The story so far:
Mother died on a Wednesday. There came a period two weeks before the first lilacs burst into bloom where she could not breathe and her chest rattled with the effort. Father/Doctor fussed over her in a way I’d never seen, even kicking out Sister DeMarco. He would sit in that room off the parlor, alone with mother. I peeked in and saw him kissing her hand lovingly and stroking her hair. When he looked towards the window, the filtered yellow light illuminated his face. Tears dampened his careworn features. I felt I had intruded on something private so I escaped to the backyard where Sister DeMarco was hanging laundry on our clothesline.
I plopped down in the dirt and started playing with my army guys. I knew things must have been bad. Sister DeMarco didn’t even yell at me. She looked at me with this mixture of sorrow and pity and went right on hanging bedsheets and mother’s underthings.
I was wearing my Sunday clothes that day and they were getting all dirty. I smeared the dirt on my palms, delighting in the dusty brown coating. I picked up handfuls of dirt and let the wind blow it all over me. I was a wizard and the dust was magic. The dust would ward off the evil eye from Sister DeMarco and turn her into a goat that would eat my mother’s underwear right off the line. I giggled aloud.
“Boy! What’s so funny?” Sister DeMarco snapped, “You’re making a mess of yourself!”
I ignored her…and she didn’t have the heart to continue chastising me so she harrumphed and continued clipping clothes to the line. I imagined creating a magic potion mixing the dirt with water, lilac flowers, grass, and sunshine. I could make a magical elixir and maybe it would cure my mother’s cancer. That’s what Father/Doctor said it was. He said it was cancer and that it was basically eating my mother from the inside out. A monster that we couldn’t see or touch…a cowardly monster that we couldn’t even fight. All we could do was sit and watch our mother silently fade away.
One morning, I awoke with the sun and went out to the front porch. Father/Doctor usually arrived early and would sit on the porch with Sister DeMarco having coffee and discussing mother’s condition. I ran outside to the front porch, but he wasn’t there yet, so I went and sat on the porch swing by myself to wait for him. My bottom had barely touched the seat when I saw the first blooms of purple on the dew-covered lilac bush. They were just opening for the first time to the morning sunlight. Before my eyes, it seemed they were opening, yawning, after a long winter’s sleep. I turned and ran back into the house where I nearly ran over Sister DeMarco as I ran to my mother’s room. She didn’t even yell at me but kept on walking with her hand over her mouth. I had to tell mother about the lilacs.
As I entered mother’s room, the harsh morning sunlight nearly blinded me. The room was cold and the window shades, normally closed were thrown wide open so mother could see the blooms of the lilacs outside the window. Father Doctor stood in the corner with his hands shoved in his pockets, his head down. I looked at him first and he raised his head, tears pooling in eyes that reflected the inexorable pain he was feeling.
My gaze swung to mother and I wished I hadn’t looked. I should have remembered her young and beautiful. I should have remembered her with vivid green eyes and shining dark hair. I should have remembered her laugh, her smile, the roses in bloom on her cheeks when we swung on the porch swing together, and Father twirling her around the parlor to swing music. What lay on the bed resembled nothing of what my mother was. A corpse lay on the bed, propped up by a plethora of goose down pillows. Her skin was gray and her mouth hung open, slightly, as if any moment, the breath of life might return to her like a baby bird sits and waits for its morning meal. Her skin held not an ounce of youth, but the waxing of death that had crept in upon the morning breeze to take the last breath from her slender frame.
The stillness of death is always the most shocking thing one ever sees. You never realize how much the living move in tiny ways that dispel the sense of eeriness of a completely motionless body. Her chest did not move, but lay sunken as if the weight of the world had crushed the life out of her. In the last few months, I had seen the lifeless bodies of my mother and my father. I had seen the violence of death and now, with my mother, I had seen the cruelness of death. What was the purpose of her living only to die like this? What was the purpose of God making a woman so beautiful only to make her waste away in a bed as an unseen monster ravaged everything about her that once caused strangers to stop and stare and my father to fall desperately in love with her? What was the point of it all? She wasn’t even an old woman…and yet old women like Sister DeMarco lived well into their nineties and never even had little boys who loved and needed them so desperately as I needed Momma.
“There’s your lilacs, Elizabeth…They’re blooming just for you…” Father/Doctor said unexpectedly, his voice breaking as he lowered himself to the floor. He broke into sobs. I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen, but finally, I went to him and wrapped my small, boyish arms around him.
“I loved her, you know…I always have…I wanted to give her everything…” He wasn’t making any sense to me and the impact of his words didn’t hit home. Mother was beautiful. Who wouldn’t love her? Who wouldn’t want to give her everything?
I didn’t realize, right away, that I was an orphan. I had thought often of what would happen when mother was gone. I figured I would always live in that house with my room upstairs in the sloped-ceilinged bedroom with the green walls. Sister DeMarco would cook and clean for me and Father/Doctor would continue coming by every day to keep me company. I would always play in the same backyard and swing on the same porch swing with the lilac bush at my back. I would preserve my mother’s sick room just the way it was to remember her…and I would keep her and Father’s bedroom exactly the way it was to remember him. Nobody had touched that room since he had died except for Sister DeMarco to clean. Father had a pair of slacks hanging over a chair that looked as if he had just taken them off. I loved going in there and sitting in that chair and touching those slacks. If I sniffed the jacket that went with those slacks hanging on the door, it still smelled of his after shave. The smell was fading now.
They were gone, but at least I had all their things to remember them by. I had all those books so lovingly selected by Mother. I could play in the parlor and pretend she and Father were still sleeping in. Any minute, Momma would come into the room in her peach silk robe and say, “Good morning, Darling” as she went to the kitchen to begin fixing breakfast for Father and I. She would then get ready for work while Father grumbled about how no wife of his should ever have to work.
Their ghosts could live with me always and I would grow older, get married, and have children of my own in this same house that knew so much of my childhood.
I didn’t yet understand the hushed conversations of Sister DeMarco and Father/Doctor when they thought I wasn’t listening. Father/Doctor always looked angry when they had these conversations. Sister was on the phone a lot when Father/Doctor wasn’t around, making glances around the room nervously and talking something about, “ward of the state” and “that poor boy”. I knew she was talking about me but had no idea what words like “ward” meant.
The worst day of my life was the day of my mother’s funeral and the day when my Uncle Frank returned to pay his condolences.