Bring out Your Dead, Indiana Review, vol. 33, number 2
My mother’s ashes are sealed in a plastic box which resides in a wooden cupboard in my living room. The box is labeled with one of those large, white labels made especially for inkjet printers with her name and date of cremation. I put a philodendron on top of the cupboard as a sort of ornament but I’m not content to leave the ashes interred in my makeshift crypt, though, I can’t decide what else to do. The decision feels important but I know it doesn’t really matter; the grey powder is not my mother. Her hands, the pots they glazed, the gardens they dug are not in that box.
The cupboard is a kind of free-standing wooden shipping container with Japanese lettering on it. I use it as a campy end table in the living room between the leather chair and the window. Sometimes, when the mail carrier comes by or a pizza is delivered, my dog runs into the cupboard jostling both the plant and my mother. The other day she knocked it over; there is still potting soil in the corner from the plant but the container is tightly sealed and I suspect it’s never leaked, though I guess I can’t be sure because I don’t check. It’s possible that it has leaked and that I have even sucked ashes into the vacuum on the rare occasions that I do vacuum. Or that I’ve tracked them around the house on my shoes and my dog has licked them off her paws while grooming; I am often hesitant to let her kiss me.
When my husband, dad and I took my parents’ car to pick up the box, I volunteered to carry it because my dad didn’t want to touch it. I sat next to it in the back seat and in a way it was like my mother was still there because that’s where we always sat when the four of us were together. My husband drove—my mother having been convinced that my dad was an incompetent driver—and my dad rode shotgun leaving the back seat for the women as the Plymouth had very little rear passenger leg room. It was assumed my mother and I were smaller and better able to fit but in reality, the seating arrangement seemed to have been based upon a set of undisclosed, social criteria because my mother had longer legs than both my husband and my dad. Now she was in the box, she fit just fine.
In the console between the seats were soft, linting tissues as well as starlight mints, toothpicks and toothpick wrappers. The tissue was my mother’s; she had a constant drip. The mints were for my daughter, habitually collected by my mother from Pizza Hut, though Maia was away at school and would never eat them. The toothpicks and the wrappers were my dad’s, taken from restaurants whenever they were offered. I told him we should clean out his car. He said he didn’t care.
The night my mother died we got to their house late and I started cleaning. First I cleaned my mother’s deathbed, a Flexsteel couch upholstered in nubby, camel fabric in the nice living room upstairs. It was covered with blankets and pillows and tissue and stacked next to it on the coffee table were the works of Janet Evanovich. One for the Money was perched on top. My mother had once made me read one of the Evanovich mysteries; I don’t remember which. It was violent, sexy and trashy, like Harlequin mixed with soft-snuff. I told her I liked it so we wouldn’t get into a fight and now that she had died I could un-censor my literary tastes. I could read Proust and admit it.
In the garden shed, my husband found some lawn and leaf bags amongst the planters and tools, half of which had never been used. I stuffed the pillows, blankets and tissue into them. I threw out the books, scraps of paper, pens and everything else on the table and couch. Not because she was infectious, she had leukemia, but because I wanted a place where my dad could sit and read and not see her coughing, wiping her nose and throwing books across the room when she remembered what it was like to walk without leaning on walls.
When the living room was clean I slumped into a kitchen chair and considered my mother’s bathroom. It was filled with makeup, trinkets, and toiletries and I’d have to get rid of them all. Unlike my dad, my husband and my mother, I don’t believe in ghosts but apparitions come in many forms: the scent of bath splash; lipstick dabbed on a tissue; the bath still wet from the last shower. But I couldn’t move, not even after a Coke. My husband announced that we were all hungry, we hadn’t eaten dinner and it was 11:00. I asked for McDonalds. My dad didn’t want anything but was brought a double cheeseburger anyway.
Earlier that day, we met my dad at the hospital. He looked confused and a little sweaty. I sat next to him and could smell his pits and his hair which looked as if it hadn’t been washed for a while; the thick, white, Ivy League coif stuck out in clumps and as he ran his hands through it the oil worked as pomade, holding it in a style that didn’t suit him. I asked if they knew what was wrong? He said they didn’t know anything. He said Mom had been in the ER for a couple of hours before anyone had done anything. She was screaming and begging for them to help her. She asked for the fucking morphine, she said fucking morphine, but didn’t get it for a while. My dad said he might sue. He said he didn’t think my mother would make it out of this. He said things were different this time, worse than at other times.
The night before, when it started, my mom thought she had food poisoning but by morning it was obviously something else; she was crying and moaning when my dad went to a doctor’s appointment and when he came back she was screaming. She was screaming when the ambulance came and screaming on the stretcher. The neighbor came over to watch the scene and said she had heard my mother screaming. The neighbor on the other side heard her, too. At the hospital, she went into surgery screaming and as far as I know, her last words were fucking morphine but maybe she said something else to my dad.
After a couple hours’ wait, the surgeon came to talk to us. He said there was no good news; my mother’s bowel had twisted sometime the day before and her entire digestive tract had died. He said they could take it all out, revive her with great effort and she would live for a few days. He also said they could let her go because she was almost gone, anyway. I thought maybe they could wake her up so we could say goodbye but my dad said to let her go. My husband said it, too, and then so did I.
It took a while.
After waiting an hour, I decided I needed to see her before she progressed from “almost gone” to dead. I was thinking about the waxy look of my aunt at her funeral and I was afraid if we waited, my mother would look the same way. Then I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye at all because death turns people into things. I didn’t want to remember my mother as a body and think of her as an it. But the surgical team did not want to let us into the operating theater until the hospital chaplain convinced them that we were rational and wouldn’t commit acts of public mourning unsuitable for a hospital environment. We wouldn’t beat our breasts or tear our hair or try to throw ourselves into an imagined grave under the table. Rather, we would whisper politely. We would behave and we would not blame anyone for what was happening. And so they relented.
On the way to surgery, we were required to dress as if we were walking into a hazardous waste dump. We were given white, paper-like jumpsuits similar to the pajamas worn by toddlers and filmy, yellow smocks and matching booties to cover our shoes. The nurses helped us robe up with solicitous fingers and quiet smiles and then we made our way down the dim, beige corridors to the room where my mother lay. She was on a table and her body was swaddled in light, white hospital blankets that hid the incision but not the bulge in her abdomen. I knew immediately I did not want to look for anything in her face, a sign of life or of peace or something that might comfort me. Instead, I held her hand while my dad kissed her forehead and my husband touched her leg. The heart monitor beeped and I wondered how long her heart could fibrillate in a quivering green blip too weak even to produce a pulse so I asked the anesthesiologist. He said he didn’t know but it wouldn’t be much longer. I heard in his voice that it was not usually his job to wait for patients to die. I thanked him and rubbed my cheek against my mother’s cool, soft fingers, empty of the wedding ring removed before surgery.
A month before she died, my mother asked me to go to the Western Montana Fair. She wanted to look at the quilts, the horticulture exhibit and the animals. I thought she was too frail to walk through the sun-baked dust and the crowds of sticky children begging their mothers for more tickets to ride but she insisted that if we went early, the day would still be cool and the children would not have had time to soak themselves in cotton candy and so I agreed, but not happily. I had stopped liking the fair in my twenties when I was obligated to accompany my daughter and watch her ride the kiddy rollercoaster, the carousel and even join her on the tilt-a-whirl, feigning a smile that was actually a g-force grimace holding back vomit. Luckily, my mother would avoid the rides, the games and the salacious carnies running the show. We would not leave carrying giant pink polar bears won by tossing a ball through a hoop; we would not have a bag full of pencils, rulers and Christian literature from the commercial building; we would not have a sugar high that induced weeping and demands for chicken nuggets and milkshakes on the way home. Thoroughly adults, we began with the quilts.
The morning was already hot. Clouds of dirt billowed from our steps like the brown spores of dried puffball mushrooms. Dust coated our shoes and cuffs and it began to feel like August, like the fair. The carnival, just a hundred yards away and blasting hair band classics, tugged at me as if I were a Pavlovian dog. I was six and wanted my mother to take me on the rides, to win me a prize and buy me a chocolate-dipped frozen banana. I wanted to get into bed that night, still feeling the whirl of the rides and fall asleep dizzy, clutching my prize close to my face, smelling on it everything I’d done that day, things that would be forgotten by morning, things I was surprised to remember now.
