It is a Tuesday.
The month is July.
In two days my mother will be dead.
As a writer I know to build the suspense one scene at a time. Stretch the tension. The rules of style are tattooed inside me. But this is my story and I will tell it the way I want. To hell with rules. To hell with building suspense. Let’s jump to the ending.
In two days my mother will be dead.
Years ago I studied business and accounting, racing back and forth to classes while my children were at school, yet business and accounting didn’t add up to the sum of my heart. From Chicago I dialed my mother’s long distance number and she answered in Georgia after two rings. It took me less than 45 seconds to tell her I really wanted to be an “A” student. She heard me speak of consonants and vowels. Mother asked, “But don’t you have a 4.0 average, and isn’t a 4.0 an A?”
I responded, “Not really. An “A” is the first letter of the alphabet. If I wrote words, I would fall in love with A’s. But I write numbers and I will never fall in love with a 3.8 or a 4.0.”
She did not understand.
I was filled with wine when I made that phone call.
Intoxicated with dreams of words.
Later, I took up an ink pen and learned the checks and balances of writing. Writers learn pace and rhythm and voice and theme and timing and character development. Don’t feed the reader the ending too soon. Build tension. Show. Do Not Tell. Never reveal too much too soon. Every textbook I owned said, “Wait.”
I am not the first to break the rules of fiction.
But this is not fiction.
It is Tuesday. A nonfiction Tuesday.
My brother, my mother’s middle son, and his wife had taken good care of my mother for a long time. To me, my brother has always been Cotton, but the name on his birth certificate is Carlton. Cotton knew something didn’t add up, so he called the doctor, and our mother landed in the hospital. Her admission to the hospital was the beginning of the end of her story.
Let’s do the addition: My mother is admitted to the hospital in Macon. Monday, fourteen days after she is put in a room, we, her children, walk into the conference room to talk with the doctor. He holds our mother’s death sentence in his hands.
Death sentence = CAT scan.
We seat ourselves in chairs arranged in the shape of a U. I think quadratics. Eight of us are present. Some are missing, but we’ll keep the equation simple.
Cough + Pneumonia + Low sodium + Rib pain = Advanced Lung Cancer.
Advanced lung cancer = 4 days.
In some instances, you will find a non-smoker in an equation of lung cancer.
I watch her morphine drip. Drip / Drip / Drip / Drip.
Minutes drip past. Pain drowns in a puddle of morphine.
On Monday she tells me to write about her life. Tuesday, she no longer speaks.
Twenty-four hours is the sum of silence, yet silence does not equal death. Not yet.
Silence = Silence.
I sing to her in a near whisper, my soprano voice feathery, floating down in a slow dance, songs she sang to me when I was a child. A nurse stands in the doorway. She listens. Darkness swallows the room, drinks it up, as the night tastes my sorrow and hears my song, as the sheets sleep. The nurse in white will tell me to hush. I know she will.
She doesn’t / Tell me to hush / She props the door open / I croon softly / Snowflakes breathe me.
When I am not singing, and when I am not whispering, I count the seconds between my mother’s breaths: One plus one plus / one plus one / plus one plus one / equals a breath. A breath plus one / plus one / plus one plus / one plus one plus / one equals another breath.
Twenty-eight years ago I timed my contractions using subtraction. First, I arrived at a number. As more contractions arrived, I used subtraction. 5 minutes dropped to 4 minutes dropped to 3 minutes. It didn’t take long for the contractions to rain down on me. Pain erased time and I called a taxi to take me to the hospital. Minutes disappeared into new life. New life arrived as a tiny girl with red hair and blue eyes. Birth has a lot to do with subtraction.
Unlike birth, death requires addition. 4 seconds stretch into 6 seconds stretch into 8 seconds stretch into 10 seconds until we are not sure if she will ever take another breath. Time adds seconds between breaths until life eventually disappears into death. Nothing goes in and nothing comes out. Nothing.
One plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one. The hospice nurse counts along with me, reciting the same poem.
Outside, clouds swell and bulge and drip rain like milk from lactating breasts.
She is given her diagnosis on a Monday, 14 days after getting a bed in the hospital.
It is Tuesday.
We don’t know it yet, but she will be gone Thursday at approximately 1:00 PM, give or take a few seconds, add or subtract a few breaths, a few memories.
She breastfed me when I was born. I don’t remember those early months of my life, yet when I offered my breast to my firstborn, my mother told me she nursed me, too. For 9 months she carried me in her womb and for another 9 months she breastfed me. 9+9=18. That’s more time than she has left to live. She doesn’t even have 18 days left.
I tell her I cherished the minutes, the hours, the months I spent breastfeeding my babies, examining their ears as I held them in my arms. My mother does not respond. I confess to her I cradled my babies as though they were the last poems left on earth, and I the author of those poems. My children were a single chapbook consisting of two perfect poems. One girl. One boy. Their fingers, their lips, their eyes, their smacks, their gurgles, their ears, their hair. I memorized them. I know them by heart. I can recite my children. I will cradle my two poems forever.
I tell my dying, silent mother about the music of poetry, explaining assonance, repetition, alliteration, rich consonance and partial consonance. In the room of addition, I speak of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry.
A nurse hears me saying I like to read the fiction of Silas House and Sena Jeter Naslund. The nurse asks me about my favorite poets. I turn and take in her green eyes, the color of spring, and tell her the poets I like most are people I know or have met. She shakes her head when I say I like to meet my poets, look in their eyes, hear the tenor of their voices, search their faces for truth and rust and untold secrets. Jeff Newberry. Christopher Martin. Janisse Ray. Judson Mitcham. William Wright. Thomas Rain Crowe. Clint McCown. Sherod Santos.
As my list of poets grows, the nurse asks about dead poets. I tell her I have never met any dead poets. She smiles at my attempt to be funny, then informs me that my mother is too far gone to speak, but I should feel free to talk to her all I want. Perhaps she hears me. Perhaps she doesn’t. The morphine drips, every drop a stressed syllable. The nurse leaves the room and leaves me looking into a face cracked with age.
I hear my mother’s history thumping behind me.
I feel the stains of her life covering my flesh.
If my mother hears, she hears me say I have no passion for numbers. Never did. Numbers weigh heavy on me. Writing clings with soft arms and smells as fertile as a rich acre. Memory holds me in place.
She does not speak. In her silence, she is the truest poem I’ve ever read.
I taste the stanzas of her life.
On Thursday, I no longer count. I simply sit, and I wait, not as a writer, not as a student of accounting who has forgotten all about numbers and can barely balance the checkbook.
I wait as this dying woman’s daughter.
I am soaked in farewells.
We, her children, take turns sitting with her.
She is never alone. She has many children, and they sit with her.
By noon, silence arrives one last time, flowing into every space of her room. And before long, silence swallows sound and color and seconds and equations and entire stanzas of old poetry, leaving new words. The sheets are breathless. The room is bruised.
My mother is still warm.
My kisses and tears cover my mother’s face and forehead. I add chapstick to her lips, first across the bottom, then across the top. I do not count. Loved ones are here. I climb into her bed and wrap myself over her empty body.
I should have been a better daughter.
Weeks later, I discover words sleeping on my pillow.
Brenda Sutton Rose
Author of DOGWOOD BLUES