Abby Mims | Longreads | January 2020 | 12 minutes (2,959 words)
The Sephora sales girl was in her early 20s. As she took off my makeup, I was marveling at hers, not to mention her flawless, creamy skin. Her smoky eye was perfect, all layers of dark blue, grey and black, a look that whenever I attempt it is a smeary, bruised-looking mess. Her eyebrows were expertly plucked and reinforced by a Kardashian-sized amount of brow pencil, creating arcs not found in nature. Glancing around, I saw that nearly all the salesgirls’ faces contained these same elements.
“I really need something for this situation,” I said to her, drawing a circle in the air to indicate everything between my 45-year-old chin and collarbone. “This is happening.”
“Oh, no, you look great!” she said, giggling. She was sweet, but when I turned my head, and caught my profile in the well-lit mirror, it was unmistakable. It was my grandmother’s neck, it was my mother’s neck, it was my neck. It was the beginnings of a wattle, and it was happening.
I had escaped to Sephora, which is housed in the same mall I’d haunted as a teenager, during a trip home to Portland last spring. I’m sure I arrived at the store looking a bit like a ghost myself — I was visiting from California with my 4-year-old son Jamie to help my stepfather, Jim, clean out the house where I grew up. My mother had been dead for five years, and Jim had moved in with his girlfriend, and while all the packing and sorting and moving in with girlfriends was entirely the natural course of things, I wasn’t prepared. I pictured the house preserved as it had been since my mom died, which was essentially as it was when she was alive. To his credit, Jim had tried to warn me, letting me know he’d been getting rid of things and making small improvements to the house for months, but I was stunned all the same.
When Jamie and I came through the front door, our footsteps echoed into the house’s emptiness. There was only a smattering of furniture left, and nearly everything was in boxes: there wasn’t a fork or wine opener in the kitchen, let alone the ancient bandaids or nearly empty shampoo bottles that had always lived in the far corners of the bathroom cupboards. The half-dozen or so Hindu-style altars my mother kept around the house were dismantled, and nearly all her beloved books had been packed up or given away. There were no family photos left on the walls, and the flickering electronic picture frames, the ones that I’d focused on during the four long years my mother was dying, were gone. I pictured them perfectly in my mind’s eye: alternating glimpses into my awkward teen years (spiral perms, stiff, hair-sprayed bangs, clear braces, skin a shade of orange only found in tanning beds, over-plucked eyebrows), my estranged sister’s wedding and my parents’ trip to India in 2008, six months before my 63-year-old mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. For now, the house will be rented out, but eventually, it will be sold. Hopefully, my husband and I will be able to buy it, but that transaction will be at some murky date in the future, if ever.
All of this was amplified by the fact that the room where Jamie and I slept was my old bedroom, and some modifications aside, the same room where my mother died. We slept there because that was the one room with a bed left in it, and it felt like a hassle to move it on top of everything else. Plus, strange as it may sound, the experience wasn’t morbid. This was in part because the room looked nothing like it had in either incarnation: the walls were a different color and it was nearly empty, aside from said bed, an old dresser, a lamp and a rolled-up area rug. Also, the room contained so much more love than sadness for me because, by the end, despite how much I loved and depended on my mother, all I wanted was for her to be free. My point of view was buoyed by the fact that she had spent her career in geriatric and hospice social work and studied Eastern religions for decades. This is to say that her views on dying were far more evolved than most: she simply viewed it as another phase of life. We were also able to give her the “good death” that she wanted — at home, on her own terms, surrounded by the people she loved. This didn’t mean she was entirely at peace about dying, or didn’t lament her impending death.
“I mean, we all die, but I don’t want to miss anything,” she often said.
Instead of the quintessential grief or sadness I had expected to feel sleeping in that room with my son, I experienced an alchemy of memories that drifted between my youthful existence and her dying process. It tended to happen in the half-sleep of early morning, as Jamie and I lay together in bed. Under a corner window, we’d listened to the caw of crows, the chatter of squirrels, and the tap-tap-tap of the occasional woodpecker – all sounds that brought back my childhood. As I looked up into the gray sky through a web of spruce branches, the window became something of a portal from the past to the present for me. I realized it is a window out of which my first love, Brian, escaped, mid-coitus, on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I was 17. My parents had come home hours early. It is the window that hosted the hummingbird feeders that captivated my mother’s attention in her final months. She would often lose her train of thought when birds alighted there, her face radiating joy when they lingered, seemingly soaking up their weight in sugar water. It is the window I looked out of during my teenage years and dreamed of being anywhere else. It is the window I looked out of with a similar desire in my mid-30s, when my mother’s diagnosis came back terminal and I was sure I could not exist in the world without her.