My mother’s purse has not moved in three years, seven months. It sits on her desk, beside her computer monitor. A spider web forms a bridge between the purse and screen.
Insurance forms, business cards for hospice workers, and hospital bills are strewn haphazardly across her desk’s surface.
Books on real estate management and lung cancer and knitting, a Bible too, all layered in dust. Words abandoned, no longer helpful or needed.
Frog figurines she collected over her last twenty years are lined up on a desk shelf. They too enshrined in dust. Someone once told Mom that frog stood for “fully rely on God.” I didn’t think she was religious, but she seemed to like that idea. I wonder if that’s why she kept collecting them.
Greeting cards are stacked next to receipts and sticky notes and peppermints and nicotine lozenges. I recognize several of them, including one I sent after a girls’ vacation to the Grand Canyon. I used my corporate bonus to fly us first-class, even rented a convertible for us to drive. We called it our Thelma and Louise Get-Away. It may have been indulgent, but I don’t regret a single dime. You can’t take it with you.
Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy
~ Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”
Most of the sticky notes are phone numbers. Doctors? Clients? Friends? I want to call each number to see who answers. “Did you know my mother? What did you talk about? Did she seem happy? Please, tell me. I am trying not to forget her.”
“Yep, I saw those on her desk,” I say to my dad about some old medicine bottles. “I thought about tossing some of that stuff out, but I didn’t know if you had left it there on purpose. Or something.”
The “or something” hangs in the air for a moment, as if time is deciding whether or not to pause. It decides not to.
“No,” he says. “I just haven’t gotten around to it. It’s not a shrine or anything.”
“Okay,” I say, digesting his words. “Maybe I’ll go through and clean up her desk then.”
I want to ask him why he hasn’t touched anything on her desk, it’s been over three years. But I stop myself. After all, this is only my second time home since she died, I have no room to talk. He’s been sick too. One can only fully process one mortality at a time.
I have this vision of Death having a “Take a Number” dispenser, like at the DMV and New York delis. “One death at a time, folks, take a number. We’ll get to everyone. Now serving number . . .” the Grim Reaper’s assistant announces, bored and monotone and snapping gum, over the intercom system. All the ticket numbers are blank.
I sit in her desk chair — black faux-leather, high-backed, cast rollers, I was with her when she bought it — after I wipe it down with an old rag. I look at the dusty rag and wonder how many of her dead skin cells I’ve just wiped up. I briefly consider saving the rag.
I pull out her keyboard tray, rest my fingers on the letters, and absently remember her nails clicking away emails. The printer, which is beside the monitor, which is beside her purse, has two sheets of paper resting in its output tray. I reach over and take them out, expectantly, like a child at Christmas. Was this the last thing she printed? Was it a letter to me? Some sort of message, a sign?
One sheet is a receipt for Pajama Jeans, dated 3/7/11. I remember the package arriving, my dad calling the Pajama Jeans folks on the phone. “The reason for return? She died yesterday.” After a pause, “thank you.”
I wonder if the Pajama Jeans customer service rep ever thinks about that phone call. Or maybe people use death as an excuse all of the time to return items. I also wonder if Pajama Jeans are as comfortable as Mom hoped. I keep thinking I’ll order some, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.
The second sheet is another receipt. This one for a necklace with a mustard seed pendant. It is dated 3/19/11; Mom died on 3/21/11. It is the last thing she ordered.
At the bottom of the page, the company’s logo and a biblical passage:
. . . if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. ~ Matthew 17:20
I knew a girl in college who had a mustard seed taped to a page in her Bible. She took me to her church; she wanted to help me find Jesus. I wasn’t looking for Him, but I’ve never forgotten how small that mustard seed was.
I doubt either receipt is the symbolic letter I was hoping for. I know I spend a lot of time looking for signs that don’t exist. I set the sheets back on the printer.
A small spider creeps along the desk, it’s not much larger than a mustard seed. I take the dust rag and press down on the spider, just like pressing a pause button. Somewhere, a number is called.
I want to ask my mother if she had faith. As small as a mustard seed? Larger? What did she believe in? Or Whom?
There’s so much I want to ask her. I miss picking up the phone to call her, I miss our little talks. What’s the recipe for your Thanksgiving corn soufflé, Mom? What was your health history when you were my age, when I was too self-absorbed to even remember your doctor appointments? Does high cholesterol run in our family? What’s the name of that book you wanted me to read? Why frogs?
And the bigger questions. How did you cope when your mom died? Were you at her side? How long did her desk sit untouched? What was the last thing you said to her? What was the last thing she ordered? Was she happy? Were you?
I am still sitting in her chair. I don’t know how much time has passed. I finally understand why some families cover the deceased’s furniture, photographs, and mirrors–and books and frogs and cards and sticky notes–with large sheets. The sheets make it easier to not stop and stare, to not lose track of time. The ghosts live under the fabric instead of on the surface beckoning, begging to be remembered.
We all live in haunted houses, rooms full of memories, coated with layers of dust and longing. Some of our ghosts live in our hearts. But you can’t put a sheet over your heart, I’ve tried. I do go through repeated cycles of flash-freezing my heart though, then I slowly thaw it out again. Ghosts are immune to the cold. And to spiders and dust and pause buttons. Nothing kills them, except forgetfulness.
I sit a bit longer, write about her, talk to her–tell her that I miss our little talks–anything to keep her ghost alive. I’m not ready to forget her. I’ll clean up tomorrow. Or the next day. It’s not a shrine or anything.
You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear
All that’s left is a ghost of you
~ Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks”