Tag Archive for Death and Dying

Did You See the News Tonight?

I saw a man in his prime

shrunken and emaciated,

eyes tinted red and unaware

his whole image stretched out

on a 12-inch screen.


“James R. Thornwell died today

of an epileptic fit.”


Moments of unconscious

rolled by like white-washed waves

in a black sea.

Up and down, flowing with

the current and then crashing

on sandy banks.


Heart beating in a fury,

eyes shocked wide,

fingers embedded into

white sheets as soft as clouds.


The sense of touch is lost.


“James R. Thornwell died today”

He left the manic depressive

world of floating orange clouds

and transcended

into a plane of floating light.

Mother Tongue

My name is Jiniku but everyone calls me Joey, including my parents. My father is American but my mother is not. My mother grew up in a country whose name I cannot pronounce correctly. She was educated in French and Latin, Spanish and German, and when she went off to college, she did not learn in her native language. She went to college in Paris, studied in Berlin. She spent a year in Rome and visited Madrid. She wrote letters home to her parents in an alphabet that I cannot read. I believe once her parents died, she never spoke in her native tongue again.

My mother wrote all day, but never showed anyone what she wrote. She had notebooks she would write in, and a typewriter to straighten out the final copy. Once a page was typed, she ripped it from its notebook and lit it with a match. She left it on a flat stone to burn.

When she had typed pages, she put them in a box. This box was deep under the bed that she and my father share. Once, many years ago when I was very young, I went into their room when they were not home and pulled the box out from beneath the bed. I lifted the top and found two neat piles of typewritten pages. One pile was poetry. I lifted the top page and held it before me. It was written in French.

There were many poems and stories in that box, some in Latin, some in Spanish, some in German. I searched through both piles carefully. There were none in her native tongue. There were also none in English.

I closed the lid and never looked in there again.

My mother never spoke in her native tongue after boarding the train that would take her to Paris. At home, she spoke only in English. Who knows what language she thought in.

There were only two words that she ever said in the real voice, with her real accent, real tongue. I heard her say them only three times in her life. She taught them to me one might as I lay curled on her lap, sweating with fever.

Jiniku,” she whispered, stroking my forehead with her cool hand. “Jiniku.” I focused on her voice through my fever, realizing that something had changed. She was speaking from a part of her that she had not opened for a long time. She took my hand, unraveled my fingers, and placed my palm over her heart. “Juriszu.” She stared out the window. There was a long silence. I could feel her heartbeat, which was calmer and considerably slower than my own. “My name,” she said at last, speaking once more in English, “means ‘dark ocean.’ And you, Jiniku, my precious little one, yours means ‘life.’” She looked out the window again. “‘Ji’ is the word for a happy birth. One where everyone lives and there is little pain. ‘Ni’ is a tree that had its roots spread far and whose branches shelter all. ‘Ku’ is the essence. The spirit. You have this all-encompassing life.” She placed her hand on my heart. “The first and last letters of our names are the same,” she said. “Don’t forget that, Jiniku.”

At that point, my fever rose and I lost the sound of my mother’s voice. I could faintly hear ambulance sirens but could not remember anything of the three weeks I spent in the hospital.

I remember nothing of those weeks, but my father said my mother never left my side. She slept on the chair and she bathed from the sink in my bathroom. At night she would stand by the window and look out at the stars. She could feel my face and place her hand against the cool glass leading outside.

When my mother became ill with cancer, I took a vacation and flew home. We had never been what you might call close, but we both understood that we loved each other fiercely. So when I heard that she was dying I left without a moment’s hesitation. I called, asked a friend to watch my apartment, and obtained up a leave-of-absence form from the office. I had the kind of job where you could take a vacation and not have it matter too much, except that you wouldn’t get paid. When I filled out the leave form, next to the blank that asked for an amount of time, I wrote “three months.” That’s how long the doctors had given her to live. I was back at work in less than nine weeks.

The second time I heard my mother say something in her native language was when I was sixteen. I was in my sophomore year of high school, and though everything seemed to be going well, I felt like it was all sliding out of my grasp. I felt in control and then something would happen—a breakup, a bad grade on a test, an argument with my parents about something trivial—and I could feel myself digging my fingernails in deeper and deeper but still feel my control slipping through my fingers. And that was how it started. With my fingers.

At first I just made small half-moons on my calves, pressing my fingernails in hard until they bled. Things spun out of control faster and faster and soon I used my army knife to slice the skin on my arms and shins. At school instead of going into the bathroom to cry I would lock myself in a stall, take a pin and pick at my skin until it bled. Few people noticed my cuts and when they did I would lie and say I fell. I can’t imagine that they believed me, but whatever they knew, they never said a word.

One day I came home to an empty house after a miserable afternoon —it’s strange, but now I can’t even remember what was so miserable about it. I couldn’t see straight; my head ached and my heart hurt and I started to have trouble breathing. I went to my room to find my army knife but on my way, I glimpsed the knife my mother uses to cut vegetables sitting on the counter. I can’t remember what I thought. I picked up the knife and touched the blade. It drew a small droplet of blood on my fingertip. I sat on the linoleum floor and rolled up my pants leg. When it cut, it cut fast and deep. Army knives take coaxing to hurt you and make you bleed. This fell straight into my skin without resistance and when it came away I could see my bone. I screamed.

That is how my mother found me when she came home: sitting on the floor with her huge kitchen knife in one hand, blood spilling out of a gash on my shin, screaming. She called the ambulance and wrapped my leg in a towel as tightly as she could. The blood seeped through. I screamed. She wrapped her arms around my head. “Jiniku!” she cried. “Jiniku, why do you do this to yourself?”

I have this memory of my mother from a spring day when I was four. There was a lot of sunshine that morning, and I had woken up from the light dancing on my pillow. I padded, sleepy-headed, into the living room, where I sat at the table to a bowl of oatmeal my mother had left for me. It was still warm. I looked out the window and saw her gardening in our yard. She was wearing worn-out and faded jeans with grass stains on the knees, a button-up shirt that had belonged to my father. In one hand was a gardening fork and a straw hat rested on her head, covering her long black hair.

