Spring

By Ella Wilson

When my mother died the nurse came running. I heard her feet, muffled and far, thudding down the carpeted corridor. A hospice is no place for running; no one is there to be saved, there are no emergencies. If someone dies it is not a failure. They have fulfilled their part of the bargain. But the feet were coming heavy and fast, sensible rubber heels, flesh-colored tights, tight blue uniform stretching, white piping flapping.

The nurse knew my mother had died before she entered the room; there was no other reason for my button pushing. I could not have needed anything, there was nothing left to need. We were beyond ice chips and painkillers, injections and flannels. We were at the end. Earlier in the evening a large black nurse called Esther had lowered her eyes, lowered everything, and said to me, “I think it will be tonight.”

I was twelve weeks pregnant and the three of us sat together not finding the situation as poetic as other people kept insisting it was.

The button meant it was over. The nurse took a few minutes to respond to the light. Maybe she was busy, or maybe she knew there is no rush with death. At last you have all the time in the world. Still, when she came she ran. She ran because that is what you do when you think somebody is dying, has died. She ran to pretend time was of the essence, when really, for once, the very essence of time had vanished. She ran out of respect. She burst through the door pretending she could be of help. I was embarrassed by her speed.

Spring had come to London and the air was cold and lively. Daffodils bobbed in the breeze and bulbs pushed their way through the unfrozen earth. My mother’s cancer was doing wonderfully, blooming, growing, spreading. It blossomed on her ovaries, each one round and ripe, swollen with sickness. It spread, climbing up her liver, trailing over her stomach, wrapping around her bowel. Her interior trellis was covered.

I sat next to my mother’s bed and held her hand. She lay propped up on too many pillows. Flowers and cards filled the room, not get-well cards though, there was not going to be any getting well. But not sympathy cards yet either. It was too late for hope, but too soon for sorrow. So just cards then, cards with pictures of flowers, flowers with cards attached. Flowers in the garden, spring in England, damn flowers everywhere. Blooming, blossoming, growing.

Flowers are the saddest thing to send a dying person. They sit and crow in their vase. So happy, so life-ful. In future, if someone I know is dying I will send a stick or a rock. Something quieter, more respectful.

My mother looked well for a dying person, her face glowed hot pink beneath her short grey hair. The other patients paled in comparison. She looked well, but she was not. Operations had been done, chemotherapy had been had, but her cancer had stuck. With the end officially in sight I went to stay with her. The only thing worse than dying seemed to be dying alone. When she was alone, she often thought she was dying, had died, so close to the edge she was. She needed someone else’s life to keep her footing in this one. And I had life in abundance. I was twelve weeks pregnant and the three of us sat together not finding the situation as poetic as other people kept insisting it was.

Our stomachs swelled in tandem, one with life, the other with death. We both felt sick and ate strange foods: she craved watermelon, I craved vinegar. We both fell asleep mid-sentence, we were a perfect team. Our days were made up of crossword puzzles, stories, old photos, doctors, foot-rubs (hers) and injections. For a dying person she was a lot of fun. The morphine helped.

The place was designed specifically for dying in and there I was life abounding under my jumper.

My mother rambled, not incoherently but wonderfully. She held up the container of ‘Artificial Saliva’ from her bedside table.

“What did they do before artificial saliva?” she posed the question. I knew she already had an answer.

“Before artificial saliva, there was a group of nuns on a hillside, Abyssinian nuns in a monastery, in a nunnery, the nuns, and they had these small, brass, hand-carved spittoons, and all they did all day was gob into them. Then it was bottled by Glaxo and shipped to hospices everywhere.”

She made a spitting noise and fell asleep.

I stood on one foot in the hospice cafeteria line, one foot resting atop the other. With less of me touching the floor, I felt somehow less there, only half as there as I had before. But the line moved forward, and short of hopping, I had no choice but to reenter fully the world of doctors, tubes, soup and sandwiches. From the cafeteria I could see my mother’s window. The curtains were closed which meant she was having a bed bath; as a large black lady with a flannel wiped my mother clean, I played with a fruit salad. Doctors and nurses sat at other tables. I wanted to be one of them: a fixer, not a waiter.

