Paula Younger's writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Harper Collins’ 52 Stories, The Rattling Wall, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and The Nervous Breakdown. She earned her MFA from the University of Virginia, and received the Henry Hoyns and Bronx Writers Center fellowships. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where she received the Beacon Award for teaching excellence.
The first time my mother rose from the dead my son was a month old and I had a fever of 103. My husband had left for a business trip to sell a company that specialized in landscaped rock and gravel. The sale was necessary to pay for our hefty mortgage. I had strep throat, a bottle of amoxicillin and a newborn.
Neil sent me a text with a link to a babysitting website. “She’ll be there in 30 minutes. Hang in there. Don’t pick up the baby.”
It would be okay to hand over my non-talking newborn to a stranger. No need to worry that his neck could snap if not supported properly, that he was too young for solids and didn’t use formula. Our pediatrician dubbed breast milk ‘liquid gold’ and I constantly worried I wouldn’t produce enough. In my feverish haze, the Just Like Mom babysitting website was manna. Golden women with hair blowing in the breeze, happy young children playing in a field, a baby swaddled in a soft white blanket.
My baby’s cry turned into a wail: his hungry sound. My tight, full breasts pressed against the nursing bra. I shook, either from Jake’s cries or the fever. I pushed my hands against the walls of the narrow hallway for support and walked into Jake’s darkened room.
He paused mid-cry and jostled against his sleepsack, trying to free his swaddled arms. He gave me his wooing look—big eyes and an eager smile. His jaundiced skin made him look tan. I longed for the orange to subside and his body to rid itself of the excess bilirubin, something I didn’t even know existed until Jake didn’t have the right amount. I picked him up, but dropped him back onto his crib. His wail escalated into a new register. I cried out, “Mom!” Jake startled, and then wailed harder.
I had called for Mom plenty of times before, an old habit whenever I felt overwhelmed, but this time someone moved just beyond the door to the hallway.
“Who’s there?” I stood in front of Jake’s crib with my arms outstretched, the most protective posture I could manage.
Mom wore her burgundy business jacket and skirt. Her left black high heel was missing, and so was her eye. Her skull was dented and oozed red. I stared at the gaping hole. I had assumed if there was an afterlife, it cleaned people up.
“Sorry for the mess,” Mom said. She limped over in her one shoe. “Why don’t I take him so you can get some rest?”
Mom scooped up Jake. I put my hand out to stop her, but worried about touching her.
Miraculously, Jake stopped crying. He nestled against Mom. Was there some essential element that was the same between us, whether or not she had a heartbeat?
“Goo,” Jake cooed, a new sound.
“Smells like someone messed his pants,” she said. I couldn’t breathe properly, much less smell. She pressed my forehead against her cheek. I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to see her. “You’re burning up, baby girl,” she said.
The doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Mom asked.
“The babysitter. Neil found a service.”
Mom frowned. Her disapproval was more intense with the missing eye. How could a lack of an eye convey so much?
“You’re going to let a stranger take care of my newborn grandson?” she asked.
“I don’t like it either, but Neil’s in Texas and you’re dead. Or you were.”
“I’m still dead.”
“How are you here then?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Mom said, and she didn’t look thrilled about it.
I opened the door to Kari, a flight attendant. She said the airlines already vetted their employees so she was doubly bona fide, and then her eyes widened. She lowered her voice and asked, “Do you want me to call the police?”
“Don’t worry. She’s my mother.” I tried to breathe deeply. My lungs ached.
“Thank you for coming, but you can go now,” Mom said and gestured toward the door. Jake cooed in agreement.
“It’s already paid for,” Kari said.
Mom winked with her good eye. “We won’t tell. Go see a movie.”
Kari turned to me. “You look like you need the help.”
I had no idea what I looked like. Kari was young, athletic, healthy, and alive. She worked flights, knew CPR. She would be capable, keep my baby safe. Mom had been dead for ten years and then suddenly materialized. Jake smiled in her arms. She smiled back and there she was. Mom. I would do anything to have her back, even if it only lasted for an hour.
“Do you have children?” I asked Kari.
“I’ve been babysitting since I was 15. I practically raised my younger siblings. I’m a professional.”
Just Like Mom’s tagline was “Love Certified,” as if love could be purchased. Jake was mine. Mom loved him instantly because of that. She would come back from the dead to help me. Kari was just there to pick up some cash between flights.
“Thanks, but I have my mom.” What a magical thing to say, a safety net after ten years of being unmoored.
Kari gave me her phone number. “In case you change your mind. Your husband paid for the week.”
