Julie’s Mother Died
by Naomi Goldner
Julie’s mother died. She got the call while in line to board the plane to say her last goodbyes three thousand miles away from where she now calls home despite the fog and people that don’t take the time to dress like they mean it.
She had hoped that at least for this last trip Daniel would join her even though he couldn’t stand Marilyn, maybe he would leave his cells at the lab with his five student assistants and give her mother some respect on her way out of this world.
“Just drop it, Julie, I’m not going, stop whining for God’s sake! Let things happen as they should. Be a big girl.” Daniel was reading in bed with the side lamp on, his round glasses sitting on the edge of his nose, curls falling stubbornly on his forehead. He lifted his gaze up for a moment, to look at Julie; he imagined her face was frowned and her eyes red, from crying hysterically for two days since her last attempt to talk to her mother. He thought to break down and reveal his sly plan and tell her, but luckily it was only her back that met his gaze; sitting on the edge of the bed in her creamy-green sweater, the one with the big brown buttons in front. He thought of touching her shoulder gently, or maybe just patting her back to get her to lighten up, but he couldn’t.
“She’s dying, Daniel, you’ll never see her again.” Her voice quieted down to a whisper. “I need you there with me.”
During her last visit, just a couple of weeks back, when they didn’t know that her mother’s cancer had traveled to her brain, Julie slept upstairs in the guestroom, to be closer, to hear her mother breathing and be there to get her a glass of water at night. There was a new sort of stillness in the air, a heavy knotted stillness, different from the stillness of her childhood, when it was quiet because that’s how mommy liked it to be, so she could sit in the living room with company, or relax her stockinged feet up on the ottoman reading the latest work of the latest writer after a long day of teaching little children how to read and write and spell and subtract and multiply. That was a different stillness back then, the kind where the phone would ring and pleasantly startle her mother just as she was getting into the scene, or listening to her neighbor reveal a painful memory that won’t let her move on. She would think of letting the machine pick up, but her curiosity would win after the third ring, when she would excuse herself and quickly place her feet on the fuzzy off-white rug and run to the phone barely catching her breath.
She didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t answer.
“Dad, is that you?”
“She didn’t make it, baby, she couldn’t wait for you, she–”
“Dad? What? Where are you, what happened?” She stood in place, her bag at her feet as the line detoured around her, people pushing gently to get on board.
“She died, Jule, mommy died. She was asleep, Nora and I were right there with her, she was calm. I promise, Julie, she was ready to go.”
Julie almost believed the fish dream that her mother’s live-in caretaker had the night of her arrival during that visit last month; in the dream, Julie had come down to breakfast wearing a black shirt and went straight to the fridge to take out a plate that had three fish on it.
“I never dream of fish ‘less there is pregnancy,” Angela promised, looking Julie directly in the eye, Julie shying away to pick at the loose thread on the hem of her shirt. “Every time a lady in the family has a baby comin’, the fish swim in my dreams one way or another.”
Julie laughed and lifted her head up to see Angela look more serious than before, her black eyes staring just slightly above her head, as if someone were standing there behind her.
“Can I pray for you girl?”
Angela asked her to lie down on the couch and get comfortable, to close her eyes and imagine her body filled with light all around, and that her stomach had a rainbow going into it, a rainbow of light. Julie cringed at the thought of Daniel seeing her like this, her thin ballerina body flat on the beige suede couch, her hands at her sides, and this big black woman hovered over her, mumbling Jesus’ name in between deep breaths, armpits sweating right above Julie’s nose. She thought she might tell him, the fish dream and all, just in case he would find it funny and they could lighten things up a bit together being so far apart. But he never called her that night, and by the next, she had decided to more easily forget.
M for Marilyn
They had been trying now for exactly one year. Every month her bright red blood began to trickle into a flood on the right day, leaving her empty and sad and angry. There was something in that rhythm that used to comfort her, she would feel part of something larger, connected, she tried to explain this to Daniel when this feeling began to turn into a deep hatred to all that lived in this world, every month.
Her body had betrayed her month after month, her false symptoms revealing themselves as little devils––the fatigue, the nausea, the tender breasts. Marilyn’s soft voice would try to comfort her over the phone, it had taken her and daddy a year, at least, it takes time, she would say, over and over again, give it time, the stress will only make it take longer.
“I know, mommy, it’s just so hard to deal with this all the time.” She was sitting cross-legged in her baggy jeans, cat purring in her lap, stroking the space between her ears, round and round with one finger in a figure eight.
“What about Daniel? Is he making you feel special enough through all of this?” Marilyn was happy that money wouldn’t be an issue for her daughter as long as she stayed married to him, but many nights found her lying awake at night worried that her little girl wasn’t loved enough.
