When the first flowers finally
dry into brittle reminders, and the nurses
know the names of the family members who spend
every night sleeping on the tile floor, you know
the vigil being kept has entered its second
week. Somehow she convinced us
she would live forever. The realization struck us
like a firework going off: she was just like us. She was
She would soon die.
In shaky script she wrote to me three days before
she died. Breathlessly she asked for a pen,
a paper, and we scrambled to fulfill her command
like priests in the temple appeasing a god. I stood
beside her bed and watched her do it. She wrote
that she wanted me to
come back next week to work with her
on her obituary.
I said I would.
She put her hands on Maile’s stomach and smiled. We asked
if she thought it was a boy
or a girl? “Another boy,” she whispered, shaking her head
in mock sadness. I leaned in before I left
and whispered, “You were always my favorite.”
I cried when I said those words. But
she laughed through her short breath, as if
even then, she was only planning to stay
in the hospital for a short time. “What?” everyone asked. “What did
you tell her?” I refused to say.
three days before the end. Three days before
nurses mute the machines. No more
beeping, no more buzzing, no more
chirping. The room is quieter
than it should be with so many people. Ten
of us? Twelve? Fifteen maybe? I tick off the seconds
between, each breath a tiny struggle, a refusal
to leave. Three seconds. Four. Not yet.
Anything said is said in a whisper. To leave the room
is to undertake a silent pilgrimage, holding the latch
so it doesn’t snap, guiding the door to its rest.
Maile sits beside me. She reaches through the silence
for my hand and holds it against
her stomach. The baby moves. Kicks. Rolls in
its own little universe. Does it know what we
are waiting for? How must that feel to be Maile,
a mother, holding life? How must that feel to be
my grandmother, sitting quietly beside the bed of one
who once twisted and turned inside of her, now
Through the eighth floor window the sun splashes us
with pink and red and a deep sense that everything is
being fulfilled. But how? Could this be the end of the world, the last
night? We are a prehistoric people basking in the glow
of the apocalypse, worshiping a God who does not answer
the way we want.
Her last breath is like the thousand
that came before it, diminished. The candle is out. She is finished
waiting. There is a silence between her last breath and the first
cries of our anguish. Generations are born and die
in that space of time. Everything else in the world
stops. The clouds bow down in their
sunset. The red lights in the city synchronize – everyone
pauses. It is a silence you can fall into
if you’re not careful.
The moment she dies, just after 9pm on July the 3rd, fireworks
go off all over the city. We watch them from the eighth
floor. We hold each other. Words are completely
powerless. I feel that I never want to speak again.
Later that same night, I am home. I am writing an obituary
a week early, years early, decades too early (she was
only 48). My daughter waits for me
to climb the long stairs to the third floor
of our darkened house. There, most nights for the last
two years, we said a prayer for that beauty
who had just died, fled
this earth, dodging fireworks. For two years we prayed
for a miracle. I think I need a break from
prayer. I think I need to stop asking,
at least for a little while.
By the time I pry myself from my office and lean
my way up each sorry step, wondering how I will ever
be able to say the words, my daughter
is already asleep. Her light still on. I pull up the covers
under her chin, turn out the light,
and look through her window, towards the north. Towards
This is how I pray now: I climb the steps each night. I walk
the short hall. I hold my daughter’s hand as she says
the words. Sometimes, I think we need others to do
the praying for us. Sometimes prayer is as simple as waking
each morning and standing up out of bed, or clearing away
the brittle bouquets and bringing in fresh flowers.