Death in Hushed Little Pieces
by Jessica Machado
Gloria was a fifth-grader in my private elementary school, a year older than me, quiet and smart, but fairly well liked. A headband, tucked within her brushed brown bob, always made her look put together. During recess one day, the vice principal came over and rushed her away. This was a big deal, since we never saw Mrs. Santos unless reprimanded and detained in her office. Her appearance on the playground cut short games of Red Rover and left tetherballs swinging in the air. We all watched as she put her arm around Gloria’s body like a shield, and swept her back into the school.
The next day before lunch, my teacher cleared up the mystery. Gloria’s dad had suffered from a heart attack, she said, and “was now with Jesus.” I tried to picture what her dad, a man I’d never seen, looked like having a heart attack. My version of him had a dark auburn beard, a bit of a belly and looked nothing like my dad. He was in the kitchen and grabbed his heart before falling to the floor. No one was around.
I wondered if he had already died by the time the vice principal told Gloria, or if she was able to speak to him one last time, if she saw him helpless, splayed out on a hospital bed. Or maybe, those are the questions I believe I would’ve had back then—the first time I realized a kid could lose a parent—based on the shades of death I’ve seen in my 20-odd years since. Memory is funny that way. It can easily repurpose itself.
A few weeks later, Gloria returned to school. When I noticed her on the playground during recess, she seemed quieter, more reserved than before, vacant. The older girls gathered by the hopscotch and she followed. They giggled, squealed, sampled one another’s fruit-scented lip balms. Gloria stood just outside the circle, looking at the ground, then off into the bushes. One of the girls addressed her, and Gloria muttered an “oh.” Then she went back to tracing the ground.
I wanted to go up to Gloria and say something. There was a mystery about her sadness, the way she seemed too old for us now. But we weren’t friends—I wasn’t sure I’d even spoken to her before—and she wasn’t welcoming visitors into her personal space. It was as though she could never return to where we were, down here in our la-ti-da play world. From that moment on, Gloria was no longer the pretty girl in the headband. She was the girl whose dad had died.
I was 25 when my mother passed away. Unlike Gloria’s dad, my mom had been sick for a very long time. But that didn’t make her death any easier of an idea to get used to. I often wished I had a guidebook, an example of how I was supposed to act while my mother slowly left me. I often wondered if loss was supposed to feel like my brain was about to burst out of my head, my thoughts generating at ungodly speeds, crushing each other as they piled up, all urgent and damaged.
Every morning during the last few days of my mother’s life, I drove 90 miles from my apartment in Los Angeles to an isolated suburb to sit with her at a nursing home. One afternoon, a social worker stopped by her room. This had become usual protocol, as various members of the hospice team would wander in randomly—a nurse, a preacher, a death-inducing pharmacist—to ensure the nursing home was complying with hospice’s plan to keep my mother comfortable. All of them were welcome distractions, but the depth of our interactions was nothing more than their inquiring, “How are you holding up?” to which I’d shrug or say, “Not so good.” Usually, one would place a kind hand on me, remind me my mother would soon be “in a better place,” and hand me a business card.
However, on this particular day, I elaborated my answer, hoping this stranger would probe further as part of her professional duty. I told her I was having a hard time sitting there, waiting for my mother to die. I hoped she would whip out that reference book, not one with pictures and sentimental affirmations, but with a set of instructions to get me through the days, like, “It’s okay, you can you go back to your life now. You’ve been saying goodbye for long enough.”
The social worker had a hard face and an unintentional frown, like she was a lifetime smoker, or had simply spent a lifetime in her burnout profession. She scanned her clipboard and suggested I go for a walk outside, or make a few laps around the nearby mall. As much I would’ve liked to believe that my putting one foot in front of the other would speed up the dying process, so far, I knew it hadn’t. “I can’t imagine going window shopping right now,” I told her . She looked at me the way most people looked at me back then, not with pity, but with helplessness for someone who was too far removed from rationality to be open to suggestions. I continued to stare at her, as if to say, “And? What else do you have?” but she just glared at me as if I was beyond reconcile.
