For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun?
– Kahlil Gibran, “On Death”
The last coherent words Mom spoke to me were love poetry, with the final line: “I love you like the wind that blows in the trees.” It was not the first poem she spoke or wrote to me in my life, but it has been the most profound because I will never feel the wind on my face again without feeling that final hug we shared, when she squeezed me and we rocked each other like we were both babies and mothers to each other at the same time. It was a moment that neither of us seemed to want to end. When we finally let go, she laid back on the pillows propped in the hospital bed in Grannis’s living room, let out a long sigh, and closed her eyes. Sleep took her almost instantly, and I kissed her forehead and held her hand for a long minute before I could bring myself to walk out the door.
It was early December, and the snow made the roads slick all the way from the top of that hill to the flat cornfields. I drove back the seven hours to my temporary home in Indianapolis without seeing the road, my vision blurred with images of what was to come and the blinding effect of huge drifts of snow blowing across the winding roads and dark highways. When I called to check on Mom that night, Ton-Ton, the second born after Mom, told me Mom wouldn’t even eat any saltines—the only food she’d been able to hold down since Thanksgiving. “And now, she’s crossing those arms and pursing those lips together tight when I try to give her the pain medicine. She said the morphine’s what’s killing her.” Ton-Ton said cleared her throat and coughed. “Aye, aye, aye. Your Mom’s gonna do only what she want to.”
For the next four days, I continued in what had become my routine since I moved to Indiana, and waited, calling to check in every few hours. Indiana was the coldest place on the planet that I’d ever been to. My heaviest coat wasn’t enough to block out the icy cut of the winds that seemed to come from every direction at once, lifting my coat and pant legs, taking off my hat and scarf, almost strong enough to knock me down and bust a kneecap on the ice that covered every paved inch of the city. The walk to my desk—the only one occupied in a lonely snaking wing of empty cubicles—was so long and made me so numb, it took hours to thaw out. It seemed my hands had barely returned to their normal color before I had to wrap myself up again in my inadequate clothes and walk the long walk back to my car to drive the slippery streets to my apartment. At work, being alone gave me the freedom to call as many times as I wanted, to hear Mom’s voice, coherent or not, and get updates from Grannis, Ton-Ton, or the hospice nurse.
Being alone at work also gave me time to think, and I thought often about a conversation I’d had with Mom not long after two surgeries and the start of daily radiation and continuous infusion of a caustic chemotherapy drug. She’d come to where I was living at the time for treatment, in Columbus, Ohio, hoping to be cured, but the cancer was still there, still growing. It was mid-July and we were sitting out back at my house, in lawn chairs close together, feeling the warmth of the sunset in the silence we’d shared many mornings and evenings on various porches over the years. She took a deep inhale off her long cigarette and blew it audibly through her lips twisted off to the left. “I don’t know why this happened to me.”
I pointed at her cigarette. “Thirty years of smoking ain’t good for you.”
“Well, smoking’s the only thing keeping me sane about all this,” she said. “They’ve cut me up and marked me, so that my belly looks like a treasure map covered in burns, black X’s marking who knows what, putting this scarab thing in my chest, hooking me up to a fanny pack that pumps me full of a poison I can’t spell, much less pronounce, all day and night. I can’t eat all the food I like because nothing won’t settle, and what does settle don’t even have a taste.” Mom loved food, and not being able to taste was something she complained about at every meal.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just knitted my eyebrows and bit my bottom lip. She looked back at the sunset and took a deep drag off her cigarette. I watched the paper crackle and glow as the tip of the cigarette burned black and orange like the surface of the sun. I leaned my head on her shoulder and pulled myself closer to her, breathing in the smell of tobacco and rose oil as I listened to her inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, cigarette after cigarette until dark.
“I got a real ripe fresh pineapple and some cottage cheese we can eat for dessert after Chinese,” all things I knew were her favorites. As we ate supper, she pushed the food around her plate and forced herself to chew a few bites of the sweet-and-sour chicken she usually loved, but that day couldn’t hardly bring herself to swallow. When I took her nearly full plate and brought her a bowl of pineapple and cottage cheese, something changed in her face.
“This pineapple smells excellent.” Plucking a chunk from the bowl with her fingers, she bit into it and let the juice run down her chin. She took another bite and then tears ran down her face and mixed with the juice. “It tastes like the sun just exploded in my mouth. Nothing has ever tasted so good. It’s just… excellent.” We had pineapple a lot during that summer of radiation, and in the evenings, we’d sit outside while she smoked, talking about trips we’d never get to make to Hawaii to pick some fresh from the field.
