When I got the MetLife Total Control Account checkbook with my share of the life insurance proceeds after my mother’s death, I spent a long time looking at it, with its light yellow cover, the white rays of the sun going off the edges, Delivering the Promise nestled in the corner. I also spent a long time looking at the figure on top of its first column: $61,093.46 – the largest amount of money I’d ever had. I was unsure what to think of it, what it represented, and what, practically, to do with it. I felt odd about the money, as if it had a strange smell.
It reminded me of when I was ten, planting bulbs with my mom in the front yard of our house in the California mountains. We used a small brown bag of bone meal as fertilizer, scooping out the white powder into the sandy holes before we carefully planted the daffodil, grape hyacinth, crocus, and tulip bulbs. I remember the dusty smell of bone, the queasy feeling I got as I scooped the powder in, wondering what kind of bones had been ground to make this fertilizer – human? animal? cow? dog? I longed for the rush of bright red and orange and yellow flowers the next spring, but at the same time I was terrified of this bone meal.
Over the course of that morning, though, the smell started growing on me. I sat on the sandy bank, breathing in the dry mountain air, the sun stretching up over the pines and into the sky above us, and I watched my mom work methodically on the bulbs: dig, scoop, place, bury. Dig, scoop, place, bury. I copied her motions, happy to be working with her. As I scooped, I began breathing deeply from the bag of earthy bone powder, desirous of it, attracted to it, almost giddy about its nexus of life and death.
The money felt like that: gruesome, earthy, seductive. I stared at the checkbook like I breathed in that bone meal. The sun on the checkbook cover felt like the sun that morning, the sun that warmed our backs, glinted off my mom’s blondish brown hair, spread off to the edges of my vision.
My mother was a mathematician. She loved numbers – talking about numbers, drawing numbers, thinking about numbers. She tried to get me interested in numbers, too, but they always eluded me. I was more interested in reading books than in calculating distances or sums, more interested in daydreaming and making up stories. She’d write out equations on napkins when I asked her about something – to help me solve a word problem, say, or work out a practical issue of distance or time or even recipe amounts. Her eyes would shine with excitement, but I never completely understood why. She’d help me with my algebra homework, my geometry, my pre-calculus, and my slow mind always got stuck on the x’s and y’s, the charts and diagrams, the theorems and postulates, the equations like sentences in a remote, foreign language that represented things that didn’t exist.
On the other hand, my mother never understood the study of literature, or even the value of reading itself.
“I always disliked English,” she told me once, when I announced that I was going to major in English in college. “We read Hamlet, and then we’d have an essay assignment asking us to write about what the play meant, and I never understood that. What does it mean? And then how were those essays graded? There was never a right or a wrong, never a true black-and-white answer to anything. It was just how we felt, or what we thought – never what was true.”
I tried to tell her I loved that about reading and literature – loved not having a right or wrong answer, loved that things were always ambiguous, that words and stories and people could have multiple meanings, that interpretation could be as important as the text itself. But she didn’t understand, would never understand. She humored me, teased me, called me her “poet,” jokingly said that some day I would write the great American novel. But we always had this divide, this fundamental difference between us, between her numbers and my words, between her love of certainty and my addiction to ambiguity, between her desires for me and mine for her. We spoke different languages, and I wanted so much to understand her, for her to understand me. I wanted to love numbers as much as she did, wanted so much to understand those equations and show her that my mind could handle the rigors of math. But I always felt that I had failed her. I was, as she told me sometimes, “flaky” – which in her mind seemed to mean I wasn’t hard, rigorous, scientific, or even especially smart. And much of the time, that’s how I felt. My mother had a fast, brilliant, impatient mind, and I tried to keep up with it, tried to be the daughter she wanted, but the fact remained that I wasn’t a mathematician.
I read – first horse books, then Heidi, and later Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Eliot. I read obsessively, furtively, as if I was having an affair. I read with a flashlight under my covers after I’d gone to bed. I read in the car on our long commute down from the mountains to school in the desert. I read in the library after school waiting for my parents to get off work. I lived in these books, but I was ashamed of them, hid them from my mother, even lied when I had to.
“I’m going for a hike,” I’d say at home on a Saturday morning, and my mom would nod in approval. Hiking was good – vigorous, active. I didn’t tell her that I had a book in my backpack, and as soon as I got around the bend in the trail I’d sit on the layer of pine needles on the ground, my back up against a granite boulder, and start to read.
