This is what happens when.
You get The Call from your sister. You call the airlines to change your flight to anytime today. You fly cross-country with your wife hoping that you’ll be there in time. Your sister had given you the option, to wait another day or two and go directly to New York. Or to go first to Florida. It wasn’t a choice. You had been to Florida the week before and spent as much quality time as she could handle. You joked and teased and even read chapters from your memoir aloud. She was your best audience. The chapters were about growing up and she was there. She was always there. She was there when you didn’t want to enter that writing contest and she insisted you mail your essay before she would drive you and your date to a movie. She was there when you returned from college and handed her a joint when she asked if you were still doing “that stuff.” She was there on the phone every day for the twenty years since her husband died. She had such strong liberal opinions. She whispered, as you read to her, “Such beautiful writing.” Who else would say that to you?
And when you left, just a week ago, she hadn’t started having the accidents that happened just a few days later. Staining her bed sheets. Mortified and embarrassed, apologetic and resigned. This elegant woman. This is no country for old women. The young in….
You arrive just past dawn. She is in the bed the hospice people brought. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are closed. You approach, put your hand on her thinning white hair, press her skull to let her know you are there. You whisper in her ear. She stirs. She knows. You say, “I’ve brought my book, I will read to you.” She purses her lips. “It’s all right,” you say. You tell her your wife is here. The woman who, though of another race, is most like her. Your sister is filming this on her iPad. The last goodbyes. She says, loudly, “Do you really think she wants to listen to you reading? She’s a captive audience.” But you don’t care. She had told you it was beautiful writing. It wasn’t, really. But that’s the way she has always been. Supportive. You want to read to her about her husband. Her parents. The apartment in Brooklyn and the house on Long Island. You want to send her back in time. You don’t want your sister or your wife or the caretaker there. Let them go to the kitchen and have something to eat. You will stay behind, with her, with this woman who you love and who loves you unconditionally. You will read to her. And talk to her. And tell her, “It’s okay to let go. When you’re ready. You’ve seen everybody. “
The caretaker said she felt the presence of the departed in the room. “Her husband is here. And her parents. They have come to take her to the other side.” She is Jamaican. She believes this. But you don’t and you tease her. “My father is here? Are you sure? Hello, Dad,” you say and punch the air. “What? You do that?” the caretaker says, shocked at your being irreverent at such a serious time. But that was your relationship with your father. He would understand. If he was really there.
“That man is there again,” the caretaker said. What man? “Outside the window. In the back. He’s been around for three days now.” Your sister said he was probably homeless and didn’t belong there. It is a gated community. There is a canal out back that runs a long way. You look out the bedroom windows but don’t see him.
The liquid morphine is in a brown bottle. There is a syringe which can hold 20 mg. Your sister started with ten, waiting for you. She fills the syringe and injects it under the tongue. It’s too hard now for her to eat or even to swallow, but the liquid works by absorption. You will take turns injecting this liquid every hour, and then upping the dosage by the afternoon, and doubling it once again by evening to decrease her discomfort. You had asked her doctor about this and he said “Only if she’s in pain.” This is the merciful way. The nurse had said they couldn’t do it the way you wanted it done. Otherwise, she said, it would go down this way: she would starve and she would choke on her own phlegm. And that’s how it would end. But this was not the way you had promised her. You promised to not let her suffer, and now she was suffering. Her body was full of cancer. It had attacked her bones, her organs, and changed her. She was 94 and had such spirit, such vitality, and now, almost like a snap of one’s fingers, she was like this. You had flown across country so you could help your sister reduce her suffering. You had done this before, twenty years ago, with your father as he lay in the hospital dying of thirst. But you hadn’t had the morphine. You could only pull out his feeding tube. And watch as he diminished over three sad days. “This isn’t the way he should have gone,” she said to you both. “It’s not how I want to go.” And yet, here she was, and we were doing our best to help her along.
Your wife stays with her through most of the night. Falling asleep in the chair by her bed. You go in at 4:00 a.m. and wake her gently. “I gave her the morphine at three,” she says. “It was supposed to be at two, but I fell asleep.” “That’s all right,” you say. “It doesn’t really matter when she’s not in pain. She’s at peace now. Her breathing is calm.”
