By Kat Freydl
She sleeps in your old bedroom, lavender with polka dots. It smells like candy apples when you leave it, but once she’s been staying there for a while, it starts to smell like baby powder and decay. This is how you wash her hair. This is how you look at her wig without staring. This is how you empty out her pot in the morning—in the morning, every morning, or it will start to smell. This is how you reassure her this is real, Mama Jean, this is real. This is how you help her walk. Stand on your tiptoes, tall as you can manage. She needs to lean on you. She needs to lean on you, now. This is the TV channel she likes. Her favorite is The Barefoot Contessa. She’ll see a recipe for lobster and ask you to make it. She never liked lobster before. She’s forgotten that you can’t cook. This is how you plan a birthday party; you won’t have to work too hard to make it a surprise. For her, waking up is a surprise. This is how you smile. This is how you sight read hymns on the piano. This is how you hold hands with a cousin you never spoke to before while your uncle grinds out a desperate prayer, like 80 years old with a glioblastoma (a glioblastoma? Multiple gliobastomas? You’re no expert. You don’t know this territory, you just know that she’s dying) isn’t a sign from God already. This is how you put on your Easter dress. Smile for the photo, Katelyn. You’re only taking a photo because it’s the last one. This is how it starts to feel normal.
This is how you escape, hop a plane to Michigan to visit your father. This is how you miss the worst. This is how your phone calls start to purposefully omit her, oh, Mama Jean? She’s doing alright. No, best not talk to her tonight. She’s awful tired, now. This is how your vacation starts to feel suffocating. This is how your lungs rattle, feel like they’re clogged by the dirt they’re going to bury her in. This is how it’s July. It’s July, and you’re 13, and you’re writing her a eulogy. Mama Jean was like summer, you write, as though she’s not still alive in some way, atrophied muscles and that lopsided wig and eyes gone all faraway and dusky. This is how your mother reads it to her, changing all the past tense verbs to present tense ones with a voice that doesn’t shake, because everyone that isn’t you seems to be over this by now.
This is how it’s your birthday, and Paulette is coming to you and saying I’m sorry, Katelyn, Mama Jean in in heaven with Jesus, and you deflate a little because you’ll admit it, you will, you’d forgotten about the woman in your lavender bedroom with the polka dots for a moment and were thinking about birthday cake and candles. This is how for years, maybe forever, you won’t be able to eat cake because it will make you sick. This is how it’s the biggest funeral in the world—in the whole universe, even. This is how the pastor asks you to read the eulogy. Mama Jean was like summer, you say, and you mean it like you’ve never meant anything in your life. This is how your voice shakes until it doesn’t. This is how you refuse to cry.
This is how you grow up.