The week before she died, I visited my parents with my family. My mom was propped up in bed, with her oxygen tubes. I spent time in her room with my children, eight-year-old William and six-year-old Rose, and my husband, Todd – doing word puzzles, looking at pictures, watching L.A. Angels baseball games.
“They’re doing pretty good this season,” my mom said. She showed me her notebook where she kept records of the team’s stats, wins and losses, batting averages, match-ups. “I catch most of their games on Channel 6 out of L.A.”
It perhaps would have seemed incongruous to an outsider – my pale, emphysemic mother in her thin blue nightgown propped up on a hospital bed watching baseball – but she loved sports, loved watching and listening to baseball, and at one time was the star of her high school basketball team. She especially liked sports stats – for the opportunity they gave her to record, track, and follow the numbers related to a team. These numbers were real to her, and she craved them for the same reason she craved temperatures and weather facts, and for the same reason she kept detailed records of the times and amounts of her oxygen treatments. Numbers felt real and solid to her, a way of recording and making sense out of her world.
Near the end of her life, my mom became more reliant on numbers, and in a small, spiral-bound notebook she devotedly recorded the times of moonrises and sunsets, of waking and sleeping, of nightmares, oxygen treatments, and phone calls. She kept lists of basketball and baseball stats, outside and inside temperatures, amounts of medicine, interest rates, stock prices, and account values. My mom had always liked accumulating money, keeping tabs on accounts, watching the work of compound interest, thrilling at the way the numbers multiplied, grew and changed. She had filing cabinets devoted to her accounts, and she prided herself not simply on an ability to save and invest money, but to keep track of it. She didn’t enjoy spending money nearly so much as she loved having it. Money was a goal in itself, something quantifiable, predictable, reliable.
On my last visit with her, when we were alone, my mom brought up the life insurance.
“You’ll get a few thousand dollars when I die,” she said, her voice raspy, lilting.
“Don’t talk about that, mom,” I said, at once scared and impatient. “You’re still alive – think about the things you need.”
“No, really,” she said. “There’s that money – don’t forget about it. You can use it for a down payment on a new house, or whatever you want.”
I looked at her pale blue eyes, her wrinkled face, the faint smile on her dry lips, the thin, clear oxygen tubes trailing from her nose down over the carpeted floor to a large metal tank. My mom, the woman I’d loved my whole life, the woman I was still reliant on, wrapped up with, in awe of. She was nothing like she was, everything like she was, there in the bed, in her blue nightgown with moons and stars. I could hardly speak. I felt ashamed, needy. I looked away, and then back at her, and her eyes stayed hard on mine. Seconds ticked by before I spoke.
“Thanks, mom. We won’t forget it. But let’s talk about something else.”
I didn’t want to hear about the life insurance, didn’t want to spend time talking about it, didn’t want to have this conversation. But she continued.
“There’s an 800 number, and an identification number, in the information I sent you,” she persisted.
“I know, mom. I know. I remember.” The numbers, the amounts, the facts, began spinning in my head, and all I could do was touch her hand. “It’s OK,” I said, my voice cracking, dry. “Everything’s going to be OK.”
A few days later, after we had returned home to Ohio, my mother died, only hours after slipping into a coma. I got a call from my sister, a shaky voice mail.
“Vivian, mom’s failing,” she said, her voice sounding weak. “You might want to call her to say goodbye.”
I’d been expecting it for years, thought I had prepared for it, but the message surprised me in its intensity, in its rawness. When I called my parents, my mother was already in a coma, no longer speaking. My father put the phone up to her ear, and, feeling numb, stupid, slow, I tried to speak to her.
“I love you, mom,” I said. “If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.” Why did I say that? What could I do? How could she let me know? Even as I said it, I was reprimanding myself, telling myself to say something better, more meaningful. She’s dying, I told myself. But I couldn’t think of anything else to say. There was silence on the other end, just her rough breathing, and then my father in the background: Donna, it’s your daughter, Vivian. Vivian Audrey Wagner. Say something, Donna. But she didn’t. And I didn’t. My mind had slowed to a near stop, focused only on her breathing on the other end, the insistent voice of my father, the light hum of the phone line beneath it all. “Bye, mom,” I said. Just like that. And then I hung up.
My sister made plans to fly down that night, but I decided to wait until morning, to see how things progressed. That night, I slept only fitfully, lying on the living room sofa, watching the wind blow the pine branches back and forth by the window and the stars glittering through the branches, listening to the soft whispers and flutters of birds and crickets and moths. Waiting. Watching. Listening.
My father called a little after 7 a.m. the next morning to tell me she had died.
