She used to say, when she was alive, how close we were to the dead. That the barrier between life and afterlife was nothing but a sheer curtain we were too stupid to see and yet fortunate enough to fumble around without knocking it aside. Most of the time.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. She wasn’t some kook with a crystal ball or someone who’d shell out her hard-earned dollars for tickets to see John Edwards. No, my mother was a smart woman. A capable woman. She provided for me and my brothers and taught us the important things about life, and for her, one of those things happened to be death.
This made it hard for us as children. I mean, tell the other children on the playground about how there’s a thin membrane of reality between them and their dead grandparents, you’re instantly the weird kid. I never knew any better. I thought everyone was taught what we were taught.
Eventually I learned how to keep it to myself, to be normal. To talk about Barbies and Beanie Babies instead of our delicate existence. I held it against her for a long time, the way her knowledge had stunted my social growth. When I got older I got bitter, finally seeing all her teachings for what they were: a dying woman’s coping mechanism.
She knew about the cancer when I was in 3rd grade, I guess. It didn’t really start eating away at her, not in a way we could notice, until a few years ago. By then I was a mother myself with my own little family and I didn’t teach my daughter about the barrier. I taught her what I thought would help her succeed.
Who knows if I’m right; we are all damaged by our parents, in different ways.
Last night, my mother passed. When she went, it wasn’t how I’d always pictured it. Her eyes didn’t roll back in her emaciated head, her spirit didn’t rise from her body like a gauzy cloud of mist. She just… stopped being. She was there, and then she wasn’t.
But before she went, she told me why. Why she’d taught us what she had.
When I was a baby, my aunt was sick. She lived far away and no one knew she was sick. She didn’t know, either. It was something in her brain and it didn’t choose to show itself until it caused an enormous brain aneurism while she was driving in midday traffic.
My aunt caused a three car pileup. The others were okay. She wasn’t. She had stopped being.
I asked her as she told me this, laying there like a skeleton playing the part of my mother, what does this have to do with anything? People die. They die every day.
Yes, my mother said. They do. But on that day, as she had fed me my lunch in our apartment, pureed carrots from a little glass jar, my aunt had appeared in the kitchen approximately 12 minutes after the accident. According to the police report, anyway.
My mother had stared at her over my shoulder, the plastic spoon with its orange paste hovering before my hungry mouth, and said nothing.
My aunt pointed at her, then vanished.
She told me how that had opened her eyes, and how a few weeks later she’d begun to feel strangely inside and yet ignored the pains that would one day turn out to be ovarian cancer. Tumors had grown inside her like bright tulips in fresh soil and somehow she had known that death had its grip on her.
I don’t know what she meant. I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know how to believe it when my own mother, the one who believed all of this with every fiber of her slowly decaying being, could simply leave this earth like a lightswitch turned off by a careless hand.
What I do know is that my husband is on a business trip. I miss him very much and wish that he were here to comfort me, to talk about this with me. But he’s on a plane to St. Louis right now and he can’t turn on his cell phone.
So why did I just spot him in our living room, his face pale and grave, one hand raised with a single shaking finger pointed straight at me? Why won’t the airlines answer any of my questions about his flight?
And what, if anything, does this mean?