When I saw her, she looked up at something in front of her, and I saw in her sharp profile a nose that looked like it was cut from stone. She looked up suddenly and awkwardly, cocking her head. Her shirt was crooked and one of her pants legs was up too high. The hat began to slide. She made a shooing motion with her wrist, and that is the moment that I saw her, really, for the first time. That still awkward, still small person was my mother.

For the last seven weeks of her life, my mother lay in a hospital bed. I watched her hair fall out in clumps and the fat melt away from her body, leaving only bones and skin. I watched her eyes turn red, her tongue swell up from the medication. Toward the end she began to breathe in gasps, as if just the taking in of oxygen would soon become too much for her frail lungs to bear. It was on one of these days that she used my real name for the last time.

Jiniku.” she whispered, motioning me to come closer. I scooted my chair up nearer her bed. “Here is something important.” She stopped to breathe, and then continued. “I’m going to die soon—”


“I am not so foolish. I know I am dying.” She stroked my hair with her hand. “This is why I am telling you—I left you something.” She coughed. “It is in the closet in my bedroom, behind the dresser. Move it to the side all the way, and you will see a hollow. It is for you, in there.” I nodded. She looked at me. “We love each other,” she said. I nodded again. She looked at the ceiling. “The shame.” Her eyes searched the ceiling, and then she fell asleep. My father returned and I went back to my hotel.

One week after my mother told me about the space behind her dresser, she died. I was not there at the end; there is no dramatic retelling of last words or such sentimental things as grasping loved ones at the critical moment. My father was sleeping in the chair next to my mother, and when he awoke, she was dead. There is nothing more that that.

The funeral was held at the grounds a mile from my parents’ house. It was sunny but the air began to chill. Friends of my mother I had not seen since I had moved away came and offered their sympathies. There were flowers. There is not much more to say.

I stayed with my father in the house for two weeks after my mother died, to help, to mourn. He mostly sat staring into the distance and I made the meals and cleaned up some. My father couldn’t bring himself to touch any of my mother’s things.

One day I went into the closet and shoved the heavy oaken dresser aside, marveling at how my small mother had ever managed such a feat. I exhaled heavily, wiping the perspiration from my brow. And then I saw what she had left me. She had left me notebooks.

These were notebooks that I had never seen her write in. The pages weren’t perforated for easy tearing; she had not burned any of them. I lifted one and opened the cover. One of the yellowed pages I saw her small, clear handwriting, but I couldn’t read any of it; it did not use the Roman alphabet. I opened every notebook and all of them were the same. My mother left me twenty-seven notebooks of writing in a language that I cannot read or understand. She left me the story of the life in her own native tongue.

I did not tell my father about the notebooks. I packed them in a box with my mother’s dresses and jewelry and took them back with me. I hung up the clothes, arranged the jewelry in my own dresser drawers, but the notebooks I left in the box in my closet. I think they are a challenge from my mother; a challenge to her daughter to learn the language of her mother and read what she had written to me. Maybe these are journals she had kept since she left home; how can I know?

I have signed up for a language class starting in a couple months. I think I will go and see how it works out; a friend of mine knows the instructor and said she is very good. The first thing I will learn is how to write my name. I think I had seen my mother write it once, and I copied down somewhere and lost it. But I think I still remember what it is. I think it’s the first word on every page.


An Essay Written as a Letter

Hey, Marijke,

I don’t feel like writing this down in an actual letter, and I probably won’t be able to talk to you till at least much later, but I do need to say something to somebody right now.

I witnessed the death of a man, today. His name was Daniel. He was painting the house next to us. He was on the top couple rungs of the ladder when it folded under him. It was a cheap ladder. Corroded aluminum.

I am right in the line of sight on the back porch of our house; I hear the ladder starting to collapse, and see him hit the ground. At first I call out to him. He doesn’t respond. I guess I should have called 911 then. I don’t. I run over to him.

He’s barely conscious. I ask him if he is OK, and he can’t form any words. He’s moving around his left arm, as if searching for something on the ground. I remember that he has glasses, and then see them lying five feet away on the grass. I put them on him. One of the legs of the glasses had snapped off, so they don’t go on straight.

I get my mom. When she gets there, she asks him what is his name. “Daniel,” he wheezes out. She asks him what day it is, but his eyes glaze over, and he loses consciousness. She goes in and calls 911. When she comes back out, she tells us that they’re on their way. Then she just stands there waiting next to him, and I sit next to him with my hand on his shoulder. He’s convulsing, and he gasps. I can feel his body tensing up under my fingers. I let go. He is foaming at the mouth. We talk to him, saying stuff like, “It’ll be OK, the ambulance is on its way.” and, “Just hold on, Mr. Daniel, hold on, till the ambulance gets here.” He’s still for twenty or thirty seconds at a time, not even breathing, it seems. Then he convulses gently. Each time he convulses, I feel myself sighing in relief, that he hasn’t gone yet. It is more serious than I had thought at first.

He was still alive when the paramedics finally got there. But (the fireman said later) he stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating as they stood over him, checking his pulse. They did CPR on him, right there on Ms. Selma’s lawn, and a few minutes later, they loaded him onto the ambulance.

I say to the fireman, “How is he? Is he alive?”

“Well, his heart and breathing stopped as we where checking him, and they’re trying to bring him back now, on the ambulance.”

“So that’s it, huh?”

“Yeah, that’s it. I mean, they might get him back, but not yet.”

Umm. Yeah. So, I’m a little shook. I went back to painting for a few hours, just because… what else am I going to do? Sit in the house and think about it? No, I just felt like immersing myself in work for a little while. But now I’m taking a lunch break, and it’s all coming back to me.

I was painting our house on the ladder yesterday, about ten feet higher than the one he was on today. That could’ve been me. And can be me, later today. Well, sorta. I have a good ladder. But anything’s possible. This is real life, Marijke. I feel like I’ve just woken up from a dream, and Daniel was my alarm clock. Yeah, I’m shook.



