Authors: Lois Cahall
Tags: #General Fiction
Court of the Myrtles
For Rebecca & Maxine
My beautiful, brave, and resilient daughtersâ¦
You have endured so much loss with such grace and dignity
I love you, Mom
And for my “Aunt Alice” Garvey, my hero
Go online or to a bookstore and you'll find shelves of advice on how to cope with bereavement, from losing a spouse, child, friend or even a pet. But what of a book that gives us hope? Will we ever see that loved one again? And why is everything so serious? Can't there be humor in our pain?
I wrote this book for those left living â afraid to be on the other side, afraid to be left alone on
side. I hope my story can offer you hope that you'll see that loved one again. This is a book for mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and sisters. This is a story about survival â for those who have loved and lost. So I suppose this is a book for all of us. Godspeed.
Muffled voices outside my bedroom door make their way to my failing ears: “It's nearly timeâ¦”
They're talking about me, you know. Me: Marla.
A calm descends over me as I lie immobile in my bed, clouds of grey hair floating on a feather pillow. There was a time I wrapped that hair tightly. Too tightly. Not anymore. Slowly, I move my head. I see vitamins on the tray, medicine bottles with childproof caps, a finger-smudged water glass that catches the last sunlight I might ever glimpse. My hand struggles for the glass but I give up. My parched lips licking intention. I stare instead at my palm with its completed lifeline. A hand no longer needed for shaking, no longer needed for giving back-rubs or for burping babies, no longer needed to run through the safety of my husband's chest hair.
The sheer white curtains move in the breeze. I hear someone calling, my grandchildren playing tag in the yard. They're yelling, “You're it!” Yes, they're it. And I'm it, too. My number's just about up.
So this is what it feels like to go. To
All these years I prayed to God. But will He really be there? I'm not as frightened as I thought I would be but, ridiculous as it sounds, there's still pride in me at the thought of meeting my maker looking like this. We don't need make-up in heavenâ¦ you don't have to tell me that. But I'm an old-fashioned woman and first impressions matter.
Every morning I would sneak into the bathroom before my husband was awake, pinch my cheekbones in the mirror, slap water on my face and brush my teeth before applying my “lippy,” as I'd call it.
âa pucker in the mirror. I've seen my mouth change from the solid, dramatic reds of the '80s, to the softer sheers of the '90s, to my most recent colorâ¦ parchment.
I've become an old woman with creepy bird-scrawny features, basset-hound jowls, sad eyes, and breasts as heavy and long as my memory. The memories of our love making from breasts solid, buoyant. The only part of my body that remains strong now is my mind, my memories. The thought of dying falls over me now, a quilt of loneliness. We come into this world alone and we go out alone. So we're told. But I wonder. What would Alice have said?
Alice. Had it not been for Alice, bless her heart, I'd never have survived the past, never have found a future, and wouldn't be lying here now wondering where all the years have gone. Could I grab them back?
My hands clutch the side of the mattress, gnarled knuckles suddenly white, and then it's all there againâ¦
I close the car door carefully, with a click not a slam. Don't want to disturb them. How silly, I think to myself.
C'mon, Marla, don't be ridiculous. The dead in this graveyard can't hear the sound of my car door or the sound of
for that matter. And I'm twenty-eight, I'm way too wise and clever to be spooked, aren't I? I've known this cemetery for years, I remind myself, pushing my auburn bangs from my brow hanging loosely from my ballerina-style bun.
But how can I feel spooked anyway? I've already been through the waves of shock and disbelief. Today I'm just plain numb.
Years ago my mom, Rosie, would plant flowers at her father's grave just a few stones over while I sat next to her, plucking blades of grass, bored as a postal worker at 4 p.m. She'd try to amuse me with one of her trick questions: “How many people are dead in this cemetery?”
My eyes darted around the neatly lined headstones, a tiny finger wiggling quickly to count them.
Mom would nudge me and ask again, “How many people are dead in this cemetery?”
“All of them,” she'd say.
Now I'm standing at my mom's gravestone where
one of them.
My watch reads eleven minutes before 11 a.m. But it doesn't matter. Time stands still when your mother is dead. I run my fingers across the freshly carved letters of her name, “Rosie.” The stone was erected this week, mid-March. She died early in the New Year, but it took one month to decide on an epitaph, five weeks for the stone cutter to carve it, and one more for the thermometer to rise above freezing, just warm enough to pour a footer to mount her stone. Now there it is, her name, date of birth and her date of passing staring back at me.
“Hi Mom, it's me, Marla,” I say, the wind sucking the words from my mouth, its cold highlighting my cheeks better than any rouge. “Hint of early spring”âa game I always play in my head, as if all of life was on the cosmetic counter at Macy's. A new season for everything, a new shade. But for my mom, death is death. Every season. Every year. Every new shade of blusher.
