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The Kiss


The voice on the phone from the assisted living house said, "Your mother has expired." I don't remember saying a word. The voice continued, "Would you like us to tell your father?" "No," I replied, "I'll be right there." And mechanically, I was.


I don't know why it was such a big deal shock. She had made a round trip to the hospital only ten days before on a one-way ticket. Congestive heart condition; prognosis poor. Make arrangements, they said.

"Would you like to see her?"

I nodded and padded down the hall behind the nurse.

A form under a sheet on the bed. "O.K. this is it, " I thought and looked down as the nurse peeled back the portion of sheet covering her face. Her mouth was open as if to gasp in air. God help me; I thought she looked like a fish.

I fixate on the mouth; my mother's dead and all I can do is stare at her mouth. It's an old trick that gets you through some remarkable moments. Cleave to a pretty meaningless detail while the processing goes on; it helps because death is awesome and here I am in a room alone with it.

They asked me if I wanted to be alone with her. I nodded, not at all wanting to be, but aware that that was what was expected.

Now what? I don't think I had any use for the moment offered to me by convention. Truth be known, I simply didn't know how to use the moment, just as I had never known how to use the moments with her when she was alive and lucid. I approached the bed and lifted the sheet up and peered at the freshly gowned body of the woman who brought me into this world and did her best I guess.

My husband came back into the room and said, "What are you doing?" "I don't know," I replied, "I don't know."

Now, the fun part; it's time to bear the news to the old gentleman in room 26. Until a month ago, they had lived together in suite 19 where they had been for the past 3 years. He couldn't handle it any more and agreed to have her moved to a room of her own. The only merciful and rational thing to do but he, care-taker and protector that he is-was and ever will be, would never be able to make peace with such a blatant example of self preservation. She, you see, had turned into one of those quaint cases of Alzheimer's so that, apart from some visual hallucinations, she was pretty easy to manage. Except at night when she was apt to get up and wake my father, accusing him of having all sorts of women in his bed. His health went from bad to worse with the lack of sleep and anxiety raised by having to look after her.

I was still dressed up for the evening, as the phone call had come just as we walked in the house from the restaurant. So when, from his chair, my father saw me walk up to him in my Saturday night attire, he smiled widely, supposing that I had dropped in to say good night.

I made gently quick to tell him why I had come.

His body took in the news before his mind. It started its routine of nervous involuntary motions; the right leg moving back and forth in furtive motion; misshapen, arthritic hand grasping and ungrasping the air, his mouth chewing on some kind of cud of saliva and old age.

Some time later, I asked if he wanted to "see" her. (I felt like a fucking funeral director.) The nurse and I helped him with his robe and into the wheelchair.

Later, when we talked about it, it became clear that he too, was troubled by the open mouth...I think the problem for us was not so much the aesthetics of the thing, but what the mouth expressed in terms of her last moments, which were attended by neither one of us. There was guilt stalking there for that little fact alone. The nurse who had been with her in her last moments said it had been peaceful. We later found out that the only thing that is done with a body after death here is a cleaning, as everything relaxes, which explains the mouth being open not for breath but because of gravity. Eyes will be left open as well, which we were spared, thank goodness. The reason for this practice is to make it easier for the funeral directors who, (if you clamp the mouth shut and close the eyes), have a devil of a time preparing the face for viewing. One more reason for cremation, which is what we ended up doing.

She'd had had an inkling the day before. I had placed her on the john in my father's room as she had answered in the affirmative when he asked if she had to "piddle." (She rarely had to go, but he always asked her anyway and she always said yes even though she didn't really have to.) Once on the seat, she pleaded with me. (I don't know if I was ME as ME to whom she spoke or just to whoever was with her in the room at that moment, which of course WAS me, but one was never quite sure of her level of awareness at any given time.)

"Don't leave me alone!" She tore at her blouse as if to breath better. I instructed my father to pick up the phone and call the nurse's station. Minutes later a nurse appeared. The crisis over, the two concluded their afternoon visit by both ever so slowly stretching across their respective wheelchairs-lips puckered-until they met in a kiss targeted squarely for the lips. (This kind of kissing has always made me uncomfortable in as much as I was expected to do the same with them. I like more the European kiss/hug greeting that goes from one cheek to another never really touching lips to flesh.)

That turned out to be her last kiss--as no one thought to offer her another as she lay dead.

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