“Our mothers teach us how to die by dying”
-Bonnie Jo Campbell
By Brittany Hailer
When Kathy heard that Nana was ready to die, she called us, her voice a glitter that spilled through the phone and splashed onto my mother’s chest and thighs. Mom sat in the hard-backed lawnchair, the sun collecting freckles on her shoulders, the brown deepening as she exhaled and stamped the last of her cigarette into a crisp seashell. The salty smell of nicotine never seemed to cling to her somehow. Neither of us talked. What was there to say?
Nana was a girl from Creggin, the Catholic neighborhood that lit trash cans and barricaded themselves against the British with the shells of burned-out cars, the brick townhomes peppered with bullet holes, the town who painted the last white wall standing from a row of houses in black block letters YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY. The town she loved so well and fled.
When she was twenty-one years old, Nana eloped with an American she barely knew, a man who took her across the Atlantic Ocean to Northern Virginia, who worked for the FBI and who later left her for a younger woman. Nana had given him three beautiful babies, including my mother. When he moved into an apartment with his mistress, Nana slipped into a robe and disappeared under a blanket for a year. My mother, a junior in high school, tried coaxing Nana to eat, begging her to resurrect, but she stubbornly withered away. “She weighed ninety-eight pounds,” my mother said. Nana would later re-marry the man, my grandfather, who had left her.
After I was born, the family moved to Southern Maryland. Nana stepped in to resurrect my mother in her own drowning. My father drank too much, as my mother’s father did. By the time I entered highschool, my grandfather was dead, my father had left. Mom moved into the house across the street from Nana. I scurried back and forth between their two doors with twigs and moss in my hair. At night, they told me stories under the lone dining room lamp about the mothers and daughters who came before us and how I needed to trust my own body and brain in this work of being a woman. “You don’t need a man,” they told me, “Keep your nose buried in books.”
I was raised by two women, a mother and daughter, who raised each other.
On my graduation day, I was the first woman in our little family to go to college. Nana and Mom stood hand-in-hand in the North Carolina sun. I’d written my undergraduate thesis about Nana’s family, about Northern Ireland, and her father, the only saddler in her hometown of Derry. The university printed my project in an anthology. My first publication. Nana grabbed the hard-bound book, pulled me close, pointed to her printed name in ink, and said, “Fuck yes.”
Nana didn’t like being kissed on the mouth. She’d turned her cheek, even to her grandchildren. Her family had survived a tuberculosis epidemic in Northern Ireland, so she never let anyone spend the night, she never shared drinks, she washed her hands every time she touched a door knob. But when the virus seeped into her, she’d ask if anyone wanted to take a nap. “Come on and get into bed with me,” she’d say. But it was the middle of the day and no one ever wanted to. So no one ever did.
A week before Kathy’s call, in the hospital, we could touch Nana only with gloved hands. Sky blue. I wanted to feel her freckled skin, but the virus poisoning her body could attach itself to anything, anyone. What did it feel like to have your daughters and their daughters touching, caressing your legs and arms as you slept, their fingers and palms in latex? Latex drags at the skin, a membrane, a boundary you cannot cross. Did our touch feel human? When I removed my mask and gloves and kissed Nana through the tubes, she didn’t turn.
Kathy stepped into my life as Nana got sick, a second mother or grandmother. Nana had moved away to Florida so Mom could take care of her. I couldn’t see Nana between my graduate classes in Pittsburgh anymore. And with each new medical crisis, I would call Kathy and she’d translate what the doctors had said. A healer, a worrier, Kathy claimed a lot of children besides her own. I was one of them. Her son and I lived together like siblings. We’d met in graduate school, moved from house to house in Pittsburgh.
Kathy’s family came from coal miners and steelworkers, from a cragged, lush-green landscape that stayed damp, even in sunlight. Their bonfire music crooned then jackknifed quickly into crescendo, banjos and harmonicas vibrating the belly and skull. Grief permeates everything in Rust Belt towns, in Appalachia, in blue collar paranoia and folksongs. The mountains echoed their music back.
Kathy went by Mama See, a moniker that was neither given nor chosen, but just was. She carried her belief in magic to every ICU room and hospital bed. She saved many, but she also gave thousands the permission to exit. She mothered mothers, the sick, the healing, the survivors, and that kind of energy or good, or magic, followed her. It filled each hospital room golden. All that soot-filled coal from Grief Country turned into radiance and it spilled out of her.
And so, when Kathy heard that Nana was ready to die, her glitter spilled through the phone as she talked to my mother. “Every daughter, one day, is born again when their mother dies,” she said, “especially those who are faced with the decision.”
Mom sat in the sun tracing the fine diamond sand with her toes. I could see her as a young girl, legs swinging in the chair. Kathy said it would be hard, that it would hurt her, but not Nana. The machine must stop and Mom had inherited a duty that only she could bear. Every daughter before her has been faced with the decision. And every daughter after her will watch the beautiful, brutal dance of her mother’s death. The heartbeat you hear from the inside first will cease, and you will hold the hand of your first home as she collapses.
My mother hung up the phone with Kathy and the glitter was gone. The sun baked us as the cigarette smoke swirled about her troubled head. That’s when I watched my mother age in reverse. Her face shifted and changed. She was forty, and there she was, just about to turn twenty-eight, then thirteen and pimpled. She grew smaller and smaller, a toddler surrounded by golden light and seashells.
I knew we both had just been born again in that chair. ■
Brittany Hailer is director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Cover image courtesy Brittany Hailer.
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