Of course Kari wouldn’t understand. Her mother was probably still alive. They would get ice cream together and laugh how they love the same flavor—strawberry sherbet! She didn’t understand taking whatever you could get.
Mom gave me medicine and tucked me into bed. Three hours later I woke with leaking breasts and sour milk embedded in my skin. It was the longest I had been apart from my son. I searched through my sheets, as if I had misplaced Jake, and then hurried downstairs. Had I left the door unlocked and handed my baby over to a stranger in a fevered dream?
Mom stood in the kitchen wearing Jake in the sling I was too afraid to use. The week before his birth I’d read a story about a baby who suffocated in a sling at Costco.
She bounced Jake in her arms and sang about a pony ride. He reached toward her missing left eye and grinned. Mom said, “Where did Grandma’s eye go?”
She ordered me back to bed. She set up Jake in his baby papasan within my line of sight. She spooned me tomato soup, cheering me with every painful swallow. She aligned Jake next to my body when he needed to nurse and then took him back when he was done. I rested but I still reached for Jake. I heard Mom talking to him in a baby voice and then his reassuring goo, and sometimes a squeal.
She trained Jake for naps in his crib. She made meals. She baked banana bread. She organized my kitchen shelves. Death made her immune to my strep. No reason to feel guilty for exposing her, but we did have a few arguments. She insisted on a laundry line instead of our clothes dryer, and she wanted to make baby food instead of using the jarred Earth’s Best.
“Don’t you own a food processor?” she asked. When in fact I did not. On our farm we had grown our vegetables and Dad killed our meat. I grew up picking vegetables, canning vegetables, chopping vegetables. I loved my pre-made, ready to go life.
“How can you live without canning vegetables and fruit?” Mom asked.
“I barely have a yard. I live in in the middle of the city.” Then I added, hoping for some credit, “I lived off of your jarred beets and hard-boiled eggs when I was pregnant. I got the recipe from your sisters.”
Mom did approve of the cloth diapers, but not that we used a service. “Why don’t you just wash them yourself?” The Catholic farmer soul. In my family the 11th commandment was: Thou Shall Not Be Wasteful. My parents burned our trash and if something wasn’t deemed throw-awayable, it reappeared in the can. As an adult, I dutifully recycled and composted, but I loved the thrill of throwing something away and never seeing it again.
Neil called. He asked how I liked the babysitter.
“She’s the best,” I said.
“That’s great.” I could hear his relief through the phone. His hair had begun to turn gray from the extra pressure of financially supporting a family. How had we become so traditional? Our honeymoon was in an Amazonian tree house. Monkeys raided our backpacks and threw my deodorant into the Rio Negro.
Once I could hold Jake again, I pressed his cheek against mine. It pulsed. It radiated heat. He smelled like breast milk and something else, hard to name. Mom adjusted the sling and showed me how to use it. She patted my back and said, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Neil came home a day early. My large battered suitcase had traveled to Europe, South America and Africa. His Tumi luggage was sleek, trim, accessorized and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Unlike me, Neil didn’t carry too much.
He spread his arms. “Hooray! You’re both still alive!” Then he noticed Mom and paled. “What happened to the babysitter?” he asked.
“She wasn’t needed.”
Mom held a lion toy over Jake’s baby papasan. She pulled its tail and it let out a roar. Jake pumped his hand in appreciation and then grabbed it.
“It looks like married life is agreeing with you, Neil,” Mom said.
“Why are you home?” I asked.
“My deal closed early.” Neil was promoted to Managing Director. He convinced the buyers that the selling company’s CEO was competent, despite his jumping off a balcony in Cozumel and breaking his leg. Neil positioned the CEO as adventurous, not stupid. He thought he was jumping onto sand, after all, and hadn’t noticed the concrete in the dark.
The dent in the side of Mom’s head gaped larger. “I always knew you’d be successful,” she said.
Neil glanced at me. “No wonder you sounded so happy.”
That night, Mom left. I begged her to stay, but she said, “You’re healthy and Neil’s home.”
“He’ll be gone again soon.” Then I paused, “Where are you going?”
“That’s not for you to worry about.”
Mom kissed my cheek. She smelled moldy. I closed my eyes and imagined her head was whole. When I opened my eyes, Jake was in my arms. Mom was gone.
When my son was born, the nurse said he knew me by smell, heartbeat, and voice. Jake recognized me right after I pushed him out of my body. He fumbled against my skin, digging and searching until we reconnected. I hoped that even if I died, some part of him would remember me. When my mom returned from the dead, the voice was right, but she smelled of socks and rotting food. When she was alive, she had smelled like baking bread.
