Materials for making a death mask:
one handful alginate
sufficient tap water
half a bedsheet, torn
one plastic garbage bag, torn
a good pound of beeswax
Tools: one large bowl, a long-handled spoon, a single-burner stove, a saucepan, an old T-shirt, a large lump of clay, fine-nosed tweezers, and any discarded implements from a dentist’s office that may have come into your possession.
I turned the handle and the door opened. She was sitting on the edge of her bed.
From that edge, she said, “I’ve mucked this up.” She’d been looking forward to my return, but weakness and nausea prevented her from feeling as joyous as she’d hoped. She ate one of the chocolates I’d brought her, said, “Very chocolate,” and had no appetite for a second.
“May 6, 2018. Got home from Paris and went to see mom, who tired quickly.” I rarely keep a journal, except when travelling. But my mother was dying, so I kept writing.
She’d been asked during the night to “do something with concrete objects.” They’d been “very concrete and all flying about.” It had been “not pleasant.”
“The sort of concrete builders use?” I asked.
“Yes,” she confirmed, “I’m glad you understand.” A few seconds passed, then she asked, “What is going on outside this room where we are?” Minutes later, she tried once more to explain about the concrete objects but interrupted herself with a gesture of dismissal and the remark, “Oh, what the hell.”
Her hands and wrists were made of fine bone, wrapped in thinnest skin, stained purple in splotches, here and there, stained by her blood pressing close to the surface. She used her hands to perform a small dance in the air while lying on her back. This dance was preceded by, and illustrated, her words: “I just don’t have much get-up-and-go these days.”
She qualified her days as “unreal.”
Cold ginger ale, sipped through a straw, soothed her nausea. She was eating very little.
She closed her eyes, opened them, and stated: “This unreal ginger-ale existence.”
“I’m counting on you to keep me in reality,” she confided.
For years, she’d left messages on my phone:
“Hello. My name is Mary Jane and I am sitting on the edge of my bed, wondering what will happen next. You are not home, but I love you.” Always those words.
During those years, we laughed, my husband and I. Her refusal to state her desire, to ask outright that I return her call, amused us. Her sticky indirection. Her tactic: Leave hunger unspoken so it can’t be measured. Can’t cause shame.
“I am Mary Jane. I am sitting on the edge of my bed.”
I heard her desire to locate herself and smiled, a sad smile; I too was trying to locate myself, attempting to do so in language scribbled in a notebook, typed on a laptop, handed over to an editor, returned to me, and so on.
Whenever asked, “How are you?” she answered, “I am here.”
She opened her eyes and announced, “It is full of contradictions.”
I noticed that my hand was still holding her hand. I wondered if by “this treatment” she meant the attention she was receiving, and meant that only by dying was she able to receive such quantities of unbroken attention from me, and from others; and I wondered if it was only her dying that allowed me to accept the intensity of her attention, her repeated attempts to locate herself through me, or, so it had often felt, her attempts to lay claim, to reclaim. By attention, I may mean love. I wrote love, then replaced it with the word attention.
When asked several years ago by a friend of mine to define love, my mother said, “It may be that what we love we take inside ourselves, or it may be that what we love is always out there, just out of reach.”
She accepts one more spoonful of broth, parts her lips so I can slip it in. She tells me, “I love you. I love you always,” and the full warmth, the glowing truth of her feeling, enters me. It has done so before. Every few decades it has done so; I’ve permitted myself to believe her. Or it has permitted me. It being love.
My autonomy is being hollowed out by the suction of her death, the sweeping tug of a train entering a station, attempting to draw everyone from the platform.
May 28, I had plans to go out for dinner, but when the time came, I didn’t want to leave my mother, and so I texted my host to say I would not be coming. I remained seated beside the bed in which my mother lay sleeping and waking and sleeping. Around ten at night, she opened her eyes and told me, in a voice I didn’t recognize, the voice of a young child rehearsing a confession: “I’m writing a letter.”
I asked to whom. “My last letter. I’m writing my last letter to my family.” I asked if she’d like me to take down her words, to which she answered: “Nope.”
“What are you telling them?” I asked. Her answer came quickly, still in the voice of a child, a solemn child: “That I love them all.”
I assured her that I would pass along her message, and that it would please them. She thanked me. A minute passed. Her voice had deepened when she next spoke.
“What am I to do about it?”
“My last days are coming.”
