They cut into the ocean in a perfectly perpendicular line. Their color changes depending on how much of the rock is submerged in water in low or high tides and how much sunlight reflects on their smooth surface, but it is always a version of black. They disappear when the moon brings the ocean far inland. In low tides more of them appear, covered in green moss that dries quickly in the summer sun. No one knows how much more is underground, perhaps a whole mountain, and that unknown brings me back to nursing the thought of my mother dying. I think of the underground mountain, how it expands towards the center of the earth, how it pushes deep into the waves towards the horizon, and I wonder if she even died.
It happened two decades ago. My father told me on the phone that Sunday that my mother kind of left. This is exactly how he described it, she left. He told me that he was getting ready for the Sunday early morning mass when my mother came back from the bathroom and went back to bed. She watched my father putting on his button-down shirt and with great excitement announced that she absolutely loved the flower pattern. My father paused because the shirt he was putting on was blue, plain blue. My mother marveled over the flower design, describing some of the flowers, including roses, and then announced with amusement that the flowers started moving—growing and blooming right there on my father’s shirt. In that moment my father knew that he would have to miss the Sunday mass. He sat on the bed next to my mother and they talked about the flowers on his shirt. My mother’s face betrayed nothing but the utmost delight. She touched my father’s arms and chest, all the places where the flowers were blooming. Soon, the flowers escaped my father’s shirt and spilled over the bed, covering the comforter and pillows. My mother’s eyes traced what was happening with happiness of a child. When she asked my father how it was possible, he thought she was asking about the flowers, but she wasn’t. She was asking how it was possible to see this much beauty at once. After flowers came people. She looked around the bedroom and asked my father who were all these people in the room, and he told her—with all the reason in the voice he could muster—that they came to visit because they loved her. She looked at the people she saw, at the flowers she saw, and then she looked at my father, straight into his eyes, and said: “Jurek, I am dying,” and she closed her eyes.
My mother lived with stage four cancer for five years and then she left. That Sunday, my sister also called me (before I called my dad and heard his story) with the devastating news, but she didn’t say that our mother left. She said that mom died. She said it from the car her entire family was in—her husband, her almost four-year-old daughter, and her newborn son, who was in her arms crying for ten hours—driving from Grevenbroich, Germany to Gościcino, Poland. My sister couldn’t tell why she was crying. She couldn’t tell which of her tears were for our mom, which were for her son, and which were for all of them cramped in the small space of the car.
More than 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far and most of them have died alone. The lucky ones had a good Samaritan nurse to hold their hand or their phone for them to see the faces of their loved ones for the last time. Does anyone know how to say goodbye forever in FaceTime? Many died when no one was with them. What were they thinking in those last moments? How could you abandon me like this God, in the Gethsemane Garden where I waited for you to lift me. You promised if I followed you would be there. You promised to hear me when I called your name. Where are you now? We have only three more car payments to go. She looked lovely in that summer dress. My first grandson is graduating from college next week. We will take that trip again, along cornfields and sunflower farms, along the high wall of rock that chips into nets suspended in the air. The years ahead of us. This is what we worked for—to hold each other, remember and to pass on. How is it possible for life to contract to the size of a marble, all days squeezed into a drop of glass with all the people we love, all the days and years of longing and waiting for the good days to finally come.
Those who stood in their living rooms, kitchens, hunched above bathroom sinks, crying helplessly. I may not deserve your mercy, but mom did. How could you do this to us? Because who else can be blamed if not God? You need to blame someone to believe that something could have been done against the randomness of life. How many died like this? How many names vanished but didn’t have to. What is the number? Seven? Ten thousand? Thirty thousand? If we’d known earlier. If we’d prepared faster. If we’d listened to those who died before us. If someone had told us.
The last time I saw my mother was two years before she left. She and my father came from Poland for a visit as long as their visas allowed, three months, June—July—August of 1997. My son was three years old, and those three months with his grandmother would have to last him a lifetime. He didn’t know, but my mother didn’t leave his side for those three months. She held him when they played games, during car rides, when he was asleep. My mother inhaled my son’s scent, his long blond hair, his hands, his feet. She blew raspberries on his back and belly after baths, and they called it little trumpets. She wanted to absorb him the way one absorbs the scent of the ocean when after years it becomes an integral part of your being, the way it stays in your hair and under your finger nails, the way it enters your breath. She wanted him to remember her—the way her voice sounded when she sang to him in Polish about żabki i biedronki, frogs and ladybugs, the way her hands felt when she caressed his small body, the way her eyes carried his steps effortlessly with magic, the way her back felt when she became a horse and carried him throughout the living room on all fours.