Your sister comes in and you tell your wife to go lie down in the other room. You sit with your sister and try to talk about what’s to come. You have to make plans. You have to take care of this business. You are about to be the beneficiaries of her will. You will have to deal with her papers, her lawyer, her accountant, her broker. You will have to deal with her property, her condo, her car. You talk quietly because you don’t want to disturb her. You look at her and then you look at each other. There are quiet tears. You are helping her, you tell each other. But you’d rather have her here talking with you, telling you where things are and what she wants. She was most concerned how you two would get along. She knew how you were always fighting. It was one thing when you were young, but how could you continue that way as you grew up? But that was the nature of your relationship, and that was what, you tried to rationalize, made it special. Now you were talking in low voices just before dawn and it was a different kind of conversation. She wouldn’t be there to mediate between you anymore. You would have to find a way to work things out together.
“Go lie down with your wife,” your sister says. “I’ll stay here.” You are tired, having flown through the night, and spent the day in this bedroom. You don’t want to leave, but you do, for just a few hours. And at 8:00 a.m. your sister comes and touches your shoulder softly. “She’s gone,” she says. You jump up and go back to the bedroom. She is no longer breathing. Her mouth is open. You put your arms around her head. You try to close her mouth. You can finally hug her without worrying that it will hurt her. She is gone.
Your wife comes in. And the caretaker. There are four of you in the room with her. You look at each other. You look at her. You hug. “Her husband came to take her last breath,” the caretaker says. It’s a beautiful notion, but none of you believe it. You wish it was true.
You text your daughters. It is just after 5:00 a.m. there. It will be the first thing they will see when they awake. The saddest two words they will ever read.
“What do we do now?” you ask. The hospice people have to be notified. The mortuary. But you don’t want to have them come to take her away. Not yet. You want to stay with her in the room. “Her spirit is gone,” the caretaker says. “It’s not her anymore.” You know this. But you’re not ready.
You go to a drawer and open it. So many silk scarves. How she loved her scarves. You take out one and give it to the caretaker. The others will be shared among the grandchildren. Remember her. Wear her jewelry, her clothing, her scarves.
The nurse arrives. She fills in the details. Goes through the pills. She is young and sweet. You give her a scarf.
The funeral home sends two people, a large man and a small woman, who are respectful and polite. They have come to wrap her and take her away. Your sister says “Please don’t bring the gurney into the bedroom.” They leave it in the living room. They ask us to stay there as they go to prepare the body. She comes out in his arms, swathed in white, her head hooded. We can see her face. She looks like an angel.
He puts her on the gurney. Your sister goes for her iPad to take a last picture. But he says, “You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to remember her this way.” He doesn’t know your sister, but to your surprise she doesn’t take the picture. She just looks at her and says, “She looks so beautiful. She was always so beautiful.” And then they wheel her away.
“I’m going to the club to shower,” you say. You need to get out. The club is a short walk but your hip is hurting so you drive. You go naked into the Jacuzzi. You sit in the steam room. No one else is there to hear you cry. When you are done you go upstairs to where a woman sits behind a desk by the entrance. “There’s been a death,” you say to her, “and we will need to find a realtor. Do you have any that you recommend?” The woman offers her condolences and gives you the monthly bulletin where realtors advertise. “We don’t make recommendations,” she says. “I understand,” you say. “But can you put a checkmark by the ones you think are good?” She goes through the eighty pages and checks three. You thank her and call the one who took out a full page ad. Her voicemail comes on but you don’t leave a message. You will be leaving the next day to New York so if you are going to put this in motion you need to speak to an actual person. You try another and get a voice. You explain why you are calling and are told that the building where she lived is one of the older buildings and that the prices have depreciated. You won’t get what she paid, you are told. And if you want to rent you will have to fix it up, repaint, maybe put in new appliances. As she talks you begin to feel offended. Who is this woman telling you about something without having seen the place? The first floor corner condo is spacious and immaculate, 1800 sq. feet, two bedrooms, two baths, a den, living room, kitchen, all tastefully furnished. When your dad died she went on a buying spree, finally getting what she wanted without having to haggle over the details. This realtor, what does she know? She is assuming that all the old folks who live in these buildings haven’t kept them up. You invite her to come to the condo to take a look and tell her you will only be there this day. You want to show this woman that she is wrong in her assumptions, and then you will find another realtor to handle it.
When you return your sister can’t believe you spoke to the realtor. “She just died and you’re already selling the place? Are you out of your mind? Don’t you have any respect?” She is not speaking calmly but yelling at you. You don’t understand. You’re all leaving in the morning, you won’t be back for at least a month, why not have some idea what you have to deal with, so you can think about it while you are away? But you don’t say this. You say only, “I asked her to come and she said she would.”
