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/melanie smith

Stardust Vigil

My mother is dying, and I cannot stop shopping. I am not a hoarder, and I detest malls. But I comparison-shop Dutch ovens because, after forty years of secondhand pots and pans, I need reliable cookware. I cinch a good deal on suede loafers because my favorite pair will soon wear out. I scour Craigslist for reclaimable wood. Sideboards, dough boxes, and bookshelves, all unneeded. Eventually I buy a sewing table that I make into a desk. Next, I search out cast iron pans. They are indestructible, which is why I need one.

*

My mother has been dying for a year. She has three cancers: CLL, and bladder and neuro-endocrine tumors. Prior cancers claimed her right kidney and invaded the left breast, twice. Doctors dug for the bladder tumor, but my mother is a hefty hen on a nest of swollen lymph nodes, and cancer knows how to hide. Her right leg bloats with a clot; two weeks later, the left one does as well. Her remaining kidney is compressed, and a tube is sewn into her back to drain it. Malignancy is having a feast. Her cancer is too meta to be tragic. It’s more like a bad joke, a cancer monster with a human head and arms. I don’t laugh, and I don’t cry. I know when I’m outdone.

*

          My mother is dying, but my youngest sister prohibits saying “death.”          “I will never use that word,” she proclaims in the hospital waiting room. Having watched my husband die, the word “death” comes easily to me, the same way “fuck” did when vulgarity lost its power to shock. Children imagine death as a remote island named Heaven or Hell. But my sister is a fifty-year-old woman with grown children.           I remember the widow in my grief support group who asked, “Can you stop saying your husband died?”           What did she prefer?          “Stardust,” she said. “I like to say a person has returned to stardust.”           You freak, I thought. Death was the only word that encompassed the cruel quicksand that gobbled up my beloved. That laughed at my impotence. And—in the end—that let me off the hook.            Just love him, cancer said, and I did.           I get why people don’t like the word. The theft of life reminds us that we are powerless. And only the foolish claim to know what lies beyond.           Most of us know we don’t know, which is why we avoid thinking about it.

*

My mother is dying, and my father—my poor father—leans over her with a cup of ginger ale. “He has dementia!” she shouts. “Make him stop!” Stop what? asks the nurse. The fizz burning in her throat. “You said you wanted ginger ale,” he says. “I didn’t hear you,” she snaps. He sits, red-eyed. Dementia doesn’t curb his kindness the way resentment of death does hers.

*

My mother is dying, and I’m hooked by clickbait. Every morning. The dreaded Kardashians, fetishized abs, Madonna’s pillow-lips, plastic surgeries gone bad. All about as far from cancer as one could imagine, yet also, not so far. I’ve seen my mother’s bloated leg and the crater where there used to be a breast. Underneath the fat and wrinkled skin is a tiny person who was once a knockout, according to my father. I wonder what it’s like to be encased in an unwanted body. Apparently, Madonna knows, as does the Kardashian clan, and they aren’t even sick, just vain. I don’t want to get out of bed. I resist leaping into the day. But I have to dress and drive to the hospital and pocket a parking stub and sit vigil in my mother’s room and slice bits of melon and offer sips of water from a paper straw. I begin to wake up to chest pains. I know that, though I can say the word death, I’m tired of this ritual. I want it to be over, and I’m angry at myself for wanting it to be over. Because when it’s over, she’ll be gone. And once a person is gone, there is a permanent hole in the universe. A black hole. Not of death, but of missed chances.

*

My mother is dying, but it’s nothing like the cruel joke she used to play when we were kids. She’d loll on the couch, complaining about how rotten we were. That we didn’t love her, so she had taken a bottle of pills and was near death. “Look, look,” she’d point. “I can see the angels coming to take me.” We were young—three, four, five—and we’d plead with her not to die, but die she did, with a dramatic roll of the head that launched a storm of tears. “Please, Mom,” we’d cry, “please don’t die. We promise we’ll be good.” By the third time she did this, I was onto the lie. “She’s not dead,” I told my sisters. “She’s faking.” That prompted a new story, that God would spare her if only her eldest daughter would behave. “Please, Mel,” my sisters would shriek, “if you don’t be good, Mom will die!” Choral condemnation that chased me into adulthood. I spent a lifetime hearing that message in one form or another, and now Mom is dying, which has nothing to do with my having been good or bad. Except that if I could, I would time-travel and tell my younger self that her long life proves I was a very good child. I think about how it will feel for there to be a space where there used to be that mother. The one people say is so strong, so smart, so wonderful. She wasn’t so wonderful to me, but there’ll still be a space when she dies. Is the other side of not-wonderful, wonderful? Or sad? Or both?

*

My mother is dying. I sit outside with a pear, and remember Auden’s poem about Icarus falling from the sky. People suffer; meanwhile, dogs do their doggy thing, it goes. Meanwhile, the torturer’s horse scratches its butt against a tree. Meanwhile, I eat my pear. I smooth its foil wrapper and fold it into a square. That night my sister says she is “getting trained” to do all Mom’s nursing “once she goes home.” If she goes home, I think. I know what my sister is taking on, because I did it for John. I don’t think she can do it. How can you walk toward a destination that you refuse to acknowledge? I ponder this question. Meanwhile, I unfold the foil square and wrap it around a new pear, for tomorrow.

