“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Houston” by Claudia Smith

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Courtesy Claudia Smith

 

I can’t bury my mother.

She wrote me on Easter.  That was last weekend.  She died the day before, the day before.  The yesterday of yesterday.  But all days seem to blend now.  “Mama, how do we know it is the weekend?” my daughter asked.  I did not tell her that this is how I know: I check the calendar on my phone.

Happy Easter, Claudia!

Please let me know when and if you ever receive the craft kit for Mei.  It was shipped, according to our email, a week and a half ago, and we were charged.  But we have not received a delivery confirmation email.  We were considering ordering her another, different one, but we don’t want to if the delivery is not working.  I hope you are o.k. and getting the things you need.

We love you.  Give the kids a hug for me.

Love,

Mom

 

She sent that seven days ago.  I had not written back.

On the day she died, I rinsed the groceries.  My husband  learned in medical school how to avoid viruses.  So he taught me what to do.  I washed the vegetables and the meat, in plastic.  I allowed the soap to cling for thirty seconds.  I washed every part, up and down.   The soap suds my hands, slips through my fingers.  It smells like my mother, clean and brisk.

The trailer, the HOA management representative called it when she emailed me.  I wrote her back.  It is not a trailer, it is a camper, I wrote.  Do you think we would finance a $15,000 camper if there wasn’t a world pandemic?  There is no fence that can be approved that can house this unit, she wrote back.

I have no photographs of my mother.  Well, I have two.  But I can remember the photos, Polaroids, rinsed in warmth, bordered in white.  Her hair heavy and dark, swept off her long white neck.  Me and my mom.  A peasant dress with bric-a-brac her sister made for us.  Mother and daughter dresses.  I want her profile; I want to be a cameo.

Why didn’t you protect me?  When I came to her, she wrapped me in cold cotton, she washed the vomit from my hair, she told me when to be quiet and what to tell, what not to tell.  She brought me egg-in-the-nest, she pressed a cold cloth to my forehead.  After wounds, cold comfort.  Her voice, sweet and low.

I didn’t write her back to tell her back that yes, we had received the unicorn DIY project for my daughter. She said she was praying for the nurse who worked with my husband.  I know she was.  She prayed deliberately and intently, as she did most things.  She was thorough.  She had her rosaries.

You were not always a good mother, I tell her.

All the jars and fruits and vegetables are cleansed.

You were such a good liar.  You were a good liar because you lied to yourself.

She believed in eternal life.  She died without enough oxygen.  It took her several hours to die.  She most likely was unconscious, my husband told me.  She was home, until a few hours before her death.  This is a mercy.  My husband explains it to me, and I know he is telling me a truth.  He calls me from the camper, and his voice is clear, measured.  He has seen people die in the hospital in so much pain.  She was where she wanted to be.

But how do I know?

Dear Claudia,

Just another note to let you know we care about you and think of you all the time.

The blooms on the dogwood, redbud, and wisteria are gone, but everything except the hickories is in spring leaf, and the hickories are budding out.  We have a pair of raccoons who come on the front porch each night in hopes of getting into either the birdseed or dog food steel cans.  The coyotes have been singing each night, too, and we have a lot of young cardinals.

Dad saw a baby armadillo a couple of nights ago.  It is good to know that life is going on.

I have been praying for you and for Song, your family, and all his coworkers, both the healthy and the affected.  I am glad that, if you all have to be confined, you have a lovely house to be in and are not all crowded into a tiny apartment in a congested complex.

Keep us appraised as to what is going on there.

Love,

Mom

Outside the gardenias are blooming obscenely.  They are headstrong and they should be quieter.  I called them white roses, I didn’t even know what they were when we moved here.  I had forgotten the names of so many flowers.  I did not send her pictures.  I would send them to her now.  I want to take a photograph, send her gardenias.  I would filter them, I would capture dew.

I was not always the kindest daughter.

I kept your secret, Mom. I kept it close.  I won’t tell it now.

Our first spring here, the white flowers bloomed, creamy and soft yellow, white as wax, dripping petals.  It was the scent that told me I was wrong.  I knew these couldn’t be roses.  I found them on a plant app.  Gardenias.  They smelled like heaven.

Mommy, outside the gardenias are in full bloom.

Whatever I wrote to her, my father read.  I didn’t want him in my head.

She loved you, my friend says.

She loved you, my husband tells me.  He calls me because he is living in the camper.  Outside, he has left a bottle of rum by my door.  He braved the liquor store to purchase it.  That is not like him, even when a pandemic isn’t in full bloom.  Rum.  This is how I know he loves me, Mom.

She was a young mother.  She married at twenty.

I can’t be there to bury you, Mom.  Where are you?

I watch Jesus of Nazareth with my children.  Every Easter I watched this at my grandparents’ home.  My mother and grandmother would bake Angel Food cake.  Robert Powell’s eyes are an icy wonder.  He never seems to blink.  When I was a child, I loved this Jesus.  He was the spirit of God and Man.

Can you hear me, Mom?  I don’t really want to talk to Jesus.  I want to talk to you.  I’m sorry.

Why are you sorry?

I don’t know.  I just am. 

She couldn’t breathe.  Was it like drowning?  But it does not take so long to drown, does it?  She knew she might die.  I thought I knew.  I thought I understood.

I found her voice in my voicemail, undeleted.  It’s her, she’s here, but not really.  She is speaking to me firmly.  And for a moment, I see and hear her again.

Her own mother had died.  She was thirty-four, I think.  She was crying like a child.  Is that the only time I saw her cry like that?  I watched.  I couldn’t move.  She flung herself on the bed and sobbed.  I want my mother, she said, over and over.  I want my mother.  I want my mother.  I want my mother.  I want my mother. 

It felt wrong, to see her like that.

But you got to see your mother, I whisper.  You got to go to her home, go through the portraits and letters, the Avon products, the polished white sandals.

I was not the best daughter, was I?  But I was the only daughter.

The night she was dying, I received my annual evaluation by email.  A five out of seven.  The chair says I did not include the IDEA reports.  But I did.  At least, I know I put them in the mailbox.  Before the outbreak.  And my students won essay awards.  Will I keep my job?

But it doesn’t matter the way washing the bottles matter.

She read to me, she sang to me.  She wore pantyhose with chunky heels, and carried a macrame purse.  There was no one more beautiful.  Her hair shining, pulled back in tortoiseshell over her ears.    I used to tell her that crows were beautiful, and grackles too.  She agreed.  That is iridescent black, she told me.  In certain light, the crow is splendid.

You are gone.  You aren’t you?  Part of me is gone with you.  The dead take us with them.  You would not agree.  You did not believe in death.  I might. 

She smelled of Ivory soap.  Claudia, in her voice.  I do know her voice.  I can’t hear it.  But I know her voice as I know the scent of gardenias.

Postscript, June 1: I am still isolating with my two kids, my parents-in-law, and my husband. He is finishing up his fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine, and I turned in final grades for the semester last week. My daughter turned eight yesterday. The gardenias are all gone, mosquitoes are out, and summer is here.  About a week ago, Houston native George Floyd suffocated to death with an officer’s knee pressed against his neck.

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claudia smith

Claudia Smith writes from Houston, Texas.  Her essays and stories have appeared in LitHubGay MagazineThe Texas ReviewThe Rumpus, Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short FictionNew Sudden Fiction: Short Short Stories From America And Beyond, and others.  She has two flash fiction collections, The Sky Is a Well and Other Shorts (Rose Metal Press), Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books), and a short story collection, Quarry Light (Magic Helicopter Press).  She is a lecturer at The University of Houston-Downtown.