by Cheryl Strayed
When my mother died, I stripped her naked. Plush round belly and her pale breasts rising above. Her arms were black-and-blue from all the needles going in. Needles with clear liquid and needles that only the nurses had a hold of and other needles gripping constantly into her, held tight with tape to the translucent skin of her hand or the silk skin of her wrist. And not one of those needles trying to save her. I picked her dead hand up. It did not want to be held. Her skin was dry and cracked and stabbed. When she died the nurse took the needle out forever. But I wanted it back, and eventually I would get it.
The day they told us my mother had cancer I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. My mother had sewn this outfit for me. I didn’t like such a themed look, but I wore it anyway, to the Mayo Clinic, as a penance, an offering, a talisman. We found a vacant wheelchair and I got into it and raced and spun down the hallway. Cancer, at this point, was something we did not have to take seriously. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine, beautiful, I would later think, alive. It was just the two of us, me and mother. There were others too, my stepfather working his job, wondering, my grandparents waiting by the phone, wanting to know if it was true, if perhaps the oncologist in Duluth had been mistaken after all. But now, as before, as it would always be, it was only me and my mother. In the elevator she sat in the wheelchair and reached out to tug at my pants. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers proprietarily. “Perfect,” she said.
I was twenty-two. I believed that if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. This was not so. My mother sat with her shirt off on top of a table with paper stretched over it. When she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. She wore a pale yellow smock with strings meant to be tied. I could see her soft back, the small shelf of flesh that curved down at her waist. The doctor said she’d be lucky if she lived a year. My mother blinked her wet eyes but did not cry. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. She’d asked the doctor if she could continue riding her horse. He then took a pencil in his hand and stood it upright on the edge of the sink and tapped it down on the surface hard. “This is your spine after radiation,” he said. “One jolt and your bones will crumble like a dry cracker.”
First we went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t say a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. I could feel her weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, standing side by side in the ladies’ room mirror.
We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat next to my mother in my green pantsuit. There was a big bald boy in an old man’s lap. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. “Do you think she has cancer?” my mother whispered loudly to me. There was a song coming quietly over the speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and sang them softly to herself. “Paper roses, paper roses, oh they’re only paper roses to me,” she sang. She put her hand on mine and said, “I used to listen to that song when I was young. It’s funny to think of that. To think about listening to the same song now. I would’ve never known.” My mother’s name was called then: her prescriptions were ready. “Go get them for me,” she said. “Tell them who you are. Tell them you’re my daughter.”
My mother said I could have her jewelry box. She said, “When I am done with it.” She was lying on the bed that my stepfather had made for her, for them, with branches twisting and arching up behind her, leaves and jumping bugs carved discreetly into them. There was a dancing pink girl who lived in the jewelry box. She stood and twirled around to the song that played when you wound it up and opened the box. The song changed as it slowed, became sorrowful and destitute. The girl tottered and then stopped as if it hurt her. She had lips the size of a pinhead painted red and a scratchy pink tutu. When we shut the box she went down into it, stiff as a board, bending at the feet. “I always wonder what the ballerina is thinking,” my mother said dreamily.
When my mother got cancer I’d folded my life down. I was a senior in college in Minneapolis, and I’d convinced my professors to allow me to be in class only two days each week. As soon as those days were over, I drove north to the house in rural Minnesota where I’d grown up, racing home, to my mother. I could not bear to be away from her. Plus, I was needed. My stepfather was with my mother when he could be, when he wasn’t working as a carpenter in an attempt to pay the bills. I cooked food that my mother tried to eat. She’d say: pork chops and stuffed green peppers, cherry cheesecake and chicken with rice, and then holler the recipes out to me from her bed. When I’d finished she’d sit like a prisoner staring down at her steaming plate. “It smells good,” she’d say. “I think I’ll be able to eat it later.” I scrubbed the floors. I took everything from the cupboards and put new paper down. My mother slept and moaned and counted and swallowed her pills, or on good days she sat in a chair and talked to me, she paged through books.