Whenever I made a mistake and Neil was out of town, Mom appeared. Like when Jake chipped a tooth on the glass coffee table. When he had a stomach virus and I contracted it too; I vomited while cleaning up his vomit. When he had the flu and I held him nonstop for three days and then I had the flu, too.
The second time Mom appeared, I sprayed her back with lavender water. The third time, I bought her comfortable slacks and a top, in burgundy, her favorite color that used to bring out the rosy undertones of her skin. The fourth time, I bought her Naturalizer flats, comfortable but attractive. “These look expensive,” she said suspiciously. Dad had donated her clothes to Goodwill. My sisters and I had taken our favorites—her goofy Christmas sweaters with large reindeer heads and Santas and wreaths. Her University of Dayton sweatshirt. Proud Parent of CU Student sweatshirt. I didn’t give her those; I worried her head would stain them.
I also bought her an eye patch. Jake gazed at it and she said, “What’s under Grandma’s flap? Whoop! What’s under Grandma’s flap?” I looked away from her empty socket. Jake grinned and laughed, his first one. A milestone.
After three months of Mom’s sporadic visits, Neil said, “I’m glad you have your mom back, but do you think it’s right for our son to be raised around someone who’s dead?”
“She’s back. Does it matter?”
“She’s one of the nicest people I know, but she’s painful to look at. That can’t be good for Jake.”
“You get used to it.”
“You didn’t even look at her in the morgue.” Neil gave me his I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself look.
After Mom had died, the coroner advised my family not to see the body, we wouldn’t want that to be our last memory of her. But now I was constantly around her oozing head and missing eye. I tried to focus on spots just past her ear. I began to forget what she used to look like. At night, I dreamed of a mangled mother.
Neil began calling during the day. He would hesitate and then ask, “Is she there?”
Maybe Mom sensed this. While loading the washing machine she said, “He works an awful lot, doesn’t he? Do you think it’s necessary? Some men don’t like to come home once there’s a baby, and you’re not back to your pre-baby weight.”
“I’m not worried about a mistress.”
Mom set her mouth. “I don’t think he likes me.”
“He loves you, he’s just concerned.”
Another time, she said, “It must be nice to marry rich.”
“We’re not rich, you know that. We met in college. We ate ramen.”
“He was a business major. You knew he’d be successful. Neil’s smart.”
“Dad was a math major.”
“He was a teacher. They don’t make money.”
“He was a professor.”
“An instructor at a community college.”
Mom had two Masters’ degrees and had managed male engineers at a power plant. She earned more than Dad, but he controlled the money. Any time we came home from clothes shopping, she brought in one bag and left the rest hidden in the trunk.
“He might resent that you’re not doing your share,” she said.
“I’m taking care of our child. A nanny costs more than what I earn as an adjunct, and you stayed home until I was three.” When I was sick on school days, I hung out beneath Dad’s desk with my blanket and pillow; an effective office hours’ deterrent. I wanted better for Jake. I wanted to be the one to take care of him and witness every milestone.
When I went to the grocery store, Mom stayed home with Jake. I said I didn’t want to drag Jake around, but really, I didn’t want to see people’s reactions to Mom. When I returned, Mom frowned at the receipt. “I had three children and didn’t spend as much as you.”
“Quality food costs more,” I said.
“And why does everything say gluten-free? What is gluten?” she asked.
“You’re a scientist, you should know.”
“Gluten is an elastic protein substance that holds food together, typically in wheat products. What a relief it isn’t in this coffee.” She held up the bag and looked at the label. “Good thing this is also dairy and GMO free too. When did dairy become a bad thing? We lived off of milk. It’s why you and your sisters are so smart. Baby girl, you’re too smart to follow dumb fads.” She held up a pouch of Bumble Bee Premium Albacore. “Tuna isn’t supposed to be fancy.”
Mom used to clip grocery store coupons and send my sisters and me through individual lines with the item and exact amount. I was five years old, holding a stack of tuna cans, the $1.25 and four for a dollar coupon sweaty in my hand. I panicked that the store clerk would yell at me for breaking the rules.
“You left me at grocery stores,” I said.
“I had three kids and you were never where you were supposed to be. Eventually, I always remembered you.” Mom paused, “If you thought I was such a terrible mother, then why did you call for me?”
“Because you’re mine.”
I hid Jake’s seaweed snacks, applesauce and fruit packets from Mom. I didn’t want her to see my disposable life. I showed off how I washed sheets and towels on Sundays like her. I kept the closets closed so she wouldn’t see that I inherited her chaotic organizing, but Mom opened the hall closet and four towels fell onto her oozing head. “You’re supposed to be better than me, baby girl,” she said.
