Election 2020: A Lyric Essay

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ElectoralCollege2020.svg

Jim Crow Ash

A black reverend represents Georgia and for white fucks, this is yet another loss for the Confederacy. After all, the senator’s surname features the root word “war.” The whitelash was as predictable as Brady’s MAGA cap. In the wake of the Grand Antebellum Party’s collapse, a young white man harvested Asian blood and old white men shackled a black woman during a democracy eradication ritual.

After the Asian Spa Massacre, the topic of gun control was resurrected in time for Easter. I think we need to look at this issue anew since America already stores half of the planet’s firearms. It’s high time for crow hunting. For every voter suppression legislation you support, expect a tattoo with an American bullet wound beneath your white abdomen. I will then swallow medication which produces blue urine to complete human bomb pops. Luckily, Republicans don’t consider white coxcombs inciting a riot to be an impeachable offense.

After I published my lyric essay about the 2016 election, I worried that the anger would not age well. In retrospect, the tone wasn’t fucking angry enough. After Donald Trump lost in humiliating fashion in 2020, his supporters stormed the capitol puppeteering the confederate flag in perceived triumph. While the television news anchors looked on with fresh horror, I saw it as an Omaha Incident Reboot. Nearly a century earlier, a reformist became mayor of that city, threatening to soften white supremacy. White men stormed their city government and nearly lynched him. He never returned to politics. A black man did not survive the incident. Not a single criminal served any prison time. The fact that this happened again after a black man ascended to the senate is not a goddamn coincidence. Political scientist Robert A. Pape said, “You see a common pattern in the Capitol Insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

Donald Trump later ass-dialed Fox News and claimed the insurrectionists were hugging and kissing law enforcement. While the corporate news pundits roundhouse kicked this tomato can with a NEWS DESK FACT CHECK, they missed the larger point. Whenever white supremacy is threatened, it feels like lawlessness to many white Americans and therefore these New Balanced terrorists were temporarily replacing ineffective police. As a classroom reward for his pupils, Trump workshopped klavern fan fiction.

For conservatives, democracy has malfunctioned. The only places where the party finds consistent success is in the exarchates late capitalism has pounded into ivory powder. Therefore, it should not be shocking that their voters lust to incinerate elections into ash, so wrinkled Uncle Sam salts them as the urn’s top layer.

Rolling Stone Age

 I have a subscription to Rolling Stone. I never asked for it or paid for it. It comes to my parents’ home in the Finger Lakes. It appeared in the mailbox while I housesat in July 2020. My brother, who was born with a heart defect, was once again in the hospital. He survived another surgery, to the tune of a million dollars. Since he has a preexisting condition, Republicans would have him pay every fucking dime of it.

I guess I’m the age where I receive this magazine now? Which means I’m halfway toward Readers Digest populating my restroom. While leafing through my free issue, it looked much different than when I’d sneak glances at my local Borders. Back then, album reviews of legacy acts read more like press releases than criticism. Anything new or interesting (IDM was the premiere underground genre of the era) received minimal attention.

That month’s issue featured an essay by Andy Kroll where he writes, “The contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is not a choice between competing policy agendas or rival ideologies. It’s a choice between reality and anti-reality.”

In an election retrospective, Peter Slevin of the New Yorker said this about campaigning in Iowa: “A central lesson is that facts matter little when […] pivotal groups of voters stick to what they think they know.”

What these two observations have in common is that most Americans are dumb as fuck and the media is too cowardly to admit it. American Exceptionalism DNA can be found splattered across the murder scenes of most political coverage. News outlets address white voters as royalty and only the court jesters of The Daily Show are authorized by corporate sponsors to treat them with the derision they require.

My political takes as a young adult were thermal vomit. Luckily, MySpace did millennials a solid and pressure-washed them into the digital void. However, I’m always open to being wrong and challenge myself to read a hundred books per year. I usually fall short of this goal, especially with grading and real-life nonsense interfering, but it pushes me to read more than I normally would, and as a result, I become a better writer, teacher, and thinker. It appears that Rolling Stone also has improved beyond abject boomer worship, so I won’t discontinue my free subscription.

Rushing to Death

 If you’ve spent any time in the American hinterlands, you have come into contact with The Rush Limbaugh Show. While most young people think of terrestrial radio the way you think about the fax machine or phonograph, conservative talk radio fills our vast rural emptiness. If you’ve never heard his show, it’s ad-sponsored demotic execration for anyone who fails to perform routine maintenance on our cultural hierarchy. An easy Google search yields all the liquid shit this fucker splashed from his khaki asshole.

When Limbaugh broadcasted his lung cancer diagnosis in February 2020, I fully expected him to recover. Not because he is a particularly strong man, but because even cancer cells were mortified to cohabitate with his voice. His quarantine beard made him resemble a frothing hound mesmerized by scrapyard carcasses. Ta-Nehisi Coates describes him as the “bard of white decline.”

Donald J. Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award is to recognize Americans who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” A pill-popping dropout seems to not measure up to these qualifications, but how many wealthy white men are legitimately qualified for the work that they do? The nine richest Americans are all white men. They all founded companies with the amazing innovation of exploiting other humans for profit. Every single president except one has been a white man and they all supported racial imperialism. Is it shocking that Rush Limbaugh became so wealthy? Most white men are not rich, but that doesn’t stop them from assuming that this indigenous massacre of a nation could help them become panjandrums. It’s the immigrants or trans athletes or trans immigrant athletes who prevent them from achieving their boring dream of a sports car and a luxury fortress with an electronic fence.

The last few episodes of Rush’s shows were a public wake for Donald Trump’s failed campaign. For months this shitheel claimed that this was going to be just like 2016, where election experts will be proven to be incorrect, while his righteous audience will once again vanquish the unholy dragon of moderate liberalism. For Rush’s audience, who avoid eye contact with black text, the results were bewildering.

One caller in particular sobbed through his sentence fragments. “Trump…and you are all we have left…Rush. […] We were in Washington on Saturday…me and my thirty-three-year-old adult son…we saw more people than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime! Ever! […] I am not a revolutionary. Rush, but I would die for my president.”

Like any prospective suicide bomber, this geezer is a sinister mark. His life clearly signifies little to himself and therefore craves a purposeful death to produce spiritual meaning. Instead of realizing that capitalism has reduced his human worth to nothing, he looks to richer white men’s approval for validation.

Frank Bruni decided to use his platform of The New York Times to tut-tut anyone celebrating Limbaugh’s death. With his headmaster’s tone, he expressed his disappointment with all of us: “crudeness only perpetuates a kind of discourse that tracks too closely with Twitter: all spleen, no soul […] it doesn’t leave us the room for reasoned and reasonable debate on which a healthy democracy thrives.”

So according to the source of liberal boomers, American democracy depends on the left being cordial while the right deifies attack-dog rhetoricians. Fuck that and fuck you, Bruni. I know that opining for The Times means maintaining a tone that won’t disturb morning tea in Maine, but I’m hamstrung by an unshakable moral core. I fully encourage the desecration of Rush’s grave by advocating for equality so his soul may never find peace.

