Near the end of the whole ordeal, when she has become short of breath and the coughing is wet and yellow and particularly productive, my mother sits cross-legged in the crook of our brown couch, a wool blanket wrapped tight around her shoulders, searching madly for her last words.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before leading wherever I choose.
WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892). Opening lines, “Song of the Open Road,” 1856, Leaves of Grass, 1855-1892
Nope, I say, wondering if I can laugh. I veto this outright because she is not healthy. I know she has not forgotten why we’re here, in this situation, flipping through these stupid books. There is no health in her. And there is no health in here, nowhere in the entire apartment whatsoever. There are Ritz crumbs, though, and drying tea spills on the coffee table. And a cluster of ants near a bruised apple. The carpet is not vacuumed. The blinds are drawn, raggedly, still creased from where Cervantez, the new pet parrot my mother has bought to keep her company, has struck. There were three bags of sunflower seeds, but I have eaten them all, even though I don’t like sunflower seeds. Or any seeds for that matter. But there was nothing left to eat in the house this morning. We have been going out every day, pretty much, since the tests came back, hitting up all of the liquid-based food establishments. Jamba Juice. Souplantation. Foster’s Freeze. There’s a sort of silent understanding that the grocery store is off limits, except for the expressed purpose of procuring small snacks like sunflower seeds or Ritz crackers. This way we run out of food daily and we are forced to go outside. This way we can’t get trapped and claustrophobic and dusty in this dingy little apartment. Now there is a flimsy plastic grocery bag draped inside the sturdy hull of a brown paper bag, also of the grocery variety, slowly filling with sunflower seed shells, and mucus and germs and all sorts of brown-and-green-and-black, straight-from-the-diseased-depths-of-Astra’s-esophagus type shit.
She had refused the surgery on the grounds that it would leave far too unsightly a scar for such lousy odds. Even chemo wouldn’t offer much hope, the doctor had said. She had refused all of the prescribed pills. Painkillers and sleeping stuff, I think. They hurt my throat, she had said. She had refused to try acupuncture, too, because, when we had gotten inside the tiny studio, with all the bright lights and little bamboo room dividers, she didn’t like the smell of the doctor’s hands – small, knotted, ringless Asian things – because, she had said, they smelled like the disgusting spicy mustard they put on Subway sandwiches. She had even refused to gargle after that first time, where I had to hold her head in place so that it wouldn’t slump over to one side, the salt water sputtering down her mouth and into the festering wound deep in her throat, bringing hot, angry, no-more-fucking-gargling, OKAY? tears to her eyes.
My mother, Astra, was sick. She was a whole junkyard of sick. Her thin, skinny fence was pale and varicose-veined, wrapped tight with barbs around a great big rotting heap of cancered cells. She was not healthy. Nor afoot. Nor light-hearted. And absolutely not free. So, in response to her Whitman, I offer:
He is in great Danger, who being sick, thinks himself well.
THOMAS FULLER (1654-1734). Comp., Gnomologia: Adages and Proverbs, 1921, 1732
She finds this funny. She says that she does not think herself well. She knows she isn’t well. She just likes the idea of walking on a great big road with leaves of grass and big trees on the side. That’s how death is in the movies. Like Field of Dreams. But she knows she’s sick, smartass, she says. She is not in denial. She heard the doctor, she says. She knows there isn’t much. More. She says, in as booming a voice she can handle, sorta like when you pretend you’re God or godly into a microphone during sound check, how ‘bout:
My specialty is death.
JACK KEVORKIAN (1928-–). “Assisted suicide” physician. In Nancy gibbs, “Rx for Death,” Time, 31 May 1993
She, again, finds this funny. I do not. Mom, I say, that’s not funny. But she is laughing anyway. Hard. She is laughing hard like she does when she watches reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos and a father gets hits in the testicles by a child’s swinging bat. Or, she is laughing hard like she does when I am very small, maybe three or four years old, and I have been sent to the principals office for farting in class on Bobby Dresden’s face during nap time, and she picks me up, trying hard to contain her laughter until we are alone in the car, celebrating my day off with a Happy Meal. Her laughing is like wildfire. Like throwing matches at a Californian redwood. In summer. Near Lake Shasta. Where it’s 120 degrees or more. And everything lights on fire from that one hard, uncontainable laugh, and it spreads from branch to branch, right over the forest floor, up the brittle pine needles and into your shoes, up your leg and across your body, until you too are on fire with laughter. And I am laughing.