We entered the exhibit behind a tour from a local assisted living center which was preferable to viewing the display in the company of mothers dragging unwilling children through the rainbow of log cabins, double wedding rings, and Irish chains that hung on wooden racks and filled the small space. My mother told me about the time she brought her contractor, Richard, with whom she had become friends, to the fair and insisted he see the quilts. She said he appreciated the craftsmanship and surprised both my mother and himself when he stood for half an hour studying a quilt made by an elderly husband and wife team. It had been hand quilted with thousands of tiny stitches and Richard wanted to see them all. He died of an accidental overdose not long after the fair and afterwards my mother referred to him only as her contractor but she never stopped telling the story of the quilts and how he had loved them.
I have always loved fair food—frybread from the Indian Center; hot, buttery ears of corn from the Rainbow Girls; nachos from the Sweet Adelaides—but my mother’s favorite treats were rosettes. These were cookies made by dipping a decorative iron into batter and plunging it into hot grease. Once cooked crispy and golden, they were drained on paper towels and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon while still hot, forming a thin tawny crust that covered the dimples and bubbles made by the hot fat. The cookies could only be found at the Sons of Norway concessions stand, along with the delicious, and infamous, battered and deep fried meatballs-on-a-stick called “Vikings.” We skipped the Vikings because we didn’t want to make an urgent trip to the public restrooms and ordered rosettes, three for a dollar. The cookies were delicate and fragile and looked like snowflakes. I ate one and left the other two for my mother because she loved the crispy texture and the cinnamon-sugar, but most of all she loved them for their continuity; her first taste had been thirty-five years ago and her last, though neither of us knew it, that day.
After food came the animals, nothing exotic, just sheep, goats, pigs, cows and horses surrounded by families, juice-stained children and Big Gulps. In another building were the fowl and the rabbits—some junior 4-H children even brought their guinea pigs—and somewhere around back we heard the complaints of sheep being washed for show. My mother held a tissue over her nose in the barn and staggered a bit without her now-occupied left arm to help keep her balance. I asked if she wanted to leave, but she shook her head and said she wanted to stay. So we reached through bars and pet the goats who nibbled at our sleeves, pet the sheep with their vacant, rectangular pupils, and felt sorry for the 4-H girls in their braids and Wranglers who’d raised their cows from birth only to sell them at auction and return home with a few hundred dollars for college but without the animal whom, against their parents’ advice, they’d named.
At 2:00 we picked up free bags of native grass seed from the County Extension Office; we grimaced at a vendor selling Confederate flags; we avoided the National Guard tank rolling toward us; we bought more Cokes and then found a pavilion with signs for Native American Dance where we sat in the shade on bales of hay and watched the dancers dress. I asked my mother if she needed to go home. She said she wanted to stay.
It must have been 80 degrees by then and my mother was still wearing her heavy pink sweater but she didn’t look hot. She might have even been cold; her nail beds were tinged blue. Her skin stretched over her cheekbones in a way which suggested malnourishment. Darkness was visible under the yellow flesh; fascia and blood defined her features better even than the blush and powder she wore in the hollows that had once been her face. But she liked this thin self. She had lost weight because the chemo made her sick. She dropped from a size eighteen to a twelve and bought all new clothes, new makeup, and was even given a wig by a ladies cancer group at the hospital, but she wouldn’t wear it because my dad made fun of her. The wig, he said, made her look like Joan Collins.
When the dance began, the troupe apologized for the wait and said they ran on “Indian time.” The tourists laughed, but the rest of us knew Indian time was slower; on the reservations, things moved at their own, languorous pace. I looked at my mother again and wished she were on Indian time. She smiled as if she knew what I was thinking.
The first dance was called the Men’s Traditional Dance and only one dancer would perform it. His bustle was made of eagle feathers and his headdress, made of porcupine quills and feathers, fanned around his face with two feathers standing erect at the crown. Much of his tunic was covered in long ribbon—blue, yellow, and green—that swayed in the breeze. He waited.
The drummers beat; the singers sang; the dancer moved, hopping from one foot to the next, then turning, then spinning. He and his regalia exceeded the sum of their parts. He transformed the pavilion, taking us to an older time before hair was shorn, children stolen, and songs lost. He lured us to the plains, to buffalo hunts and martial victories and grass grown taller than men. He was a living spirit called back from She’ol and he brought the memories with him.
My vision blurred and wide-eyed white men took pictures. I could no longer see the pavilion but only the colors and feathers and the face of the dancer. The drums beat hard. The singers sang to the sky and they sang to each other, loud enough for the dead to hear and remember what it was to live.