There was no lonelier place than the cafeteria. I was at the hospice to care for my mother and when I wasn’t doing that I was lost. No meaning to my presence. I sat and wondered if this was what it was like to be autistic. Locked in a world that means nothing to you. People move around, their faces shift and turn, words you understand float past your brain and leave you none the wiser. All I could do was watch her curtains, at the first twitch I would be out of my chair, up the stairs that squeaked underfoot and back by her side. Her face I knew, her words I understood. She flipped my switch and I could talk again.

My mother lay flush against the pillow — a circle of pink on a pillow of off-white. Off-white, off-pink, everything was off in the hospice. Even the water tasted off, like milk and cardboard.

“Ella,” my mother said, her voice cracked with meaning, “there’s something very important I have to tell you.” She gripped my hand tightly and looked deep into my eyes.

“The money,” she paused. “The money’s in the…” I waited.

“The money’s in the…” Suddenly her eyes opened wide then closed as she slumped to one side drooling. She lay motionless on the pillow for a second, then opened one eye slyly and collapsed with giggles. She died for real five days later.

Being pregnant in a hospice is like being drunk in a convent. The place was designed specifically for dying in and there I was life abounding under my jumper. I smuggled it in there everyday, sneaking past the security guard, a loose sweater covering my secret. Like a file in a cake of soap, somehow the life I carried might be enough to break us both out of there.

Sometimes during her bed-baths I went to the store get non-hospice coffee. Drinking from dying people’s mugs could not be at all good for my unborn baby. Walking to Starbucks, I took the path through the cemetery. There is comfort in death when it is no longer a feared possibility but a very real actuality. Surrounded by dead people, old earth, fallen stones, I felt death was all right. Millions of people could not be wrong; my mother would be one more. I stood in the graveyard and drank my tall Americano because all the death took a lot of energy out of me.

Every day I walked past Abbey Road Studios. Every day I saw German and Japanese tourists posing on the crosswalk, four at a time, arms mid-swing. Cars honked, buses waited. Every day I hated The Beatles a little more. John’s stupid little glasses, Paul’s ever-surprised expression, George’s whiny little face and Ringo. Why did they have to have their photo taken right outside of my mother’s hospice window? Why did my mother have to have a hospice window at all?

The cemetery was the only place I could be still. There was too much life on St. John’s Wood High Street; it scared me. Too many ladies with too many bags. Too many men with too many cell-phones. Their life assaulted me, I was coming from a world where there was not enough life to go round. Most people in the hospice only had half the amount they needed; they moved slowly, their skin pale, voices quiet. A little less each day until one day there was none left.

It was hard to believe these outdoor people would ever die. So full of life they were, so important, with big shiny cars, strong leather bags, noisy, noisy shoes. How could they die with that much stuff attached to them? As my mother gripped my hand people gripped their Blackberries.

Hang on tight.

Of all the nurses in the hospice my mother had two favorites: Esther and Emma. Esther was a large black lady who smelled strongly of soap and hugged my mother like she was her own. Emma was large too, but in a different way, clumsy and flapping she came into my mother’s room. She seemed like a simple girl from another era. Too much orange hair was pulled messily back on her head. She seemed like the kind of girl that would have taken in a pigeon with a broken wing or a squirrel with no tail and nursed it back to health. Sitting up all night with baby bottles of warm milk and small pieces of soft white bread. She would wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and hug the injured animal to her, giving it a name like Misty or Acorn. Day by day its strength would return, the wing would straighten and begin to flap. She would keep the animal a bit too long, finally releasing it when she could no longer cuddle it. And then she would cry big, fat tears into her apron and smear flour on her face from her bread-baking hands.

Emma nursed my mother this way, rough and loving, hopeful. I suspect she had accidentally killed a rabbit or two with her ham-like arms, embracing them too tightly. She talked to my mother as if she were a child and my mother liked it, remembering the better illnesses of her youth when being sick had meant missing school, staying in bed and eating ice-cream, helping her mother with the washing and looking out the window.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she told him the next day. “I want to live.”

In the night my mother wailed for help, darkness was too close to death and she was no longer sure which side of it she was on. She was close. We held hands and I pulled her back from wherever it was she was going. I calmed her as I would a baby ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m right here,’ and with those words, I felt her leaving me. Mummy’s here, I thought, and I was, with my 12 week old fetus all stumps and cells rolling about inside me. My mummy was leaving, I was becoming one. I tried to find this poetic, but instead I went and vomited through the disabled toilet seat on wheels that sat over the lavatory bowl in my mother’s bathroom. One day I sat on it to pee, not realizing that it had not been pushed back far enough to be over the toilet, and I peed all over the floor. This made my mother and me laugh all day. I rinsed the leg of my jeans in the sink and put on my mother’s pajama bottoms. Dressed like a patient, I could not leave her now.

