The Woman I Was Dying to Know
The first time I truly saw my mother as a person, her body lay in a casket under the dim lights of the funeral home’s chapel. Her viewing was scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m. That’s a really long time to look at the woman you thought was invincible. Despite the cosmetologist’s best efforts, my mother still looked very dead. The foundation that was spread across her painfully swollen face wasn’t her shade. Or maybe it might have been if she were alive.
My mother was only the second dead body I had seen. So I was a novice. Or lucky. The first dead body I saw was my paternal grandmother, who I didn’t meet until I was 12. She was 93 when she passed, so her death was sad but not unexpectedly sad. And not painfully sad for me since I hadn’t known her very long. But her post-mortem makeup looked better than my mother’s.
Dozens of people who I didn’t know, or barely remembered from my childhood, ushered in to pay their respects. Some of them stopped and stared for long periods as if they were thinking about climbing in with her. Others quickly glanced in passing without breaking a stride. All of them stopped to hug me and tell me to call them if I needed anything. “Anything!” they said. We didn’t exchange numbers. My aunt, who never broke character, made a remark about how the woman in the casket looked nothing like her sister. Everyone’s immediate reaction was anger.
My aunt’s snide remarks always seemed to come out at the worst times. I don’t know when an appropriate time for such remarks would be. But she was right. The woman in the casket didn’t look like her sister. Or my father’s wife. Or my mother. She didn’t look like anyone. Who was she?
My family and I spent the prior week meeting with funeral planners and in-house grief counselors, who ironically looked dead, too. We convened in a small room that never quite had enough chairs. The décor was terrible. All the display flowers were wax. The wallpaper couldn’t come to an agreement with the drywall. And the analog clock was stuck at 5:30-something. Nothing in there was alive.
When the funeral director asked us what my mother’s favorite color was, we all awkwardly looked at each other. You would have thought we took a cooperative vow of silence. In the next beat, we began to talk over each other, insisting it was black or teal or red. Or some other color it probably wasn’t. We settled for white.
When she asked for biographical information for the obituary, the awkward silence returned. It loomed over our heads like a translucent smog. All we could collectively come up with was a list of our relatives, how she liked going to church and how my mother loved spending time with her family. Her entire existence was summed up in a few sentences.
Just a few days prior, we selfishly begged her to keep fighting, in spite of her imminent need for a miracle. She didn’t even have health insurance. I thought about the cadence of her vitals sign monitor. Her monitor wires looked a lot like the video game wires she used to fuss at my siblings and me for leaving out.
Up to that moment, she had exclusively been a mother, wife, and sister who took care of everyone. We didn’t allow her to be anything else. And then I thought about how isolating that must have been. Or how normal that must have been for her. Before my mother became a legal adult, she had been a mother. Before that, she was an orphan. Both her parents died of heart failure before she graduated high school. She rarely spoke of them.
They’re both buried in an old ‘colored’ cemetery in rural Southeast Texas. My mother’s margin for error was almost non-existent. She had to be perfect or her children would bear the fruits of her failure. Every part of herself that she dreamt of exploring had to be placed in a queue. I wonder what her childhood was like.
She once told me a story of how she only got two pairs of shoes a year. One pair for school and the other for church. When she wanted to play outside, she did so barefoot. I wonder what she wanted to be when she was a little girl. She was an exceptional cook. Perhaps she could have been an executive chef for one of those pretentious restaurants with an obscure name. Or better yet, the owner of one of those restaurants.
I even wonder about the men she loved before my father, if there were any. I try imagining the places she dreamed of traveling. She didn’t get out much. Her free time was reserved for rest and tending to her massive ivy plants.
But most of the time I find myself thinking back to the quiet moments that held us together. This has only led to more questions. Did she even like being a mother? Was I her favorite or was I just easier to love? Did she really believe someone could get struck by lightning while talking on the phone during a thunderstorm?
Why did she spell Terrance with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e’? And did our puppy really run away? I know well enough to know that the dead don’t answer questions. Or pick out their makeup for their funeral.
Some years back, I went through some of my mother’s belongings that she kept in an antique cupboard she inherited from her mother. I was hoping to find something that would show me who she was. Perhaps a journal or something.
What I found was a vinyl record collection, a few of her college algebra tests, and a cheap beaded bracelet. One of the vinyls was “Richard Pryor’s Greatest Hits.” My mother liked Richard Pryor? I thought, surprised. What was her favorite joke? I bet you it’s the one about when he thought he woke up in the wrong heaven. That’s my favorite. I later went on to purchase a record player of my own. I found a sweet deal at a local second hand shop.
When I went through her algebra tests, my eyebrows peaked in interest. I found a strange comfort in her failing grades because just like me, she was terrible with numbers, too. The bracelet was just a bracelet. I lost it years ago.
Those items, that might have been insignificant in another time, are priceless relics of my mother’s existence. I’ve accepted that I may never know anything else about my mother other than she gave everyone she loved the very best parts of herself. Even when it was to her own detriment.
Every hope and dream she had for herself was buried deep in the essence of the people she loved. I suppose that’s motherhood. But it doesn’t seem fair or worth it.
Some nights I cry. Not just for my mother, but also for the woman in the casket who didn’t look like anyone.
This year will mark nine years since my mother became the woman in the casket, who ultimately became the woman I was dying to know. I’ve never felt closer to her.
Terrance Thomas has been published in HuffPost, Afropunk, and many other publications. He currently resides in Houston, Texas. His debut memoir, Cotton Candy Insulation is scheduled to be released in 2020.