“Put these on for me.” My mother sat up and reached for a pair of socks. It had been only a few weeks since we’d learned of her cancer, but already she could not reach her own feet without great pain. I bent at her feet. She held the ball of socks in her hand. “Here,” she said. I had never put socks onto another person, and it was harder than you might think. They don’t slide over the skin. They go on crooked and you have to work to get them on right. I became frustrated with my mother, as if she were holding her foot in a way that made it impossible for me. She sat back with her body leaning on her hands on the bed, her eyes closed. I could hear her breathing deeply, slowly. “God dammit,” I said. “Help me.” My mother looked down at me, silently.
We didn’t know it then, but this would be the last time she was home. Her movements were slow and thick as she put her coat on, and she held onto the walls and edges of doors as she made her way out of the house. On the drive to the hospital in Duluth she looked out the window. She said, “Look at the snow there on those pines.” She told me to toot my horn when I went past Cindy’s house in Moose Lake. She said, “Be careful of the ice. “It’s black ice.” She held an old plastic milk jug with the top cut off so she could vomit into it during the drive. My mother put one hand up to her ribs, where the cancer lived, and pressed gently. “Wouldn’t that be something, to get into an accident now?”
Three years after my mother died I fell in love with a man who had electric blue hair. I’d gone to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend, seeking respite from the shambles my life had become. I had thought that by then I’d have recovered from the loss of my mother and also that the single act of her death would constitute the only loss. It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. I had recently separated from the husband I loved. My stepfather was no longer a father to me. I was alone in the world and acutely aware of that. I went to Portland for a break.
I’ll call the man with electric blue hair Joe. I met him on his twenty-fourth birthday in a bar called Dot’s. After the bar closed, I went to his apartment and drank sangria with him. In the morning he wanted to know if I’d like some heroin. He lived on a street called Mississippi, in North Portland. There was a whole gathering of people who’d rigged up apartments above what had once been a thriving Rexall drugstore. Within days I lived there with him. In the beginning, for about a week, we smoked it. We made smooth pipes out of aluminum foil and sucked the smoke of burning black tar heroin up into them. “This is called chasing the dragon!” Joe said, and clapped his hands. The first time I smoked heroin it was a hot sunny day in June. I got down on my knees in front of Joe, where he sat on the couch. “More,” I said, and laughed like a child. “More, more, more,” I chanted. I had never cared much for drugs. I’d experimented with each kind once or twice, and drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. Heroin was different. I loved it. It was the first thing that worked. It took away every scrap of hurt that I had inside of me. When I think of heroin now, it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely. A person I know I must live without.
The first time they offered my mother morphine, she said no. “Morphine is what they give to dying people,” she said. “Morphine means there’s no hope.”
We were in the hospital in Duluth. We could not get the pillows right. My mother cried in pain and frustration when the nurses came into the room. The doctor told her that she shouldn’t hold out any longer, that he had to give her morphine. He told her that she was actively dying. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed.
The nurses came one by one and gave her the morphine with a needle. Within a couple of weeks my mother was dead. In those weeks she couldn’t get enough of the drug. She wanted more morphine, more often. The nurses liked to give her as little as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. I held my closed book in my hand and watched him walk softly into the room in his padded white shoes. My mother asked him for more morphine. She asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his shoes and his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then. She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction, not down over the lush light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed.
I wanted it and I got it, and the more heroin we got, the stingier we became with it. Perhaps if we snorted it, we thought, we’d get higher on less. And then, of course, the needle. The hypodermic needle, I’d read, was the barrier that kept the masses from heroin. The opposite was true with me. I loved the clean smell of it, the tight clench around my arm, the stab of hurt, the dull badge of ache. It made me think of my mother. It made me think of her, and then that thought would go away into the loveliest bliss. A bliss I had not imagined.
