Two days ago we walked through the gap in the chain-link fence and across the leafy graveyard with its live oak trees and silvered Spanish moss, maybe a couple dozen graves, one with an ancient confederate flag hanging from its stake like a wash rag. “Where would you like her to rest?” Rich, the funeral director, scuffed through the brown leaves, looking for small square markers. Though he was a young guy and would have probably been happier in front of the TV with a beer, he let the five of us practice standing under trees, testing how it felt under them. Later, I remembered his shiny black shoes and how cold it was out there despite the bright sun. We all agreed on a plot under a bent pine tree that felt sweet and homey. As we were leaving my brother Steve leaned towards me and whispered with his typical bleak humor, “Like Mom used to say, nothing like chain link to make you think of a recent shooting.”
Steve had found her. He, his wife Mary, and their kids had sped down to Florida from Connecticut in the van. Mom was sick but they’d get there for Christmas. They spent the night in Virginia with friends and then drove the next day through driving rain straight to Chiefland. Mom had not answered the phone all day, and Steve had a bad feeling. The next morning he cautioned the kids to stay on the porch while he went inside. Mom lay in bed. At first, he thought she was sleeping. He nudged her a little, and then saw blood dried on the sheets. The tumor had climbed into her lungs and burst. When the coroner allowed her body to be removed, they found her will and hospice papers under her.
My sister Amy was already on her way when she called me. “Mom died.”
I was just waking up, hearing the boys running downstairs to open Christmas presents.
“Oh,” I said.
“Sam and I are leaving for the airport in an hour. Mary’s at the hotel there—she asked me to call everyone.”
“I’ll get a flight, probably tonight.”
I grabbed a robe and sat on the stairs next to the Christmas tree, watching David and the boys open presents. At intervals I slipped upstairs to weep into a pillow. My mother had spent Thanksgiving with us, traveling all the way to California, and when she arrived I immediately regretted pressuring her to come. She was ghostly, and in pain. She was determined to be cheerful, but every afternoon she sank onto my son’s bed to sleep. Her cervical cancer had spread beyond the scope of surgery and she had opted for a large dose of palliative radiation, which ravaged her tissues. One evening we had a few moments to ourselves and, in her usual brisk, upbeat way, she showed me her hospice papers. I felt like I was in suspended animation, aware of the kids downstairs bickering, unable to really listen. When we went into the hallway, she touched my shoulder.
“You have to hear this. After the radiologist finished, he was about to leave but then he stood in the doorway. He looked . . . puzzled. And then he said, ‘You don’t look like someone who has only two months to live.’”
“Oh my god!” I put my hands to my mouth. We stared at each other, aghast, and then burst into laughter.
“Well,” she triumphed, “I’ve outlived my prognosis by two months.”
On the last day of her visit, walking down the steps of our front deck on her way to the airport, she said, “A springtime visit would be nice.” It was one of those sunny winter days in Marin County. She was smiling, gazing up at me from the stairs. That was the last time we saw each other—she was only sixty-six.
David and I decided to tell the boys that Granny Jo was sick and that even though it was Christmas I had to fly out that night to help her.
By the next day my three brothers, my sister, and I gathered in Florida, the first time in six years together. It had taken some work to persuade Dan, the oldest of us, to come. He had all but given up on his anti-depressants.
“I should just take care of business—hey, you can get a two-for-one deal.”
“Forget it, Dan, you’re coming. You’ll feel better.”
“Do you really think so?”
He came and he looked terrible. His face had a yellow, doughy cast to it. Large underarm stains on his t-shirts. He tried to tell us that as executor of Mom’s estate he would be fair but that he didn’t know if he could fulfill his duties. Steve, Amy and I knew what he meant but our middle brother Mike, who had never forgiven Dan for childhood grievances and hadn’t spoken to him for years, was somewhat bewildered. That night Dan pleaded with me to hang out in his motel room and watch episodes of South Park.
The next day we caravanned to the cemetery. The narrow country highway ran right past it, twenty-five miles from Old Town to Suwannee, between trees whose names I didn’t know. When we pulled up, we could see the diggers sitting in their pick-up truck parked at the back of the grassy lot. The Baptist minister and his elderly mother were there. Mom was not the least religious, but was fond of her ninety-year-old neighbor Miss Bishop and would drive her to church on occasion. So our mother was familiar to the townfolk. As the minister said, some people find Suwannee and Mom was one of them.
We sat on folding chairs under a blue tent. Mom’s coffin, picked out the day before, sat on a raised, draped platform. On it I put a framed picture of her I’d taken last June, posed in front of a boat named Miss Jo, which we both thought a funny coincidence with her name. Amy brought flowers. Steve played a CD of the requiem from Phantom of the Opera, which I found out later was one of Mom’s favorites. Mike read a poem by his young daughter Natasha, hand written inside a card as a Christmas present for Mom. The poem was about the beauty of wild wolves, and how they needed to survive, to run free. Dan sat quietly. Afterwards, we took some awkward pictures. We walked around a little, dazed. The Baptist minister and his mother said the ladies had invited us to dinner at the church and so there we ate.
Mom had few friends in her lifetime, cared little for social chit-chat, was cheerful, enjoyed puttering in her yard, owned next to nothing in her two-room house, had cheap paste-board furniture. After the funeral we needed to clean out her house. We had flown from distant cities and had only two days to sort through her belongings. This was her “retirement” house, the place she’d discovered fifteen years before, on a junket driving along the Florida coast south from Tallahassee. Last spring she’d managed, finally, to sell her Ohio home, a task she’d struggled with for too long. Not until she secretly suspected her illness could she dig through her stuff, throw mostly everything away, and still fill a storage unit. Here in Florida we found boxes of memorabilia, gifts sent to her over the years that she had appreciated but never opened. A Paul Simon CD still in its cellophane wrapper, a metal frog wind chime, a ceramic clock painted with a kitchen scene whose two cats reminded me of her own. How she must have looked with dismay upon the boxes sent to her for Christmas, which she had struggled to carry up her stairs, in pain and drugged with morphine.
