by D. Dina Friedman
As my mother lay dying, we sat around her bed listening to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto on a no-name discount CD.
“Look, she likes the music!” Aunt Elissa gushed. And sure enough, something in my mother’s body had loosened—a small slackening in the muscles of her mouth, which continued to draw a rattled, but rhythmic and regular breath, like the pulse of counterpoint fueling Bach’s twisted knot of repeating melodies.
For some reason, I thought of the Brandenburg Gate. And Berlin. I’d never been there. German travel and products were still verboten in our family’s behavioral codes. It was one of my mother’s strongest admonitions—a matter of respect for those victims of our faith who didn’t have the luxury of dying in a bed accompanied by Bach.
“Could we please turn that off!” Jon made no attempt to clamp down the teenage petulance. He was the classical snob among us, having just started college at San Francisco Conservatory.
“It’s her music, not yours,” I chided him, though gently. “When you’re dying, you can give me your playlist.”
“Mom, no offense, but I hope you die first. You’re supposed to, anyway.”
“I want to go out with Handel,” Aunt Elissa lilted. “The water music.” I wasn’t clear whether Aunt Elissa was humming the water music, or the Brandenburg Concerto, or something else, but I thought it was something else. “Last month I went to an all-Handel concert at Carnegie Hall. It was marvelous. They had a choir. They were marvelous. When are you going to play at Carnegie Hall, Jon? I want to sit in the front row.”
“You need to make your grandma proud. She told me it was her dream to see you at Carnegie Hall.”
“Well, that’s obviously not going to happen tonight.” Jon’s voice was matter-of-fact, with only subtle overtones of minor key, but his pinched face had that familiar, don’t-patronize-me pout, not as endearing as it had been when he was younger, especially with a couple of days of blond stubble.
The bad Bach was too fast and too fluty with a squeaky shrillness that was getting inside my skin in the worst of ways. Aunt Elissa continued to hum off-key, and Jon and I exchanged a virtual eye-roll from the secret society of perfect pitch. If my mother had been conscious, she’d have been humming, too. Also off-key, but in a different key, clashing with Aunt Elissa the way they’d always clashed. When a few hours before she’d lost consciousness, I’d told my mother Aunt Elissa was coming, her mouth strained before she whispered a single word—“no.”
“She’s your sister.” I’d laughed at her newly found directness. We weren’t the type of family who said no. But as the flute faded into harpsichord, I realized that “no” had been my mother’s last spoken word and thought about how unfair it was that you couldn’t choose your own music, or your own sister, or the absence of music and sisters. A few weeks before giving birth, I’d made myself a play list filled with songs of powerful women ranging from Janis Joplin to Patti Smith. When I was in labor and my ex-husband suggested putting on the music, I screamed at him, the thought as appealing as a plate of spoiled cheese. Maybe I shouldn’t have called Aunt Elissa. Maybe having her sister at her death was as dreadful a proposition for her as it was for me to think about having my mother at my son’s birth. She hadn’t been subtle in hinting at an invitation, but when labor time came, I didn’t call. I didn’t even let her know until after Jon was born. Withholding information was a repeated motif in our dance around each other: her ask for intimacy, my pushback.
One of the hospice volunteers, a heavy-set older woman with cat glasses, poked her head in the door. “Do you want coffee? You can watch TV in the living room,” she said to Jon, mistaking him as many people do for a much younger teen. Youthfulness ran in the family. Before she got sick, my mother also looked far younger with her long skirts and flowing gray hair. She blended in beautifully with the Santa Cruz hippies who’d made a weekly habit of gathering every Saturday morning to protest whatever war was happening or threatening to happen. Even Aunt Elissa with her 40’s hairdo and red-lipstick still looked like a much younger babe.
“Can I play my violin?” Jon asked.
“Jon, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. People…”
“It’s fine,” the volunteer interrupted. “Just play softly. I’ll close the door.”
I guess it’s not like he’ll wake the dead, I thought, and winced at my own black humor.
Jon unzipped the violin case and I took my mother’s hand. When was the last time before this week that I’d held her hand? Crossing some street? I remembered her yanking me out of the way of a yellow cab barreling down at us. We were jaywalking, taking advantage of a gap in the Fifth Avenue traffic on the way to the zoo. Was it the owl exhibit that time, or the bears? My mother had always loved the zoo, and when Jon was little she took him there every time we came east to visit. He was afraid to tell her how much he hated seeing animals in cages, having intrinsically learned from me the need to tiptoe our secret lives below her radar. I was always vague on the details of my work, which sometimes included litigating for banks or insurance companies, and I was glad that Jon and I had a different relationship. He’d never been afraid to speak out on something that bothered him. When he was in middle school, he took down the flypaper one day, claiming that flies’ lives were equivalent to our own. I wasn’t happy, but I learned to live with the summer infestation, only going after them with a swatter when he wasn’t around.
