Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books) as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been recently published in The Rumpus, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Litro, 1966, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the El Dorado County Poet Laureate and lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Mother has been told that she’s dying. Maybe three months, the internist shrugs. He listens to her heart, the lungs filled with tumors. Then he says, “What you have is very bad.”
Mother pulls a face at him. I try not to laugh.
When the pulmonologist walks into the room, Mother asks, “Have you heard? I’m a goner.”
He doesn’t answer her, and he takes her pulse. “It’s very fast,” he says and then tells her that there’s a nerve on her neck, that if he presses on it, the heart will slow down.
It works, and Mother says, “You should go to Vegas,” meaning that he might take his magic trick on the road. But he only hears “vagus,” and he says, “Very good! That is your vagus nerve.”
We all laugh, except the doctor.
Over the past few months, Mother has lost her sense of humor, and when I asked her why, she said, “Because nothing is funny anymore.” She hadn’t been feeling well, thought it was her heart, wondered why she wasn’t getting any better. But once she was diagnosed with extensive small cell lung cancer, the most aggressive form of lung cancer, everything is funny again, even things that aren’t. Like the man in the hospital room next door, wailing to anyone who passes his room, “Nurse, help me. Nurse? Doctor? Help me.”
Mother is getting a blood transfusion and by the second bag of blood, Mother starts imitating him: Nurse! Help me! He is constipated, and she is dying. So her mockery only seems fair. Even our nurse, who has tired of this man’s constant moaning, laughs with us.
When I leave her room, I walk to the side of her hospital bed, and I bend down under the fluorescent lights to kiss her. The skin on her forehead is sometimes dry and papery beneath my lips, sometimes it is cold and damp. I kiss her, and I say the same thing, every time. I say, “Don’t die, okay?”
And she says, “No, I won’t.”
And we laugh.
Later I ask Mother over the phone if she remembers her first kiss with my father. She laughs and says, “Of course I do.”
“Well,” she says. “It was after our first date. We went to the beach, and when he dropped me off, he kissed me.”
“Did he ask you first?”
“No, but he knew.”
“A woman has a way of showing it. You should know,” she says. “But more than that first kiss. I knew I wanted to marry him the minute I met him. It’s strange to me now. But I just knew.”
Then Mother asks me if I remember my first kiss.
I tell her the oleander rustled in the hot Santa Ana winds, and the asphalt melted beneath my Keds. Then his tongue entered my mouth like a surprise. I could not have pictured that development when I kissed my pillow, practicing for the moment. I didn’t know that slipping a tongue into another’s mouth was a thing. I had heard of French kissing and thought it meant tilting your head and kissing for a long time. Or a kind of kissing invented in France—something foreign and mysterious. I wasn’t sure, but I wouldn’t have guessed it involved the tongue.
I didn’t know that within a few days, this boy would tell me it was over. Or that this first kiss, and the kisses that followed, would do nothing to save me from the horrors of junior high school. And that after this first kiss, everything else would come far too quickly.
I knew only that the kiss tasted like Jolly Rancher sour apple candy and that everything else disappeared—my eyes shut tight to the afternoon sun of my own becoming.
So then I ask mother to tell me about the first time she kissed me. The florescent lights of the hospital double in the glossed linoleum floors.
“It wasn’t right away. They took you away and cleaned you. I couldn’t wait for the nurses to bring you back, and when they did, I kissed you.”
“Where?” I ask but I already know the answer. Another patient scoffs the hallway with a walker.
“On the forehead. And your father did, too. And you had this blue vein that sort of popped out there. Your father was so worried about it. But I knew it would be fine, and it was.”
There are pictures around her house of Mother and me when I am little, and in some, we are kissing. There are no such pictures of me and my father. I do not remember ever kissing him, and I wasn’t there when he died, so I never kissed him good-bye.
Sometimes he comes back to me in dreams, but by the time I reach him, he’s already gone.
On my way out of Mother’s hospital room, I rub foamy hand sanitizer into my hands, a ritual that has come to feel something like prayer. And next door, the howling, and the smell of blood and urine, disinfectant and shit. I walk the shiny halls and then come back to her room and leave again, and every time I go, I say it: I kiss her good-bye on the forehead, and I say, Don’t die, and she doesn’t.
It’s only funny if she stays alive.
The last time I see her alive, I tell her I am going running, and she says, “I know you are.”
I go to kiss her forehead, and I might tell her I love her, but I don’t tell her not to die. I’m not sure if it’s because there’s one of the caregivers I hired there, and I’m embarrassed to say this, or that I can’t say it and mean it. Mother can no longer leave her bed, sores blossoming on the small of her back.
I pass a dead crow on the side of the road and something in me knows. I want to take a picture but I don’t want those in passing cars to think I’m crazy, so I continue running. The caregiver calls, says she thinks Mother may have stopped breathing. I sprint the last mile to her house, my heart lurching against the cage of my chest. I push through the front door, run past the caregiver, who is trying to tell me she’s sorry. I feel like she’s blocking my way to the back of the house with her sorries.
When I reach Mother’s side, I shout, “I’m here, I’m here,” but it’s too late. Mother’s mouth is open, her eyes closed. I sit beside her, and I say, “I forgive you. Please forgive me.”
What I have said surprises me. I do not know what there is to forgive. And I do.
Our dialogue—one that’s been with me for the entirety of my life—is now soliloquy. I lean down to kiss her forehead for the last time, and she’s already going cold.