A young man from the hospice service arrives to collect the bed and the chair. You watch as he takes the bed apart. You help him roll it out. Then he returns for the chair. You go to the den to check your computer and your wife comes to say that the realtor had come as the chair was being loaded onto the truck and your sister told her it wasn’t an appropriate time. The realtor left. You knew she would not return because it was already late afternoon. And you get angry. You had invited this woman to come, and you wanted to see her face when she saw what a wonderful condo this was. It would be the final compliment. But your sister chased her away and though you had made a solemn promise there would be no more fighting, you can’t help yourself. You explode. You go to where your sister and wife are and you just start shouting. You make idle threats. You say that you had thought about coming back down in a month and the three of you would take a trip to Key West, as a farewell to Florida. You say that you might have considered renting the place and keeping it for the off-season but not anymore. You just want to get rid of it. You don’t want to return to Florida. You are so angry, so irrational, that neither your wife nor your sister responds. Instead, they leave. And they don’t return for two hours.
Alone now you go from room to room, opening drawers, looking for what you want to take, but there is really nothing for you. A carved wooden letter opener from your childhood. The small ball she squeezed as her strength diminished. The photo albums! You sit in the den looking at pictures. So many of you as a child that you had never seen before. Little black and white fading snapshots with your father, with her, with your sister. You take all the pictures with you in them and make a pile. And as you look at them you begin to sob. Your nose runs. You are sitting on the floor crying much harder than you did in the Jacuzzi. Looking at these photos from 1948, from 1952, from 1957, when you were a baby, when you were five and ten years old. With the people who loved you and took you to the beach or to baseball games or the farm in New Jersey or to Freedomland and Frontier Town. You are no longer that child. And the people who are holding you and laughing at you or throwing a ball to you are gone. There is no one to tell you about your beautiful writing. There is only your sister and your wife. And your wife will tell you that she sees no love between you and your sister. She will be wrong, but you can understand her perspective. She comes from a family of four siblings and they didn’t fight the way you did.
As the sun sets they return. “That guy is out there by the canal,” your wife says. You go outside. He is sitting with his back to you, waving a hand in the air. You can’t tell if he is smoking something or just talking to himself. You think about approaching him, since you will be leaving tomorrow and you aren’t comfortable with this stranger hanging around. But what if he’s on something? What if he gets angry if you go to him? What if he pulls a weapon? What would you do? You go back inside and call the police. “What does he look like?” you are asked. “I don’t know,” you say. “Is he young or old?” “Hard to say,” you say. “Is he black, white, Hispanic?” “I can’t tell,” you answer. “He’s white,” your sister says. “He has a ponytail,” your wife says. “He’s probably homeless,” your sister adds. You pass this on to the cop, who asks if you’d like someone to come out. You say you would. He asks you if he is still there. You go back outside. He is gone. You look down along the canal one way and the other. There is nobody there. It is dark now. He could be anywhere. Or nowhere. Or maybe he had hung around her place the last three days because that’s what he was supposed to do, and now that she’s gone, he’s gone. Maybe. Maybe Death had come as a white homeless guy with a ponytail.
At the airport you are still not speaking with your sister. But when she gets off the phone with your daughters, encouraging them to fly in so they can have “closure,” you get angry again. They were both here to see her when she was alive and could talk. It isn’t necessary for them to fly east again. Both work and it’s difficult to schedule and it’s costly and….and you want them to remember her alive. The way you remember your grandparents because you never flew in to see them buried. But it’s your sister’s turn to explode. “F. off,” she yells at you. She doesn’t care who hears her. You don’t respond. But you understand. You both need each other for this. There is no one else to yell at.
In the car service in New York, on your way to your sister’s house in Brooklyn, she gets a call from your cousin. “I think my mother just died,” he says. His mother is our aunt, our mother’s younger sister. “You’re kidding,” my sister says. I have been quiet the whole way up, but I can’t help myself. “Ask him to ask the funeral director if we can get a discount for the two of them, for the double gravesite openings.” The sisters will be buried side by side next to their husbands in the family circle plots. My sister loses it and starts to laugh. My wife and I join her. Our cousin doesn’t get it, but that’s okay, we will apologize later. But right now we are laughing.
This is what happens when your mother dies.