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A quarterly international literary journal

Heroes of Our Own Lives

/ Nonfiction /

Her mouth hangs open, her face is pale and pleated, her lips dry and crusty, like stale pastry. She is swollen everywhere. After years in a disguise that fooled only her, her hair is finally gray. Did she even know what was under the dye? But I suppose that was the point. At least she doesn't have to see herself now, like this, puffy and pale, as ungainly as a hippo on a hammock.

Several days ago a ten-wheel dump truck collided with my mother's tiny Subaru. "I never even saw the truck," she said when I asked her about it. Beyond that, she declined to discuss it.

"Just give me the soup, not the noodles." Her voice is tinged with impatience.

She can't hear very well and she slurs her words.

More water." Requests are demands. But then it's the only power she has.

"Wait, I have to breathe."

" … "

"I didn't get more water."

"You told me you had to breathe."

"But I did breathe."

She will be dead soon, and it rips at something inside me, something I wasn't certain she could touch.

I drift from sadness to numbness to weariness to acceptance to hope to confusion to fear. Then it starts all over again, circles going nowhere. She must feel something, though she says little about it. She just acquiesces, when she isn't refusing to eat or complaining about some nagging discomfort.

My mother is ... what? Sick? Injured? Dying is the word I've been trying to avoid. She seems so weary, exhausted, and then a minute later she smiles, takes my hand, looks at my son and tells him how much she loves him, though she's only met him once before. Not her fault. But then Irma loves everyone. And that, I believe, is her fault, or one of them.

I never really knew my father's father. I met him when I was in my thirties and he was elderly and already quite ill. In the bed where he ultimately died, he gazed up at my father and said, "I just wish I knew what to do."

"Listen to the Lord," my father said with the calm confidence of a true believer.

"I've been listening," the dying man said as I sat rubbing his feet. Then he closed his eyes. "But I haven't heard anything."

I could have wailed, certain my grandfather was struggling with the terrifying suspicion that there was nothing to listen to, no one there to guide him. Why, after so many years of faithful self-deception, should anyone have to face death through a lens cast of fear and bitter disappointment? What is the harm of pretty lies?

For most of my adult life I have wanted my mother to see the "truth," the truth about her delusions and fantasies, about her failings as a parent, about her sense of immortality. I've wanted her to face her imperfections, to recognize her mistakes, her selfish acts, her chronic narcissism, and the damage it has done. I've wanted her to finally see that she is not an earthbound god, but a flawed and virtually powerless accident of biology, and that her delusions scarred my four brothers and I, diminished her, and deprived her of honest, healthy relationships with everyone around her. She saw only what it served her to see, which meant she didn't, she couldn't see us as we were and are. Maybe I wanted an apology, or a simple acknowledgment. Sign here.

My feelings haven't changed, but now I'd rather spare her the terror, spare her the disillusionment I've spent years yearning for. Nothing would be gained now from that sort of epiphany, that barbed blade in the heart.

* * *

This afternoon, in honor of her beliefs and despite my own, I took her hand and spoke these words to her: "If you want to go now, while I'm here with you, it's okay." Just as I finished the sentence, I noticed movement on the monitor above her bed. Her pulse was slowing and her oxygen intake was dropping, first slowly, then more dramatically, until the machine set off a beeping alarm and a nurse rushed in.

The sensor had slipped off my mother's finger. Someday I'll laugh at this story, this unintended gift.

When the nurse was gone I continued speaking to my mother, though I knew she couldn't hear me. I told her we all loved her, naming each of my four brothers, and that we were all thinking of her now. I assured her that everything was fine, she'd be okay, and we'd all be okay, that we were there with her, though I was the only one.

None of my brothers seemed to recognize, or perhaps to accept, that this was happening. The youngest didn't want to come from Europe just to learn it wasn't that serious. He didn't want to have to make that trip twice. The oldest said, "I'm not going to panic. I don't think we're at that point yet." They all wanted to remember her healthy, with spirit and energy. "She probably won't even know I'm there," one brother said. "If I came now, it would just be for me." A snarled knot of illogic. And when did that stop any one of us from doing anything? One of my brothers, unaware of what it is he's actually proving, refuses to speak to me, to be in the same room, clinging, I suppose, to the tattered remnants of some long-forgotten slight.

The truth is I didn't want to be here either.

Like our mother, my brothers and I are the imaginary heroes of our own lives, always eager to demonstrate our greatness, to announce our efforts, our sacrifices and victories. We seem still, so late in life, to be trying to win some contest for which the prize is ... our own praise? Pride? A feeling of superiority? Confirmation, perhaps, of the virtues we secretly doubt. Look what I did! I was right! I came here and you didn't. I went to the hospital six times, brought her food, found her wallet, held her hand, picked the fastest route, made the funniest joke, found a shortcut, chose the best, was the first, knew the most, suffered the worst, saw the signs, solved the riddle, what the fuck?

