Mom’s jaw hung limp, the skin stretched thin and taut, and the phone began to slip from her hand. This hollow space between her lips was making way for a sound so old and so wrong that it evoked a bodily reaction–the same way one’s body might react to the sound of a newborn crying, or an alarm clock, or a partner’s moan. At 26, I had never heard it before, but I could feel it working its way into my ear canals, searching out some dark space to burrow and stay. I could feel for the first time how I would eventually lose a loved one, and that when it happened this sound would push its way out my mouth, too.
The drive to Grandma’s house was long–an hour and a half or so. Mom asked me to plug my phone in and play some calm music. I looked out the window the whole way, and I spotted an eagle floating over the interstate. It was a strange place to see one. Normally Mom or I would have pointed and made a remark about the bird, how odd and fortunate it was to see one in the middle of the city, but we were quiet.
We met my aunts in the entryway of Grandma’s house, then entered the bedroom together in a short line. It seemed to me that my mother and her sisters knew exactly where to go, how to place their feet, how to hold their heads. It was like a routine committed to memory, a wedding ceremony or a communion: everyone moving in unison, me shifting awkwardly and searching for cues. I followed them to the foot of the bed, not looking at first, then around to the opposite side where Grandma lay. Her mouth was stretched back in the same way my Mom’s had been. I winced, not because it was my first time seeing a dead body, but because it reminded me of that horrible, horrible sound. I wondered if in the moments before she passed Grandma had made the sound too. Even though her eyes looked calm, I knew that she must have–it was the way her lips curled back over her teeth. I watched Mom approach the bed, noticed her fingers clenched tight to her palms, her expression resolute, her back hunched forward to bring her face down closer to Grandma’s. Standing behind her, I could hear her say how she couldn’t understand. Then their mouths touched. Then she said goodbye. It was such an intimate moment that I almost felt ashamed for watching. Then my mom stepped aside and walked to the back of the room with her sisters. I remained at the side of the bed, isolated, with my grandma.
My mom used to leave me with Grandma for the first week of every summer vacation. Bonding time. Grandma’s house was huge, and it was absolutely filled with keepsakes–masks, wood carvings, small handmade sculptures she’d collected from abroad. All the history there must have been fascinating to the rest of my family but, being a young boy, the place just seemed big and funny-smelling. The downstairs smelled like old books and kitty litter, and the upstairs smelled like wooden furniture polish or salmon, depending on the day. There was nothing for me to do there except open up a Stephen King novel and keep an eye out for the spiders who normally kept my guest bedroom occupied.
On my first morning there she woke me early and made a tall stack of buckwheat pancakes, just for me. Like a good grandson, I dutifully choked down each bite. Then I walked my clean plate to the sink and rinsed it off carefully. I thanked her for the breakfast. Then I snuck to the toilet, vomited, and hoped she wouldn’t be able to hear. For the rest of the week, breakfast was plain Cheerios with a little bit of sliced banana on top, and I couldn’t tell if this was because she’d heard me vomiting, or if Cheerios were simply her idea of a normal breakfast. She still made buckwheat pancakes again the next year, and on the first morning every year after that. It was our ritual: Me, sitting penitently at the white breakfast table, listening to morning birds outside; her, mixing and pouring the batter; my stomach, doing a possessed dance-churning to the smell of buckwheat, butter, and oil. If she ever noticed how sick her pancakes made me, then she had a horrible memory or she was hoping my palate would become more refined with time.
I was thinking about pancakes when I bent down to give Grandma a hug. I put my head close to hers like I’d seen Mom do, and Grandma’s lips grazed my cheek. The bedsheets were pulled all the way up to her chin, yet she wasn’t warm or cold, just tepid and un-repulsive–like Cheerios with sliced banana on top. It made me realize how bedsheets don’t actually produce warmth, they only hold in place whatever is there. The strange insight had never penetrated my skull in science classes, but it burst into my consciousness in this one rare and fragile moment.