Not knowing what else to do, I stepped out of the home. The single-story facility was surrounded by a monstrous parking lot, which was less than a third full because visitors weren’t common. Trees dotted the hills, past the two-lane road that went back to the highway, and like most fall days in Southern California, this one was sunny. As I looked to the sky, I saw a flurry of crows circling over the roof and a few shuffling in little cliques along the grounds. It seemed remarkable that just a few days earlier, a nursing-home administrator had to take me into her office, look me in the eye and say, “Your mom came here to die.” Since my mother’s admission into the home a few weeks prior, she had become mostly unconscious—tubes prodded her body, her mouth hung open in a snore-hum, her eyes remained shut—and then there was me, next to her, watching television. Before the administrator’s diagnosis, I was unable to think past the current day: Today she was still alive, so today was what mattered. Now, all I seemed to be doing was waiting for tomorrow, for limbo to end, for a sense of normalcy to sweep me back into the realm of regular twentysomething everyday bullshit. I had conveniently forgotten about that image of Gloria on the playground: unto herself, all alone, life going on around her.
Around the time Gloria’s dad died, my parents separated. With my father moved out, our house in the mountains seemed more breezy and echo-y than usual, and my mother spent much of her weekends curled up on the couch.
One Saturday afternoon while I was making myself a sandwich, I couldn’t get a jar of jelly open. I was banging away at the lid with a butter knife, a trick I’d seen my mother do to loosen it up. The noise must have rustled her, and soon enough, she was behind me.
“I didn’t realize you were making lunch,” she said.
“I’m hungry. I didn’t want to bother you,” I told her.
“Here,” she said. She reached over and took the jar out of my grip. “Let me get it.”
She twisted and turned the lid with all her might, and I couldn’t help but notice the veins on her hands pushing through her skin. Her fingers looked bony, crooked. Her hands were not those of a untouched fair maiden, nor were they those of the invincible woman I remembered from just a few years, or even a few days ago, when everything around me seemed like an absolute.
Her veins continued to move like worms with each twist of her hand and her mouth was puckered in concentration, the little smoker’s lines around her lips etched out like wood grain. Her eyes looked tired, foggy even. After about twenty seconds of struggle, the jar went pop.
“Um, thanks,” I said, reluctantly taking it from her and setting it down.
I grabbed her hand and placed it in my palm. “Why do they look so old?”
“Geez, Jessica,” she said, pulling away to playfully slap me on the shoulder. “You just wait. One day you’ll be old, too.”
“Not like that,” I told her.
“Okay, sure. Whatever you want to believe,” she said, her voice trailing off as she walked back into the living room.
I returned to constructing my PB&J and started thinking about my Nana and Papa sitting in their “parlor,” surrounded by plastic plants, watching game shows and talking about doctors’ visits and moving bowels. The connections between me one day becoming my grandmother, my mother becoming my grandmother and, weirder, myself becoming my mother, were still unfathomable and abstract. But not as abstract as they had been before I started making that sandwich.
It didn’t get any easier to think about the close of my mother’s life as she lay, only 58 years old, in a convalescent home, where “people came to die.” The day after the social worker stopped by, I was stuck in traffic along Los Feliz Boulevard, a windy stretch of road that butted up against the Santa Monica Mountains and led me to the freeway, to my mother. Expensive coups and SUVs jammed both lanes in both directions. A single car inched its way through every stoplight. I released the brake for milliseconds just to move millimeters, just to keep moving. My window was down and my arm was out. I needed to feel the wind, I needed to feel that life was going on, whether it was mine or not. But while my mind fumbled over itself, my body was exhausted. I was forgetting to physically react—sitting through a terrible song on the radio, letting the ash dangle in one long stack off the end of my cigarette. I stared past all the cars, off into space, trying to meditate my way out of anxiety.
“Hey,” a girl called out from the next lane over. She was a few years younger than me, maybe 19. Her hair was long and wrapped around one shoulder, her face make-up-free and freckly. She was holding the hand of the driver and the two of them were probably on their way to IKEA after a long brunch of crab benedicts and leisurely conversation.
I stared straight through them, as the girl leaned over her boyfriend’s lap, out his driver-side window. “Hey,” she said again.
I looked at her bright green eyes.
“Smile,” she said, smiling herself.
Not a muscle moved in my face. “My mom is dying,” I uttered.
They looked at me, mouths gaping, speechless. This felt like the closest thing to a release I’d had in a very long time.
A few days later, my mother’s neighbor passed away. I was standing in the hallway, gathering the courage to go back and sit next to my mom’s tubed and prodded shell, when two paramedics carried a gurney out of the room next door. A white sheet covered a body I’d never before paid attention to. I wasn’t even sure if “it” was a man or woman. I waited to see if anyone would follow them out of the room. No one did.
A nurse, passing by, nodded at one of the paramedics, then at me, as she walked down the corridor. For some reason, as I stood there, watching the body disappear, I was overwhelmed with a desire to feel something for this stranger. I exhaled hard and deep, pushing a hollowness into my stomach. I summoned my face flush, hoping the heat would beat at my pores and fill my sockets. My focus turned to the floor, staying there until it all went blurry. Then I let up. The whole thing felt absurd. But at least I had wasted two solid minutes.
