December 29, 2016, Updated Death Wishes
You don’t have to mourn or carry on or weep or pace. Get over it. I’m dying. Talk to me. Tell me to hurry the hell up. Or take a pillow—kidding. But not really. And don’t put anything on Facebook, for God’s sake. I will come back and personally make your life a living hell. Got it? xo mom
December 29, 2918
We’re not following your rules very well, Mom, but you weren’t much for rules yourself, so what can you expect from your kids? I am mourning, I am carrying on, I’m weeping and pacing. I slid the silver Celtic band from your finger, a gift from you, to yourself, it now circles mine. I’ve slept in your bed every night since you left your body, since we left your body, not you, at Mayo in that room on the ninth floor with a good view, the director of decedent affairs said with a kind smile. She’ll have the best view, wherever she goes now, I cried.
I wear your clothes, hide out in your apartment on Park Row, my cheeks rubbed raw from your dollar store kleenexes. I drink your coffee, eat the eggs and green apples you didn’t have time to finish, you rushed out so fast. I contemplate that box of Revlon Colorsilk on your bathroom vanity, Lightest Golden Brown. Could I pull it off? Slowly slide into you?
I’m sorry for not abiding by your instructions. My physical self is going to need some time to get used to yours not being here. How do I transition from multiple daily phone calls and weekend visits, to wind in the trees as your voice, the river gliding under ice for your hugs? Where do I find you when you’re now nowhere and everywhere? The one thing I am doing, that you specifically advised, is “keep writing, Jen.” The one thing that for you, like me, has been hard these past few years. Since that fucker took office, you said in the hospital, I agreed, laughing through tears. I follow your mandate, I can’t stop writing, not even to sleep. Slowly, I’m sliding.
Your dollhouse apartment hums as it did when you sat in that rocker in the corner, balancing a cup of half and half with a splash of coffee on your knee, this tiny warm space that for many, a synonym for respite. Except you’re not in that rocker. You’re not balancing your coffee. Still, in your dollhouse, it is not death-hollow here, with so much unfinished business scattered around, like Dad’s was. Here, is not weighted by suffering and anguish, like my own house in the woods was after Bob died, with walls so tight and belongings so bewildered, so abandoned, I had to escape to the city to breathe again. Here, in your dollhouse with two tall, deep windows and high ceilings, even without you in the rocker without your coffee, I feel your hum. You’ve been preparing for this for a good year, maybe longer, your journal entries allude. But I still mourn and carry on and weep and pace. My sliding, toward what, I’m not sure, is slow.
You weren’t the best housekeeper—I’m guessing you never dusted in the eight years you lived here—you had more important things to do. I go from room to room, piece by piece, taking everything off tabletops, wipe down surfaces, dust artifacts, putting them back how you had them. I’ve always wanted to do this for you when you were alive, but never wanted to offend. Instead, I ignored the dust, and focused on our talks. On food you shared, good wine, strong coffee. I do this now for me, cleaning room by room. This way, I can touch every thing that’s yours, clear the dust to make my way slowly back toward you. I find you in dust—your prints are everywhere. I collect your molecules along the way and add them to mine.
Time isn’t suspended here, like we’re just sitting around waiting for you to walk through the door with a bag of groceries any day now. You weren’t taken by surprise, I’ve sensed this urgency for some time, in my own sleepy cells, in your wavering voice, your disappearing frame floating in loose clothing, your preoccupied eyes. More scraps of confirming evidence emerge as I clean, in notebooks and journals:
November, 2016: I’ve been feeling weird lately—like maybe I could keel over and it would be done. I have been reading about Aleppo, Syria and the rest of the world, Standing Rock, Flint, Michigan, our own backyards…hotspots of neglect where there is no food, no water, no sleep, no love. I used to be slightly afraid of dying. Not so much dying itself—but those last minute thoughts, ‘I should have done SO MUCH MORE…’ I’ve done all I can do. Not always well— but as me.
October, 2017: I’ve buried every carcass of myself. I’ve married every carcass of myself…I’ve forgotten how to write. I got so wrapped up in others’ lives…maybe it was on purpose. Then I don’t have to look at my own life. Pick out the good things: A pizza farm. The swimming pool. A blue stone. DNA. Bikes. A cleaning out of sorts. Art as prayer. Poems. Groceries. New spaces. My ring falls off. Winter bulbs. Traffic. Owls. Art as self. I am still alive. Many are not. Children in cages. Families severed. We are not civilized. We’re angry white men with guns. You were preparing, you were slowly sliding.
Your pages lament, I never took care of things. One needs to learn to take care of things, yet you follow that with lists of all the things you took care of—utilities, cash tucked in jars and books, daughter’s dogs, a small life insurance policy, poems, your children and grandchildren, others’ children and grandchildren, calla lilies and tomato plants, friends or strangers who didn’t look or worship or love like you. Always, you took great care.
I often teased you about your wimpy hugs—how your arms slowly unfurled, like vapor, like hummingbird wings lightly beating against my back, your lips kiss air, not skin. Desperate, clinging hugs were not your style. Big booming voices made you cringe. Center stage wasn’t your thing—behind curtains, you knew, are where the good stories hide. Strangers had to lean in close, to catch your soft voice. Many wouldn’t bother with the effort; some called you reticent. Those who bothered will be forever haunted, forever blessed. They are the ones who mourn, and carry on, and weep and pace, with us. Those who didn’t bother feel the weight of their neglect in your absence, lead in their bones.
You wrote these words for Andi, your hurricane of a friend, after her death in 1992:
To hell with these singular journeys we take
I’m all for group therapy
communal living, in the here
I’m as afraid of going it alone
as your mother was of your cremation
Here on the edge where city becomes country
in a hurry, the distance from noise
on purpose—I pretend
I can’t hear you
because I’ve moved.
I think you were right, Andi
women with red hair should rule the world.
That’s the thing, Mom. You didn’t go it alone—you transcended by taking the wheel, your five kids encircling you, doctors’ hands clasped, nurses’ eyes downcast. So long, suckas, we’ll cross paths again someday, you might have thought, with a flick of your bird wrist and a glance over your shoulder as you released into the atmosphere.
I move fitfully through these days, side-stepping human forms, focus instead on shadows, sparks of light, the groan of the river gliding beneath ice that could be my own. I slide into your bed, clinging to the edge, dipping my toes into sleep…awake at 3 am, the poet’s hour. I’ve released my grip on the edge, I have migrated toward the center of your gently sloping mattress. I need a little more time, Mom. Then I’ll do what you’ve asked. I may forever mourn and weep and carry on, but I’ll do my best to rule the world.
Jennifer Hildebrandt is an author and movement teacher living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 2019-2020 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series fellow and 2018 Minnesota State Arts Board grand recipient in prose. Her essay, “Jacket,” won Honorable Mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s prize in nonfiction in 2017 and was nominated by BLR for a Pushcart Prize.