Jordan McNair – The After

My uncle is holding an umbrella over my head as the rain beats steadily onto us. I cannot help but think that if I had brought my own it would be easier for us both. It is hard for him to hide his tears with one hand and the umbrella shielding us from the warm spring rain with the other. The ground is soft, quickly changing into mud. The procession leads to the grave. My grandmother and I stand nearest to the plot, while the pastor who is standing on the other side speaks:

“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”

The coffin is being lowered into the ground. A rich mahogany. My mother is in there, I think to myself. And she’s never coming out. My breathing quickens and I duck my head, hoping that people will take this panic attack I am having for tears of grief. I feel myself tremble. I try to convince myself that my mother is not alive in that wooden box trying to escape. But all I can imagine is her nails scraping against the wood, choking, gasping for air. The sound of her screams masked by the music being played from a nearby limo and the rain that is falling even harder now. She’s been through too much. She doesn’t deserve to leave like this. I cannot even look down to say goodbye.

*****

             I preserve every part of my mother’s physical being so that her soul may live on. The yellow stain on her front left tooth. The thickness of her reddish brown hair. The roundness of her nails and the way they tend to brown at the beds.

            Seventy days, and she will be preserved.

            Seventy days and I will be able to let her go.

             I begin with her softest parts, her brain in all of its electrons, now out of spark. I slide an iron hook up her right nostril, letting the squelching sound shudder through my body, as I slip part of her brain out and cast it aside. I then use a long wooden spoon to remove what is left. I rinse her skull with water, wanting her mind to be clear for what she will have to endure in the next life. Next, I make an incision on the left side of her body with an obsidian blade, to remove the rest of her organs, setting them aside.

            I then move to her diaphragm, slicing it open, reaching into the folds to remove her lungs, so that she may remember how to breathe. I leave her heart in its cavity; it is the core of her. Where all of her memories lie. The seat of the soul. It is this that Anubis will weigh against the Feather of Truth and Justice. I hope it is light, and will not be devoured. I trust who my mother is and what she has done.

*****

On December 24th when carols are being sung and I’m told about good will towards men, I remember pulling my mother from that bed that stank of decay and sagged with depression and sickness. The bed imitates her face and the way the skin under her eyes dragged down to her lips darkened by years and years of too many cigarettes. I lugged her to the bathroom despite being weighed down by her “No, not now” and “I’m fine” and “You don’t have to do this.” I let the words stick to my back and burrow their way into my spine, forming into rods of guilt.

It was the first time she’d gotten out of the bed in weeks and it had to be by force. And the first time she’d had a bath in about a month. Dead skin had begun caking itself in between the cracks of her neck where the skin pressed down and formed wrinkles when she tilts her head back. I sat her down on the white toilet with the lid down and she lets herself slump, pressing her back against the base of toilet like she left her fight with her words and had nothing left. I started by taking off her robe, the pink one she gave me for Christmas two years ago. Christmas. It is tomorrow, I think to myself through her whimpering as I tried not to recoil in shame. Not of her, but of myself. My neglect of her and what I had allowed her to turn into because of it.

“We can’t just allow her to lie in that bed anymore. You hear her at night,” my grandmother had said earlier that morning. And I did. The way she cried softly, the sound snaking its way into my ears and making a bed there. Quietly at first then louder as the sound grew, collecting months—no, years—of momentum.

I set her down into the tub allowing the water to settle around her. It was strange, watching her sit there in her black bra and underwear. Seeing the way the spaces in them formed from all of the weight she had lost laying there in the dark. I had to allow her to keep a bit of her pride. I looked away as often as I could, listening instead to the way the water lapped quietly around her. I didn’t want to make her feel any more pathetic.

“Is the water okay?” I ask her. She nods without looking up at me, her hair, still surprisingly thick though speckled with strands of grey, covering her eyes. I take a blue washcloth and rubbed soap on it to massage her back as softly as I could. I didn’t want to break her, or rub her out. I didn’t want her to disappear.

