Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Dying Mother.

  1. As my best friend Beth points out, do not title any story “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Dying Mother.” No one will want to read it. The world is already so depressing. But there is no other title. My mother is dying. This story is really for me.
  2. When visiting your mother, who after a major stroke and has cancer and is almost blind so she does not recognize you, or her home, or your daughter, brother, or cousin, try to act as if she still has all her faculties. Ask her if she likes the new bouquet of flowers you brought. If she likes the new Chinese restaurant that just opened down her block. When she asks, “how did I get here?”” answer “I called an Uber.”
  3. When your mother fears the nurses who wear masks, do not try to explain about COVID 19. Your mother gapes at you as if you are describing a horror film. Which is absolutely accurate. 
  4. Dress up in your graduation cape and mortarboard and even wear the high heels that are so tight after so many years, and you know now you could never wear since your college graduation ceremony was so many hours. Tell her that you are graduating with a master’s degree. Try to remember the theme song of Columbia University and sing it loudly. Maybe it has something to do with lions. It’s okay to make up words.
  5. Go to the diviest bar in the diviest part of Brooklyn and flirt your ass off with a man who has so many tattoos that is nearly impossible to see any real flesh on his arms. Drink so many tequila shots that you start sobbing “my mommy is about to die.” That is a real buzzkiller. All the men as well as women slowly walk away from you.
  6. Since you know your mother wants to be cremated, have fun at Etsy looking at urns. Your mother’s greatest dream was to travel to Sydney, Australia and see the opera house. Hurray. You find a funeral urn that showcases this opera house and have it shipped, at great cost, from Australia. When you open the urn, you worry if it was used. Although you cannot detect any ash, still, the urn smells to you of death. Instead, you call a random funeral home and demand the newest urn they have, just plain blue, and squeaky clean. Your mother wants her ashes to be scattered across Central Park. You don’t know where exactly, or if it is even legal, but you decide to let your brother deal with this one.
  7. It’s okay to drink. Cocktail hour grows earlier and earlier. Since you work from home, can anyone really notice that you are blasted at 2pm. Your job is at a literary agency reading the slush pile, so the alcohol softens the deathly prose you read about space aliens living in multiverses or cowboys who look like Kevin Costner (a lot of Yellowstone fans out there) or lonely wives or husbands who discover their high school sweethearts on Facebook and then decide to leave the spouses after decades of marriage.
  8. With a mother who cannot truly understand you, you can say anything you want. Donald Trump is finally in jail for a hundred years. You can visit the moon and stay at a lunar resort for months. There are devices that you can implant in your brain so you can speak every language in the world. Let your imagination go wild. You are married to the richest man in Paris, even though you have not actually visited Paris. But do tell her you love her. That is the truth. Tell her you love her at least four times an hour, if not more.
  9. Hang out with the Jamaican aides who tell incredible stories about meeting Bob Marley and the food they cook at home and the racism they face every day in The United States. They are the ones who will help transport your mother to another world. You are so amazed by their kindness and caring that at times you cannot speak but it doesn’t matter because these women love to sing, sing all the time to your mother who you think nods her head to their rendition of “No Women No Cry.”
  10. Try to memorize everything about your mother’s face. Her eyes are still a sharp blue. Her skin at her age is remarkably smooth. Her eyelashes have faded, but you can remember when they were long and black, and she could look like Elizabeth Taylor. She does not resemble you, but she also resembles you. One day you may be in the same chair and have a daughter who sits facing you. You may not recognize her. But somehow, you pray, she is kind and patient and will always be there. 
  11. Even though your mother has not attended synagogue since your father died two decades ago, attend a service. You can’t remember any Hebrew from your Bat-Mitzvah, but the words run over you and soothe you like a gentle wave. All the women here, even the eldest, are all beautifully dressed. I try to follow along with the prayers, but my voice just stops, as if there is a plug in my throat. My eyes fill with tears. The woman next to me who is wearing a fur coat opens her bag and hands me a Kleenex. I nod in thankfulness. Although everyone is chanting in Hebrew, I am hearing Wallace Steven’s magnificent poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird.” I always loved this line: I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections. Or the beauty of innuendoes. When the service ends, I allow everyone to leave until I am the only one sitting in the aisle, a woman holding her head in her hands, silently reciting the Wallace Stevens poem again and again.
  12. When your mother asks your name, realize you finally have the freedom to change a name that you never liked. You always wanted to be named Amelia, after Amelia Earhart, your favorite heroine.  “I’m Amelia,” you tell your mother. Her eyes suddenly widen, as if in recognition. “Amelia,” she repeats, and you take her hand, and she squeezes it. “Such a pleasure to meet you, Amelia,” she tells you as you start sobbing and laughing at the same time. 
  13. Your mother is dying. This is an undeniable fact. One of your mother’s aides, a lovely young woman named Rose, tells you she is right now between two worlds, one with us and one that is above us. My mother is “traveling.” When she finally reaches her destination, she will still be with us. I imagine that when my mother passes away, she will be somewhere incredibly far away, like Sydney, Australia, existing in a different season, a different day, not here with me in New York but there in a place she always longed to be. 

Penny Jackson is a writer and playwright based in NYC. Her most recent collection is My Daughter’s Boyfriends.