Dressing for the Afterlife (A Short Story)

“I’m not cut out for kids, Mother,” Tracy said. “I’m not nurturing.”

“You don’t know that. Besides, children change you. They make you nurturing. And I would like to see at least one grandchild before I die.”

Her mother was 57 and being melodramatic, which is how Tracy justified her next comment.

“Mother,” she sighed into the phone, letting derision coat her voice before continuing, “if only grandchildren will give your life meaning, maybe you should reassess whether your life is worth continuing.”

Tracy’s phone beeped three times in her ear as her mother ended the call.

 

Five days passed and they did not talk.

Sunshine led Tracy to the botanical gardens after work.

Her phone rang near the dahlias and she answered it.

Her brother’s voice: “It’s mom.”

She drove fast and parked in the multi-level garage. She followed the red line on the linoleum floor.

 

In the ICU, Tracy’s father and brother stood together on one side of her mother’s bed, a doctor in a white coat stood on the other. Between them, on the bed, lay the tiny figure of Tracy’s mother. A tube in her mouth, taped in place, her eyelids closed, her arms wilted leaves at her sides, her palms turned up toward the ceiling. The hiss and click of the oxygen machine kept time with the forced rise and fall of her chest under the white sheet.

The doctor started over when Tracy walked in and stopped at the foot of her mother’s bed.

“Brain aneurism,” he said, looking at Tracy and letting the words sink in. Did she know what that meant?

It meant that somewhere in her mother’s brain, a blood vessel had burst and her skull was filling with blood, the pressure flattening her brain.

“She said she had a headache,” Tracy’s father said. “I made her take a nap.”

“That was probably the moment,” the young doctor said. He turned to Tracy again. “If she had come in right then, we might have been able to release the pressure on the brain in time. As it is…”

“I made her take a nap,” Tracy’s father said. “She slept for two hours. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

 

The doctor left them alone. Giving them privacy to make their decisions, he said.

“What are they doing for her?” Tracy asked when the doctor was gone. She stepped forward and stood across the bed from her father and brother. She picked up her mother’s hand. It was hot as a stove burner, but it flopped like an empty glove.

“There’s nothing they can do,” her father said. “This,” he said with a gesture toward the tubes and the machines behind the bed, “is life support.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“They say she’s gone already.” David turned away from the bed.

“We have to decide,” Tracy’s father said. “Do we keep her on this? If she’s gone? If she did survive she wouldn’t be her.”

“She’s not her now,” David said. “She’s gone already.”

Tracy dropped her mother’s hand and crossed her arms over her chest. She looked at her mother’s slack face as she spoke to her father. I’m not cut out for this.”

“Nobody is, Trace,” David said. “But we have to. Dad wants to know what you want to do.”

“I want to talk to her.”

“She’s already gone, Trace.”

“You decide.” Tracy looked at her father.

“She’s already gone,” her father said.

 

Back at her parents’ house–the house Tracy and David grew up in–they sat in the living room as it went dark outside.

Tracy’s father and David sat together on the couch. Tracy sat in an office chair rolled into the corner. They looked at the carpet. Tracy thought about getting up to turn on the lamp. They sat with only the light from the street and lost sight of each other’s faces.

 

The next day, Tracy’s father drove them to the funeral home. Maybe he had cried all night, but he was in control now. He parked the car. “Let me do all the talking,” he said. Just like when they were kids.

“You don’t have to do everything, Dad.” Tracy put a hand on her father’s arm. “That’s why David and I are here.”

“Let me do all the talking,” he got out of the car and walked inside and Tracy followed behind David.

The man in the silk tie spoke just above a whisper and pointed them toward coffin options.

“We’re cremating,” Tracy’s father said.

“Of course, I should have asked. Urns then.”

Her father liked the urn with the cherry blossoms (“white petals on a wet black bough,” Tracy remembered that but she didn’t know where from) even though her mother would prefer the one with the seabirds in flight.

“I think mom would prefer the birds,” Tracy said.

The quiet man was pushing papers for Tracy’s father to sign. He stopped.

“She’d want the flowers,” Tracy’s father said. He reached for the papers and signed, one last time buying his wife the wrong gift.

“I am sorry for your loss,” the silk tie whispered, gathering the papers in front of him. “It was sudden, was it?”