Mom, I say, feigning gravity, this shit isn’t supposed to be funny. We are supposed to be serious here. They need to know by today if you want to get that speckled marble you wanted, I say. They have to send away for it. Some special plant does the engraving in Indiana, so they need to know, Mom, I say. I’m still laughing, though. Quietly, under my breath. With her. At her. At her laughing at her. But I want to stop. I want to get something picked out and call the funeral home and have the order placed and everything just done already. We have been organizing her dying for a week now. The funeral home. The casket. The floral arrangement. The announcement for the paper. The priest. The prayer. The prayer cards.
Prayer cards, for Christ’s sake.
She doesn’t even believe in God. I don’t think she had much use for him. Other than profanity. And orgasms, perhaps. I can remember thinking she might be very close to God when I was little, when it was late at night and she and the Pirate closed my door, and she would scream God, oh God, yes, Jesus fucking Christ, yes. Oh God.
God, Paulson, she says, can you imagine? I mean, that guy actually said that. ‘My specialty is death,’ she trails off into more laughter. It’s like, today we have a wonderful French onion soup and for Chef Kevorkian’s specialty, she says, we have a beautiful bowl of death. I ask her, doesn’t that hurt? She pulls up short, her laugh sputtering out, leaving some steam left in her engine for yet another eruption. Doesn’t what hurt? she says. Your throat, I say, doesn’t all that laughing hurt your throat? I figure that it must, all the sores crinkling with the undulation of her vocal chords, mountain to trough and blood and cough. But she reminds me, No, Paulson. It’s my esophagus. Down here, she says, pointing, not up here. Esophagus here. Throat here. The laughing, she says, actually feels good, like I’m itching inside. Oh, I say, flipping through the pages.
I have purchased two books of quotations. One is a paperback Bartlett’s so Astra, my mother, can flip easily through the pages from the crook of the brown couch. The other is a hefty hardcover volume, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, ARRANGED BY SUBJECT—EASY TO USE!; with MORE NEW QUOTES THAN ANY OTHER BOOK; THE ALL NEW, AUTHORITATIVE SOURCE FOR OVER 20,000 QUOTATIONS, edited by Leonard Roy Frank. OK, I say, tell me when to stop. Stop, she says. I close my eyes and race my finger down the new page. OK, again, I say. Stop, she says.
Hard work and a proper frame of mind prepare you for the lucky breaks that finally come along—or don’t.
HARRISON FORD (1942-–). In Glenn Plaskin, “The Real Harrison Ford,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 August 1990
This one is not good either. But at least it’s more accurate, more fitting for the event, the lack of luck, the somberness. Just the kind of bleak that makes sense in this situation. I say, I didn’t know Harrison Ford was that old. What? she says. Nineteen forty-two, it says he was born in, I say. I thought he was younger than that. OK, let’s try again. Tell me when to stop. Stop, she says.
A scoundrel is a person who pursues his or her own personal gratification without regard to the feelings and interests of others.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1856-1950). Everybody’s Political What’s What? 38, 1942
As I say this, I feel both very bad, very guilty, and very prophetic. This one fits very well. I’ve never thought of my mother as a scoundrel, per se, but, really, it fits. It fits in the way she used to never be home. How she and the Pirate had always seemed to think that Johnny Carson was a fabulous babysitter. It fits with how she never got angry, like I hoped she would, like she was supposed to, when I was sixteen and she walked in on me and Chelsea, and how she just laughed a short laugh, closed the door and said sorry. It fits with how she flew to Mexico that one month without any notice. Well, with just a little note of notice, saying that there was some ramen in the cupboard, that she’d be back in a few weeks. And it fits with how she got upset that I had sold some of her weed. Or, rather, how she was not upset that I had found her out, not upset that she was setting a bad example, only upset that I had found, then sold, her weed, which she could no longer smoke. Or how, once, when I had come home from the beach with the stinger of an angry bee jabbed in the crease of my neck, she had been on the phone, saying, I’m busy Paulson, can’t you see that? and pointed to the medicine cabinet. Bactine, she said. And that was it. When she came back from wherever she had gone, we found out that I was allergic to bees. That, if stung by a bee, my skin turns an awful shade of purple within a few short hours, my veins start to burn like I have red pepper seeds scraping through every artery, and my blood pressure hovers near the “way too high” mark, necessitating all kinds of emergency shots and ointments. We find this out after she comes home, slightly drunk, and is shocked to see me sprawled out on our brown couch, lost in a small bit of a delirium and a great big bit of pain.
