Have you ever stepped on an old Cheerio? Sometimes, after you crush it, it still looks like a Cheerio. It still has its perfect little round Cheerio shape. But if you try to pick it up, the instant your finger touches it, it disintegrates into a little pile of pulverized-Cheerio powder. That’s how I feel. Try it. Touch me.
On October 10th I found my mother dead on her kitchen floor. Now I know that no matter how diminished a person with Alzheimer’s Disease may seem to her family, she is infinitely more alive alive than she is dead. Dead people don’t do a thing. They don’t lose their lists. They don’t fret, or hover. They don’t expect you to call every day. They don’t read to their granddaughters in an odd, halting cadence. They don’t, even on occasion, gently laugh in a way that reminds you of happier times.
The night Ma died, I waited with her body for hours. I stayed close to her, filling myself with the knowledge of her passing. When the mortuary guys lifted her onto the gurney, I heard a small snap, like the breaking of a brittle twig, and then I watched them feed her body into an enormous plastic trash bag and drive it away: I confronted the physical reality of her death head-on. Halloween, only weeks later, was hard. I felt adrift, and the images of death infected me. As I drove past the temporary Halloween store, I saw the anemic flesh and felt the open-eyed stare of the fake corpses in a new and personal way. The mock graves in my neighbors’ yards made me shiver and cry.
Then Zoë brought home a book called Beto’s Bone Dance from the school library. “I got this for you, Mama,” she announced, “you know — because of Gram.” We snuggled on the couch and read about a magical night in Mexico, and a boy who wasn’t sure what to bring to his grandma’s grave on the Day of the Dead, until he realized the best treat for her would be a picture of him.
The next day I drove through the rainy streets of Oakland to the crematorium and collected Ma’s ashes: a full tin box, heavy inside a green faux-velvet bag. We set the box on a small wooden table, and around it built an altar, with candles, seashells, sweet bread, photos of Ma’s loved ones, some of her favorite books, and a bumper sticker from her beloved leftie radio station, KPFA, all surrounded by rows of fresh marigolds. These things brought Ma back to me in a positive way; I remembered her as the gentle mother, dedicated teacher, and obstinately loyal advocate for the environment who took me for long hikes in Briones Park and chuckled disdainfully at my father’s puns. For weeks after the altar was gone, I lit candles for Ma before dinner, and the kids blew them out before bed.
One morning as the kids ate their oatmeal and I pared kiwis for their lunch, my husband Patrick called from a BART train. Unsure what station he needed, he asked me to look up an address in San Francisco, but after I gave it to him his train entered the trans-bay tunnel and we got cut off. A few minutes later, the phone rang again.
“Hello?” I said impatiently, expecting Pat again.
But it was Ma.
“Sybil?” she asked nervously. She has a worried, searching way on the phone, a sort of pleading, half-panicked tone. I heard the strain of it. She hates those first moments after she dials, listening to the ring before I pick up. Something about reaching out into the dark emptiness of the electrical connection is very stressful for her.
I hurried to put her at ease. “Sure, it’s me,” I soothed, “Are you okay?”
And then in rushed the confusion, the knowledge, the dissonance: but she’s dead. The panic of who could this be.
“Sybil, it’s Norah.”
The noise in my head was so loud, I almost couldn’t hear the words. “Norah . . .”
“Yes,” my friend laughed nervously, “I know this is unexpected; I hope it’s not too early to call . . .”
I somehow managed a short conversation with Norah, who asked twice whether I was feeling okay before I excused myself. It was almost nine. I had to get the kids into the car, or Zoë would be late for school. Cleo had her sandals on the wrong feet, and Zoë wanted more milk. I held the phone to my heart.
Ma had been there. My eyes felt hot, and my breath was gone. I knelt on the kitchen floor, took off my glasses and covered my face, breathing in the scent of my lotion as the tears came. It wasn’t just me thinking someone sounded like her. It was Ma. I had spoken to her.
Zoë was standing in front of me.
“What happened, Mama?”
“Oh, my God,” my small voice said. I was so overwhelmed, so lost in the moment, that it didn’t occur to me to filter or soften my experience for the kids.
“That was Gram. I mean, I heard Gram’s voice.”
Zoë tilted her head, waiting to understand.
“I miss her, Zoë. I miss Gram. When I heard that voice, for a second I thought . . .”
She stepped in close and held me. Zoë has an instinct for the important moments in life, a way of taking me seriously when it matters.
“I miss her too, sometimes, Mama.”
At that moment I understood that what I was feeling was relief. It felt so good to hear Ma’s voice. She had called me. She was there.
I felt the circles — my arms encircling Zoë as Ma’s had encircled me, Zoë’s young face reflecting Ma’s familiar features, and Ma’s love for me cycling back to strengthen my love for Zoë and Cleo. I had fallen apart; I had felt my world disintegrate. Yet here we were, whole, together.