I’d always imagined the death of a family member would be reflective, somber, maybe even transcendent; instead it was only absurd, a clumsy hodgepodge of sensory impressions: the taste of pancakes, the smell of kitty litter, the temperature of bedsheets, and the horrible sound my mother had made.
I took a few days off of work to be with Mom. I knew I needed to be around, even if I didn’t know how to talk about what had happened. I spent lots of time in Mom’s garage, just keeping myself busy. I’d been planning on staying there for a few days anyway, hoping to use her garage to paint an old motorcycle. It had just so happened I was at Mom’s place eating a light breakfast and getting ready to start working when Mom first got the phone call about Grandma, so when the sun came up the next morning it felt, in the most uncomfortable way, like nothing had happened at all–I checked on Mom (she didn’t have an appetite), I made some eggs for myself, and I started painting.
It’s a long, unpleasant process. First, the old paint is removed with a stripping chemical that is brushed on. The paint becomes loose and rubbery and begins to fall off like droopy old skin. Next, dents in the metal need to be filled in with a two-part resin. When that is finished, everything must be sanded down smooth and sprayed with a layer of primer. This helps the rest of the paint stick. When the primer is cured, a base coat of color is applied. You let this sit for a moment to partially dry, then spray another coat. The separate coats will adhere to one another, but won’t be so wet that they drip. Finally, a protective clear-coat is applied. The toxins in clearcoat can pass straight through latex gloves and skin, but are resilient, and form a transparent shell that protects the new paint underneath. Paint and other particulates float around in the air throughout the process. Even though I wore a safety mask, I’ll always associate mourning with the cancerous smells in that garage.
In the days since Grandma died, a few people have told me that mourning is a neverending process–that it gets easier every day, but that you’re also never done. From watching my Mom, I could see that this was true. She’d talk about Grandma a little less each time I saw her, and the sunken look in her eyes would return a little closer to normal, though never completely. It was about six months before I finally felt like Grandma wasn’t looming overhead during every conversation, but she was. I was sitting at a Shari’s with Mom one day, eating french toast for dinner, when she confronted me about the fact that I never talked about Grandma.
“It’s like you want to pretend it never happened.” Her voice had cracked a little.
I felt like I’d failed her in some way. I made sure to mention Grandma from time to time after that, though I still had no idea what to say. I could talk about kitty litter or pancakes or bedsheets, but I didn’t think that would help. Mom didn’t have these sights or smells following her around; talking about them didn’t seem likely to help her make sense of the situation, or to be comforting in any way.
Mom had always imagined Grandma would be at my wedding. I got married in October, less than a year after Grandma passed.
The ceremony was next to a river. It was cold and threatened to rain, but this felt very apropos–my fiancee and I weren’t getting married for comfort or convenience, we were doing it because we loved each other. I was scared, though not for the normal reasons; I knew I still had that sound pupating inside me, that spending a life with someone meant it would continue to grow, and that one day my jaw could snap trying to pass it through. I kept my mind off of it by focusing on other things: I greeted people as they arrived, went over the steps to the ceremony in my head, and rehearsed my vows. We set up the chairs ourselves, and everyone brought food for the reception instead of gifts. The one thing we spared no expense on was our photographer, but Mom still took photos of her own, even with watery eyes and cold fingers.
Eventually, the two of us found a chance to huddle together on her couch and look through all the pictures on her phone. It had only been a month since the wedding and yet my memory of the day had already begun to fade. The ceremony, the muddy walk to our reception in the rain, the drinking, and the dancing–it was fun looking back and remembering. The photos were all so candid and charming. We noticed little details too–things we’d missed in the commotion of actually being there. In one photo we could see an eagle flying over the river as I read my vows. Mom and I took turns putting our faces in close to the little cell phone screen, trying to get a good look at that winged streak of white in the background. We were just awed by the serendipity of it all, and a heavy blanket held the warmth in between us. Mom printed a copy of the photo, and keeps it tacked to her fridge so she’ll see it every day.
Dustin Stoddart is an emerging writer based in Seattle, WA. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in philosophy and comparative religion, and works as a teacher introducing philosophy to young people.