When I’m small enough to still wear white tights and lacy white panties with my navy blue sailor dress, we go to the funeral home in Ringgold. I walk into a crowd of people talking in hushed voices, looking into a box. I’m too short to see what’s in the box and I know better than to ask to be lifted up. Everyone is speaking softly and some of them are crying. I know that someone has died but I don’t know exactly what that means. My dog died, smashed on the road. Was this person smashed? I hold my mama’s hand but at some point she lets me go. She and Daddy are talking quietly with a woman sitting on a plush red sofa. I walk away from them and at the door to the room is a man all dressed up in a red coat and tie like the elevator man I see when I go to the eye doctor. He is much shorter than my daddy and he wears horn-rimmed glasses like my own, only his are square. He smiles at me, calls me a little lady but I don’t like the way his smile makes me feel. I trot down the long hallway until I come to a back room. There’s no one in the room but there’s a gleaming, stainless-steel sink and a lot of food on the table, mostly covered with plastic wrap. I walk over to the table and see a yellow cake with little squiggles of white frosting running down its sides. I would take a piece, but it isn’t cut yet. I go find my mama, pulling and tugging on her hand until she comes with me, shushing me the whole time. “Becky, you’re being too loud. Lower your voice. What do you want?” I lead her to the back room. “I want a piece of that yellow cake,” I say and she looks at me the way she looks when she’s very annoyed. Then she says, in a hushed and hissing voice, “You can’t have any cake. All this food is for the family. Now come on with me,” and she leads me back to the front room, holding my hand hard all the way. She doesn’t let go of me again and all I can think about is the cake and how much I wish I was part of the family, the special family who gets to eat all that cake.
Every day my daddy calls out a long SOUEEEEEEE across the fields until the cows start bawling in response and come up from the woods to the open pasture where he can count them. There are twenty-seven cows and sometimes I help count. I am in the second grade, a big girl, but Daddy picks me up and carries me on his shoulders across the pasture. One day when they come up from the woods, a young cow is missing. Her black baby boy comes up with the herd, bawling for his mama. Something has happened to her. We search everywhere on the place, listening for her cries, but everything is silent except for the rest of the herd calling and the baby screaming Mama, Mammmmmma. I stay in the house while my parents keep looking and finally find her at the bottom of a hole on the farm across the road. She’s been dead for two days and the smell and the flies lead them to her. My parents load her into the truck and take her to the county dump, mixing her in with all the old sofas and refrigerators. Her baby boy keeps crying until we feed him powdered milk from a bucket with a big, red-rubber nipple thrusting from its side. He pulls and tugs at the nipple, butting his head against it, sloshing the milk out. He sucks the bucket empty and then cries for more.
He learns to come when we call him and I name him Herky. He’s jet black and has a whorl of hair in the exact center of his forehead. I scratch him there and he butts against me. Gradually he grows older and no longer needs the bucket with the nipple but I go into the side yard and feed him pieces of white bread through the page-wire fence. He is a tame calf but he is a boy calf and I know what this means. One day he is loaded onto the truck headed for the meat processing plant and a few days later Daddy comes home with a load of fresh beef wrapped neatly in white paper packages. I help unload the meat into the deep freezer in the rock building. For supper we have juicy hamburgers after we pray to God to thank him. Thank you, Father, for this food and I’m almost sorry but the meat tastes so good.
I’m about ten years old and I’ve seen a picture of Jesus rescuing the lost lamb. The lamb is sweet and grey and is draped across Christ’s shoulders. He holds two of the lamb’s hooves in each hand, securing and balancing it. I am Jesus, rescuing the lost. Ninety-nine sheep are safely in the yard. I go into the storm, head bent, my long hair blowing around and around. I use my shepherd’s crook to keep my balance against the wind. I find the lamb next to my house, waiting for me. He says “meow” and I pick him up and drape him over my shoulders. I hold onto him and to my staff, trudging back through the wind, back to the fold. When I tire of playing Jesus and the lamb I play mommy. I get the pram from my bedroom and a doll dress made of baby blue cotton with little white flowers scattered across it. I put the dress on my cat and he struggles a little, but not much. Mostly he loves me, will do anything for my attention. He is a large grey-striped tabby and I play with him all afternoon, pushing him around the yard, cooing to him the way a mommy coos to her baby. Then I decide he should have a bath because he smells of cat piss and there are clumps of matted dirt on his fur, but I know cats hate water so I have a better idea. There is a foam spray-on bath that we have for the dog. I hold him down while he struggles, the white foam hissing out of the can and clinging to his fur. When he’s covered with foam, he runs away from me. He doesn’t come to the door to greet me first thing the next morning and I can’t find him when I go looking. I keep looking and calling, but then I figure he’ gone off tomming and I go to play by myself. The next day, I find him late in the afternoon. He is stiff, his whole body like a doll’s hard, unyielding plastic. I do not cry because I live on a farm and animals die all the time, even pets. I know that at any time a dog or cat might go to the road and get smashed by an oncoming car. That’s what happened to my dog Ginger. I know this and I know it’s not even possible that Tom is with God because animals don’t go to heaven like people do. I wonder if God knows it’s all my fault because the next day I read the directions on the bottle of dog bath. Do not use on cats. I think of Tom licking off all that foam. Poison.
The first dead person I remember seeing is Toby, Skipper and Kay’s grandfather. I’m around twelve years old and can see into the coffin. His face is waxy and paper white. His mouth is closed too firmly and wrinkles up all around his orange, lipsticked lips. His graying black hair is combed into waves. He’s surrounded by white silk and ruffles and his hands are laid neatly together, grey hands with hair on the knuckles. I reach a finger and touch his hand. It isn’t cold. It’s dry and room temperature, like it would be very dusty if you shook it hard like a dirty rug. I wonder if Toby is really with God. He was a church-going man, all his life as far as I know. His wife Blondell is standing near the coffin, a tissue in her hand. She is beautiful with graying hair and high cheekbones. Her makeup is perfectly applied, even now. Every week she comes by our house with Avon samples. My favorites are the lipstick samples, tiny white tubes with tips so small it takes a while to cover your whole lip. She also brings perfume samples in little plastic packets. The newest fragrance is Moon Wind and I like the navy blue bottle. Now she’s holding her head steady. I can tell she’s trying not to cry and I wonder how hard she’s been praying because she always talks about praying, even when she’s selling Avon to us. “Why just last week, when we had those storms, I prayed and prayed that they’d go over the ridge, away from our little community. And they did, I tell you. They did. My trailer was spared.” I feel sorry for her, without Toby. Last summer I had Sunday dinner with them and Toby was there, fine as anything, just a skinny man getting a day older. Now he’s dead. I wonder what it really means. I know that God doesn’t want you if you aren’t sincere. I wonder if Blondell’s sincerity is enough for her soft-spoken husband who never talked about praying, who never went down for altar call, who never argued over which hymnals we’d use for Sunday morning services. He was just always there, by her side, quiet and smiling. I wonder if that’s enough.
One day, in the woods behind her trailer, Alesia and I climb over large, grey-blue rocks. She shows me the dynamite holes. “My grandfather Hooper made these, when he was building the church. He needed all this rock for the foundation.” I stick my fingers into the perfectly round holes, imagining the loud blasts. Alesia’s grandfather died before she was born. I think of my own grandfather, how he scares me. I can’t figure out if he’s a good person or not, if he’s really saved. My mama insists that he is, but he won’t go to church on Sunday mornings. He only goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday nights and I’ve always been afraid of him. He makes fun of me, calls me names and scares me whenever he can. I love my daddy but he doesn’t go to church at all and I pray for him every day. “God, please help Daddy to come to understand you, to be saved.” I’m afraid for him, going to hell, eternal fire. Would God really be so cruel? I think of people burning in hell, all because they don’t know Jesus and I jump up from the rock I’ve been sitting on. “Let’s go to the gravel pit,” I say and we make our way out of the woods and down her long driveway. “You know,” I say “You really should come and go to church with us on Sunday.” When I say this I feel squirmy and embarrassed and ashamed that I’ve spoken. She stops walking and gives me a long look. “I am saved. You know that. I was saved at Camp Joy last summer. You were there.” She starts walking again. I call after her, “I know you were saved, but you don’t go to church. You have to go to church.” Now that I’m talking I can’t stop myself. It’s my Christian duty to witness. She stops and turns around to face me, her white cheeks going red the way they do when she’s getting mad. “My daddy says that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. It does not say in the Bible that you have to go to church. Leave me alone,” and she swings around and walks on. I trot to catch up. My own cheeks are hot and I feel a little sick to my stomach. I don’t want to be lukewarm. Maybe if I hang out with her enough she’ll see the light. But now that we’re getting older, we’re growing apart. I’m not even sure I like her anymore. I watch her climb up the steep, rocky hillside where the workmen have cut away the rocks. I don’t want to follow her but I do.
Years later I’m standing in the hospital and the preacher is praying out loud. I look at the floor, even now feeling guilty that my eyes aren’t tightly closed. I want to scream but I don’t. I twist my fingers together, holding on to myself, swaying slightly on my feet. Shut up, shut up, shut up I think, over and over. Please just shut the fuck up. Finally he stops praying and I look up at my friend who has come to join me, to be with me while my mother is in surgery. My father is staring straight ahead, at nothing, his eyes almost welling with tears. The preacher is smarmy and I want to smack him across the mouth. I don’t even know him. Sweet Jesus indeed. The room is too small, the room where my mother lay before they wheeled her into surgery. I know that things are bad. I don’t need a god to tell me that. I don’t need a Jesus to make it better. I know she’s going to die and I will not cry, not today.
My father and I go to the recovery room and she’s just waking up. She’s bloated, the way she’s been for the past few months, her belly distended. She looks at my father and asks “How bad is it” and he starts to speak to her, holding her hand, and I want to scream but I don’t. Earlier the doctor told us how bad it was, told us that the cancer cells were spread throughout her abdominal cavity. Cancer everywhere, all through her. They think it’s cancer of the appendix and is maybe treatable. “Of course,” the doctor said, “you have the option to not treat. It’s very advanced, whatever it is.” Now I want to tell her that she’s going to die. I know it. There is no doubt. I look at her face, how she will not cry, how she will not accept it and I want to shake her, hard, to make her understand, but I am quiet. I reach for her hand and say something soothing. I hear perfectly-formed words come out of my mouth and I am calm on the outside, as calm as she is, still under the influence of the anesthesia. Finally I leave and find my husband. He knows, as I do, that she is going to die.
But she doesn’t die, at least not for a while. She opts for treatment. It’s colon cancer, very advanced. She will fight it. I want nothing to do with any of it. I don’t want to see her. I want to go far away and never think of her again. Once, years ago, I was sitting at the red-and-white-checked-covered table eating ham and my brother threw up all of a sudden. I grabbed my ham and ran out the back door, trembling all over, sick to my stomach and afraid clean through, the ham clutched in my hand. I ran behind the house and stood there, wanting to get away. Now I want to run like that, to outrun it, to escape whatever bit of death may come squirting out of her, all of a sudden, whatever green fluid and shit might well up. I want to run away and I want her to speak of it, to say something, to say she’s going to die, to face it. But she never does. She only says “if something happens to me,” as though something, anything could happen, as though a truck is likely to smash her, just as likely as her insides are to eat her, a day at a time.
She goes through several rounds of chemotherapy, living almost two years after her initial surgery, living in pain that she seldom mentions, living in fear and doubt, never speaking of her death. Once she’s so bad off she has to go into the hospital and I come up to stay the evening with her. I don’t want to, have no desire to be with her, but I sit by her bed, plumping up her pillows, helping her sit up, switching channels on the TV, trying to find a game show she likes. I call for the nurse who gives her morphine and she becomes so high that she begins to talk. She tells me how sorry she is that she didn’t come to see me when I was in the mental hospital. “I was so afraid that you’d turn out like your brother. I didn’t want you to be like him.” I tell her I understand, though I don’t understand, I’ll never understand. But I tell her not to worry about it ever again. I get up from the chair and walk into the hallway and try not to cry. At least she had a reason. At least she finally said something, that she was a coward, that she was less than a mother. At least she’s talking. I right myself and walk back into the room where she’s sleeping now. I wait until she’s deeply under and then I drive myself home.
We gather for my boys’ birthday, the same day, six years apart. We also have a cake for my mother whose birthday is just six days later. Standing in the hot August kitchen, we all watch while she blows out the candles, leaning over her bloated belly. We act like nothing is wrong, like she’ll be around forever. Her face is drawn, but she smiles, slightly slumped when she goes into her bedroom to get the boys’ presents. I’ve bought her a new rock polisher, very fancy and expensive. I’m not entirely sure what she would want. What do you want when you’re dying? She opens the box, pleased, running her fingers across the heavy, grey metal. She says, “Thank you,” and gets up to walk from the room, the box in her hands.
The next June, on Tuesday, I go to her house to help out. I give her the medication, very strong, so strong it’s hard for her to keep track of when she’s taken it. She’s stopped chemotherapy now. There’s nothing left to hope for. She’s scheduled to begin hospice care on Thursday. Daddy is in the field, bush-hogging. I vacuum the floor, do the dishes. She says that our roles are reversed, that now she’s the child and I’m the mother and I can tell how embarrassed she is by this revelation. I want to run away and when she dozes off on the sofa, I go to my father in the pasture. He stops the tractor and wipes his brow. He says, “I believe it’s in her brain. She won’t be with us much longer.” I tell him he’s wrong, that she seems fine, that she’s coherent but two days later she’s dead, her body in a corner of the living room in the hospice bed, her mouth still open. I am not surprised that she’s gone and I want nothing more than to go home, to get away from the crying, from the smell of death in my head. I want to stop holding my breath, to stop holding back my tears. The undertakers come and take her body away, just cover her with a white sheet and roll her out. We donate her body to science so there is no viewing at the funeral home, but that weekend we have a memorial service. The church is standing-room-only, such an overwhelming crowd. Who knew so many people loved her? Before the service, I pick out the photograph and the quilt to place on the altar and that day I play the piano as I’ve done hundreds of times before. I sing “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” her favorite hymn, and I try to remember if I ever loved her. I never cry. Afterwards, there is food for the family in the fellowship hall and I am secretly delighted. It’s been years since I attended my mother’s church, the church I grew up in, and now here are all my favorites, all the foods I remember from Wednesday night fellowship suppers. There’s the tall, white coconut cake and the little three-sectioned rolls with golden brown tops. There’s the yellow cake with the white frosting dribbled over the sides. I sit and eat, close beside my husband and my boys. I watch my father and brother, moving their forks to their mouths.
Today I wonder if my husband, Dale, will die. Maybe on the way to work, maybe smashed by a transfer truck. I am elegant, wearing black, standing at the funeral. Will we burn him or bury him? I know he would rather be burned but can I stand the thought of the flames licking his body, engulfing him in the oven? Can I stand the thought of him contained in a little cardboard box? That’s the way they finally delivered my mother’s ashes, two years after her death. A little, cardboard box that’s still sitting in the kitchen cabinet. I wonder which of his organs will be donated, who will walk around with his pulsing heart. I wonder how long I’ll leave his voice on the answering machine, how long his smell will cling to his pillowcase. I wonder how long it will be before I’ll have sex again, if I’ll ever have sex again. I wonder if he’ll still exist in the universe, somewhere in God’s eye, somewhere in the vast expanse of space that always made him nervous. I wonder if he’ll survive it all, if I’ll survive and then I shake myself because I just saw him, alive and well. He was just kissing me on the mouth, holding me close to him. He just walked out the door but then I’m at the funeral again, elegant in black, walking to the room where they keep the food, all brought for the family.
That’s me, I’m the family. I cut a piece of the yellow cake and I will not cry. Not today because he’s alive and well. I just saw him and tonight he’ll walk back through the door and kiss me again and really I’m back to when I was twelve, touching Toby’s dead hand, it’s Toby who has died, his finger dusty and dry, his hair curling against the pillow and then I’m running hard from the kitchen, the ham clutched in my hand. I run all the way to the woods where it’s cool and quiet. I stand, trying to catch my breath. Then I walk back home.