It took forever and then it hit all at once. Backache in August, day of the eclipse. Radiation in September. Hospice in October. Phone call in October. November now. Sitting on the edge of my bed in Dublin, staring down at my bare feet, phone against my ear. Hit with a speed that caught us all out.
My sister's boyfriend Ray picks me up at the airport. I'd never met him before but I recognize him immediately. Thelonious Monk beard, leather cap, sleepy eyes and skin so dark it's hard to see what he looks like. On the drive back to the house on Althea we talk about everything, his recon tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. His weekend passes in Budapest. Why he left the army and why he would have stayed. It wasn't the event but the six months on either side of the event that finally wore him down. For every year you spend in the desert, you gotta spend 6 months before getting ready and 6 months after unpacking. We talk about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and Co-Op city where he was born. We talk about Oglethorpe and the founding of Savannah. We talk about everything but the reason we're there, and I'm grateful to him for that. She's more or less gone, he says. She's pretty much gone.
Skin jaundiced and eyes marble blue and rolled back or suddenly slammed right into focus. Front cap missing and exposing the small gray baby tooth that had never grown out. Tooth that she always hid, always hated. Feet swollen, right hand swollen. Hair grown back, hair she was always so proud of. Hair grown back after the chemo stopped. Smell of dead flowers that wasn't dead flowers. Eyes slammed right back into focus and the shock of recognition throws me back against myself, then it's gone again. Fentanyl patches and liquid Xanax and mix the Hydrocodone with apple sauce and the oxygen tank sounding like a train. You have to mix it like this. It's a tiny pill, but you need to split it into quarters. Put the quarters under her tongue. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Wooden heart brought up from Mexico and on the wall above the rented hospital bed. Hospice nurse smoking in the back yard, wooden cross and face to the sun. Spanish moss on clothes line behind her. Donuts that everybody eats and apples and oranges that nobody even looks at. Halloween and pumpkins and sister dressed as Edie Beale and somewhere off in the distance the Astros beat the Dodgers. Somewhere off in the distance some guy plows a truck into some tourists in New York. Somewhere off in the distance a guy shoots up a church in Texas.
My sister exhausted. Sister dealing with this since the get-go. Sister up until morning, then locked in her room until late afternoon. Sister not sleeping at all or otherwise sleeping all the time.
I'm a mess, she tells us. No, you're not, my Dad says. They gave you a bath this morning. Remember? They washed your hair. My mom says nothing. Eyes considering. Yeah, I am, she says.
Main thing is don't argue with her. It gets bad around seven, gets better by nine. Sunsetting, they have a term for it. Animal moaning. Begging to die. Just whatever she says don't argue. Group hug. At night they're still talking. Sister can hear them talking through the wall. At night it sounds normal. She gets confused, gets scared. The red liquid is the liquid Xanax. Up to five, up to halfway up the syringe. Just don't argue with her. Just tell her you can't, don't get into it.
Waking up to the sound of freight trains early every morning. Waking up from a dreamless sleep. Just a black sleep.
Mastectomy scars from ten years before. Surgery scars from when her knee blew out in San Anselmo. Five rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Wait, look, wait. Inhale. Exhale. I waited for her not to breathe, found myself hoping she wouldn't. Five more rapid breaths and then no breath at all. Sat and watched as her right hand swelled to twice its size. Watched as purple bruises the size and shape of my fingertips bloomed across her forearm. I guess by the time this is over your parents won't have any mystery left at all, my father says. He's embarrassed, apologizing. If anything the mystery keeps getting bigger.
I pick my brother up at the airport, standing in the same spot where Ray had stood waiting for me. My brother who had flown in from the Caucuses to JFK, then walked across Queens to La Guardia, then sat in a diner until his twelve o'clock flight. He comes walking up the arrivals ramp waving and smiling like any other family vacation. I can barely speak. He comes rolling up with his suitcase rolling up behind him.
