Stefan de la Garza
It was the season of endless noise and if you listened carefully with any deep breath there came bubbling from deep inside your chest a creaking with cold. The winter of 1988 became a reference for all winters after that and people even now over 20 years later say The Ice Wasn’t Really That Thick There Wasn’t Really That Much Snow It Wasn’t Really That Cold and even when the story is told again their eyes squint a little and then they say Wait The Ice Wasn’t Really That Thick and those people will just never ever get it anyway. That winter was the season of my family the season the crows dropped right out of the sky that’s true I was there it was the season of music and the season of prayers and the season of my mother the season she carried me, limp, burning, for two miles and it was the season of all the things I wanted to forget but never could, the season of my death.
I remember it started with a tickle in my throat a pain in my back muscles contracting constricting it started with a rash on my forearm just beyond my elbow it started as a faint outline of a circle almost red but not just yet just a mark of something different happening a stop sign with no words. I told my dad and he said I Don’t See Anything Oh That That’s Nothing Just Keep An Eye On It and that was right before the fever started before the circle deepened in color and filled in before that itchy blanket of disease spread around my body wrapping me tight. But that small circle always stayed it’s still there on my skin fainter now and I don’t even know how deep it goes but there it is and if I showed you you might think it was something else maybe a birthmark or something but it’s not I see where it is I know what it is it’s still right there.
I’ll be the one to take care of my mom like she took care of us me and my brother when we were real real little feeding and cleaning and changing he’ll be living way up north and I’ll be the closest one so I’ll do it but I won’t really mind because I’ll have been a nurse for almost a decade I’ll be 59 and I’ll take a couple years off because I’ll know this is the end and she’ll really need a lot of help after that first year going downhill fast once the dementia will start but I’ll like that time with her making her comfortable and talking to her those times when she’ll be totally lucid laughing and smiling before I’ll move to the periphery of her memories but something will always be there she’ll remember. She’ll want to die in her home in her bed and I’ll give her that wipe her lips and read to her her body disappearing slowly weight dripping off her the last couple months until she’ll barely weigh a week’s worth of groceries and soon after that nothing at all.
It’s not like anyone ever really trusts what weathermen say but especially back then everyone took forecasts with a grain of salt and after the storm everyone wondered how they could get something so wrong and a couple days later even the weathermen said Well That Was A Surprise and only the few people who took the forecasts with a couple pounds of salt were ready pulling out extra blankets and sweaters and batteries finding candles and matches and flashlights noticing the day before that the clouds were laying low and heavy or maybe they noticed all the crows that migrated down that week more than usual not just hungry this year we always got crows around wintertime but never like that it seemed like thousands were all over our subdivision hundreds just behind our house behind my window looking out over the woods the jumbled skeletoned branches of bare trees with black leaves and all week I’d wake up at 5 in the morning the crows all cawing to each other cawing to me saying Come Play or Ha Ha or Help Help. The forecasts called for temperatures to fall overnight with the precipitation turning to snow maybe 5 or 6 inches just another sunless winter day in Michigan but the clouds that came came heavy and stayed that way the temperature rising so much the couple inches we already had started melting and it was obvious the weathermen didn’t have a clue.
There’s plenty of dirt to dig in families and most of the time you don’t have to do anything else but listen. It will be almost a year after I’ll start taking care of my mom that she’ll start losing the biggest pieces of herself and she’ll start talking about all the things she’ll have kept deep down inside and it won’t even matter if I’ll be there or not sometimes I’ll hear mumbling from a couple rooms away she’ll just need to talk and when I’ll hear that I’ll go in and see her and sit down and say Really And Then What and she’ll keep going and going most of the time I won’t even know about what. But sometimes she’ll start talking about letters whispering at first like someone was with us talking about the letters she got over 60 years before letter from my dad when he was in Vietnam getting batches of 5 or 6 or 7 all at once writing her something every single day mailing them when he could sometimes on the back of the cardboard in his MREs sometimes only 3 or 4 words simply Holy Shit. Still Here. It didn’t matter because every single thing he was thinking for over a year she held in her hands and then she’ll say I Never Loved Your Father. Not Until He Wrote Those Letters. I Loved His Words.