My mother asked me the time whenever she woke up. No matter what I said she shook her head in disbelief. No, no it can’t be that time, she said. I asked her what time she thought it was. She had no idea. Just not that time.

One day of bright sun and skipping clouds my mother said she wanted to get some fresh air. She had walked her last walk weeks ago, too weak now even for a wheelchair. The doors of her room led out to the hospice garden. I opened them wide and let in air thin with the promise of spring. A time of new birth, hope and fluffy yellow chicks. The last daffodils bobbed in the garden, a huge heart-shaped bed of tulips graced the center of the hospice’s lawn. I pushed her bed forward towards the open doors. The bed moved like a ship, heavy yet graceful. We glided; we could not stop; I turned the back of the bed and we pivoted too far. Her short grey hair peaked over the back of the many pillows like moss on a white rock. We were off course, heading diagonally across the room. The front wheels did not turn so I swung the back round wildly to try to compensate. I over-compensated and we crashed. Air came from my mother, neither a laugh nor a wail. I backed up and we tried again. I needed to achieve a certain amount of speed to carry us over the lip of the door. Outside a patio sloped gently downwards and then grass fell away leading down to the heart-shaped bed of tulips. Too little momentum and we’d never make it, too much and we risked off-roading in a hospice bed, splitting a path through the decorative flowers.

I wanted to push my mother out of the hospice, to fly down Abbey Road, over the zebra crossing, flattening the tourists. To outrun grim prognoses and doctors that spoke while looking at the floor; to leave behind tumors like leeches that latch onto anything that stays still long enough: bowels, livers, stomachs. To roll away, a sack of organs on the run.  But instead we sat in the sunshine, our eyes and hands closed on one another, until the ward sister came and told us off and helped me to push the bed back in from the patio, closing the doors to keep the sickness in.

“I want to die,” my mother announced one day to the doctor doing his rounds. “I’m ready.” She did not die.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she told him the next day. “I want to live.” She did not live. Beyond choice, beyond thought, beyond time there is a place deep inside us. Somewhere between a lung and a kidney, tucked behind a liver, there is a place that knows when you’ll die. But you can’t get there, no surgeon can. It’s hidden and slippery and can’t be removed. You have to live with it, you have to die with it.

My mother gasped and rattled. She could not breath, she was drowning in her own water, her eyes rolled back in her head and her neck buckled on her chest. She fought each breath, the gaps between them lengthened, she was losing. Panic fluttered under her eyelids. I told her it was okay to let go, that it was time. It was the most stupid thing I have ever said. It was a lie. It was not what she wanted to hear.

Her last breath dragged in and never came out. It was over. It was not beautiful; it was not dramatic; it is just what happened.

I held her hand and pretended not to notice she had stopped breathing. I let her live for five more minutes, then I pressed the big orange button with the picture of a nurse on it. She ran into the room and was hit by the wall of nothingness. She looked at me and I looked near her. It was too soon for looking. She spoke to me; she asked if I had called my mother’s boyfriend or my sister. I made some noises using my mouth, but it was too soon for talking.

Every day I hated The Beatles a little more. John’s stupid little glasses, Paul’s ever-surprised expression, George’s whiny little face and Ringo.

I didn’t think it was important to let people know she had died. But it did matter and the nurse handed me my mother’s cell phone. I had to tell people straight away, she said. Couldn’t it wait, I thought, a minute, a day? But just as she had run towards death, giving the illusion of emergency, so must I. It is what people expect of a death: moments, seconds, screaming, crying, running, hugging, fainting, grabbing.

I called my mother’s boyfriend. I called my sister in Scotland; we did not cry. I hated them for not knowing; I hated that I did.

I sat and waited as I had done for the past few months. Nothing had changed, nothing had gotten bigger, nothing was all I had. And now people would come and try to take that away from me with their voices, their arms, their cups of tea.

