The length of a line of a poem is a breath. An entire poem could be recited in the time it takes you to breathe twenty times. Inhale and exhale. You remember how. I finished three poems by the time she took one ragged inhale. Chronology was useless. Time? Meaningless. Are these poems getting shorter, or are her breaths growing more labored? I’m not the type to sit idly. I watch my brothers wring their hands and mumble their worries to the doctor. I’m the outcast. I do not worry because I know my mother will die. She has been dying for the last three years. I’m not the type to sit idly and watch the highlight reels of her life as she lays before me, dying.
I paced those cool, linoleum floors in my bare feet. I was the daughter reciting poetry to my mother: David Ross, Agnes Dewes, Grant Sharpe, all the greats. The poetry once muttered in an English class in a brick building was now performance art. I was a one-woman show, and the greatest act performed? Distraction: pure and simple.
I touched a hand to her forehead. Cool. Always cool. The room could be eighty degrees, and she would still be cool. We could drop her off in the middle of Death Valley, and she would still be cool to the touch. The heartbeat was slowing each minute that ticked by. Slow, slow, slow. She was dying, even my great performance art, my brilliant distractions, could not deny that truth. Perhaps poetry could postpone death. Perhaps it could even make death more bearable, but I finally decided death was more honest, and I dismounted my imagination like a unicorn I had been riding for the past few years. I decided to face the truth for death was far more honest than I dared to be.
Slow, slow, slow. Inhale and exhale. You remember how.
There was nothing I could do but wait. It was not the expectant wait of a soon-to-be father. It was a mournful waiting. She forgot my history. She forgot the story of my birth. My own mother needing reminders of the tattered leather suitcase: the empty, tattered, leather suitcase. The one my own father had failed to pack. I watched as she forgot my name. I watched as she forgot how to chew: an act so basic was now as well-rehearsed as a dance recital. We had to have the precision of ballerinas, the passion of tap dancers, and the determination of ballroom dancers. She forgot how to bathe herself. The sponge I used to trace her body was dry, barely soaking up water, as dry as her withered flesh. Over the next few months, I watched as she forgot how to breathe. Slow, slow, slow. Inhale and exhale. You remember how. When she did not remember how, part of me broke, and I don’t think any amount of duct tape or fancy glue will piece it back together. Inhale and exhale. Easy does it. There you go. Those trembling, shoddy breaths was all she could offer, a meager penance for a life well-lived. She would watch me with watery eyes as I applied chapstick to her dry, peeling lips.
The room was as cool as a tomb; the light- a haunting, silver blue. I always shivered in my jacket and pulled the blankets up to her chin. She’d offer a smile, the kind of smile you offer a stranger who has done a kind deed. Her wrinkled skin was crumpled, tawny, tissue paper pulled taut over timber limb. I’d brush her hair for hours. It fell like cobwebs in dark corners of rooms never visited.
Sometimes, I would show her pictures of our family. Daddy before he died of a cancer that ravaged his body and stole him away from us, her boys and little girl she raised without a husband to support her, of her sisters and mother and father. Sometimes, the photographs helped to alleviate the darkness of the passing days. Other times, she would snarl and growl like a dog chained to a tree, knowing there was more outside of her grasp than within her grip. More often than I would like to admit, she asked me, “Who’s that?” and I would have to remind her.
“That’s you, Mother,” and this answer would put an unpleasant taste in her mouth like swallowing a dropper full of vinegar. She would never say a word after that, just throw the photographs on the floor and glare at me. She would tell me to leave, to leave her alone, to leave her alone to die.
I would take the photographs and pack them away in a bottom dresser drawer. I would take her papery hand into mine and give it a light squeeze. She would look downcast for a moment, then apologize. “I’m sorry, Shirley,” she would murmur. Shirley was her best friend when she was young.
I remember when Shirley first visited my mother at the nursing home. She smelled of light vanilla and Japanese cherry blossoms. She stopped coming after two months. She tried to explain. “It’s too hard to see her like this, you know.” Of course I knew, damn it. She was my mother, and she was fading. “You know, it’s hard to watch an old friend die.” It’s even harder to watch your mother die, Shirley. But my mother forgot Shirley. Just like she forgot Jane and Ann from work. Every once she would recycle their names into conversations where they didn’t belong. Pieces of the puzzle she wedged together and forced to fit.
I walked Shirley out that day. The dogwoods were blossoming, birds were returning to their nests. It was spring-time, and she returned to the world of the living. I walked back to the tomb of the dying. The sun would never shine for my mother again. She would never see a blossoming dogwood except from the glass of a nursing home window.
The night before she died, my mother slept a lot. Her breathing grew more labored. My brothers prayed, and I held her hands. I clasped her hands, and while my brothers begged for a miracle, I fought the tears that threatened to spill out. She mumbled something soft under her breath. I leaned my head near her mouth. “I love you,” she whispered. I kissed her cheek.
“I love you too.”
This was as close to goodbye as we would get.
Now, I wake up and wonder if there are dogwoods blossoming in her side of Heaven. And I struggle to breathe. Inhale and exhale. Easy does it. Every breath is a reminder for the ones she does not take.