“Aneurism,” Tracy’s father said. “She said she had a headache. I told her to take a nap. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

David drove when they left the funeral home.

 

For two days Tracy’s mother lay in a viewing room so friends could visit the body. Tracy didn’t go in. She’d already seen her mother dead in the ICU. It was too hard to think about looking at her now, remembering their last conversation. Anyway, she was already gone. Whatever lay in that room was just an abandoned shell, a molted skin.

Tracy’s father put in hours beside the body like it was his new job. 9 to 5 in a suit and tie, hands clasped in front of his groin as he yielded the room to each new visitor and stood beside Tracy in the hall. When the visitors left, he went back in. This way, Tracy’s mother was never alone.

“Why won’t you come in?” he said near the end of the second day.

“I don’t want to see her like that, Dad.”

“She’d see you if the roles were reversed.”

“I know it. But I can’t. Anyway, it’s not really her.”

“Of course it’s her.”

“It’s just a shell. She’s already gone.”

“That’s callous, Tracy. Hard. You’re not hard.”

“I think I am. I’m trying to be.”

“Don’t.”

“I said some things, Dad. Last time I talked to her. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“She felt bad too. Hanging up on you.”

“You knew about that?”

“You know there are no secrets between parents. We talked about everything. Right up to that headache she got. I got impatient with her. I didn’t want to hear about the headache if she wasn’t going to do anything about it. I told her to stop complaining and just go take a nap. ‘A damn nap,’ is what I said.”

“Oh, Dad.” Tracy stepped forward and put her arms around her father and pressed her cheek against his chest. He rubbed her back.

“Even if it’s not all her, it’s what we’re left with and after today you won’t see it again. Come in.”

Tracy nodded against her father’s chest. When he turned to go in the room, she went with him.

 

Tracy’s mother lay in a lidless casket on a table surrounded by flowers and candles.

“Jesus Christ, Dad. Who dressed her?” Tracy covered her face with her hands. Her mother wore a long red taffeta gown with a heavily ruffled bodice, a deep tear-drop neckline exposing her bosom, a gold linked-chain belt rounded her waist. She wore flesh colored pumps with five inch heels. Tracy almost laughed but she began to cry. “She looks like Aphrodite or a bad hooker. Dad?”

“I don’t know how to dress her! I picked what I thought was nice. I always liked that dress. She used to wear it when we went out before you kids.”

“That’s thirty years ago! People have been seeing her this way?”

“What does it matter? People didn’t come to look at her clothes.”

“Dad. Mom’s a classy lady. She looks like a joke. This can’t be how people remember her. She would hate it.”

“I always liked that dress,” her father said.

 

Tracy drove fast and made it to her parents’ house and back in under an hour. She came into the viewing room with the clothes folded over her arm. Her father was standing beside the body, his hands clasped in front of him.

“Daddy,” Tracy said. “I know you love her. She loves you. But she would want me to do this for her.”

Her father nodded and backed away from the body. Tracy handed him the arm full of clothes. He lifted them to his face and smelled them.

Tracy pulled a pair of sewing scissors from her purse. She stepped to the bottom of her mother’s evening gown and began to cut up the middle of the dress, along the valley between her legs. The scissors moved quickly through the thin fabric, over her waist, between her breasts and done. Tracy put the scissors aside and peeled the collapsed fabric aside, exposing the naked flesh of the body beneath. It smelled like chemical cleanser, but it looked like her mother. And it looked like Tracy. There was the same uneven hip bone, jutting out farther on one side than the other. There on her mother’s stomach was the same triangle of moles Tracy could now feel like burn marks on her own stomach. The body was stiff, the skin without temperature, like rubber, but she recognized it.

“Help me roll her, Dad. This way first. We’ll put the blouse on one side at a time. We can slide the skirt up pretty easily I think, if you lift her legs.”

Tracy’s father stepped forward and gave the clothes back to Tracy. She unfolded the blouse and threw it over her own shoulder. She took her mother’s shoulder in her hands; her father grabbed a hip. Together they rolled Tracy’s mother toward them, onto her side and Tracy draped the blouse over her mother and eased one frozen arm through the sleeve. They laid her flat. Tracy directed her father to lift her mother’s shoulders and she pulled the blouse under her mother’s back and eased the other arm through.  There were tears in Tracy’s eyes now, but she could see what she was about.

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