It’s only the third of January and I’m already waiting for a new year, some sort of arbitrary clean slate to make things new. I brace myself against a guard rail and watch the slow stream of people enter the building in front of me. It, like everything else, is wrapped in ice from the titan of a snowstorm that’s been running its course over the last few days. The cozy semi-formal sweater I’m wearing is thick enough to withstand the cold, but not the piercing wind and the shards of ice it carries with it. They sting like annoying little spears, trying to goad me inside where it’s warm, promises of further torment on their tips. For all the good my clothing is I might as well be naked. I stare at the people for a little while longer, not really watching them so much as taking them all in, each of them a small line of contrast to fill the long empty white space of the world. Eventually I give up and head inside.
The entrance hall is fettered by walls of mortared black stone, each piece protruding with rounded edges towards the center hall. Without glass double doors in front and behind me, I might feel like it was trying to suffocate me. A strange mixture, but somehow fitting. Something archaic reaches out to restrain you while something modern offers you a way forward; it makes a sort of sense.
Inside, the hallway juts out and then splinters off into two adjacent halls leading to two separate rooms. There are voices, mostly dim whispers, though occasionally a voice will break through and fill the air with a discernible tone. The entire building hums with the din of electricity. Together they fill my mind with paranoid images of flies and other less seemly insects buzzing around my head, looking for a way to dig into me. My head begins to ache.
We’re not the only wake here today. The left hall holds an older man. I’d put him in his seventies by the look of the memorial photograph marking their side of the hall. I turn right; I have no place there, then again I’m not sure I have a place here either. Everyone says I do, but I don’t feel it. It seems the more time passes the more people become upset and bewildered by my responses. I almost opted not to come, I knew I couldn’t, rather I knew they wouldn’t let me.
I wish my friends were here. Something familiar to foil the discomfort rotting inside my stomach. I haven’t called and told any of them where I am, what’s happened. I can’t really figure out why, but I feel their absence strangely, like it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The room is expansive, or at the very least larger than I expected. Several dozen chairs are spread out comfortably across the room, carefully arranged into rows, divided into two sides so that the space between leads directly to the open casket. I’ve never been to a wake before. It has a strangeness about it. The idea of looking over the deceased, as if everyone has to make sure that the dead are truly dead, that they are who they claim to be.
The room is mostly empty. There are a number people, probably ten in all. I only recognize my aunt and my grandmother talking in a corner of the room, both suitably melancholic. On the right side of the entrance is a table. On it are a few photographs in unfamiliar frames. I recognize a few of them. Memories I’d forgotten to remember suddenly slammed across my face in a hurricane of epiphany.
She’s young in all of them, younger than I’ll ever remember her. Her smile is rich and genuinely heartfelt, and completely alien to me. I’m in one of them, which surprises me. She’s smiling there too, what’s more, so am I.
“She was beautiful,” a man comments from behind me.
I half-shrug, “Yeah, I suppose she was.”
I don’t look at him. I don’t recognize his voice and I have no interest in introducing myself.
“So how did you know her?” he asks.
The question is strange, I’m not sure how to answer it without sounding like an asshole so I just blurt it out, “I’m her son.”
“Oh, you’re Jacob?” he asks, trying to save face.
I ignore him. I don’t think about what I’ll do if he presses the subject. I just focus on the picture.
The park is beautiful. Summer is not yet Fall, but the chill in the air allows me to play harder, cooling myself in the exaltation of the wind.
I chase no one in particular, roving from one side of the play ground to the other; jumping into the swing, letting it propel me forward only to leap out into a run, jump a wooden platform and snag the hand rail, letting inertia carry me to the opposite side. I giggle, the air cold in my lungs, youth and chaos propelling me forth like some folkloric nightmare.
Suddenly, I see a familiar shape approach from the parking lot; a woman, long auburn hail, shining in the slowly setting sun. I stop mid-step, a little girl barely scraping past me without knocking me over.
It can’t be!
I rush to my father, “Dad, Mommy’s here!”
He turns, a look of surprise on his face. Their eyes lock, a smile crosses his face and we walk down the gravel ramp towards her. I throw myself into her legs, her knees nearly buckle underneath her but she stays standing.
I look up at her, arms still wrapped around her legs and my large goofy smile smeared across my face.
“Hi, Mommy.” I tighten my grip around her legs.
Dad pulls me back by the neck of my t-shirt. I let go and mom crouches down and kisses me on the lips, leaving a small amount of wetness as she pulls away. My smile fades momentarily as I wipe the sleeve of my shirt across my face to get rid of it.
My parents embrace and kiss, a passion between them I will forever carry with me as the definition of love.
Their lips part, she smiles at him and looks down at me. She pulls a green box from her purse. My eyes widen in awe drenched joy.
Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies!
Dad is the last one to notice, “Uh-oh, look what Mommy brought. Let’s go sit down and we can have a snack.”
I race around like an anxious dog as we approach a picnic table on the grass beside the playground. I look around at the other kids, searching for jealousy on their faces. I don’t think any of them have noticed. It doesn’t matter, I’m getting cookies.
We each take a seat at the off-maroon table. She opens the box, then the plastic bag inside the box, and then finally pulls out the container holding the actual cookies. She hands me three cookies, a massive number in my stubby childish hands.
“I love you, Mommy.” I say, ogling the cookies.
She kisses my hair.
“Mommy loves you too,” she grins, running her hands through my hair.
Usually she stays at home when we go to the park, her feet hurt her too much, sometimes she’s just tired. Having her here, this is heaven; mom, dad, cookies. No, it’s better than that. This is perfect. This is everything I will ever need in life.
I munch on the cookies, my face quickly smearing with streaks of melted chocolate. Mom licks her finger and runs it across my face, taking most of it with her. Contented, she allows me to run back to the playground.
I live the rest of my childhood anticipating my mother’s appearance at the park, the promise of cookie-forged memories. It will never happen again.
Later, years later, the bell rings and my fourth grade class grab their bags and head down the flight of stairs to the main floor and the front exit. The main floor is a sea of children, the adults large lumbering figures maneuvering like massive warships.
Usually my siblings and I would walk home, it’s a block, maybe two from school. Today, however my Grandpa is outside waiting for us next to his red pickup. He looks nervous, eyes darting from one side of the school to the other, searching for us. We wave at him and he signals us over to him. Noticing the looks of absolute confusion on our collective faces, he quickly explains himself.
“Your mother is in the hospital,” my grandfather says.
I only think about this for a moment. It’s probably a diabetes thing, I decide. She’s been in the hospital lots of times for that, not enough water or any number of other things. There is a stoic distractedness to my grandfather’s face as we enter his pick up.
It’s nine at night before my father shows up. He tells me mom had an accident, they don’t quite know what happened but she ended up cracking her head open on a flight of stairs. Something about it doesn’t really register to me. I’ve fallen down the stairs tons of times, it hurt, but it wasn’t that bad. But dad’s worried so I suppose I should be worried too. I tell him I love him, he says he has to go back to the hospital.
It’s another two days before I see him again. Another seven before I see my mother.
At the hospital, her room is nearly overrun with machinery. They stretch out from every side, a web of tubes swallowing up her upper body and face. Her head is half shaved, the remaining hair flung behind the bed giving me a clear look at what my father tells me is my mother. The shaven part of her head looks like she had a baseball augmented into the side of her skull. On the bulge are seven equidistant dots, holes drilled to relieve the pressure on her brain. Each one is caked black, barely quelled torrents of blood. Every other part of her face is distorted as well. Her face is formed into something resembling a monster. If I try, I can see her. Somewhere beneath it all I can see who she was.
She tries to speak, her words a slow slur of monosyllabic drone. She reaches up to touch me, I grab her hand. She’s cold, very, very cold. But it’s mom. Her hands are the same, her grip is weak, she can’t even wrap her hands around me, but this is her, somewhere underneath all of this, she is here.
The doctor says as we leave that she’s stable. That she will get better.
Something inside me says that she won’t.
“How are you holding up?” a female voice asks, her hand placed carefully on my arm.
The man has disappeared, replaced by someone else. Her hands radiate the same penetrating cold as the outside. I take a quick glance at her face. She looks aged, heavy wrinkles, deep watery eyes, her hair a light brown and slightly frazzled. Her pupils are like pin pricks, tiny stars in an empty green sky. Her head bobs lightly up and down like she’s trying to keep herself awake. She, whoever she may be, is brimming with opiates and I’m not even a little surprised.
You’d think at your mother’s wake you might actually know the people she called friends. Instead all I get is the most honest picture of her life in the entire room; my mother’s real life, outside the one she pretended to have for her kids, the part she lived when she wasn’t clamoring for her kids to visit her in her small, dismal excuse of an apartment. The real her, the person she’d become when left to her own devices and the defective mind and failing body she’d found herself stuck in. I can see it in everyone in this room. Emerging from their prospective drug havens dressed in the best clothes they could find in order to pay respects to one of their own. They’ll all try to talk to me, to dig their way inside me, searching me for a closeness deeper than the drugs and sexual favors they’d exchanged with her in life.
I don’t know how she knows my name and I try to shrug her off like I did the last man. She’s persistent, but I give her nothing, filling every question with half-hearted non-statements. Eventually she gives up, wishing me well and walking out into the hallway like a drug addled ghoul. I walk past the pictures, further into the hall, down the pathway towards the casket.
I look inside.
The television sits above me, set firmly in the security of the entertainment center, a faux-wooden dais for my distraction. Its warm glow paints the floor a myriad of colors, my body scooched as close the glinting box as my parents will allow me.
The decadent mess of dirty clothes, origin-less crumbs, and carpet stains is in a delicate equilibrium. The unending mess of four kids and the wrath of a couch-ridden parent vying between shame and rage at the state of her home forced into a détente by a singular fact; Mom was sick, sicker than usual.
She had been diabetic since she was fourteen, and she had always complained about her feet hurting, but after the accident the complaints became more frequent, more vocal. A lot of other things had changed too and I don’t know how much any of them have to do with diabetes. I have only a rudimentary understanding of the disease itself, and they were all based strictly around watching Mom. 1) I sometimes found Mom crying in the middle of the night because she hurt so badly. 2) She kept small glass bottles of transparent liquid called insulin in the corners of the refrigerator which she injected into her abdomen whenever she ate something. 3) Sometimes late at night I heard my father racing from one floor of the house to another, curse words raining from his lips like thunder. This has become the usual sick.
The unusual is the flu that has been going around. What had been less than a day of vomiting interspersed with 7-Up and saltines for rest of us was just stretching into its fifth day in my mother’s system. She spent most of this time locked in the bathroom or passed out on the couch groaning intermittently. This had increased the occurrence of Dad’s late night ritual. Multiple times a night I would half-awaken to hear his voice and footsteps crescendo down the stairs before nodding off again.
Dad had murmured something about being back eventually and disappeared out the door. Ordinarily I would have begged to come with, anything but to be left alone with the snarling beast my mother had become. Her violent swings in temper were becoming the stuff of legend within the house. But right now mom is asleep. When Mom is asleep, she isn’t angry. When she isn’t angry, she isn’t screaming. When she isn’t screaming, I’m not scurrying around at her whim or whatever ones I can pull from the petrified air to try and please her. This left me alone, sans the rhythmic breathing (or occasional snoring) of my mother.
I watch the shimmering box, stunned to catatonia. Here time is overwhelmed, bound, and bled; its essence drained away amid the sea of fluorescent colors. So it goes until something draws my attention. A sound, soft and unassuming, comes from behind me; a snap like the turning of a stud on a lamp, undetectable in all contexts but the moment of dead space between the TV show and commercial.
I turn around, just as my mother passed out on the recliner built into the end of the couch, a multi-colored Mexican blanket covering her body. Her face is marked with the same perpetual scowl she always carries one her now; nothing out of the ordinary.
I return to the TV just as the noises comes back. This time it’s accompanied by the booming thud of something hard slamming into the wall. I turn back in time to see the couch recliner my mom is sitting in lurch forward, recoiling from hitting the wall. Mom twitches, her body seizing. Her left arm spasms outward, tossing the blanket into the air before forcing itself down into the metal frame of the seat. It looks like she is trying to brace herself for something.
Terror and confusion heave themselves into the control center of my brain, and my feet stumble over their own muscular impulses in a failed attempt to move more quickly. I make it to my feet in spite of myself and approach her.
Every muscle in her body seems to cringe, like a thousand beetles are crawling and crying just beneath her skin. For every twinge that sends her body flailing another ten seize just beneath underneath the surface. Her scowl has transformed to a look of grotesque discomfort. Her eyes are still closed, now the only thing suggesting any sort of calm in the whole of her body.
“Mom?” I ask, afraid to touch her, unsure what has come over her, but nonetheless certain I will only make it worse. I call her again, some childish part of my soul suffocating under the weight of the flailing body.
I grab control over part of my body and reach for her left shoulder. As I touch her, her eyes burst open in panicked wakefulness. They scream outwards, a dissonance of fear and confusion, culminating into a thousand yard stare. The snapping and grinding of her body fills the room like bang snaps on concrete during the fourth of July. I recognize that look. I have seen it before, once in the car when she picked us up from school one day, I had had to run home to try and find a way to fix it while the principal tried in vain to slide small amount of Coca-Cola down her throat.
I jolt toward the hallway towards the medicine cabinet. I swing it open the door, letting its center crash against door frame leading to the bathroom. I stop the ricochet with my shoulder, eyes already searching frantically.