I wanted to know about my childhood. As the youngest of three, I didn’t have a baby book. I asked Mom what I was like as a baby, when I hit my first milestones. When I had my first tooth. I wanted to see myself in Jake. Finally Mom said, “I’m missing parts of my brain. Why don’t you ask your father?”
“He said he doesn’t remember his childhood, much less mine.”
I showed her how I had saved the stuffed animals she made for me, her rosary case with Mary encircled in engraved Latin words, along with her prayer book from high school, with a ticket for the First Annual Our Lady of Mercy Teen Club Communion Breakfast for March 8th, 1959 tucked inside. The small things we are left with but cling to.
When Jake was eight months old, I returned to teaching composition, two nights a week, so that either my husband or I could take care of him. I wanted to stay employable and help my family, but Neil often had to travel, usually on the same nights. Whenever I actually made it to the gym, I chatted up the kids’ club employees to see if they were for hire.
I felt ill when my meager salary went to a babysitter. I wished it wouldn’t be so expensive and difficult to be away from Jake for a couple hours. Everything I did had to have value. Neil suggested we hire a nanny, but that would be even more financial stress, and friends told me their stories. One nanny didn’t have the car seat installed and another kept the baby in a high chair for hours while she drank beer and watched TV, all recorded on a Nest camera.
During classes I would notice spit up on a black shirt. My clothing had random little tears and holes and stains. Jake slimed me on a daily basis. Once he became a toddler and could walk, my jewelry started going missing. Necklaces. Earrings. Bracelets. I struggled to present an assembled version of myself.
Jake turned two. He walked and talked and wanted everything. He started attending preschool for two hours, two days a week. It took more time to get him ready, reassure him and get him to school than he spent in class. I read him comforting books about mothers that always come back, promised him I would always return, but his intense fear of my leaving left me shaky. I wondered if he knew something I didn’t. At pick-up, two hours after frantically working at a nearby coffee shop, Jake would give me an extravagant hug and kiss and say, “Mommy and son! Together again!”
Even though I promised myself I would let her rest, I would call for Mom. When Neil was traveling. Just sometimes.
And Neil would figure it out, especially because Jake was verbally precocious. I called him the Reporter. Jake gave details about our day—zoos, playgrounds, museums, and every time Grandma visited. Jake would say, “Don’t be ridiculous, Daddy. Grandma’s coming.”
Once I had a child, all I could see were the multitudes of women who had their mothers. They cluttered parks, playgrounds, and birthday parties. At preschools they even had their own day: Grandparents’ Day.
These women complained about their moms wanting too much time with their kids, the numerous toys and bad food that they gave their children, but even they had to know that the grandma was the only person, aside from your spouse, who enjoyed the minutiae of milestones, funny statements, photographs and videos, who actually took pictures of you with your child. Who could blame me for calling for Mom, even if she was dead?
Each return seemed tenuous. When Mom visited, I pretended she was just a little dead. I envisioned her downtime in a cave, quiet and no pain. Each time she appeared she was paler, smelled worse. Her head wound expanded. Her walk became slower.
Jake wanted Grandma to go to Grandparents’ Day at his preschool. “You’re supposed to take someone that’s alive, baby,” I said.
He asked questions like:
“How did she die?”
“Will you die?”
“Will I die?”
In the car, he started saying: “Don’t kill me.” “Put both hands on steering wheel.” “Stop at stop sign!” “Stop at red light!” “Wear your seatbelt” (even though I always wore my seatbelt.) “Too fast. Too fast. Slow down. I like it slow.”
Our neighborhood had narrow sidewalks so Jake rode his bike with training wheels in the street. Any time a car was within sight, Jake stood up, carried his bike to the side of the road and then waited for the car to pass. I approved of this, but Neil said, “He has too much fear.”
But then Jake didn’t. He stopped listening about climbing on furniture, about jumping off of tables and couches. He stopped worrying about crossing the street and walked on red. He ran away from me. Each time I scolded him he said, “Don’t worry, Mama. I can come back from the dead, too.” When I complained to Neil, he said, “You’re the one who keeps having your mother come back.”
“At least she helps. Your parents are alive and we barely see them,” I said.
“At least they don’t give our son nightmares.”
“He loves her.” That part was true.
One day, I was searching for Mom and Jake in the laundry room when the neighborhood dogs started barking, howling like a giant car alarm. Mom and Jake hustled back in. They had snuck outside for Jake to ride his bike. “Why don’t dogs like Grandma?” Jake asked.