There's a sense of being watched when you stand alone in a graveyard and speak to somebody who isn't there. Of course there's nobody to hear me but stillâ¦ should I talk to the stone? To a nearby tree? To the sky? To my mother who art in heaven?
They say, whoever “they” are, that touching a gravestone provides more power than just thinking about the deceased. There's certainly something healing, almost primal, about touching this monument cemented to the earth. Like the lepers that touched Jesus for a cure. Does touching her stone cure me? Not really. But it helps the memories come.
Memories of my mom's kind eyes, the happy lines formed by her soft smile, her Grecian-shaped nose, her delicate hands, the time I was barely sevenâ¦
“Beat ya!” I yelled breathlessly, tagging the big barnacle-covered rock next to the beach grasses, the very rock my mom and I fell on every Sunday after our barefoot trudge through the swampy conservation land behind our cottage. Then, as Mom rested, I'd start tickling two lime-striped pieces of blade grass over her cheek. Her eyes remained resolutely closed as she took in the sensation.
Still nothing, her face tipped to the sun.
And then in a piercing whine, “Rosie!”
“Yes, Marla?” she said, finally, face still to the sun.
“What will I do when you die?”
Mom smiled, her lids sealed shut, her face now rising to the delicate touch of my fingers. “If I died, I'd still be with you, honey.”
“But wouldn't you go to heaven?” I asked, longing for the safety of that answer.
“I hope so,” she said.
“Mommy, where's heaven?”
“Up in the sky. Beyond the sun, beyond the moon and the stars, so far away you can't see it.”
“Is that where God lives?”
“God is everywhere.”
“Is his house a pretty house?”
“I'm sure it is. Probably pink.”
I knew she'd said that just to please me. It was the color of my Barbie dolls' house and my Barbie dolls were everything to me.
“There's no sadness in God's house,” she said. “It's where you get to be an angel.”
“Is Grandpa an angel?” I asked, as my hand grew bored, dropping the piece of sea grass to the rock below. I watched it fight the water's foamy edge until it was swallowed and dragged away.
“Yes, honey, I'm sure that Grandpa is an angel.”
“How do you get to heaven to be an angel?” I asked. The filtering sunlight at that moment carved through my mother's profile as though
were an angel.
“Somebody from your lifetime escorts you,” she said, her tone telling me she's losing interest in this conversation.
“C'mon, Mommy. Like who?”
“Maybe someday when I die, Grandpa will come to escort me. Then I'll get my wings and be an angel just like him.” Her answer had turned snappy. Summing it all up. Ready to move on.
“But if you're an angel, I'll never see you again,” I persisted.
“Yes, you will. When you die, I'll come to get you.” And then my mother flung her eyes open very matter-of-factly. “But in the meantime, I'll be in here.” She tapped her fist gently against my chest. “Now, enough.”
Now we were both annoyed, but I couldn't let it go. “Like in the trees? In the sky? Where, Mommy?”
She pulled me into her side. “Look, how about I give you a special sign so you'll know I'm with you when I die. Will that make you happy?” I didn't know what she meant by “a sign” but something told me not to ask another question. “Well,” she explained, “you know how we love the sea, Marla?”
“And we love digging for periwinkles, and we love the seagulls,” she said, watching them nose-dive a few feet away, breaking oyster shells on the jetty. Her gaze travelled to the horizon and she squinted. “Remember that whale-watch with Grandpa?”
“Maybe I'll come back as a big, fat, whale, like the ones we saw whale-watching in Provincetown.”
“A whale?” I squiggled up my nose and knitted my brow. “Why would you want to be a whale?”
“Why not?” she said. “It's better than a jellyfish.” She poked her big toe at the mottled, sci-fi creature squiggling its way around the rock.
She ignored me and carried on. “And you'll remember a whale because it's so big and silly.”
“How will I know which whale
“You'll know because we'll make it a special dayânot a sunny one, but a rainy day. You'll go on a whale watch and I'll do something magnificent.”
“Really? Like what?” Now I had her interest again.
“Um, let's seeâ¦ how about I make the showers stop, the sun come out and form a magnificent rainbow. And at that moment, my whale will jump up high in the sky, splashing its tail through the waves. Then you'll know that it's me and that I made it to heaven. Ta da!” She tickled me.
“That's silly, Mommy.” I said, defeated, falling back against the rock. “Just forget about it.”
The tears running down my cheeks are whipped dry by the wind. My memory is interrupted by the sound of metal hitting the ground. Ordinarily it wouldn't be such a bad thing, but this
a cemetery after all and I'm not in the mood for the gravedigger. Not today.
I try to ignore it, but the sound overtakes my ability to focus. Meditation was never my strongest point even when I attempted those irritating breathing and relaxation classes at the local community college. Now I'm annoyed.