Don’t cry before the ambulance comes. You will need to report the time of death to the hospice nurse on the phone. 10:15 a.m. The first nurse who came to install the bed for convalescent patients left one hour ago.
You hold more than one phone and at least two hearts. His body rests upstairs from the work it has done, completing the American dream. His body, from Spanish Town, Jamaica, lies still. His body, which you will later name “a vessel,” knowing that, to your mother, it is more.
The first EMT asks about symptoms. You don’t process the meaning of the question.
“Is anyone in the house experiencing a cough or shortness of breath?”
“No. He’s Stage 4 cancer, multiple myeloma. He had labored breathing but no cough.” The second EMT is a woman, shorter. They wear masks and are young, their bright eyes offset by vigilant motion.
You rattle off vital signs, medical terms you learned from your aunt last week. You are a witness to your life. You don’t get to be your body. You are reporting.
Hold your mother. She watches the bulky masked men leave with her lover’s body wrapped in a sheet. Her soul propels her toward the door as they exit. The pull of his spirit is still magnetic, but they’re moving in different directions. Her painful wail sounds rusty, bottomless. Hold your mother back. Hold her so close that you feel the echo of her cries rattling from her rib cage to yours. Do not cry.
Take your mother’s phone to speak to your aunt. She is not a nurse on this call, just a woman who has lost a brother. The man who swung a Heineken near his waist and reminisced about the island. He swore the mangoes were sweeter, and your aunt agreed; they’d launch into stories of picking up the fruits from the ground on the way to school.
Your aunt wants to speak to your mother, but your mother can’t speak, so you say you’ll do your best. You are a son doing his best. You are not your body.
“Auntie, he had a blank stare so I called 911. I tried to put the breathing tube in his nose.”
“Was he able to take a breath?”
“I can’t tell, Auntie, but I don’t think so. They said he’s in arrest.”
“Put your mom on the phone.”
The phone has changed hands twice. Grab an antiseptic wipe and smear the phone with pungent microbe killers. Spray the doorknobs as his children run inside the house weeping. Walk outside for long enough to breathe, but skip breaths.
Hold her so close that you feel the echo of her cries rattling from her rib cage to yours. Do not cry.
The news anchors say your grandmother is in the “vulnerable” group. You would never call your grandma vulnerable. When you found her five years ago, in her bed, near death, you thought the worst — until she fought back, ICU-bound, and death ran screaming. She saw death and simply refused. You must clean the counters and surfaces for your grandmother. They say a menace traveling by air might kill her. You know better, but also don’t know.
As family streams in and neighbors peer into the driveway, you must watch your mother. Everyone repeats this to you, because it’s what you need to know, but also what you don’t know. You must protect your grandmother. These women have spent so much of their lives, and their breaths, protecting you. You have your arms and an embrace that won’t work.
Listen to your grandmother. She has lived enough to feel the full weight of loss. You have not lived enough. She will lead your family through a crisis by assigning roles. You make some tea. You, go on and tidy downstairs. You — hold your mother.
A week later, at the funeral home, be patient. Your mother schedules a noon meeting with the director, who strolls in at 12:22. Minutes bloat triple their size during a pandemic. You want to ask her about her diamond-studded ring, her beveled platinum bracelet. Death is an American luxury good. She places a notice in front of you with bold red letters from the CDC.
“Be advised, due to Covid-19, our guests may allow NO MORE THAN 10 PEOPLE per service.”
As she unfurls her spiel, you simmer with questions. Across from his children, and next to your mother, you want them to know how unfair this is. How can we limit a funeral, his only one, to 10 attendees? The director raises her hand before you get the whole question out.
“It’s no one’s fault. Trust me, we don’t want this anymore than you do. It has definitely affected our business.”
You glance at the menu of caskets. The least pricey is a $2,000 wooden box; the poshest, a $13,000 coffin called “Mt. Olympus.” The director cares about her business. You want to see pictures, but she asks for time. What about the 22 silent minutes you just spent in the death house?
“I’ll walk you through our full selection in a moment in the showroom downstairs.”
You don’t want to go any lower, but you will. Be patient. Your mother’s face grimaces at your indignation. Compose yourself. You will not interrupt her grief with petty “foolishness,” as your stepfather would say. You wait. Before you leave, squeeze the hand sanitizer into your palms and rub hard. You will find no peace in placebos.
On the morning of the funeral, a Nissan Pathfinder rolls by the house as you watch from the kitchen table. The driver wears a mask and gloves. The mailman: same thing. This is how you will feel the vast spread of global grief. But you need to focus on your mother’s. You need to shrink your sorrow into a much smaller space so that others can mourn better. Your grandmother, holding her teacup, approaches the table.
“You know, Andrew, me think somebody let it out in the air.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s the only way it could spread so quick! And the people inside them houses feel scared! It’s affecting people’s mental health. That’s what they were saying on Dr. Oz.”
You see your grandma vulnerable, for the first time. She says people are scared. She refuses to say she is scared. Thank everything she is not sick and your presence stems her loneliness. She will not attend the funeral, because she wants to allow more of his immediate family members access.
You walk into the funeral holding your mother’s purse, because it’s unfair for her to hold more than she has. He rests in his expensive casket. You look at each of the 10 faces in the pews, offering a gentle frown. They are not practicing social distancing. You know that a funeral is the one place people need to touch. Squeeze hand sanitizer into your palms before you sit down.
When you sit down with your mother, disobey guidelines. Hold her. The pastor delivers the Lord’s Prayer in a mask. Although pews are sparse, grief has a way of filling the room. Grief makes space between echoes.
After you leave the parlor and cake your hands with more gel, you’ll feel some relief. Your mother can sleep knowing this part is over. Later that night, you’ll hear her weeping. Now that the neighbors are gone, the arrangements arranged, she weeps alone. Be sure to hold your mother.