My mother looked at me. It was a horrible bottomless look. She pouted first, her lower lip jutting out and then quivering. She was going to cry. I left the room and walked to the kitchen. Whenever I came, I found good reason to spend many of the hours I was supposed to be with my mother in every room of the house but the one in which she sat. I heard the low moan begin that I'd been hearing all my life. It was a moan the notes of which were orchestrated to elicit pity. My father had always been the one to run to her. After his death, it fell to me. For more than twenty years, with greater or lesser diligence, I had been attending to her, rushing over when she called saying her heart would burst, or taking her on increasing rounds of doctors' visits as she aged.
Late in the afternoon of that day, I was in the screened-in back porch, sweeping out the straw mat. I had left the door open a crack so that I could hear her. Then into the cloud of dust that surrounded me came the unmistakable odor of shit. My mother had needed to go to the bathroom but couldn't get up.
I dropped the broom and ran to my mother. She had not, as I may have momentarily hoped, died and suffered the resultant loosening of bowels. Dead in her own home as she might have wished. Instead, she sat in her chair, having soiled herself.
"Number two!" she said. This time, the smile was different than the smile of Bitch. Bitch had had life to it. This smile was alien to me. It held neither fear nor malice.
Often, when I recounted to my youngest, Sarah, the events of a given day, she told me that no matter how much she loved me, she wasn't going to strip and diaper me when I grew old. "I'll hire someone," she said. "I've never heard a better incentive for hitting the big time than avoiding that."
The smell had filled the room within seconds. I walked back to the porch twice to take in huge drafts of dusty air and could think of nothing else but presenting my mother in the way she would have wanted to be seen. I knew I was going to have to call the ambulance. I knew, as I had for some time, that my mother was heading out of this life, but I did not want her arriving at the hospital caked in shit. I should say I knew she would not want that, and so what had mattered most to her throughout her life ? appearances ? became what mattered most to me.
I took a final breath out on the porch and walked back to her. No longer smiling, she was agitated in the extreme.
"Mom," I said, certain as I said it that she did not recognize the name or the daughter who said it, "I'm going to help you clean up, and then we're going to make some calls." You'll never make a call again, I thought, and I didn't mean it cruelly. Why is it that pragmatics are so often interpreted this way? Shit is shit and truth is truth. Done.
I knelt down in front of her and looked up into her face. I hated her more than I'd ever hated anyone. Still, I reached up, as if I were finally allowed to touch a precious thing, and ran my fingers down her long silver braid. "Mom," I whispered. I said it because I knew it would be still in the air. No reverberations, no response.