Tik Tok Motherfucker

In June 2020, Trump chose Tulsa, OK, to kick off his reelection campaign. Despite the fact that a global pandemic made any mass gathering a public health risk, the American president wasn’t going to make a silly thing like human suffering stop him from throwing a goddamn party.

This rally was hyped to be the television counterpunch to a badly damaged campaign. How can these poll numbers be accurate when so many people love Donald Trump? This was going to be real America. Not that fucking fake coastal snowflake shit. Let Trump’s revenge tour commence!

Only no one showed up. I’ve seen madrigal choirs in upstate malls attract bigger crowds. Even the die-hards who braved the virus appeared despondent. Campaign manager Brad Parscale had been hyping his “Death Star” of an operation, apparently without watching the third act of any Star Wars feature film.  

Unbeknownst to the Trump team, Tik Tok teens requested tickets they had no intention of using. The man who trolled his way to the White House got beat at his own game. While I’m fully supportive of any platform that angers politicians, I cannot in good faith actually recommend this particular application. Tik Tok exposes the brutal truth that most people struggle to express themselves. The same dance routines, the same audio clips, and the same lazy observations replicate infinitely across the cloud. I know this is the slushiest of takes, but there’s something dispiriting about endless people reveling in unoriginality. John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, once described the Internet as “[not] much more than a gigantic Xerox machine.” I despise when anti-labor dragurs are right.

Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker that “I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason.” A rapper told Pitchfork that when composing songs for the application, to make sure “it doesn’t sound professional. The masses can relate to it because they can feel like they can do it too, almost.”  

Like most drugs, Tik Tok’s main purpose is a controlled burning of unused time when you suffer from too much of it. A professional-sounding song would depress you because it’s a reminder that other people experience time passionately. In this way, it makes sense why Tik Tok users delivered a body blow to the Trump campaign. They have intimate knowledge about pissing life away.

Show of Wonder

Some of the best television journalism of the past twenty years was done by children on Wonder Showzen. It was a short-lived series produced during the George W. Bush presidency and was the grotesque version of Sesame Street. These curious tykes would ask adults to comment on accepted cultural perceptions, only to expose the blank minds responsible for the world’s most powerful economy.

Some questions included “Is America #1?” A white male office worker answered in the affirmative. That is when the elementary school student came back with an unblocked uppercut: he asked the office worker, “Why?” The response comprised of monochromatic logical dead ends usually reserved for hostage videos. In another segment, a child asked FiDi workers “Who did you exploit today?” Almost all of answers included “I don’t think I did.” What this revealed is that buried within the subconscious of the financial sector is the knowledge that the guidelines are grossly unfair. Three years after this segment aired, the world economy crashed due to Wall Street malfeasance.

Before each episode, a warning screen appeared in all caps stating, “WONDER SHOWZEN CONTAINS OFFENSIVE, DESPICABLE CONTENT THAT IS TOO CONTROVERSIAL AND TOO AWESOME FOR ACTUAL CHILDREN. THE STARK, UGLY, PROFOUND TRUTHS WONDER SHOWZEN EXPOSES MAY BE SOUL CRUSHING TO THE WEAK OF SPIRIT.” What this show revealed, however, is that the actual children are the majority of American adults, who possess fairy-tale renditions of their own people and history. The minors involved in the production had a better sense of the carnival economics that power Old Glory.

In 2017, the creators of Wonder Showzen gave an interview about its legacy. John Lee said, “There’s so much shit that’s just never said on TV, everybody’s cooperating in this one game and one agreed upon thing.” Vernon Chatman added “I never associated anger or frustration with the truth we were ‘telling.’ I always thought that it [w]as more gleeful than angry.” This is why Wonder Showzen is art and social media threads are not. Anger is a powerful fuel when refined, but in its raw form, just sloshes in ugly barrels to be bought and sold by tech companies. In 2020, Lee said “Injustice and inequality never change. That’s the tragedy of Wonder Showzen.

Just Asking Questions

If bloody cleats acupunctured Tucker Carlson in a campfire, would he curse himself as he leathered from white to red to smoke? Would conservatives venerate the second amendment as comrades flooded their homes during his primetime slot? Hypnotized by White Power Hour, would they notice the lead trickle of AR-15s tickling their spines? If you blast several quislings at once, does it cause hell to traffic jam? Is this non-literal commentary? Did they have a gun? Did they have drugs in the house? What were they wearing?

Life Hacks

Every spring semester while I’m grading, I revisit the three volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. My fascination with the film began with its initial release and my appreciation for it has only grown over the subsequent decades. There were several computer-related thrillers released at the time, but Hackers by far is the best. It tells the tale of a teenage hacker played by Johnny Lee Miller who moves from Seattle to Manhattan for his senior year of high school. He befriends multicultural hacker adolescents and they become ensnared in a reprocessed Hollywood plot in which covetous corporate employees pilfer money from digital accounts. I even watched an original 35mm print at a pre-pandemic screening at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.

The movie was criticized at the time for its fantastical representation of the primitive Internet. Hackers would not seem very powerful if their modems disconnected by repeated phone calls from relatives. However, its resistance to accurately representing nineties Internet is what gives it staying power. The characters’ fascination with technology can be used to represent any niche hobby that alienates teenagers from their peers. As someone who attended a bland upstate school where everyone had the same basic interests, the idea that you could go to a downstate school and find fellow misfits amazed me more than the ability to penetrate international banks with MacOS 7.5. My advanced classes consisted of privileged students obsessed with exam scores as opposed to cultural awareness.

The soundtrack is wonderful. It consists of all the big electronica acts of the era, including Prodigy, Underworld, and Orbital. What makes me return to these early techno groups is the craftsmanship. Peter Kruder said that “each step took a million years.” Today anyone with a passing interest in ProTools can fuck around and share to TikTok for instant listening. At the genre’s genesis, finding an audience was difficult. Compact discs were also expensive, and you’d need adventurous record shoppers to make money beyond the urban core.

Rob Birch of the Stereo MCs describes early electronica as “rebel music.” Laurence Mason, who plays “Lord Nikon” in the film, said, “all this music had a primitive element to them, a universality [that] speaks to everyone.” Iain Softley, the film’s director, said that film executives requested grunge music because “Nobody in America listens to techno.” The suits desired a downstate film catered to upstate sensibilities.

Grading is easily the worst part of my profession. It’s also the impetus to avoid many social media applications. If I am employed to read amateur writing, then why would I perform that labor pro bono publico? The Hackers soundtrack, however, helps remind me of being their coeval and figuring things out. Each essay assignment is an opportunity for young adults to critique culture, character, or an image. Building an enlightened electorate requires assistance with elevating American prose. To encourage the development of rebel music.

Rhymes with Orange

After four years of WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump, there was not a single fictional character more refreshing in professional wrestling than Orange Cassidy. Similar to Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, Cassidy is a droll recluse in a chaotic world. In a television genre where the cocaine rants of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan are considered foundational texts, Orange Cassidy loiters on camera while quasi-comatose. 

When in the ring, Cassidy plays off audience expectations. Traditionally, when a wrestler lands a stiff strike, the audience responds with “OHHH” like a Greek chorus. Knowing this, Cassidy attacks with the slightest of touches, with the crowd getting louder and louder with each successive kick becoming lazier and more lethargic.