*

My mother is dying in some other room in some other place while I froth hot milk for my cappuccino. The coffee is the same color as my new loafers. It is the same color as the warm milk Nonno—my grandfather—used to flavor with coffee and serve me in a saucer. Years later, when he was dying, my mother worked his boney legs bicycle-style and tried to make him eat. My aunt arrived with spaghetti and meatballs. “Mangia, mangia,” they said, “you have to keep your strength up.” Keep his strength up for what? Then my sister landed, leaned over to observe, “Uck, his breath stinks,” and launched into a description of her wedding dress. Welcome to Fantasy Island. I sat bedside and held Nonno’s hand. Sauce-stained Styrofoam topped the waste can like a greasy jack-in-the-box. I had been silent before, and I was silent after. But I was angry, too. That Styrofoam announced everything wrong with my world.

*

“Just fucking love your grandfather,” it popped up to say. I want to love my mother the way I loved Nonno and John, but I am tired, so tired. And yet, not nearly as tired as my mother. I sip the milk foam and read the day’s news: climate change, fires, war, genocide, disease. Death is omnipresent, but I got my frother with Amazon points, which makes it seem free. Something for nothing, something undeserved, like finding money on the ground. Cancer is undeserved, as are genocide and war, but magical thinking seems applicable only to good stuff.

*

My mother is dying, and my sister shouts at the doctor, “Why aren’t you doing more?” “You’re very angry, aren’t you?” he coolly observes. This makes her even angrier. Then our mother says that all the rubbing and washing and hovering about is driving her crazy. “Why are you helicoptering over me,” she snaps. “Do you have ADD?” My sister’s face goes white. “Fine,” she says, gathering up her things, and leaves. “When mom is gone,” she sobs later that night, “there’ll be no more joy in my life.” I know there’ll be joy in mine. My mother isn’t that powerful, which means that neither is death.

*

My mother is dying, and I wonder if I might be dying, too. I have an odd and terrible pain in my eye. Sometimes I can’t see, and sometimes I can’t sleep. My neurologist orders an MRI. At six-thirty in the morning, the hospital is empty. I tell myself I can tolerate “the tube.” Remember the Thai boys trapped underground by a flood? They meditated to ease their fears. I’m in the tube for forty minutes. I imagine the route to sixth grade. Frost heaves in hot-top, the weather-beaten house with the metal fence and black dog, a four-lane intersection with no walk-light, the graveyard strewn with trash. When I arrive at the redbrick schoolhouse, I turn around and reverse. “You did great,” says the technician, and I haven’t even finished my route. I’ll have the results in two days. I wonder if I have a brain tumor. I wonder if I am dying. No one bears witness to my fear. No one, either, when my life passes before my eyes, just as they say it does. Surprise: Mine is a series of faces: husband, son, father, sister, and yes, mother. A geography of love.

*

My mother is dying, and of course I am dying. That’s what John’s death taught me. One minute it was an April day, and the next, the earth split open and I saw it. The Land of Liminality, as I call the space in which you are suspended while anticipating death. Not my death—not today, anyway. There is something wrong inside my head, but they can treat it. Still, I know that all life is preparation for death. Not for disaster, but for exit. And let’s get this straight: Death is not dignified. It is life that we dignify. If you make shit of your life, don’t expect Terms of Endearment at the end. Humans are clunky animals, and there are too few words to convey such truths. I lie in the dark resisting sleep and listen to a podcast of rain sounds. Ceaseless drops reminding me, This is it, this is all.

*

My mother is dying. I think about the stardust thing, so New Age, so glib. I too have a detested word: Namaste when uttered by white women in yoga gear. They don’t know what it means, only the virtue it may signal, depending on whether you think it is cultural appropriation. Or simply bullshit, like I do. After John died, I kept expecting him to come home. I didn’t hold a funeral because he donated his body to a medical school that took an entire year to cremate his remains. Not until I held that heavy box did my body get that he was gone. Before that I had looked out the front door once a week, scanning for him. Inside the box was a plastic bag into which I poked a wet finger. I put the gray dust that adhered to it into my mouth and swallowed. I don’t know why I did it. But that’s the moment I stopped mourning. “Rock of ages, cleft for me,” goes one of my favorite hymns of childhood, “let me hide myself in thee.” I played it at John’s memorial. Later I scattered his ashes in a coastal quarry of granite chunks dotted with greenery and nesting birds. But the place I return to most often is the mountaintop we last hiked. He was dying when he said, “Let’s come back in a year,” when the blueberries would again be ripe. We both knew that by then he would be gone, but I tapped out a cell-phone reminder anyway. It comes up annually. I sit on a rock and eat handfuls of sun-warmed berries. Sometimes I look up and see his great blue eyes gazing back, not in the clouds, but in the diffuse light, soft with love. John is in me and above me, but he is not beside me, his hefty arm around my slumbering body. Bodies that sleep together move in tandem when one or the other rolls away. At least we did. Five years later, I still keep to my side of the bed. “Add water and reconstitute” should be the label for cremation remains, I think, and laugh. But inside me, death is an ache. Is it a substance like cancer, or emptiness, like the box? “We are like Swiss cheese,” my therapist says. “We have our holes.” I scorn namaste, but I swallowed John’s ashes. How much would I have had to swallow to fill that hole?

