My mother says we’re in a hospital in Oregon. We’re in Iowa, where she’s lived her whole life. Can you tell me what day it is? I ask. I ask if she knows who the president is.
She calls me by my father’s name. She says I have the prettiest eyes.
I watch out the window of her room as traffic bunches on the bridge. I picture myself out there, or anywhere else. I took the last flight of the night. I had stayed away as long as I could, not willing to face the reality of her disease. Neighbors took her to chemo instead of me. Neighbors made sure she was taking her meds instead of me.
I tell her about my new job. I want her to say she’s proud of me.
Mom’s focus is elsewhere, her answers delayed and meandering. She can’t finish her sentences.
As a kid, she embarrassed the hell out of me. She was eccentric. She used to sing while making breakfast: out of tune and out of rhythm, forcing me to dance along, spin her in the kitchen. Nothing ever bothered her. She kept her mother’s ashes in the cupboard next to the brown sugar in a jar labeled mom. Every morning she had conversations with her mother: Hello, Mom, she’d say. Beautiful day out.
A nurse stops in to check her vitals.
Mom, I say. Do you remember why we’re here?
I remember, she begins. But she trails off. She points at the TV. Who turned that off?
It’s been off all day, Mom.
She doesn’t say what she remembers. If she remembers who I am, or that she’s dying. If she remembers that she’s leaving me alone.
But that’s not really true, is it? I moved away years ago.
This is not my mother. This is not the woman who would burst into my room on a Saturday morning singing Kenney Chesney just to get on my nerves, the woman who would drop everything when I needed her.
I want to upset her. I want to inflict pain just to see her react in some familiar way. Give me her anger, her disappointment. Give me something I recognize. Anything other than this malaise, this slow, distracted death. I tell her I’ve been burning her things. That at night when I leave the hospital, I’ve been feeding her clothes to the fire, one blouse at a time. That soon she’ll have nothing left.
I tell her about a girlfriend that doesn’t exist, a wedding that will never happen.
She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all.
I remind her Dad left when I was eight.
I remind her of all those mornings after my friends slept over, when we’d find her singing lullabies to her dead mother.
Her breath is shallow. She stares at the blank television and scratches at her oxygen tubing. Takes it out of her nose. I help it back into place. I say it’s for her own good. I lay next to her on the bed and hold her chilled, stiff hands. I’m beginning my bereavement early.
I lean in close and whisper. I tell her where she’s going in my cupboard: between the flour and baking soda, where every day I’ll see her. Where every morning I can say hello.
Cole Meyer is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction at Florida State University. He is the managing editor at The Masters Review, and his writing appears at SmokeLong Quarterly, SAND, Aquifer: The Florida Review Onlineand elsewhere, and has been included in the Best Small Fictionsanthology series. He studied creative writing and classical humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife Emily and their dog and cat.Cole tweets about writing and baseball @ColeA_Meyer. More can be found at his website: https://cole-meyer.com/