Later, when I am in the hospital bed eating chocolate ice cream, I don’t think of my mother as a scoundrel, per se. I ask her, where did you go, mom? She is quiet, feels like a bad mother, was a bad mother, is a bad mother, and says, Just out, Pauly. Charlotte called. Just went out to get a quick drink with her, Pauly. And I blink my eyes at her. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, OK? she says. And, as I am eating the ice cream, I think with my ten-year-old thoughts that my mother is a bad mother and that I don’t like her and that I wish I had someone else to be my mother, like the nurse who was big and fat and looked like she might actually know how to cook something other than hot dogs. But I don’t think “scoundrel,” per se, in those words, until now. But it fits.
What do you think of that one, Mom? I ask her, reaching for a Ritz. She doesn’t respond, her eyes darting over the pages of her paperback, ignoring me, my quote. I like this one, she says, grinning:
This is on me.
DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967). Proposed epitaph for herself. In Robert E. Drennan, ed., “Dorothy Parker,” The Algonquin Wits, 1968
Oddly, once I get it, I do as well.
In the light there, in the crook of the couch, which is bright and poetic, the kind a Keats poem is suited for, Astra, my mother, with an over-productive esophagus, is beautiful and I know that I love her in my own sort of way and that is a good feeling to finally have. I don’t like her much, but I feel something like love. We spend a few more hours searching for her epitaph. She wants it to be truthful. No sap. No romance. Maybe witty. So that young, teary-eyed mothers, who have just buried an infant, maybe born too quickly, so that they laugh prematurely, or at least smile, as they pass Astra Phelle Metzger’s grave and read her headstone. Death doesn’t have to be all sadness and rainy days, Paulson, she says. She is comfortable there on our brown couch, sipping tea, with death and with dying. I think it’s exciting for her. Like having a deep, dark, nagging itch near the drum of her ear and finally getting handed a Q-tip. All these arrangements, the flowers and guest lists and will-making, it’s all a great relief. Like getting to itch the fuck out of death. I want to be upset with my mother, mostly because she has been a bad mother. Also because I have not found much to appreciate about her. Also because I know she had potential to be a better mother. A better person.
But I am not upset. I have come home from far away and she has handed me her slim, grim prognosis. She was upset that I hadn’t called while we were out driving around the world. She told me that she shouldn’t have bought me my shoes if I was planning on dropping out. I told her to fuck off. Then she said, I am dying, Paulson. Almost dead, really. And I have wanted very much to be upset with her for not ever being much of a mother, and for getting to skip out on the bill. I want to yell and scream at her like I used to, to get her to understand that she has made me mad and let down since the day she refused to buy me the Hakeem Olajuwon British Knights. I want her to know that it is odd, inane, not right to be her son, to be here, sifting through books for her epitaph, that somewhere, many where’s, this is not considered “normal.” And I want her to know that we should not be laughing like we are. That we should be serious, trying to salvage some sort of treasure in these last few weeks from the vast tangled wreck of our lives. I want to yell and scream and do all that, but I do not, mostly because I don’t feel like it. It’s just not in me. Also, though, because I am coming to love her, my mother, Astra, just the way she is, beautiful, laughing, in the crook of our brown couch, with the Keats light coming in through the broken blinds, and her wanting to make distraught mothers smile as they stagger out of the cemetery. You can love without liking.
When she dies, none of the guests on the guest list show up to the funeral. There weren’t very many, just a few waitresses she worked with and a couple of the bartenders that served her drinks. The Pirate is there. And I am there. Way out in Tarzana, off the 91. They erect her stone in a fresh spot of earth. It reads:
HERE LIES ASTRA PHELLE METZGER WHO WAS ASTRA PHELLE METZGER UNTIL SHE WAS NO LONGER.