass away.” But I can’t move my lips, can’t make the syllables form a word. They evaporate like water, like smoke. Dying –– deyja –––
Where do the dying pass to? Away, implies a place awaiting them, a there to my here. Away implies she might come back, as if death is not an eternal goodbye, but a magician’s vanishing cabinet, or the whirlwind that spun the prophet Elijah to heaven. We awaited Elijah at our Passover Seders, and my mother has always made me set a place for him, complete with a glass of water and a glass of grape juice. Year after year, I followed her wishes. Her hope made no sense. Made perfect sense.
The word internship now feels false to me, feels more like the word it echoes. Interment. At my internship office on 13th Street, I’m entombed by my own sadness, too wary to write, unable to focus, weighted by anxiety. I can’t hold onto a thought for longer than a moment, can’t form the trail of thoughts necessary to compose an article.
My fellow roommates do not like me, and I do not know why. One day, I happen to see an e-mail they’ve circulated in our intern pen. In it, they call me “princess,” which I suspect is code for “Jew.” Most days, I ignore them and pass for normal. I wear short skirts my mother bought me. I wear pantyhose and nude lipstick. I am professional, polished. I sit at a desk, and cross my legs at the ankles, the way she taught me. I read the newswire while other interns type to a methodical rhythm. I pretend not to hear telephones ring, the robotic beep of a fax machine. The city thrums with panic and false patriotism. If I wanted to, I could distinguish myself in the post-9-11 media circus. I could write articles about reopened senate offices or civil liberties eroding. These articles could land me a good newspaper job when I graduate college next year.
But I am not like the others. I can’t build my career on the pyre of our latest national disaster. Planning a life beyond my mother feels like betrayal, like I’m the toxins polluting her blood or the poison drowning her kidneys. So I space out. I leave my desk to walk K Street. Iron grey buildings form canyons around me, and I turn my head past them, to the sky. Clouds swirl and drift like snow. With my head upturned, I wander litter worn streets along McPherson Square. Men sell knock-off designer bags. “Gucci!” They call, snapping their fingers like sad auctioneers. “Louis Vuitton!”
I keep my head pointed high because I am afraid another human gaze will unravel me. I look up, look away. Above me, the sky looks like sludge.
I call my mother while I’m outside, wandering the streets. I use the Nokia cell phone she bought me for emergencies. Each time her phone rings, breath freezes in my throat. With each unanswered ring, I’m practicing for her death. I’m wondering whether I’ll scream when she dies, or if I’ll go mute. Words harden to icicles on the roof of my mouth.
In this season of her dying, I want her to know I love her more than I love any boy. I want her to know I love her more than I love my father, who I haven’t spoken to since I was 15. My love is a flooded river flowing to her, only to her, and I want to solidify my love, as if such a thing is possible, as if love can be preserved like a relic. I want to mark this final passage before death’s glass slides down to separate us forever.
The morning after the pool dream, my jumbled thoughts begin to make sense.
Everything distills against the fog of perpetual insomnia; her death demands a memento, a gift, or token. A memento mori, although I am too young –– too unschooled –– to know this word. My desire to bestow a gift gives me a sense of purpose, restores the grip of control that has eluded me since her kidneys began to fail. I decide I will drive her minivan back to the mall, to the place she’d take me whenever I needed anything: Payless shoes for school dances, Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, clearance Jessica McClintock dresses. At the mall, I believe I will find an object to represent all I cannot say, a memento to remember her by, a memento to preserve this precious time when I have a mother, still belong to her.
I leave the kitchen to dress quickly. This morning, I wear sweat pants and a T-shirt, no bra. I don’t see the point in niceties like bras or shampoo when my mother’s body siphons my attention. My body is an afterthought, an aside. I pull my hair back into a ponytail and put on a pair of my mother’s sunglasses because I can’t find my own. Her lenses make the road appear shadowy and dark, despite a March sun blazing the sky. I have chills and a low-grade fever. Anticipatory grief feels like the flu.
This morning, the mall parking lot is as empty as it was near closing time the night before. But the air smells different now, more like garbage. I park at Lord & Taylor, sidestepping a pile of desiccated French fries when I exit the van. Gulls peck at cookie wrappers spattering the lot. I watch birds fight over errant crumbs. They squabble and beat their wings against the air. But no sound comes from the mall, not even Muzak from loudspeakers. Beyond the entry doors, Lord & Taylor looks strangely dim, as if bulbs from overhead lights have burned out, and no one bothered to replace them.