Professional wrestling, like any dramatic art, features moments of comedy to make the serious beats hit slightly harder. Orange Cassidy takes the opposite approach—the majority of his act is comedy, and therefore his serious moments are emotional explosions. Despite having a roster loaded with main event stars from across the globe, Orange Cassidy is the most popular combatant in All Elite Wrestling.

In an era where even the president floods social media with outrage, Cassidy appears perpetually hungover and withdrawn. In an uncustomary moment of reality, Cassidy described his character as “a wrestler who doesn’t want to wrestle. Whatever he can do just to get by is what he’s going to do.” This is what makes him such a radical character in American culture—ambitious sociopaths are lauded for their planetary exploitation by a complicit media infrastructure operated by other ambitious sociopaths. Orange Cassidy’s motivation is to bypass conflict altogether. His hometown? “Wherever.” Weight? “Whatever.” In a nation where the digits in your zip code and bathroom scale dominate cultural perceptions, Cassidy reminds the audience that America’s image obsession is a fucking joke.

Yub Nub!

Despite his best attempts at fascism, one of which got him impeached, Donald Trump lost the election. Joe Biden was not my choice to represent Democrats but the backbone of the party, black voters, selected him over the other candidates. To show just how despised Trump is with most of America, Delaware centrist Joe Biden received more votes than anyone in history.

I was pressure washing my new home when my neighbor signaled for me to remove my headphones. Joe Biden won the election! I killed the engine and heard a symphony of car horns and screams. My phone was overwhelmed with messages from family. I told my sister that I was playing “Yub Nub” from Return of the Jedi. Her husband was streaming it as well.

Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite movie from the series because aside from coke-fueled Carrie Fisher, it tells the most complete story. In the first act, Luke Skywalker overthrows the crime family responsible for his home planet’s outlaw culture. Luke then discovers the tragedy of his father’s young adulthood from his mentor’s ghost. Finally, he passes the moral test that his father failed and completes the prophecy of Anakin balancing the force. When Luke returns to celebrate with his friends, the autochthonous Ewoks perform a science fiction slave hymn which translates to “Hooray, Freedom!”

Late in the song, Luke sees the force ghosts of Yoda, Obi Wan, and his father. Although Luke was originally too old to become a jedi, he stumbled across the finish line thanks to the galaxy’s leftist coalition. Decatur, GA, had recently adopted open container laws due to the pandemic, and so later that afternoon my girlfriend and I wanted to celebrate. Like most American cities, there was jubilation in the streets. Parents, children, and young adults all reveled with music, desserts, and social-distanced dance. Georgia was turning blue. Parscale’s Death Star had been reduced to a white firework. Although pot-holed roads were ahead on every issue, at least we were getting towed out of the ditch. Hooray. Freedom.

 

Photo at the top of the page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ElectoralCollege2020.svg

Where Meaning Lives

Disregard the drooling mouths, the incoherent babbles, the lack of fine motor skills: babies are geniuses. At birth, babies can discern every speech sound found in every language. They may not produce much more than dirty diapers, but they absorb the sound profiles of languages like sommeliers sampling pinot grigios. Send a Japanese baby to Britain, and she’ll distinguish red from led. Drop a Brazilian baby in southern Africa with the Ju|’hoansi, and he’ll crack the code of their consonantal clicks. An American baby can decipher that meaning lives in the tones of Thai. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for American men, and when I decided to move to Thailand in 2011, I soon realized that my linguistic genius had been discharged decades ago alongside a spate of soiled diapers.

Even beyond my non-baby status, I was hesitant to uproot my life in Atlanta. Moving abroad, I left behind family, friends, and my first full-time job to join Andrea, my fiancée, now wife. She had accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English at a rural secondary school near Ubon Ratchathani, a city close to the Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia. I’d traveled to Thailand once before, in 2009, then too because Andrea—more adventurous and ambitious than I am—had made plans to go. She’d been volunteering at an elder home in the countryside for six weeks before I arrived, at which point we began a two-week tour of the kingdom. For me, the highlights of that trip were overshadowed by my first night, the worst of my life.

When we stopped for dinner that night at the only street cart in sight, I should have followed Andrea’s lead and scooted a couple cubes of what looked like maroon tofu to the edge of my plate where they could only spectate as I shoveled the lukewarm green curry into my mouth. But I wanted to say yes to everything. Meanwhile, having spent the previous weeks living with a host family who spoke as little English as she spoke Thai, Andrea was hungry to share her experience, and she wanted me to dive into the culture mouth first. So, along with the maroon tofu—which we learned years later was congealed pig’s blood—that day, at Andrea’s behest, I also tried durian. A spiky rugby ball of a fruit, the durian’s doughy inner flesh smelled, felt, and tasted to me like a two-month-old mango left to spoil in a dumpster full of skunks. To Andrea, it was delicious. Love at first bite.

We made it back to our hotel before this conglomeration of partially digested, foreign food tethered me to the bathroom inside our room. Over the next eight hours, my digestive tract revealed the contents of its character like clowns spilling out of a clown car—front and back seats simultaneously. The food poisoning stopped me from stomaching sips of water, much less the antibiotic antidote. The blessing in all this was how Thai bathrooms are designed. The showerhead hides behind neither glass nor curtain; enter a Thai bathroom and you’ve essentially stepped into an oversized shower with a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other, the entire floor slanted toward a drain (the entire floor—thank you sweet Jesus—designed to get wet).

A sleepless night behind us, we left early for the nearest hospital, hopping on the back of an enclosed pick-up truck—a common form of public transport called a สองแถว (translation: “two row,” on account of the bench seats facing each other inside). Andrea wisely brought her Thai phrasebook along. (In a month and a half of language immersion, her mastery of the language had yet to include vocabulary for “vomiting” or “diarrhea” or “nonstop all night.”) En route to the hospital, as Andrea flipped through the book’s pages, one phrase stood out: “Is the needle clean?” She planned to ask—interjecting before any injecting. But it was while staff pulled her away to complete paperwork that my nurse pulled out a needle. The mystery injection spurred my recovery. And, two years later, the memory of that hospital visit spurred something else: if we were going to spend a year abroad, we were going to learn the language.

***

Within a baby’s first year, her perceptive superpowers fade. A twelve-month-old raised in Tokyo won’t hear any difference between red and led. A one-year-old raised in Rio has closed the door on the Ju|’hoansi’s clicks. That’s not to say these abilities disappear completely, but they have to be relearned. A 2018 study of more than half a million people indicates that kids as old as ten can start learning English as a second language, master it throughout their late teens, and speak without an accent. Still, much as my exposure to Thai came far too late for its tones to come naturally, I created my first Thai alphabet flashcards at twenty-three—thirteen years late to the speak-without-an-accent party.

With its forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels, the Thai alphabet is long but phonetic. Unlike in English, where we can spell the vowel that sounds like the letter “E” at least ten different ways (be, bee, bean, fiend, quay, people, amoeba, receive, lovely, alley), in Thai, if you know how a word is spelled, you can probably pronounce it. They also don’t put spaces between their words, a feature that reflects the way humans speak: Abarrageofwordsblurringtogetherwithoutpause.

