Earlier this spring, we were invaded by squirrels—a gang of…
She left a little at a time. The way the starlings do, lifting from a line off into nowhere, one by one until they’re gone completely.
First was the index finger on her right hand. She was numb from sugar, so she didn’t notice when it started to cook. That smell that mixed with the mustard greens told her. Like hog meat. And later the scent of gangrene, warm black rot, til the doctor took it down to the bottom knuckle.
“Maybe they can get you a fake one to put on it, Avalyn,” her sister Connie had said, staring at the fat round piece. It was smooth and alert, like it might push through and grow itself again. “Wonder what they’d latch it on with?”
Her children banned her from cooking after that, said they didn’t want her anywhere near a stove. Cooking was all she had. She told them that. She cried. And she argued with them and cussed them too, but the three banded together and were firm. It was sandwiches or whatever Bev, her oldest and her only girl, fed her from then on. Barbeque chips in a big plastic bowl. Ham and cheese on Bunny bread on a paper plate. A Hungry Man in its heat-warped black tray with mashed potatoes still cold in the middle. Sometimes some kind of candy Mamaw wanted but wasn’t supposed to have that would push her reading over three hundred and get her all worked up thinking about blindness and needles in her unfeeling feet. Whatever it was would be set on top of her oxygen machine. It was the one her father had breathed on, lungs like two rotten apples from all the coal dust he ate.
When I came home in the summers I would visit her. We sat in the sun, her chimes going in the wind, our bodies held up by blue and pink fold-out chairs faded by light and rub.
We looked out on the things that weren’t there. The tree her husband had planted back when he was somebody she could love, cut down after it splintered in a storm. And the swimming pool that her son—my dad—had taken down after it sat empty two summers. Our chairs were on the lip of the deck, the wood reaching out in curved remembering. It was an easy way of being, an open-eyed meditation in the warmth near the edge with her there.
“You gonna make a doctor? Or you ain’t decided yet?” “No way. I’d work in the mines before I’d be a doctor or a lawyer,” I said and smiled. It was a birthright to brave the bowels of the mountains, and I knew I could do it even if I never did.
“Your daddy might could get you on.” She winked and turned her pink tumbler to her lips.
There were stories of women in the mines. The one I knew was of a woman who worked over at Rockhouse, the only female on the day shift. She took up with the bolt-machine man, who happened to be married to my cousin at the time. The men made crass jokes about the miner woman’s calloused hands and the coal dust that caulked the lines in her skin.
Walking up the back road with her little collie dog on a string was Jan, who lived five houses down. She stopped and put her hand on the top of the chain fence. “Hidee, Ava! How you a-doin, honey?” Jan was almost sickly thin and tanning-bed brown. Mamaw waved with her right hand, but just as quick as she had raised it she pulled it back down to her lap.
Seventy-five years with that finger, two months without. I forget. She told me this later that evening when we were grabbing a hold of the sticks of orange dreamsicles.
I watched her talk to Jan. Ms. Avalyn. You could tell she had been beautiful. Her face was kind and bright. She smiled and moved with the assuredness and ease earned from living through the things she had feared and waited for.
“That woman has had a time,” she said after Jan was out of earshot. “Don’t act like it, but she has. Last winter her husband shot hisself. She found him face down in the yard in his bathrobe. And they just the other day told her her daughter’s eat up with cancer. The lungs, liver, cat, everwhere. She won’t make it much longer.”
That was the way with other people’s grief. We held it out to each other for examination. We called attention to it like a passing curiosity of nature—a faint rainbow or falling star. It wasn’t the same with our own. We swallowed it like laudanum, bitter sedative, addictive and dangerous.
Then it was her eyes. They were laurel green and clear like her mother’s, like mine. There was power in them, I knew. I could feel it in the way people stared sometimes and sometimes changed their breathing.
Bev took her to the optometrist, and I went with them. Too much pressure, he said. Both eyes.
“Open angle glaucoma. After sixty it’s not uncommon.” The doctor explained that the medicine in the drops would increase the brown pigment in her iris, then he wrote her a prescription. She told him she didn’t want it.
“Go brown-eyed or blind. Your pick,” he said, and he patted her on the knee and left her in the white-walled room. The kind of room meant for bodies, not for people.
She cried the whole ride home. Bev couldn’t coax her to stop. Neither could Elvis singing gospel or the redbuds moving through the window, frozen purple firework bursts against green mountains.
“Lord, Mommy,” Bev said without taking her eyes off the road. “You’re crying worse than Clara when she don’t get her way.” Clara nearly always got her way, partly because it was easier just to say yes to her, but also because she was Bev’s only.
And she was cute. Nearly everybody felt the need to point it out, and she soon learned that by virtue of that alone she could behave like a small tyrant. Bev said she would grow out of it— the tyranny and the cuteness.
“She’ll hit her ugly phase around twelve. They all do. It’ll humble her.”
We pulled into the gravel driveway a little after noon. Bev got out and walked over to Mamaw’s side. She was slumped up against the door staring into the side mirror.
“Walt wouldn’t want me having brown eyes,” Mamaw said. Walt had been her friend. I had seen her kissing him on the front porch years ago. He held her face in both his hands.
“Good thing he’s in the ground,” Bev said.
Her hair started falling out after her doctor put her on a new blood thinner. The last one had given her bad headaches and dizzy spells.
“Bird’s nest,” she said. She patted the spongy web twice and sank her palm into it. When she lifted her hand, the hair assumed its original shape. “They tease up what you’ve got left, big as it’ll go. It’s the best they can do with it, I guess. If it was up to me, I’d shave it bald.”
“You wouldn’t do it,” Bev said. She was dusting the picture frames on the mantle and over our heads.
“I would too. One less thing for you to worry about. Wouldn’t have to get me out ever month and pay thirty dollars.”
“That is right. Hmm. We’ll have to see about that, then. If we shave you bald and you keep your teeth out, you’d pass for Mr. Magoo.”
“You’ll think keep my teeth out when I kick yours in.” She winked at me.
The pictures were of all of us. My dad with his black hair and bowtie. Bev squatting next to long-since-dead dogs she had loved. Clara in overhauls in a red wagon. And there were pictures of my mamaw’s younger self, back before I had a name or a body. Back when the story ended with her, and beyond that were the syncing of a million miracles or oblivion—she couldn’t have known. Her as a girl smiling next to her daddy, who was a cop at the time but would go into mining like his dad had done—like they all did. His name was painted white on a painted-gray brick wall, across from the old hospital on the other side of a ditch line. I had parked and walked and stretched to touch it.
“Mamaw, can I always sit in your lap?” Clara asked. “Sure.”
“Even when I’m sixteen?”
“Well, yeah, if you still want to.”
Sugar took her leg. First it scaled over, pink serpentine discs, flaked and red. Then it started to purple, no longer a human thing, but a thick stalk of some poison reed. Then black. And the pills and the creams weren’t working, so the doctor sawed it three inches above the knee.
She stopped talking. She slept through most of the day and sat straight up at night watching infomercials spit squares of light against the bedroom wall. The sweatered men and coiffed women with their white-toothed enthusiasm for small appliances or cleaning agents, which, even if persuaded, she couldn’t afford.
“I bet I’ve lost a good thirty pound or better,” she told Connie, once she started feeling better and would let people come visit. Connie sat next to Mamaw on the bed and sometimes touched her shoulder or took her hand and patted it.
“Wonder what they did with it?”
“You think they threw it out? Or maybe they’re keeping it pickled in a big jar.”
“I hope they gave it to those medical kids to poke around on. At least it’d do somebody good.”
Connie had brought her lunch from Dairy Queen. Mamaw liked the gravy they put in the chicken strip meal. “It’s hard to get good store-bought, but this ain’t too bad.”
When Connie left, I stayed sitting in Mamaw’s wheelchair beside her bed. I looked down at her leg. There was no sign of violent separation, just a soft, round loaf tucked into itself in the middle. Sometimes I thought I saw it jerk.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not really. My toes still itch, though.” She looked down at where they would’ve been. “Itch so bad I want to scratch ‘em til they bleed.”
She looked at the TV and then back at me in a way that made me brace for something I didn’t want to hear. Something that would cut through the comforting lull of the television and the clicking ceiling fan, maybe drop the word death between us so that we both had to look at it together. But she just asked me if I thought Wal-Mart would let her buy one shoe instead of a pair. Then she smiled at me, but I wasn’t sure if she was joking.
Sometimes I wondered what she did to earn it all. Maybe there was some still-secret sin that brought it on and her punishment fit a crime I didn’t know about. There had to be something. I didn’t want God to be some machine at the Chevron spitting out scratch offs, everybody’s ticket curled and hanging like a tongue.
“You want ham or roast beef?” Bev hollered from the kitchen. “Don’t matter.”
“It don’t matter!”
When I walked into the kitchen, Bev was dancing Mamaw’s dog Daisy around like she was an agitated baby. She sat her down, and Daisy jetted off toward the front room to clamber under Mamaw til she picked her up. Bev untwisted the plastic on the loaf that lived on top of the microwave.
“Roast beef it is.”
I was leaning against the candy drawer, where Mamaw kept Almond Joys and Little Debbies for the grandkids to eat on, when Clara walked into the kitchen pushing on the iPad Bev had bought her for Christmas.
“When Mamaw dies, I get Barbies. Ain’t that right, Mom?”
Clara’s fat face was flushed and beaming. She coveted Mamaw’s Barbie collection, would stare at them on their shelves and touch the plastic front of their boxes.
“Is that right?” I said.
“Yep. Ain’t it, Mom?”
“Hmm.” Bev put a finger to the side of her mouth like she was really thinking. “Well, now, I don’t believe so. Mamaw told me that when she dies, they’re gonna put you down in that hole with her. Stand you right up on the box and pile dirt on your head.” She said it straight, like she was telling the time.
“No,” Clara said, but she wasn’t sure. When you’re six every story gets a chance.
“Mamaw said she loves you so good that she wants you right with her. The Barbies have to stay up here with me.”
Clara balled up a fist and jumped on Bev’s sock feet twice, hard as she could, then ran out the back door.
“Last week,” Bev said. She never had a segue. All her stories were just sitting in a queue waiting to get told. “Last week she tried to wash clothes by herself. She knew I was gonna take care of it, but you know how she does. She held on to the washing machine and stood herself up and started loading clothes from the hamper basket. She looked so good standing there,” she said. She looked away from me and toward the window. “I hate it so bad.”
The last part was the hardest, when her mind left before her body would. Her eyes were bugged and angry. She was always suspicious, always willing an argument nobody wanted.
“Get her offa me,” she told Bev, and pushed Clara, who was hugging her with one arm and trying to show her a game on the iPad.
“She’s gonna leave,” Bev said, “and I won’t have nobody when she does.”
She never got better. Bev called hospice. The morphine softened everything and let her let go.
I don’t remember her. I recollect her. Re-collect. I cobble together the bits I can conjure and try to make her whole again. They don’t always come together like I want them to. They’re often scattered pieces, faded and anchored to the ground of my mind. But sometimes when I’m half dreaming, all the things that made her pool together and rise up, form a loose cloud of memory, twisting and dancing through the nothing between earth and sky. And for a moment I can see her as she was— whole and beautiful and moving easy toward the ether.