He insisted on wearing an eye patch like Grandma. I gave in and bought him one, hoping he would lose interest. He grabbed Mom’s hand and said, “Now we match.” I told people he was going through a pirate phase. Jake only took the patch off in the bath and when he slept at night. I started to worry that somehow his eye had rubbed away. At night, I pointed a flashlight above his head and watched his eyeball reassuringly flutter beneath his closed lid.
When I was five months pregnant with my daughter, I accidentally drugged Jake. Neil was in California selling a cabinet company. Jake was three and healing from tonsil surgery. I slept little between the baby jostling in my belly and my toddler son who couldn’t tolerate pain medicine. Jake kept vomiting and crying whenever I tried to make him drink Pedialyte. Every swallow and vomit hurt. “If you don’t drink, I’ll have to take you back to the hospital. They’ll put a needle in you,” I threatened. He hadn’t peed in a day.
At night I huddled next to Jake in his bed. His flushed body burned against mine. I debated taking him to the ER for fluids and to break his fever, but he kept saying the hospital made him sick. My daughter jabbed my ribs and I cursed Neil for having to be gone. I swore I wouldn’t panic and accidentally summon Mom; she deserved rest and I wanted to keep her as intact as possible to meet her newest grandchild.
Our prescription medicines were on the kitchen shelf, out of Jake’s reach. His anti-nausea medicine was in the same size bottle as Neil’s high blood pressure one. As soon as Jake started chewing the pill, I realized it had looked a little too large in my hand. I tried to grab the pill out of his mouth.
I hustled him over to the bathroom and put my finger down his throat. He swung his arms. “You’re going to make me throw up.”
“I’m trying to make you throw up.” I explained that I gave him the wrong medicine.
“Dad’s medicine is hot. You shouldn’t give me Dad’s medicine,” he said.
I started to cry. Jake stared, stunned, then he tried to reassure me, “It’s okay. Sometimes you give me the wrong medicine.”
I called Poison Control. The nurse on the other line assured me that Labetalol in that dose, based on Jake’s weight, wasn’t toxic. I had to keep him awake and watch for unusual behavior for three hours. She would call to check in. Jake and I sat side by side watching The Wizard of Oz, the mellowest I had ever seen my three year old. His sister thumped around in my belly. Jake sat like he was high and kept pointing at the wicked witch and saying in a slow voice, “Is she nice?”
My head bobbed, trying to stay awake to keep Jake awake. I told myself I could parent on my own. I didn’t have to keep dragging Mom back, but then she appeared. Her head oozed a goopy green. Her eye patch sagged.
Jake smiled and said in an eerily slow voice, “Grandma.”
She sat next to us. “I don’t know why you made such a fuss,” she said.
“I drugged my child.”
“On accident. It’s better than Benadryl. Look how mellow he is. I rubbed whiskey on your gums when you were teething.”
“So you do remember my childhood.”
“A little. Most of my memory is fuzzy.”
After three hours, Jake’s energy eased back into his toddler body. He and Mom took turns pretending the wicked witch was in the closet. They used the office trashcan as a bucket to pour pretend water on her.
I waddled up to my room to nap, nervous and unsteady. A few days later, at Jake’s three-year checkup, I blurted that I accidentally drugged my child. The doctor had the physician's assistant take Jake away to color while we talked. The doctor talked about changes in hormonal balances, the stresses of children, and then prescribed me Escitalopram. Just a mild anti-depressant. So smooth and light. A little added boost. Women love it. Helps steady them. Should be fine with the baby in my belly. All limbs and organs were formed. We had to take care of Mama now.
I twisted the amber prescription bottle in my hand. It was too easy to mess up, to endanger my child, and soon there would be two of them. I would have even less sleep and more stress. How could I manage? The only person I could trust with my child aside from Neil was Mom; odd to have someone who was missing part of her brain as the reliable, knowledgeable one. I vowed I would be more careful with her visits, only call for her when I really needed her, terrified of facing motherhood without her.
Mom wanted to see Dad. She had been married to him for thirty-five years, after all. I was seven months pregnant.
We began the hour drive north. Mom sat in the passenger seat, hands in her lap.
“Put on your seatbelt,” I said.
“I’m already dead.”
“Buckle up, Grandma!”
She listened to her grandson.
Maybe it was the close quarters of the SUV, maybe it was because I was pregnant and my senses were heightened, but Mom reeked, like a body beyond decay. Jake didn’t seem to notice. Was being around his dead grandmother destroying his sense of smell?
Dad avoided anything that made him uncomfortable, so Mom and I parked outside his suburban house, a fifteen-minute drive from our old farm, and spied. We followed his mint-green Camry to the local WalMart.