*****

I wash my mother’s organs, coat them in resin, and wrap them in linen strips. Storing them for her in canopic jars, carved from limestone. There are four, one for her stomach, one for her intestines, and the other two for her lungs and liver. I hold each organ in my hand, letting myself feel their wetness, ignoring the slime before placing them in separate jars. Each clay jar has its own marking. Each jar features one of the four sons of Anubis. Hapi, the baboon-headed god, for the lungs. Duametef, the jackal-headed god for the stomach. Imesti with a human head for the liver. And finally, Quebehsenuef with his falcon-head, for the intestines.

            Once all of her organs are removed I rinse her chest cavity with palm wine in order to purify it. Its bitterness flowing into her, mixing with the coppery smell of her blood. I stuff her body with linen and incense, hoping this illusion of being full, works. I carry her body, and place it on a sloped board. I then treat her with salt, collected from a desert river west of the Nile Delta. I recall the way the sun beat down upon my back, and the way the dry air settled around me in cruel heat. I make sure to cover every bit of her with salt from the stretch marks on her sides, remnants from when she had carried me, to her forehead with its prominent frown lines that flowed like calm waves.

            I stay outside of her resting place for forty days waiting for her body to dry. I let the cold of night whip at me, chilling me to the bone. The stars press down, bright but hollow. I hope the jackals howling in the distance stay away.

*****

I always imagine emergency rooms in red, the color of flowing blood, but in reality they are white. A white that is dingy, but disguises itself as sterile. The last time we were there was five years earlier, close to another major holiday, only then I was twelve and not seventeen. My uncle, high on heroin, accidentally sawed his right thumb halfway off close to Thanksgiving. I had felt nothing then for this man I knew would die soon, or that’s what my family always thought. That he would die before my mother, but she had no decorum and went first.

This time, I sit here on Christmas Eve, on a cold blue plastic seat in between my mother and my godmother, a very small lady who reminds me of what I think Mrs. Claus would look like had she been black. I comfort myself with this idea as I watch my mother in a dark brown hat, with a trench coat on, the color of alligator’s skin. She is staring blankly at the nurse’s station as they usher patients in and out of the room as soon as they enter through the automatic double doors.

That’s something about cities, I think to myself, or just about life in general. People die, people get shot, people get hurt; even on Christmas Eve. Time seems to pass slowly; I can almost feel the grains of it passing down into the bottom half of an hourglass. I keep wondering why they make us wait here, because this is my mother, and she is sick. Suddenly there is not enough time left, there is not enough air to breathe; it is stagnant and sick with chemicals. Though I am frantic, it is not in me to pace like my grandmother who has finally arrived, after she changed out of her pajamas and uncurled her hair. Or get up and take phone calls like my mother’s older sister, Juanita. The name is smooth as it rolls off my tongue when I mouth it. I can’t even go get a soda; I am frozen to my place beside my mother, unlike my godmother who is continually offering us food and drinks from the vending machines.

*****

 After thirty-nine long nights. I return to her.

            She is delicate, an outline of herself after I remove the incense and linen to make room for salt. Only this time I am able to fill her in. Her skin is no longer soft, previously made so from a mixture of cocoa butter and petroleum jelly. I bring her body to the Wabet. I let its tall pillars greet me, with bands of hieroglyphs carved into its stone At the center of the atrium is where the incense and linen is removed. I carefully fill my mother’s body with salt while thinking of how much she actually hated it in life. I am filling up all of her cavities. I stuff linen under her skin in her arms, legs, and, head. My mother is not here, I think to myself. She is gone. I sew her body up carefully and cover her skin with resin to keep the moisture out.

            I have gathered a collection of linen, my grandmother’s favorite tablecloth with the daisies on it. The baby blue curtains that hung in my mother’s room, keeping the light from the sun porch out. I start with her hands and feet, wrapping each toe and finger individually. I then move on to her head, arms, legs, and torso. Finally, I begin to wrap her body as a whole. As I apply new layers I coat the linen with hot resin, letting the sticky mixture stain parts of my skin. In between layers of cloth I utter spells of protection, and place amulets, like a golden scarab, over her heart, to signify rebirth. I am hoping to protect her in death, the way that I could not in life.