*

It’s Mother’s Day, and mothers all over the world are dying, including my own. I was born on Mother’s Day, and the year my son was born, my birthday fell on Mother’s Day. The stores are full of cards and flowers, and my mother’s room is full of cards and flowers, and the cards are full of platitudes. Thinking of you. Stay strong. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. I need a card that says, “Sorry we wasted our time together fighting,” or “I regret that we never took a hike together so I could show you the cabin where I write.” Forget hiking: I have never even gone on a walk with my mother. Never read my essays to her. Never had her visit my writing class so she could see what I do. Never ever repaired the damage done by her verbal abuse and screaming rage and bottomless contempt for my child-self. Never spoke about the shame that stuck like tar to the child-body she disparaged. Of this I speak to no one but the therapist. I need a card that says I’d be happy with the simplest of apologies. My mother is shrunk like a shard of soap, a remnant of the old monster. She opens her eyes and fixes my gaze. “When things were bad, like when I had breast cancer,” she says, “your sisters all wanted something from me. But I wanted something from you. I knew you would tell me the truth, you wouldn’t sugarcoat it. You—you were always the strongest.” Is this a compliment, her desire to be mothered by the daughter she failed? Is my “strength” the way I coped with my own truths told and ignored, or punished? Is this her confession that I never had it in me—to give me what I needed? “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she says, weeping. “I’ve always loved you.” I search her eyes. They are small and pinkish. A child’s eyes, I think. A child that somebody hurt. I’ve done the grief work. Sobbed on the floor, on my hands and knees. “I want a real mother,” I told the therapist. That was years ago, when my eyes were red slits for a week. Now there are women friends where once there were none, and they are my mothers and big sisters. And there is me. “We’re okay,” I tell my mother and take her hand. “I’m not angry anymore.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says, as if remorse needs repeating. But I know from my own apologies that once is enough to open the latch and set forgiveness free, if we are ready. I am ready. She isn’t faking anymore, and neither am I. “We’re okay,” I say. “Really.”

*

My mother is dying, and I know mothers carry fetal cells from each pregnancy. “Feto-maternal microchimerism” from Greek for a monster assembled from different animal parts, in this case mother and fetus. This means that something of me—and of my sisters and thus our father—will quite literally die with her. Some of our pain, our brokenness, our rage. And some of our joy, too, though not all of it. But it’s a two-way street, because some of her cells will live on in us. I picture myself sitting in a therapist’s office across from a person-sized feto-maternal cell. What did the monster mama-cell say to the daughter in therapy? “You can’t get rid of me so easily.” Ba-dum-bump. A joke about eternal life, if you will. Or of life continually offering second chances, and third and fourth, and so on. My cells inside my son, his cells inside me—an unconditional gift, whether we want it or not. “This intricate exchange of genetically foreign cells creates a permanent connection,” says a scientific paper. “The studies presented here demonstrate that the connection exists at the most basic, granular, cellular level.” At the level of stardust, perhaps? What don’t I know? A lot. I will not swallow my mother’s ashes, this I do know. But that’s because I don’t have to.

*

When my mother dies, I will go to the quarry where I scattered John’s ashes. Ironically, it’s a place she loves, with a view of beaches, fishing boats, and a lighthouse. She took us there as children and called to us as we scrambled over boulders ringing the dark green pond. One slip of the foot; that would have ended it all. We are a breath away from death, always. The pots, the pans, the shoes, and even a wedding dress, remind us. Impermanence is our most permanent feature. I will study the tide, and not because it’s a hackneyed metaphor for grief but because of the pebbles, trapped in crevices, that swirl under waves and carve out bowls in the rock. Even granite is impermanent. Even granite has holes. Each day the tide deposits sand and kelp. Soon periwinkles creep along the bottom, and barnacles gather on the rock. Green fronds dance in the currents, and gulls hover for a baby crab. Minnows zigzag in water hung with salp. The tidal pool is to a child a world unto itself, the same way a dollhouse is. A world in which she is master storyteller, and perhaps even God. That’s who I was at seven, barefoot and benevolent, and knee-deep in brine. In my universe, death returns us not to stardust, but here, to the blood of the ocean, to rocks, and to life. This is all, and for a time, it is enough.

​Melanie Smith is a 2019 graduate of the GrubStreet Writers Memoir incubator. Melanie has been published in literary magazines including Ruminate, Windhover, and Blue Mountain Review, and enjoyed residencies at the Elizabeth Bishop House and the Vermont Studio Center. This summer, Melanie was a resident at Craigardan. Melanie has taught in Boston University’s Writing Program since 2008.

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