My sister called my uncle, though I had asked her not to. His knees buckled. He grabbed the car keys and shouted to his wife. They both grabbed coats they hadn’t worn in years and inappropriate shoes. For this was an emergency. They jumped into the car and started moving without the lights on, no time! No time! My sister has died! He called his mother to tell her that her daughter had died, his wife shifted gear for him. It was insensitive to wake a ninety-three year old woman to tell her by cell phone that her daughter has died; but understand, this was an emergency. He missed turnings he knew, he ran red lights. His sister had just died. JUST died. He drove too fast; he had to. They parked the car with one wheel on the curb; they did not lock the car doors; they clutched each other through the car park, tripping and hurrying through the automatic doors. They burst into my mother’s room, their breath hard and ragged. They grabbed me; I was grabbed. They reeled and shook, gasped and moaned. And everything ground to a halt. I felt embarrassed for them. The emergency had passed, they had missed it.

Death is not the emergency, life is. Death is too late for driving too fast and wearing mismatched shoes. Life is the time for that. Hurry, hurry, you still have time. Death is a time for quiet, for walking, for wearing the right coat, for telling people in person, for waiting.

While they ran, drove, missed turns, I sat on the arm of the chair by my mother’s bed. I had not moved since she died. I was uncomfortable but afraid. I was safe on the arm of the chair, anything else seemed like a risk. I sat still and read her the entire Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. She had asked me to bring the book to her the week before; she said she had a favorite passage, that I would know it when I found it. I did not, so I read it over and over again. A rhythm was struck which necessitated breath, a rhythm that did not mean time but held me suspended. We both entered a trance.

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

I read of days, light, rays, night, things that rhymed, things that passed, things I didn’t understand. I could read the Rubaiyat to my mother a hundred times, there was nothing else to do. I hit my stride and turned the dry pages. My dead mother, Omar Khayyam, my baby and I. We hung in the dark, the air still, the time stopped. One long dead, one just dead, one not yet born, and I, none of the above.

My mother was still warm while I read to her. Her forehead was what I touched, smooth and hard. Small like a nut. Small like my baby. We would be all right the four of us. I would read the quatrains aloud; they would listen; maybe I would make them mint tea with honey as we dreamt of camels and sheiks.

My mother had grown-up in Bahrein; she knew of orange groves, Arabs and air so thick you could touch it. She had told me tales of her and Jasim, her boyfriend, how he owned a 1950’s Thunderbird and they drove it through the desert eating oranges by the bag load and throwing the skins out the window leaving a sticky, orange mess down the wing of the car. She had told me how he hired the botanical gardens out and threw huge parties for all their friends. We were safe amongst the pages of the book. I repeated the words like a charm to ward off the present.

She lay dead in the bed. The look of death was undeniable, so opposite to life as to be unmistakable. Something happens to people when they die and it is more than just a lack of life, they actively transform into something else. It is not that there is no life, it is that there is death. Not a negative, a positive. Death is in the face, in the place of life. I have seen two people dead, my mother and my father. They never looked more alike. It is in the lips and teeth that death dwelt both times I was in its presence. The face does something it could not when alive; it makes a mockery of anyone planning on playing dead, for you could never mimic it. The lips pull back and the teeth take on a feral quality. In death we are reminded that we are just animals after all: skin, bones and teeth. Our minds are useless. We cannot reason our way out of this one. Any more than a fox can argue with a car that has run it over, suggesting that perhaps its guts would work better on the inside.

First came my mother’s boyfriend and his sister. They knocked on the door and scared Omar Khayyam away. I have never recognized people less. Their faces did not make sense to me, as if seeing them meant everything else I had just seen was real and it couldn’t be. Because my mother wasn’t dead. I knew my mother well and she was alive, that was one of the things I loved most about her. So their faces meant nothing and I stared at them for a few seconds before thinking better of it and looking at my mother. But suddenly she looked different too; our guests had brought in a chill with them, an air of something I didn’t like, an air of acceptance. They hugged me, but I was not hugged. I could not be touched. So I sat on the arm of the chair and clutched my book.

They both looked at my mother. I wished they wouldn’t. I did not want her seen. I wanted to usher them out, nothing to see here. But there was, there was a dead woman in the room. Somebody brought me a cup of sweet tea, which is customary in England after any kind of shock. But it was too soon for shock and I did not drink it.

My uncle and his wife arrived shortly afterwards in their emergency clothes and emergency shoes. They found me quiet and still, on the arm of the chair. My mother’s skin started to turn purple and blotchy.