            I place my mother’s body in a cartonnage cage made of papyrus and resin. I have painted onto it the story of her life. The moment she met my father. The day she came home with me. I have also inscribed prayers for her safety in the afterlife, hoping they do not go unheard. Then the body is placed in a suhet or coffin. It is painted in my mother’s likeness. The brown is warm, with a reddish tint. With the same full lips and wide nose she had in life. I am sure this will be more than enough for her to recognize her body and reclaim her identity in the after life.

*****

Her left eye bulges and waters yellow pus with a sickness, that until a month or two ago I could not name: breast cancer. Her chest is almost concave, no weight stuck to her bones, inflating her skin as she lay there in a hospice bed. I had hoped things were looking up when she fell into a coma at the hospital just a few days before my birthday, and was transported back to the hospice. The hospice is a place run by nuns and is full of older people who liked to kick the orderlies. It was for her comfort the doctors had said, but I often wonder if it was more for her or for us.

My father leaves the room rubbing his eyes. He fought in Vietnam, but he cannot stand this. My family and I all crowd around her in varying states of despair. My grandmother is on her right side holding her hand and I am on the left side of her bed brushing her hair back with my hands. My grief is turned inward. I know I have been selfish as any seventeen year old could be, ignoring her to be with my friends, or spending less and less time by her side, but it was two days before my birthday, and it still wasn’t fair.

I miss her before she even leaves, but I can’t stand to hold her hand. I was told by my aunts to whisper comforting things in her ear, but my voice catches before it could pass my lips. How can I comfort her? With her eyes wide, staring off into some unknown oblivion. Occasionally she whimpers, reminding me of the day before when I left her propped up in her bed.

“You’re not going to leave, mommy, are you?” she said. Her voice shook with something I assumed was fear. I stared down at my feet, unable to meet her eyes. I didn’t want to lie to her the way others had lied to me, telling me “She’ll be fine” and “She’s strong, she’ll get through this.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise. I love you.” I went to give her a hug, and realized that she did not even smell like herself anymore: like expensive perfume and my grandmother’s cooking. It was all medication and plastic: bitter and hard, like pills. Our roles had once again been reversed and some part of me was mad at her for it though she had wished for none of this. I had things to look forward to and she had this, a hospital bed and a certain death.

Now, her breathing has become more labored and the tears falling from faces around the room increase. I continue to brush her hair back with my right hand and trace her lifeline on her palm with the left. I want to ask her how it feels, but she can’t speak. She is paralyzed with knowing and not knowing. And I still wonder after her last breath left her, what came next.

*****

            Now it is time for a proper burial. I journey with my mother in her coffin, along side countless others here to pay their respects. The heat is heavy on my back, but my spirit is light, knowing the work I did will insure my mother a safe passage. I bury my toes into the sand, allowing the hot grittiness to be caught within the space between my leather sandals and the heels of my feet. I walk with my head up, allowing others to see the light reflected from the gold on my mother’s coffin merge with the glow of the sun in my eyes.

            I walk down the steps to my mother’s tomb past the figures carved into stone, standing to protect her. The air is cooler, with a touch of dampness. There are clay containers of all shapes and sizes holding all of her possessions. Her favorite pair of white leather sandals. The yellow leggings she would wear with a teal mohair sweater. Pictures of us posed on vacations and in our home on Christmas. All around are paintings speaking praises of her life. The countless times she reached out to help others without thinking of herself. Taking in other people’s children when she had nothing. And now all of her children are gathered here. There is a slight rustling towards the entrance of the tomb.

            It is the priest. His long black robes flow behind him, but his face is hidden behind a mask of Anubis, with his pointed ears and slanted eyes. The Opening of the Mouth may begin.

            “Awaken!” he says moving his hands delicately, and yet deliberately over my mother’s eyes. “May you be as alert as the living,” he states as he passes his hands over her mouth. “May you be rejuvenated every single day, and healthy in millions of years of God sleep,” he says, finally touching her ears. “While the gods shield you, may this protection be with you always.”

             He stops, staring at me, as if asking permission to end the rite. I give him a slight nod. Now she will be free to move along with the dead, and if she so chooses, to interact with the living as well. I bow my head at her coffin, sending her a final prayer. I offer up my love and goodwill to her one last time, before leaving her body to rest.

