I don’t know what death is. I don’t believe what anyone says about it, though there are plenty of folks who think they know something. That’s okay. Maybe they know what they think they know. If they know it and feel it strongly enough, then I’m sure such confidence is great for them. It must be comforting.
This last year, I didn’t speak to Mom much. I always called her once a week no matter where I was living in the world. Usually on Sunday. My father sometimes got on the phone. When he did, he was brief. But mom wanted to chat. On the phone or when we saw one another, she’d start the same way. “What’s cookin’, kid?” Before I could answer, she’d sing. A verse or two. Some love song from the fifties. I’d wait until she was done to get on with it. I’m not comfortable on the phone. When the news is good, it feels to me boastful to say it. When the news is bad, it sounds like whining. So she’d ask what I ate that day. Really, Mom? You want to know what I had for breakfast?
People say she is in “a better place.” I try not to wince. I say it, too. To comfort my father. I don’t know what else to say. His dementia is such that he relives losing her every moment of the day. The same questions over and over. She died? When? I wasn’t in bed with her last night? How did she die? Where was I? I couldn’t save her? There was a funeral? Was I there?
Again and again. All day, day after day. I answer him each time. I make my voice calm to do it. You were there, Pop. I don’t remember. Sure you do. Remember you asked them to open the box so you could see her one more time? And they did it? That’s right. I kissed her goodbye—she was so cold. His eyes yearn past me when he says that. Then they drop. Remember, I ask, you sprinkled soil from Israel over her? Yes, I remember a little. Where did I get it? From the rabbi, Dad, we said Kaddish together and you thought the grave was too deep. Yes, it was very deep. Why was it so deep? It has to be that deep. I got in the grave with her? No, I held you back. There’s a place for me next to her? That’s right, Pop. Right next to her? Right next to her. I buried her already? Yes, Pop. Why don’t I remember? You have trouble with your memory. But I buried her? She’s gone? My sweet Paula, she’s gone? I wasn’t in bed with her last night? I couldn’t save her?
Each answer hits him hard. The same reply is new again seconds later and devastating. It’s worse when he wakes from sleep and can’t find her. He cries and trembles.
Once, the other day, barely two days since she died, he remembers her only vaguely. The fight he makes to recall her is terrible. She was your mother? Yeah, Pop, she was my mother. She was my wife? Yes, Pop. I had one wife or two? One, and you were married to her for 64 years. You met her five years before that, when she was fourteen. She’d ride her bicycle from Borough Park to meet you on Kings Highway. That’s right, he says. It’s coming back to me, slightly. Then he loses her again.
She’s gone, Pop, I tell him. But she’s alive in your heart. I hear the cliché. Or I say, you’ll see her again. I say that. I don’t know if he believes me. Sometimes he does. He tries. Because when the world is broken, there must be a better one.
The mirrors in the house are covered. Not all of them. Not the tremendous two story mirrored wall at the front of the house. Not the gigantic mirrors of my parents' bedroom. They were too much to figure out—she died on Tuesday, the funeral was Wednesday, and on Thursday we sat Shiva. But in the main part of the house all the incredible geometry of mirrors everywhere got covered with sheets, towels, pillow cases—whatever we could find.
All those mirrors. We kids weren’t allowed to touch the wall. It would leave fingerprints. We couldn’t sit in the living room, because the furniture was for guests. The dining room was only used for Passover and the High Holy Days. Everything in those rooms was precious. Had to be preserved. They were hard won and hard to replace should something happen to them. They were for company. For show. That was a contradiction.
My mother always told me to do what I thought was right and not to care what others said or thought about it. “Stick to your guns,” she’d say. She was like that sometimes herself. She wore jeans when no other woman in the neighborhood did. She learned to drive before them, too. She got a job, my tiny mom, loading and unloading trucks alongside men who were twice as wide and towered over her. She sold clothes in a retail store. She sewed, piecework off the books, in a dimly lit warehouse. Pop didn’t earn enough most of the time, and she wanted things for the house, plenty of food, and clothes for the kids. She used to get so angry at me when I came in with my shirt and pants torn and bloody from a fight. I didn’t think of how many labels she had to sew into the collars of jackets to replace the damaged items.
Mom bought the mirrors herself. With her own money. Had them installed. I imagined it was some vanity of hers. Then I thought it was because it made the house look bigger. She didn’t like to be closed in. That was one of the ways we understood each other because we were the same. When someone asked her why all the mirrors, she’d say, “That’s what I like.” That’s all there was to it. I think she was also trying to see herself and the home she made the way others saw them. To see how she was real in the world.
Women in the houses all around appeared at their picture windows to watch her leave for work in the morning. I always thought them stone-faced. Now, I think there was yearning there. Eventually, they all did the same. It must have been hard for my mom at the start, the way the other women stared at her. She pretended they weren’t there. In time, she stopped pretending. She looked back at them and waved. It was a challenge. They’d lift their hands halfway and slowly wave back.
Two days after she passed, the insurance company sent a truck to pick up the hospital bed, the oxygen-maker, and other medical paraphernalia. I helped take the bed apart and found a cardboard box that had been under it. In the box were bracelets and necklaces. Glass and plastic beads. Someone called it “costume” jewelry. All jewelry is costume jewelry. These were bright, colorful. Pretty. Like her.
There had been so-called “real” jewelry once. A few pieces. A ring from her mother she said she wanted me to have for my daughter, and a Star of David for my son. A gold locket. Maybe a bracelet or two. Things that were dear to her that she saved for her children. Somehow, they’ve vanished. For my sisters’ sake, I wish they had turned up. I don’t need them. I have her eyes. Her mouth. So do my kids.
My sisters want to fold into one another’s arms for comfort, but the mathematics are complicated. It's easier to look for ghosts. All the cousins come by. Friends, too. We gather around the kitchen table, because that’s where we lived. There’s coffee and stacked platters of cookies. Boxes of pastry. A chocolate babka. “Where do you live now?” my father asks one person after another. In New Jersey? What’s in New Jersey? Staten Island? What’s in Staten Island? You’re all grown up. I know you from when you were little. I barely recognize you. Why did you go bald? How did your hair get so white? Where do you live? His questions circle several times, and then he looks at me. Where’s your mother? Before I can answer, he sees the covered mirror behind me. “Something’s wrong,” he says and presses his face to his hands.
Mom hung on hard. Fiercely. She could be fierce, my mother. Small as she was. Beautiful. Always singing. Most folks don’t know the depth of fierceness that was in her. I do. I know that and things others can’t know. I am her son.
The last place I saw her was not a better one. Crowded stones. A whirling wind of dark birds. My wrecked father. Everyone around seeing signs or waiting for them. A ditch dug deep into red clay. It wasn’t her in the box. Only a body. But it was hard to walk away. Like leaving her behind in the cold, alone. She hated the cold. She was always afraid of being left alone.
I think I can’t think about death, but only around it. That’s why I’m writing. To think around it.
I call Jan to tell her how it is. I ask about the kids. They’re fine, she says. They’ve each got their things to do, and they’re doing them. Not much more to say about that. So I ask what they had for dinner. I want a detail. Something to have in my mind that I can see there to make them feel real to me and close.
I remember my mom. The memory of her isn’t her. Not any more than a reflection in a mirror is the person looking into it. It’s a likeness. An echo. But I remember her. That will become harder, won’t it?
I mostly see her young. The way she’d raise her fist like a champion prizefighter when she thought she got the better of you—it didn’t matter at what. The punch in the arm. The kisses that came in flocks. The spit on her fingers to rub dirt from my cheek. How she stroked my hair, pushing it off my face like uncovering a mirror. And the look of her when she did that. Like looking at me was all that mattered and all she needed. No one will ever look at me like that again.
Mark Ari is a writer, musician, and painter. His novel The Shoemaker’s Tale earned high praise in The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, The Miami Herald, The Jerusalem Post and other trade and popular periodicals. His recent work has appeared in Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Classical Guitar Magazine, Postcard Poems and Prose, Perversion, Bridge Eight, and Folio Weekly.
Ari produces and edits EAT POEMS, a series of audio chapbooks featuring poets reading their own work, and serves as editorial advisor to the literary journal, Fiction Fix. His paintings have been exhibited in group and solo shows in New York, France, and Spain, and he has been awarded fellowships by the MacDowell Colony, The Ragdale Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso.
Ari teaches creative writing at the University of North Florida where has received numerous awards for outstanding teaching.