by Elizabeth Stainton Walker
Years later, sitting in my college physics class, I would learn about Schrödinger’s cat, and my thoughts would go immediately to that hour between the time I woke up and the time I found her. That time when my mother was neither alive nor dead.
For as long as I can remember, she had been a night owl. She would stay up reading into the early morning, the light in her room still glowing hours after I had put myself to bed. In the years before I could drive, I would have to wake her up two and three times to get her to take me to school in the morning. So, no, it was not strange. Her room was always quiet in the morning. She was not missed.
When I called 911, the operator told me, “You have to turn her over on her back.” I tried to tell him that because of her extreme obesity and her proximity to the edge of the bed, moving her was simply impossible. I could only rock her back and forth. Each time I rocked her, I saw her cheek, blue from lack of circulation, and her swollen mouth. The operator kept telling me how important it was that I roll her over. It turned out not to matter anyway. She had been gone for hours by that time.
The first person I called was Kathy. Red-haired and busty, my mother’s best friend had only recently moved back to Little Rock after twenty years in Atlanta. It had been cute to see my mom act like a teenager again. The two of them would spend whole days together, shopping and drinking limeades, the same things I did with my own best friend. Kathy and my mother made sex jokes. They would giggle and talk about men.
Kathy had recently begun online dating, and my mom would help her navigate these new interactions. Because of my mother’s weight and her frequent bouts with depression, she had not been on a date in my living memory. It was strange to hear her talk about condoms and penis pumps. Riding in the car with Kathy, with me leaning forward from the back seat, my mom told stories about men from her past. These were anecdotes I had not heard, like the time Jimmy Buffett asked her to a party after one of his concerts. “You never told me that!” I would shriek, squeezing the fat on her upper arm. But then, at sixteen, I had never been on a date or kissed a boy, so I suppose there is no reason the subject would have come up anyway.
It was only after I phoned Kathy that morning that it occurred to me to try to reach my aunts and uncles who lived two hours away, outside of Memphis. It must have been around eight by that time, and while I was on the phone with Uncle Joe, my mother’s favorite of her three brothers, the paramedics came and told me my mother was dead. Looking back, I cannot think why Uncle Joe would not have already left for work by this time. As an ophthalmologist, he had his father’s habit of getting to his practice hours before he saw the first patient. I am sure if I were to ask him now, he could not tell me why he was still at home when I called. I do know that it was he who was on the other end of the receiver when a female paramedic looked at me and nodded. I am certain that I was speaking to Uncle Joe when my story changed from, “Something’s happened to my mother” to “Yes, she is definitely, definitely dead.”
Kathy and her sister Bonnie appeared at the house a few minutes later. Bonnie was shorter and slimmer than Kathy, dark from the tanning bed, and more tightly wound. She had arrived in her bathrobe and wanted me to get her clothes to wear. “You’ve got to get your Aunt Bonnie something to put on!” Ten years later, this still strikes me as an odd request.
A few minutes after the sisters’ arrival, our house phone rang, and it was obviously a telemarketer. She mispronounced our last name when she asked for my mother, and I remember screaming into the phone, “She just died!” and slamming down the receiver. As an adult, I wonder now what the poor salesperson must have thought, if she imagined I was making it up, just a rude teenager who thought death would be a funny thing to joke about.
For the record, it was an arrhythmia. She had died in her sleep and without pain.
In the following hours, I was swept away to Bonnie’s house. I have no idea who locked our home after the coroner removed the body. These are the questions you do not think to ask at the time: Who locked the house? Why is Uncle Joe not at work? I can remember so many strange details of the day, like my friend’s mother gathering my dirty laundry to wash at her house. But then there are things I cannot remember, like who locked the house. And in thinking about it, I know I must have been the one who locked the house. But I cannot say for sure.
I do remember dialing the number of the boy I liked, the line ringing with hope as I paced around the tree in our yard waiting for him to pick up. His name was Colin, and even with my only parent now dead, I felt a bit excited I finally had a reason to talk to him.
That evening, I went my friend Anna’s house and waited to receive visitors. My high school friends got off work or returned from sporting events and made their way to Anna’s living room. The film Zoolander was playing. Someone must have brought it over, and to this day, I have never seen it all the way through to the end. I remember looking around the room, thinking, “All my favorite people are here” and “It’s nice we can all get together like this.” Then I would remember why everyone had gathered in the house in the first place, and my stomach would sink.
Colin arrived around nine. Truthfully, I do not remember what he was wearing, but odds are it was his navy Transformers tee shirt. He wore it most days that year. I walked outside with him, and we sat together on Anna’s porch swing.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
I shrugged. I had been asked that question one hundred times and was still without an answer. I was too tired to feel anything. “You know,” I told him, “I think everyone is waiting for me to cry.”
He smiled warily. I wonder now, knowing what I know about men in general, and young men in particular, if he might have feared I would in fact start sobbing uncontrollably and that he would be left sitting there, unsure of how to get me stop.
We were on the porch for maybe twenty minutes. The warmth from the day was still hanging on, and Anna’s mother’s lilies combined with the Arkansas humidity to make the air smell heady. The cicadas hummed in the darkness. A grey tabby jumped up on the swing with us. Colin stroked her and told me about his allergy to pet dander. He was on Claritin, he said. It had helped.
When he fell quiet, I put my head on Colin’s chest and felt the worn cotton of his Transformers shirt, or whatever tee shirt it was that day. This close, he smelled like chorine. His long arms folded around me. His chin stubble sanded my forehead.
Inside, my school friends talked about what would happen to me now that I was an orphan. Outside, my life was perfect, and still.