*****

There are gospel songs sung by a choir as each person comes to me and gives their condolences. All of them come in varying shades of black. Some like sludge, some as smooth as a night sky without the presence of the stars. I stand in the front most wooden pew with the rest of my family. I am shifting awkwardly trying to adjust the three hundred dollar skirt my godmother brought me out of pity and sadness.

I wonder if my cream sweater is too bright, too happy, too obvious about the numbness that I feel as I sit there and stare ahead at the wooden pulpit. People touch me as they walk past as if they want to feel my mother, whose body lies in a coffin lined with white satin. The satin reminds me of the striped silk pajamas that had once belonged to my mother. They fell into my possession at the age of five as I took to carrying them around like a blanket. I stare at my mother, or what once was my mother. The woman in the coffin is a familiar stranger. I remember being at the funeral home. My aunt, my grandmother and I were allowed to view the body a few days before the funeral.

“It doesn’t look like her does it?” My aunt made a face, staring closely at her sister’s as if studying a painting. I stood beside, her digging my heels into the dark red carpet. The body had on the same gold hoop earrings that my mother would wear. And even had on her favorite crimson dress suit. But it definitely was not her. The red lipstick was off; my mother would have hated that shade of red. She liked something close to the color of grape juice stains on linen.

“No it doesn’t,” I said, staring at the body.

“I think it’s the lip color.” I nodded in agreement and my aunt did something that would have surprised me had it come from anyone else but her. She opened her purse, woven out of the same material as a straw hat, and pulled out a tube of lipstick that I suspected had once belonged to my mother. She proceeded to wipe the lipstick off of the body and replaced it with her own. I had to stop myself from smiling, because nothing was funny, and yet everything was. My aunt had been touched by death before, just four years earlier when her oldest son had died in a motorcycle accident. It was almost as if she were accustomed to death. I tucked this information away, hoping that I can allow the feeling of absence to shrink inside of me, so that it becomes more comfortable and less gaping.

Another person grabs me by the hand and shakes me out of my thoughts. It is a woman this time, her hands are rough, grey, and cracked as if washed too many times. I study her face and try to hide my disgust at the contact. She is saying things like, “I was close to your mother.” and “We were best friends.” I stare at the wrinkles that weave like rivers on a map along her cheeks. Perhaps I did not know my mother, because I still do not know this woman. But all day people here claim to know my mother and say that she had touched them. I feign a look of recognition and remembrance and silently wish for her to move down the aisle, and take her hand off of mine.

*****

I still see my mother in strawberry fields collecting berries to make my grandmother’s preserves. The sun follows her like a spotlight in her favorite shade of yellow the color of daffodils. The trees let their shadows dance; their full leaves whisper like full skirts at ankles. She sets herself down on the grass, hands stained with sweet red.

            Days pass and then years. But she is still the same. Her eyes shine, and her hair falls softly to her shoulders, in burgundy, premature greys, and browns. She is the mother of my childhood: Yvonne. The woman with whom I share a middle name. The one who taught me how to sound out syllables in dictionaries. The woman who turned pages for me. The woman who baked brownies as rich as the earth after a spring rain. She sees a memory of us in the clouds. I am five looking at her with adoring eyes. I am asking her how to apply her favorite shade of aubergine lipstick as she rubs the color into the creases of her lips. I am hoping she’ll place some on me, so I can be just like her.

            The memory of her in the clouds looks down at little me, smiling. She is thinking I made her, this little being, this little gift. She brushes my braided hair back, with the barrettes at the end in the shape of daisies. She takes her index finger and dabs a little lipstick onto her finger and then places a little on my lips, showing me how to rub it in. My mother smiles at this image of us, together, happy and whole. She closes her eyes. Letting it all soak in, letting the sun caress her face, and the grass tickle the backs of her legs as the next scene plays.

            This is her place of eternal meditation where her hands and feet meet the earth, pulsing into one beat. Where she sees her life in the sky. Her lifeline is in the constellations. Nature is her Goddess now. My mother worships at Her altar. The one of life. The one of death. Of blessed brambles.