The day before my mother died, there were a few minutes when she appeared to wake up. At least her eyes were open above the plastic mask that covered her mouth and nose; it was attached to a machine that noisily helped force oxygen into her lungs. We were standing outside her room waiting while nurses tended to her. One of them opened the door and said, "She's awake." And one by one, we stepped into her room to say our good-byes, tell her we loved her and to assure her that it was fine for her to stop living and rest. At least that is what I remember saying as I leaned over and stared down into her eyes. I have not asked my father, brothers or sister about what they said to her the last time her eyes were wide open. It is her left eye I remember more than what I said; it was wide, wild and seeming to focus or trying to focus (or was I imagining the effort to focus?) as I stared down into her face. Did she see me? Or hear me? Or any of us? We don't know. But she seemed to breathe easier when she closed her eyes and appeared to be sleeping. She even snored a little. We all noticed that. She died calmly 24 hours later without ever opening her eyes again.
That wide, wild eye is the last piece of my dying mother that I haul around with me. Sometimes I hear it. It clatters in there like a smooth pebble in a tin box. Sometimes it thumps and thuds like a tangled wad of soggy clothes in the dryer. Sometimes I see it as I stare at the blank wall above my desk, sometimes just before I sleep or just after I wake up. I have packed the other pieces of my dying mother in words and shoved them onto a high dark shelf almost out of reach. But I have never known what to do with her left eye, never figured out a place to put it. It is never quiet and it is always open.
Two nights ago I dreamed that "we" had agreed to keep a bit of my mother alive "in case we ever needed her again." We agreed to store some of her DNA in a tiny fish in case we ever needed it again. I know it was "we" but do not know precisely who "we" are, but it was my wife and my sister who went with me to the fish market to find out what happened to her after we found out something had gone wrong. A larger fish had eaten the minnow that my mother had become and we were there to see if anything could be done. The market had a glass-fronted case. There were live turtles at one end. "Cooters," I said (though turtles were called turtles where I grew up and I did not learn the word "cooter" until much later in my life). Just past the cooters there were fish on ice, all kinds of fish, and we walked along looking for the right one. Finally the man behind the counter pointed to the very end of the case with his knife and that is where we found the fish we were looking for. It was apart from the rest. I think it was a bass 8 or 10 inches long. It was on its left side and its tail was toward the glass, its large mouth wide open, facing away from us. The fish seemed rigid, dead. We looked at it through the glass. I leaned forward for a closer look and saw the fish's eye move. It was looking at me, like someone glancing over their shoulder as they walk away. And it appeared to be trying to focus, to see me more clearly. I was awake for a while before I recognized the eye -- it was my mother's left eye. It was a troubling dream.
"My mother is a fish." That is what Vardaman Bundren says as he tries to understand his mother's death in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. He ends up drilling holes in the lid of his dead mother's coffin to help her breathe, but she is still dead. There are no holes I can drill in the coffin lid to save my mother either. Besides, the dead do not ask to be rescued any more than dreams ask to be understood, no matter what we might want or need from them. But we cannot stop ourselves from trying.
See Mom, Death and Family all the way back to April 2006.