In the days before my mother died, I never asked to take her photo. What dying person would say yes to such a request? I never dared take one while she slept. I’m not so crass as to trespass like that.
And yet, the thought flitted around me like an unswattable fly. A photo could be documentation useful to understanding something about life and death, I reasoned. Maybe give insight into what someone – your mother, for instance – really felt about you, and you about her. Not to mention your older sister Rose.
In those last days, my mother was gaunt and very much reduced, a meager mass of contours beneath the sheet of the rented hospital bed squeezed into the book-lined alcove off her living room. Her face was tight – with pain surely, but maybe also with anger or impatience at the act of dying. Especially in front of onlookers. She was the show and we were her audience. She was never one for the limelight. She had tolerated having her picture taken under normal circumstances, facing the camera with her mouth closed, as if she had swallowed her smile, and with it words she could not bring herself to say – or keep herself from saying.
Now her mouth was a clench of last-ditch pronouncements and the occasional demand.
“Don’t buy any more books, Rose,” she said. It was a gentle chiding, followed by a plea that was both childlike and maternal. “I want to watch you read.”
To me, when I didn’t fetch her a glass of water quickly enough, she raised her voice, a sudden burst of energy filling her lungs. “Donna, did you drown?”
We were a family of non-swimmers. Drowning had been one of the great fears in my mother’s life. So she countered that fear with insult.
Other times she seemed more curious than judgmental. “Do you let your kids do anything they want?” she asked me.
My daughters travel foreign countries alone, speak their minds, and stand their ground. I might’ve said to her, “I never wanted my daughters to be afraid to do things, the way you made me afraid.” Instead I said, “Parents can’t really control their children’s lives,” which maybe was just as harsh.
My mother’s face lacked expression. Her eyes were unreadable. After a while, she said, “You had determination.” It seemed like a compliment.
“I did,” I agreed. Despite the self-doubt, I thought. Despite my fear of the dark, of the unknown, of deep water, of intimacy. But I’d always had the determination to leave.
What was it that pulled me away? Or pushed me away. If I took a picture of you now, I thought, would it yield the answer?
“You came out smart,” my mother said. She was on a roll. That would’ve been a photo I would’ve liked to have taken. My mother saying those words. Even though the words would be invisible, I would remember them on her dry lips, narrowly parted, an escape valve for long-guarded opinions.
And then because I wanted to be seen as generous and humble, I said, “We all came out smart,” diluting this moment of grace from my mother.
She started naming off the names of all her smart children, but she was only halfway through when she stopped and said in disgust, “I was a dumb mother.”
“You weren’t dumb,” I told her, already missing the focus on me, remembering that when I was a girl, I swore I would never have her life. As if she’d actually chosen it.
“All I did was work in retail,” she said with even more disgust. I’d seen that look before and I wished I could photograph it. It had more than once been directed at me and would be again before this was over.
“You were a good worker. A hard worker,” I said, which was the truth.
My mother had only a high school diploma. She married at nineteen. By the time she was 21, she had three children, with two more to come amid several miscarriages.
“I didn’t have favorites,” my mother said, even though no one had asked.
It was a standing joke among the extended family. Once, my cousin, because he’d had too much to drink and because he thrilled at mischief, posed a hypothetical to my mother at a small family gathering.
“Auntie,” he said, “suppose all five of your kids were on a raft together and it began to sink. You’re in the rescue boat, but you can only fit one person on board. Who would it be?”
My mother laughed, wagging her finger at my cousin, as if she were on to him and she would not be baited. But then there it was, reflexive, like hiccups, her stock, “unbiased” response: “There’s something special about the first-born.”
My mother had slipped down off her pillow. The nurse had shown us how to lift her back up. I went behind her, levered my arms under her armpits and pulled her back up onto the pillow.
“There,” I said.
“Rose is stronger,” she said, quietly, maybe to herself, but loud enough for me to hear.
For the record, it’s not true. I’m stronger. I can take Rose. I can take all my sisters. I can make them cry. It was no use saying so.
My mother’s moments of lucidity gave way to flashes of disorientation. She would shoot upright in bed, throw the sheet off her and announce. “I’m supposed to be dead. Get me out of bed.”
Once or twice she saw people at the foot of her bed beckoning to her. People no one else saw.
She stopped taking food. That night it was my turn to stay up with her. Rose and I had been alternating shifts, ready to administer morphine if she needed it, ready to be by her side should the curtain fall. I lay on the couch, the living room clock banging the quarter-hour into my head.
Every so often I would get up and go to her bed. I touched her bony arms just above her hands, which were thickening from the blood that was slowly pooling in them. The heat from the right side of her body was leaving her. Her left side was still warm. I forced my hand into hers. I whispered into her ear. “You’re not alone. We’re still here.”
I used the plural. Maybe she would think Rose was right there next to me.
It seemed a cruel thing that I might be the one by her side when the lights went dim for her, that mine might be the last voice she would hear. It sort of served her right.
It turned out both Rose and I were there when it happened the next afternoon. I saw her eyes go and I called another sister who was in the living room and we all three shouted our goodbyes as if our mother were far, far away, across some deep abyss. Because I was standing at her good ear, I leaned in and whispered, “Thank you for everything. You were a good mother.”
Even if she thought it was Rose who spoke to her, or wished it was Rose who spoke to her, I was okay with that.
I had seen the life glide out from her, the gauntness disappear, and with it the big and small worries, fears, and never asked or never answered questions.
Maybe that’s why I did it – though not immediately. And I asked Rose’s permission first, as if she were the owner, as if our dead mother belonged to her. She looked at me as I were asking to take a finger or toe as a souvenir. I’m known as the ghoulish one in the family. But she shrugged and said okay. So I did it. I took a picture of my dead mother. The way the Victorians did as memento mori, Latin for Remember you must die. Because one day I will. And maybe, my daughters will be at my side.