There was a man named Santos whom we called when we wanted heroin. He would make us wait by the telephone for hours, and then he’d call and instruct us to meet him in the parking lot of a Safeway. I sat in the car while Joe took a short drive with Santos in his yellow pinto, and then Joe would calmly get back into the car with me and we’d go home. On some occasions we went to Santos’ house. Once he sat in his front window with a shotgun across his lap. Once he clutched my thigh when Joe left the room and told me that if I came to see him alone he’d give me heroin free. Another time he held his baby daughter, just a month old. I looked at her and smiled and told Santos how beautiful she was, and inside of me I felt the presence of my real life. The woman who I actually was. The kind of woman who knows the beauty of a baby, who will have a baby, who once was a baby.
The days of my mother’s death, the morphine days, and those that followed, the heroin days, lasted only weeks, months–but each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze. And unoccupied as well. Just me and my mother, or the ghost of her, though others surely came and went.
Some days flowers came to my mother’s hospital room, and I set them on the edges of tables and windowsills. Women came too. Women who volunteered for the hospital. Old Catholic women, with hair cut close to the scalp or woven into long braids and pinned to their heads. My mother greeted them as she did the flowers: impervious, unmoved, resolute.
The women thought it would be for the best when my mother died. They sat next to me on the vinyl furniture and told me in low tones about the deaths of their own mothers. Mothers who had died standing at kitchen sinks, in the back seats of cars, in beds lit with candles. And also about the ones who made it. The ones with the will to live. Of tumors vanishing and clean blood and opaque bones. People who fought it, who refused to die. The ones who went and then came back. The survivors. The heroes. The heroines. It would be for the best, they whispered, when it was over. Her life, that is. My mother’s.
People whom I knew came, and I did not recognize them at first. It seemed they all wore strange hats or other disguises during this time, though I’m certain that is not true. They were friends of my mother’s. They couldn’t bear to stay in the room, so instead they left chicken potpies and bread. Scalloped potatoes and blocks of cheddar cheese. By then my mother couldn’t eat half a banana. Couldn’t lick a lick of a Popsicle without retching it back up. They said her name to her, and she said their names back to them, hoarse and confused. She said, “How nice you came.” And she put a wan smile on her face. Her hair was flattened against her head, and I reached to smooth it into place.
I asked my mother if she would like for me to read to her. I had two books: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin and The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty. These were books we’d read before, books we’d loved. So I started in, but I could not go on. Each word I said erased itself in the air. It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I prayed to the whole wide universe and thought perhaps God would be in it. I prayed and I faltered. God, I realized, had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God would come later, perhaps, to help me bear it.
She taught me to knit, my mother, and I did this in the room while she slept and lived the last while. It occurred to me that she had taught me to knit for this particular occasion. So that I would have a place to put my hands and my eyes. “What are you making?” she asked.
“For who?” Her hand pinched the sheet that covered her
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m simply knitting a scarf.” The best part about knitting is the tapping, tapping, tapping of the needles. A sound so silent it is like the language of snakes or rabbits or deer.
Eventually the nurses and doctors stopped paying any mind to what my mother said or wanted. They looked to me to decide how much morphine to give her. They said I had a choice: she could be in great pain but fairly conscious, or she could be comfortable but higher than a kite, and usually passed out. Ultimately, it was not up to me. “Promise me one thing,” she said. My mother was not dramatic or concise in her dying. She hadn’t offered a single directive in the past days, and I was desperate for guidance. “That you won’t allow me to be in pain anymore. I’ve had too much pain.”
“Yes,” I said, “yes.”
There was using heroin and also not using it. In the mornings when I woke, groggy and drained, I’d stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself. I was shocked by my own life. This was not meant to be, I’d think in the mornings. Stop it, I said. No more. And then I would shower and dress and take a bus downtown to serve people coffee and pancakes. At two in the afternoon I’d take the bus home again with hopefully sixty bucks in my pocket for another score of heroin. This is how it went.
Joe waited for me to get home. He cooked me macaroni and cheese and called Santos. He pulled me into his bed and jumped up when the phone rang. I made him stick the needle into me the first time, and then he taught me how to do it myself. What I loved about Joe is that he didn’t love me, or himself. I loved that he would not only let me but help me destroy myself. I’d never shared that with another person. The dark glory of our united self-destruction had the force of something like love. I get to do this, I thought. I get to waste my life. I felt a terrible power within me. The power of controlling the uncontrollable. Oh, I thought, I get to be junk.