Acorns hitting the carport roof like grapeshot. Squirrels attacking the birdfeeder. Spanish moss hanging off the clothesline. Hospice nurse heads out the screen door, lights another cigarette. Inside, oxygen tank inhales, exhales. Inhales, exhales. Whiskey and smoking. Everybody smoking. Whiskey and Camels and pot. Beer and sandwiches. Macaroni Salad. Potato Salad. Donuts and chicken cacciatore. More whiskey. More beer. No music and then too much music. Bob Dylan, somewhere. Linda Ronstadt, somewhere. Mama Tried. Heart Like a Wheel. The Weight. Willing. Coffee. Beer. Somebody's got to walk the dogs.
We need toilet paper. We need paper towels. We need milk. We need half and half. Is anybody hungry? Nobody's hungry. We need bread. Everybody's thirsty. There's money in the change bowl. Coffee, we need coffee. Dead Palmetto Bug trapped in the dirty dishes, floating belly up under a milk glass.
The urine bag runs from amber to purple to brown to black. That's the kidneys going, according to the hospice nurse. Her heart's beating like a jackhammer. Liver pretty much gone. She's waiting for something, according to the hospice nurse. God's not through with her yet, according to the hospice nurse. She's strong. Weren't for this she'd live to be a hundred and five.
I went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Deciding between soups, deciding between beers, and that's how long it took. Clothes in the dryer still drying. Hospice nurse came out to meet the car. Coffee, toilet paper, beer. Went to the grocery, came back, and that's how long it took. Brother and sister in the bedroom, brother holding sister and both of them staring, mom in the bed. Mom's face not fighting. Mom's face Mom's face again. Mom dead. Not resting, not passed. Maybe at peace. Eyes closed, oxygen tank off. Oxygen tubes out.
Two eggs over easy, hash browns and bacon. Two eggs over easy, sausage and grits. Two eggs over easy, pancakes, maple syrup. Two eggs over easy, whole wheat toast. Coffee, orange juice. Coffee, just the check. Coffee, thank you. Coffee, please.
She was gone within the hour, and that's how quick it was. Black suits, pink jowls, silver hair. Handshakes all around. Condolences. Will there be a church service? No, no service. That's fine. Has everyone had a chance to say their goodbyes? Yes, thank you. That's fine. We'll just take it from here. Not much more than a hospital gurney, and they're figuring out the angles of the hallway. My mom's body hidden but shape visible beneath the dark velvet blanket. Impossible not to think of who had been under that blanket before, who would be under than blanket the next day. Black Cadillac hearse pulling away from the curb, drove away slow from the front door and then sped up gradually as it turned out of view. Dad and Sister following the gurney down the path towards the street. Standing there together after the hearse pulls away. I'm watching through the Venetian blinds and nobody gets close because they know better.
Nothing I could think made me feel more stupid, more childish, more caught off-guard. When the time came, when the time hit, I was stupid beyond. Beyond stupid. It's the permanence of the thing. We kept marveling to ourselves, marveling to each other. It's the permanence of it. Gone. Just gone. Not coming back. Stupid, because we knew that. But just stupid. Because that's just that's how it works. Phone calls from Dublin. Phone calls from New York. Phone calls to Kentucky, California, Florida, New Jersey. She's everywhere in the house. Now that she's gone she's everywhere. Joan Didion on TV punching at the air with her tiny knotted fist talking about death and gold but I have nothing to say. Driving, nothing to say. Walking, nothing to say. Groceries, nothing to say. Laundry, nothing to say.
I go through her desk and she's saved everything. Every postcard, every letter, every photo of her kids and of my kids. I find a Polaroid picture of my wife and myself taken some thirty years before, taken in Ireland maybe. Taken when we were just kids ourselves. I pocket the picture and eventually close the drawer.
Eating microwave dinners over the kitchen sink, but made it back to the table eventually. Made it back to the table after a couple of days. Without her there to mediate we all just become more of who we already are. Sister leaves, needs to get away, needs to wash her hair, needs to sleep in her own bed in her own house on her own street again. Brother claims Mom's chair. Dad on the porch and smoking. Drive along 16 to the airport, fires along the highway. Processing plant off in the distance, fires there too. JFK, and fire out past the runway. Fire out past the runway on the runway home.