Flash! One minute to the next.
Short circuit in the brain, struck dumb.
When I get the call, I am eight hours away from her, by car. It takes me six, foot to the floor.
In Intensive Care she lies still as a stone, but whiter than stone, on her tall bed. The walls of her cubicle are curtains, pulled to, on a metal ceiling-track. A small black crucifix hangs on the wall. Mother the old Marxist overseen by Jesus.
“I’m here, mommy,” I say, and take her hand.
She opens her eyes.
Our look acknowledges the proximity of death, and of death’s silence. Mommy, writer mother, has been stripped of speech.
Three days after the stroke, she has not said one word. I’m singing songs to entertain us, my sneakers propped on the iron bar of her hospital bed. She’s had her swallow test (she can’t), she has been tested verbally (zero). I’ve already sung the lullabies, the folk songs. I am into patriotic melodies. I sing, “Allons enfants de la pa-tree-ee-uh–”
And suddenly I hear my mother’s voice.
“Le jour de gloire est a-ree-vay!”
Suddenly she’s singing “La Marseillaise.” She’s warbling out the words, she knows them, she remembers every one of them, both of us burst out laughing, I am singing, she is singing, laughing, “Contre nous de la tee-ra-nee-uh!”
When I run down the hall to tell the speech pathologist, she’s unimpressed.
“Your mother sang a song with you?” she says, so bored that she can hardly speak. “Different part of the brain. She’s not recovering. No.”
I bring in the Hospice rep. I’m filled with trepidation. Mother knows that Hospice means the end, and mother can be rude.
Or could be, when she could still utter insults.
“Mom,” I say, “this nice lady is from Hospice. She is going to help us.”
“How do you do?” the social worker says, bowing at the end of the bed, beneath the crucifix nailed to the wall.
My mother smiles at her. And then abruptly says, “Hail Mary well-met!”
Scraps of language.
On the seventh day, when I tell mother we are leaving the hospital, she asks, “Where are you traveling?”
She is afraid, I know this (I have always known it, she has always been afraid), that I will put her away, as she was forced to put away her sad ill raving mother, in what mommy always called the insane asylum. I was there; I was ten. I saw my grandmother dragged, struggling, up the stairs by two male aides.
“We’re going home,” I say. “I’m taking you home.”
To die, the two of us know.
My mother leans forward and kisses me on the mouth.
The story of my father’s dying, in the very same house twelve years earlier, waits for us there. His unintelligible bellowing in the middle of one night. Then silence. How pointedly the ambulance crew told me that mother and I needn’t rush to follow them to the hospital. I didn’t get the message. His was my first death.
Halfway there, my mother realized she was without her teeth. We turned around, we roared back home, we turned around, we roared back down the highway. Stopped by the cops. Released.
But daddy was already dead before the EMTs arrived. The moment we glimpsed the sly tip of his tongue. No need to rush.
We couldn’t know it, how to believe that he had stopped?
How to believe my mother is in diapers now, enormous basins, monstrous, rigid white papier-maché, like those we laughed about together, in some hospital, years earlier, when we did not believe them relevant. Does she remember how we joked?
I change her. I brush the six teeth in her mouth, and the others, in the water-glass. I know this body as I knew my babies’. This is my mother’s body, demystified.
Scraps of language, tender buttons. “Skillet! Skillet!” she says. “She has gone to an extent to spread her trestle.”
I put a warm washcloth over her eyes. “Oh,” she says. “Very valuable.”
We send for the speech therapist.
He makes a house call. He stands close up against her bed. “C-can you say b-b-banana?” he asks.
“Banana,” mommy says. She looks alarmed.
“G-good,” he says. He leans in toward her face, as though to kiss her. “Now say muh-muh-muh—“
“–gician?” says my mother. “Marauder? Muckraker?”
“You’re d-doing very wuh-wuh-well!”
I catch the eye of mother’s healthcare aide, who looks at me and quickly leaves the room.
“C-call me, any t-time.”
The therapist hands me his card.
“You g-get t-two more sessions. Although muh-muh-most people think wuh-one’s enough. But p-please don’t heh-heh-heh—“
“I won’t heh-hesitate,” I say, with effort, and shake his hand.
Still as a breathing stone I sit each morning, on my cushion, while the Hospice nurse bathes mommy’s body in her bedroom. I count my breaths. I inhale, exhale my grieving. We keep a dented dark-red iron tank of oxygen, as tall as mother standing, beside the hospital bed we’ve borrowed from the Rescue Squad. Sometimes the racing of my small mind stills. Then I am present, an instant. For an instant I am not in pain. A myriad of birds whose names I don’t know call to each other in the field. Construction trucks roar past, down on the turnpike.
One day, after I’ve parked the car in our garage, I’m summoned by the waterfall. I walk to the wall beside the brook and look down. Below me, a great blue heron stands on a stone. The stream is tumbling around him. He looks up. Then calmly opens his slow wings as wide as the water and flies low up the length of the creek bed, until he vanishes in the trees.
Thanksgiving night, I go to tuck my mother in and find her weeping.
“What’s wrong, mommy?”
“I had wished,” she says. “I had hoped. I would be dead.”
“But you didn’t die,” I say.
“I didn’t die.” As lucid and articulate as if she weren’t aphasic, hadn’t ever been, she says, “I think I know myself. I think I know what I can do. I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore.”
I stroke her arm, her forehead. Her birthday is two weeks away. If she lives another fourteen days, she’ll be one hundred and one.
“I think,” I say, “that when you really can’t, do this, you won’t. I don’t know even what that means. But I believe it.”
Murray, her fat orange cat, jumps suddenly up, out of the dark, to plop down in a circle at the foot of her bed. “Good kitty,” mommy says.
A calm transparency connects the two of us like a windowpane.
“Thank you,” she says. “You have helped me.”
The next day she insists on walking the length of her house, to the window in the living room. On her aggressive metal walker, thump! to say goodbye to the view. Although I can’t know that, not yet.
Snow lies along the branches of the pines at the border of her field.
“Look!” she says. “How beautiful the sun in the palms.”
Any of us might have said as much, we’re sliding down the slope into forgetting language, all my friends and I. But our slow glide is not the black hole where my mother disappeared.
One week later, in the middle of an afternoon, she dies. It has been days since she last ate or drank. We moisten her lips for her, now that she’s sunk into impenetrable sleep, immobile, white on white, against the sheets. Could she be tinier?
She said to me once, years before, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could just get littler and littler until we disappeared?” She’s nearly done it.
I hold her hand, although she doesn’t hold mine back. I sing to her about a bird, a looking glass. I watch the tiny pulsing artery in her neck. It is her only moving part.
At the hospital, I saw the moving pictures of her heart, how her aortic valve came fluttering open, fluttering closed, it dizzied me to think that tiny shred of flesh had kept on going for a century.
That afternoon, the faintest rhythmic pulsing in her neck throbs, throbs, throbs.
Nancy Kline’s memoirs, short stories, essays, and translations have appeared widely. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Sunday Book Review and has received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Grant. She has published eight books, including a novel, a critical study of René Char’s poetry, a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, and four book-length translations of modern French writers, the most recent, Jules Supervielle’s Selected Prose and Poetry (with Patricia Terry and Kathleen Micklow).