Category Archives: sickness

Pencils Down

I don’t remember much from the time my mother fell suddenly, gravely ill a few years ago. I don’t know if my brain, sensing imminent meltdown, scrapped the majority of the unpleasant details, or rather if the predictable monotony of tiled hospital hallways, harsh lights and rows of uncomfortable wooden chairs simply lent itself to melding events into one long, indistinguishable haze. Either way, the days did indeed bleed into what now seems a single, ageless track of sunlight from horizon to horizon. One of the few individual events I can recall is sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, feeling detached from everything around me, idly fingering random scraps of paper that my mother had allowed to accumulate on her “desk.” One piece lay separate from the rest–either from earning some elevated rank in the hierarchy of chores, or ostracized by the distasteful quality of its nature–its edges curling in as if to protect my mother’s perfect, swooping script. The note said, “Bleach tub handles.”

It struck me then–as it does again now as a friend’s father lay on an operating table, his life teetering on the edge of devastation–the potential absurdity of a final note such as that. There was my mother, mostly dead, struggling for what little life she had left in her body, and the final message she left to us all was that the fucking shower knobs had some mildew. While I can smile at it now, I can assure you at the time those words made me confused, angry, sad and horrified. But now, after having gained a bit of distance from the situation, I’m starting to think it wouldn’t have been such a final goodbye. For her, anyway.

We go through lives with the expectation of reaching very old age. We live our lives drowning in a sea of tomorrows, of laters, of getting-around-to-its. For those of us who will dodge sudden death, we will weave a tapestry of our existence for as long as we can, until someone comes along and says our work is nearly finished and soon it will be time to put it down forever. Once those words reach our ears, we’ll look back at the long, interlocking threads of our lives and begin to knot off the frayed edges. But for every one loose end secured, a thousand more will catch in the breeze, mocking our attempts to seize them. Reading all the classics, learning how to surf, eating escargot just once–those once trivial wishes, made monumental with the approaching end, will never come to fruition, and so our tapestry will remain ragged, undone. And the worst is, we will be fully aware of this. We will look at our amalgamation of lazy days (the very ones we are already apathetically conscious of) and wish to have filled them with greater things, thread-knotting things, tapestry-finishing things. We know this just as we know most of our little monkey brains will acknowledge the truth of this, and continue sleeping in, slacking off and ignoring the Jeopardy countdown song playing in the background. It is a disheartening thought.

In contrast, take my mother. Fine, talking one minute, on the floor the next. Her list of tomorrows was still–to her, anyway–full of potential, stretched interminably in front of her. Those damn shower handles would be tackled at some point, as well as all the other things she’d planned to do. Had she died then, she would have left her tapestry balled on the floor, frayed and unfinished, and she would have given exactly two shits. The rest of us would have stared at that stupid little piece of paper, trying to glean some sort of mystical, hidden message from its dearth of letters, but she would have slipped away thinking everything was still in place to be finished before the big finale. And that almost seems the kinder path, kinder, at least, than being handed a ticking alarm clock and sent away to do the best one can with the remaining hours.

After reading the note that day, I almost went into the bathroom to clean those knobs, to bleach the fuck out of them so when she got home it would be taken care of. I didn’t. A spell hung over that scrap of yellow paper with its official green lines and red margins. It felt in that moment that if I set screwdriver to those knobs, if I squirted one ounce of Tilex, the thread holding her to the planet would snap and that frayed remnant would be the one to finish off the raw edge left undone by that piece of paper. I put the note back on the table, just where I had found it, and went to go see if my dad needed anything. Spell or not, my mother did recover–against the most tremendous of odds–and those fucking knobs finally got their comeuppance.


To my dear, dear friend, I send out well-wishes and healing thoughts for your dad. May his tapestry continue to grow by yards and miles in the years to come.