The phone at the other end is ringing. Everything is dizzy and unfocused. I can hear my breath coming in and out quickly, my heart thudding away frantically inside of my chest. Pick up, pick up! I can’t remember why, but Momma will know what to say; she’ll calm me down. I walk, cane in my right hand, to the stairs leading down to the entryway of the hospital. I plop down too hard onto my butt, sending shooting, electrical tingles down my legs and up my arms.
Her voice comes through the speaker, telling me she’s not available and to leave a message, she’ll get back to me. Upon hearing her voice, I drop my cane. Everything comes flooding back to me. Why I’m in South Texas, why I’m in a hospital at 6 in the morning, why tears are welling over my eyelids and dropping freely onto the black gripped staircase that leads down to the landing. I wait until I hear the beep then I press my thumb to the little red icon, disconnecting the phone call.
She wasn’t going to come to the phone as she had so many times before. Those times when I couldn’t realize I was fully awake, trapped in nightmares past. Those times when I couldn’t sleep from anxiety or depression or worry. Those times when I just wanted to hear her voice, to make her laugh. She would never answer again. She had died about 30 minutes earlier.
We’d spent all night with her, watching her take the last of her breaths. We watched in dull monotony, jumping at every twitch, every rasping heave of her obviously tired body. We watched and waited.
I had fallen asleep at some point, her hand in mine. It was a thin sleep you get when you want to be fully awake at any second, the kind I learned to have when I was in the Navy. I don’t know how long I had my head on the side of her hospital bed, holding her hand that way. I didn’t want to keep track of the time. I kept hoping if I didn’t count the seconds, maybe there would be more. Maybe it would stall and stay static; maybe it would stay frozen that way.
My brother-in-law and I went back to her little apartment around 5 in the morning for food and a shower. We planned on rotating everyone through, and since I was over 10 hours late taking my meds, I volunteered to go first. We got the call and raced back to the hospital, cane in hand, backpack on tight, back to her room where her body lay, already cold and lifeless. She looked peaceful and gray. She looked like she was asleep.
My sister was inconsolable. My brother and his wife had already left. My other brother was nowhere to be seen. I sat down in the chair and let the numbness consume me. I let the tears stream however hard they wanted to. I sobbed openly to her.
And the memories. Oh, the memories! Scraped knees and kisses on the owie. Songs sung as I lay on her lap, rocking gently in the sunset. Laughter and tickles and hugs and kisses all over me. Running through the grass to launch a kite into the air. Nighttime drives while listening to the oldies station. Her voice, so clear and crystal and powerful. The smell of her hair as I hugged her goodbye. The sparkle of her eyes as she laughed at our silliness together. Arguments and anger and yelling and cursing and all the afterward apologies. Her perception and logic as we discussed abstract notions of love and of religion. And of course, the few times she got to hold her granddaughter, imparting her wisdom through love and hugs and kisses.
My cousin came and picked me up from her little apartment. We went and ate some tacos at the restaurant just up the street. I kept wondering what I should buy her, if she still ate barbacoa or should I just get her bacon & eggs? Wait a minute, she’s dead, I reminded myself.
We went back to her little apartment and I started to go through her things, seeing little touches of her personality here and there. It felt like I was trespassing. Little laughs turned to sobs but never the other way around. I looked through her knickknacks and dressers, perusing the accumulations of the years of her life. I found it hard to sit for more than a few moments, constantly moving back and forth through her little place, my obvious fragmented and fractured thoughts jumbling ideas and movements.
My other brother showed up sometime later and we went back to the hospital to sign her body over to the funeral home she wanted. It was the same one her sister had been in only two short years prior. Momma constantly talked about her death for some reason. I think, looking back, she didn’t want us to fear it any more than she did. To her, it was the entry way, the portal to her eternity and her life was the price of admission; the ticket, so to speak.
The nurse behind the counter, without looking up, “And who are you?” She asked. “We’re her sons,” I replied, waiting patiently to sign the necessary forms. She did a double take when she saw my other brother is white. I almost cracked a joke.
