It’s almost nine p.m. I’ve just hurtled 25 miles through the night to check on Ma because she didn’t answer the phone. One part of me is filled dread, while another wants to kick herself for worrying so much.
When I pull up, Ma’s house is dark, but the TV flickers behind the blind: I sigh with relief. Still, she doesn’t answer the door. There’s a faint hissing sound I can’t identify.
I knock loudly and call to her. Then, feeling like a thief, I use my key.
I follow the voice of the television through the dark house to the dining room.
Light plays on empty chairs.
I recognize the hissing sound now; the kitchen faucet is on full blast, in the dark. I reach around the corner for the light switch, which my hand knows by feel, and warm yellow light fills the kitchen.
There’s Ma, lying on her side, on the dirty Formica floor. A wide, thin sheet of brown vomit has spread out around her. Her blue eyes are open. She’s very still.
From the dining room, music suddenly swells, poignant and heart wrenching: layers of celestial female voices, loving, gentle, strong, never ending. My eyes fill with tears, even as my critical mind marvels that such appropriate background music should rise up from the television at this precise instant.
I look at Ma. Is she dead? I think she’s dead. I should call someone. I start back into the dining room, for the phone, and there’s the television again.
My mind is quick, but not smart. I’m moving from fact to fact, and for a moment each data point takes on equal weight; I can’t distinguish the vital information from the expendable. For several seconds, I stand paralyzed, halfway between the big, bright. color TV and the body of my mother. Then, I return to her.
She’s lying on her left side. Her hand is curled up by her face, as though she’s just brushed away a stray hair. Her open eyes keep insisting that she’s there, even as they inform me that she’s gone. Her expression is attentive, and undramatic: she is waiting for her coffee cup to be refilled; for the librarian to check her books. But the tip of her tongue has a strange curl to it, and her fingernails are blue. I reach for her wrist, which is cold, and feel for a pulse.
“Ma?” I say. “Ma? Oh, Ma, I think you’re dead.”
Then, I finally walk to the phone, and punch in my own number.
“Patrick?” I breathe, “I think she’s dead.”
“I’m not sure, but — no, I am sure, but what if I’m wrong? I can’t think what to do. What do I do?”
“You can call 911. Someone will come. They’ll make sure. Then call me back.”
So, I’m back on the phone with Patrick, describing the scene, when I hear the siren. I imagine a car wreck somewhere in the night, but then I realize someone is coming to take care of Ma — and me. I hang up to greet the firefighters, and I feel so grateful for the huge red truck, which fills the entire narrow street, quietly huffing. The fire fighters and police officers fill the house with their big bodies, glossy equipment, and gentle, clumsy assurances. Their strange smells and big male faces feel fatherly to me. I am small and dazzled, like two-year-old Cleo on a Tuesday morning, waving to the garbage collectors.
“Ma’am, I’m very sorry for your loss. Miz Lockhart, is it? You’re the daughter? Can we just ask you a few questions, here?”
Suddenly, I’m an adult again. I’m not crying. Do I seem cold to this kind, burly man? But there is nothing I can do about that. I feel myself calmly stepping in to oversee Ma’s death; the habit of managing her affairs is so strong. The fire fighters move into the kitchen as I smoothly deliver facts to the reporting officer, and while I talk to him, my Ma is redefined as The Body.
Too soon the fire truck has pulled away. The coroner still hasn’t approved release of the body to the mortuary, but the police officers tell me they have to leave, too. There’s a lot of methamphetamine around, they say, and it’s Friday night. Their supervisor wants them back out there.
When they go, I have an irrational urge to leave the front door wide open. Being closed inside the house with dead Ma doesn’t feel right. But I’m a biologist, I remind myself, and this is just a dead body: the most harmless human possible. Better to be locked inside with my sweet mother’s body than to leave the house wide open at midnight in a town in the midst of a meth epidemic. So, I close the door.
“Ma’s dead,” I say out loud. My voice sounds false and wavery. I feel claustrophobic, and panicky. Until I go to Ma. I don’t want to go in there, yet I need to. I lean in close and rest my hand on her solid waist.
“Ma, I am so sorry you died.”
I want her to feel safe.
“I love you, Ma.”
I try out the past tense: “I loved you.”
Glancing at the cans and pot lids scattered on the floor around her, I say, “I hope you were ok. I hope you didn’t feel scared or lonely when you died. I love you. I hope you knew I loved you.”
I wander around the house, crying and staring at things. Nothing seems solid. I keep returning to Ma to say a few words, trying to memorize her face.
When the mortuary guys finally come, it’s 1:30 in the morning, and I still haven’t cleaned her up. I’ve been too busy having my feelings and this one-way conversation. I think, it must seem strange to them that I didn’t even wipe off her face or close her eyes. Embarrassed, I distract myself by asking them questions.
“Do you guys always dress so well? Do you have any spare gloves? I’ve never seen such a big plastic bag. Do you suppose it’s made by Glad?”
After they are gone, I am stricken. They have left her glasses on the piano bench, next to where the gurney stood. I can’t look at them. Suddenly, I miss her unbearably.
I turn back to the kitchen and slowly go about cleaning up the enormous pool of vomit. It’s not horrible or smelly, just icky. Years of stinky diaper clean-up have prepared me for this moment. I find rags in the kitchen drawer, and I swab up the dark liquid as best I can, pouring on some of the old cleanser from under the sink.
When I’m done, the entire floor is a much lighter shade of brown, but I can still see the clean spot I rubbed away when we argued about her diminished housekeeping skills last month. I won’t have to hire Ma a helper after all. This thought, more than any I’ve had this evening, undoes me. It is the first responsibility to be lifted, the first “last time” I will have to attend to a caretaking task. What I once thought would come as a relief leaves me empty and alone; the world has just expanded around me, and I am lost.
At 2 a.m. I pull into my own driveway. I get out, remove my cruddy sandals, and drop them into the garbage can. After a shower, a kiss for the sleeping kids, and some weary words with Patrick, I curl against him in the dark, and again I see Ma’s eyes. I want my girls. I want to breathe in the scent of their warm skin. Tonight, I wish we slept in a family bed, with me in the middle.