In the weeks before my departure, my best friend stopped by and flipped through the flashcards stacked on the kitchen table. He balked at how similar some of the letters looked, pointing out one pair: ม and น, the Thai equivalents of m and n. On a piece of scrap paper, I scribbled the letters h and n, spotlighting the subtle difference between the two. Learning Thai, like learning any language, was all about training your eyes and ears to notice the differences that matter, the ones that hold meaning.

Imagine a language’s bank of speech sounds as a palette of colors. Perhaps the k sound—known linguistically as the voiceless velar stop—is a cool cerulean. Let’s say the ow vowel sound (as in “Ow, I stubbed my toe”) is hot pink. Throw the colors of the English palette onto a canvas in the right sequence and you can sound out Shakespeare in abstract art. A brushstroke of cerulean on the left, one of hot pink to the right and you’ve composed a cow.

The palettes of English and Thai aren’t that different. Just swap out a few consonantal colors and throw in an extra vowel. But Thais don’t rely on colors alone to paint their world with meaning. There are, of course, the tones—five of them: low, mid, high, rising, and falling. And vowel length can further change the meaning of a word. Thais can take that abstract portrayal of cow and turn down the contrast, emphasizing the low tones and voilà: เขา, a gender-neutral pronoun translating to both “he” and “she.” They can tweak the contrast again to produce เข้า, meaning “to enter.” Next, they might add another dab of hot pink, lengthening the ow stroke to capture one of their most beloved words, ข้าว, meaning “rice.” One last tonal change gets them ขาว, “white,” and they’ve finally exhausted the possibilities for interpreting what in English still looks like the same abstract cow. No flashcards could train me to perceive such subtleties. I needed to be there.

I found an English teaching gig like Andrea’s, before catching my trans-Pacific flight. While she lived on site at her school about seven miles south of Ubon, I volunteered at an elementary school about thirty miles north, leading English lessons alongside Thai teachers. I was the pronunciation expert and brought an element of immersion to each classroom, while the Thai teachers served as interpreters and legitimate figures of authority. The school’s classrooms resembled those of my childhood in Atlanta with three exceptions: no carpeting, no air-conditioning, no shoes inside—teachers included. Outside each room, a bevy of amber and suede Chuck Taylor knockoffs indicated class was in session. Depending on the students, the shoes would lie in a neat row or a chaotic cluster. Andrea recalls that the same pattern held at her school, and the younger classes full of boys tended to leave “more wild piles.” 

After two months on the job, Christmas was rolling around and became the subject of a lesson I won’t forget. Though murals of Kris Kringle himself adorned several of the white cinderblock walls along the Foreign Language Department hallway, my students only understood his character on a cursory level—as I understood Thai. On this particular day, I can’t recall whether a tidy ribbon of shoes or a jumbled heap lined the wall outside the doorway—a class of mostly girls or boys. Given what transpired, I don’t know that I would have preferred one over the other. The Thai teacher and I encouraged the students to share what they knew about Christmas, Santa Claus, and the winter season. And so, in fits and starts, a room full of about twenty Buddhist middle school students whispered the words that popped into their heads. Everything was going as planned, predictably and without note, until from the back left of the room, one student mumbled หิมะ, the Thai word for “snow.” I recognized the word from my vocabulary book but had never heard it spoken. Excited, I repeated it at a much higher volume for the whole class to hear. Or at least I thought I did. The Thai teacher went wide-eyed; the classroom fell silent. The picture I had drawn with my words wasn’t an abstract expression evoking a wintery scene with thick banks of fresh powder. I’d used the right colors but the wrong tones. And I’d stretched the vowels out too long, turning the word “snow” into two different words. The second: the verb “to come.” The first: a slang term for “vagina.”

***

Between Christmas of 2011 and Christmas 2012, Andrea and I made fewer gaffes and more connections within our communities, and after a visit home for the holiday, we opted to return to Thailand for six more months. We spent this time working for a nonprofit in a different part of the country. And while we’d both resigned from our posts as teachers back in Ubon, we remained students of the language: our vocabularies swelled to more than a thousand words. When traveling through Bangkok, where the locals spoke more English and the foreigners less Thai, we would compete to see who could more frequently convince shop owners and food vendors to utter the phrase พูดไทยชัด: “You speak Thai clearly.” Andrea would win.

Looking back, one of the greatest joys of learning Thai came through exposure to foreign compound words, which offered new ways of seeing the objects and actions of life. The image of any simple word is arbitrary, an abstraction of color cast in shadows and highlights. But more intentional meaning lives in the compounds, those pairs of words juxtaposed, colliding in collage. Translated into Thai compound words, some simple English takes a literal turn. “Sock,” for example, becomes “foot bag.” “Fridge” becomes “cold cabinet.” But other words win their beauty not through playful precision but through rich metaphor. “Excited” becomes “to get up and dance.” “To understand” becomes “to enter the heart.”

Studying Thai was like discovering Cubism after spending decades as students of the Impressionists. Like mimes in their invisible boxes, we felt out the boundaries that enclose Thai civility and fence out taboo. We learned that if the subject of an expression is implied, it’s omitted—left to live in the negative space. And, in the common phrases and idioms spoken all around us, we caught authentic glimpses of Thai culture. But perhaps most importantly, familiarity with this new form yielded familiarity with those who produce it: Thais both young and old—these artists who fluently flick their paint onto canvas, wielding foreign tongues, vocal cords, and breath. By playing around with the Thai palette, we met them halfway. We swam in the sounds that color their kingdom. We perceived how light filters through their linguistic lens. Mutual respect blossomed between teacher and student.

After we moved back to Atlanta for good, Andrea and I located a Buddhist temple that offered Sunday morning Thai lessons. Outside of a small, wood-paneled room, an assortment of shoes indicated class was in session. We’d set up a folding table and two folding chairs and join our classmates—among them, a Laotian-American mother and son, a couple hexagenerians with plans to live out their retirement sipping coconuts on Thai beaches, and a half-Thai preschooler accompanied by her American father. Hoping to retain what we’d learned of the language, Andrea and I attended these classes for more than a year. And for the hour we spent there each week, our patient Thai teacher transported us right back to her home country, and the language’s familiar sounds rekindled the fresh perspectives we’d gained. From the start, we were too old for her language to come naturally, too entrenched in our own style of speech. But our age allowed us to delight in the differences in a way babies and teenagers cannot.

On any given Saturday, we may have woken up excited for the weekend’s events. Put on some socks. Grabbed breakfast from the fridge. But on Sundays, we got up and danced. Donned pairs of foot bags. And rummaged through the cold cabinet. A year and a half was too short to achieve fluency—I was conversational at best, with a thick American accent. But I believe I came to understand Thai. The language had entered my heart.

 

Such a Long, Long Time to Be Gone and a Short Time to be There

View of the Canal Saint-Martin by Alfred Sisley, Orsay Museum, 1870

The waiter was a gangly young man with a shock of brown hair and the exuberant manner of an Airedale puppy. We had only asked for water, but he seemed delighted by our request. The light glinted enthusiastically off his hornrims.

“Bien sur,” he said. “Il n’y a pas de souci!”

There was nothing to worry about—water would be forthcoming. In fact, we could have anything we wanted. Bread, butter, Dad’s request that coffee come at the same time as dessert and not before: everything was “pas de souci.” Emphasis on “pas.” There is no worry. 