It took a day to make the plans, pack the bags, arrange for the kids to go to Cleveland with their other grandma and grandpa. A day of logistics and shock. I sat there that morning, with a cup of coffee, looking out the window at the sun on the leaves of the tree in the front yard. I thought, she’s in that light. It was all I could think, looking at its unbearable brightness. She’s there. Maybe I needed to think that, needed to feel her close. I felt her body, her spirit, there in the light, one with the light, shaping itself to the light. And her spirit. I watched it flickering, waving back and forth from leaf to leaf, feeling alarmed, comforted, entranced. I kept watching it as I sipped my bitter coffee, unable to cry, unable to think, unable to do anything but be there for a moment, preparing to go back home. Preparing to bury my mother.
When we finally got back to my parents’ small town in the desert and checked ourselves into the Heritage Inn, my husband and I were exhausted. I lay on the hotel bed, looking up at the stuccoed ceiling, avoiding, at first, calling my father. Still avoiding putting the stamp of the real on it. As long as we were in the hotel, it didn’t feel quite real. When we drove over to my parents’ house, now my father’s house, he had gone out somewhere.
“Where did he go?” I asked Ann.
“I don’t know – out somewhere to get something.”
He might have been avoiding confronting me, putting off this meeting because, like me, he feared it would suddenly make everything too real. But finally, a few minutes later he came through the door looking harried, smaller, not quite himself. He gave my great aunt Edith a hug, and looked long at her face, turned, looked briefly at Todd and then straight at me, his dark eyes cloudy, hard to read.
“It was natural,” he said. “It was painless.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, didn’t know what to say. I think I nodded. I think I looked down. “OK,” I probably said.
That was it.
I spent those several days with funeral preparations, with ordering flowers and having coffee at Starbucks with my sister, practicing violin with her so we could play during the service, trying to make the several days as bearable as possible. During the days, I felt in control, organized where my father was disorganized, able to function where he was not. I spent the nights, though, awake, in the hotel bed, crying, sobbing, holding my pillow, hugging my husband, trying to understand the gap that had now opened up. One night I started crying so hard that I began hyperventilating, bent over toward the foot of the bed. Even after taking a Xanax I calmed down enough only to lay my head on the pillow and look at the floral pattern on the curtains. Following the brown and blue and green lines as they wound up to the ceiling, and then back down again, waiting for the rush of air to come when the air conditioner kicked on, to stop when it stopped. A sleepless stupor. A waiting.
The next morning, we buried my mother in a natural finish pine casket that my father and sister had ordered over the Internet, lined with padded ivory colored silk, a pine bough and pine cone printed on the underside of the lid. I loved that casket, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it since her death. Thinking about her in it, about it there, buried below the surface of the dry desert.
“Mom always said she wanted to be buried in a plain pine box,” my sister had said, as we discussed the funeral arrangements the evening I arrived. She and my father had already ordered it online before I’d gotten there. The casket had taken a day to be delivered from L.A. to my mom’s funeral home. The funeral director, perhaps miffed that we hadn’t bought a casket there, told us the next morning that sometimes caskets ordered over the Internet “aren’t exactly everything you want them to be.”
But when this one arrived and we went to the funeral home to look at it, I knew it was, and that my mom would have liked it.
We buried my mom on a clear, dry, breezy day. Just a few people at the cemetery under a flapping tent provided by the funeral home. A few words. Some music. Some silence. A bouquet of purple and white wildflowers strewn on top of her casket. Then it finished. The casket lowered into the ground. I watched, I cried, I hugged my sister and father. Shook hands with my parents’ friends. Went back to the car. We left that day, driving through the desert to Las Vegas, where our plane would leave late that night. On the way, a smattering of desert rain began hitting our rental car, and then a blue and gold and purple transparent, barely-there rainbow arced across the desert, its feet planted in the brown sagebrush-covered hills on each side of the highway.
I have a box of things from the funeral – the programs we printed out at the hotel computer with the help of a young clerk behind the counter, the photo I used for the obituary, the envelope with her death certificate. I hadn’t opened that box since I packed it. We moved into a new house only a few weeks after my mom died, and many of my things were still in boxes.