“Is that a new car?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, can you believe it?” I grew up with used, boat-like Impalas.
“What’s wrong with the color?”
“He got a good deal, and his wife has bad taste. She likes cow art. It’s all over their house.” Dad had bragged about how he went to the dealership and negotiated a deal because he paid in cash. He sold our farm and paid in cash on his new suburban home, too.
In the WalMart parking lot, I hesitated. Her death was impossible to hide. Mom wore her eyepatch and my scarf over her head, but fluid seeped through the material, changing the bright blue to dark. I should have given her a hat. Her former rosy skin was green and rigid, her walk a lurching stumble. Her shoes flopped off in the back. Her casual pants and burgundy top were disheveled with ragged seams.
We swung Jake between us as we walked through the parking lot. I worried Mom’s arm would fall off. My pregnant belly clenched.
At the entrance, the elderly greeter started to say hello and then stopped and stared at Mom. He stroked his beard. “Are you feeling well, ma’am?”
In the sporting goods’ aisle I gave her a bicycle helmet. “We’re undercover, after all,” I said. She nodded. I hoped her head’s fluid wouldn’t stick to the helmet.
Jake looked serious in his “I Am a Big Deal” T-shirt. I held him on my hip to keep him from barreling to the toy aisle. He had seen a helicopter he desperately wanted. Dad pushed the cart while his wife Ida waddled around on her cankles.
“I shouldn’t be surprised he remarried,” Mom said, as she looked through the binoculars she had grabbed.
I patted her back. “You have nothing to worry about. She’s terrible. When I asked him why he was marrying her, he said: ‘I’m an old man, I don’t have many options.’” His wife was a widow, eight years older. She wore clothes with elastic. She grew up on a farm like Dad and thought people with college educations and any cheese other than cheddar were too fancy. But what made her unbearable were moments like when we watched President Obama’s inauguration at their house. She complained, loudly and repeatedly, that we were losing German America, and Dad, a lifelong Democrat, said nothing.
He loaded his cart with more toilet paper than two people should ever need when Jake lunged for a ball bin. He clasped the wire mesh like a monkey. I pulled, but Jake wouldn’t budge. “No ball, not yours,” I said. No amount of shushing stopped his screams. Dad looked at us. His mouth opened in a giant “Oh.” Mom stood tall, looking as regal as possible while wearing a bicycle helmet. “Hello, Frank,” she said.
Dad paled. “You died on me. It’s not my fault I remarried and haven’t seen the kids.”
“No one said it was.”
“What are you doing here?” Dad glanced at Mom’s head, hidden by the helmet.
“Our daughter needed us.”
“I was a good husband. I never hit or raised my voice, not once.”
Mom looked at him as if he was one of her children. “You did your best.”
“Are you going to Grandparents’ Day at Jake’s preschool?” I asked. Jake had let go of the cage and burrowed his head against my chest. He mumbled “ball” over and over. I rocked him in commiseration.
“Didn’t you get my itinerary? We’re doing a cruise around Cancun,” Dad said.
“Oh right, I’m sure I have it.”
“Are you sure? I can send it again.” Dad looked worried.
“So now you’re retired and traveling?” Mom crossed her arms. Dad called me every other month to say which upcoming trip he and his new wife had: an Italian cruise, an Alaskan cruise, a Caribbean cruise, a Panama Canal cruise. He had kept promising Mom retirement and travel.
His wife waited at their shopping cart. “Come on, Frank,” she said.
“It was good to see you,” Dad said. He followed her as she pushed their cart. The toilet paper tower wobbled.
Jake pointed at Dad. “Who’s that guy?”
“Your grandpa, sweetheart.” I kissed the top of Jake’s head and clutched his little fingers.
Mom and I exited WalMart through the automatic doors, but Jake ran back and wailed, “Helicopter!” Mom tripped over him and swayed. I tried to move into her path to break the fall, but my stomach seized with my daughter’s jabs. Mom’s body didn’t bend. She toppled, face first, as if she were a tree.
The WalMart greeter bent down to the ground and asked, “Are you hurt, ma’am?” He was older with wispy white eyebrows and hair curling out of his ears: retirement age if not beyond. He helped Mom up. She had a hard time bending her knees.
He insisted on walking us to my car. I worried about him inspecting Mom. He walked just as stiff and slow as her. I wasn’t much faster, waddling along and carrying Jake on my hip.
“Why don’t you walk and help your mommy there, young man? She’s already carrying a lot,” the greeter said to Jake.
“We’re all right,” I said, refusing to unleash Jake in the parking lot.