It was Thanksgiving, and my sister Claudia, my Dad, and I were in the market for some good news. That morning, I had gotten off a plane laden with the kinds of provisions Americans miss when they live abroad—two jars of Skippy peanut butter, a tube of Colgate, and a box of Trader Joe’s cornbread mix. But before I even got to the house, Mom fainted on the way to the bathroom and hit her head. She had been sick again for about six months, and the doctors had just decided to suspend treatment, so Claud and I had flown in for Thanksgiving, worried about waiting until Christmas.

So we had traded our day of baking cornbread in the parents’ high-ceilinged kitchen for the grind of hanging around the emergency room at the Hopital Saint-Louis, in an eastern quadrant of Paris. Ordinarily, this would be a fairly exotic locale for a girl from a row house in Northeast Philly, but Mom and Dad, hometown sweethearts, had lived in France since 1966, so it was just normal.

Once the doctors told us they wanted to keep her overnight, Mom sent us home. We were half-guilty at leaving her alone, half-elated at getting sprung from the place. On our way, we had stopped off at this half-timbered restaurant on the river. It was a clear night, quiet but for the hum of activity emanating from the handful of restaurants along the quay. After the aseptic glare of the ER intake hall, the restaurant was warm and comforting, with copper pots on the walls reflecting firelight and roasting smells curling out from the kitchen. Maybe there really was nothing to worry about.

By the time we got home, I was too tired to do anything, even get ready for bed. I was just talking to Claud about a screenplay she was working on when the phone rang. The phone in the parents’ house has a long insistent tone, like a bratty kid. Claudia and I looked at each other. There is no good news after 1:00 a.m. The phone rang again, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to get off the bed to answer it. Waaaaaaaah, it whined. Not yet, I thought. We just need a little more time. Waaaaaaaaaaaah, insisted the phone. I stood up. The phone stopped ringing.

I didn’t get the chance even to pretend it was a wrong number because the hospital called right back. Dad talked to the doctor, then I talked to the doctor, then I asked them to repeat everything again to make sure I had got it all straight. The impact had caused a cerebral hemorrhage, which had formed a blood clot in Mom’s brain, which wasn’t operable due to the fact that Mom was already dying of leukemia and was too weak to withstand surgery. There was a chance it might resolve on its own, but we’d have to wait and see what happened.

Dad sank onto my bed. He looked haggard.

“It was the fall,” he whispered.

***

Eventually, we each went to bed. I took an Ambien, but I couldn’t sleep. In fact, I never wanted to sleep again. I felt strangely powerful, as if I could keep Mom aloft, like a bird in the sky, through sheer force of will. If I just kept thinking of her, in some bizarre way, I thought I could keep her safe. And if the night didn’t end, things could still go either way.

When I woke up, the dread in my stomach was so thick it was almost tangible. I couldn’t believe that yesterday might really have been the last day we had together. It had been so boring, so uneventful, Mom just lying on her wheely bed, eyes mostly closed, and Dad and Claud and I chatting amongst ourselves, letting her rest. When we left, I kissed her, but it was so anodyne, so see-you-tomorrow; it felt like that couldn’t possibly have been goodbye.

But when we got back to the hospital, Mom seemed a little better. The doctors told us that if she made it through the next five days, then the clot might be treatable. In the meantime, we had to watch for any neurological disturbances, any slackening on one side of her face, any violent headaches.

In the interim, Dad decided it would be better not to tell Mom the truth. Since she didn’t seem aware of anything more wrong than usual, there was no reason to frighten her. I wasn’t so sure. Wouldn’t she want to know? What if she wanted to talk about it?

We had been here before, 20 years earlier, when Mom had a bone marrow transplant, a treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I had gone to see her on the eve of the procedure; Claudia, six years younger, was still in college in the States. I was 27 and terrified. Life without Mom seemed an unimaginable catastrophe. I didn’t see how people could go on after losing a parent.

I had sat on the side of her bed. The transplant had the potential to cure her. Or it could fail and she would die.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if you die,” I said, and burst into tears.

“Don’t say that,” said Dad sharply. “She’s not going to die.”

“Sam,” said Mom, warning in her voice. “Don’t interfere. I want to talk about it.”

Dad kind of melted away in the corner.

“I’m so scared,” I sobbed.  

Mom stroked my hand. “I know, sweetheart,” she said.

As it turned out, the procedure was a success. She went back to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back every month, then every six months, then once a year. And so 20 years passed. Mom saw my sister get married and have kids. She saw me get married—at last!—when I was 41 and, even more improbably, have two kids of my own.

***

Now here we were, back at Saint-Louis. This time, I just let things be. We played Go Fish. I read Mom a long and really boring article in Vanity Fair, which pleased me by its very boringness. We asked her repeatedly if her head hurt. She always said it didn’t. It looked like it might be possible that Mom would be discharged on Tuesday and we could just have a late Thanksgiving then.

But the next day, the left side of her mouth started twitching uncontrollably. There was something violent and cruel about it, like a goblin was pulling her lip by a string, just for fun. Mom didn’t seem to notice. She couldn’t raise her left arm. The mental timeline I had made myself—that Mom could make it through the holidays, that she might even see the spring again in her garden—always as fragile as a soap bubble, shimmered and vanished. They sent her for another brain scan.

Dad looked green. “Could you go?” he asked weakly.

When she was wheeled out of the MRI room, we were left alone for a spell. She is going to die, I thought. Today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. That hematoma isn’t getting reabsorbed—it is going to compress her brain and kill her. The desire to tell her, to confide in her, bubbled up in my chest. How could I not tell her how scared I was, how much I would miss her? How could I not ask her if she was afraid too?  

“Mom,” I said. The words you are going to leave me squirmed on my tongue. I hesitated. “I just want you to know that I am honored to be your daughter,” I said finally. “I love you so much. I don’t think anyone has a mother as tough and brave and loving as you.”

But she had stopped reacting, as if her mind had abruptly walked off, like someone leaving a tedious conversation at a party. She was staring fixedly off to the side. Her eyes were open but dull. I felt sick with fear. Was she angry at me? Had I made her think, “That’s just what everyone says when you die”?

When we got back to her room, she still had that fixed look, but she was looking right at me. I sat by her bed and took her hand. I tried to make my face look like the sort of face you would want to see if that was the only thing you could focus on. I tried not to look the way I felt, which was worried that, in order to relieve my feelings, I had burdened her. But a little later, when she was herself again, she motioned to me.

“It made me so happy to hear that,” she whispered.

“Well, it’s true,” I said. “I just needed to say it.”

In fact, the big declaration was a Mom Special. She was so intense that she always operated in a zone beyond embarrassment. Like a character in the operas she loved so much, she would launch into lengthy soliloquies that expressed how she felt about us, how she saw me. She was the one who divined “something poetic” in the nature of my prosaic, baseball-hatted husband.

Once, when I was particularly lonely and sad, leaving her at the airport to go back to my single life in New York, she told me, “You think nobody sees how hard it is for you, how much you’re trying, how difficult it is for you to be alone. But I see you. I see how valiant you are.” She looked at me, her eyes shining with tears. “I am your witness.”

