The pile of paperwork on my desk has grown by an open pack of wide-point black Sharpies, my good scissors, and a fussy roll of strapping tape. Dirt streaks on my fingers testify to an afternoon spent installing signs in the brambles on the levee roads. Leftovers cool in the bowl on my counter. My blue pottery mug holds the dregs of this morning’s coffee.
This time each year, I tell myself not to be sad. Yet for nearly four decades, August 21st has tiptoed onto my calendar and smacked me in the face. I just got over the anniversary of my little brother’s death in June. Now I get to recall the 7:00 a.m. ringing of my cousin’s phone and my sister’s voice telling me to come back to the house, our mother has gone home.
My little brother Stevie Pat and I stood at the back of the funeral home’s vehicle arguing with the transporter. Steve wanted to ride with our mother’s body. Against policy, they told him. He shook his head and folded his arms across his chest. He towered over the men, tall, strong, imposing. I put my hand on his shoulder but he shrugged me away. He froze as they carefully closed the doors. They handled the situation as gently as possible. My brother did not speak or move. The van pulled away from the house where my mother had raised her children, fought the Might-Be-Giants, beat the odds, and — finally, wearily, when the last of her children had arrived — breathed her last ragged breath. Someone in the clutch of Corleys down in the yard sobbed. I held out my arms but Stephen walked away, crossed the street, and got into his car.
We had almost missed the whole sad exit. He and his nurse wife had taken the phone off the hook to get some sleep. I drove like the proverbial bat escaping Hades from my cousin’s house to theirs to break the news. An officer had stopped me, but not for speeding. Did you know your plates are expired, he inquired. Sir, I told him, sighing, my mother just died. I’m on my way to get my brother. Then we’re going to her house so we can be there when they come to take her away. Her address is 8416 McLaran. I’m going to pass by here again in five minutes. I’m not going to stop. But you can bring the ticket there.
I got in my car and tore back onto West Florissant Avenue. When we sped by a few minutes later, first Steve, then me, the officer had not moved. But I never saw him again. I never got a warrant in the mail, either.
We buried my mother in the Corley family spot, beside her parents-in-law and my great-grandmother Corinne Hahn Hayes. As I sit here, I can’t remember if my niece Rachel, who died in infancy, preceded my mother in death. Twelve years later, we’d bury my brother Stephen’s ashes in a brass box with a Grateful Dead sticker in the same plot. Cremains don’t take much room.
I have only been to that cemetery three times since my brother’s death in 1997. Once my sister Joyce and I went. Later, my second husband and I unsuccessfully hunted for the grave site. A few years ago, I took a small jar of flowers from my cousin Theresa’s garden and stood over the sad stretch of ground. I got a pair of scissors from the laptop bag in my rental car and trimmed the grass around my mother’s headstone. I traced my brother’s name with one crooked finger. I think I cried.
On 21 August 1985, the day my mother died, I had not yet turned thirty. I would still be numb, probably drunk, two weeks later when I celebrated entering a new decade. She herself would have been fifty-nine if she had lived another three weeks. Before the cancer hit her brain, she had addressed birthday cards to all her children and put stamps on them. She wrote the “mail by” dates on the back of the envelopes. My father dutifully placed each one in the outgoing mail. I kept that card for many years, the last scrap of my mother’s handwriting, her DNA on the seal, her maternal drive shimmering in the careful scrawl of my full name: Mary Corinne Corley.
I have my mother’s hair, the shape of her body, and her irreverent sense of humor. I don’t have one-tenth of her grit, a fraction of her compassion, or an iota of her determination. But somewhere inside of me, I have a small kernel of her lingering love. Its flame has held for thirty-eight years and counting. It warms me in the darkness of the coldest, loneliest nights. For my part, I nurture its flicker, so that I may one day pass it to my own child in my mother’s honor.
It’s the twentieth day of the one-hundred and sixteenth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.