On the Saturday before she died she said on the phone, “Why has everyone changed their plans? Aunt Ginny’s coming on Christmas night—she can’t find this house at night, how is she going to find this house? Your brother and sister are coming. Is everyone scared? It’s scaring me.”
“They just want to see you Mom, spend some time with you.”
“I liked it the way it was. They’re just going to come and find me sitting in my filth.”
“Hey, put them to work.”
“There are all these packages. There’s still one on the steps from Amazon from Dan, I just couldn’t carry it up.”
“You need a teenager to come and help you out.”
There was a pause. Of course she would never ask for help.
“The phone keeps ringing. I just want to get some rest.”
“I’m sorry—we keep bugging you. I’ll let you go Mom, you get some rest. I’ll call you on Christmas, okay?”
“That’s in two days!” Her voice sounded brighter.
“I know. I can’t believe it.” I wanted to keep her on the line but knew she needed to rest. “I’ll let you go, Mom.”
“I’ll talk to you on Christmas.”
I had not said I loved her. In the days that followed I brought to mind the conversations we’d had. Yes, there was one phone call during the week when she said I love you and I said I love you too. There was at least that. But for weeks I dreamed she was still alive and that I could hardly believe my good luck, hugging her, saying what I’d never said in life, that she was the best mother anyone could have ever had.
Last June I had flown to visit her for a few days, without the family in tow. We had all been urging her to see a doctor, but she would deny her symptoms, saying she didn’t need to act like an old lady. I wanted to see for myself. She drove the fifty miles to pick me up at the airport and gave me a big hug. Her skin was still soft, like ripe pears. She smelled of cigarette smoke, like always. After we climbed into the old Dodge van, she took a swig of orange juice from a large plastic bottle.
“I told you what happened in Walmart, didn’t I?”
“I don’t know. What happened?”
“I was at the check-out, and suddenly, I just sank.”
“Did you know they have paramedics right there? Someone helped me, they must have dragged me, to a chair, and someone brought me a cup of orange juice, and I perked right up!”
“That doesn’t sound good, Mom.”
Later we sat on her porch. Like many of the houses in Suwannee, especially after the 2004 hurricane, Mom’s house was built on stilts. Wooden stairs led to her door, and then leveled out along the length of the house, wide enough for a chair. I sat drinking ice tea while Mom smoked.
“Your father and I never really eloped, you know, not how you think.”
“No? I thought you went to Kentucky because you were so young.”
“The way he talks, you’d think I dragged him kicking and screaming. No, we drove to a town in Indiana where it was easy to get married, like Las Vegas.” She sighed. “All I wanted in life was to have a big family.”
My mother had skipped two grades in school, graduating at age sixteen. Though she had the five of us by age twenty-one, she earned her college degree over the next ten years, attending classes at night, and entered the computer field before anyone knew anything about computers, eventually working for Lucent, heading projects no one else could tackle.
“You did have a big family.”
She took a drag from her cigarette. “When I was growing up, I never heard a single harsh word between my parents. I just didn’t know.”
“I think we came out fine.”
We looked out across her yard, beyond the palm trees and azalea bushes.
“Is there anything you want to do, Mom? Do you want to go anywhere? A place you’ve always wanted to go?”
She shook her head. “I want you to know that these past few years have been gravy. Pure gravy.”
In the restroom at the Tampa Airport, I step aside for a woman talking on her cell phone. She’s wearing a snug black t-shirt with Bebe in white across her breasts. She says, “Yeah, well, when I see him I’m gonna smack him.”
The terminal is alive with people. Twins in double strollers. Teenagers trailing after their parents, fiddling with I-pods. No face the same. Many of them have lost their mother, yet I would never know. In the restroom I hardly dare to look in the mirror. In the past two years I’ve aged in unattractive ways, creases around the mouth and between the brows. I remember my mother saying there comes a point in every woman’s life when she becomes invisible.
I head out toward the gate and suddenly hear my name called. The agent says, “Where have you been? I’ve been paging you. I changed your seat assignment,” and she hands me a boarding pass. “Merry Christmas.” I glance down and see that she’s given me a first-class seat. I feel touched, both by the gesture and the agent’s awkward discretion.
On the second leg of the flight home, the ground below is dusty with snow. I gaze down at what look like chalk lines drawn across miles of craggy land. We are flying into sunset. A thin cloud blows beneath the jet. Bands of peach streak the horizon. The earth looks shrouded. Then the jet cuts its engines back and in the sudden quiet of 32,000 feet I’m floating. Suspended. That feeling will stay with me for a long time. And I think of years ago, when Mom was the age I am now, getting a call from her.
“I’m calling to tell you I’m okay.” There was a strange delight in her voice.
“I jumped out of an airplane!” She shattered her ankle too, and needed surgery to screw it back together. “But it was worth it!” She described the exhilaration of stepping out onto the wing of the plane, hanging there over the earth, the tough wind buffeting her, and then, just letting go.
Joan Baranow is the author of In the Next Life, Living Apart, and two poetry chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Poetry East, JAMA, and elsewhere. She founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband David Watts she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a teenager facing terminal illness.