Image Credit: Uyamt’s Memo
In the weeks before you died, we caught flashes of blue outside your bedroom window. Jays appeared everywhere: in the woods behind the house, on the bluffs overlooking the bay, on the trail where I ran.
Black and grey compete for the palette, and dashes of white, like paint loosed from where it marked the highway’s dotted line.
The afternoon you died, I ran ahead of the thunderheads in the thick midsummer air. When I reached the part of the path that twists upward into the densest part of the tree line, the rain clattered behind me like a chase. I ran free of my body, but the rain caught up to envelop me. I couldn’t help my laughter. These are the trails behind my high school where the cross-country team would practice, not a place of magic. As I scuttled down the rocky switchbacks to where the mouth of the trail opens wide onto a meadow, two rainbows swiped overhead.
In those days I wanted to hold tight to every living thing. The day before you died, I brought you a sapling, a Japanese maple. You had always loved them, but that day it was my greatest desire to plant something that would last, and you agreed, to please me.
I held that living thing in the moments of your dying. Planted it in the center of the front yard to hide the hole the birdbath left.
You hated that birdbath, gaudy stone and wobbly, fashioned to look like a shell or a renaissance rendition of a wave. It didn’t fit our suburban yard. In its disarray, the yard had a touch of wildness. Every summer the fuchsia bush beside the front door filled with thorns, and wasps would tap and hum at the screen door.
Our kitchen was painted hospital white. When you and Dad moved in, the cabinets were made of knotted pine, but you wanted something more modern, something that would reflect light. You replaced the faucet with smooth chrome and laid down gray linoleum floors. The pots and pans we used were your wedding presents, the knives too. The house was updated in patchwork: first you painted the walls of the small downstairs bathroom, then you tore up the burnt-orange-and-umber family room rug. Nothing you could do about the wood paneling though—that stayed.
As soon as one project finished, another would sprout in its place. The driveway was cracked for ages, crabgrass and dandelions clattering through the gravel, and the front steps crumbled on one side. For a brief and certain amount of time, the projects would be finished: empty rooms finally filled with furniture, hardwood floors polished, new light bulbs in all the lamps. Then it was time to begin again.
But what else do I remember?
Sitting cross-legged on the family room floor the night you died, and writing in my journal: Mom died today. How strange.
One afternoon, driving home from my lunch-shift at the restaurant, I pulled to a halt at a stoplight. It was the one before the seaport, two blocks from the right-hand turn where the road met the water. Looking up at the stoplight, I felt an electric sense that the seat beside mine was occupied. It was my death sitting next to me: she’d been there my whole life, from the moment of my birth until this afternoon, and though I hadn’t noticed her until now, she would continue keeping me company. She would never abandon me; she was the only one I would never abandon. I found this comforting. As long as I lived, she would be there. It became simple, then. It was time for you to meet your death soon. You had been separated for a while, but now you would come back together. Your death would stop by and take you for a drive.
These sudden shifts in perspective occurred for a long time.
The moments I remember from that year are brilliant and painful and sharp, like a sea urchin or a cracked shell. I can’t help but think of that girl, myself at 22, and love her. She was wild.
I graduated college, took a new job in a new city, and moved into a moldy, crumbling house of my own. I biked to a plain brick building in a wealthy neighborhood to sit in a windowless room called my office. There was a PC and a blonde wood desk.
Late for work one morning, sifting through the contents of my bag, I closed the heavy wood front door on my foot. It tore the big toenail off. I screamed, then bandaged my toe and took the bus.
Sitting in that office was exciting at first. Look, this is my job. Look, here is my paycheck. I had dental insurance.
These days weren’t important to me at the time. I was drunk with transience and change, dug out by the massiveness of the summer (your illness, your decline, your passing) and believed these to be days like any other, that this was the stuff that life was made up of.
Also: I was often just drunk.
One night, I broke into condominium pool with a gang of my friends. The person I would sleep with boosted me over the fence. I vomited tequila over a toilet, burst the vessels inside both my eyes.
I sit here now—different job, different year, different city—in the quiet hours before the office fills with voices. The lights are dim but the sun is reflecting off of the buildings across Fifth Avenue. I’m thinking of you instead of the article I’m meant to edit, instead of the scheduled day ahead.
I’m still and blue and searching for images of sage on the computer. Some grows on the divider I cross over on my walk to the train and I want to know its name. Salvia azurea.
Azure blue. Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher, coined the term “salvia.” It means to “save.” The plant has healing properties.
