“See, I bet you didn’t even know there was a person in there.” said the pretty hair stylist, holding my newly shorn head and admiring her handiwork.
She was right. I’d let my hair and beard run wild in a state of distraction, and my personhood had been feeling debatable.
But thanks to this process of subtraction, a person had been added back into the world. Meanwhile, a slower form of subtraction was happening just down the road, at my grandfather’s house, where my mother was dying of cancer.
As I left the salon, I realized I could see the moon in the afternoon sky. It was close to being full.
When my mother got bone cancer, the first thing to be affected was her posture. Her newly hunched and wizened appearance made her seem gnomish and wise. She might as well have been handing out magic swords like The Old Man in The Legend of Zelda.
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”
“Haha Mom,” I’d think, “where’s the Triforce?” What kind of asshole laughs at his prematurely aged mother riddled with bone cancer? The kind of asshole who thinks his mother is going to survive that bone cancer.
As my mother got sicker, I kept thinking of the nanogene robots from Doctor Who that inhabit your body and rearrange you on a molecular level, discarding your illnesses like so much quantum effluvia, leaving you full of pep and vigor from your sub-atomic enema.
As the cancer worsened, her spine curved even deeper, until she looked like the witch that gave Snow White a poison apple. But lacking a Snow White to feed, the apple fed on her instead.
My mother was an animal hoarder. She hoarded dogs, cats, goats, rabbits, and birds. She gave them Western-themed names, like Cheyenne the dog, Sierra Snow the horse, Lucifer the goat, and Cherokee Moon the horse. We were one feral barn cat named Jane Seymour away from an all-hoarded-animal production of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
My mother was also obsessed with land. Owning it, keeping it, shaping it to her will. More than the pain of dying, she hated to be bent herself, her own body the land on which an equally stubborn cancer was exerting its will.
She once told me, “If it all goes down, don’t bother trying to find me, I’ll be living in the woods.” “It” being the total collapse of civilization. Nothing would have pleased my mother more than shedding the burden of having to participate in modern society.
It’s not that she hated the world, it’s just that she preferred to dig deep into her land, her eight acres of woods and fields with the fences she’d erected by herself around pastures of horses and dogs, keeping the world at bay while allowing her to hold on to whatever would love her back, discarding the things that did not love her like so much quantum effluvia.
When I was a little kid, my mother used to say, “If the boogeyman knocks on the door while I’m gone, don’t let him in.” She’d laugh every time she said it, but it didn’t stop me from spending most of my early childhood standing guard by the front door while my mother blithely showered or ran errands.
My mother wasn’t laughing now. Whenever I took her hand, she’d look up at me and say, “Y’all are going to let me die in this bed.”
“Nooo,” I’d say, lying through my teeth. “No way. Nobody is dying…in this bed.”
As though she were an astronaut halfway out the airlock, and all that we, the titular y’all, had to do was just pull a switch and the void of space would be closed off forever, never to threaten her again with its terrible emptiness.
Nobody…is going out this airlock.
Then I’d turn up the volume on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is all she was interested in watching now that she was dying. I didn’t blame her. Captain Picard would never let her die in that bed.
There was no husband or boyfriend to sit at her bedside; she’d given up on men when she divorced my stepfather. My biological father had been a piece of tattooed poetry-writing Myrtle Beach trash, as soulful and contradictory as an airbrushed Star Trek: The Next Generation Spring Break T-shirt, a keg-standing Captain Picard on the front saying, “I’ll never let you die in this bed.”
Night after night, my mother left me voicemails, calling my name in hoarse, pained yelps. Listening to them was unbearable. I was an incompetent Wesley Crusher playing The Legend of Zelda on the holodeck as the crew begged me for help, begged me to not let them die in this bed.
I sat beside my mother’s bed as she knitted me potholders. Her hands shook too much to get the thread through the needle, so she held up the loose thread for me to do it. The only sound was the rhythmic hiss of the oxygen machine.
Oxygen went out, I threaded the needle. Oxygen went in, my mother knitted. That’s the moment I hold on to now that she is gone. I don’t even own any pots or pans. I barely own any forks. I do all my fork business with spoons.
I walked outside to take a call. The midday moon was in the sky again.
I looked through her truck for things to save before we sold it. I found a stack of business cards for a horse training company she was going to start called Rainbow Gaits. “Natural Horsemanship Club,” it said. “For the Whole Horse Experience. Books/Mags/VHS library available.”
Oh, Mom. VHS library?!
I kept the Rainbow Gaits business cards in my wallet, and as she got closer to death, I pulled them out and looked at them often, tracing the little horseshoes around the logo with my fingers.
My mother died quietly, in that bed, on a day when the full moon could be seen in the afternoon sky. Even though I kept up my end of the bargain by waiting on the boogeyman to knock, he slipped in through the door of the moon instead.
My mother didn’t have a lot of last requests, but she insisted that she not be buried underground. Her ashes were spread over the dirt and grass of the field in front of her house. By this process of addition, a person was subtracted from the world.
I still have the business cards for the The Rainbow Gaits Natural Horsemanship Club and VHS horse tape library. I have enough to last me the rest of my life.
So whenever I feel like I need to dig deep to hold on to the things that love me back, I can pull a card out of my wallet, trace the little horseshoes around the logo with my fingers, and remind myself:
It’s dangerous to go alone.