Whenever I think of my mom dying, I think of her teeth. I think of that brown black gunk in-between her two front teeth that I saw the day she died. I wondered then and I wonder now and I have wondered every day in between – did the mortician floss her teeth? They are supposed to take care of things. Make her “presentable” and “clean” and “acceptable” by society’s standards. Make her “comfortable.” Which really, truly means making the survivors as comfortable as possible when they look at their dead mom. That stuff matters. Because I can’t get away from the idea that my mom’s body is forever going to be preserved with brown-black gunk between her two front teeth. She was in the hospital three days and I didn’t notice it until day 3. Someone said it was blood. That means she bled. In her mouth. How did blood get there? Did she bite herself? Hard enough to bleed enough to stain the plaque in between her two front teeth? Did the mortician brush her teeth? Did he floss there? Did he just wire the jaw shut and glue the lips?
This matters to me more than it probably should. She wasn’t buried in a bra because we forgot to take one to funeral home when they prepared her. This doesn’t bother me. Even though I saw her breasts sunk back into her armpits. A bra would have made her shape more normal. I don’t care about that though. I care about the blood in her teeth.
I think I have been numb for a long time with her death. I had sad moments. And I coped. I didn’t cry every day. When my sisters both told me how much they cried, I felt like I was heartless because I cried far less than either of them.
I cried when she died. I cried so hard in the hospital that I was shushed. I was numb though. I wasn’t crying from pain. Or from loss. I was crying from dread. I didn’t feel those things yet. But I knew—I KNEW—they were coming. The way the cold comes with the dark. Like when you hurt yourself and for a split second it doesn’t hurt. Like slicing your finger deeply when you’re cutting a carrot. You hear the knife slice through your flesh with a whisper. You see the layers of skin, all but white, splitting apart and a dark red line forming layers below the surface. You know it is going to hurt very bad for a very long time. You know the damage could even be severe. But it doesn’t hurt. And yet you still gasp and swear and cry. Because that anticipation, that knowledge, that dread is enough to make tears flow.
That is what it was like in the hospital.
And for many months, I kept reassessing the wound thinking, it’s not so bad after all. I’m stronger than I thought. I heal faster than most. I have a secret salve in my blood that helped this not hurt like it should. I was going to be okay.
Still, I knew it couldn’t be all okay. I couldn’t have gotten away so easily. And I didn’t. It took time to catch up with me. Like on a cold night. And you wear lots of sweaters and mittens and coats and you might make it longer than the person without a coat. But that cold will eventually get it. And maybe it will be worse because the sweaters and coats will trap the ice right next to your skin where it will burn you and freeze you at the same time.
“That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.” – John Green, Looking for Alaska
I had gone weeks without talking to my mom before. Months without seeing her. I guess it took awhile to sink in. I guess it took some personal crises. Me needing her to really feel the absence of her. To really let the truth sink in – I am momless.
I am feeling it now. And I just want to know if they flossed her teeth! Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t ask the nurse for some floss? Or use my fingernail. Dammit. What if she is forever preserved with the blood of her death stuck in between her teeth?
I cannot remember the last thing she said to me. We spoke on the phone. I know what we spoke about. I can easily assume we said “I love you” and “I love you, too” at the end of the conversation. But I do not know who said what to whom. I do not remember the last words we spoke to each other. I do not know the last words she said ever. I do not know if they were important. Or if they were meaningless gibberish rattled off by someone’s whose brain had suffocated from lack of oxygen from the stroke. Did she try to say something more and it didn’t come out?
“There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can't know better until knowing better is useless.” John Green, Looking for Alaska
After the burial, the funerals, I went online and I researched how people are embalmed. I researched how they decay. Each week I would look up what was happening to her body. The way you go online during a pregnancy and look up what is going on with that baby. The eyes are blinking. Eyelashes grow. The kidneys work. I learned about how different caskets and vaults affect the process. I tracked it all. Because it was the only way I could connect with the muscles and bones and hair and skin and miles of blood vessels that had given me life, given me meaning, and been my mom. I do not know what her soul is experiencing. I cannot look that up on Wikipedia. But I could track the decay of her body. And I did.
I know about bloat and rigamortis and the bacteria that fester in the stomach. Yet I still have nightmares about the dried blood between her teeth.
She’s dead and I am just beginning to grasp the finality of it.
It’s been a domino effect. It’s not enough that my mom is dead. It also means my dad’s wife is dead. And he is single. And he is different. And my kids’ grandmother is dead. And my siblings’ mother is dead. And they are different. Things ripple and spiral and snowball. It’s not just thing one thing. This one really big, enormous thing. It’s like a tornado and it pulls out pieces of my life that were in place. It creates more and more holes. The destruction isn’t over. It might just be beginning.
I look back now at pictures and at events. I think of Noelle being born. That was six months before she died. Or camping. Four months before. I think of our last phone call. Five days before. I keep time like that now. I stare at pictures and I tell her smiling face, “You will die in six months.” Because I want her to know. I want her, in some alternate universe, to be as prepared as possible. To not leave with things unsaid and things undone. She did a lot before her death. She had Christmas all ready. Presents all wrapped. Visiting teaching done. All within five days of December. We sort of kidded if she knew on some level. I like to think that in some alternate universe, me telling her that her life would soon be ending had somehow made its way to her, subconsciously, and she was closing as many doors as she could. Still, I warn her pictures. Because maybe in some other alternate universe the message will be stronger and she’ll avoid her fate altogether.
And somehow, in that alternate universe is an alternate Lara and she won’t have to feel this feeling. This feeling I only have the edge of right now and it’s already too much to stand. Something that’s crushing me and hollowing me out and stretching me beyond capacity at the same time.