The night before my mother died, I sat on a stool beside her bed writing the artist statement for her last show. It was to be called Let’s Love Color and was set to open in a week.
She’d told me more or less what to say, and I knew it had turned out well. I knew those paintings inside and out. I’d lived with her and watched her make them over the last year. The paintings, like her voice, felt like home.
My father knocked on my door at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to tell me she’d stopped breathing. I went downstairs in my pajamas. The hospital bed was in the living room, near windows that opened out into the backyard. Mom’s head was cocked to the side, her mouth slightly open, eyes closed. The part of her chest above the white V-neck T-shirt she was wearing had a yellow ochre tinge and was, for the first time in sixty-three years, not rising or falling. I touched it. It was still warm.
The others—my sister, my brother, his partner, my husband, and our 16-month-old son—emerged from their respective corners of the house, hugged, cried, laughed, touched Mom’s body, poured cereal. I called the hospice team. By the time the nurse arrived, a cool early-April light had begun to shine into the living room. The nurse herself was a peachy pink, both in color and in demeanor. She pronounced Mom dead at 7:25 a.m. She wished us well and told us to call the mortuary to come collect the body when we were ready to part with it, “no rush.” I appreciated her saying that: It was a rather cozy body to have in the house, even if Mom was no longer in it.
At 8:14 a.m., I took a photo of her body on my phone. The photo took some pressure off the part of me that felt responsible for remembering every image of Mom that I could. I liked to call that part of me the melancholy. It would be charged with keeping every bit of beauty and pain documented and intact forever while the rest of me inevitably morphed, shifted, healed.
In the photo, Mom is looking dead, but not arrestingly so. It is nothing like the grotesque agony of two days before—the way she’d kept leaning forward, eyes wide open but impenetrable, like the blackness of a kettle pond at night, moving her arm up to the back of her head as though she were trying to flick a mosquito away. That day, I’d kept thinking about the macabre depictions of death I’d absorbed throughout childhood—Frankenstein’s monster costumes, haunted houses, Kurtz shouting about the horror, scenes from movies I couldn’t quite name or conjure up. I couldn’t believe that what I’d thought were cartoonish exaggerations of the death aesthetic turned out to capture the truth. We’d tried to sedate her with everything we had in the house—Haldol, Dilaudid squirted into her cheek. We’d each been in our own states of panic, thinking we’d failed her. The purpose of home hospice had been to keep her comfortable, yet nothing had worked. And then she’d finally fallen asleep.
Once the panic subsided, it left a space for my familiar sadness to return. Being so accustomed to that sadness, I let it settle comfortably in the background. What came into focus was the strangeness. I’d been struck, that last day of her life, by how mechanical a dying body becomes. The inhale/exhale.
When it appeared we were as ready as we were going to be to move on with the day, I called the mortuary. An hour and a half later, two men from somewhere in New Jersey arrived at the house. One was huge, bald, and white, with a proportionally huge silver cross around his neck. His blue surgical mask had slipped below his nose. The smaller one was his assistant. My brother and Dad nodded to them and walked to the other side of the house. I suspect they did not want images of her body’s removal replaying in their minds later. I don’t remember what the others were doing, but suddenly I was the only one there with the men. I led them to the living room.
Without saying a single word to me or each other, they lowered the bed and lifted the sheets away from the mattress. I had only ever seen a few other dead bodies—my grandparents and relatives of students I’d taught who’d had open-casket wakes—and I had never touched one. I suppose I imagined it would be limp. It was interesting to me, and impressive, the way the men seemed unsurprised by her stiffness, her Tin Man arms and her calcifying jaw. What a job that must be, I thought, to regard this situation as routine.
They wrapped her body in the sheets and put everything into a black bag. When they were done, the bald one turned to me and asked if I wanted to zip it. He asked it like he expected me to know that that was a thing, like asking the father if he wants to cut the umbilical cord when a baby has just been born. I heard myself say “sure,” wanting, for some reason, to participate in their enactment of routineness. I zipped it. It was something for the melancholy part of me to hold onto.
