I am my mother’s daughter. Our faces align themselves in the mirror of her bathroom. Our eyes large and blue-green. Hers are mostly green and mine are mostly blue. Our hands are making the same movements, applying dark mascara to the length of our eyelashes, our birthmarks brightening with concentration. Her lips are moving, and I am mesmerized. I’m not really listening. I’m following the sound of her voice and wondering if this is what I sound like to her. Our hair is brown; our skin is fair. She is much taller than I am, but if I wear heels it’s hard to tell us apart. The lines around her mouth and eyes are the only things that give us away.
I haven’t been home in years. I’m home now because my older sister is dead. My sister was killed in a car wreck. It wasn’t her fault. We are going to bury her in two days, on a Friday. Fridays are the worst days for burying. No one wants to be sad on a Friday. Mother says it doesn’t matter because we’ve been sad since Tuesday. Today is Wednesday. The house smells different without my sister here. There is an absence of vanilla and coconut. When we sing, as we always have when the silence is heavy, there is a deep alto that is missing. My mother’s eyes will turn gray soon. My father will come back from mowing the lawn and wonder why we are all sitting here, doing nothing. My father mows the lawn when he’s sad. I keep looking around the living room at my discarded family–my Uncle and Aunt down from the mountains of Tennessee, preaching about heaven, and how we’re all just thankful. I’m the only one that thinks Heaven doesn’t make this better. My cousins are wearing black, !
and they never really knew her and that’s why they are crying. My grandparents are holding hands; my younger sister is playing “Canon in D Minor.” I can’t stop watching my mother. I haven’t been home in years.
It’s later on Wednesday. My mother is starting to cook. Frantic cooking–fried squash, burnt okra, chicken salad, fried apple pies. I should probably ask her how she’s doing, but I grab a piece of fried squash off the plate and take a bite. Like I’ve always done. My mother is cooking to control something, the hunger in our bellies, the scent in our noses. Her hands aren’t shaking. She seems calm. I just watch her, waiting for her to burst out in tears. We’ve spent a long time waiting for my mother’s outbursts. My sister always knew what to say when they came. I always watched from a corner in the room. I don’t cry much because mother always did. I think she’s saying something now.
“Sweetie, will you stop staring at me please? If you’re going to sit in here at least make yourself useful. Grab the jar of strawberry jam from the pantry.” This is what she is saying as she points in random directions. I grab her the jar of jelly and set it on the kitchen counter. Growing up we were always arguing. I spent years slamming doors–the car door, the garage door, the front door, my bedroom door. My sister was always stepping between us. She was always stopping the fights. Mother used to tell me I was just like her, and I would tell her I am not like anybody. I am like myself. Now there is no one to stop the fights. So we don’t talk.
Tonight is the visitation. My father and my younger sister and my mother and I make our way to the funeral home. When we get there we walk together in a single file line. We stand for three hours beside my dead sister as strangers and people we know walk through the line to tell us how sorry they are for our loss. My mother weeps. They hug us all and shake our hands and tell us how wonderful she was. We know, I say. We know.
It’s Thursday. My extended family is still dropping by. They stay in intervals of three hours. They take turns holding my mother’s hand as she cries into their shoulders. I’ve been told that it will be ok. I can’t stay in the room with everyone crying, their tears making puddles on the hardwood floor. I spend my time in my old bedroom. It still looks the same. After all these years there are still two twin beds in the room my younger sister and I shared. The walls are still a light purple. Random posters from high school still decorate the walls. There is a picture of me and my dead sister. We are smiling. Someone keeps knocking on my door. I open it to find my mother standing with a photo album tucked beneath her arm. I don’t really want to reminisce with her, but I invite her in anyway. We sit on my bed and she starts to tell me stories, stories I know because they are mine too. “I wish we had let her have that pretty blue dress for her senior prom,” my mother whispers. “!
I hated that everyone always liked her more” I say to the wall. When we reach the last photo she finds my hand and squeezes it. I manage to smile up at her and wish that she would leave. She knows. She walks away. Everyone says they are worried about me because I haven’t been crying into tissue paper. I haven’t really been doing much of anything except watching everything unfold. I think I might cry when I hear my father in the kitchen, his voice breaking beneath the loss of his daughter. We are all sad, I think. I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My mother’s face looking back at me.
