Leif didn’t come to visit her. Karen came once after I’d insisted she must. I was in heartbroken and enraged disbelief. “I don’t like seeing her this way,” my sister would offer weakly when we spoke, and then burst into tears. I couldn’t speak to my brother—where he was during those weeks was a mystery to Eddie and me. One friend told us he was stay- ing with a girl named Sue in St. Cloud. Another spotted him ice fishing on Sheriff Lake. I didn’t have time to do much about it, consumed as I was each day at my mother’s side, holding plastic pans for her to retch into, adjusting the impossible pillows again and again, hoisting her up and onto the potty chair the nurses had propped near her bed, cajoling her to eat a bite of food that she’d vomit up ten minutes later. Mostly, I watched her sleep, the hardest task of all, to see her in repose, her face still pinched with pain. Each time she moved, the IV tubes that dangled all around her swayed and my heart raced, afraid she’d disturb the nee- dles that attached the tubes to her swollen wrists and hands.
“How are you feeling?” I’d coo hopefully when she woke, reaching through the tubes to smooth her flattened hair into place.
“Oh, honey,” was all she could say most times. And then she’d look away.
I roamed the hospital hallways while my mother slept, my eyes darting into other people’s rooms as I passed their open doors, catching glimpses of old men with bad coughs and purpled flesh, women with bandages around their fat knees.
“How are you doing?” the nurses would ask me in melancholy tones. “We’re holding up,” I’d say, as if I were a we.
But it was just me. My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone. He was still the kind and tender man I’d fallen for a few years before, the one I’d loved so fiercely I’d shocked every- one by marrying just shy of twenty, but once my mother started dying, something inside of me was dead to Paul, no matter what he did or said. Still, I called him each day from the pay phone in the hospital during the long afternoons, or back at my mom and Eddie’s house in the evenings. We’d have long conversations during which I’d weep and tell him every- thing and he would cry with me and try to make it all just a tiny bit more okay, but his words rang hollow. It was almost as if I couldn’t hear them at all. What did he know about losing anything? His parents were still alive and happily married to each other. My connection with him and his gloriously unfractured life only seemed to increase my pain. It wasn’t his fault. Being with him felt unbearable, but being with anyone else did too. The only person I could bear to be with was the most unbearable person of all: my mother.
In the mornings, I would sit near her bed and try to read to her. I had two books: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty. These were books we’d read in college, books we loved. So I started in, but I could not go on. Each word I spoke erased itself in the air.
It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who’d not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repres- sive Catholic upbringing, she’d avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didn’t even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch.
The last couple of days of her life, my mother was not so much high as down under. She was on a morphine drip by then, a clear bag of liquid flowing slowly down a tube that was taped to her wrist. When she woke, she’d say, “Oh, oh.” Or she’d let out a sad gulp of air. She’d look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she’d roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some apple- sauce. She believed that all the animals she’d ever loved were in the room with her—and there had been a lot. She’d say, “That horse darn near stepped on me,” and look around for it accusingly, or her hands would move to stroke an invisible cat that lay at her hip. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, “Have I been the best daughter in the world?”
She said yes, I had, of course.
But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother’s mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.
I was ravenous for love.
My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air. She didn’t have time to get skinny. She was altered but still fleshy when she died, the body of a woman among the living. She had her hair too, brown and brittle and frayed from being in bed for weeks.
From the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window. The biggest lake in the world, and the coldest too. To see it, I had to work. I pressed my face sideways, hard, against the glass, and I’d catch a slice of it going on forever into the horizon.
“A room with a view!” my mother exclaimed, though she was too weak to rise and see the lake herself. And then more quietly she said: “All of my life I’ve waited for a room with a view.”
She wanted to die sitting up, so I took all the pillows I could get my hands on and made a backrest for her. I wanted to take her from the hospital and prop her in a field of yarrow to die. I covered her with a quilt that I had brought from home, one she’d sewn herself out of pieces of our old clothing.
“Get that out of here,” she growled savagely, and then kicked her legs like a swimmer to make it go away.
I watched my mother. Outside the sun glinted off the sidewalks and the icy edges of the snow. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, and the nurses brought her a square block of green Jell-O that sat quivering on the table beside her. It would turn out to be the last full day of her life, and for most of it she held her eyes still and open, neither sleeping nor waking, intermittently lucid and hallucinatory.
That evening I left her, though I didn’t want to. The nurses and doctors had told Eddie and me that this was it. I took that to mean she would die in a couple of weeks. I believed that people with cancer lingered. Karen and Paul would be driving up together from Minneapolis the next morning and my mother’s parents were due from Alabama in a couple of days, but Leif was still nowhere to be found. Eddie and I had called Leif ’s friends and the parents of his friends, leaving pleading messages, asking him to call, but he hadn’t called. I decided to leave the hospital for one night so I could find him and bring him to the hospital once and for all.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” I said to my mother. I looked over at Eddie, half lying on the little vinyl couch. “I’ll come back with Leif.”
When she heard his name, she opened her eyes: blue and blazing, the same as they’d always been. In all this, they hadn’t changed.
“How can you not be mad at him?” I asked her bitterly for perhaps the tenth time.
“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” she’d usually say. Or, “Cheryl, he’s only eighteen.” But this time she just gazed at me and said, “Honey,” the same as she had when I’d gotten angry about her socks. The same as she’d always done when she’d seen me suffer because I wanted something to be different than it was and she was trying to convince me with that single word that I must accept things as they were.
“We’ll all be together tomorrow,” I said. “And then we’ll all stay here with you, okay? None of us will leave.” I reached through the tubes that were draped all around her and stroked her shoulder. “I love you,” I said, bending to kiss her cheek, though she fended me off, in too much pain to endure even a kiss.
“Love,” she whispered, too weak to say the I and you. “Love,” she said again as I left her room.
I rode the elevator and went out to the cold street and walked along the sidewalk. I passed a bar packed with people I could see through a big plate-glass window. They were all wearing shiny green paper hats and green shirts and green suspenders and drinking green beer. A man inside met my eye and pointed at me drunkenly, his face breaking into silent laughter.
I drove home and fed the horses and hens and got on the phone, the dogs gratefully licking my hands, our cat nudging his way onto my lap. I called everyone who might know where my brother was. He was drinking a lot, some said. Yes, it was true, said others, he’d been hanging out with a girl from St. Cloud named Sue. At midnight the phone rang and I told him that this was it.
I wanted to scream at him when he walked in the door a half hour later, to shake him and rage and accuse, but when I saw him, all I could do was hold him and cry. He seemed so old to me that night, and so very young too. For the first time, I saw that he’d become a man and yet also I could see what a little boy he was. My little boy, the one I’d half mothered all of my life, having no choice but to help my mom all those times she’d been away at work. Karen and I were three years apart, but we’d been raised as if we were practically twins, the two of us equally in charge of Leif as kids.
“I can’t do this,” he kept repeating through his tears. “I can’t live without Mom. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
“We have to,” I replied, though I couldn’t believe it myself. We lay together in his single bed talking and crying into the wee hours until, side by side, we drifted off to sleep.
I woke a few hours later and, before waking Leif, fed the animals and loaded bags full of food we could eat during our vigil at the hospital. By eight o’clock we were on our way to Duluth, my brother driving our mother’s car too fast while U2’s Joshua Tree blasted out of the speakers. We listened intently to the music without talking, the low sun cutting brightly into the snow on the sides of the road.