The day was already hot and the sun hadn’t even reached its zenith. Fuck I hate this town. The funeral home was profuse, with ornate little orbs of gold and hints of silver highlighting different areas. My other cousin was already there inside the building, talking to the director. She had already done this for her own mother in that very building. We perused the different books containing headstones, walked through the half-coffins picking out designs and colors, choosing which floral arrangements we wanted. There were boxes of tissues every 5 feet or so. I felt like throwing up the entire time.
The rest of the day was a blur. I felt like everyone was more sad than I was. I made myself eat. My other brother and I went to the beach and listened to the waves and prayed to not get shit on by the seagulls. That day felt like years. I felt grizzled and gnarled and bent beyond recognition as I laid my head down to sleep in her bed later that night. The air conditioner made my nose cold.
Several days later was the hardest day of my life. I hated everyone. I hated everything. It rained all morning but I knew my hometown. I knew the rain would stop and give way to the Texas sunshine and heat. I stepped outside of the hotel to drive to the funeral home and I could see her face in the sky, smiling down at me with tears in her eyes. Somehow, I knew she was sad she couldn’t be there to console me.
That’s when it really hit me.
It’s inevitable for your parents to die; your first loves. They’re the ground you walk on, the blue sky that holds the sun. What do you do when they’re not there to console you? To tell you “ssshhh, everything will be alright.” It’s inevitable for them to disappoint you so much; to see them as people. To not need them, only to find out that you really do need them so very badly. To realize the last hug was the last one. That you’d never hear them say “I love you” ever again. That you’d never hold their hand in yours, not even one last time.
I smiled up at her face looking down at mine. One last lesson, then, Momma. She really did save the best one for last.
We sat right up in the front pew at the little church she loved so much. Her pastor that she shared in her spiritual journey with giving one final sermon for her. Someone had recorded her singing, he told us. I braced myself as hard as I could. My sister and I both looked at each other, when that first note hit. The dead voice of our dead mother, still so beautiful, still so strong. It would be that way forever, it seemed.
The mosquitos were out in droves at the cemetery. You really have to imagine it: standing pools of water spattered here and there, huge clouds of Texas-sized mosquitos swarming around, little gusts of wind, the blinding Texas sun and absolutely no clouds in the sky. My sister and I sat up front and we listened, hand in hand, Momma’s pink coffin inches away from us, to the pastor telling us to rejoice in her death, to rejoice in the life she lived, and to always remember her for the way she was. And I swear I had to bite my tongue from laughing out loud as my Tia’s swatted at the mosquitos landing on my back. Even more so when they sprayed the bug repellant a few minutes later.
We waited until everything was said and done, all the bluster and awkward hugs and handshakes. One of my guy cousins kissed me lightly on the neck, just down from my ear, which was super creepy. I took some sand in my hand from the pail nearby and laid it on her coffin, telling her “Goodbye, Momma.” At least when I walked away and sat on a bench there were no mosquitos buzzing around me, or weird cousins trying to show their awkward affection, or mandatory hugs and handshakes. At least I got to tell her goodbye.
She was a fierce, determined, and selfless woman. She was one of those people you never forget meeting; someone who made others know that love is real. She laughed heartily and often and every single day all she wanted was for others to see and hear and feel the beauty that she saw. She was everything good in the world, that person that restores your faith in humanity. She was a sunrise against the ocean horizon, the smell of rain after the showers. She was so full of kindness, so full of love, so full of life. She was 63 years old that morning that she died.
The ringing of her laughter will forever echo in my ears.
How could I ever accurately describe what she meant to me? How could I ever hope to truly describe her as a person, as a woman, as a friend, as a mother? Words, even for me, could never dream of capturing her. They would only be a pale, feeble depiction of the vibrant colors that were her.
The sky shattered, that day. Just another day for so many; an extremely memorable one for so many others. Another inevitable ticking of the clock as it waits for no one; as it marches, hand in hand, towards the end of infinity.