DEATH AND THE PLUMBER
Copyright 2005 A.W. Hill
Mathilde and I made love on Easter Sunday, in the musty little room above my mother’s garage. My wife found it a little peculiar that I wanted to have sex when my mother was dying in the main house, just forty feet away. Peculiar, but not perverse. Mathilde is French, and implicitly acknowledges sex to be no less essential to nourishment than a warm baguette and a decent vin de table. Moreover, I think she understood that I wanted something on my skin besides the smell of death.
Shortly after, she left for the airport with the children, the last of the family to depart. I stayed behind with Novia, the Lithuanian RN, although I had also been booked on the return flight to L.A. The hospice people to whom my mother’s end had been assigned had counseled us that her condition was likely to “plateau” for weeks, even months; that we might all just as well return to our distant homes, attend to necessary business, and keep a bag packed. I chose to stay, though disease had always terrified me to the point of neurosis (as a boy, I feared contracting polio from licking Easter seals). I stayed because I didn’t believe the hospice people. I knew there’d be no “plateau”. I stayed because on so many other occasions, when I should have lingered to bear witness to my mother’s constant battle with the nonsense of life, I’d run off to attend to “necessary business”. I was determined to bear witness to her death.
And there was this, too: I was sure that my mother had something to say to me, something that would unlock a hundred secret drawers.
I was fixing a drink in the kitchen when Novia came in, chalk-faced. This sturdy, Slavic woman, who had seen much death and had shepherded my mother through pain, shame, delirium and incontinence for two weeks, looked at me with a combination of surpassing sweetness and primitive dread, and said:
“Come ... I think she die.”
We had all gotten used to Novia’s uncertain English. In her syntax, all tenses collapsed into the present. I think she die could mean either I think she will die soon or I think she is dead. I set down my drink, and with its crraack against the countertop my equilibrium left me. Panic would describe the feeling, except that panic doesn’t exert the gravitational force of Saturn, or transform a linoleum floor into quicksand.
I followed Novia to the livingroom, where we had placed Mom’s hospital bed when shortness of breath made it impossible for her to negotiate the stairs to her second floor bedroom. The livingroom, she had told us, was where she wanted to be. The livingroom was where she lived. Her old sofa was there, her books - the classics of J.D. Salinger’s generation and dozens by the new breed, all well overdue to the public library (she’d been reading Jonathan Franzen’s How To Be Alone before her mind turned to the matter of how to die) - and her television, permanently tuned to CNN so that she could monitor and protest the Republicans’ latest outrage. This was the room where she had ministered to my countless childhood phobias, bearing up with equanimity even when I believed her to be a robotic imposter, deployed by the Russians to poison my macaroni. It seemed fitting that I should now minister to her most delirious fears.
An arched portal led from a small foyer and an adjoining front porch into the livingroom, and as I passed through it, I called out,
I hadn’t called her that in thirty years. The voice wasn’t present, nor the thought process which had produced it. It was the voice of a child who wakes from a bad dream in the most uncharted hour of night and stumbles to his mother’s door, wanting only not to find himself alone in a sea of dread. My mother hadn’t said an intelligible thing for more than twenty-four hours. I didn’t rationally expect that she would respond to me now, but a me whose psychic grammar -- like Novia’s English -- had no regard for tense hoped fiercely that she would.
I entered the room. Novia now followed at a respectful distance, but close enough that she could catch me if my knees gave out. Her precaution was warranted, because what I beheld may be what inspired medieval plague visions.
Mom’s bed faced us from the opposite end of the room, where we had moved it so that she could “receive” her visitors like a grand dame. Placed around her on every available surface were framed photographs of children and grandchildren, and among them, the paraphernalia of death: morphine, Atavin, rubber gloves, oxygen, nebulizers, enema bags, and the item she prized most: an electronic, vapor-enhanced nicotine inhaler that she had dubbed her “peace pipe” while her wits and her wicked irony remained present. None of these things seemed of much use to her now.
“Oh ... oh,” I heard myself say, and moved in fragmented time to her bedside.
Her eyes were half-open but sightless, their soft grey dimmed by a milky caul. The skin sunken into the hollow of her cheeks was nearly translucent, and as cool to the touch as citrus bought from a winter market. And her lips -- lips whose kisses had ennobled me at three and embarrassed me at six -- were drawn back from her teeth in a grimace so deeply unnatural that it seemed some sardonic puppeteer’s practical joke.