It seems so desperate, so futile and pathetic, but perhaps the narcissistic fantasy was a part of what fueled and sustained her for so long.

93 years of magic tricks, 93 years of trying: to live, to matter, believe, to give, care, be loved, recognized, appreciated. 93 years of getting it wrong and getting it right and never quite knowing because who does? Of fucking up and taking and hurting and loving and giving and caring and desperately trying to feel good about it all, lying to herself because she needed to, because anything else was just too damned painful. I suppose we all need a reason, a sense of purpose, and a belief in something that roots us to what we've been cursed with, so we invent and dissemble and push on because, unless we are stupid or simply willing to avoid thinking about it at all, it just wouldn't be tolerable any other way.

For a moment she seems to struggle for breath, she winces and gasps, and I can see her heart beating beneath her robe. A battle is taking place, however gentle or subdued, some part of her, her genes, her will, or just years of steady forward motion, trying to continue while parts of her system shut down, taking others with them, wispy dominoes falling slowly, silently into the void.

But so much of her is already gone: the joy, the illusions, the love, the need, the ancient resentments, and the pain of all the losses she suffered. A single parent, an orphanage, two young brothers dead, a childhood marked by tragedy and deprivation. The vitality, the urgency, even the pain has leaked out, leaving just this faltering carapace.

This afternoon they'll move her, to a new location, a hospice "on the lake." They'll pack her in her sheets like a sack of discarded vegetables or meat scraps. She'll have no idea, but I will. I'll watch and I'll know. A little more morphine, lift and haul, a short drive, lift and haul. Plop her down and let what's left of her fade in a setting that, if it won't matter to her, may comfort those of us who continue hopelessly toward the same drear destination.

* * *

On the piano at the hospice, a book of hymns, open to Servant of God, Well Done. So many thoughts. "I'll take mine medium rare." Random distractions hold me together like fraying bits of thread. While they bathed her, I noodled on the out-of-tune instrument, hoping to bring just a little joy or comfort to one of the withering residents, or perhaps to someone who, like me, had come to reluctantly say goodbye. Too soon, the nurse summoned me. "You should spend some time with her now." There was a quiet urgency in her voice, well-rehearsed. She's done this a thousand times.

In the room where my mother will die I sit and then stand and pace and sit again and in a while a little balding man of God with a 1950's movie moustache comes in and introduces himself. I don't hear his name or care as my mother's breathing slows. He is short and squat, amiable, a little timid, and I decide not to hold his religiosity against him, though it makes me question his motives and his reason. A salesman for God, he must want something. He asks where I'm from and what I do and we talk almost cordially about Maryland and my mother and New York and politics and Salisbury's gay mayor and the Olde English population in the area and schools in New York City and elsewhere and changing times and a play called Doubt. He tells me about his daughters and asks me about making a living in the arts and I laugh. My mother's breathing pauses and then it starts again. My hand is on her arm, gripping it gently, and while the man and I speak I keep looking back at her to check her breathing and make sure her heart is beating because I know it's coming soon.

At some point the nurse enters the room and gives her another dose of Morphine. She says she's spoken to my brother Eric and told him I'm here and asked him if he is coming today. She tells me he said he might come tomorrow. She says she told him tomorrow might be too late and then she steps out. He won't come, not while I am here. She can die without him.

The priest and I continue talking and when I look again at my mother something about her is different, though it's nothing I can point to. After another minute I see her breathing stop and I notice that her heart is beating more slowly, very weakly, but still beating, and then all movement stops and I wait because there is nothing else for me to do. Nothing for anyone to do. I'm as impotent here as she. I look up at God's Servant and say she's very still. Yes he says. I swallow and say I think she's gone and he looks a little nervous and says do you want me to get a nurse and I say yes, please, though I'm not sure why. The nurse steps in and takes her stethoscope in her hand and looks at me and says I have to listen for two minutes, so if it seems like a long time ... She proffers a tight-lipped smile.

Yes, she says after an endless sinking silence, she's gone. Is there anyone you want me to call? No, I say, struggling against this sudden wave of choking grief. I'd just like to be alone with her for a while. My voice is shaking. I want them out of there. Now. The door shuts and the sobs pour out.

When the crying stops I stand and take the few cards people have sent, cards she's never seen and never will, and place them face up on the blanket that's draped over her. I didn't plan this and I don't know why I'm doing it. It's just an impulse, but it feels appropriate somehow and if it's not who will it harm? For another minute I stand there looking down at my mother, at her lifeless body, wondering if there is anything else I can do, trying to decide what's right and what matters now. Then I step out of the room to look for the nurse and thank her for her kindness. Exhausted, I turn and make my way through the halls and out of the building, trying not to fracture, as I breathe in the crisp autumn air, the fragile illusion that I'm leaving the dead and the dying behind.


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