I wasn’t quite as baroque as Mom, but I still couldn’t keep things inside. Back at the hospital, I thought about the links forged between us.

“We’re kind of alike like that, aren’t we?” I said. “You were never afraid of expressing the big emotions. Even the corny ones.”

We were quiet. My heart glowed. We were so connected, so alike—everything I hated hearing when I was growing up felt so good right now. I always had my mother’s face (“Little Myrna!” lesser-known relatives would exclaim, making me wish I could curl up into a ball) and I shared many of her traits, most of which I wished I could shuck off. She was so dramatic, so easily hurt, so self-critical. If she happened to come into my room late at night, what could otherwise have been a cozy midnight chat could easily devolve into tears.

“I’ve made so many mistakes!” she would lament.

There was a downside to all that feeling as well—bitter silences, violent rages, times when she would scream at me, “You don’t love me! You don’t care about anyone but yourself!” Mom, who never swore, would sometimes call me a bitch when she was upset. And then she would forget she had ever said anything like it.

I only reacted by retreating. I’d go into my room, shut the door, and refuse to come out or to speak to her. Mom would eventually send Dad in to broker a peace deal, and he would ask me to apologize.

“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” I’d say. “She should apologize to me.”

“You know how she is,” he’d say.

What kind of an excuse is that? I wanted to scream. But that’s how it went. We lived with Mom’s volcanic rages because that was just the way she was.

Sometimes I would try to get her to admit she was wrong.

“You told me I didn’t love you,” I would accuse her the next day.

Mom would frown in surprise. “Did I?” she would say vaguely. “I’m sure that’s not right. I would never say that.”

“But you did,” I would mutter.

Accordingly, I spent most of my childhood trying to be my Dad. He was the cool one, always charming, always even-keeled. But right now, I was happy to be of one mind with Mom. As the afternoon wore on, she got worse. She couldn’t feel her left arm, she had a couple of epileptic fits. The doctors gave her some antiseizure medication and she dropped off to sleep.

On Sunday, Mom slept all day and couldn’t be woken. It was the medication, they said. All day I just wished that she would wake up, that I’d be able to talk to her one more time, that we’d have one more chance to be together. Please don’t go, I whispered to her. Please come back.

I got my wish. But as in the stories, you don’t always want what you ask for. Mom was awake, all right, alert and fully conscious. Up until then, she hadn’t been uncomfortable, she was glad to have us with her, she didn’t seem entirely aware of her impairments. But this morning, she could feel everything. She had been breathing through her mouth all the previous day, so her mouth was completely dry. She could barely speak. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t move her arm.

“I feel like a prisoner,” she rasped, her voice rising in panic. “I can’t move, I can’t speak!”

I watched her helplessly. I kept thinking about how, back at home in Atlanta, a bird had flown in through the chimney, then flapped around wildly, hurling itself at the windows, trying to break out. By the time I was finally able to wrench open a window, it had left a small dark smear of blood on the ceiling.

This was worse.

“I have to express myself! I can’t speak!”

I had wanted so much for her to wake up. But not to this.

“Mom—” I said.

“I’m fading,” she moaned, “I’m fading!”

Why had I wanted her to wake up? Irrationally, I felt like it was my fault.

“It’s like Pet Semetary!” I wailed to Tommy during a telephone break.

“How is that?” he asked patiently.

“You know how the guy’s kid gets hit by a car and he just can’t accept it and so he buries his son in the old Indian graveyard so he can come back to life?”

“Uh huh,” he said cautiously. I often wonder what goes through his head when we talk.

“And the kid comes back as a homicidal zombie? I wished Mom back and now she’s in torture and this sucks and why isn’t it over?”

By the afternoon, she was calm again. Her voice was guttural and faint, and she couldn’t open her eyes at all, but she was able to talk.  

“You mean everything to me, Sam,” she told Dad. “Everything. You and the children.”

He clasped her hand, then passed it to me.

“Having you and Claudia here has been a bomb,” she whispered.

I thought she was talking about how Thanksgiving had been ruined. “It wasn’t a bomb, Mom,” I protested. “We’re just happy to be with you.”

“She didn’t say ‘bomb,’” Dad said. “She said ‘balm.’”

Of course. Only Mom would use vocabulary so unexpected in her last hours.

There was a brief moment of peace. Claudia and I talked to her about our kids, who were each trying, in their own way, to help. I told her about the drawing Rachel had done for her, of a rainbow, and a moon, and a tree.

“That’s beautiful,” murmured Mom.

After that, she got confused and started speaking French. I think she thought I was a nurse. I helped her suck a tiny bit of water out of a compress, but she could barely close her mouth over it. Then she started worrying about things left undone.

“I haven’t bought any presents for Hanukah,” she gasped.

We are not a family that plans ahead. A Hanukah present is never ready to be bought until the absolute last minute, when you’re forced to spend $14.95 on express shipping. But I thought of the enthusiastic waiter of our first night.

“They’re already bought,” I told her. “I’ve wrapped them. Everything’s ready.”

“But I didn’t put the flowers in the kitchen.”

“Ne vous inquietez pas,” I said. “We took care of it.”

“I forgot to take my cowboy boots upstairs.”

This one made me skip a beat. Mom, a tiny woman with an outsized sense of style, pretty much always wore floor-length skirts and flat slippers, often embellished with a bow. She had them in all different colors—gold and purple and forest green. But I don’t think she had ever even been in the same room as a pair of cowboy boots.

“You really haven’t worn your cowboy boots in a while, Mom,” I said. “But do not worry. We brought them upstairs. Il n’y a pas de souci.”

At the very end of the evening, she switched back to English. We told her we loved her and that we would see her tomorrow.

“That would be good,” she said.

I was holding her hand and squeezed it. Very faintly, like a radio signal coming from a long way off, I could feel the ghost of a return pressure.

That night, I found the box of Trader Joe’s cornbread mix sitting in the cupboard. I flinched. It looked wrong, and not just because it was a foreign interloper among the French biscuits and British teas. It belonged to a different time. A time Before. Before, when there was supposed to be a Thanksgiving dinner with homemade pie. I glared at the box. Its cheerful yellow lettering seemed to be taunting me. I shrieked and hurled it into the trash.

***

I was so grateful to have Claudia there—the only person in the world who knew what it was like growing up in France with our particular parents, with their white-tornado energy and insatiable appetite for Chinese art. We could admit to each other how much we wanted to go home and see our kids, and how sad we were. Every afternoon, we’d give Dad some time alone with Mom and go out to lunch. The hospital is on the edge of the Canal Saint-Martin, a formerly working class neighborhood which has now become a hipster heaven. We tried every café and bakery within a 15-block radius, on the hunt for the mythical Pastry-That-Would-Make-Everything-Better. I had eclairs and croissants and pains au chocolat, lemon tarts, and millefeuilles. We critiqued the frothiness of the different café crèmes we tried. Sometimes it helped.

Every evening, we’d spend hours on YouTube tracking down French ads that used to make us laugh when we were children. There was something comforting about going back in time and revisiting the man with the moustache who looked a little bit like Dad, explaining how Vicks pastilles soothe the throat and refresh the nose. We were delighted to find the sour-looking cleaning lady who methodically sprays Pliz furniture polish on a long dining room table, then, still sour-looking, takes a flying leap and slides all the way down the table on her stomach. Apparently, the Pliz shine lasts a long time. “And a good thing too,” says the sour cleaning lady, “because I wouldn’t do that every day.”