She suspects she has only ever had one true affair with the knife, and all those since have been meagre attempts at regurgitation, petty rivalries born of intention and tainted by the anticlimax of recreation. She sits daily watching the synthetic roses, virulent with red, fluoresce persistently on the porch. Moth-bitten, with broken stems and a hairline crack running the length of the ceramic pot that marks their station on the brick step. She sits observing their activity, disassociates herself from the solemn sermon their blushing heads deliver, ducking in the wind. Waiting for something to happen. She has lost, or perceives she has lost (and looks for death on the horizon because she fears she has lost) the ability to make things occur. How useful youth was in the day-to-day creation of happenings. Now she has displaced the seasons, and the pleasant expanse of nothingness, a featureless backdrop, assimilates itself to her emotionless countenance, as she welcomes the weather.

Her father’s house, in the Polish town. Its healthy walls, its strong bone structure. She found it easily, buried knee-deep in the liquid winter, and enquired of the locals as to whether anyone currently resided there. They regarded her, not more obliging than they were wary, with the heavy, knowing gaze of people carrying the burden of the past—both pervasive and private. Her accent was rusty, the native tongue had long since been liberated—a stray cut loose from its derelict cultural confinement. She spoke in dislocated dialogue; the secure, prosaic language of dinner parties and familial get-togethers. Of pleasantries exchanged between well-wishing strangers. Broken German from an elementary textbook. How she hated the sluggish tongue, the barren vowels that tripped reluctantly from the lips, imprisoned by the teeth. The English language seemed a positive ballad of elegant syllables. She had wished never to hear these sunken verbs again. She had tried to forget it all, but they spoke with a dramatic flourish, demanding that she remember, their tone didactic and intense with purpose. Those primitive villagers, deeply set in their archaic ways, the spit in the palm. Such old gestures seem a blessing on unimaginative bones, bones of gypsy ancestry; wrapped in incense and adorned with elaborate jewellery. She briefly caught the delicate, sickly scent of patchouli and lavender, an odour that seeped from their pores, travelled on the breath and suggested unrelenting hardship and wisdom and infinite strength.

She walked self-consciously, away from them, shielding herself from their accusatory recognition, feeling a pariah, a fugitive. As though wearing the flag of her inheritance on her lapel.

Her father died when she was ten, as did most fathers in the war. Fathers, and men. It was never a thing to be fussed over, death is the most reliable thing about life, everyone knows that. And they had dared to glorify it, morph it into a gross celebration. Stripped it of its austerity and depth. Spoke of souls and eternity. She could not allow for this, and carried the weight of his demise with her for so many years, never daring nor feeling inclined to lay it down. To dismantle it. What else can be born of death but sorrow? What else can be born at all?

She retreats to the stairs and pauses to consider the black telephone crouched on its haunches, ready to pounce. To announce. People don’t much come up to the house, it is miles away from the assaulting imposition of neighbouring cities. She doesn’t receive visitors warmly, and all prospective suitors dispatched by well-wishing relatives invariably retire back to their distant homes after an evening of her company, unsettled and discouraged, for she has created for herself a feminine mystique that cannot be penetrated by mere mortal man. She appears in their perception brisk, evasive, and preoccupied. She concentrates on cultivating a solid, scarlet heart to beat a constant rhythm against the world of the dying. She is keeping death out in the physical sense, assimilating herself to the prospect of solitary eternity and forming no attachments.

Sometimes she feels an inexplicable longing for the anonymity of the city, where such informal tools of misinformation as gossip and hearsay are not so readily employed. She envies them their compartmentalized lives, regimented working hours; those unobtrusive strangers who would submit to anything to avoid confrontation. A positive conglomeration of drifting, nameless particles, condensed within the thriving nebula of the city, where one could get smaller every day and very likely disappear.

But the suffocation. She politely declines, preferring to spend her days in the soft sunlight, arranging the weary roses.

She attempts to sweep away the misguided bugs with a few hesitant gestures of the hand. Soon blue saline solutions will wave a salutation to such foreign guests. Her light fingers graze the frayed edges of their heads; the bloody inks are particularly exciting in the sunlight. When the thought of blood transpires, the dizzying swell of the heart’s diastole and systole rises in her chest, a pressing undulation. So perhaps it comes as no conscious surprise when, upon brandishing the pruning sheers in order to trim the petals of their half-eaten siblings, she clips her finger instead of a stem, loosening a sizeable flap of skin over a current of blood. She resists the urge to suck the wound, but stares at her finger, suddenly regarding it as one does an unfamiliar object; a digit not attached to herself. How exquisite a ruby red the blood appears to be, and how warm against the skin. It is amazing how, upon mutilation, a body part becomes something external to the person to which it belongs, merely a treasured belonging. She stares at the finger for so long that it ceases to be a finger, in the same way as a word fails to register in the consciousness as legitimate when it has been repeatedly vocalised. Perhaps there is a separate self that exists beyond the body of physical composites. She puts down the sheers and rearranges the flowers, marvelling over her secret discovery.

Oh, Father. Now is but a moment passing. When does the future become the present and the present become the past? When do the living become the dying, and the dead become the forgotten? The brutish become the commemorated for the death that cleans the slate? Where does the tongue become the throat, and the voice become the word? The heart cease to be the person, but something bigger altogether?

The Instance of a Cigarette Falling

Episode One. A Prologue of Sorts.