“Open closed open.” A fragment from a poem by Yehuda Amichai was all I had to offer. Before birth we are open to the universe, we live enclosed in our life, and when our life ends we are once more open to the universe. “I like that,” she told me. After a moment’s thought, she added, “And then we are gone.”
Was my mother the subject or the object of the dying that occurred?
She spoke delight. “Thank you.” “Wonderful.” “Yes.” “Lovely.”
Only in moments of pain: “It hurts like hell, if you want to know the truth.”
She snored loudly the first night I slept on her floor. I lay on the gym mat and listened. I read the time in large illuminated numbers on the screen of a calendar-clock plugged into the wall. Her snoring stopped abruptly. I sat up, raised myself farther until I was kneeling and saw the soundless rise and fall of the blanket covering her chest. I leaned in, lowering my ear to her mouth, heard and felt the air enter then leave her, then I lay back down on my mat. I wondered if in the morning she’d speak, or if she’d already spoken her last words, and I tried to remember what they’d been. I lay, listening.
“Who the fuck is it? Why won’t you fucking tell me?”
“Let go of my neck. Would you fucking let go?”
Two people were coming along the footpath beneath my mother’s window. Behind them was the community garden and behind it the railroad tracks and behind these the windowless red sidewall of a warehouse made of bricks. The wall separated the garden from the city’s rumbling activity. A solid backdrop, it turned the area into a small stage, entered and exited by gardeners who lingered, and by passing pedestrians, and by freight trains. I was familiar with the stage set but not with the two actors now speaking, and I couldn’t catch all their words. I got up from my mat and parted the curtains. They were young. He was holding his cellphone to his ear while she shifted from one foot to the other, coming at him from behind, from right then left, reaching for his phone, demanding to know.
“Is it Jamie? Is it fucking Jamie?”
In response to his silence, she jumped on his back, wrapped her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck.
“Let go of my head. Fucking let go of my head,” he shouted, but with little anger, and tried to shake her off. Hers was the passionate, determined voice. When she’d slid to the ground, he handed her the phone.
“Is that you, Jamie?”
The lamp on its metal pole cast a white light on the young couple, on the hard grey footpath and the lush garden—its beds bursting with kale, lettuce, zucchini, beans, tomatoes, peas—a garden where figures appeared during the day, to water and to weed, unaware that my mother was falling slowly from the sky in a corner of their tableau; absorbed in their labour, like the farmer plowing his field in Bruegel’s painting of Icarus’s final plunge, they worked on; and now, as the arguing young lovers exited the night scene, stage left, my mother continued her descent, unseen.
Early in the morning she opened her clouded eyes, and I described to her the moon suspended in a sky washed pink by the arrival of day, and I announced the singing of birds, whose declarations she could hear perfectly well, her ears having lost none of their acuity, and when I stopped speaking, she spoke. “Wonderful,” she said. But this would not be her last word. She agreed to the idea of morning tea, which she consumed from the tip of a spoon.
My second night on her floor, she did not snore. I lay listening to the workings of her throat. This sound had a name. Death rattle. I felt the twinge of excitement and the pang of pleasure I always feel when language reveals itself to be exact, when an experience, named, finds a perfect home in words. The meaning of death rattle entered my ear, my chest, my belly. I lay, listening to my mother’s final efforts. The excitement in me was also the excitement of death approaching, of death putting an end to waiting, an end to waiting for death to arrive.
In the morning, she opened her eyes but did not speak. I don’t know if it was that morning or the afternoon of the day before that I cried and my tears soaked her face and I told her I did not want her to leave, I did not want her life to end, that I would miss her terribly, and she opened and closed her mouth but could express her alarm with her eyes only, and I stopped myself and told her, still sobbing, that her love would make me strong, always, and her face relaxed.
The unrehearsed. What we think we will say and what we say. Her Tibetan caregiver had warned me, sternly, while we were changing my mother’s diaper the day before: “Your tears are not what she needs.” I’d weighed her warning, uncertain.
There had been times when I’d looked at her and wanted my freedom. I could not count the number of times I’d longed to be free of her, my mother, the one who worried and watched and hovered at the edge of me, asking, asking. Or so I thought. What had she been asking?