“Oh, whatever. You know Daniel. He believes in tough love, he always has.” Julie began to feel the dark place inside her swell up. “He’s fine, but he can’t stand to see me like this every month.”
Daniel didn’t really believe that Marilyn was sick. He didn’t deny the cancer, he just thought she was exaggerating, as always. He himself had never met a woman so full of energy and life, and he hated her for it, hated her for always being in his face, for having so much to say about everything when they would talk around an overflowing table, about anything that would come up. She even had a point to make about his work in the lab, and how it was important in many ways, but that he couldn’t expect to figure the whole world out by peering into a microscope all day long. Life happens out in the world, Daniel, she had said after Julie had broken down and cried about him never coming home in time for dinner. Daniel dismissed Marilyn with a waive of his hand, and laughing, raised his glass toward Marvin, who hadn’t bothered trying to slip a word in all evening.
What she didn’t tell her mother every month: I want to have this baby for you. Before you die. I don’t want to have to name my child after you. I want you to be there when I scream from pain, to hold my hand when I push with all my might. I don’t want the baby to only have one grandmother, to only know you from photos in the album, from stories I will tell, from the lullabies I will pass on from you every night. I want you to be happy, mommy, this will make you the happiest woman on earth, we can go shopping for tiny outfits, we can decorate the room with star stencils and mobiles. I don’t want to find a name that starts with M, mommy, this baby needs to come before you go.
Nora couldn’t care less. She was the first born, thick body, brown hair, nothing like Julie who had come out so small they called her a quarter-pounder throughout most of her childhood. Nora was away, far away, making money working around the clock in her tailored suits conquering the world one ad at a time. She could care less about babies and lovers and marriage and a home–– she traveled so much for work that she often forgot which key opened her front door this time, to this high rise condo or that industrial loft that some designer had turned into a magazine spread. Nora called her parents on the same day and at the same time every month, because otherwise she would never get around to it. This was after her mother’s diagnosis. Before that, Thanksgiving dinner was her check-in point, with one reminder call to Marilyn a week before to get the veggie version of the turkey for her, and to please not make a fuss about it at the dinner table again.
She knew Julie must be trying to get pregnant, it was in the storyline of her fairy tale, but first she needed to actually have sex with her husband, Nora would tease Julie in her mind; Daniel was a good looking man, indeed, but she could simply not imagine him in a heated passion no matter how hard she tried. And she preferred not to try too hard.
Nora never thought her mother would really die; knowing she existed in the world was a pillar for her in her wanderings. Everybody gets cancer nowadays, she reassured herself whenever the fear crept into her body, from the feet up. If anyone can be a survivor, she knew it would be her mother.
Marvin pulled the blanket tight around Marilyn’s neck, throwing his head back to stare at the ceiling for several long moments. Deep breath, swallow hard, wait until the sun goes down, they need you to be strong, then it will be okay, when you are alone at night, in the bed all by yourself, in the vast loneliness of the dark, then no one will hear you, then it will be the right time.
Her delicate features blended together, eyelids resting quietly, shut. Marvin stroked her skin with the back of his finger, feeling the coolness of her face, the life now gone from her body for just under an hour. He was here now to say goodbye, he had words chasing around in his head, memories flashing around the room and disappearing, in vivid colors––the morning she had come back from the doctor and wouldn’t speak a word, her face stiff with disgust and disbelief, the long nestled nights dampening his shirt with the tears of her sleep, her tired posture working hard in the bright kitchen where for the past two years she had taught him a dish a day, preparing him for the rest of his life without her. How she always held the juice glasses up to the sun-lit window after taking them out of the dishwasher and before placing them in perfect rows behind the glass in the kitchen cupboard, how she only chewed on the left side, with her mouth always sealed tight, her lips slightly curved upwards, but not hinting a smile.
With her love, Marvin felt like he could be anything he wanted to be, as long as he let her decide the big things, and he was happy like that, never complaining, ready to move when the house was too small after Julie was born, ready to move when it was too big and lonely as the nest was left behind. He had said enough to last him a lifetime before he met Marilyn––this was his usual reply to Daniel’s constant vocal observations of how Marilyn seems to never shut up.
“Let them talk, Daniel, it keeps the air clean, helps them feel heard. Us, we don’t have to say what we think to make it true. Men are more confident, Daniel, you should know this better than anyone.” Marvin liked Daniel, he believed that he could make Julie happy, and he was smart, with that there was no arguing.
“Dad, I’m about to board the plane, what should I do?” Julie was talking louder than necessary, a woman in front of her in line turned around, appalled. Her father’s words were not finding their way into her; she was at once devastated and relieved yet unsure what happens next or where she was going from here. The rush to see her mother froze still around her body. She should call Daniel, she needs to tell him.
“Excuse me, Miss––”
“Dad, where’s Nora, can I talk to her?” Julie stuck her finger in her other ear to block out the noise of the airport, the screaming baby in his father’s arms, the flights being announced over and over, the low hum of wheels on runways and engines warming up.
A tap on her shoulder made her swirl around to face a lipsticked and mascaraed flight attendant with an apologetic smile on her face. “Excuse me, Miss, but I have to ask you to step aside from the line.”
Julie dropped her arm, covering the phone with the fabric of her pants, pressing it firmly into her leg, grinding her teeth, her lips pursed, staring directly into the flight attendant’s black pupils.
“Miss? You’re blocking the way, and we ask that you finish your conversation before––”
Julie’s knees melted under her, her head swirled, flashing patterns of stars before her eyes. She dropped the phone on the gray carpeted floor and collapsed, sobbing loudly, her head nestled into her bag, arms at the sides of her head-–she didn’t make it, she couldn’t say goodbye, it was too late, she lost her mommy, she was gone.
Julie felt the flight attendant’s firm hand on her back, moving up and down with her heavy breaths, trying to shush her, to tell her everything was okay; she heard noise and talking and people swerving uneasily around, but she couldn’t stop, didn’t want to stop, didn’t care what happened next.
“What happened?” Daniel’s voice startled her.
Daniel picked the phone up off of the floor and squatted next to Julie, placing his hand on the back at her neck, his eyes searching around for an answer. The flight attendant shrugged and shook her head slowly “I don’t know, I just asked her to move aside, she was on her phone––”
“Hello?” Daniel pressed the phone against his ear, “Hello?”
“Daniel––is that you? Is Julie okay? I thought you weren’t coming up with her.”
Daniel’s heart sank hearing Marvin’s choppy voice, he could sense the tone, he’d heard it before, he could always tell the truth when he heard it, when the time was right for it, when the facts met up with the theory, when there was proof, a statement that could be backed up. A dead body is as true as you can get.
“Yeah, Marvin, of course it’s me,” he stood up, turning his back to Julie, “I’m here with Julie, at the airport, I wanted to surprise her.”
Daniel felt deflated. He had planned it meticulously, spent over an hour on the phone with the airline to arrange for a seat next to Julie, to get the time off from the lab and prepare everything to be covered while he was gone. He had had to torment Julie for days when she just wouldn’t stop asking him to come with her, he had to calm all that bubbling inside and be careful not to uncover his secret ––all this to see her face when he boarded the plane after her, to see her reading the in-flight magazine, hoping that nobody coming up the aisle would sit next to her, at least not any heavy breathing fat man that would want to talk to her for five and half hours. Daniel lived for these moments, when he would break long stretches of disappointment and longing with his cleverness, when he could finally expose himself to her, with all his love and honesty, his honest attempts to make her happy. She wouldn’t look up from her magazine until he was seated comfortably, when she would smell his familiar scent and move her gaze just slightly to see the pattern of his shirt- the one she bought him for his birthday two years ago that everyone always complimented him on. She would gasp and jump up in her seat, throwing herself at him, thin arms around his neck. I knew you were scheming something - you sneaky boy! she would whisper in his ear, and then she would rest her head on his shoulder, firmly holding his hand as the plane took off on the runway.
“Daniel, Marilyn died. Can I talk to her again? Is she okay? Thank God you‘re with her.” Marvin sat down on the chair by the phone, across from the big hospital window, the bright sun illuminating the valleys and creeks in Marilyn’s forehead and at the corners of her eyes. Nora gently placed her hands on her father’s shoulders, her mother’s last words ringing in her ears from a few days back, ringing loud in her ears, to please take care of her little sister, please.
“Julie’s fine, she’s with me, we’re about to board the plane, we’ll see you when we get there.” Daniel shoved the phone in his jacket pocket and lifted Julie up, picking up her bag and walking slowly to the gate. As they approached the ticket stand, handing off their boarding passes to an over-smiley man, Daniel leaned over, whispering in his ear, “Her mother died, that’s all, she’ll be alright, sorry about the fuss.”
On board, Julie held Daniel’s hand tightly, closing her eyes and melting into the seat. She touched her belly, under her navel, feeling the warmth of her body, and she remembered Angela and the fish, the rainbow light and the praying; she wondered if Angela had shared the dream with her mother before she died––perhaps one morning after bathing her and dressing her, after changing the stained sheets while humming through her lips, maybe as she brushed her thinning hair, or while rubbing her frail feet with vanilla lotion––Julie could see Marilyn’s face light up at once, a slight smirk on her lips, as Angela described to her the fish on the plate and what it all meant, the strong conviction in her voice promising Marilyn that her daughter was going to have a baby.