At my car, the greeter gave Jake a sticker. I took the backing off but Jake said, “I do it,” and he plastered the big yellow smiling face on his forehead. Wisps of his bangs were stuck in it. He was going to howl when we took it off later.
The greeter came over to the driver’s side and motioned for me to roll down the window. “I wanted to make sure you made it safely. Didn’t want anything to happen to the little one, or the one in the oven.” Then he added, “It’s not my business, Miss, but your mother doesn’t look so good. That was quite the fall. Does she have seizures? Is that what the helmet is for?” Crap. We stole it. I vowed to do a good deed later to make up for the accidental theft.
Instead of driving to my house, I turned off the highway and headed east, to our old property, the spot.
I didn’t park in our former driveway, in case the owner came home. I didn’t park on the side of the road like previous times, from fear that someone would hit our car. Instead I parked in an inlet, by the creek.
Jake looked down at the rushing water. “Is that where you used to play?” he asked and I smiled, pleased he remembered my stories of collecting crawdads and trying to surf.
“I could never get you out of that water, even when the sewage leaked,” Mom said. I ignored that she stumbled more, that her skin was darker and leathery. Her head wound expanded like a canyon.
Cars flew past. Their wind whipped around us. My heartbeat sped up. All I could think about was oncoming cars and the danger of the road. People sped on it, avoiding the traffic and police officers on nearby Highway 7. Too many people thought country roads equaled doing whatever you wanted.
A man in a red sedan pulled over. He looked middle-aged and trustworthy, like a dentist. He rolled down his passenger window. “Do you need a ride?” he asked.
“People do live out here, you know,” Jake said and I was pleased that he remembered what I used to say to people who stopped, sure that I was lost or helpless. I liked Jake claiming a place that didn’t belong to him. Mom and I thanked the man and he drove away.
I pointed at the white cross with Mom’s name in polished black letters, as if marking the spot where she died was a compliment. At the bottom were the laminated family pictures from my wedding. In one of the photographs I looked at her and she looked away, as if I was already losing her.
Mom touched our wedding picture, the last time we had all been together. She died a week later. “It was a nice day,” she said. The loose straps of the red bicycle helmet wobbled as she talked.
“What happened that day?” I wanted her to explain why I had to live the rest of my life without my mom because of a few dumb seconds.
“How am I supposed to know? I had a head injury. Remember?” She pointed at her helmet.
“Why weren’t you wearing your seatbelt? You always wore it. Were you putting it on?” Her car rolled 1.5 times. Partially ejected. Died in seconds. The ambulance was there just to scoop up her body.
“The last thing I remember was thinking about work, I had a presentation, and pulling out of the driveway. The rest is just static.” She waved her arms as if pushing it away, reminding me of Jake when he was caught doing something wrong and he wanted to get as far away from his mistake as he could.
Mom walked up the ditch’s bank and then crossed the street, not bothering to look for traffic. At the end of our driveway, the too-large steel mailbox, impenetrable to drunk teenagers with baseball bats, had someone else’s last name. “Why are there llamas on our property?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Apparently he throws a lot of parties. He owns a Mexican food chain.”
“That’s a terrible color.” Our formerly red house was now painted a bright purple.
“The truck driver tried to sue us. His company said the truck was damaged, but it looked fine. He wasn’t even hurt,” I said.
Mom pointed. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing, does he? Look at all the erosion.”
Dad had lined tires along the banks of our creek, but the new owner removed them. The land sloped.
I pushed. “Did you even see the truck? He came from the east. The sun was rising. It must have been bright.”
She looked at our landscape, the one she never fully adopted. She missed the lush trees and windy roads of her childhood, not Colorado’s open flat plains. “It’s not like I wanted to die. At least a few more years would have been good.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Some families are unlucky. You just have to enjoy what you get.”
“The driver is working as a cook at Applebee’s now. You could bring some wrath from the other side. Put some fear into him,” I said.
“Now why would I want to do that?”
“He took you away from us. You should make him see what he did. Aren’t you mad?”
“Oh baby girl, don’t waste your life on that. He has nothing to do with me.”
“Robert Thompson III. That’s his name. He’s sixty-five years old. He has three children.”
“I don’t want to know.”
And when she said it, neither did I.
“Your death took away my sense of safety,” I said.
“Good. Maybe you’ll live longer than I did.”
“Why do I have to live the rest of my life without you?”
“Baby girl, I’m right here.” The bright sun amplified her greenish skin. Her hair wasn’t thinning. It was falling out. She looked like a molting chia pet.