In a city of white bottles the red container was a leviathan. Cradled in vibrant hard plastic case, it’s a promise ringing in my ear. My father had sat me down less than a month ago and told me what to do when this happened. He said they’d been getting more frequent, that I needed to know how to do this should things go badly and he wasn’t around, an affirmation that all of this wasn’t in my head, that things were getting worse.
I grab the container, nearly missing and shoving my hand into crowd of expired cold medicine. I take a few frantic steps to the kitchen, wincing past the sound of Mom’s body, each crack landing like a hammer blow against the side of my head.
I sit myself in a chair at the table, the same one he had sat me down and promised me that this container’s contents would save her life.
Glucagon, Dad had called it.
Pinned to the roof of the container is a long folded sheet of paper, instructions. I briefly consider opening them, to reassure I know what I’m doing, but the sound of what I am certain is bone grating against bone in the next room over has scorched whatever sense I have into a blackened shadow and all that remains is a deep-seeded imperative, a mantra; I can do this, I have to.
I pry the syringe from the grip of its plastic sheath, lining up my actions with my memory of the walkthrough my father gave me. I murmur to myself the words I can remember most clearly. I have most of the serum out of the vial when I am interrupted. A dull, heavy sound shakes the house. I pull out the needle, tossing the vial onto the table, and head back into the living room.
Mom has convulsed herself onto the floor, her form rigid like a mannequin trying to come to life. Little tremors echo through the ground as the spasms hit against the hard floor instead of the cushions of the couch. If I didn’t do this now she was going to die and it will be my fault. She might already be dead. Maybe I’ve taken too long. This could all be for nothing, how could I know? I’m ten years old and bodies do strange things when they’re dead.
I stare, my eyes murky with teardrops, watching her spasm. I look through abject terror for a way to hold her down and inject her. Her arm spikes into the air as if she is attempting to wave, I try and catch it, figuring that I might be able to get some kind of control, but she pulls violently from my hand, nearly taking me and the needle along with it.
I straddle her arm, using my weight to restrain her. I wince as I thrust the needle into her arm. It goes in easily, natural, smooth, I’m thankful. I empty the serum into her arm as the muscles in her arm tighten. For a moment I fear that the needle will break or bend inside her. It doesn’t. I pull it out of her when it’s empty, a small trail of blood and serum running down her arm. Only a little, not enough to worry about, I tell myself.
Change comes slowly, the seizure becoming progressively less violent, receding in strength until the sounds of her insides snapping fades from audible range. Her muscles relax, her eyes close, and I know dad was telling the truth; the syringe, whatever it was, has done exactly what it was supposed to.
Still lying on the floor, her body recoils into a fetal position. I try to wake her up, but she only groans and squeezes herself deeper into a ball. I slide a pillow under her head. She nudges it like a child; contented and relaxed. She almost looks-
Peaceful. She looks almost peaceful in the casket. The look on her face isn’t one I’ve ever seen her make, it looks strange on her, but it implies comfort, which I’m sure will ease most people. After all, no one wants their final image of a loved one to be of passive disgust, even if that is exactly what they were in life.
She’s dressed in a purple suit. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never really considered what people wear when they die. I suppose something formal, but this, the way she’s placed, there is something very strange about the fakeness of it. She’s never worn anything like that before, nor has she ever looked that cozy while sleeping. She’s a violent sleeper, just like me.
Behind me in the corner of room, my mom’s sister lets out a shriek, a long overwrought emotion that draws people from around the room to comfort her. Even at her sister’s funeral she demands to be the center of attention.
At least she’s emoting. It seems that’s what everyone expects out of me; sobbing and weeping. Demanding a perfect understanding of your grief and the clarity and wellbeing to share it with everyone. All of it seems to perpetuate the idea that this is somehow completely unexpected, as though she and death had never been anywhere near each other until now.
I’d seen her die before. Innumerable times, every low blood sugar, every time she was raced to the hospital, each of them drenched in equal parts fear and certainty that she was going to die. Yet she always survived. Accident after blood chilling accident she always persevered. It was all preparation for this moment.
I don’t know what to feel, so I settle for numb. I don’t know if it’s trauma. I doubt I ever will. I think about how much different my life would be if she died that day, nearly eight years ago. All of the little bitter memories that followed, each dragging me deeper and deeper into some strange, almost laughable hellscape. All the while, creating a story I’m not sure I’ll ever be able, or willing, to tell.
I search her face. I see only the final shadows of the woman who called me son. Another moment and I realize there is nothing here for me, only a broken down corpse dressed in a ridiculous purple suit, the last page of a hefty tome to be filed away and forgotten.