As I listened to the body movers making their way toward the front door and letting themselves out, I paced back and forth in the den, in the company of the empty hospital bed and the tray with her glasses, a cup of water, and a stack of little pink sponges on lollipop sticks we’d used to moisten her lips. I heard a voice in my head. My own voice. “Mom?” it asked. “Did you know I’d be the one to zip the bag?”
As soon as the body was in transit, I took a trash bag around the house, collecting all the cancer stuff. There were medications in the den, in the basement fridge, all over my parents’ bedroom and bathroom. I threw out the Fentanyl patches and the liquid Dilaudid and the Ativan tablets. There was one medication she had asked about a few days before she died, when she could still speak but was forgetting words, that she had called the “oblong pill.” I had thought it was strange that she’d remember a word like “oblong” when so many others had dried up. I’ve forgotten its name as well now, but I threw that bottle out too.
I tied a knot at the top of the trash bag and put it in the back of Dad’s RAV4 for him to take to the hospital to “properly dispose of,” which probably meant handing it off to someone else. Later, someone came in what looked like a mail truck to pick up the larger items—the hospital bed, the tray, the old IV pole from upstairs. It had taken many months for the supplies to accumulate in the house, and all of a sudden, they were gone.
I kept that photo of her dead body on my phone and looked at it from time to time, which in the first days after her death meant every few hours. When a gash is fresh, probing it does not make it hurt any more than it already does, and so it did not especially hurt me to look at the photo. It was just a piece of documentation, a fact of what had happened to me yesterday or the day before. When we flew from Pennsylvania to California for the funeral, I imagined the TSA officers questioning us about our reason for travel and my pulling up this photo of my dead mother. I’m not sure why they would have needed proof.
Maybe I needed proof. When I was a child, a friend told me she’d heard that being blind was not like seeing black all the time, as I’d imagined. “It’s more like seeing the way you see out of your elbow,” she said. Trying to grasp Mom’s deadness felt like trying to grasp seeing the way I saw out of my elbow. I reached and reached for it, but it was just beyond my capacity to imagine. I tried to consider, instead, how I’d felt before I’d been conceived. It was probably how Mom felt now.
When I saw her body again, it was in the casket. It had been shipped across the country and had been dead for eight days. It looked flushed, with pinks amid purples and yellows. Sunset colors. There was some kind of grease they’d massaged into her face. Her hair was brushed back and oiled in a way she would not have styled it. We had intended to have her wrapped in a white sheet, as her parents and brother had been, but we’d accidentally ordered a cotton shroud, which had a collar and a button. It looked like part of a power suit from the 1980s.
My sister turned her back to the pine box and cried into my shoulder. “She never would have worn that,” she whispered.
“She’s not in there anymore,” I whispered back.
The virtual opening for Let’s Love Color was two days after the funeral. The gallery owners took their camera through the rooms while I discussed the paintings that came up on the screen—the big red one with the woman at the easel, the cobalt one with the dog and my son in a bucket hat, the orange one with the iron. Most of them had sold before the show opened, it not having been a secret that she was dying, and Mom had laughed and said, “Now I know what it’s like to be Van Gogh.” A few months before, we’d taken the paintings to her framer together. She had spent twenty-five minutes deliberating between a pink and orange mat for the iron. In the end, she’d chosen white. “That,” she’d said on the drive home, “is quality of life.” It was one of her last times going out of the house.
I went to see the show in person a few days later. I felt embraced by the paintings. These were the images Mom had created for herself during the last stages of her illness—the ones to counter what she’d been through, the ones she’d chosen to leave us with. I could almost feel her breath in the room. “Hi Mom,” I heard myself say.
I was compelled to track her body’s progress as it broke down underground, the way some expectant parents track their fetus reaching the size of a plum or a grapefruit or a pineapple. “What does a body look like two weeks after death?” I Googled. “How much flesh is left after one month?” According to the Bio Clean Team (whose services, as per their website, included crime scene and meth lab cleanup), after four weeks, nails and teeth would have fallen out. After that, the remains would be dark liquified sludge and a skeleton. It all seemed awfully fast. I kept on bracing myself to see a picture, though I never went so far as to click the image tab.
