Photo by Jill McCabe Johnson

Dead Reckoning

by Jill McCabe Johnson

I placed palm-sized possessions, memory triggers, in my mother’s hands. She sat in a reproduction Stickley arts-and-crafts chair in the private living room of the B&B my husband and I own and received the once familiar treasures with open curiosity. A San Francisco cable car brooch. A favorite scarf. She spun stories from the objects, guideposts of her past. Her only trip to San Francisco, “before you kids were born,” she explained, as the brooch became a navigational tool for traveling from the hazy present to a nearly forgotten past. Sort of like how sailors use dead reckoning—the process of finding one’s route by measuring from a fixed position. In this way, a favorite glass dish hearkened her childhood home in Great Falls. Sometimes her stories drifted from that fixed point we call truth, like how she remembered getting cable TV in Satsop in the late 1950s. Or grieving the death of my cousin, