What I Remember

I don’t remember how sick Mom looked at the end. Or the number of days I sat watching her cling to life in hospice. I don’t remember what her breath sounded like the day she died. Or the faces of the strangers who stood beside me grieving because my mom had changed them for the better in some way.

But I do remember her beauty. The way her smile always reached her eyes and how she laughed from her belly each and every time. I remember how I wished I had her dark, flawless skin. I remember that her cascading brown hair smelled like coconuts and Rave hairspray.

Her nails always had red or pink polish covering them. She filed the tips to a point.

I remember we didn’t go to church because she said God lives in our hearts. She said miracles are all around us, and if we pay attention we will see them. Her beliefs didn’t fit neatly into one religion. She prayed, but also carried stones in her purse for good health and mustard seed in a charm for faith when she needed it most.

I remember that her good jewelry never sat in a box. Gold rings encircled each finger. Bracelets jangled from her wrists.

I remember her love for nature and that she liked getting dirt on her hands. She didn’t like flowers in a vase because they belonged in the soil. I remember the sound of her flipflops as she padded through the backyard, watering and pruning her garden. She knew how much light and water each of her flowers needed by heart.

I remember that she couldn’t sing and didn’t care. She’d shout the lyrics to any song while driving. She loved Whitney, Madonna, Diana Ross, and the Carpenters. At home, she’d move the couch and play Motown records so we could dance.

I remember her desire to do something more. She kept a scrapbook with pictures, cards, kind words, and trinkets she received from each patient she cared for while working as a hospice nurse. She grieved for them when they passed, but did her part to keep their spirits alive through sharing her memories with anyone who’d listen.

I remember her love for coffee. All day, every day. Never creamer or sugar. Always hot.

I remember her lesson to slow down and enjoy the little things. She always stopped to smell roses, and she always put her bare toes in the sand if she had the chance.

I don’t remember everything, but I remember what matters most.


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Ashes to Ashes

The cliff juts out below like razor blades slicing up the angry water. I kick a rock over the edge.

I hate this place. You didn’t.

I pull the cardboard box from my jacket and choke back tears.

All we have left are memories.

I open the box and dump the contents on the place you proposed. When I do, a breeze blows in. The ashes fall lightly on me. I smile.

Perhaps even now you will never leave my side.

***

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io.

In response to this week’s microprose challenge over at Yeah Write.

The Bastard Had it Coming.

“The bastard had it coming,” Claire says, raising one eyebrow. She gives Norman, now dead in a box, a look of disgust.

“Well hot dang, we all go eventually,” Ruby says, peering over the top of her gold-rimmed bifocals. She peeks at the somber crowd gathering behind them in the chapel, then leans in close and whispers, “Speaking of that, do you know how he went?”

For the shortest moment, the two ladies peer at Norman. Ruby lifts her glasses and blots her eyes with an old tissue from the front pocket of her baby-blue polyester jacket.

Claire shrugs and fixes her plum-colored church hat. “In his sleep. Heard through the grapevine he was found in nothing but his knickers.”

“You don’t say!” Ruby pulls a pearl-studded mirror from her pocketbook and applies some rouge, right there in front of Norman. “You weren’t still seeing him, now, were you?”

“Every now and again he’d come over for a drink from my cabinet and…well…a woman has needs. I’ve got to get my kicks while I can. Know what I mean, dear?” Claire asks, laughing.

“I think I do,” Ruby says. “I also know the old chap preferred dancing with me.”

“That’s a cockamamie lie, if I’ve ever heard one!” shouts Claire. She jabs a finger into Ruby’s chest. “Square dancing? That’s hardly the same as the dancing we did between my sheets every Tuesday afternoon before meds.”

Ruby swats Claire’s finger away and hisses, “You no good hussy!”

Claire and Ruby paw at each other like two alley cats fighting over fish bones. Claire plucks Ruby’s wig from her head and tosses it into the casket. A child from the first row of seats giggles, and someone yells, “shush!”

“You shush!” Claire and Ruby shout back. No one dares to make another attempt to break up their argument.

Ruby reassembles the wig on her head backwards. “Hrmf!” she shouts. “I think it was you and your liquor cabinet that did him in,” Ruby says, flicking the broach on Claire’s lapel.

“Hardly,” mocks a sultry voice from behind them. Claire and Ruby stop, stunned. They turn to find Ethel wrapped in her fox fur and standing so close they can smell her expensive peach soap.

“What in the Sam Hill is that supposed to mean?” asks Claire. She presses her hands to her hips and pouts her lips at Ethel.

Ethel leans toward the ladies. “He died while we were making love. That old dog had plenty of tricks, now, didn’t he?” she asks, walking away before either lady can answer. Ruby shudders.

Claire looks back at Ruby, fixes her wig, and says, “The bastard had it coming.”

“Sure did,” says Ruby, shaking her head. “Care to get some tea?”

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Flight of the Monarch

I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.

My mom died.

My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.

I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.

The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong. 

The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.

My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand. 

After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.

Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun.
It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.

It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.

I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.

I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.

In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.

On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”

My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.

It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.

My mom was free.

Photo courtesy of Mathias Reed/Unsplash

Bad Apple

Amanda traded her pencil skirts and Manolo Blahniks for jeans and faded leather boots, and her high-paying career as an attorney in New York, for solitude on the farm.

Walking away from her New York life was easier than expected, but then again…

***

She stared at the sun setting behind the rows of apple trees. Most apples were likely to never get harvested. Instead, they would rot and fall to the ground or be ravaged by beetles. She vowed to breathe life back into daddy’s orchard, no matter the cost.

The last happy memory she had of that place was picking apples with him. She longed to hear his voice again, reminding her the proper way to choose fruit for harvesting, to watch him smile as she tried to grab the branches just out of her reach.

But her daddy never was the same after her mama died. It was so sudden. Suicide, they said. After her death, he let everything go, no longer paying the employees, or caring for the trees.

Her fingers touched the chipped paint on the porch railing. A bit of white peeled off and fell to the ground, starkly standing out against the green grass.

The glimmer from her wedding band caught her eye and Amanda hastily pulled it off, ripping the skin on her knuckle. She swallowed the bile rising from her belly, and walked down the splintered stairs, stopping just before the trees. With a look of disgust, she tossed the two-and-a-half carat ring into the hole. It bounced off the gun, making a tink sound.

Using her daddy’s favorite shovel, rusted from years on the field, she filled the hollowed ground with soil. One pile at a time was scooped and dropped until she finished burying her secrets beneath the pale moonlight.

Amanda wiped the sweat from her brow and tossed the shovel aside.

***

…She preferred boots, anyway.

Photo courtesy of Rico Bico/Unsplash

Grandma Pink

My grandmother was a firecracker until the day she died. Her nails were always painted fuschia, even in her seventies. And her skin, soft and thin between each wrinkle, smelled like baby lotion and Freedent Gum. She always had a wild cherry Luden’s tucked beneath a crumpled tissue in the pocket of her pastel pink sweater, which she would stuff in my hand and wink when my mom wasn’t looking. I thought I was getting a real treat.

During her last years at the upscale assisted living facility where my mom also worked, she got her kicks stealing Oreos off the dessert cart for my sister and me. She’d swipe clothes from the laundry room with names like Fanny Mae or Matilda Jean stitched into the collar for my mom. And she insisted we take at least one roll of single ply toilet paper from her shared bathroom every time we visited. My grandma was Robin Hood with a cane.

Before my mom moved her there, my grandma lived with us for a couple years. Though she spent the majority of her time watching soap operas in her blue velvet rocking chair, there were a couple of occasions when she called a cab to drive us to Big Lots for discounted Cabbage Patch Dolls and orange cream soda pop. Her ass was on fire and she couldn’t sit still even when the years wanted to catch up.

Aside from my sister and me, the only things she cared about were The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, shopping, and Elvis. Mostly Elvis and his swaying hips. In her mind, he really was a king. She knew every record, word for word, and owned every movie. I think in some ways she loved him more than my grandpa. Each year, she celebrated his birthday and mourned the anniversary of his death. She kept his obituary in her jewelry box, but part of her believed he continued to live happily on some remote island, because The National Enquirer said it was true. Some days we couldn’t convince her otherwise.