“Is she ...?” asked Novia, no longer nurse but fellow witness.
“No,” I said, my ear cocked. “She’s breathing.”
“Oh,” said Novia. “Ah. Dat is goot. I was worry.”
“Mom,” I whispered. “Mommy? It’s me. It’s Alfred. Can you hear me?”
The words came after a great delay (my voice had taken a very long time to reach whatever distant place she now occupied), but that they came at all brought a sizzle to every nerve ending in my body. They came not from her lips, which barely moved, but from somewhere deep in the cancer garden of her chest.
“Not ... very ... well,” she said, and gasped from the effort of speaking.
“Oh, God,” I said, sobs coming -- one, two, three -- like the paroxysms of a scuba diver suddenly way too deep. I took her hand and lowered myself to the stool I’d placed at her bedside two nights before. “Tell me where you are, Mom. Tell me what it’s like. Are you scared? Is it ... okay there?”
My mother was an agnostic, less by conviction than cultural reflex. Those who’d come of age in the 1940’s had either redoubled their childhood faith or given up hope of divine providence altogether. For Mom, only the latter position was intellectually defensible. If she’d spoken of tunnels or white lights, I’d have built a church in her name.
Whether the rattling in her throat was the onset of death or the preface to some great and edifying pronouncement, I will never know, because our communion was interrupted by a knock on the half-open front door. A sweet-faced Latino man stood on the threshold with a work order in his hand. The patch sewn on his navy blue jumpsuit informed me that his name was Ernesto.
“What ... who are you?” I blurted. My expression can’t have been welcoming.
“Roto-Rooter,” he replied, and I could see that he was trying to make sense of things in his own way. “For that sewer line blockage.” He stepped over the threshold.
“Oh, shit,” I said, hustling from the bedside to plant my body between my mother and the Roto-Rooter man. I don’t know whether my concern was more with her dignity or his discomfort, but the impulse to shield was immediate. In truth, my mom was beyond vanity, but that’s hindsight. In life, she’d been proud of her youthful looks, wearing her hair long well past the age when most Midwestern ladies adopted lacquered perms or pageboys. Now, the radiation treatments had napalmed her nut-brown hair to a few ghostly strands of silk; her beauty was hidden from all who hadn’t loved her, her pride vanquished. Even the thousand dollar wig she’d gamely put on her Visa card in one last flex of fuck poverty extravagance just two weeks before had been cast off and now sat on the piano, atop a mannequin head that was as bald as hers.
“You don’t remember, sir,” said the plumber. “Our man was out Saturday?”
It came dimly back to me. “Okay,” I said. “I remember. You need to dig.”
“That’s right, sir. The crew is here. We have the permit.”
Forty-eight hours earlier, there had been sixteen human beings in my mother’s house, all making use of the single working toilet. It had finally been too much for the archaic plumbing, reaching critical mass at noon on Saturday. Throughout the after- noon, as the main line was snaked out, we’d all been grimly aware of living a meta- phor, even exchanging wincing smiles over it. My brother had seen to the follow-up: the sewer line was to be excavated. Imagination could not but turn gothic at the thought of what lay beneath. “Okay,” I said. “Keep the noise down. My mother is ... ”
Ernesto nodded. With a dozen candles burned down to wick’s end around the bed, no Latin Catholic could have misread the situation. “We’ll try to get the bulldozer out of here in three or four hours,” he said.
Once the Roto-Rooter crew had broken ground, I asked Novia to keep watch over my mother and sat down to call my brother and uncle, who lived within driving distance and had asked to be summoned when the hour was near. I had no frame of reference for the imminence of death, but I felt it in my solar plexus, in the held breath of the house, and in the way everything had stilled outside. There was only the rumble of the bulldozer as its huge tracks scarred my mother’s lawn. Maybe death, I thought, like revelation or LSD, it is unknowable except by direct encounter. If so, I had what I took as proof, because in the moments which elapsed between my mother’s other- wordly utterance and the coming of Ernesto, I had sensed the quickening of her soul.