I am thinking of healing now — how you didn’t. Or how, perhaps, you were doing it constantly, tilling like soil, your body decomposing with you still in it. When you were barely conscious because of the morphine, your doctor came to give her final diagnosis (her goodbye, a blessing) you tried to rouse yourself to greet her. She touched your arm to soothe you. Amelia, rest now, she said.
You were always trying to open what I could not. I was restless. While you were alive, I rebelled against your slow, careful attention. When I learned how to do this too, I unwittingly bloomed: dogwood white and electric shock of mint, split figs and the wood of walnut trees, bough after bough of peaches and apples. Now I try to fill everything up with it. I am searching for sage, again.
I want to tattoo its blue onto my body, but fear stops me. I’ve heard stories about people who grow allergic to their ink and are left with a wound on their skin, a lifelong rash. I don’t want that. The blue of your Mediterranean and the jays though, I do.
I think of you now as blue: as part of the sky, your molecules on the breeze. I know this doesn’t add up. Your body was never cremated. It sits in the mausoleum chapel by the highway, on the hill that will someday hold the four people I love most. You were first, but your father followed you. Someday my father will go there too, and my grandmother. Love, put away.
Where will my brother and I go?
When you were released, or when you let go, your skin grew yellow. Your fingertips, your face. I kissed your cheek, still soft and pillowy.
Is there anything to gain in remembering these details from the months around your death? How much have I been making up, how much have I been hiding? What I wish most is that you were still here for guidance. What should I do next? Where should I go?
When you died, I believed that my values had shifted forever. Never again would I worry about something inane. I would become kind, generous with my time. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity for love. Turns out it’s not that easy to be this way. I am a woman, still somewhat young, and drying up under the scorch and scorn of my own harsh standards, my impossible assessment.
Today, I passed a woman on the sidewalk who I’d seen two days prior. I felt, looking at her for the first time, that I knew what it was that I wanted.
Her hair was curly, and it trounced about her ears. She wore bangles on her wrists and hoops on her ears, large golden swoops in the nest of her hair. Her shoulders peeked out of her floral-woven top. She wore shorts, wedges that showed off her curved hips and thighs. There was something in the verve of her walk that left me transfixed. I didn’t want to stare, so I looked away while she passed.
Today was different. I don’t remember what she wore because we locked eyes—maybe she recognized me. When she walked by, I turned to watch her take a right onto Sixth Avenue. It was 9:30 am. Her gait is a piece of this puzzle, I am sure of it.
I read an interview with a woman, a poet, who works as a doula by day. “I was never meant to be solely a poet,” she says, or something to that extent. I grow lightheaded with relief. If both things are possible—to write and to care for other bodies with kindness—I would like to do it. To do it with fewer regrets about time I’ve deemed “unnecessary,” every hour inside a windowless room, being quiet; every hour I’ve spent delivering baskets of fries to rum-soaked tables, spilling the froth of an over-filled beer on my hands.
This holding of moments and questions, one after another, has become an oblong faith.
When I die, I want to be ashed, then tossed into the pulsing Atlantic. Bury part of me below a stone grave marker where grass can surround it. Wild sage, a little blue for you and me.
When I visited Dad at your house last weekend, I weeded your garden.
The sea grass was taller than I expected for June. The poppies looked sparse and meager, their blooms drooping. The lavender looked flush though, and the sage had reached up to touch the bird feeder.
While pulling a bundle of tall weed grass out by its roots, a thrumming began in my ears. I remembered your advice from when I was a child—I was so young I had never seen a wasp before. They’re not like flies or mosquitoes, you said, if you stay still, they won’t sting. They’ll leave you alone.
I did as I was told, and it worked for years. But this year was different. Too close to the nest, I was tearing out the grasses that served as the wasps’ protection. They began to swarm me. They stung my right ear over and over again. Six or seven stings and my ear swelled up like a starfruit, burning and filled with blood. I was surprised at how many years it took for me to get stung, surprised at how hot the stings felt on my skin.
Stung now, I want to sting. I am tired of distance, its blue.
Your sea grass and violets, the ocher buzz of bumblebees, lolling tongues of tiger lilies, poppies with rowdy orange heads and the pinkie toes of cherry blossoms—I want to pour this color over the wound, seed the whole front yard to garden. I’ll let it all grow wild.
I’ll root a whole orchard here, plow a field, plant a pumpkin patch like a riot.
One vine after the next. All of this goddamn life.
Marie Scarles is a poet, essayist, and editor based in Philadelphia. She is an MFA student in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden where she also works as a lecturer and interdisciplinary research fellow. Her writing appears in SIREN Journal, Yes Poetry,Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and elsewhere.