She wore lipstick and fur-lined coats to the grocery store, swore like a sailor, and told me that cookies and milk were a perfectly acceptable substitute for dinner, as long as my mom didn’t know about it.grandma-1

Her duplex sat on Lagrange Street, in the heart of Toledo’s poorest neighborhood. She stayed there, in the neighborhood that she was born and raised, even when it wasn’t necessarily a safe place anymore. Shootings and stabbings happened almost every day on her block, but she’d be damned or dead before she’d let her kids sell it.

Before she lived with us, and when she was well enough to care for herself, she would have me sleep over with her. We’d listen to crime calls on her police scanner or watch wrestling together on the big faux wood television, rooting for our favorites like The Macho Man and Hulk Hogan. One time she even took me to a WWF event at the Toledo Sports Arena and I got to see Jake the Snake wrestle live. I can smell the dripping sweat and buttery popcorn after all these years, if I close my eyes.

***

I insisted on going to see my grandmother one last time after she passed away, even though my mom tried to convince me that I shouldn’t. I didn’t believe it was true: my grandma was too wild to leave me. But at seventy-six, her fire fizzled.

In the hospital, I stared at her lifeless body, cheeks sunken and thin lips gaping from her last breath. I kissed the skin on her forehead goodbye, no longer soft, but cold and hard. The last bit of air was long gone from her lungs and her fingers were rigid, but her nails were perfectly pink.

 Nothing stopped her from having a good time: not her age, her kids, or even the stuffy nursing home. I knew that she had one hell of a good time while alive. And maybe, if she sweet-talked the right guy in heaven, she’d finally get to meet The King.

grandma-4

Love you, Grandma Pink!

My Mother, The Hairdresser

When I was young, my mom worked at the K-mart salon, making a living giving perms to the elderly while they were shopping.  I would go to work with her, watching her flawless beauty as she mingled with clients.  She was elegant then, with long hair that reached the bottom of her shoulder blades in waves like the ocean cascading against the sand.

Her hair, dark and lovely, was unusually long.  On warm days, she would pull it back in a loose braid at the nape of her olive colored neck, keeping her bangs feathered and full of Aqua Net, a style she couldn’t quite let go of.  In the evenings, she would drag me, by the hand, over to the couch so I could brush her long locks as she watched television.  I would fill it with colorful barrettes, pretending I was the stylist and she was my client.  Of course I wanted to be just like her.

One summer day, her Irish temper ran to a boil and she impulsively chopped every bit of it off.  We both stood in the kitchen, a mane at our feet, and cried, mourning the change.

Eventually, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she left that job at K-mart and started styling hair in our kitchen.  My mom would wash clients’ hair in the same porcelain sink that she cleaned our Tupperware, never once dropping the Virginia Slim hanging from her burgundy lips.  Gold bracelets rattled as she scrubbed, then rinsed the suds with the faucet. I watched her long fingers, painted brightly, as she permed, trimmed and shaved, always in aww of her artistic flare.

After many more years, one more child, and a nursing degree, my mom eventually stopped doing hair.  Though she loved hairdressing, she thought that nursing, and helping people, was her true calling.  And it was.  Her kind-hearted, selfless nature made her the perfect kind of nurse.  Unfortunately, not long after she started nursing, she also found out she had cancer.  By the time the doctor spotted it, in her routine colonoscopy, it had already metastasized, and overtaken her body, spreading from her colon to her liver and her lymph nodes.  Though she was against it, she started aggressive chemotherapy to salvage what she could of her body.  My mom was devastated because she could no longer practice nursing.

In the end, the chemotherapy only delayed the inevitable.

Four years later, on the day that she died, cancer and the poison of her drugs forced everything about her, including her hair, to change drastically.  It was no longer thick and flowing, but instead brittle and matted to her ashen skin.  Her eyes were closed tight, as she slept away the pain with a morphine drip.  I used her brush to gently untangle her thinning brown tufts and move them away from her eyes, though I don’t know if she could feel my presence.  I wanted so much to remember how it was to be on our couch as a child, filling her waves with colors of the rainbow, but the papery, unnatural feel of her hair was forbidding me.  Still, I let my fingers linger there, wishing for a different outcome.

Despite my mom being gone more than four years, I think of her often.  When I think of her, it’s sometimes as the hairdresser, or sometimes as the nurse, but always as the most beautiful woman; selfless, loving and easy to get along with.

And today, more than ever, I want to be just like her.