This morning, while snowflakes fluttered past the windows, Mom died. I held her hand and told her how much I loved her.
Several years ago she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her childhood called Afraid of the Moon, which eventually I'll get around to publishing. Here's a little excerpt that I keep thinking of; it's one of her own memories, and the little girl called Jessie in the story is essentially my mother.
Jessie and Mack had a record player, and Jessie's favorite record was "Thumbelina." She had a stack of yellow Golden records in paper cases, but Thumbelina was the record she played most often.
"Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing,
Thumbelina, dance, Thumbelina, sing."
Thumbelina was a fairy tale princess who had grown in a pot for an old man and old woman who wanted a child. She was as small as a thumb.
One day while Jessie was listening to Thumbelina, a thought stole into her head.
She began to wonder about being sick and about dying.
People died, and there seemed to be no reason for it. It was like the day she had been singing, had felt sick, and then everything went dark. Was that like dying? Was it like falling asleep? Was it like the spinning red lights she saw when the doctor placed the black mask over her mouth at the hospital?
What if this was her day to die? She hadn't known the day of the May Day rehearsal would be her day to faint, but it had been. No one could help her, and no one could stop it.
Maybe tonight, when she went to bed, would be her last night.
She would lie down, go to sleep, and never wake up.
She didn't care about heaven. She didn't want to go there. She didn't understand things she couldn't see. Jesus was a painting over her bed, but he wasn't in the room, and Heaven was something they talked about, not a real place like her grandmama's house in Oklahoma.
Jessie turned off Thumbelina. The tinny, merry song had become eerie and unsettling. Was this the last time she would hear it?
She walked into the kitchen quietly, feeling cold. She asked Mother, who was cooking at the stove, for a cookie.
"It's close to supper, Jessie. "
"Please, Mother: just one. "
Mother gave Jessie a chocolate marshmallow cookie out of the jar. "One--and don't show Mack. I don't want his supper ruined."
Jessie carried the cookie back to her bedroom. She sat in her chair and ate it slowly. It would be her last cookie.
While they ate supper, Jessie asked Daddy: "Can we go for a drive tonight?"
Daddy liked to take the family out in the car on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes he'd stop at the A&W for frosted mugs of root beer.
"I don't think so, Jessie," he said. "It's a school night."
"Please, Daddy. I want to go, please."
"Why don't you take her?" said Mother. "You need to get milk, and I can give Mack a bath."
They drove along the highway, and Jessie looked at everything. The last time she'd pass that tree. The last time she'd pass the white church on the corner. The last time she'd pass the school.
"You're very quiet, Jessie," said Daddy. "Want some music?" He turned on the radio, and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" was playing. "That's a song you like!"
Jessie listened to the song mournfully; it was her last time to hear it.
Mack was in clean pajamas, and he hugged Jessie when she came home. "Jessie!" he said. He smelled like baby soap. His hair was brushed and damp.
Jessie hugged him close: the last hug.
"It's time for your bath, Jessie," said Mother, "and then you need to get to bed. Tomorrow is school."
I won't be going to school anymore, thought Jessie bleakly. She went in to take her last bath.
After lights-out, she began to cry into her pillow. All the last things were done, and now it was time to go to sleep and die.
Mother opened the door a crack. "Are you crying?"
"No." Jessie wiped her eyes on her pajama sleeve.
"Yes, you are. What's wrong?"
Jessie began to sob loudly. "Am I going to die tonight?--because I don't want to!"
"You're not going to die. Where did you get that crazy thought?"
Jessie didn't believe her mother anymore. How could her mother stop her from dying? Was she stronger than God and Jesus? If they wanted her to die, she would.
Mother went out of the room, and soon Daddy came in. He sat down beside her on her bed.
"What's this about dying?" he asked her. "Do you think you're going to die tonight?"
Jessie nodded. Her nose was running onto her upper lip. She licked it off with her tongue.
"When I was seven," Daddy said, "I thought I was going to die, too."
Jessie stared at him. "You did?"
"Yes, I really thought I would die, but I didn't. See? Here I am!"
"Why do people die?" asked Jessie.
"Mostly they die when they get very old or very sick. But you aren't sick. You are very healthy."
"I fainted at school."
"You were just too hot. That isn't being very sick." Daddy patted her on the arm. "I think that young children are still new, still close to being born, so they don't know about things like dying. That makes it seem scary, like it could just happen for no reason. But there is a reason. You aren't going to die. Tomorrow you'll get up and go to school, and Sunday we'll drive around and then get a root beer at the A&W. Okay?"
Jessie nodded and smiled. "Okay."
"Do you want to hear a record?" asked Daddy, standing up.
"Yes, please: Thumbelina."
Daddy turned on the record player for her, and she listened to Thumbelina. He turned out the light and shut the door.