If I die, you won’t remember me.
At fourteen months, you won’t remember the way my voice cracks when I sing “Hush Little Baby” and rock you, patting your diaper-padded bottom. You won’t remember how I chase you around the house as you toddle, then trip, then bounce up again, laughing back at me with your eight-toothed grin. You won’t remember the way I cheerfully narrate daily routines for you: “Momma is wiping your bum with a wipe. Time for some cream. Now, lift up your hands for your sweater. Let’s pull up your little jeans. How handsome you look, my little man!”
I have no business thinking like this or, God forbid, writing it down. I have never sat before a doctor, his serious face wrinkled with concern, a cancer diagnosis lurking on the clipboard in his hand. My ailments are benign: an elevated BMI, ovaries that mostly don’t work, some mild neurosis. But outside our warm living room and book-filled nursery, outside our snow-covered home, a virus rages, creating headlines I can’t avoid: “Thirty-five-year-old mother of five dies from COVID-19,” and “Twenty-one-year-old college student doesn’t make it home.” And when I see those headlines, my heart beats quickly and I am reminded that I could be next.
Right now, you’re across the living room from me, wearing a striped shirt and brown pants. Your light-brown hair is buzzed short on the sides, with a longer tuft on top, and your blue eyes are concentrating on a book of animal sounds. You press the seagull five times, enjoy the screeching, then flip the page. “Rainforest,” the didactic female voice says. “Touch an animal.” Usually, I’m annoyed by the repetitive animal sounds, but today I’m anticipating the time when I can finally take you to the zoo and show you swinging monkeys and laughing hyenas outside the pages of this book. I can’t wait to show you the big, wide world out there, when this is all over.
You walk over to me, watching my fingers intently as I type on my laptop, propped up on our gray couch. You hug my arm, nuzzle it, then bite a fleshy bit above my elbow. “Ouch, no!” I tell you, wishing you’d let me concentrate for a few minutes without the constant interruptions.
You smile up at me, unfazed by my reprimand, then wander back over to the animal book and dance, shaking your head back and forth to the book’s rhythmic jingle: “Some of my favorite animals are walrus, flamingo, dolphin. I love animals!” Here I am, reading the scary headlines, watching the death count rise, and writing about my own death, while you’re oblivious, experiencing only joy and curiosity. Sometimes I wish that I was you—a toddler without a care in the world.
If I died now, you wouldn’t know to cry for me. I suppose that’s a good thing. You would cry, I’m sure, as you did this morning when I didn’t peel the banana quickly enough, or when you trip over your feet and hit your head against the wall. Tears would flow when your dad tells you that you can’t use his wallet as a teething toy. But you wouldn’t understand that I was gone, taken by a disease that no longer threatens anyone, by the time you’re old enough to understand it.
Perhaps, one early morning, after a few weeks had gone by, you would wander into our empty, dark bedroom as your dad was scrambling eggs in the kitchen. “Mama? Mama? Mama!” In my mind, I can hear your voice, see your face as you register that something is missing.
Pushing the image aside, I spring from my laptop, because now you’re crying. I chuckle a little when I see that in an attempt to remove its contents, you’ve trapped two fingers underneath the lid to the silver garbage can. I rescue your fingers, pick up the seaweed snack wrapper and crumpled paper towel you managed to toss on the floor, and whisk you back to the couch.
I usually feel safe at home, but the virus has already infiltrated our walls. My sister Lauren was living with us when she had it a few months ago. “Close your eyes. Now, smell this!” I said, shoving a pink, strawberry-scented candle up to her nose. “I can’t smell it! I can’t smell it at all!” she said. That’s when we knew.
Your dad and I were terrified that we would all contract the virus. We made Lauren stay in the basement, except to use the bathroom or get food. We quarantined in the house for two weeks, surviving on groceries delivered to our front door. We felt trapped, like dogs pacing along a chain link fence. You whined because you wanted Lauren to hold you, play with you. We whined, too, out of fear and, sometimes, boredom.
Lauren only had a mild case, thank God, and the rest of us tested negative. Although we all survived, I can’t shake the fear of what could have happened.
What distresses me most about death—whether from coronavirus, car accident, or anaphylactic shock—is the knowledge that you would have no memories of me, of our life together. I want credit for the kisses I’ve piled on your flushed cheeks, the diapers I’ve changed, the nights I didn’t sleep because you wanted to stare up at my face, the pain of my ripped vagina after childbirth, the stress and struggle of breastfeeding. But if you couldn’t remember my voice saying, “I love you,” or how it feels to sleep in my arms, would any of that matter at all?
You’re playing with the trash again. This time you’ve pulled out a pink chocolate wrapper, the Valentine’s candy that couldn’t wait for its day. You examine it, holding it close to your eyes, then start to plop it in your mouth. I snatch it away. You whine. The trash has got to go. I grab the black bag, which smells like bitter coffee grounds, tie it closed, and slip flats over my socks. Outside, the freezing February air hits me in the face and snow clings to my shoes and socks as I hurriedly throw the bag in the bin and rush back into the enveloping warmth. Yet the comfort of my home cannot distract me from imagining your life without me.
I’ve just learned through social media that another childhood friend has contracted COVID-19. That makes 12 people I know who have been infected. When I first heard about the virus in China, it felt far away. When it reached the US, I thought, It won’t reach my state. Later, It won’t reach my city. Quickly, the virus traveled closer and closer. Now it is so close that, although it hasn’t infected my body, it is living recklessly in my mind.
I take comfort in the knowledge that you would have photos of me. I’d leave dozens of mommy-and-me selfies—me tickling you to get you to smile, your arms and legs blurred by your squirming. You’d be able to watch the video of the moment you took your first steps across our worn-out gray-and-white rug, my high-pitched cheering and squealing in the background. Or the one of me saying “momma” and you saying “dada,” while you giggle in your highchair, pushing peas around on the tray.
Of course, if you couldn’t remember me, you wouldn’t remember my mistakes or shortcomings. Your dad would tell you only good things about me, I’m sure. My parents, your Nunny and Papa, would sprinkle you with stories of your mother’s beautiful smile and adoring hugs. You wouldn’t know about the three a.m. incident when I screamed, “Go to sleep!” at you and angrily stomped both feet against the floor. You wouldn’t know that I fed you honey graham crackers at nine months old, then remembered that honey is dangerous for babies and frantically called poison control.
A few months before you were born, I told your dad that we should buy life insurance. “We’re going to have a baby now,” I said, rubbing my swollen belly. “We have to think about these things. Besides, I’m pretty sure giving birth will be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.” I’m not the type to jump out of a plane or explore an active volcano.
I could have blamed my fear of death in childbirth on my vivid imagination, or my relentless anxiety. But I knew about the thousands of women who die each year in the US from pregnancy or childbirth. I was one of the lucky ones to have survived, I thought, as I felt the weight of your body on my chest for the first time, blood still caked in your hair.
Yet when I thought about dying during childbirth, it wasn’t my own death that worried me. It was your dad. Could he handle losing a wife and gaining a son on the same day? What would he do with a red-faced, wrinkly newborn, thrashing and squinting in the brightness of his new world? That was before he learned how to give you a bath or a bottle, before he read How to Catch a Star aloud, you cooing on his lap. That was before he fished out the turd you flung behind the changing table and laughed while he flushed it down the toilet.
So these days, when I think about dying, I don’t worry that your dad won’t be able to take care of you. I know he would feed you peanut butter sandwiches and grapes, cut into fourths. He would read you book after book, until he lost his voice or fell asleep beside you. He would be everything you needed him to be. No, when I worry about dying now it’s not with any concern for your welfare or his. It’s the worry of pure selfishness: I want to be remembered by you.
Glancing up from my laptop, I realize that I can’t see you anymore. Where have you gone? I find you in the nursery, where you’ve retreated and shut the door. You’re on the floor chewing on one of your lift-a-flap books, with more piled high beside you. When I grab it, I notice the illustration of a cocoon, and the small blue butterfly depicted on the other side of the page.
Of course, I can’t remember my own mother changing my diapers or breastfeeding me. For most of us, first memories begin at three or four years old. We can’t remember when we were helpless caterpillars, still eating leaves. We can’t remember the cocoon that kept us safe then. We only remember the bursting forth, the fear when we start to fly, and hopefully, the voice of the mama butterfly cheering us on.
You’re just over one year old now, so if I can hang on for a few more years, you’ll have at least a few memories of me. That sounds like the thought of a dying woman, but I’m not dying—at least, not any more than anyone else is. Yet every day is one day closer to death, whether we think about it or not.
Back in the living room, I hear the pitter-patter of your feet, then see you toddle toward the dining room table, where you stand on your tip-toes and just manage to reach the tissue box. Frantically, you start pulling out tissues, one after the next, allowing them to float to the ground. I run over to stop you, but somehow, I don’t want to. Instead I stand and watch as you grin and grab and throw, oblivious to anything but the simple joy of the tissues billowing around you.
Dying is part of living. But as I watch your delight, I realize that so are other things, like the leftover mac and cheese that I give you for lunch, and the sleepless nights and silly dances. The funny poop stories are part of living, and the painful goodbyes, the quiet rainy days, and the constant toddler interruptions. They’re all part of life. And I can’t guarantee that you’ll remember any of them, or that you’ll remember me.