After making the calls, I lit a fresh candle at the bedside and sat down to await the arrival of kin. I had perhaps forty-five minutes in which to receive my mother’s last testament. My uncle would come first, in the company of his well-meaning but over- bearing Polish-American wife, and we would all -- even Mom -- be upstaged.
The foundation shook as the Roto-Rooter crew hit the sewer line. Fifty odd years of “blockage” would soon be freed from its subterranean containment and gurgle onto the public sidewalk. Another jolt, and three photographs fell over. A third, and the low strings of Mom’s upright piano resonated darkly. I could almost see her scowl.
“This is terrible,” I said. “I’m sorry, Mom. Great timing, huh?”
Had she been present of mind, even if half-asleep, I would have seen her eyebrows lift and the corners of her mouth curl in mordant appreciation, but she wasn’t. Her eyes were closed now, her breathing a bit more rapid, and her temperature had gone from morguelike to feverish. This, we had been told to expect. I sang her the song with which she’d put me to rest on so many nights when morning seemed less than certain:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy, when skies are gray
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
Her eyelids fluttered, and I thought I glimpsed a trace of a smile, like the shadow of a cumulus cloud dusting a green hillside.
“Mom?” I leaned in, pressing her hand. “Mom? Do you want me to sing some more? It’s just us. Like old times. Do you remem-”
Her eyes were in frenzied motion behind the lids. I leaned in, certain she was about to speak. A knock at the door. I grimaced and cursed under my breath, anticipating Ernesto, there to report the necessity of digging beneath the livingroom.
“Yes? Who is it?”
The voice was cloyingly cheery, given what it augured. “Hospice! Time to check the old girl.”
It was Jan, the hospice nurse. I did not like Jan. She was short and squat and wore thick eyeglasses that made her resemble the spirit-sweeper in Poltergeist. In my admittedly jaundiced view, hospice was a cozy born-again euphemism for “get it over with”. With “dignity” ... if dignity can be doled out in milligrams of morphine. I didn’t think she merited the title “nurse”, since she had expressly forbidden any measures to prolong life. It was all in the contract, which read more like a product disclaimer.
She brushed straight past me and bent over the bed railing.
“How’re we doing today, old girl,” she cooed. “Guuud. That’s dandy.”
It riled me that she’d presumed or pretended a reply, when I’d worked so hard for one. Perhaps, I thought, Jan thinks herself capable of a mind-meld with the dying.
“She’s not responsive, Jan. Her fever is up. I’d really like to get the doctor’s -”
“Let me see if I can rouse her,” said Jan. She took my mother’s bony shoulders in her dimpled babydoll hands and shook her three times. “Maggie!” she shouted. “Are ya with us? The Bulls are up twenty-eight points, by golly!”
“Her name is Martha,” I said. “And please don’t jostle her like that.”
“I’m gonna say,” Jan opined, swinging her stethoscope and ignoring both my correction and my reproach, “that she’s semi-comatose.”
“She can’t be ... she just -- What does that mean? What should I do?”
“Increase the morphine to forty milligrams.”
“Increase the morphine!” I protested. “Why? She’s not in pain. She’s not a lame racehorse. She just spoke to me. Morphine’ll just put her out.”
This wasn’t the first time Jan and I had had words. I think my nostrils flared. “Jesus. You people think every -”
“I think --” Jan parked her hands on her hips and gave me the evil eye. “I think maybe you have an issue with anger, sir. You know, denial takes many form-”
“I have an issue with you, Jan. I have an issue with your goddamned evangelical death squad. Who appointed you to pimp for the undertaker?”
Honestly, I do not know to this day what demon fed me those words.
Her bearing was so icily calm that it made me shudder. “Well,” she said with aggressive sweetness, “Your family hired me ... but God chooses his shepherds and God decides when to bring his little lambs home.”
“Then God is not welcome in my mother’s house, and neither are you.”
I showed her to the door. In the kitchen, I saw a little smile dimple Novia’s face.
I’ll give Jan credit for deathbed savvy, if not deathbed manner. In every real sense, my mom had left the stage, yet I was still pitching her lines, calling doctors, tapering dosages. I believe the reason I gave Jan the hook was that I heard Death’s costume rustling in the wings, and wanted to deliver my soliloquy as a kind of terminal filibuster against his entrance. But no sooner had I retaken my stool than did my aunt and uncle arrive, breathless and pained, but -- it seemed to me as they took positions on the sofa still bearing dents from their last visit -- fully ready for the curtain to close.
“Oh, Gaaad!” my aunt wailed after taking her first gander. “Is she gone?”
“No, ” I said. “Soon, I think. Her breathing is weird again, and her fever is up. They ... the hospice people ... said that would be a sign.”
She peeled off her coat and handed it to my uncle. “Fix me a Stinger, would ya, hun?” His acquiescence could, by this point in their long marriage, be presumed.
He nodded, my mother’s younger brother did, then looked to me. “You w-want a drink?” He swallowed a sob, and as he did I saw how deep his grief was. My uncle was as undemonstrative as all lifelong Midwesterners, but death makes divas of us all.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m all right, for now.”
He returned with my aunt’s cocktail in short order, and as soon as she’d had a few belts, she rose, cleared her throat, and approached the bedside opposite me. It was immediately evident that she had a speech prepared. She folded her hands in prayer.
“Marfie,” she began tremulously. “I want you to listen to me. I talked this after-noon to a friend of mine. My patron saint, Theresa of the Little Flowers. She was with me when my Dad passed, God rest his soul, and she’s been with me ever since. She wanted me to tell you, Marfie ...” Her voice broke, and tears rolled over dikes of eyeliner. “Let go, Marfie! It’s O.K. to let go now! Little Theresa will take you home.”
I didn’t wince, despite the whiff of greasepaint. It was testimony, and in full keeping with her Chicago-ethnic Catholicism. I wept, she wept, and we sang a chorus of Someone To Watch Over Me together. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something oddly coercive about her Extreme Unction, that my aunt, no less than the hospice people (and with no more real malice), was intent on waltzing my mother to the carriage before she could dance with the prince. My suspicion was borne out within the minute it arose. It was an instance of vaudeville timing rarely offered by real life.
My aunt fell back on the couch and fanned herself like a faith healer exhausted from his exhortations. She glanced at her watch, then at my mother’s breast, still rising and falling, perhaps even more determinedly despite Saint Theresa’s entreaties. “Come on, Marfie!” she said, slapping her knee summarily. “It’s Bingo night.”
I did not curse her. Instead, like a well-bred Englishman who, upon finding his wife in flagrante with a Great Dane, apologises for the intrusion, I reverted to practiced etiquette. My aunt had given my mother sanction to die, and that was that. “Listen,” I said, surprised by my even tone, “maybe it’s a false alarm. They said we’d have those. If you two have plans for tonight, go ahead. I’ll be all right. I know ... what to do.”
There was a sudden cacaphony outside: shovels clanged with finality, the bulldozer sounded the signature bleep-bleep-bleep of reverse gear, and the two-hundred foot, one-hundred horsepower roto-rooter was withdrawn from the sodden earth like the spent sex organ of some huge, primeval squid.
“Hold on a second,” I said. “I’d better see what they’re doing.”
I charged out the door to find the likeness of an archeological dig in the front yard. Bushes uprooted, a six-foot section of the public sidewalk heaved up like a tectonic plate, grass gone: collateral damage in the mighty effort to purge my mother’s old pipes. A towering mound of earth occupied half of what had been the lawn, and from it there rose a mast of PVC pipe which no one would mistake for lawn decor.
I yelled: “W-wait a second! Where do you guys think you’re going?”
“Job’s done, sir,” said Ernesto. “We found a root down there big as a car. All grown into the pipe. Got it out. The dirt’ll settle in a few months and then we can come back and trim the clean-out pipe.”
“Settle?” I shouted, circling the neolithic mound. “This ... is going to ‘settle’? No way. You guys haul this dirt away or I’ll call your dispatcher and cancel the check.”
“Can’t, sir,” said Ernesto, with a shrug. “We’re not licensed to do that.”
“What about the sidewalk? That’s public property.”
“Not our problem.” Was it my imagination, or had Ernesto evinced a surliness I hadn’t seen before? Something shitty gets hold of people when they know you’re at their mercy. “Talk to the village,” he said summarily.