It’s now late Thursday night. My mother has made dinner, and we are eating at the kitchen table in sadness. My mother asks me how work is. If I’ve made any progress. If I’ve sold any houses. I tell her I wasn’t here to talk about work. She asks me how my boyfriend is doing. I remind her that I do not have a boyfriend anymore. She tells me how he was such a nice boy and how she hates that things didn’t work out with us. I tell her I am not here to talk about boys. We are quiet. I remember being in High School and how my mother would want to meet the boys that asked me out. They would come home with me, and we would have dinner, and she would ask them about school and sports. If she liked them I would dump them that night. I purposefully fell in love with boys she hated. I am 23 now and nothing much has changed. When dinner is over my younger sister and I quietly help my mother clean the dishes. My mother washes, I dry, and my younger sister puts the dishes away. My mother !
starts to sing a church hymn, “Trust and Obey.” We sing along, and it’s not enough to drown out her absence so we stop.
It is December. My sister has died in December. It is cold outside; our Christmas tree is still up, and my father has started a fire in the fireplace. It is still Thursday. We are watching the lights on the tree blink in and out, reds and greens, blues and gold. I turn the television on to a channel that is playing Christmas music. “Silent Night” is on.
“Do you think Christmas will be okay this year?” My mother asks.
“No.” I reply. Her face looks pale, and she looks older than she did this morning. I think about the years of opening presents together on Christmas morning. We always took turns. My mother would separate all the gifts into neat little piles, and my father would video tape us, making jokes as we opened a gift when it was our turn. I watch my mother staring into the fire.
“Yes.” I say. She doesn’t hear me. “Yes.” I say it louder this time.
“Yes? Yes what?” Mother asks.
“Yes, it will be ok.” I try to smile a little, and she is grateful for my effort.
It’s Friday. I‘m the only one awake. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning. I take a shower. I watch my younger sister sleeping and then I take another shower. I lay back in bed and stare at the ceiling. There are glow in the dark stars stuck on the ceiling. Our names spelled out in planets and moons. My sister helped me put them up years ago. I can’t go back to sleep. I put on my dress. It’s black, of course. I bought a hat to wear. It has lace on the front to cover up my eyes. I put on my black panty hose and my black Mary Jane’s. I walk into the kitchen to find my mother standing in the doorway in her black dress and her black panty hose and her black Mary Jane’s. We stare at each other for a long time. She looks as if she has been crying.
Everyone is up now. We are on our way to the funeral home. Today we will bury my sister. My family sits in the front row. My entire family. My Uncle, the minister, says some nice things about my sister. We listen to stories, all funny or happy or touching. Everyone misses her already. It has only been four days. It’s my turn to eulogize her. Mother wanted me to read a poem I had written. So I do. My voice is calm as I read.
Pressing ever so slightly to
Chopin and Debussy
You are the chord played defiantly
by piano-fingered girls. You are not to be
caressed, full of accidentals.
You are staccato, crescendo,
always rising, flowing
(though you shouldn’t)
You require grace
and patience. A fiery, stubborn
composer. You are composed,
written with ink,
played continuously by that one girl
with just enough talent and too much
heart. A song felt more than heard,
hidden beneath Vivaldi and Beethoven
and Bach and Mozart and some German-French
you are whispered.
When I am done the band plays an Irish Celtic version of Amazing Grace. The ushers carry my sister’s body out of the church and my family follows. We drive in silence on the way to the grave site, our hearts all beating to the memory of my dead sister’s voice. I lean against the window. “I miss her.” I whisper. My breath creates a circle of fog. I trace my name into the circle. When we get to the grave site my dad helps us out of the car. Everyone is standing around her casket except a few of us who sit in red velvet covered chairs as my Uncle reads “The Lord’s Prayer.” It starts to snow a little, small white flakes falling on the heads of mourners. We wrap our coats around us tighter. I lace my fingers with my younger sister, squeezing three times, our silent form of I love you. I turn to look at my mother as she leans her head into her hands. My father slowly runs his hand up and down her spine. She is falling apart. So am I. My Uncle finishes reading. Somewhere in the !
distance I hear a voice begin singing, “Lord be there for me when I fall, be there for me when I call, be there for me, dear Lord.” I listen closely and realize it is my own. This is a song we would sing together. I start to sing louder and another voice, so close to my own, sings with me. It is my mother, and she is singing my dead sister’s part, and our voices are blending together, trying to reach her one last time. I am crying now, loud painful sobs, my tears falling on my mother’s hand. We are wrapped into each other, and we can’t let go. The people around us continue to sing.
We each take turns dropping a rose on my sisters casket, and everyone starts to leave as they lower her into the ground. I walk up with my mother to lay down our roses. I am my mother’s daughter. Together we feel the crackling of snow underfoot.
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