When the phone call came that I’d been dreading, I pushed my way to my car through the cold Indiana winter, my tears frozen into place. I don’t remember the drive at all, thinking only about Mom and pineapples, hardly able to believe it had been only five months before. I’d been hoping to make her a pineapple upside down cake for her 44th birthday, which was less than two weeks away. But it was a celebration we wouldn’t have.
That morning, Mom decided she didn’t want to die at Grannis’s, didn’t want the outline of her dead body haunting the living room forever. They called the ambulance, which was taking her to King’s Daughters, the same hospital she was born in. Everyone in the family was called to say goodbye, but not everyone could make it, and some couldn’t stand to make it. Those who did come to say their final words watched her as she mumbled and cried, talking to both the living and the dead, as if we were all there together in that room with her.
Grannis kissed her forehead and stroked her hair, then tried to hold her tears when Ton-Ton took her by the shoulders and walked her out the door.
Reindeer, the third born, tried to get Bebo, the fourth born, to tell Mom it was okay to let go. “I ain’t telling my sister it’s okay to die, because it ain’t okay.” He was near the point of yelling, so he grabbed Mom’s hand, shoulders shaking, and could barely get out, “I love you” before bolting for the door.
That left only three of us in the room—Reindeer, my sister Lulu, and me. Mom wanted to say more, to more people, and we were left to interpret the names that didn’t roll right off her tongue anymore.
I dialed Bub, my brother, who was at home with our girls. When she dropped the phone, he said, “I can’t come down there. I can’t see it happen.”
I dialed Dad, who said when I took the phone from her because her cries got too loud, “That was hard to hear.”
“It’s even harder to see.”
The last one she wanted was Newk, the fifth born, the baby of her family. I dialed him and told him Mom wanted to talk to him. He said, “I can’t,” and hung up. His number rang busy after that. I told her I couldn’t get him on the phone and that sent her into a near screaming fit that I couldn’t sweet talk her out of. I eventually had to go to the nurses’ station and ask for them to calm her down—give her the maximum doses of Morphine, Ativan, Ambien, anything that would let her stop howling and drift as easy from this world as the petals from a dogwood float away from the branches in April.
Once all the drugs hit her system, she pointed at the boom box we’d put the corner, and I knew she wanted me to play that song. That song that she’d handed me on a cassette tape in late August, when she gave up treatment and went home to die. That song I’d laughed about with her, saying it didn’t seem very funeral-like, but so like her—“Fly to the Angels” by Slaughter. When I was a kid and we would drive those windy country roads to visit family, she always cranked that song up and sang it loud. She wanted that to be the last song she heard before she died.
She tried to sing along at first, but then gave into crying when she couldn’t. I sang a little bit of it to her while I held her hand. She calmed a little, and then dozed off and on. Once while she was sleeping, Reindeer lifted the sheets back to look at Mom’s body. She couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds, her bones stuck out at every angle, and her skin was black from her chest down. The smell that wafted up when the sheet lifted made us all cover our faces; it was nothing but death. “It won’t be long now,” Reindeer said. “Her body’s done shut down.”
It was getting late, so the three of us decided to take turns watching while the others napped. At my turn, I sat and held her hand, trying to conjure up the smell of tobacco and rose oil instead of the rot that made me fight my gag reflex. She slept, but was fitful, sometimes opening her eyes but not seeing me, saying “Papaw” and reaching out. I didn’t know if she meant her step-dad, or my namesake, her Papaw, but both of them were dead. When she couldn’t hold her hand out any longer, I put it back by her side and stroked her arm until she slipped back into a sleep. I watched her chest rise and fall in uneven spurts until three in the morning.
I didn’t want to wake her with my cries, but I felt them coming on. I went to the bathroom and sat on the floor, tucked my head between my knees and squeezed my whole body tight, sobbing and screaming without sound. My fingers locked behind my head, I rocked back and forth, trying to control my breath, trying to get myself together, but I threw up so hard I burst blood vessels around my eyes. I sat back down on the cold tile, wiped the vomit from my chin, and prayed to God for the one and only time in my life—for Mom’s suffering to end. Then I washed my face and went back to my duty.