As the days passed, Dad and Claud and I developed a kind of symbiotic balance. Two of us remained functional at all times, while the third was free to fall apart. Then once that person could breathe again, we’d regroup and it would be someone else’s turn. I had a couple of those episodes. One was while we were walking from the stairwell to the car in the hospital garage—a distance of approximately 30 feet. I started after Dad and Claud, then abruptly could not take one more step.

I started yelling. It wasn’t fair. Why didn’t we even have any family here? Why did we have to do everything ourselves? And why wasn’t there someone to bring us a goddamn casserole?

Claud and Dad waited patiently at the car until I could walk again.

***

Tommy’s family was pretty much the opposite of mine. First of all, they are a gigantic Catholic family. Second, none of them ever left. They all live within a 10-mile radius of Gulfport, Mississippi. They have fifty people at Thanksgiving and eighty people at Christmas. And when Tommy’s cousin Mike had a follow-up hernia operation, there was a crowd of people at the hospital. His wife, their kids. His parents. Her parents. Three aunts. Two uncles. Six cousins. For an operation. Mom was dying and it was just the three of us.

On the one hand, it made sense. Mom and Dad had bought burial plots near their summer house in New Jersey, so the funeral would be there and we couldn’t really ask people to go flying back and forth across the Atlantic. But on the other, we were alone. Like a handful of shipwreck survivors on a raft. 

Fortunately, I had my friend Al. Al Prazolam. Mom has a dressing room off their bathroom, a small room, higher than it is wide, with a lovely arched window overlooking the garden. Built-in cabinets stretch up to the ceiling. And in one of these cabinets is the parents’ pharmacy. For some reason, be it long familiarity with the pharmacist, or a more relaxed attitude in France towards doling out medication, my parents have accumulated enough prescription drugs to stock a small dispensary. They’re piled in wicker baskets, to which Mom affixed cardstock labels on a little ribbon, almost illegible in her spidery handwriting: Antibiotics. Dermatology. Painkillers. For years, I used to go through the piles, throwing out anything expired, a process usually punctuated by me running into the next room, yelling, “Hey Mom! These antibiotics are from 1988!”

That day, I was on the hunt for something stronger. There was a small mountain of sleeping pills, all with their pharmaceutical names, since again, in France, you don’t have to “ask your doctor about Lavista” or whatever. The boxes with names ending in “azepam” or “azolam” looked promising. And there, finally, on the box marked “alprazolam,” was a note in Dad’s larger, clearer writing: “Xanax. For anxiety.”

After five or six days, Claudia and I changed our return tickets. Then we changed them again, an operation that necessitated multiple calls to the booking agency. After the third phone call, Claud switched off the phone and looked up.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “I’ve got nothing left.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll just say I’m you.”

Why I couldn’t just say I was calling on her behalf I’m not sure, but at the time, it seemed essential that some version of “Claudia Myers” make the call, so verisimilitude was key. Fortunately, Claudia and I have exactly the same voice, the same cadence, the same timbre—so much so that more than once, when Claudia has left me a voicemail, I’ll wonder why I called myself.

I put the phone on speaker.

“Hello, and thank you for calling Expedia,” said a man with an Indian accent. “My name is Mike.”

“Hi Mike,” I said, “This is, um, Claudia Myers. My mother is in the hospital so I need to change my ticket—it would be the second time.”

“Very good, Claudia,” he said. He pronounced it CLOW-dia, so that the first part of the name rhymed with “plough.” “I’m just checking your reservation now, CLOW-dia.”

Why did he keep saying “Claudia”? It was as if he suspected I was an imposter, and was trying to make me crack. Meantime, there was no way his name was Mike. The idea that there were two of us pretending to be people we weren’t seemed, for some reason, utterly hilarious. I could see Claud trying to suppress a giggle, her shoulders shaking.

“Stop it,” I hissed at her.

But Mike was relentless. “I will just put you on hold for a minute, CLOW-dia.”

Claud snorted with laughter.

“Stop laughing!” I told her. “What is the guy going to think? We’ve just told him Mom is in the hospital!”

“You stop laughing,” said Claud, wiping her eyes.

“I could if he’d stop saying CLOW-dia,” I protested.

The line clicked back to life.

“Thank you for waiting, CLOW-dia,” said Mike. He waited for me to say something. “CLOW-dia?” he said. “Are you still there, CLOW-dia?”

I gave up and buried my face in the pillows.

Claudia picked up the phone. “Yes, thanks so much, Mike,” she said.

***

Saint-Louis specializes in hematology and oncology, but because it’s France, they don’t bustle people out of the ward and into a hospice once there’s no hope. Instead, they just quietly shift to palliative care without even moving the patient to a different floor. It was how I imagined dying in another century might have been—no machines, no respirators, just an IV drip and the stately buildings you could see out the window. Even the nurses had old-fashioned French names—Honorine, Aurélie, Celeste, Manon. They were improbably lovely, with low musical voices and refined features. It was like being attended by the cast of extras from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

One morning, Honorine called the house at 8:00 a.m.

“Your mother has started having pauses in her breathing,” she said. “You should probably come to the hospital as soon as possible. How long will it take you to get here?”

The parents’ house is in the suburbs on the west side of Paris, near Versailles. Saint-Louis is all the way on the other side of Paris, at least an hour and a quarter’s drive away.

“An hour and a half,” I told her, obviously confusing us with some other family.

I threw on some clothes and went to wake the others, figuring we could be out the door in ten minutes. But in classic Myers style, it took closer to an hour. Dad wanted to shower. Then Claud wanted to shower. Then Dad started slicing oranges for breakfast. I eventually caved and took a shower too.

When we finally got there, Mom was indeed pausing in her breathing. She would breathe in, then stop. Claud and I watched her, unconsciously holding our breath. Then, well after we had given up, she would exhale. One pause was so long, Claud and I looked at each other and burst into hysterical giggles. Dad looked confused.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“The pauses, they’re just so long.” 

“I don’t hear any pauses,” he said.

After a while, Mom started to change. First, her left hand became really cold, then her arm, then her whole side. Her hands began to swell and stopped feeling alive. With her head back and her mouth slightly open, her throat got larger and larger. Her body seemed to be turning to clay. Only her forehead remained the same, warm and smooth. Aurélie explained that her kidneys were shutting down, which is why fluid was pooling in her limbs. But when I put my head on her chest, I could hear her heart thumping away, still strong. It was like Mom’s body was a factory where all the workers had shut off the machines and turned out the lights, and only her heart was still working—somehow it hadn’t gotten the memo—alone in that giant, darkened warehouse. Still going. Thumpetathumpetathumpeta.

On Thursday, Claudia and I went coffin shopping, so Dad didn’t have to. We walked out through the palatial stone courtyard—Saint-Louis was built by Henri IV in the early 1600s and it still has its original buildings—and picked our way across town to see the funeral director. His office was on the third floor, up a flight of marble steps spiraling around an ornate elevator cage. It was somewhere between the second and third floors that I stopped being able to breathe.

“I can’t do this,” I gasped to Claud.

“I’ve got it,” she said.

So I just sat mutely while Claudia gave the somewhat cheesy funeral director all the information he needed. Since Mom was to be buried in New Jersey, there were shipping costs and additional forms to fill out.

Then we turned to the coffin issue. I was expecting there to be a room with an array of sample coffins, but it turned out that this tiny office was all there was. Instead, the funeral director handed us a brochure, which for some reason was plasticized, as if it were the menu at a rest stop off the highway. The choices ranged from gaudy to garish, with preposterous embellishments like metal scrollwork and tiny Corinthian columns that didn’t hold anything up. Mom would have hated it. “It’s not my style, hon,” we could hear her saying. We chose the least bad option, wood rather than gilt metal.

In the last days, when Claud and Dad would go for a quick walk, I would curl up with Mom. I would take off my shoes, drag the armchair close to the bedside, readjusting it until I could get my head and shoulders on her bed and the rest of myself on the chair.

“Really, Mom,” I said, “If you hadn’t let yourself get so fat, there might be some room for me. You’re so inconsiderate.”

I snuggled up to her shoulder and put my hand around her upper arm. It was still warm. I closed my eyes. Her heart was beating fast. I told her about the beautiful things Danny had said (“I love you, Mommy. But I love Grammom more”). I recounted an afternoon the previous June we had spent at Auvers, where Van Gogh died. Mom was weak but still game to go places. We sat on the terrace of a restaurant, Mom and Dad and I, gazing out over a valley and drinking rosé so pale it was barely a color. I was utterly happy.

“It’s a funny thing,” I told her another time. “You were never really the cuddly kind. But this feels just right.”

Mom never seemed that comfortable with certain kinds of physical affection. Dad, conversely, was easy. With Dad, I could just leap out with a bear hug. But around Mom I was the physical equivalent of tongue-tied. When I hugged her, I sometimes didn’t know what to do with my hands, or how hard to squeeze, or whether I should squeeze at all. I’m 5’3” and probably count as “petite,” but next to Mom I felt hulking and uncouth. It was Mom who pointed out that I slouched, that I sat with my legs too far apart, that I didn’t cover my mouth when I yawned. I felt like a barbarian.

I sometimes wished she were more like some friends of the family—the earth mother types who would envelop me in their arms and kind of squash me into them. Mom was delicate, like a doll. She couldn’t have enveloped me if she wanted to. But the few times I was just able to just lie with her felt like a distillation of love, as pure and untroubled as holding a sleeping baby.

More than once, we were told that Mom had hours left to live. But she just kept on stubbornly not dying, and the doctors started making impressed, not-bad-for-a-75-pound-old-lady noises. As time passed, I started to worry that something was wrong. Why wouldn’t she let go?

By the eighth day, I wanted so badly for this in-between state to be over that I just sat by the side of her bed and thought: Let go. It’s okay. Please, just let go. I couldn’t face coming back to the hospital one more day just to sit and wait for her to die, dreading to think that she was holding on so fiercely because she was afraid and scared and sad.

Friday morning, Claudia and I laid in wait for the doctor because I wanted—I needed—him to give me a time limit. As soon as he showed up, we pounced on him. Dr. C was youngish, handsome, and so well groomed that in the States he would track as gay, but in France, he just looked French.

“Assuredly,” he said, “your mother is very tenacious. But she is going to leave us soon.”

I felt a pang of gratitude, almost affection. “Elle va nous quitter bientôt,” he had said. He didn’t say Mom was going to pass away, or expire, or die. She was going to leave us. And not just me and Claud and Dad, but Dr. C as well.

And then, all at once, I stopped needing it to be over. Maybe just having asked the question had put it to rest. It would take whatever time it would take. And maybe Mom wasn’t holding on because she was afraid.

It hit me when I was at a café with Claud, sampling my eleventh entry in the search for The-Pastry-So-Perfect-It-Suspends-Grief—this time, a chocolate religieuse.

“I don’t think she is afraid to go,” I told Claud. “Mom, I mean. I think she’s doing it for Dad—she wants to be sure he’s going to be okay before she goes.”

“Sounds right to me,” said Claud.

“Right?” I said. “She’s doing it for love. Anyway, that’s what I choose to believe. I mean, really, who’s going to contradict us?”

The third time I cuddled up with her, after Claud had to fly home, I told Mom about it.

“Claud and I have a theory,” I said. “We think you are holding on for Dad because he’s not ready. But I think he is getting there.”

I listened to her heartbeat. Thumpetathumpetathumpeta.

“I think you’re helping him get used to the idea. So you take all the time you need.”

Then I just closed my eyes and lay next to her. Her arm was so shriveled that I just rested my hand on her shoulder. I sang to her like she was my baby girl, my voice barely above a whisper. Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there. I had started calling her sweetheart, like I called my kids. But oh my dear, our love is here to stay. I never wanted to get up.

That afternoon, coming back over the Canal Saint-Martin, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to leave if she was still holding on. Even if all that remained of Mom was a shadow, a breath, I still wanted to be near whatever was left. I would  miss these days, once they were over, because she would truly be gone. I broke into a run, suddenly afraid it was over already.

I burst into Mom’s room to find everything the same. Dad was typing, one-fingered, on his computer. Mom was still breathing and pausing, then breathing again. I sat down next to Dad. I told him, more or less, what I had told her—that his life wasn’t going to be empty, that he would still have love in his life. He had me and Claud, and his grandkids, and friends. He was going to be okay.

Dad made some kind of agreeing noise.

Then I noticed that the room had gone quiet.

“Wow, that’s rather a long pause, Mom,” I said.

But she was still. I got up and bent close to her. Her eye had opened just a bit. It was completely dull.

“I think she’s gone,” I said.

Dad looked stunned.

“What? No, she’s not. She just took another little breath, right there!”

“I’ll get the nurse in,” I said. “She can tell us for sure.”

I rang the bell. Mom’s throat made a weird convulsive motion. Dad gave a faint cry of hope. But I could tell it was just some kind of reflex. I had never seen anyone dead before, but it’s unmistakable. They’re just gone. The nurse, then a doctor, came in. “Your mother is deceased,” he told us formally.

Dad broke down and sobbed. I felt like I was underwater; everything around me was quiet and moved slowly. I was able to put my arm around Dad. I kissed Mom on her still warm forehead.

“Rest now, sweetheart,” I told her.

***

Mom was buried in New Jersey, on a wet, rainy December morning that could not have been more grim. The tombstone next to hers is for a man named something like Marty Fishbein. Mom’s tombstone is unpolished granite, sober, tasteful, with Mom’s favorite typeface that we had to special order. Marty’s is laser-etched with a photograph of his face. Mom would have rolled her eyes at how tacky it was. And yet the inscriptions on his stone are heartfelt messages from his wife and his kids, showing a man who was dearly loved. I think Mom would have liked him. When I’m feeling fanciful, I like to think of her and Marty, sitting on their tombstones, swinging their legs, chatting companionably, waiting—but in absolutely no hurry—for their spouses to join them one day.

 

Image at the top of the page is of View of the Canal Saint-Martin, a painting by Alfred Sisley done in 1870. It hangs in the Orsay Museum.