The camera eye sees everything, and sees it calmly and objectively. It pans slowly around the room, beginning at the coffin and the cluster of black-clad mourners gazing down at the body then continuing clockwise catching two or three-person clusters scattered around the room. It sees the pale cream-colored walls and the scarlet carpet. It sees everything in the circle of its passing and calls attention to nothing but the whole, until it reaches me sitting on a loveseat to the left of the deep-red coffin, a girl about the same age as me to my left. It zooms in on my face as I sit there, all emotion drawn out and dried up ahead of time. Laurie squeezes my arm and lays her cheek on my shoulder. But the camera continues to zoom in on my gaze and cuts to the focus, my mother. It saw her earlier, but now it is beginning to make sense of the situation, catching the subtle details that tell the story. In silence the camera eye peers at her, zooming in inch by inch. Like everyone else, she is dressed in black, and like me she is emotionally exhausted. She tries to smile and be strong, but there is nothing behind her smile but weariness. In her face, everything is weary. And every few moments she presses a white handkerchief to her eyes to dry tears that aren’t even coming out any more. Next to her, with his arm around her slumped shoulders is a balding man with one chin too many and a blushed face and a smile that might be able to pass as greasy if it wasn’t so creepy and intrusive. He pulls her face to him and gives her a strong hug and tries to be there for her dry-eyed weeping. The camera cuts back to me and sees in my face a glimmer of emotion growing stronger momentarily: disgust.

He let go of Ma, and she stood up straight again. She hugged him one more time, briefly, and walked over to me. I quickly wiped the disgust from my face and tried to return the same weary smile she was giving me, but even in her worst moment, I couldn’t hope to compare.

I stood up. “Hello, Ma,” I said.

Laurie stood up with me, hugged me, and said, “I guess maybe I should go.”

“Nonsense,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. “Are you feeling all right today, Ma?”

“I’m trying, hon,” she said. “But I don’t know. Ronald has been so nice to me the past few days, and that’s helped a lot.”

“Ronald? Is that who you were with?”

“Yes. You never met him. Ronald was an old friend of your father, and me.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that’s good, then, that he’s here.” But really I was hating him already. Three days, and he’s already moving in on my mother. What a douche. But I didn’t say that to Ma. Instead I pulled Laurie a little closer to me and asked, “Ma? Do you remember how we all used to watch movies together? Me, you, and Dad?”

She nodded. “That was nice.”

“I like remembering that,” I said. “Do you remember when we watched Citizen Kane?”

She thought for a moment. “No, I don’t, actually. When did we watch that?”

“I must have been 12 or so, I guess. It was a good movie. Really good. Even though I didn’t understand it then. But I remember watching it with you two. And I remember Dad saying how glad he was that he had someone he loved who loved him back so he’d never have to end up like Kane.”

“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten. But I remember him saying that now, hon. That was nice.”

“Yeah.” I looked down at my feet and ground out an imaginary cigarette that I wanted to smoke but couldn’t inside the funeral parlor. “I’m glad you remember that.”

But apparently she didn’t, because five months later Ronald moved in with her and ten months after that they got married.

*  *  *

Episode Two. The Inevitable Strength of Doubt.

The camera zooms in slowly on the red and green neon sign above the front door of one of those expensive Japanese restaurants. One of the places where they cook your food in front of you and the chefs do goofy tricks with the butter and toss the shrimp and knives around like it’s their job, because it is, and that’s what we’re paying to see: an authentic Japanese dining experience. But there’s no one coming or going, so it fades to four people at a table inside. And there’s me, my girlfriend Laurie, Mom, and this douche with a shiny head and puke-green suit named Ronnie.

Listen, Craig, he says as the camera zooms in on his sunburned face pulling back into a greasy-lipped smile, I want you to look after your mother.

I laugh—I ask him if that was a joke, right?

He makes his face all serious. I mean it, he tells me. Right. Sure. Like I can’t see all the nasty thoughts reflecting off of that gleaming bald spot as if his hair was the only thing that he had to hide the mirror into his mind. And the camera follows my gaze up from his eyes to his shining head.

I calmly excuse myself to get a cigarette outside and a bucket to vomit in.

Mom followed me outside; she poked her head out of the door just as I was taking my first drag and staining my jacket, shirt, and tie with the stink of tobacco. I heard the door click open but didn’t bother lifting my head; I just stood there with my eyes closed and exhaled a lungful of smoke out on my blue and red tie. I could still smell her perfume through the cigarette smoke—some twist of rose and vanilla, untainted by the nicotine and alcohol pouring from my breath.

“Craig. Sweetheart.”

I took another drag. How’s that for a reply.

“Craig. I think you should apologize to Ronald. Please?”

“Mom,” I said, reverting to the annoyed tone of a 17-year-old whose parents are forcing him to go to church long after they’ve stopped bothering with belief in anything like a god.

Her counter was to assume the tone of a mother addressing her cute 3-year-old. “Yes, Craig?” I couldn’t help but smile. Behind my eyelids I could picture her face assuming that silly precocious look you might expect a British princess to wear around to impress people. It was a kind of game we played to make each other talk, acting like some time in the past; she always won.

“Um. What is it, exactly, that I should be apologizing for?”

She stepped out and closed the door quietly behind her. “For your rude comment to Ronald.”


She punched me playfully in the arm. “Why not? I think you should, darling.”

“You think I should quit smoking, too. I haven’t done that yet, either.”

She was quiet for a moment. Then, “OK, I get it. You think Ronald’s a douche.”

I grinned and opened my eyes. “Naw, I wouldn’t say douche, ma. I’d call him a dildo.” I took a drag, “But good guess, Ma, nice try and all,” then exhaled. She laughed, and stared lovingly at her baby boy turned 24-year-old. And the way the light painted her face in neon blush, you would wonder how such a radiant woman could be the twice-widowed mother of a 24-year-old.

“Well, sweetheart, I guess I’m just going to have to brush-up on the differences between a douche and a dildo.”

“I say ‘dickass’ a lot, too.”

“And dickass, hon, haven’t you ever thought maybe you shouldn’t categorize people so much?”

It didn’t take much thought. “No,” I replied quickly. “I just call ’em as I see ’em.” I grinned sweetly at her but couldn’t sustain it very long. “And in there I see a dildo sitting at that table.”