But this was not meant to be. My estranged husband, Paul, called me. He was in town and wanted to see me. The friend I’d come to visit in Portland had told him about Joe and about my using heroin, and in response he immediately drove from Minneapolis to Portland to talk to me. I met him within the hour at our friend’s house. He sat at the table in the kitchen with the branches of a fig tree tapping on the window nearby. He said, “You look, you look . . . different. You seem so, how can I say this–you seem like you aren’t here.” First he put his hands on mine, and we held onto one another, locked hand to hand. I couldn’t explain it to him, the why. And then we fought. He stood up and screamed at me so loudly that I put my hands over my head for cover. His arms gestured madly in the air, at nothing. He clawed at himself and ripped the shirt from his own back and threw it at me. He wanted me to go home with him in an hour. Not for a reunion but to get away, not from Joe but from heroin.
I told Paul I needed to think. I drove back to Joe’s apartment and sat in a lawn chair he kept on the sidewalk outside the building he lived in. Heroin made me dumb, or distant, rather. A thought would form and then evaporate. I couldn’t get a hold of my mind. I sat in the lawn chair on the sidewalk, and a man walked up to me and said his name was Tim. He took my hand and shook it and told me that I could trust him. He asked if I could give him three dollars for diapers, then if he could use my phone, and then if I had change for a five-dollar bill, and on and on in a series of twisting questions and sorry stories that confused and compelled me to stand and pull the last ten dollars I had out of my jeans pocket. He saw the money and took a knife out of his shirt. He held it gently to my chest and said, “Give me that money, sweetheart.”
I packed a few things and called Paul. When he pulled up to the corner where I was waiting, I got into his car. By sunset Portland was long gone. In Montana we checked into a motel to sleep. I held myself in bed, rocking with a headache, a sickness in my gut. Paul brought me water and chocolate and watched television. I sat in the car as we drove across the country, and I felt my real life present but unattainable, as if heroin had taken me entirely from myself. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our fighting. We were monstrous in our cruelty. We talked kindly afterward, shocked at ourselves and each other. We decided that we would get divorced. I hated him and I loved him. He had known my mother. I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter. “I didn’t ask you to come to Portland,” I screamed. “You came for your own reasons,” I said.
“Maybe,” he said.
“You love me that much?” I asked. “You came all this way to get me? Why?”
“Because,” he said. “Just because.”
I wanted my mother to love me, but more. I wanted her to prove it, to live, to be a heroine. To go to battle and to win. And if she was going to die, I wanted her to tell me, in the end, how I should live without her. Until that point I had wanted just the opposite. I could not bear for her to tell me what to do or how to live. I had wanted to be unknown by her, opaque to her wondering mother eyes.
The last days, my mother was not so much high as down under. When she woke, she’d say, “Oh, oh.” Or she’d let out a sad gulp of air. She’d look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she’d roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some applesauce. She’d say, “That horse darn near stepped on me,” and look around the room for it accusingly. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that would be could only be cooled by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, “Have I been the best daughter in the world?” She said yes, I had, of course. But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother’s mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.
I was ravenous for love.
One day a woman with a clipboard asked if I’d go with her to the cafeteria. She said that she wanted to talk to me about a donation my mother had made. Her name was Janet and she was dressed in a navy-colored shirt with little white fringes on each shoulder, as if she were the captain of something. Her fingernails were long and red and they clicked together when she moved her hands in certain ways.
When we sat down with two cups of coffee between us, she told me that my mother was an organ donor but that because she had cancer throughout her body they would only take her eyes.
