She was the last one to notice. Blanche, the instructor, stretched her neck and her eyeballs in the direction the sound was coming from. The heads of everyone standing in utkatasana, their butts pushed backward, turned ninety degrees toward the corner with the bags holding street clothes. The noise grew subtly louder. Rachel realized what it was, the tinny bossa nova jingle of her phone. She was horrified. She never brought her phone to class. She was intentional about that, but there was no mistaking it.
“Sorry,” she said, rushing toward it. Because she was in such a hurry to quell it, she had trouble getting it out of her pocket, and when she did, despite having had the phone for at least two years, she had to stop and consider where the mute button was. In the interval she saw that it was her sister’s number. Bad news. Rachel’s sister only called when it was bad news.
Understandably during the rest of the yoga class she had a hard time focusing and a harder time tapping into the equanimity that Blanche extolled so religiously. The minute she got outside she listened to her sister’s message. The news wasn’t a surprise, not even remotely a shock, but it bowled her over anyway. Daphne said she should come, immediately.
There wasn’t a flight going out that night so Rachel took the first one she could in mid-morning. If she got there too late, it was what it was. She spent a lot of time on the plane rolling the question around in her mind, Did she really love her mother? She felt something immense, she knew that, but she didn’t know if it was love. She did know, and she tried to sideline these feelings, that she resented the expense of this trip. It came on top of paying her insurance, replacing a broken window in her car, and succumbing to a merino wool pullover. Her little reservoir of extra cash, so slowly filled, leaked like a burst levee. She wondered if her life would always be like that.
By the time she landed she decided that yes, she did love her mother, and that she hoped she would still be alive when she got to the hospital so they could say their goodbyes. How would they be said? They had no practice, no background for expression of emotion. In her head she practiced saying, “I love you, Mom.” In the back seat of the taxi she said it out loud once, “I love you, Mom.” It sounded as weird and insincere as she feared it would. The cab driver, an Afghani, gave her a worried look through the rear view mirror.
There was a mix-up about what room her mother was in, and she was sent to the wrong floor where she wandered among people in wheelchairs for most of an hour as the pressure built up inside her, the pressure of precious time evaporating. When she finally arrived at the closed door next to her mother’s name, she knocked softly. She could hear voices, remote, from a television. She knocked again with more force and drawing in a caustic breath, turned the latch and entered. The shock she had fortified herself against shifted like a calved iceberg. In the middle of the bed at lounge inclination sat a pale, bony creature holding a remote. An alien. Her mother. On one side of the bed in chairs crowded together were Rachel’s two nephews and brother-in law and on the other her sister and her niece. Only her sister turned away from the baseball game they were watching for more than a few seconds to greet her. Her mother’s eyes, bulging in something like wonder, never strayed from the TV.
“The bases are loaded,” Daphne said. “It’s the seventh game of the World Series.”
She quickly determined that nothing was going to interrupt the drama of the bottom of the seventh in the seventh game of the World Series, certainly not something so common as death, and she sat and watched like the others and even got interested.
The home team lost due to an misplay of a fly ball and the blasted hopes stung the air in the room. The game had gone into extra innings and it was past visiting hours. The brother-in-law, the sister, and their brood went home. Rachel stayed, waiting for the moment when the unreality dissolved into actual life.
Her mother had lifted the claw of her hand when the grandsons gave their awkward hugs goodbye. Now she lay immobile, smiling like she was privy to some joke, her lips stretched outward, her eyelids closed. Rachel had never seen her smile this way, and wondered if it were some kind of rictus. Her mother had said her name, said thank you for coming, so she was at least intermittently aware, but she didn’t say anything else until midnight when she said, “Shame about the error.”
Rachel wondered if she meant the game or some maternal failing, of which Rachel could make a list. But recrimination was over, insignificant. The freshening springs of forgiveness flowed. Death had primed them.
Except that Rachel’s mother kept living. For three days Rachel did not leave the hospital, sleeping as best she could in the only chair in the room that was remotely comfortable. She knew what she was doing. She was waiting for some kind of affirmation that would cauterize the anxiety that seeped from her core.
Her mother’s alien smile had become a fixture. At certain moments Rachel was convinced they were on the brink of the redeeming moment and each time a nurse would come in and fiddle with the drip bags or else a hideous beeping would banish every glimmer of grace. Her hatred of the nurses grew to absurd proportions.
After three days they sent her mother home, prescribing hospice care. Rachel had stayed as long as she could. She had to get back to work, to pay her bills, so one day she said to her mother, “See you later,” meaning much later, as in the afterlife. “This is Rachel,” she added, “I’m going back home.”
“I’m going home too,” her mother whispered without opening her eyes, and Rachel was whiplashed by emotion. Later in a more rational frame of mind she would wonder what her mother could have meant.
Two months later her mother died. Rachel didn’t go to the funeral. When she thought of her mother her feelings were soft and vague, as if she was thinking about a favorite song, or a favorite color.
Rachel took on a second job giving tours of chocolate shops in the city. She stopped going to yoga and lost contact with the friends she had almost made in the class.
One day in the cafe she saw one of them having a croissant, brushing the flakes off the screen she was absorbed by. It took a second to remember her name: Gloria. Gloria came across as immensely self-confident, somebody who lacked the gene for anxiety. This made her very attractive, and Rachel was glad she had a partner so that she could dispense with having a deep crush on her. Women like Gloria were her downfall.
She would at least say hello.
Gloria’s eyes flew open when Rachel tapped her shoulder.
“Where have you been, girlfriend?” Gloria’s voice was like a trumpet coming through a murmur of cellos. “We missed you.”
Rachel told her about rushing home to witness her mother’s dying only to find her mother sitting up watching a baseball game.
“That fucker,” said Gloria.
Gloria’s response shocked and confused her just the right amount. Days later, on the bus coming home from work, sampling from the box of artisanal chocolates on her lap, she found herself choking with laughter.