The camera watches her face as I comment on her new husband, but she never changes from her same mild smile. The red light above blushes her and the white shining through the glass door behind her creates a halo around her, casting rays across the lens as the camera shifts position to catch us both in the shot, and there I am, sickly in the green light of the sign and half-shadowed. She tells me that she loves the man I happen to be calling a dildo.

What if you don’t, I ask her, brushing my hair back.

What if you don’t love Laurie, she replies.

The camera builds the silence with a medium-shot, she on the far left and I on the far right, holding my cigarette a few inches from my mouth. Maybe I don’t want to, I finally tell her. And she says she’d feel sorry for me in that case. She steps closer to me and wraps her arm around mine.

She tells me she still loves me and my father very much and I should never forget that. Then she tells me to come back inside and leaves, and the camera holds its gaze on the door until it hears the click when it closes.

I linger behind a moment. Do I believe that? How could what she said be true? Dad’s been dead a year and she’s remarried, and she’s forgotten. I drop the cigarette on the ground and stomp it into the ground with my foot, scattering the embers and watching as they fade and their heat dies.

*  *  *

Episode Three. The Third-Act Climax.

The camera sees the car dive around the corner, hears it squeal, and watches as it parks at the curb, the passenger-side front wheel bouncing up onto the curb. The camera hears the door open and pans over to see my feet step out onto the pavement.

I staggered out onto the sidewalk in front of Ma’s house. “Ma!” I yelled, “Let’s go! Happy birthday, Ma! It’s dinner time, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!“ I stood in the cold for another minute or two before she opened the door, kissed Ronnie goodbye, and came out to join me and kiss me hello.

“You’ve been drinking, sweetheart?” she asked.

“So maybe I pre-gamed a little. I just don’t like to see that guy when I’m completely sober.”

“Do you want me to drive? I think I should, hon.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Really. I really think I should drive.”

But I’d already gotten in the car and started it and was waiting for her to get in out of the rain. She did, and I told her to put her seatbelt on. She did, and I pulled out. The camera watches. The camera doesn’t say anything, though; it just watches the black VW Bug swerve down the road. It cuts to inside the car and watches me try to concentrate through the rain and the alcohol, then to my mother’s worried face and white knuckles gripping her seatbelt.

We didn’t talk much. I didn’t think there was much to talk about. There was “So, Ma, how’s your new husband? Is he as good as the last one? Or the one before Dad?” Or I could ask, “Hey, remember how nice things were when we were a family and you actually still loved my father?” Or I could just say, “Stop loving! Stop it! You’re supposed to love me, and Dad, and that’s it, forever and ever! And stop being such an angelic whore! And if you don’t I wouldn’t be too concerned if I never saw you again in my life, ’cause as it is I only see you like twice a year now, anyway!“ And I raged in my mind and closed my eyes, desperately trying to shut it out. But the camera sees what I don’t. And it pans from my violently closed eyes to the bend up ahead. And it watches my mother gasp and play with something on her seatbelt and frantically cry for me to watch out. And in her face it sees that she has been through this before about three years ago, except the last time it had been her husband, my father, in the driver’s seat and afterwards she’d survived but he hadn’t.

The camera watches the car speed toward it, then swerve off on some drunken tangent. It watches as the car nose-dives into a ditch on the side of the road where the road becomes a bend. It pans up from the battered hood to the rear wheel and watches as it spins. It fades to the inside and watches the passengers sitting motionless in their seats, my face buried in an airbag and my mother’s face twisted in some unconscious agony. It fades back to the rear wheel and watches as it slowly stops spinning while my mother’s battered insides bleed her to death, but it never does anything. It watches and watches and watches and watches, and, God, it never lifts a finger to help. It never calls an ambulance. It never rushes to get the passengers out of the car. All it does is sit there and watch. And the wheel stops spinning, and it fades out to black. The audience will cry here, not because they understand the pain, but because some inherent knowledge of the universe makes them wonder why angels deserve to die.

*  *  *

Episode Four. When Everything is Gone.

It’s night. The camera pans down from the stars to my dark little house. It zooms in on a black window and an invisible cross-fade takes it to my bed and Laurie beside me, asleep, half of our bodies hidden beneath a black and gray blanket. The camera follows my gaze to her face, blue-gray in the dark and sometimes it seems just as beautifully pale in the light like a beautifully shining translucence.

I reached over and brushed my hand over her short black hair. Her thin eyebrows tensed and she squeezed her lips together like she was about to cry but trying to fight it off. Poor baby. What sad dreams could she be having? I closed my own eyes and tried to imagine. Without the camera invading. And I thought maybe she was dreaming about if it was her own mother that had died; which struck me as a very selfish thing, because it wasn’t her mother who died. But maybe she was dreaming about my mother dying.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, and her dark eyes, brown almost to the point of being black, lazily, happily opened. She squinted at me and smiled into my lips, so I pulled back and pressed my forehead to hers instead.

“What?” she asked, on the brink of a yawn.

“You looked sad.”

“No, I’m not sad,” she said, folding her arms around my neck.

“Well, you looked it. While you were sleeping, I mean. What were you dreaming about?”

She grinned. “I was dreaming about you, of course!“

I rolled off of her and stared up at the ceiling. “Well, you looked awfully sad for a dream about me. Are you sad? About anything?”

“No, of course not, I’m very, very happy. I’m the happiest little girl in your house.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course, you’re not a little girl.” She was too drowsy to laugh at her own bad joke, just drone it out in that scratchy just-woke-up voice that is always so sweet on her grinning lips.

“I’m not happy, either.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Doubt it.”

She had no response so we both just stared silently at the ceiling, feeling each other’s warmth beneath the blanket. But she was still awake a few minutes later when the thought hit me, so I said, “Laurie, I’m going to move to L.A. the day after the funeral and sell this house.”

“Oh! Exciting!“ she said, happily ignorant of what I was thinking. “Will you put me in your movies?”

“If you learn to act,” I told her blandly.