For months, I could not stop seeing images of her dying. Several times a day, most often in the afternoons, I’d be sitting on the porch, or taking a shower, or twirling a twig around in the grass, and my mind was elsewhere, wandering through a museum of these images. I would stop in the room where she sat on the bed with her skin burning neon yellow, her eyes glazed over with jaundice. Then I would pass by a different room, where replicas of me and my sister and the hospice nurse stood over her, cutting off her underwear and lifting it up to expose the beet purple grooves it had left on her skin, her hips and legs having puffed up around it as her organs shut down. I knew this museum was morbid, and also, both apart from and because of that morbidity, sad. What I was aware of feeling, though, when I visited, was barely anything. I was not bored, not uninterested, but watching, floating over, passing through.
I suppose that what I felt was close to numbness, although I’d always thought of numbness as sort of a disengagedness. In fact, I was quite engaged—the way one engages with a set of dioramas. “Oh, look how bright yellow her skin is,” I would say to some of the displays. In others, I was curious about what was happening to me. “Oh,” I wondered. “Is this what happens to your brain after you watch your parent die?”
She had warned me about these images. She’d experienced them after watching her father die. She said that eventually they would recede, and that I would regain an ability to picture her healthy, with her big hips and her jet-black hair.
In late May, I took a walk with a friend whose marriage had recently disintegrated. “How’s grief going for you?” he asked.
I thought about this. There were three elements to it, I told him. There were the images. In the museum, time passed at a quarter the pace it did outside, so even though it was now almost summer, when I was moving through the exhibits, I was still living in late March, just before she died.
Then there were moments when I would be jolted out of the museum, into the present, and feel as though I had only just heard about what had happened. “Oh, how sad!” I would gasp, as though I hadn’t been there, as though it had happened to someone else’s mother.
And then, finally, there was the sadness of the actual hole—the moments in which the images and the facts stepped into the wings and let her absence take the stage.
My friend said that some of this sounded like divorce.
There came a time when I stopped wanting to look at the photo of her body on the bed in the living room. I became afraid to look, actually. When I opened my photo app to look at pictures of my son, I’d go as far back as mid-April and then flick my thumb as fast as I could to roll back several months, to a time when the photos of her wouldn’t disturb the scab that had started to form. To a time before she was really sick, before her complexion started to have that ghostly mist.
I didn’t see the photo again until the next summer, when I was scrolling back looking for photos of fruits and vegetables that I’d taken to use as references for a still life I wanted to paint. I came to it accidentally. I didn’t lose myself in it the way I had those first few days, but I didn’t rush to protect myself from it either. It was starting to look, itself, a bit more like a reference photo. What I noticed first was the way the purple sheet she had over her torso and legs matched the purple plastic cup in which the mouth moisteners were sitting.
A lot has happened since then. My husband and son and I moved out of my parents’ house, back to Massachusetts, and then to Ontario. I had another son—my first Canadian. They are very particular about waste management over here. Every few days, I take photos of our compost bin because I like the light that is cast on it through the kitchen window. I imagine that one day, when my kids don’t need me every seven minutes, I will paint a series of gouache or acrylics about what is decomposing in there.
Mom was right about the death images clearing out, making way for the rest of the past to keep me company. The melancholy part of me, whose job it is to remember, is reluctant to open up her palms and let the sunset colors fade out. I console her with the photo and its timestamp. Unlike everything else, the photo has not changed, and that feels like enough.
A friend’s husband is dying of brain cancer. She and I write to each other every couple of days. Yesterday, she asked me about transporting the body. After I wrote to her about the guy with the cross, I went into my old journal and found the entry from that day. I hadn’t remembered that the body movers had been wearing gloves. The blue emesis bags lying around had also been deleted from the frame. When I finished reading the account from before my memories had begun to decompose, I looked at the photo again.
Mom’s still looking dead, though her hair appears much the way it always did. The translucent reddish bottle of liquid Dilaudid and the syringe I had been using the previous day to squirt it into the inside of her cheek are resting next to her phone on the hospital tray by the bed. Her glasses are folded next to the purple cup. They, too, are a translucent red. One small tear rests near her left tear duct, stationary like a drop of rubber cement. Her yellow skin and the purple sheets are complimentary colors.