“Do you want to see the body?” Donny asks.
I stand in the Bijou lobby, cell phone to ear.
When I hesitate, he adds, “We could hold off
calling Gallagher’s.” An hour before
I’d sat by her bed listening to her rasping,
the hospice nurse saying, “Twenty-four hours,
maybe,” her palm caressing my mother’s cheek.
I thought I had time. “No. Call them,” I say.
After Dad died, I took her to the movies every Sunday.
Better than methadone, movies made the pain
in her back disappear. She’d sit expressionless,
floating out of her body to watch a boy train a dragon
or Owen Wilson wander through Paris. Once I took her
to Biutiful and she didn’t complain until the next week.
“It was okay,” she said after watching Despicable Me.
“It least it washed the blood out of my brain.”
When I arrive, Donny and Chrissy stand around the bed.
Ellen is stuck in Jersey. My mother’s lips are warm,
but I can feel the cold seeping in. Her nose seems sharper,
skin yellower; the stillness is shocking.
For two years she’s been just a body – moved from bed
to couch and TV by the Caribbean women who clothe her,
feed her, sit beside her reading Bibles like missionaries.
Occasionally she’d startle us with a word or two.
Just before my father died, they checked her into a room
down the hall from his. After years of his dementia
– helping him dress, answering the same questions over and over,
sleeping lightly afraid he’d wake and wander off
– she was too tired to fight. Worn to the depths of her organs,
to her smallest spark, she never bounced back.
His mind departed while his body remained intact,
but her mind and body left hand in hand.
On the wall above her bed hangs the pine crucifix
that’s been nailed above her sleeping head in every house
we’d ever lived in. At ten, I’d discovered a secret compartment
with candles, cotton, a bottle of holy water and tattered paper.
I’d never told anyone until Father Hopkins came yesterday.
“It’s for last rites,” he said, taking it from the wall,
sliding it open, pulling out the yellow candles, the now-dry bottle,
the brittle paper of “Sick Call” instructions.
I don’t believe, but sometimes, as I watched her disappear,
her body and brain in cobwebs, I wished for more.
Long past talking or walking, she fed herself,
fork rising like a rickety crane the old operator
ratcheted up by memory. When she could no longer
go to the movies, I’d bring her chocolate.
(Her last words to me were “Hershey’s Bar” when the Baby Ruths
were rejected. A minute later she added, “With nuts.”)
After she couldn’t feed herself her hand would still rise on its own
and hover. Then drop back to her lap. After they wrap the body
and roll it out to the hearse, we divvy up the jobs: Ellen and Chris
make phone calls. Donny handles the funeral home.
I write the obituary and eulogy. I search old albums for an obit pic
and find her kneeling in our snowy driveway laughing
with my kids, Zak and Erin, then five and three, in snow suits
loading a carload of Girl Scouts into a convertible,
and, in the one I choose, at Donny’s wedding, in pearls
and elegant cotton dress, her hair coifed,
her pale blue eyes look at mine. I crop the photo
to frame her face. When they take away the body,
we stare at the empty bed. The feeling of remove,
of watching a film sets in. Donny points to the window.
“When she died,” he says, “Edna opened it to release her spirit.”
I press my face into the glass and squint into the night.