“Hmm. I guess not, then, huh? But I don’t want a leading part or anything, I just want to be an extra or something, just to be part of it all.” Then she rolls over and says she loves me, and the camera watches her drape the top half of her body over my own and kiss me on the cheek and say how excited she is. But where the camera couldn’t see I suddenly wondered how many times Ma had told that to my father. Now my father’s ashes were scattered somewhere in the Atlantic—drifting on a wave beside fishies and driftwood, or on a Florida beach holding a sandcastle together like when he’d hold Ma’s hand in his one hand and mine in the other to say grace at dinner, or being hidden from the moonlight beneath the awkward bodies of lovers struggling for each other and leaving their mark behind in the sand. And where was Ma while this was happening? Until two days ago, in bed with Ronald, telling that gleaming skull that she didn’t mind that the moonlight reflecting off of it at night kept her awake, and that, in fact, she loved it—I mean, him.

So before Laurie’s lips left my cheek all this had poured through my head and love suddenly seemed so untrustworthy and disgusting, and the camera sees me shrink away from her. And she shrinks back a little, surprised. It sees some intangible tension build suddenly between us and the inch of bed separating us becoming a mile.

I tell her I don’t want her to love me, and I don’t want to love her. Laurie, I say, I don’t want to love you, and I don’t want you to love me, either. And if you have a problem with this, I guess I’ll never see you again. And the mile becomes a universe. But the camera watches her strain and stretch her arms across that infinite distance. She kisses me on the lips and the cheek and forehead and keeps telling me that I know it’s not true. And she asks me to please, please, please say that I hadn’t meant it because I meant everything in the world to her and that’s what made her so happy. But my expression never changes, because I can’t believe that once I’m gone she won’t run off to find the first man that comes along after me. But the camera only sees me turn my back to her and close my eyes.

She gets out of bed and slowly gets dressed, then she leans over the bed and puts her hand on the stitched-up wound on my forehead from two nights before and my face grimaces against the pain, but my eyes stay closed. She walks away and I am suddenly lit up as she opens the door and the light from the hall floods in. And the camera stays motionless as she says she hopes I’ll call when I feel better and then slowly erases her silhouette with the closing door. In the darkness again, the camera watches me sit up in bed and there are tears on my cheeks. It fades out as they slide down.

*  *  *

Episode… who gives a fuck anymore.

The camera remains focused on me for a long time, studying my blank face as it listens to Reverend Sanders speaking in the background. It pans out from my face, which appears even paler than it normally does on film, and my hair, slicked back and nearly black from the wet sheen of hair gel. It shows me in my black suit, then others come into the shot, and Ronald is standing beside me, tears flowing steadily down his fat, childish face. And it continues to pan out as Sanders continues to babble, past the coffin being lowered, until it sees the hundred or more people all gathered around watching and crying and saying goodbye. And the deeper the coffin goes, the higher the camera’s position goes, up and up until it is directly above the coffin. It watches the first shovelful of dirt being dropped into the grave, then cuts back to my face as I close my eyes and my head drops, and it pans out as Ronald puts his hand firmly on my shoulder and squeezes.

I shake free. “Watch it,” I tell him.

He frowns at me, even though it seems as though he shouldn’t be able to frown any more than he had been. “I’m just trying to—”

“I don’t need you trying to do anything,” I whispered back sharply. “Maybe Ma fell for that Prince Valiant bullshit, but I’m not Ma, and I will not be falling for that.”

“Shh. This isn’t exactly the time.”

“I don’t give a fuck. You can go to hell, Ronnie, straight to hell and burn. Because maybe she loved you, God knows why, but I know—I know you didn’t love her. If you really loved her you would never have stolen her away from my father, so go to hell, because I know this, and I know you just wanted something beautiful for yourself and never cared for what she needed or who she loved before you. You just saw your opportunity and stepped right on in!“ My voice gets progressively louder and I suddenly shift back to a whisper when I realize how loud I’m being. “So go to hell, and leave here, and never talk to me again and never come to visit her grave.”

“Craig, that’s not the way it is.” His passivity in the face of my rage sickens me visibly and my sternness turns into a look of disgust.

“Do you think,” I say, with all the contempt I can muster, “that she would have come looking for you after Dad died? Hell no. You’re the one who came to comfort her. You stole her, she didn’t want to start loving someone else, but you came along and took advantage of her weakened state and made her love you and you made her forget about my father, like he never existed ever in the first place.”

“If you want to believe that, Craig, I can accept that. But maybe someday you can try to accept that maybe we did love each other. I know I loved her.”

“Fuck you,” I say, and I turn my back to him and the slowly-filling grave and walk away, shoving my hands down into my pocket to fumble for a cigarette.

But as I walk away, I realize that she didn’t love me any less or any more than Ronald, or Dad. She just loved everyone, and that’s how it went with her. Not addicted to men, just unable to separate one love from another, and Ronald had taken advantage of that. She was like Gandhi, or she was like Jesus. And, God, she never gave up on Jesus in all the years, and I am sure he never gave up on her. And I’m sure she’s right up there with him, talking about how much they love and how they love everything. But I can’t live the same way as her. I can’t do that. Someone will come along and take advantage of me, like Ronald, or leave me, like, well, me—I know this.

So I light another cigarette. The camera follows the scorching ember at the end of the cigarette as I smoke it, and the camera slows the moment as it falls to the ground when I’m done. And the camera fades out as the smoke rises and dissipates into nothing. And the credits of her life roll silently: and there’s my father, and me, and Ronald, and David, and her sister, and her friends, and the homeless man she gave ten dollars to once, and everyone else she’s ever met, and finally her, and then the credits fade and it’s over; the audience sighs collectively and leaves, cursing their sticky footsteps for breaking the sacred silence. And maybe this will be the last time it fades out. Maybe I won’t get on the plane to L.A. tomorrow. Maybe I’ll just stay in bed and call Laurie instead. But maybe maybe is impossible and I probably just need another cigarette.

Tears of Glass

With only a touch, the single ivory key filled the room with its clarity. It was a shame, I thought, how the people in this town had let it wear down like this. Years ago, this grand piano of Mama’s was the finest thing you could have ever hoped to see. It was an antique, brought over from France by her grandfather. Mama spoke fluent French, and even taught me a little.

Now its keys stretched out before me, yellowing and cracked. The black sharps and flats were chipped at the sides, and the open top was filmed in fifteen year’s worth of dust. I hated it. Mama’s pride and joy, the instrument that sang for us evenings with the sound of “Lavender Blue,” withering away in this big house where no one could see it. And I, too, had forgotten about it with time.

Feeling guilty, I sat back, not willing to touch another key. Sliding over a little, I studied the handmade cloth piano seat cover Mama had made, with its flowers and vines and birds. It was missing a few spots, and some thread was traveling off at the ends.

I amost smiled to see the patch of red in the corner. That was my fault. When I was eight, I had begged to help Mama stitch the pretty designs. She was reluctant, but at last gave in to my charms. Within minutes, I had pricked my finger, and a drop of blood stained our work. But Mama did not scold. She only laughed. She always laughed.

Once again, I tried. The music inside me was straining to come out. I lifted my hands to the position—raised them up and curved them slightly, as she taught me—and finally let the notes of Handel’s Suite from The Water Music pour free.

Now this, this was glorious, the kind of piece Mama was encored for. Not because of their unsettling difficulty, but because of the deep-felt emotion she communicated to the audience through them. I can still see her in the music house on opening night, sitting grandly there in a black dress, throwing her head back and playing.

In the silence, I can hear the water pouring from the skies, the water pouring from my eyes, and the water pouring from the antique that made such beautiful sounds. It echoed and crashed up the walls and into the dining room, where Mama entertained her guests. It flowed upstairs, where she sat rocking Rosamunde’s cradle with me, and to my room, where she put me to sleep with stories of dolls and fairies.

As the notes poured forth, it all came back in a flood.


La bonne nuit, ma fille. Good night.”

“Good night, Mama. Thank you for the story.”

Dormier bein. Sleep well.”

“Which shoe should I wear? The blue or the gray?”

“Umm… the blue, Mama. It matches your eyes.”

“And yours, my silly girl.”

“Piper, what’s wrong with Daddy? Why won’t he come out?”

“He’s sad about Mama, Lucy. Don’t bother him.”

“But I want to see him!”

“Hush, hush.”

“Daddy—I brought you flowers. From Mrs. Gilmore, across the street. She sends us her love… Daddy?”

“She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”

“Yes, Daddy. She did.”


Lucy’s blue eyes, round and large as wet forget-me-nots, stared up at me. She was only six, and didn’t seem to understand what had happened to us. I smoothed back her hair and turned back to the pictures on the mantel.

I didn’t know what to do.

Mama was gone… just like that. Driving home in the rain, skidded, and hit another car on her way home. Maybe she was an angel now, watching me and Lucy holding close together, me trying to be brave for her. I wondered if she remembered the story she told me last night. We didn’t know it would be the very last one she ever told me.

I silently remembered it. It was about a silly doll that never paid attention to anybody or their troubles. She turned her back to every sorrow, refusing to see nothing but pretty, happy things. So a fairy came down to confront her, in clouds of great lightning and thunder. The doll begged for mercy, because fairies were very important and very powerful things.

“You,” she cried in a terrible voice, “You have a cold heart, a heart of stone. How dare you turn a blind eye to all your friend’s troubles?” As punishment, the fairy made the doll cry tears of glass. They hurt awfully, and sometimes didn’t even come out. But, Mama said, in the end the doll was happier, because she helped her friends, no matter how she had to hurt and cry for them.

It was a grand story. I tried to tell it to Lucy once, but I could never get it just right. It was like magic when Mama told it.

I wanted to see her, wipe the blood off her, kiss her. She wore her blue shoes today, I thought, wanting to sob. We played the shoe game before she left this morning. Mama would always come out each morning, wearing two different pairs of shoes. I would get to pick the best one for her to wear, but I would have to give a reason—it matched something or other.

Sometimes I said, “It matches your temper,” or, “It matches the big wart on your toe,” or crazy things like that. I did my best to surprise her, to make her laugh with my daily choice. But this morning, for some reason, I was serious. It matches the color of your eyes, I had told her. What if they didn’t bury Mama with those shoes on? Suppose they put different, ugly ones on her, ones that didn’t match? Would she be mad at me?

Lucy stirred beside me, whimpering something about Daddy. I hushed her helplessly, and tried to distract her with a picture of her and Mama, playing outside with umbrellas.

I couldn’t blame her; I missed Daddy too. He had been in his room all day long. He didn’t even come out for supper, so I made Lucy and me peanut butter sandwiches. It was scary. Once I crept up close to his room, trying to hear what he was doing. But I knew I dared not go inside.

Daddy had always been quiet and serious, but Mama brought out the silly side of him as easily as anything. His face was usually still, but his eyes gave him away, dancing when she was near.

At the hospital this afternoon, I noticed something unusual. His eyes were just as still and hard as the line of his jaw. It frightened me. As soon as we got home, he vanished, refusing to offer even little Lucy a hug.

Again, I, the big sister, didn’t know what to do. Daddy needed help, and we needed him, and most of all, Lucy needed me. That was the pressure. I had to be the grown-up, now, when I needed my parents the most of all.

There was a knocking at the door. I brushed Lucy’s clinging hands away, and went to open it.

It was Mrs. Gilmore, a lady we knew from church. She stood uneasily there in the doorway in a blue dress, her plump hands clutching a handful of marigolds. She patted my head, saying she was sorry and asking for my father.

I thought of him, holed up in his room, angry and refusing to talk to anybody or to even come out for dinner. No, he was in no business to see visitors, no matter how well-meaning.

Her round face beamed at me, assuring me that it was all right. She’d be glad if I just took the flowers in where they could brighten up the house a bit. She hoped it would help.

Marigolds were Mama’s favorite.

Somehow, I knew Daddy needed to see these. I thanked Mrs. Gilmore, said goodbye, and went back inside. Lucy’s eyes got big as I approached his room. I didn’t bother to knock. My heart pounded as I turned the brass knob.

He was sitting on the bed, staring at his wedding ring lying in his palm.

Squeak—my foot hit a floorboard. He jumped and turned quickly, glaring at me from under dark, stormy brows, as if daring me to come any closer.

I held out the flowers like a peace offering, and hurried to explain before he could say anything. My words kept getting all shaky and tangled up, tripping over each other. He sat staring at the broken stems in my hand for a while, the tension in the room getting to thin ice, threatening to collapse. I prayed he wouldn’t yell. Lucy might hear, and then what would I do? Daddy, please.

Slowly the anger slipped out of his face, replaced by a wistful look. His eyes were far away. Maybe he’d even forgotten I was there. He took the handful of bright orange and yellow flowers, musing softly, “She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”

Hot tears stung my eyes. He saw, pulling me close.

Lucy hurried in on her short legs and climbed up on the bed with us. All three of us cried there, but I felt strong with their arms around me.

A Bible verse came to mind, one that Mama had insisted I learn. Now I knew why. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Ours would now. I was sure of it.

Water flowed down the bed…

…and downstairs, mixing with the notes I played fifteen years later.

The song came to an end, and so did the memory. I returned to the present, now a college-age girl, just a guest in her old home.

Closing my eyes, I could stil hear the last ghostly echoes of the water music, floating and bouncing against the walls upstairs, the walls that held all my memories.

Je vous aime, Mama. I love you. And I cried tears of glass.

Your Last Winter

I fear the winter every day

and long for it to go away.

But all your fears are elsewhere now,

you’ll no more see the snow-tipped boughs

of trees that lost their yellow skin,

while you lost all but will to win.

I doubt that I could be so strong.

I couldn’t fight it for so long.

Yet fight you do, no sword to wield,

as you prepare for greener fields.

Where the leaves of trees are always bright.

Where it’s not too cold to sleep at night.

Your fears will soon be swept away,

but I’ll still be scared of winter days.


I remember the feel of your hands—

reaching out to fix my watch

or adjust my sleeve so it was just right


Your fingers

with pale pink nails

to match the rosiness of your cheeks

and contrast the beautiful snowy white of your hair


The smile on your face

revealed that deep inside you understood what was going on

yet because of an illness somehow could not express

your thoughts and emotions


The way you enjoyed


going for walks

watching soap operas

all the simple things in life that younger people take for granted


The way in which you touched my soul

by singing a song

by looking at me—

your eyes that shouted “please help me”

those beautiful blue eyes that eventually became your communication

when words had long ago ceased


The lessons your life taught me

lessons of patience

of frustration

of family

of love


The indescribable grief I faced when you died

your last breath


The knowledge

that you would not sing Happy Birthday when I turned eighteen

or see me graduate

or be there to share my joy when I married the man of my dreams


The regret for all the times I should have been there for you

and I failed

for the impatience I showed

when you had trouble eating, dressing, walking


The sadness of knowing I would never again be able to hug you

to smile at you

to dance with you


But the knowledge that no matter where in life I am

I can always cherish the memories I had with you

I will always love you.

Barely Remember

Dearest Granddaddy,

I barely remember you.

All I have are

The slices of your voice,

Images of you drinking your Jack Daniel’s

Every day at 4 o’clock,


I miss you,

I wish I could have learned from you

With your pens and papers,

Newspapers and editorials,

If only you could have survived life.

Falling Action

My best friend Erin Rogers and I were together all the time, doing nothing without the other. But one day I realized that somewhere along the road somebody failed her, and every day I cannot help but wonder if it might have been me. Everything she went through, I was there for her, but I guess some things are too hard for even friendship. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember. How could I ever forget? I’m sharing this story for the first time since it happened.

The last time we had no worries, well, that were apparent, was on August 20 of ’97. We spent the night in her basement under the stairs. I can still taste our dinner of cold macaroni and cheese on our breath, and feel sticky sweet butterscotch on our fingers. Rebecca St. James’s “Side By Side” blared through our ears. “Together forever, that’s the way we should be,” we sang aloud. We laughed, and talked about everything and anything. I will never forget that night, one of the best nights of my whole life,and the night where it started to end. A climax of sorts—the end of the rising action; the beginning of the falling.

Erin’s parents divorced when we were in sixth grade. Erin was torn apart mostly because her mom wouldn’t keep her, and her father was an atheist. Erin and I both had sadistic older brothers at this point. In March of ’96 my brother was sent to Three Springs, in Paint Rock Valley. Today I refer to this place as hell. Erin’s dad quickly remarried—a prostitute. Erin was always upset, but we always talked and prayed about it, so it seemed to be resolved. Still, one day I noticed her smile drop just slightly, only enough for a best friend to notice. I tried to talk to her but nothing seemed to help. At first it was just not being together at all times, and then it was her eyes. They became so sad, making the hurt so visible.

By September ’97 she had started to waste away. She wore all black, practiced self-mutilation, and obsessed over death. I had never been so worried or scared in my life. I never wanted to leave her alone with her thoughts. But the inevitable happened. The last time I saw her in a way that broke my heart was at church. It hurt so much to see her in such despair and know that I couldn’t help, so I stopped going to church altogether.

On November 12, 1997 I got a phone call. “I’m going to Three Springs. Don’t forget me. I love you,” she tried to say through her sobs. I can safely say that I hate Three Springs. I told her I’d love her forever, that she’d always be my sister at heart, and to stay strong. She didn’t take that advice. January of 1998 she was free. I never saw Erin again. My best friend forever decided forever had to be cut short. I like to think she took my smile with her.

For a while I struggled with depression and suicide. We moved to Madison for a fresh start, but every day I’m reminded of her in some way, and I cannot help but think, What if? Her parents and I have a mutual disrespect for one another right now. A great person was destroyed. By what, I am not sure. But that makes it no less real.