I was afraid my mother would collapse, but she insisted on walking without help.
“It’s just my stupid heart,” she said.
We were calm. Everything had started to feel like a drill.
“Business as usual,” my mother would say at the hospital. “Just be sure I don’t die in here. These white walls give me the creeps.”
Three things broke up the white on her walls at home — two plastic-framed paintings and a crucifix the size of a ham.
The paintings had been on sale at Woolworth’s.
“It’s not every day you can get great art at that price,” my mother said.
The paintings were a matched set – two harlequins with buoy heads and jellybean feet. Their eyes were black and glossy, as if they’d seen every sorrow in the world and weren’t little girls at all.
The crucifix wasn’t what it appeared to be, either.
One day, when my mother took it down, the top was pushed back. Inside there was holy water, oil, candles, and a prayer book. A Last Rites kit.
“In case the priest doesn’t make it,” my mother said.
She dusted Jesus with a Q-tip. Jesus looked like a bronze dragonfly without wings. He seemed to be shrugging.
The kit had been a wedding gift from my grandmother, my mother’s mother. My mother had been sick since birth, and would, years later, have the distinction of receiving Last Rites four times.
The Catholic Church doesn’t call them Last Rites any more, for the same reasons that, when I was a flight attendant, we weren’t allowed to use the word turbulence.
“Turbulence scares people,” my flight-attendant trainer told me. “We say rough air.”
Before they were called Annointing of the Sick, Last Rites were the final steps before death. My mother had her first round when she was eight.
Someone called the priest, who prayed and poured oil on her forehead and consoled her parents, who’d already picked out a burial plot.
Then my mother got better.
Ten years later, tuberculosis. My mother was in isolation. The priest came. The family wept.
My mother got better.
My grandmother thought the crucifix was the perfect wedding gift.
“Enjoy her,” she said in a toast. “She won’t live long.”
My mother would be anointed two more times.
It had made her seem indestructible.
My mother carried a living will in her purse. My hand shook when I filled out her hospital paperwork.
The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet once wrote that we believe in mortality, just not for ourselves or those we love.
Hikmet said we must live so that, even at 70, we’ll plant olive trees. Not for our children or our grandchildren, but because we believe we will live to eat the olives.
“I’m fine,” my mother said as she stretched out on the gurney.
The heart monitor beeped and thrummed, steady, sure.
She’s fine, I thought. We’re going to be fine.
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