Mom is Dead

{I wrote this in October 2012, after my mom passed away. Reposting it here after re-reading it on her recent birthday.}

From the tarmac I see lights dotting the horizon. Maybe the one to the left is 1947, when she was born. The cluster that comes next could be anything. Maybe one of them is the black and white picture with the bows in her hair and the clarinet. I always wondered what she might have been like back then. What did she do with her friends in school? What did they talk about? Did she feel the way kids feel? I guess she must have.

There is my brother. There is me. Our fathers to the left of us, in dimmer colors.

The red lights are the heart operations. Endless heart operations, their halos encroaching on each other. I almost can’t tell them apart.

On the right, the lights seem further away, until it’s just the night of today. I draw down the plastic shade to end the poetry. But this is real. I’m flying home to burn my mother.

It wasn’t a surprise. She had been in and out of hospitals. Mostly in. My brother had been sending me daily reports across the Atlantic. For some reason I kept picturing the wheels on her hospital bed, trying to find the meaning of their implied mobility. “My mom isn’t going anywhere,” I thought.

But she went a lot of places.

On a trip to Denmark, when I was little, I almost drowned in overwhelming waves. On a later trip, the waves were in mom’s boyfriend. Their yelling woke me up. In the kitchen, he was strangling her. A man can get so angry that sea foam comes out his nose and mouth. He stopped when he saw me, and didn’t speak. We ran down the long dirt road, found a ferry in the night and escaped. Never more alive.

In Morocco, we ate fruit that made previous fruit seem like a bad joke. One day, an insect with pincers emerged from mom’s mouth, and she didn’t eat plums or peaches for years. Come to think of it, neither did I.

In Bulgaria, we met old women with scarves. They gave us bread to dip in the saltiest salt. It hurt and tasted good. We were in the forest with music and dancing and communal tables. I think there was a bear.

For many years we laughed about Kirkov, an insufficient ship we took across a stormy Black Sea to Turkey. The waves were ludicrous relative to the tiny boat, apparently named after a local historical hero — whose stature and prominence one had to wonder about. Every passenger was sick, rolling in vomit on the rusty floor. My mom and I, somehow okay riding the waves, roamed the ship, laughing at the absurdity.

When my mother had her first heart valve installed, she propped me up on her lap and guided my ear to her chest. Her heart no longer had a beat. It ticked, like a clock. She gave me a job, to always listen for the ticking. Sometimes clocks stop. I understand borrowed time.

Once when I was too young, I was alone with mom when she started to feel strange. She told me she just needed to lie down for a bit, so I walked her to the couch. She moved like an astronaut. Then she didn’t move at all, but she wouldn’t let me call an ambulance because the last time she needed one, the crew had treated her roughly. I kept talking, but her responses came slower and slower, they were shorter and shorter, and they made less and less sense. I called the ambulance.

A few years earlier, mom was rushed off after her heart valve failed. I stumbled into her bedroom and smelled the sheets, because it was all I thought I had left.

The last couple of years were an uneven decline. Decades of medication had worn down every organ, and diagnoses were harder to pin down. Hospitals passed her back and forth, as if she were a ticking time bomb. Finally, the bomb went off. Quietly, at night.

My wife and I check in to an Oslo hotel. A tourist in my own city. The bed is too soft. With every move, ripples bob us.

My brother comes to our room. We discuss the myriad ways in which the next few days will present challenges. We have dinner in a comfortable restaurant and share stories that aren’t the ones we feel.

When we visit my father, he hugs me in a way that says all the right things. Then he talks about industrial processes. I love my dad.

I wake up and breathe the way people do in movies right before they do crazy things. We eat and shower and prepare our black clothes without exchanging many words. My brother meets us near the chapel and my wife changes into her heels. All the faces are already floating outside. I find a few I know, and find a way in.

“Mom is dead,” say the coffin and the flowers and the organ. The cavernous space. Mom is dead.

The coffin is a symbol. My mother will be ashes. We’re embers. My eyes run over. I shake. I fail to breathe.

The lawyer’s office is spacious and modern, with tasteful decor and photographs whose high horizon lines denote art. We listen and sign papers to get the process started.

On the flight back to New York, the window is nothing but daylight. The screen is black with film credits in script. The names scroll into the void at a painful pace.

Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to get better. Maybe I’ll walk to the café and have some eggs. They play good music there, and always refill my tea. Maybe I’ll catch a matinée, or sit on that bench by the water and read, the sun finding my face through the leaves.

But probably I’ll just stay home.