Each time a car whizzed past us, I braced myself and held my pregnant belly with one hand and Jake’s arm with the other. Until he wasn’t there.
“Look, Mama, a penny!” Jake called, from the middle of the street.
A pick-up truck was speeding toward us. The baby thumped against my insides. “Get out of the road! Not safe!” I yelled.
“It’s okay, Mama.” Jake smiled and picked up the penny. The copper glowed in the sunlight.
I ran to Jake. The driver blared his horn. Mom stumbled behind. I couldn’t get Jake to the side of the road in time. I pulled him close and hunched my pregnant belly over him, protecting him as best I could. Mom grabbed his hand. The truck bore down on us. I felt the heat from its engine and then the truck made a squealing wide circle. The driver blasted his horn some more as he sped away.
I pulled Jake to the side of the road. “Jake, you have to be safe!”
“What is this, Mama?” He opened his hand. Next to the shiny penny was a long wrinkled thing. It looked like a dead worm.
“How did that fall off?” Mom asked and wiggled her right hand, the index finger now missing.
“Can fingers fall off?” Jake asked.
“Not usually,” I said, and felt like my last three meals were about to reemerge. What would fall off next? Mom’s head?
Jake said, “We’ll get a new one. Or sew it on. You know how to sew.”
Bless him. He had my irrational, hopeless heart.
On the way home, Jake kept singing about Grandma losing her finger and loving her to pieces. Mom stayed silent. I put her finger in the cup holder, unsure where the proper place was. At red lights, I snuck glances. Her wound gaped larger. Everything hung on her. When I was pregnant with Jake, an elderly woman said, “You must be carrying a boy.” I asked her how she knew and she said, “You look radiant. Girls steal a mother’s beauty.” I thanked her, despite my shock, but now as a mother, I understood. Children depleted their mothers. They took energy and health. Apparently, children could even cause fingers to fall off.
I knew as a mother, I would take care of my children, no matter the cost, just as Mom wouldn’t stop coming as long as I called for her, no matter how many parts of her body she lost. But at some point the child had to help the mother. I decided my daughter’s name then: Augusta. My mother’s name.
Mom waited in our family room. She examined our pictures; looking at the events she had missed the last ten years. I knew that as Jake’s Mom, and for my little girl who would arrive in a month, I had to let Mom rest. I would always miss her, but there was something worse than death—dragging the person you love around until they fell into pieces.
I kneeled in front of Jake. Smoothed his hair, avoiding his bright yellow smiley face sticker. “You’re my brave, tough big kid, right?”
“I love how you love Grandma, but it’s time for us to say goodbye to her.”
“No no no.” He shook his head so hard it almost whacked mine. “I was bad. Not Grandma. I’ll listen.” He gave his losing something precious, normally TV time, look.
“It’s not about consequences. We have to let Grandma rest. We don’t want her to fall apart.”
“Will she be back this year?” He didn’t have a handle on yesterday, today, months or weeks from now. He often said ‘will we go there this morning?’ when it was evening. I liked that he didn’t have a concept of time yet. Maybe loss wouldn’t be as painful for him.
“No my love. We’re saying bye bye to Grandma. She’s dead.”
“I’ll fight death.” He punched the air.
“I wish we could,” and I kissed his hair. It smelled fresh and like childhood.
I hugged Mom. I tried to give her my warmth, an apology for dragging her around. “I wish I was half as good as you,” I said.
“Oh baby girl, you’re already better than me. You’ve always been the adventurous one. You’ll travel anywhere, alone, no matter the language. You used to tear around on the horses and the three-wheeler, no matter how many times I begged you to wear a helmet. Don’t be afraid now. You’re a wonderful little Mama.” Mom kissed my forehead and added, “Don’t take the medicine. You don’t want to be a zombie. Trust yourself.”
But Jake wouldn’t say goodbye. He stomped the ground. “I don’t want her to go.”
Neil entered the room. Mom’s smell had reached a gag level, but he kissed her cheek. “Thank you for your help. I’m sorry it’s been so hard. We do love you.” I squeezed his hand.
Jake cried. Snot and spit oozed down his face. “I won’t let you take Grandma! I won’t let you!” I loved his drama and honesty. I dreaded the day when he would learn to hide his feelings.
I didn’t realize what wanting my mother had cost Jake. She was no longer my loss. She was our joint loss. I had taught him at three about death—what it means to lose someone essential to your life. I hated that I did that to my beautiful son, but at least I could spare my daughter.
Now that Jake is six and his sister three, most of the time he seems to have forgotten about his dead Grandma’s visits. But sometimes, late at night, I hear Jake calling for my mother.