I don’t know when the mall began to die. Maybe it all started when police found a woman dead on a trail near a Baltimore Metro stop years ago. A teenager shot the woman in the head, killed her instantly. She’d been a mall employee and was walking home when she met her assailant in the dark. After the shooting, signs went up to warn mall employees not to walk on the trail. Signs cautioned shoppers, too, as if they’d meet masked gunmen in the lots outside Macy’s or Saks. Fearful shoppers decided to go elsewhere for their cashmere sweaters and Godiva chocolates, and then Saks closed.
Now, nearly a decade later, staff have posted “Going Out of Business Sale” signs throughout Lord & Taylor. Still, I think, I will find something nice here for my mother. I cling to this thought even though bargain hunters have already scavenged the jewelry counter, so only a basket of silver necklaces remains. Some necklaces have chains so thin they slide through my fingers. Others are thick as twigs. All the pendants turn to ice in my palms. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get warm this winter. I sift through chains, settling on the last necklace I find, a pendant composed of six silver pearls studded with pinprick Swarovski crystals. Six. That divine number. A dividend of chai, the Hebrew word for life, for eighteen. In its numeric design, this necklace speaks the deepest wish of my heart. Satisfied, I walk to the checkout till.
A sales clerk tells me to “Have a nice day.” Her mouth curls into a twitchy smile as she speaks.
“My mother’s in the hospital,” I say. “She might not make it. I don’t need a bag.”
I speak as if these sentences go together, as if they mean there’s no possible way I will have a nice day now or ever again. The salesgirl looks about my age, a junior in college. I want her to feel guilty, as I do. I want her to feel a dull, relentless drill beating against her chest, pounding her bones to sand. But she says nothing as I enfold the necklace in my palm and walk away. Maybe she didn’t hear me. Or maybe, she doesn’t know what to say because death scares people. We avoid it like contagion, pray to be spared. We hold fast to silence, to hope, to language that obscures our fear. Passed away. We say. Met her maker.
On the way out the door, I catch a whiff of my mother’s scent. Even though she’s dying and can’t afford it, she still wears expensive perfume. Her biggest splurge is Chanel No. 5, purchased on credit. For a moment, I stand in her scent’s power, willing the perfume to be my mother’s body restored. Then I leave the store for the near-empty parking lot. I glance once more at the necklace, shimmering in the sun. Chanel No.5 rises subtly above the scent of trash.
I find my mother dozing at the hospital. But she sits up when I kiss her cheek. Without makeup, she looks disoriented. Neither of us acknowledge the seizure, how she buzzed and vibrated, how she could have died right in front of me. Her seizure seems like a bad dream we can tuck back into the night. At daybreak, hope –– or denial –– comes effortlessly.
“I bought you a present.” I lift the necklace from my purse, then clasp the chain around her neck.
I do not say what I am thinking: This is the last gift I will ever give her. The jewelry I give her now is as well intended, as full of hope as the Play-Doh bracelets I made for her in Kindergarten, and which she still keeps in a drawer beside her bed, where her red-bound Tanakh also sits on a nightstand, holding the exalted myths of our people. Rarely does she speak about the sacred story’s ending, about the hero who can glimpse but not enter his promised land. How she loves these stories that entwine suffering and redemption. She clings to them as I cling to her. And because she loves her stories, I will love them too, long after death separates us. She is my promised land, and I am hers. I am every promise she will never see realized.
When her body is gone, I will need her stories, her traditions, just as I will need this necklace. I will make them a surviving part of her, symbol and synecdoche, proof that even as we suffered, we hoped. A part of me believes this necklace can save her, like the miracles of her stories, or the prayers of our lost ancestors. In our family line, we are far from the first mother and child to be separated too soon. The question she taught me to ask was not, “Why?” but “Why not?” There is a time, she has told me, for everything. A time to be saved, a time to let go. At her funeral, we will sing from Ecclesiastes, praise the baffling rhythms of time.
I glance over her head, to the window, to the sky thickening to grey mush. Then I turn back toward the bed, to her body, frail and bent. Against the hospital blanket, her necklace appears dull, more gunmetal than silver. I want a single bead to wink against our darkness. But the crystals have already slipped beneath her shirt. She closes her eyes to sleep, and her face relaxes. All worry lines recede, as if she knows something I don’t know, has seen what I cannot see.