After putting rosin on the bow, Jon flipped off the boom box with a satisfied thwack and launched into the slow movement of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto. He still played too heavy on the vibrato, “wah-wahing,” as we music parents used to say when we gave our armchair critiques of each other’s children. His face scrunched as he drew the bow across the strings, but my mother’s face shed another layer. Something about it reminded me of a dandelion going from yellow to white. What was left of her frail body—the irony of a death sentence being the only way to finally lose the weight you’ve wanted to lose for years—sank deeper into the pillows, which puffed up around her like clouds. Aunt Elissa continued to sing, though it was obvious she didn’t know what note was coming next.
Jon glimmered the ending note. Then he loosened the bow, placed the violin in its case and zipped it up.
“When I go, I want you to play that for me,” I said.
“Don’t be morbid, Mom.”
Aunt Elissa made a move for the boom box. “Please…” Jon caught her arm. “Just quiet.”
So Aunt Elissa chattered about her three children and six grandchildren and their schools and report cards and jobs and a host of other details I couldn’t keep straight. My mother began to rattle more loudly, as if something had caught in her throat.
“Hey, Aunt Elissa,” it was still hard for me to remember to call her by her new name, “Let’s get some of that coffee.”
In the kitchen, I could hear a clash of music and television from the various rooms. So much for closed doors. Aunt Elissa opened the refrigerator to search for the cream. “Your son’s a lovely human being,” she said. “You raised him right.”
“Thanks. He’s a good kid.” We hadn’t seen Aunt Elissa often since my mother had moved west to be near us after retiring from teaching. Before that it had been a big part of our eastward journeys to watch the two sisters squabbling. “That’s why I had only you,” my mother told me more than once. “So you wouldn’t have a sister like Edith who made you miserable.” I didn’t believe her for a second. More likely my lack of siblings had to do with her marriage falling apart a few years after I was born, just like mine did shortly after Jon. It was a family trait, the inability to bond with more than one person at a time. I’d gone from my mother, to my ex-husband, to Jon and never looked back. But my mother had never found anyone to replace me.
Aunt Elissa put her mug on the counter and went to the bathroom. A fly scooted around the kitchen, but I didn’t try to swat it. I took a sip of coffee and waited for the buzz. If anything, the coffee made me feel more sleepy. How was I going to make it through the night? They’d told us the death rattle could go on for hours, maybe even a day or two. I should go home, I thought. We all should. Maybe my mother didn’t want us to see her lying helpless like a caged animal, all of us gawking at her.
But I knew she did want us there. At least, she wanted me. So I went back and opened the door to my mother’s room.
The first thing I saw was Jon’s back, broader than I remembered, like the spread wings of a large raptor leaning over her body. As I squeezed in beside him, I felt the pang of something being sucked out of me and then I knew. Her face was no longer shedding layers. It was simply empty, like a mask you buy at the costume store.
“Oh honey…” I reached out my arms. I was a bad mother. How could I have left him alone to watch someone die?
It had been a while since I’d hugged Jon so hard and so long, and he smelled like a man I didn’t know. He patted my back with authority, then disengaged and reached into his pocket. “I played her these harmonic hums on my phone. They’re so cool.” He tapped and I heard a whoosh of bass, then a low rumble of all the vibrations of a single note, a line that wasn’t flat but textured, telling me all was right with the world.
When Jon dropped out of conservatory the following year to pursue atonal explorations on obscure instruments in Africa and the Middle East, I didn’t argue, rail, or guilt-trip. Instead, I bought him an international phone plan and gave him some spending money. Then I flew east to visit Aunt Elissa. We went to Carnegie Hall and saw Kyung Wa Chung play the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto with elegance and polish, yet the tempo felt rushed. I found that I missed Jon’s melodramatic vibrato. I’d just been so used to thinking of that piece as a question, rather than an answer.
D. Dina Friedman has published widely in literary journals (including Calyx, Emrys, Common Ground Review, Lilith, Pinyon, Negative Capability, New Plains Review, Steam Ticket, Bloodroot, Inkwell, Pacific Poetry and Fiction Review, Tsunami, The Sun, Jewish Currents, Anderbo, San Pedro River Review, Mount Hope, Rhino) and received two Pushcart Prize nominations for poetry and fiction. She is the author of one chapbook of poetry, Wolf in the Suitcase, (Finishing Line Press) and two YA novels, Escaping Into the Night (Simon and Schuster) and Playing Dad’s Song (Farrar Straus Giroux). Dina has an MFA from Lesley University and teaches at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.