Grief For the Grave Keeper

I awoke with my legs tangled in the sheets, contorted into a position that could only be comfortable in the sleep that comes deep into the early morning when even the drunks have gone to rest and the seedy late night shops have closed. Our apartment stood three stories above La Brea Avenue. It was the sole hour of the day that the city noise was put down, and soon it would growl to a start with buses and cars and people shouting.

In seconds, my eyes were clear and wide, an attribute of mine that I had discovered at age ten and thought was a gift, until I had seen sights straight from a slumber that pushed this quirk into the category of a curse.

Why did I wake up? I never wake up in the night, not from a sick dream or premonition or severe case of staircase wit, but only from a voice, usually my mother’s.

“She’s dead, I think,” said Allen, her caretaker. Allen was slender and pale and quite ugly, I must admit —his face wasn’t one you’d want to see at dawn with your curse-clear eyes. His voice was just as ugly. Even sentences with saccharine intention were hijacked by smoke and screaming and vocal cord nodes. Ugly man, ugly voice — but his thoughts were pure and kind, and those who could look past his faults could see a tenderness that suited him well to caretaking.

“What do you mean, you think?” I said, wondering if anything was more obvious than death.

“Well, she was breathing last night, ‘n now she’s not, ‘n I asked her if she was having trouble breathing but she didn’t make no noise except for not breathing,” he said.

“No noise except for the noise of her not breathing.” I repeated it back to him, expecting a glimmer of recognition of the absurdity of his statement. His face was blank, staring at me for instruction.

“We might as well go check she’s actually dead, shouldn’t we, Allen?”

I pulled the blankets from my legs, sat up in bed, and pulled on my bathrobe.

“Yes, that’d be good, ‘n I think it was almost time for you to wake up anyways, but excuse the intrusion.”

I crossed my bedroom and walked down the ramp into the living room, which had been converted, over the course of many months, into a hospital room. There were IV poles and IM syringes, pills of all pastel colors, countless orange bottles, emesis basins, pink plastic pitchers of water, a patient monitor that beeped like a metronome until Allen unplugged it one night in a rare display of frustration, a table topped with a vase brimming with eglantine roses, and at the center of the room, a massive gleaming white hospital bed.

In the bed lay my mother, her tiny frame nearly swallowed by the bedding. She was almost completely covered. Only her face lay exposed, and it seemed more smooth and tight and still than when we had left her last night listening to Johnny Cash on low and humming along. An earbud hung out of her left ear, the other still firmly planted in her right. I knelt down and pulled the loose earbud away, untangling one of her long cinereous hairs, and put it in my ear. The earbud still vibrated with music.

Well, look way down the river, what do you think I see?
I see a band of angels and they’re coming after me
Ain’t no grave can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave can hold my body down

I hadn’t liked his music too much, but Cash’s voice shook my soul right then, and my eyes stung. It wasn’t Mom I was sad about — it was how damn good Johnny Cash was. And he was dead too. I pulled out the earbud and stared at Mom’s face, her mouth slightly open, frozen, no breath passing, death lasting.

“Yeah, she’s dead, Allen. Thanks for letting me know.”

Allen stared at me again and I thought he would just keep staring until I told him to do something, but instead we both sat on the floor next to the bed and he gulped and choked and rested his head on my arm and sobbed. I cried too, but it just couldn’t be those cathartic cries I’d seen so many have. There were just a few tears, wiped with my sleeve that had already been put to test by Allen’s sobs.

Mom had been mean and cruel and hateful and rude, but Allen didn’t know that. She had spent the last ten months in that bed, listening to old country music and sweetly asking for ice cream bars — and that’s all that Allen saw. I wanted to protect him and his grief. He didn’t need to hear about the real Mom — she was a sweet needy bundled old lady to him, and as we sat on the floor together, I decided that’s how I would remember her too. While others remember their mothers as they were — vivacious, adventurous, caring — I needed to remember her as she wasn’t — that sweet needy bundled old lady that just wanted to hear some country tunes.