My uncle wailed, but it was too late for wailing and it left us both cold. My mother and I stayed very still. He took her hand; it was white and stiff.

“Her tiny, tiny hands!” he sobbed, holding them up for me to see. But I had seen. There was drama enough in her death, we did not need to look for more. But look he did and of course he found it in her tiny feet, little face and lovely hair. He found it when he came back the next morning so he could visit her once more in the morgue. Oh, to be the last to see her!

Drama abounded. I did not. There is drama in imagined death, in a world of planes and ropes and last-minute rescues. But real death, slow death, is not dramatic; it is grizzly, it is painful and it is unavoidable. No rope is there to be thrown when you are rotting from the inside out. Oh, to be lucky enough to be dangling from a cliff face! Where at least the hope of a rope still exists. But our cliff-face days had passed months ago, days when large doctors made promises they couldn’t keep and statistics were bent in our favor. There are no ropes in a hospice. Only comfy beds and nurses who hug you.

The nurses did not hug me when my mother died. They had hugged her when she had needed hugging, but they were familiar enough with death to know when situations were beyond hugging. They were not unkind; they were right. They stood back; they kept quiet. I did not feel ignored; I did not feel anything.

Somewhere between death and midnight I left my mother for the last time. I cut a piece of her hair to keep her with me always. I have no idea where I put it. I kissed her cold forehead and walked out of the hospice. I drove her car to her home and parked it outside. I opened the trunk and took my mother’s bags out. The night was cool and I stood still in it.

The sky was not as black as coal; it was just as black as sky. The stars did not look like diamonds; they looked like stars. The rain sat on the pavement exactly the way rain does, flat and wet. A horrible sense of reality hung in the air; everything was exactly as it seemed. I was in a big city, my mother was dead, I was thirteen weeks pregnant, I had seventy-six steps to climb, it was 1.48 AM.

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About Ella Wilson

Ella Wilson grew up on the Yorkshire moors in England and moved to New York in 2002, where she currently works as head writer and creative director of the advertising agency Dead As We Know It. She has been writing nonfiction for the past seven years and received her MFA from The New School in May 2009. Ella is currently working on a collection of personal essays titled, Existentially Challenged: A Merry Romp Through Illness, Depression and Death. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

10 Comments

  1. rachel dahill-fuchel
    Posted March 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    This essay is profound in its glorious simplicity – its vivid reality, and its tender truth. Ella is indeed the possessor of a wondrous writer’s voice.

  2. Nancy Barrood
    Posted April 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful. It’s as though the words are bending to your will. I want to be able to do that.

  3. Lois Vitt
    Posted April 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this beautifully written essay. You have captured the essences of life and death and in-between. You have also expressed in vivid and exquisite language what mothering is all about.

  4. Catherine Berg
    Posted April 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    An incredible piece. Thank you.

  5. nancy muldoon
    Posted May 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this essay very much, very heartfelt and well written.

  6. Posted May 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    A touching and POWERFUL piece of writing! I intended to simply browse an article or two to get an idea of Literal Latte’s content, but Ella Wilson’s mesmerizing evocation of her mother’s imminent death–contrasted with the 13-week-old child she was carrying–captured me with its hypnotic language.

    Thank you, Ella, for moving me to tears.

    Andy Hjelmeland

  7. Barbara Straus
    Posted June 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Your words moved me to a silent place of knowing, beyond tears. A beautiful, remarkable piece of writing that will stay with me for a long time. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

  8. Nancy Nau Sullivan
    Posted July 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Yes, you captured so much. My mother died similarly, but not really, because every life is different and so is every death. The last moments are indelible; your soul, and that of your mother’s, are both indelible in this essay. Thank you so much for writing this.

  9. D'Arcy Fallon
    Posted September 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Ella, thank you for this gorgeous, beautifully written essay. The subject is sad but your writing does your mother justice. I’m looking forward to reading your book when it comes out. Dynamite.

  10. Susan Anderson
    Posted December 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I saw a lot of irony in this essay. Ella, I could feel the reality of the scenes and that is what makes it dramatic. I loved the whole thing, the way you expressed your honest feelings. Very interesting, your comments on what it must be like to be Autistic. I have been alone in public situations and fought lonliness that seems similar. I appreciate your empathy with autism, as my oldest son suffers on the moderate end of the spectrum.
    This piece didn’t let me go.
    Thanks, Susan

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