“Well not the whole eye, of course, but parts of the organ.” Janet took her cup up into her hands; one fingernail tapped against it. “We make it a policy to inform people close to the donor. In your mother’s case, upon death, we will need to place ice on her eyes in order to preserve them.” She thought about this for a moment. “This way you will understand what is happening when you see that we must put the bags of ice on her face. The removal is performed within a few hours after her death.” Her fingernails went up to the sides of her face, hovering in midair. “Small incisions will be made at the side of each eye.” Janet showed me this, pointing with her own sharp nails. “The skin will be sutured carefully to disguise signs of this procedure.” She swallowed a sip of coffee and looked at me. “It does not preclude an open-casket viewing.”
I dreamed of heroin. I woke in the middle of the night with a wanting so deep I was breathless. I had started seeing a therapist to talk about heroin. She told me that this wanting was normal, that indeed when you use heroin the brain responds by activating pleasure neurons that would normally remain dormant. She said it would take months for them to calm. Until then, they go on aching to be fed. Trying to trick your body into it. I could see them, spindly arms with mouths like flowers, blooming or wilting and then blooming again. “What about pain?” I asked her. “Are there neurons in the brain that come alive only with agony? And if so, how long does it take for them to die, to fold back into themselves and float away?”
I saw Joe two more times. I’d kept in touch with him; calling him late at night from Minneapolis, against the advice of my friends. When we talked I could hear the heroin in his voice, making it soft and open. Within a month he was at my door, looking weak and pale. He sat on my couch and shot up and then lurched into my kitchen and bent to vomit into the sink. He wiped his face and smiled. “It’s worth it,” he said, “getting sick. Because you feel so good through it all.” We spent a week in my apartment using the supply of heroin he’d brought with him. I knew I had to end this, and finally I did. He left when I asked him to.
The second time I saw him, a year had passed and I was in Portland for reasons unrelated to him. I used with him without planning to, then woke the next morning full of remorse. We went to the beach for the day. He was no longer the smart, sexy, simpering man I’d fallen for, but a junkie. Joe had scabs on his skin from constant scratching; his bony arms were bruised and punctured. He didn’t care anymore what color his hair was. I sat on the cool sand watching the Pacific Ocean roar in while Joe locked himself in the public restroom to shoot up. I held myself stiff against the desire to join him. The ocean inched nearer and nearer to me with each passing minute. I was both sickened by Joe and compelled. I felt in the presence of a dying man, a young dying man, and I knew that I could never see him again if I wanted to live. And I did.
My mother didn’t have time to get skinny. Her death was a relentless onward march. The hero’s journey is one of return, but my mother’s was all forward motion. She was altered but still fleshy when she died, the body of a woman among the living. She had her hair too, brown and brittle and frayed from being in bed for weeks.
From the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window. The biggest lake in the world, and the coldest. To see it, I had to work. I pressed my face sideways, hard, against the glass, and I’d catch a slice of it going on forever into the horizon. “A room with a view!” my mother exclaimed. “All of my life I’ve waited for a room with a view.”
I arranged the flowers closer into my mother, to the edges of tables, so that she could see them without having to turn her head. Bouquets of pink carnations, yellow roses, daisies, and tiger lilies. Flowers that originated on other continents and were brought here to witness my mother’s dying. She wanted to die sitting up, so I took all the pillows I could get my hands on and made a backrest for her. I wanted to take my mother and prop her in a field of yarrow to die. I covered her with a quilt that I had brought from home, one she had sewn herself out of pieces of our old clothing. “Get that out of here,” she hissed savagely, and then kicked her legs like a swimmer to make it go away.
I watched my mother. It was March, and outside, the sun glinted off the sidewalks and the icy edges of the snow. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and the nurses brought my mother a square block of green Jell-O that sat quivering on the table beside her. It was the last full day of her life, and my mother did not sleep, she did not wake. She held her eyes still and open. They were the bluest thing in the room, perhaps in all of Duluth. Bluer than the lake. They were the color of the sky on the best day of your life.
My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air. She never once closed her eyes. First they were bitter and then they were bewildered and then they changed again to something else, to a state that I have had, finally, to see as heroic. Blue, blue eyes. Daggers of blue wanting and wanting. To stay, to stay.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. Strayed has written the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus since March 2010. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, her essays and stories have been published in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, THE BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and other anthologies. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon.