A Death in the Family: Vignettes
by Cheryl Anne Tuggle, author of Lights on the Mountain: A Novel
I pass by the workshop on my way up to the house. I’ve been to the mailbox and shift a stack of bills and sale fliers, pinning it to my ribs with my arm so my fingers are free to pull up a sapling that has sprouted by the door. Pulling weeds and fetching mail as if it’s an ordinary day. My husband’s truck is in the driveway, parked with the windows rolled up and the tailgate down. He has washed it. It’s pristine, as white as the winter sun. He always cleans the cars on Saturday. But it’s not Saturday. It’s Thursday. He should be at the office. But he’s not at the office. He’s in his workshop, doing what I know he’s doing. I hear the hammer. I hear the scrape of sandpaper against wood. The whine of the saw. When I come through the door he has stopped hammering, scraping, sawing. He is measuring. Six feet, six inches, he says. Six four is standard. How tall is—was—your mother? I cannot answer. I can only stand gazing at the thing he has made, already sawed and hammered and sanded into shape. Into the shape of a box. A box that will hold my mother, lying down.
My friend is at the door. She’s brought a ham. Not just ham, dinner. Green beans and salad and rolls and dessert. The ham smells sweet and rich, scented with cloves. My stomach is unresponsive, off duty since yesterday morning but that doesn’t matter, this house is about to be full of men with hearty appetites. Every scrap will have a home. On the heels of the first friend another arrives. She’s brought soup. Soup and ham. Ham plus soup equals love. Love equals pain. We talk, their expressions worried. I think they are awfully brave, these friends, to come around me. Their mothers are still very much alive and well. My daughter comes into the kitchen. Wants to know if it’s okay (will I be okay, her eyes ask) if she goes out for a little while, to meet someone in town for coffee. She kisses my cheek and winds an arm around my neck, reaching over at the same time to take a brownie from the pan on the table. My friends smile, relieved. They are reminded that they also have young women to count on. Daughters counting on them. The fear is still there, though, a ghost-image come to haunt their eyes.
I feel conspicuous, as if I’m putting off an unpleasant odor the people milling around me can smell. I try to act casual, normal, though I’m pacing the home furnishings aisle like a wolf in a zoo. Back and forth. Up and down. I am not aimless. I know my purpose. But bed linens aren’t displayed like window dressings. There are no floor samples hanging from racks to caress. How am I supposed to judge the weight of a sheet stretched tight around a piece of cardboard and encased in plastic. Six feet, six. That’s 78”. Or is it. Math wasn’t my best subject. I want cotton. It needs to be cotton. 100% biodegradable. No Made in China, either. Brave, surely, but they are not free. I feel a set of eyes on me. A woman is out shopping with her adult daughter. They both wear skinny jeans tucked into tall boots and have long blond hair, stiff as straw. The daughter’s head is bent to her phone. The mother is staring at me, hard. I haven’t slept more than a few hours in three days, but she doesn’t know that. Unless...I pat myself down, making sure I’m fully dressed. I’m okay. No makeup. Don’t remember doing my hair. Probably didn’t. She stares harder, almost glaring. Suddenly I understand. She hasn’t guessed, doesn’t smell anything. She wants me to move. I’ve been blocking the selection of king-size sheets. I half-smile and shuffle down the aisle a few feet. The younger woman stops texting for a second, thumbs paused, long enough to exchange looks with her mother. I might appear worse off than I think but I was leaving, anyway. I have not found what I’m after: a sheet pure and white enough to line a coffin.
My husband wants to know if I’m going to church. No, I say. It’s too soon. I’ll just stand there and cry. He stops shaving and looks at me. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I hope. I’ve soaked a handful of tissues and we’re just singing the beatitudes. They are. I’m sobbing. Blessed are those who mourn. My godmother peers over her service book at me. A little brown bird in a silken sari. Exotic and warm. Stretching out a blue-feathered wing, she touches my shoulder. For they shall be comforted. A surrogate mother. I have a treasure trove of them here. In bone and flesh—my soul-sisters and brothers. And in spirit—the saints and martyrs alive in gold and wood and paint. Even my priest is a kind of mother, his faith in me beyond my ken. Through a veil of tears, I watch him pray, his arms raised to heaven. Lightning rods for the Holy Spirit. I shift my gaze to wall on his left and catch sight of God’s mother. She holds to her breast the slack, lifeless body of her son. Do not lament me, O Mother. But she does lament. She is weeping. A sword pierces my heart.