The first time I ever saw a dead body up-close, it was my grandmother’s, on my dad’s side. In her coffin, she looked like herself, but cakey. My Nana was a whisp of a woman with gray shoulder-length hair with the ends curled under. Big, black eyes like my own. For the occasion, they had been shut, thankfully, and she was dressed in a lace-collared muu’muu, a nod to having lived in Hawaii her entire life. Her nails were painted a strange shade of pink, even though she was more of a burgandy gal, and her hands were folded over her tiny torso.
After taking a long look at her, my family waited outside the church for the funeral to start. My grandparents’ friends from the neighborhood came out and shook my dad’s hand. They were sorry for his loss. He sternly returned “thanks” and handshakes, as uninterested in small talk as he had always been. Someone asked him about work. “It’s picked up in the last few years,” he replied, then waited for the next person in line to say something.
Once inside the church, my father sat next to me on one side, my stepmom and new baby brother were on his other. My father, like everyone else, had his hymn book open, but was barely mouthing the words. He looked bored, uneasy. I turned to him and blurted, “Have you even cried for Nana?” My outburst was more an accusation than a question. At 14, I had been thinking a lot about mortality since she died and wasn’t sure what to say or who to talk to about it. I wanted someone else to do something first.
My dad shot me a look that guaranteed silence about this subject from here until eternity. “Are you with me every moment, Jessica?” he muttered under his breath. I slouched back down in the bench and read over the hymns that seemed to not be in English and didn’t make any real reference to life or death, only heaven. It was easy to think about Nana in a realm of bright, vivid hues, perched on a cloud, peering down on us. She wore her fabulous jade bracelets and a smart ’70s pantsuit, smiling at the freedom to float with the stars. In my teenage questioning of everything though, I doubted this was her fate; just because I imagined it, it didn’t make it so. I wasn’t sure what my dad thought of hell or heaven and the comforts of faith, but if I had to guess, these stories of “her being in a better place” weren’t making him feel any less empty. My dad didn’t seem too tied to Catholicism, or to anything that wasn’t based in common-sense reality, and the two of us had never walked through a church door together before this particular day. But when I looked over at him, I saw his mind was nowhere in the room and I knew better than to bother him again.
These days when I think of my mother, I don’t contemplate where she is or what she is doing. I imagine the face of the woman who was first ill. Her cheeks puffy and flush against her pale skin, her hazel eyes wide and childlike, her bangs soft and curled under. Like an aging, bloated doll. Fragile, huggable. This is the most comforting image I can conjure, as it is hard for me to remember the mother who wasn’t sick at all; all those years of cancer and care homes are too thick and too heavy. Back before things got really bad, however, when my mother could still stand upright but chose not to waste that energy in front of a stove, I often bought us greasy dinners of Korean barbecue or Jack in the Box sandwiches. We ate them from paper plates in her bed, and I would catch that glimmer of mischief in her eyes. She still had a sweetness to her laugh, usually unleashed after making a pun about some bad movie we were watching or a tidbit I shared of my day. This mother was jovial, though already vulnerable, and I liked that very small tinge of vulnerability. We knew we had something to appreciate, but we hadn’t become desperate and avoidant. “The end” was not yet a certainty.
The last real image I saw of my mother was in her nursing-home bed. When the nurse called to tell me she had passed, she added, “She died peacefully.” But when I entered her room, she looked like she had let out a final scream, her mouth hanging open in a last fight to let death take her. Immediately, a noise roared from my innards out of my own mouth. It sounded urgent and ferocious, like a wolf being burned alive. It was unstoppable.
I was afraid to touch her body, but I knew that’s what a daughter should do when presented with her mother for the last time. I noticed the gold Hawaiian-etched ring I’d given to her for her 50th birthday, months before she was diagnosed with lupus. I grabbed her clammy hand and pried the ring off her middle finger, then stuck it in my pocket, while I continued to yowl uncontrollably. I dropped her hand so quickly, it dangled off the side of the bed.
The nurse came in and asked if I wanted a few more minutes with her before the coroner look her away. I shook my head. “No.”
As soon I turned toward the hallway, the wailing came to a halt. For a moment, I didn’t have to look at the absence. All I could see was the door.
Jessica Machado is an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl, The Economist’s More Intelligent Life and Pank, among others. You can also find her here.
Art by Margarita Korol.