When my mother died, I had an agenda you don’t know you have until someone central to your existence is gone.
This was mine:
• First, empty the most personal of properties, her vanity. Her lipsticks.
She kept on her sink a plastic box filled with her powders, lipsticks. Blush. Eyebrow pluckers. Tiny. Personal. Things.
As if in a terrible rush, I quickly swept it all into a garbage bag. A big black trash bag too heavy-duty for such delicate items.
But there were things I needed to do quickly.
• Sweep out enema boxes. Stool softener bottles. Cotton balls. Fragmented face-powder compacts. Tired old bandages. Things I don’t remember because I disposed of them so quickly. I was in a rush.
Except for some things. Her hair brushes. Her ceramic pill bowl. Hair dryer. An ancient bottle of perfume.
By her bedside table she’d kept a ceramic tray filled with odds and ends I periodically would try to organize. Really, just rearranging the clutter. As in the ceramic cup holder. A letter opener. Cat-nail clippers. Her own nail clippers. Nail files. Comb to clean out the cat’s brush. TV guide. Neck night cream. Stamps. The ceramic tile with my phone number in ink on the bottom to call for me when she would begin to forget my phone number. Old business cards. Ticktacs.
It’s a hunger. This. Now. To remember in detail everything on my mother’s bedside table.
The things that would wind up under her bed. Socks. Hairbrushes. Basket of old catalogues she would toss.
After my mother died, the next thing I would do is have that blue bedroom carpet that had been stained with blood ripped up. From her last fall, when she almost bled out after gashing her head on the corner of her bureau. She had been on Coumadin that can thin your blood to the consistency of water.
I would return to the house only once before it was ripped up. The blue bedroom carpet.
I could not step into her bedroom; the hospital bed in which she’d died now gone, her bed back in its rightful place.
As if nothing had changed.
The next time I would return to the house, the carpet would be gone. The bed moved to another wall. With the relief of someone coming up for air after nearly suffocating beneath an avalanche, I was deeply relieved. To feel nothing.
I can feel nothing.
I want to remember all this and then I don’t.
When she died, I was in a rush.
Only later would I wonder why was I in such a rush? Well, exactly this — that I might linger over the lipsticks. As I would the ashes from her urn, seeking out fine bones that hadn’t been pulverized.
I would keep her hair brushes. With her hair…the ladybug pillow she would take her last breath against.
Next on the agenda: to empty certain bureau drawers. Not all. I would empty into a new trash bag all of her underwear. Her mastectomy bras. Her stockings carefully rolled into balls. I would toss the balls hard into the bag as if I was mad. I wasn’t mad. I was just in a terrible rush.
Next: I would toss stained T-shirts. The ones she wore at the end of her life, ones stained with food from her aide trying to feed her purred food she would choke on after her stroke.
And it would only be months later when I would chastise myself for not giving her a proper funeral.
For landing myself in a hospital ward where my roommate claimed to be a psychic medium who told me my mother had been with her all along and only wanted me to know how much she appreciated all I had done for her.
All I had done for her.
I look at her picture I keep of her, sketching. In her element. Mom!
And for never even thinking to change her out of the only thing she was wearing when she died — a white T-shirt that I’d put on in my panic, as she was in the throws of actually dying. Having vomited black bile on her nightgown, I had to cut it off of her because she was too weak to move.
She died in a white stained T-shirt under a cheap green fleece blanket. In a Depends.
When the starched men from the funeral home came to take her away, I had never thought ahead to that — that they would strip her of the green blanket, down to her bandaged gangrene leg.
And that is how she would exit her house, her life. Why hadn’t I dressed her?
I read that somewhere, about how a daughter had carefully dressed her mother after she died, preparing her for cremation.
Why did that never occur to me? She was to be cremated. It didn’t occur to me!
To dress her?
It’s Lent. I couldn’t bring myself to go to Ash Weds services. I am in retreat. From ashes. The sifting through ash for the last remnants of life. Of bone.
John. My brother who died two days before Christmas. I was not in the room with him either when he died. I don’t know what he was wearing. No doubt a hospital gown. I just know that he lay alone in a cold room; the morning he died the nurse made a point of telling me they had turned down the thermostat to keep the room “cool” until I could make “arrangements.”
How did he die? I asked. As I had asked my mother’s aide, because again, I just wasn’t there. In the room.
The nurse said he just turned away and his color changed.
My mother died quietly too.
Death is so final that I’m astonished at any quietness about it.
But perhaps grateful. Perhaps not. Perhaps I would be more at peace with these losses if the sky had exploded with shooting stars.