I woke up shivering at 3 in the morning my face flush the sound of the roof getting pelted with rain the temperature falling fast and I just pulled the blankets up over my head I was so cold and tried to go back to sleep. My dad came in my room later and said Gotta Get Up The Power’s Out The Basement’s Flooding and I just said What I was so confused every part of my body protesting my throat scratchy my hands sweaty Get Up And Go Get Some Wood Be Careful It’s Slick Out There my room so cold his breath left a small cloud lingering over my dresser. I put on my clothes two pairs of socks and two shirts and two sweaters and sweatpants and pants and went downstairs my mom trying to light the stove with a match a whole loaf of bread on the rack ready to toast my dad and brother in the basement trying to scoop out as much water as possible with the sump pump not working. The screen door to the back patio was frozen shut and when I started kicking it my mom said What Are You Doing and I just looked at her for a second and kept kicking and pulling until it opened. The step down was covered in at least two inches of ice and I almost slipped one hand still on the handle and that’s when I saw what happened. There was so much ice over everything even the biggest trees bent over like r’s our clothesline weighted with so much ice on the lines the cement holding the posts down were pulled right out of the ground. I waded out to the stack of wood the new snow my only friction.
My mom kept all the letters she got wrapped up in paper in a box deep in a cabinet in the kitchen in their first apartment together the North Carolina days so hot and humid she just laid on her back in front of the open refrigerator her feet in the crisper 6 months pregnant with my brother What A Mistake Everything Turned Out To Be Rushed To The Courthouse Before I Showed I Never Knew What To Think Back Then Was Different His Parents Hated Me But Those Letters. Her eyes will be closed not looking at me not looking at anything just talking talking about those letters how there was so much she wanted to say, finally, to her husband when he got back writing responses to everything he sent wrapping it in his letter then wrapping them both together and placing them in the box different from the letters she sent back different from the cheery support she always wrote but his letters started changing after his son was born the first time he questioned if he would ever make it back telling her some of the worst of what he was saw tired of it all And Whatever Was Changing Him Just Made Him More Quiet More Withdrawn More Angry and she’ll slip on her words start mumbling and that’s when I'll rub her arms starting from the shoulders down to the hands to the fingers repeating until the tears stop putting my arms under her one hand at the base of her neck to support her head one at the base of her spine and lift cradling her small frame a body light as paper and I’ll carry her to the bathroom to bathe her in the barely warm water my hands passing over the scar on her stomach the place from where they pulled me when her body could no longer hold me now just a small faint line.
I pulled in as much wood as I could at least 60 pieces 4 trips my heart pounding harder and harder my head throbbing my chest sweating the chills starting the circle on my arm spreading. Everyone was still downstairs cleaning and bringing up water their angry wet feet stomping up the stairs cold toast on the counter. I went to my room and changed into dry clothes I could hear my dad telling my brother he wasn’t doing it fast enough and pulled the blankets from my bed and sat in the closet the only quiet place I thought I could find and I sat there balled up with the blankets around my legs but I could hear my dad telling my mom she wasn’t doing it fast enough my ears were throbbing with the sound of my own heart like hummingbird wings I felt dizzy my body no longer mine my shirts already soaked again and all I could think about were the crows the crows where could they go.
It’s hard to see people you care about change because they’re no longer really the people you cared about they’re different they’re acting different they’re voice is different my mom will sometimes say Get The Newspaper Please Go Get The Newspaper Get The Newspaper While You Walk The Dog and I’ll tell her a hundred times to stop that there is no dog there is no newspaper why are these things the things that she’ll remember until I stop trying to convince her and all I’ll have to do is leave the room and come back and she’ll say How Was Your Walk.
I ran to the bathroom and got some matches I ran downstairs and got the newspapers stacked by the door I ran to the garage and got the lighter fluid I could still here the sloshing of water in the basement tired voices surge up and I ran out the back to the middle of the woods my feet crunching down the snow finally freezing every footstep a note in a symphony running and running and there under one of the biggest trees were crows frozen solid by the ice storm some blocks had three or four crows all frozen together a murder in all its parts. I dug out as much snow as I could until I hit the hard ice beneath. I put a pile of newspaper down sweating furiously the chills still creeping over my skin the circle on my arm turning into shapes that don’t have names. I sprayed the lighter fluid and lit a match and the fire burned for a couple minutes before the melted ice pooled putting the fire out then I put more newspaper down more lighter fluid and started another fire again and again until I hit dirt the muddied ground 2 feet down. I dug as much as I could and put the rest of the newspaper in and started the fire again, grabbing as many crows as I could their hard bodies lighter than I thought. I put them around the flames their eyes so dark I couldn’t tell if they died awake or asleep.
For months my mom will be obsessed with her own face and I’ll pull out a small mirror and hold it in front of her and she’ll touch the wrinkles around her mouth smiling and stopping smiling and stopping looking at every part of her face sometimes saying Take Me To The Bathroom I Want To See Everything and I’ll pick her up and take her to the bathroom and hold her there in front of the mirror the entropy behind her eyes increasing and I’ll stand there understanding that we’re such a part of a each other and for a long time I wasn’t really around but I’ll be around then and that’ll be all I’ll be able to do. Some scientists believe that our entire universe is just a hologram and our actions take place on some distant 2-Dimensional plane and only correspond here that the here we feel isn’t really here and it will be in front of the mirror that I’ll start to understand this watching my mom wave to us and I won’t even be able to feel her in my arms anymore looking back at myself separated by our very own universes but totally connected.
I remember all the shivering I remember the fire burning down again the crows all thawed out I remember picking one up huge birds bigger than my torso the wings sagging over my hand their bodies not moving the breathing not starting the eyes not blinking nothing, I remember dropping it the shivers subsiding I remember taking off my jacket taking off my hat I remember taking off my boots and then my pants I remember laying down but that’s when my memory changes it’s something different I know everything without ever being told about that day we never talked about it and I never heard anything about it until I started taking care of my mom 47 years later I don’t know what to think when the people I tell say it was a miracle or that God saved me I just don’t know how I know the things I shouldn’t know like that I was dead for exactly 55 Mississippis. But all of a sudden I was above the trees watching myself laying there and I could hear my mom I saw her too on the porch of our house calling my name I watched her go across the street to the neighbor’s house I heard her calling my name checking the cars in the driveway underneath the sky darkening fast the power still out I heard her calling my name I watched her run to the back of the house I heard her calling my name I watched her spot some footsteps the tracks filling up in the snow I watched her run and run and run I heard her calling my name.
My mom sang in the church choir every Sunday for 40 years until the upper register of her voice starting giving out and then she just started singing a little softer in the pews and so sometimes while I’ll be taking care of her sitting next to her reading one of the celebrity magazine she subscribed to she’ll start singing Ave Maria or Gloria in excelsis Deo or On Eagle’s Wings singing every word and in between the words singing the music but her favorite was always classical music anything by Mozart which she always sang while we were growing up singing the Requiem while doing the laundry or the dishes and she’ll start singing part of the third movement with so much energy I’ll have to try and quiet her down but it will never work singing the low bass voices almost as a whisper and then the high sopranos Confutatis. Maledictis. Flammis acribus addictis. Voca me cum benedictis. Oro supplex et acclinis. Cor contritum quasi cinis. Gere curam mei finis. At the very end she’ll relax breathing hard and sweating and I’ll wipe a warm wash cloth over her forehead her cheeks warm and clammy Your Dad Your Dad she’ll say Is That The Garage Is He Home and I’ll just say Not Yet Mom and rub her arms down to her hands and she’ll start repeating I Never Should Have Let Him Do It I Never Should Have Let Him Do It.
Looking down I watched my mom small among the trees running erratically like tissue paper being blown running and slowing down crouching over making sure she was still following the tracks the snow still coming down filling every footstep still calling my name and I could see myself barely a breath in me the snow around me in a small circle absorbing the heat of my fever melting the disease within me the rash on my arm blossoming with all its branches thick and red Scarlet Fever’s ship navigating every corner of my body. I could see my mom lose her way she was close she stopped and looked for tracks but they were gone now the new snow covering everything she called my name over and over running in one direction before stopping and running in another until she stopped and fell to her knees grabbing at the snow. A single crow cawed again and again flying to different branches in different trees and she took a deep breath and looked out in front of her and saw something there saw a form in the flat snow. She put her coat on top of me scooped me up and walked me home.
Those Letters she’ll say Those Letters. For Years I’ll Cry In Bathrooms And At The Stove While Making Dinner Under Sheets And In My Dreams And Everywhere In Between and she’ll reach down to the bed and raise her empty hand Here she’ll say This Is The Only Letter I Saved The Only One and I’ll pluck the thin air taking the invisible letter putting it in my pocket. When my dad first got home from Vietnam he went through the house pulled up cushions and pulled out towels and sheets pulled the clothes from the closet pulled out every book every dish until he found the box and put the letters in a pot and took her outside said This Is Something You Gotta Do. My mom knew what he wanted lit a match and threw it in. He walked up and squirted lighter fluid on it fire shooting up nothing to stop it watched it burn. She cried and cried but he didn't even touch her just crouched down and watched the flames until he said That's Enough and took the hose and put out the fire and she’ll say I Remember How It Looked Small Pieces Of Paper Floating On Top Of The Water But It Was All Gone And We Never Talked About It Again Like Winter’s Silence About Summer.
I watched her carry me all the way home and up the porch and into the house and up the stairs to the bathroom running the water until it was just almost warm and submerging me her tears mixing with my bath watched my dad run up and say Jesus What The Hell Happened and my mom said Make Sure He Doesn’t Drown and called 911. Saw my dad grab me pull my soaking shirt off and put his hands under my shoulders in my armpits and hold my head above the water my heart rate slowed and slowed and my mom came back and paced in the bathroom it must have taken half an hour for the ambulance to arrive and I watched the paramedics run up the stairs watched them wrap me up and carry me down the rash exploding in every direction watched them load me into the ambulance place an oxygen mask on my face and start an IV.
I’ll be obsessed with cleaning when I’ll be taking care of my mom and as soon as she’ll fall asleep I’ll head to the kitchen making sure everything’ll be spotless scrubbing away a decade’s worth of oil stains from the stove cleaning the grout from the tiles I’ll sweep and vacuum and scrub and dust sometimes spending 3 or 4 hours thinking that life is dirty life needs attention our bodies are systems all relying on each other without the things we’re made of we’re nothing without the stuff we put inside us without it we melt out of ourselves I’ll try to believe we mean something life is exhausting and a good death is a long death without scalpels and tubes and gloved-hands on you so my mom will have a good death dying with my hand on hers.
The roads were all ice the snowplows didn’t even make it out and the ambulance wound its way through its own tracks back to the hospital skidding around corners never making it over 10 miles per hour my mom in the front seat looking into the back and up above the ambulance I watched the paramedic hold my wrist counting the slowing beats until they stopped and that’s when the beeping started and the flatline and he set his hands on my chest carefully making sure they were right where they needed to be pushing down putting his weight on me cracking my sternum and pushing again and again holding my head back and blowing into my lungs. I watched my mom there. She never cried. She looked on and put her hands together and said Oh God Oh God That’s My Son God 1 Mississippi 2 Mississippi 3 Mississippi Please God Please God 5 Mississippi 6. The ambulance made its way through intersections and stoplights and I watched my mom keep praying Hail Mary Full Of Grace 41 Mississippi 42 Mississippi 43 Holy Mary Mother Of God 48 Mississippi 49 Mississippi 50. And she pulled her hands tighter closed her eyes and started again Hail Mary Full Of Grace and I remember the sound the tires made over the ice I remember the chemical smell of the ambulance I remember the sudden beep of the machine come back and the steady rhythm return I remember opening my eyes and I remember the warmth retreating and the chills creep in from being back in my body and that aching pain set deep inside my bones.
That last week will be a hard week life slipping through the cracks she’ll stop eating or drinking different parts of her failing her skin will dry out and her lips will chap she’ll be in too much pain for me to move her so I’ll do the best I can to clean her rolling her on each side gently wiping her her skin darkening from the blood slowly pooling she won’t say much mumbling You’re A Good Son Good Sons Your Dad Your Dad and almost all day long I’ll just sit and watch her talk to her about her granddaughter tell her the stories I remember I’ll never have talked so much in my life but I’ll want her to keep some piece of the life she had here with her the time you took me to the symphony when I was 14 remember that 20 years after that I took you remember that driving 6 hours to see your favorite the only time you ever saw it remember that we barely made it and she’ll turn to me and put out her hand and say Good Son Good Son It’s Nice To Meet You.