“The hell I will!” Indignation filled my chest. This was beyond shoddy work. This was desecration, not to mention that the neighbors, long wary of my family’s unconventionality, would think we’d buried Mother in the front yard. “You haul away this dirt away or I will sue your ass.” Notwithstanding my rage, Ernesto and his crew cannot have been much intimidated by the tears in my eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, and turned away with what looked suspiciously like a smirk.
While I stood quivering, the diggers finished lashing the bulldozer to the bed of the Roto-Rooter truck and jumped in back alongside it. Ernesto hopped in the cab with the driver. I saw him signal a getaway with a tip of his flattened palm, but it was what he did a moment later that stirred my fight or flight response. He turned as the truck lurched off, crooked his wrist upright, and gave me what I took to be a patronizing little wave -- the Queen’s wave. It flattened me. I might indeed have dropped to my knees in the dirt like a good subject, but for the wiring of my neuro-muscular system and the propensity of all soldiers to behave with both uncommon valor and irrational exuberance in the proximity of death. I took off, full speed, after the truck.
“Sonofabitch!” I howled. “Sonofabitch!” I managed to grab hold of the truck’s left side panel and vault inside, then clambered over the bulldozer’s nubbby treads to the rear of the pick-up. I seized one of the shovels propped against the tailgate without resistance from the diggers, whose limpid brown eyes revealed only the hunkered-down wariness of cornered dogs. It was when I lept atop the bulldozer and began to hammer dents in its yellow hood that one of them raised an arm and shouted:
“Hey, man! Are you fucking crazy?”
And the other, slouching down further, mouthed, “Loco ...”
Brakes squealed, and I was thrown from the truck and into the gutter, where I lay, still clutching the shovel, while Ernesto stepped out onto the running board, gave a cursory look over the roof to see if I was injured, and muttered, “Jesus, man,” crossing himself before ducking back inside. The truck roared off in blue smoke.
I limped back down the street I’d often sprinted as a schoolboy, using the shovel as a crutch. Pain knifed through my ribs with each step, but I felt weirdly euphoric. I know now what things comprised this euphoria, other than the rush of endorphins. One was boyish and fleeting: with my mighty shovel, I had vanquished the beast whose talons had ripped apart my mother’s yard. The other thing stopped me in my tracks, three doors down from the house I’d grown up in. It was the remembered swell of anticipation in my chest, the tensing of my neck as my pulse rose, the flush in my face. The same feelings one has when going to see a new lover, but I’d felt them every day of my childhood on walking home from school. Now I felt them again, for it all came back, as present as the cawing of a raven in the elm tree over my head. How could I forget? Mommy’s home. My beautiful Mommy is home and I can’t wait to tell her --
As I stood leaning on the shovel, the front porch door opened soundlessly, and my Uncle took a heavy step down. A long step, and for a perilous moment, his entire frame -- six-foot two -- staggered, and I thought sure he’d tip. I dropped the shovel and began to run, hugging my ribs. He looked up to see me coming. He looked up, yes, and nodded almost imperceptibly, and told me with the nod that the wait was over.
“Oh, no ... no no no no no!” This came out of me as I hobbled toward him.
When I reached the stoop, he put a hand on my shoulder. I don’t think he’d ever touched me before, at least not since I’d been grown.
He told me that my mother had opened her eyes for a few seconds before the end. That she’d stared straight up at the ceiling and moved her head slightly from side to side as if seeking something in her blindness, listening for an echo in the abyss.
I returned to her grave late on the day of her burial. The little cemetery was deserted, the sun was low in the sky, and on three sides stood the primeval woods of oak and ash which had once covered this land. I waited, looking for sigils in the shifting beams of sunlight, listening for words on the breath of the wind. I told myself that it was vanity to think she’d been looking for me when she’d opened her eyes before dying, that surely she’d been beyond any effort of will. But my shame at having once again been absent kept gnawing; the thought that I’d missed what might have been her last testament was unendurable. To my left, a twig snapped. A fully grown doe stepped gingerly onto a neighboring gravesite and nibbled the freshly placed mums. Then it struck me.
I had stayed behind to await my mother’s consent to live on without her, to laugh, to love, to drink at her table, even in the presence of an empty chair, but it was she who’d been waiting for a nod from her firstborn son. I laid myself down on the grave and whispered into the newly turned earth. It was all right, I told her, to leave me on my own.
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