One night, I finally opened up the box with the things from the funeral, and it was like opening up an e-mail, a letter, a package. As I opened it, I found myself unable to leave it, to look away. As long as I hadn’t opened that box, I could believe on some level that all of this hadn’t happened. But now I was going through the box of things, looking longingly at the snapshot of my mother grinning in the mountains taken sometime around 1976, and I couldn’t do anything but sit, cross-legged on the carpet of my office, for hours, crying, wiping my tears away, crying some more. Finally, I just finally lay down and gazed up at the ceiling. I had not been prepared for the length of this grief, the depth of it, the confusing turns it would take, the fact that it simply would not go away. I was not prepared for how much I would miss my mom. For how much I would want to e-mail her, to pick up the phone and talk with her. I wanted to talk with her about this grief. I wanted to talk with her about her own death. I wanted to call her and say, Isn’t it strange that you were talking about all of that just a few days before you died? And I could hear her saying, Don’t be silly. I just wanted you to be prepared. I didn’t know it was going to happen so soon.
In my mom’s absence, I began to pay more attention to numbers, trying to understand them, trying to keep up with their speed and simplicity, trying to appreciate their beauty, perhaps trying to find her in them. I started, like my mom, to watch the Weather Channel, following the white temperature numbers on the blue background along the bottom of the screen, the rising and falling, the sunrise and sunset times. Numbers suddenly seemed to be everywhere: on the computer, on the TV, in my gradebook, in magazines and newspapers. Seductive, beautiful, meaningful, they danced through and around my daily routine.
And I also had this money. The life insurance. The value of my mom’s life, split between me and my sister, a payment for her death, presumably a summation of her worth. This money felt dirty, tainted, cruel – blood money – and it didn’t sum her up. It didn’t equal her life. She was worth more than that, wasn’t she? More than $61,093.46? What about her hair, glinting in the mountain sun while we gardened, how much was that worth? What about her wry, sarcastic laugh, her quick mind, her wit? What about her last e-mail? What about the e-mails – how many? – that would never come? How much were they worth? I couldn’t fathom her worth, couldn’t equate her life with numbers.
Gradually I began to realize, though, that perhaps I could. She loved numbers, and maybe they represented her as well as anything. She must have known I’d have this checkbook (there’s an 800 number, and an identification number), that I’d be looking at it. She must have seen that fear and longing in me as I stood by her bed that last time. I found myself looking at the checkbook, feeling its sums, seeing the curving of its numbers. I began to covet it, her final gift.
The checkbook came with a handbook about money and grief – bulleted lists about things to do (keep careful records, take care of myself, give myself time to grieve) and things not to do (don’t make rash decisions, don’t invest the money quickly somewhere else, don’t be taken in by scams).
Yet all too quickly the money began to slip away, disappearing, like my mom’s life itself. I felt like a spendthrift, both with the money and with my mom, unable to hold onto them, to keep them safe, to spend them wisely. I got over the initial impulse to keep the money forever, holding onto it like I held onto the pictures and letters I had from her, realizing the practical benefit that such money could have. Within days of receiving it, the account opened like a flooded dam, spilling into the plain of my neediness. In that first year I spent about $20,000 of it on various bills – $5,900 to pay off our minivan, $10,000 on repairs and renovations for our new house, $4,000 to pay off a credit card.
I began to feel like I felt after my first semester in college twenty years before, going over my expenditures with my mom, balancing my checkbook. By December of my freshman year, I had spent almost $700 of my parents’ money on frivolous things, things I didn’t need, and she had been angry and frustrated with me. Why did you need to buy snacks at the grocery store? She had asked. You have your meals at the dorms! And I couldn’t say, couldn’t quite remember why I’d needed those raspberries and Doritos, why I’d taken those runs to Trader Joe’s when I had all the food I needed in the dining hall.
As we worked our way through check after check, sum after sum, we eventually got to a trip I’d made to a nursery, where I’d bought petunias, window boxes, potting soil. In all, I had spent $67 on gardening supplies and plants for my dorm room. My mother looked at me exasperatedly. What were you thinking? I saw in her eyes. And I said nothing, just looked down at the table, the checkbook, the calculator. I tried to think of something to say that could stand up to the stark truth of those numbers, something to defend my fuzzy math, my clear financial misstep, but all I could think about was how lonely I had been that semester in the dorm, how much I’d missed my mom and her garden, and how lovely those deep purple petunias had looked in the late afternoon light.
Vivian Wagner teaches journalism and directs the journalism program at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. Her articles and essays have appeared in American Profile, Arizona Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, The Pinch, and many other publications. One of her essays was shortlisted in Best American Essays 2007. Her book, Fiddle: One Woman’s Search for Tunes, Grit, and Authenticity, is forthcoming from Citadel Press/Kensington. She maintains several blogs, including The Next Journalism and the New Concord Journal. For more information about her and links to her work, visit www.vivianwagner.net.