Sunday, January 15, 2012
You're Dead A Long Time
It's "Prefab Saturday Night" and I'm posting something I wrote a couple of years ago about my mother's death. If you've just lost a loved one, you may want to skip this post.
When I die, it’s not going to get on NPR. “Today on The Diane Rehm Show, we celebrate the life Julia Burzon, who left an indelible print on our lives. Let’s open with an excerpt from her 2014 interview with Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air.” No. Sometimes I look at my hands. I've done this since high school...I try to imagine them not being alive. I look at the skin.I test it’s elasticity by pulling on it up above my knuckles and compare its texture with the memory I have of doing this to my mother’s hand and my own, back when my skin was caramel satin and hers looked like mine does now. I examine my fingerprints. I judge the slightly spatulate shape of my nails. They have always had very white tips, like a french manicure. I got this from my mother. I can see her fingernails filed to rounded points and wonder if this was a nail shape preferred in the ‘50s. Mine are clipped short and shaped like rounded rectangles. Often there is a white spot migrating down the nailbed, a cloud on the horizon.
One day these hands will be still and stiff, like my mother’s were when I removed her engagement ring the day she died.
That day I learned that our hands’ stiffness is remarkably like that of the exoskeletons of insects in my collection. Once dead, the little corpses freeze into whatever position they were at the moment of death. In the case of the insects, this is due to dessication. I have found though that if it is necessary to change the position of a robust portion of a leg, slow and steady pressure can ease the joint past its preferred resting state and allow motion again. So it was with my mother’s fingers. One just has to have the confidence to apply the appropriate pressure.
It was a Thursday when she called. The phone rang and I saw from the caller-ID screen that it was my sister. Why would she be calling this early? This can’t be good. I answered the phone and in the instant I registered her tearful voice I knew that she had bad news. “I’m sorry to tell you this over the phone but Mom passed away this morning,” she said. At once, I said, “WHAT?!” and she started to explain again but I stopped her because I knew what she’d said and just had said that out of surprise. “What happened?” I knew Mom hadn’t been feeling well, that she was not herself when I spoke to her last. Inauguration Day 2009---that was the last time I spoke with my mother. That would be the last conversation we would ever have. My stomach felt full of rocks. I heard Amy say, “Dad had spent the night downstairs, knowing that she was not feeling well and had heard her having trouble breathing in the early morning. He went in and tried to help her be more comfortable and then she just stopped.” And so I learned that my mother was no longer a prisoner of Multiple Sclerosis. Her every moment would no longer be a cruel struggle her pride refused to accept. She would no longer have to endure us trying to keep her warm and urging her to wear a hat. Her existence would not be an affront to her image of herself, of who she should have, could have been. And so I joined the ranks of the orphaned. Now I had only my father. I had no mommy. Not anymore.
I remember when my mother had to go to the hospital one time. I must have been 8, maybe younger. I was in my bed in my room and was crying. Mommy was going to the hospital and I was scared. I was afraid she was going to die. I did not want my Mommy to die. I’d tried to be a good girl and give her over to Jesus like I thought I was supposed to. I’d had a dream. In the dream I had climbed a tree. As I sat, safe in the shady branches I could see out over the land below. A crowd was gathered around a man I knew must be Jesus. I should go ask him to heal my mother so she wouldn’t be sick anymore. I felt the rough bark in my hands as I swang down into the dust. I made my way through the knees of the crowd, taking advantage of my size. After a long time and a lot of effort I made it to Him. The crowd was carrying us along. I pulled on his sleeve and asked if he would heal my mother. She is sick and I know that if he will only say the word she’d be healed. I don’t ask him to come see her. I try to be like the centurion, who had secured the healing of his steward’s child by having faith that if only Jesus said it would be done, so it would be. Jesus looked me in the face. I loved him. I worshipped him. I knew he would heal her and that I’d asked the right way. He looked at me. He said, “No.” I woke up, and I wept. I had done everything right. My mom had done nothing to deserve this and Jesus wouldn't even speak the word that could heal her. He was going to let her suffer. I was devastated. I quit CCD (Sunday-school for Catholics) soon after.
And so I stood at my mother’s side in the funeral home. I’d asked if they’d washed the body yet. I thought if I could have that intimacy that it might help me process this seismic event. Yes, it was already done. Could I at least see her now, before she changed into someone who wasn’t my mother. People never look in their caskets as they did in life. Yes, they might look as if they’re sleeping, but I wanted to see my mother before there was make-up she never would’ve worn and wax holding her lips and eyelids closed. The tears streamed down my face. My sweet mommy was dead. Here she was. And I hadn’t been there. At least Daddy had been there. Although who knows if she was aware of it. I wonder if she saw the white light as her brain shut down. Did she see her own mother, young and without the dementia that robbed her of her own story? Did she see her father, well and happy (he had committed suicide after a long struggle with bipolar disorder). Did she run farther up and farther in, as the dead did in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle?
Her hair was the wrong texture. My mother had soft, fine, dark hair. I realized now that I had not felt it lately, that now it was just about entirely gray and white. And coarse. A stranger’s hair. I laid my head down on her chest, trying to hold her and assure her that it was going to be OK now. That she could rest and see her parents and relatives and that it would be OK. “Don’t be scared, Mommy,” I said. “I’m here and it’s going to be all right.” She felt cold and hard. Like a ham. My mother felt like a ham. My brain fastened on the phrase and repeated it, tittering giddily to itself in the background. There was no softness to cushion my face, to receive it.
Her body was wrapped in a sheet the way you wrap a towel around a small child after you lift them from the tub. Her shoulders were bare, the sheet wrapped around her arms and body just off-the-shoulder. I’d worn a wrap off-the-shoulder like that for my high school senior picture, doing the best I could to hold it closed after doing being briefly rescued from a boiling pre-season field hockey practice in August. My hair had been straighter than its curly self in that picture because I’d had it up for practice. However, my wrap had been purple. I examined the white sheet to find easy entry and access to her left hand. My mission was to retrieve her engagement ring. We had all agreed that she did not need to be buried with it and I had volunteered to take it. I could at least do that. I couldn’t believe they had already washed her and that she was already so cold and hard. It had only been a few hours since they’d picked her up from our house. Why did they have to do all this so goddamn fast?
Mom was lying on a wheeled metal table, like the smaller ones I’d used to retrieve specimens for Vertebrate Biology Lab that I taught in graduate school. “Dead things in jars,” I’d called it. I suppose that was another place I’d learned to manipulate the dead, to learn from them. I grasped my mother’s cold, stiff hand. I pulled the engagement ring up to and worked it over her knuckle. I applied the necessary pressure to bend the knuckle and ease the ring over it. My father was hovering, concerned that I was taking too long in the room by myself with my mother. Was I ready? Yes. I placed my mother’s hand back under the sheet, prized ring in hand. I did not want to leave her there alone in the room. I reminded myself that she wouldn’t know the difference. That I couldn’t hurt her feelings. Dad was waiting. Yes, the morticians could work their unnatural magic now. I had seen her before she had been changed into the dead imitating life, into a strange thing that would never know me again.