Every year in April it creeps in with a sense of duty and purpose, more significant than the random reminders and memories: a woman’s voice on the radio and a woman standing in line at the grocery store with the same haircut. Viburnum blooming. Your pajama top making its way to the top of the stack in my drawer. Mari noticed your perfume bottle for the first time atop my dresser this weekend, and when I sprayed it we let the scent hover in a ghostly cloud between us for a few seconds before leaning forward to breathe you in.
Every April I run through each station:
Something dissolved in you so that impending death could flow freely through your body, among platelets and oxygen-deprived cells, through the organs that labored to keep up. You stopped fighting over the fried chicken and cake you wanted for dinner but couldn’t have thanks to a recent diabetes diagnosis. You chuckled at the concept that your body was giving out and even then, even still, you weren’t allowed to have a fucking piece of fried chicken and cake.
You started having extraordinary dreams. Dreaming of flying. Dreaming of swimming in the deepest jewel-blue water with your long mermaid hair surrounding you, with the babies that were never born falling in line beside you like dolphins. Never mind you were terrified of water. Never mind you hadn’t properly swum since age 7.
I came to visit for a weekend. I could sense the change in you, and while there was resignation there was also peace. I can only think of two times when you grabbed my hand as an adult: once while terrified and riding in the backseat of a car as Uncle Nick sped up on corners of winding San Francisco streets, truly fearing for our safety; and while lying in your bed watching television that night. In both cases the handholding connected us amid outside dangerous forces — we were in it together. You’re my mother. Your body is more familiar to me than anyone’s; I know the path of the blue veins along the backs of your hands better than mine. We lay in the dark and held hands and I couldn’t feel the velocity of the outside forces at the time, but you did.
You woke up in the middle of the night, and I don’t know the entire story, but maybe you couldn’t breathe anymore (despite the yards and yards of tubing connected to the tanks and tanks taking up space in the living room behind that folding wall) or maybe you had a stroke or maybe you saw something extraordinary, but that was the last time you ever saw home or your robe hanging on the bathroom hook or the potted flowers and tomatoes in the backyard that we would kill the following week from neglect and unseasonably warm temperatures, all from the vantage point of a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to your face.
Maybe you knew this was it. Maybe you were thinking about fried chicken and cake as they started up the morphine drip that met up with impending death in your veins, and you smiled from behind the even larger, full facial oxygen mask they strapped to your head. You held Dad’s hand and squeezed as social workers stage whispered planning for hospice care, the option to place a hospital bed in the living room where we once placed Christmas trees.
Dad finally called me on Sunday morning, a day and a half after your being admitted. He left a voicemail message while I ate waffles at J&M Café with Michael and Lael. Standing on the corner in the sun, I listened to a recording of Dad crying but didn’t connect that this might be it. Michael and I walked to the car and I called the hospital room to tell Dad I was coming. He put you on the phone, hilariously, and from the whoosh of oxygen and morphine I heard you say “okay” in a sing-songy voice.
At the airport I called my dentist to let her know I likely wouldn’t make my appointment on Tuesday because my mother was dying. I told my dentist but I don’t think I told myself. I don’t remember the plane ride or getting a car or how I found my way to the hospital room.
You were awake with your catcher’s mask on, and I don’t remember what we could have talked about, but I didn’t think this was the last hour I would see you. You did.
Dad went home, exhausted, and Kelly and I stayed while they got you ready for sleep. I remember having to hold your mask on your face as they gave you pills? Or your nebulizer? And I was so afraid of your losing oxygen that I pressed the mask to your face altogether too hard, and then I kept thinking of your skin and cheekbones, your face, how you were slowly leaving your body. You asked for a sleeping pill and we watched you take it. We hugged you. I tried to find a patch of face I could kiss but it was taken up by the mask. I might have held your hand. We really didn’t think to say goodbye.
You died about 2 hours later. I hope at the time you were swimming in jewel-blue water.