Later. Before. After.

by | Dec 12, 2023 | CNF, Issue Thirty-Six

I am standing at the foot of the bed. According to the book, which I will read later, the Angel of Death is no longer there. Perhaps. There are many things in the book I don’t know yet. Not to kiss the body. Not to drink from open liquids. This includes the tea kettle and mineral water in the fridge. It extends to the apartments on the same floor and directly below. I am supposed to tell the neighbors, but I don’t.  

The angel of death puts a lethal drop into this water, making it perilous to drink. Is that why the coffee tastes so bad? It’s cheap instant powder with old almond milk, a concoction I wouldn’t touch if I didn’t have to. But it’s 3:00 a.m. and I need the caffeine. I sit there sipping away. This is forbidden in the same room.  I must stay near the body preventing the forces of evil from approaching. I have imagined this moment so many times it is like watching myself, which is to say, I am also hovering outside my body. Disembodied.

All liquids must be thrown away. I will find out why later. Ice is not affected. I wonder who I can wake up with the news.  There is no candle. There is no oldest son. I feel a ghost hand smoothing the hair behind my ear. My mother did that once. She told me not to worry. She would fix everything. Outside a storm comes with no rain, only clouds and thunder.  

*

After I cover all the mirrors, I start looking for myself. When I enter a room. When I leave. Proof that I passed through.  I should be taking notes, I think. This could be a story. I think. I am the soul trying to find it’s home, but the location is hidden by paper tablecloths. This lasts all through the shiva period. Shiva is derived from the word seven, the seven days of mourning. It also means to sit. Sit. Don’t do that. Let me. You’re not. I’ll get it for you. Sit. Sit. Sit.

The door is open to anyone. Two complete strangers arrive. The husband stares blankly around the room. The wife has a hump on her back. They are delighted to comfort me. They discuss the smog in LA for an hour. Friends drop by, my husband serves them single malt and we laugh. Is this allowed? Aren’t I sad about my mother?

My younger sister shows up on the third day. It was too hard to be alone in California. She is wearing a black skirt with a slit that opens up to her thigh in the low mourners chair. She spends the next two days trying to close it. My son takes her to see the grave, which doesn’t have a stone yet, only dirt. “But there were bugs in it,” she cries. “Bugs, crawling all over her.”

On the last day of shiva, I start to see pieces of myself in small shiny surfaces: the drain in the sink, the oven door, a window at night. I catch a part of my mouth, a nose, never the whole picture.

*

Before my mother died, I avoided her. Oddly, the last thing she said to me was Thank You. Even then she wasn’t talking much. “Hot tea,” I had just told her caretaker. “Make hot tea with honey for her throat.”

*

After every visit to my mother, I would buy myself a chocolate ice cream cone. It was always chocolate and always on the way home.  Mother. Ice Cream. Home. Again.

There are two commandments in the bible where God promises you long life: honoring your parents and shiluach haken – sending a mother bird away before you take her eggs from the nest. Eggs make me queasy. In fact they make me gag. Once I threw them all up in the kitchen sink.

In the Talmud the following incident is discussed: A man sends his son to drive a mother bird away. The son climbs the tree, reaches the nest and falls to his death. Where is punishment, the sages ask, and where is reward. In this world or the next?

I start to snack on little bits of myself: scabs, sores on my back, cuticles, the pointy edge of fingernails. I eat a box of croutons standing up, sucking the salt. I order double fries and say “I earned this.” I feel sick. I buy real Coca-Cola, a small bottle, then a liter and a half.  I hide the Cadbury’s fruit and nut bar, but that’s only to make sure no one else can get it.

I give myself small gifts of time. I cancel dentist appoints, throw away notices from the post office, refuse to schedule a mammogram. I start to say things like denial is underrated or my new favorite, I’m tired of being in a body. These comments are guaranteed to stop any conversation.  

*

In the world of excuses, I have been handed the ultimate currency. “My mother died,” I toss out, and afterwards people can’t stop apologizing, followed by hugs, sad looks and a long pause to give me time to collect myself. This is mean spirited, I know. I have discovered hidden receptors of annoyance. Everything bothers me.

I don’t want to be held by my mother.  I want her to go. 

*

Later, I understand my coffee was tainted.

The theory of homeopathy is based on water having memory. In fact the higher the dilution the more effective the remedy is. “Its like agitating a car key in the river,” says French immunologist Jacques Benveniste, “then going miles downstream, extracting a few drops and then starting one’s car with the water.”

While my mother’s caregiver ran to her room sobbing, while the hospice nurse whispered to the ambulance crew, while I waited for the burial society to open for the day – my mother was sloughing off everything she once needed in this world: hunger, anxiety, anger – all the soul’s detritus looking for a new home, drawn to any liquid conduit of memory, a cold kettle, a carton of milk, my bitter lukewarm cup, its mouth open and ready.

Read more CNF | Issue Thirty-Six

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