This story is by Vanessa Victoria Kilmer and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Our mother stopped breathing at 10:10 am on 11/11/2014. She never wanted to be in a home or hospital or any sort of facility. And so she refused to comply.
She fell down and passed out a lot that last year. It was like her spirit could no longer hold her up. She’d dribble to the ground while sitting in a wheelchair. She toppled over into the shower. Yes, she fell and she couldn’t get up. So many times. She tried to go on. We went to the places she loved. Parks and small festivals where she could be around flowers and children, leaves falling like confetti to be picked up and brushed against soft cheeks. She liked having the sun shine on her face. We ate sherbet in cones in the cold on a park bench. She cuddled her grandsons, one in person, the other in her broken heart.
Then, like a wounded animal, she lay down, pulled inside herself and faded away from us until that very last moment when we saw her leave in the exhalation of a breath. A quiet exit that took us by surprise by its uncharacteristic nature for our mother.
Our father willed himself to death on June 4, 2017 at the age of eight-six and fifty-nine days. He refused not to know himself.
He clutched his hands into huge hammers of flesh and bone. He tensed his body, tendons tangled in angry knots. Rage covered the surface of his face, bubbling up from deep within the man he no longer knew. This stranger took over his days and nights and hid who he used to be.
Big Jim no longer existed except in the shell that remained.
Restless, awake in the dark, awake in the day, not knowing which was which. Roaming, searching, time confusing his body and mind into constant movement. Up and down. Never still. This in a man who knew how to relax and keep calm. Never a harsh word. Life rolling off his shoulders as he floated to the quiet of his cabin, the next perfect pitch of the horseshoe, the soothing pop of a beer can. He moved through a life empty of all he loved. He roamed the house looking for his former peace, never to find it.
“Kill me,” he said. “I am dead, so kill me.”
He woke every few hours searching for normal, a normal forever out of reach of those big hands that worked so hard his whole life. Hands wrapped around steering wheels of big eighteen wheelers. Now, his new truck, one he wanted all his life, one he never got because someone else always came first, sat in the driveway where he could stare at it, but forever remained a virgin to his hands. He was a passenger, never the driver. He bought it so another would have the joy he never got to experience.
For a while, he lived in Mayberry with his friends, Don Knotts and Andy Griffith. He laughed when Don dropped his gun and shot at his foot. His laugh was big and beefy, from the belly, full of boyhood and running through corn fields, shoving outhouses down hills with his brothers. And then the laughter was gone, replaced with the embarrassment of having his daughter put a diaper on him each night because he was so afraid of going to sleep and wetting the bed. A different kind of childhood regression.
The spoon turned over so the bottom of the bowl prevent food from getting to his mouth. He stared at it in wonder, unable to fathom its function, aiming at the dish and hitting the table. He stared at the objects in front of him with unseeing eyes. He didn’t recognize any of them. He didn’t see them. He moved his hands over the space, knocking the bowl and spilling the milk. The spoon followed, clattering to the floor. The sound rang out like a bell, clanging like a death knoll. Everything aimed toward death. It was all over. There was nothing left except the shell. A healthy, still vigorous shell. A body with the man absent. The man was gone.
The big blue chair that took up all of the free space in the living room had spots on it. Chocolate from the Klondike bars. Crumbs filled the cracks and crevices. The nap was rubbed down and dull, the stuffing was matted and dented where his butt and thighs sat for hour after hour. It stank from old food and improperly washed old man body. The air also included farts and burps, the smells of I don’t care anymore. These were part of the sounds that made up the space, too. Noses blowing, coughing, grunting and many other body sounds that grate on the nerves. When you lose your self you let go of yourself and invade the senses of those around you. There were no longer any borders to personal space.
There comes a time when you can see it in their eyes. They no longer want to live. There is anger. There is fury. Metaphorical and very real shaking of the fists to the sky. They rage against the universal machine as life courses through their veins but madness shoots through their minds.
“Kill me,” our father said. He built up walls of resentment, temper and violence, all contained in his big, powerful body. He never allowed it to strike out at others except in growls, grunts and snarls. This man who remained calm and even tempered most of his life, the jolly good time guy, stopped having fun and fumed over his plight. He fought his mental decline every step of the way until he didn’t.
“Let me go,” our mother said. She pushed us away by closing her eyes and closing in on herself. She let go and stopped. This woman who pushed and bullied her way through the ups and downs of a life lived to the fullest, who embraced the good, the bad and the ugly, she who ran headlong into fight or fun, quit. She settled into her shell, stopped eating, and shut up. There was nothing left to say except goodbye.
Never was it so clear to us that we are not our bodies. We are not even our minds. We are something so ephemeral, untouchable, undefinable. This physicality we call life is a virtual reality. It sucks us into believing a reality that doesn’t last and only when we see it leaving do we understand that what we are now, today, is not us.
In the aftermath of the loss of our parents, we struggle with finding meaning. This world we live in, the corporeal existence, has no purpose or value. We are not this. So, seriously, why bother.
Mums in rusty reds, pulsing oranges and bright yellows recall my mother spending hours selecting just the right pots to settle on her door step to greet visitors. Allspice and cinnamon bring back memories of my father baking pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes kicked off my parents jitterbugging in the living room, my father flinging my mother around with such exuberance that furniture got knocked over and she giggled and didn’t care. Singing Silent Night in German together on Christmas Eve. Camping out in the old station wagon on a lonely road in the mountains in a snow storm. Horseshoes, die and bowling balls banging into pegs, walls and pins mixed with belly laughs and the innocence of a grown man and his simple pleasures. The love of food, the food of love: Schmandi, Spaghetti, shortbread cookies, smashed potatoes, strudel, strawberry shortcake. The Sound of Music, classical music and country music. “I used to sing on the radio til they told me not to sit on it.” Calls on my birthday to read me my horoscope. Rescues each time I forgot to put gas in my cars.
The tales we tell each other over dinner, over camp fires, over holidays and over time. Deliverance. Windmilling down the hillside. Dancing on table tops after a Manhattan. Cheating at marbles. Hiding see food. Longwood Gardens. The Apple and Cheese Festival. The Cabin. Deer spotting in the woods and on the side of the road. The Queen of the Sales. Four-wheelers.
As their bodies and minds shut down, as we watch as them leave us, weeks, months, years before actual death, we come to realize they are not physical, they are not even their minds. They are the relationships we had with them. They are many things to many people. They mean much more than the shells they inhabited. They are our souls.