My sister took pictures of my mother in her coffin, of the funeral, of my father’s face devastated by grief, eyes hollowed and empty, not seeing anything anymore, suspended between what he witnessed in her last moments but couldn’t believe because who would, no one in their right mind. He refused to call it hallucinations, he needed more than that. This is what love is. You die with your soulmate. First you give them everything you have to keep them afloat, but when all is lost, you agree to whatever makes them feel still alive. You eat the same food of chicken breast boiled in water and nonfat yogurt for years, because your soulmate’s liver is compromised and that’s all they can eat. You carry them in your arms, their weight reminds you of birds and why they can fly. You kiss their face and their feet, and you tell them how beautiful they are, and that every day is a miracle because it holds their past and no one can ever take it away.
I couldn’t attend the funeral because my green card didn’t arrive on time. I had already been waiting almost three years, calling the INS with my case number every three months to no avail. The automated recording was pushing my appointment date farther and farther into the future. First, they lost this paper, then they lost that paper, then my fingerprints disappeared. Going to Poland before receiving a green card would require a new visa and a three-year mandatory wait before coming back to the States. One of us, my son’s father or I would have to agree to not seeing our son for three years. Neither of us wanted to miss those three years of his young life. I pleaded with my immigration lawyer as if he had the power to change the broken law. Appealing to his humanity, to the feelings he had for his parents and children, to fairness, meant nothing. What was broken was broken and that was the end of the story.
My sister took dozens of photographs with her Zenit camera—for me to see what it was, how it happened, what it means when a mother dies—of all the people, family, friends and neighbors, their hands busied with handkerchiefs, rosaries, and the constant touching of arms. Her newborn still crying. At the wake, everyone in black above white tablecloths, plates with silver rims, scattered forks and spoons, crystal glasses and faces with uneven make-up, mascara smudges, and lips parted in something that tries to remember and celebrate my mother’s life but finds it impossible, the grief is too heavy, she was too young. Our father dying inside with each minute a bit more, folding into his memories, longing for silence and for everyone to go away and leave him alone. He needed to think about the flowers my mother saw. He needed to repeat the memory to remember, because unreal things disappear faster than the ones everyone knows from experience. My mother, a little bird in a coffin, reposed in her favorite outfit—ivory silk blouse under a coral skirt suit with fabric covered buttons. She loved that color.
I imagine the funeral using my sister’s words. Her words are my sustenance, my rock.
I have been turning them around and around in my memory for the past two decades like a little glass marble because that’s all I have—her words. The photographs she took never arrived (incidentally, the negatives also vanished). No one knows what happened. Somewhere between Germany and the States they disappeared. They evaporated, dissolved in thin air above the Atlantic, or maybe they were buried deep in the ground under a mountain that stretches far into the horizon and to the center of the earth. The hands, the handkerchiefs, the faces, my father’s black shirt with no flowers, and my sister’s baby crying. All images vanished.
I am fortunate to be able to say that none of my friends or family have died of the virus, but when I reach the black rocks on my walks, when I stand there thinking about how much of the rock is below the sea level, I think of those who died, and of how much will never be discovered. Did they see blooming flowers on their nurse’s scrubs? Did roses open for them and spill on their beds? The same unknown that makes me nurse the thought of my mother’s death, makes me think of the loneliness of everyone who died of the virus. Their loved ones will carry the same wound I carry in my heart. For decades, for the rest of their lives they will be imagining the last moments of the ones who left them. Sometimes they will have an angel who will tell them, he wanted you to know, his last words before intubation were, but for many there will be nothing but the agonizing unknowing filled with guilt. No amount of explanation and reasoning will heal the wound. Some days the one left will think for a second that it was all an identity mistake, and their loved one will walk through the door any minute. It will take them two years, maybe three before they will stop running to the phone, before they will remember that the person calling is someone else. Some will remember the phone other ways—the last place, the portal, the image on a glass.
Maybe she is still alive and I just don’t know? I question my mother’s death and I know that my questioning belongs to the same strange place as the flowers she saw on my father’s blue shirt. I think of all the stories I tell myself—all the stories we all tell ourselves to keep our loved ones alive, all the stories we tell ourselves to keep our loved ones dead. The difference is blurred for me. I haven’t been able to tell the difference for the past two decades, and I can’t imagine anything changing for as long as I live. I am in the purgatory of my thoughts, undecided, suspended between what I know, what I believe, what I want to be true. In every death I hear about my mother comes back. She is leaving and leaving and dying and dying. I can’t touch her. I can’t be there. I can’t be sure she even left.