Two months after my mother’s death, my sister found and gave to me a square notebook, its cover made of brown leather, worn thin along the spine, “compliments of the Egyptian Chemical Company” stamped in tiny gold letters in the bottom left corner. My grandfather had sold desk calendars, agendas, and other office items, for Brown and Bigelow. Likely, the Egyptian Chemical Company had been one of his clients. Most of the pages my mother had left blank, then came sketched heads of women, several of an older woman, all in pencil, followed by more emptiness, more silence, a half page of writing, silence again, then several pages of words, and a newspaper clipping, dated June 10, 1947. So, it was two years after the end of the war, and seven since she’d graduated from college, and she’d begun painting, and had moved to Gloucester, then to New York, when she’d written:
this grey street corner. But around it is hovering a spring-l
aden wind. Where am I?
I am still asking myself if I saw her die or saw death arrive and take her. It twisted her face. It forced her to grin: a Halloween grin that stretched her lips and exposed her teeth. Quick, sharp, it raised her shoulders twice before it let go.
The two friends who’d arrived minutes before, and who’d stood beside me while death gripped my mother, now stepped out into the hall.
She looked as if she were taking a nap. I kissed her forehead and with the tips of my fingers tried to memorize the shape of her nose, eyes, cheeks, and chin. I sat and looked out the window at the garden, where figures were bending, weeding, and watering. Breeze and birdsong entered. Time stirred. I looked again at my mother. I tapped the screen of my phone and called my daughter. We spoke. I tapped the screen of my phone and called my friend Iris, who knew how to make a death mask, Iris, who is rarely at home, more likely in her studio, or in bed with one of several lovers, or digging a hole in her backyard, or waiting at an airport. She picked up the phone.
“What are you up to?” I asked.
“I’m drinking my morning coffee.”
“Have you got a full day ahead of you? A lot planned?”
“No. Amazing, eh? I’ve been crazy busy, but I’ve saved today. The whole day. Nothing. All of it for me. And you? How are you? Where are you?”
“I’m sitting beside my mother. She’s just died.”
I am not writing about Iris. I am writing about my mother, but because she is dead and life is continuing, she is being covered over by words about the living. Even in this narrative, the telling of her death, the living are nudging their way to the front. Don’t blame Iris. I asked her to use her skills, and she said, “Yes. I’ll have to look and see if I have all the materials,” and she got on her bicycle and an hour later arrived at the door to my mother’s room.
Minutes before Iris arrived, two caregivers knocked, came in, explained that it was time to wash my mother. I said I wanted to wash her. They handed me the washcloth. It was warm and damp. Soap must have been added to the water because bubbles floated in the plastic basin they’d brought in. I lifted my mother’s arm. My washcloth-covered hand discovered parts of my mother’s body I did not remember having ever touched before, although I imagine I did touch almost all of her when I was a very young child and her body was my territory. Only a few white hairs grew from her armpit, from that soft and shallow pit. Her breasts, a bit more generous than my tiny ones, spread out, two flattened confections, a pretty pink nipple in the centre of each. The skin of her breasts and belly had a loveliness that shocked and delighted me. I was used to her being vertical when naked, not horizontal, her belly and breasts hanging while she stood or sat and I changed her clothes. In her present position of repose, of complete stillness, an inexplicable youthfulness returned to her breasts and belly—an innocence, as if they’d never known effort. They had an effortless beauty. My washcloth-wrapped fingers moved down from her belly and along the lips of her vagina, cleaned all around the opening. This opening had been my father’s entrance into her and my exit from her. Through this opening in my mother, I’d first entered the world, the world outside her. Two months have passed, and the memory of washing my mother is becoming the idea of washing my mother. But when I touched my mother between her legs, touched the place of my entrance into the world, a memory came to me of a borderless time. It was a bodily recollection of knowing no separation. I was touching this place of knowing for a second and last time. The wonder and peace I felt as I touched her there were replaced almost at once by sadness and longing, and already I was moving my hand down her leg, and soon we were heaving her onto her side, so I could clean her back and slide my hand down to her backside, where, the caregiver warned, there were feces.
Her calves and ankles I did not wash. The slightest abrasion, the least rubbing, and her purple shins and ankles might have bled. The day before, the nurse had fastened padded bracelets around her ankles, bracelets we now removed. I decided she had no need of socks but took from her wardrobe a pair of black pants, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a black, much-embroidered jacket, upon which a garden of flowering plants, in gold, green, blue, and mauve, had been stitched; it was the costume she’d chosen and planned to wear to her one-hundredth-birthday celebration, which had formed a hazy horizon she’d often gazed toward.
“What do you want to do for your birthday?”
“I want lots of champagne. I want everyone to drink lots of champagne.”
We’d begun washing my mother when Iris arrived. She set her bag of materials on a chair. When one of the caregivers was called away, Iris helped hold my mother on her side while I traced my mother’s spine with my washcloth-clad hand.
My mother bathed and dressed, I closed the door behind the caregivers. I looked down at my mother. Her upside-down smile came to her from her mother, a smile of quiet, conspiratorial amusement; the heavily hooded eyes and strong nose she’d received from her father. There was a hollow in her left cheek where a cancer had been dug out.
What we were about to do, Iris assured me, would not alter my mother’s appearance. First, we spread pieces of plastic over the exposed areas of pillow and over the upper portion of my mother’s jacket, bringing the plastic right up to the edges of her face. With the torn sheet we did the same, tightly encircling her face with white fabric so that now my mother resembled a nun. A few white hairs escaped her cowl at her forehead. These we smoothed and coated with Vaseline. Into her nostrils we inserted small plugs of compressed Kleenex. The alginate, once mixed with water, would solidify quickly. As we emptied the contents of the bowl onto her face, drowning her in a thick pink brightness, already the alginate’s startling Kool-Aid colour was shifting to ghost white. We held it close, to prevent it from sliding away. Once it had firmed into a rubbery substance that captured on the outside the shape of our hands and on the inside her features, we paused. We cleaned the bowl and our hands. She lay with her face covered. The plaster bandages we could apply slowly as they would take fifteen to twenty minutes to dry. The plaster’s function was to provide a strong shell for the alginate mould to rest in, once we’d peeled it from her face.
Waiting for the plaster to harden, we ate. We were hungry and so we ate. I was tired and drank from a thermos of tea. The day was becoming hot. Through the open window came sounds of activity. A car engine. A bird. We turned to face the window. My back to my mother, I ate. To chew and swallow in the presence of my dead mother troubled me. My behaviour struck me as disrespectful. The discomfort I felt was the discomfort I’d experience, I imagine, were I to eat while standing in front of a painting of great beauty and power, a work capable of altering those who give it their full attention. Or perhaps I did not believe she was dead, and believed instead that I should offer her some of my food and drink but knew she would refuse my offer. To eat and drink confronted me with a contradiction, a suspicion lodged in me, that she was at once dead and not dead, that she could be both one and the other.
Carefully we separated the rubbery substance from her face, lifting the white shape, cutting it free wherever an edge of the sheet had caught. My mother reappeared. She wore the same look of quiet amusement as before.
Iris placed the rubbery mould in its plaster shell, the two in a box, the box in her bicycle basket, and rode away. I remained with my mother.
I sat with her and waited. I did not know what I was waiting for. I’d been told I could decide when to have her body removed. Once my mother left her bed, she would next lie in the interior of a large refrigerator. I waited. While I was waiting, my husband arrived and sat with me, and together we sat with my mother and waited. At some point I stood up, stepped closer, and looked at her hands. I did this because I was missing her hands. They were the last part of her body with which she’d been able to express herself. Once her eyes had closed and her mouth gone mute, her hands she’d rearranged on her chest. I saw now that her fingers were becoming a pale yellow and that the tip of each finger was being invaded, under the nail, by a cloud of bluish mauve. “You’ve been swimming too long,” I could hear her telling me. “It is time to come out. The lake is cold. You’ll catch a chill.” I tried to lift her arm but it resisted, locked in place. The skin of her forehead left a clammy dampness on my fingers. To this body I could attach the word corpse.
Into my cellphone I did not speak the word corpse, but it was this unspoken word inside my head that allowed me to ask them to come take away the body, her body.
A man and a woman came. They knocked then opened the door. Words of condolence came out of the man’s mouth as if on a roll of paper, the paper that spills from a cash register when numbers are entered. I did not want this man to touch my mother. Before I could stop him, he reached out and I heard a loud cracking sound as he bent my mother’s arm. In answer to my objection, he informed me that to break the rigor mortis was standard procedure. I told him I did not see the point of what he’d done, since he could have fit her perfectly well into a box without having altered the position of her arm and that, in any case, she was to be cremated. I did not argue further because the violence had been done and could not be undone, and I did not want to argue in front of my mother. Together the three of us lifted her from her bed. We placed her in a bag and zipped the bag closed, as if it were a snowsuit, a black velvet snowsuit, then strapped her onto the gurney they’d wheeled into her room. The velvet of the bag was meant to convince me that the funeral home considered my mother’s body to be a precious object, an object they would not lose, or give away, or sell, or break. Over the bag they spread a small blanket, to give the impression to any elderly resident we might pass in the hallway that she was sleeping and on her way to a hospital to be cured. I could think of no other reason for the small crocheted blanket. An elevator carried us down. In the underground garage, the hearse waited. They slid my mother in and asked if I’d care to close the door on her, which I did.
In her studio, Iris heated a pound of beeswax in a saucepan. It was old wax, from an earlier project, now being recycled, and she threw in a few candle stubs she had lying about. Once the wax had liquefied, she poured it through a T-shirt several times, straining out every bit of soot. Any soot not removed would have sunk to the lowest part of my mother’s face, would have blackened the tip of her nose. The hard plaster shell, containing the alginate mould, Iris placed face down on a mound of damp clay. She made sure that the face, about to become a vessel, was level and that it would not move. The hot wax, as it poured into the mould, smelled sweet.
It would have been best to separate the solid wax form from the mould that evening, but Iris had not planned to spend her evening making a death mask, and so she went out as she’d planned to do. By morning, the alginate had stuck in places to the mask. She peeled most of it off and removed the remaining traces as best she could using tweezers and a needle. Not all could be removed. Rather than risk damaging the mask, she left fine lines of white within a few folds in the wax.
To burn my mother—to melt her flesh and to alter her bones so these might be ground into the granular substance called “ashes” to be poured into a jar–would require that the heat enveloping her rise to between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The furnace was turned off when I arrived. My mother’s corpse waited in a closed wooden box, inside a closed cardboard box, in front of the square mouth of the furnace, a mouth with a metal door. From two hooks on the wall, to the left of the furnace, hung a helmet with a golden visor and a space-age silver jacket. This was the shimmering armour to be worn by the knight who would tend my mother’s burning body, who would reach into the heat with the long tongs now resting against the wall and rearrange her bones so that these be consumed more completely.
He stood, now, to one side, waiting, while attempting not to appear to be waiting. This performance of patient discretion was part of his job. We were all performing. Death demands that those who remain perform. Following a death, roles are assigned. He was a short man, sinewy, no extra flesh on him, his pants a size too large, his belt pulled tight. The knuckles of his small hands were large, and the hair on his head thin. I sensed a silence in him that was not part of his performance, a silence that was his own, and I was grateful for it. His uneasy look, of a man being pursued and refusing to run, made me warm to him. I often feel that I am being pursued, and sometimes I run whereas other times I don’t. His name was Paul, I later learned, and he lived in a room above the cemetery office. He’d acquired the craft of cremating bodies not in a classroom but in the room where we now stood, a room with walls of thick stone and a low ceiling, a room built into a slight hill. On top of us sat the chapel of Saint James the Lesser.
When I indicated that I was ready for him to begin cremating my mother, he walked over to the furnace, bent down, picked up two short tubes made of stiff cardboard that were lying ready on the ground, and set these in the mouth of the furnace. On two cardboard tubes, my mother, inside her box, would roll forward. Paul slid her into the furnace; he gave a final shove, to either her feet or her head. I wanted to ask if she was leaving feet first or head first but did not ask. I had so many questions, small questions. The answers would have been small as grains of sand, and together they might have added up to a large answer, an answer large enough to stand on and stare out to sea. Paul pressed the button that lowered the metal door.
A plume of black smoke rose out of the chimney. Briefly, my mother marked the blue sky. By the time I’d come around the front of the chapel and stood on the path running the length of the chapel’s north side, my mother had become transparent vapour. Crossing the path, at my feet, she undulated, visible, as rippling light.
Before the burning of my mother had begun, I’d arrived at the cemetery on my bicycle, which I’d locked to the tall iron fence. For the past few days, the city, as I moved through it, had looked new to me, as if I were seeing the buildings, the parks, the layout of the streets for the first time. Why the city of my birth, where I’d lived all my life, should strike me as new, I could not explain. Perhaps I was seeing it as my mother had seen it when she’d first married my father and moved here; perhaps I was returning to the start of her story, when the city of my birth was new to her. But this made no sense, as that old city, once new to her, no longer existed and was not, therefore, the city passing before my eyes. The sensation of newness I was experiencing was being caused, nonetheless, by my mother. Of this I felt certain.
Martha Baillie lives in Toronto. Her novels include The Incident Report, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, and If Clara. There Is No Blue, her triptych of memoir essays is forthcoming with Coach House Books in October 2023.