As I opened the door and walked to her bed, Lulu and Reindeer had just stood up from their chairs at the same time, blinking. We all seemed to know without saying anything to each other. The three of us stood around her bed just as it came, her last breath—a deep exhale that sounded like perfect pranayama, the deep breath of yoga that comes from the diaphragm and releases energy from the body. And then she was gone, her body a gory vehicle that had eaten itself half away and rotted before it let her go.
December 15, 2001, the day of Mom’s funeral, was hot—right around 70 degrees. I’d gotten up on the hill early, where my job was to put on my best face to thank people for the food and keep Grannis from throwing herself in the grave with the casket. People were gathered inside, eating and talking about Mom—how funny she was, how much she talked, how loud she laughed, her big old crazy grin when she was up to something. I answered phone call after phone call from people giving me apologies and prayers.
One of her closest cousins couldn’t bear to see her coffin so soon after he’d buried his own son. Some friends were sorry to be too far away. Others wouldn’t ever come to a funeral. So many cried when they thought about a day without her laughter.
Twenty minutes before the service, Newk called, sounding about a fistful into his second fifth of Jack Daniels. “I can’t do it, Elisa. I just can’t.” He was crying but trying to sound like he wasn’t. I could picture him on his apartment floor, bottles next to him, rocking back and forth, pulling at his hair and his hands shaking so bad he could hardly hold the phone.
“I was counting on you to help carry,” I said. He hung up.
I took the phone off the hook and went outside by the shed where all the smokers were—most everyone in the family and most the friends and kin, too. It was a mix of suits, jeans and t-shirts, dresses or skirts, and polyester. Most were way more dressed up than usual.
Bub was chewing his fingers, his fingernails long gone.
Bebo smoked hard, shifting from foot to foot, looking like he was gonna take off running at any minute.
Dad tugged at his shirt collar, said he was too hot in his “monkey suit.”
Reindeer wrung her hands and shuffled in and out of the house, worrying over Grannis.
Lulu was calm and pretty, her arms crossed across her waist and her eyes blank.
The girls chased each other across the yard, giggling, their hair and pretty dresses glowing in the bright sun.
When the hearse came into view at the bottom of the hill, Grannis came out of the house and sat down on the driveway, filling the air with deep roaring sobs. People tried to rub her back, her shoulder, talk in hushed tones that lacked comfort.
As the hearse got closer, the wind started picking up, blowing dirt from the gravesite and gravel driveway toward everyone. We all had to squint and put up our hands to see its slow ascent up Winding Way. Mom’s grave, which men with machines had dug that morning through the hard-packed clay, was just at the top of the hill. That plot, with that particular slanted view of the mountain across the way, was the place she wanted her body to be planted, her feet pointed toward the mountain. She told me it was the same view as from the right side of the porch swing—the best seat on the porch, but wider, without the boundaries of the green posts.
The wind blew harder, sending even more dust our way, when the hearse got to the top of the hill and stopped next to the little tent that covered the hole. All our clothes flapped, skirts twisting up around thighs and ties lifting like nooses. As we turned our eyes down from the wind, we heard a loud metallic screech behind us. We all turned around in time to watch the stripped out single-wide that Bebo had dragged up the hill to rebuild be ripped apart. Almost like the lid of a Spam can, the aluminum shell of that trailer peeled off the steel frame, floated straight up into the air, then over the yard a ways before it hit the ground and started rolling toward the barbed wire fence at the bottom of the hill, bouncing like a pop can tossed out the car window on the highway, until it smacked into the fence posts and bounced back a few feet, rolled, and then stopped.
“Ooh, Wanda’s mad,” Ton-Ton said and chuckle-coughed as she hunched her shoulders and took a drag off her cigarette.
Some of us just stood there a minute, mouthing did that just happen and oh my god, some of us laughing at the thought of Mom—who had always been the peacemaker—settling one of the many family feuds even after death. After everyone looked at the aluminum tube down the hill, some hurried toward the opening door of the black hearse to line up and grab the silver handles of the white and pink casket we knew was tucked in the back. The wind died down and the sun blazed, warming the tops of all the dark-colored shoulders and mussed hair as we each walked at our own pace, drawing in a deep breath to speak the words that would carry on the wind, out loud or to ourselves.
This essay was published in the Issue 4 of Still: The Journal (as Frankie Finley), and was named as a Judge’s Pick in their 2010 literary contest. It was also one of the two pieces that I submitted when I won the Kentucky Arts Council Emerging Artist Award for 2013.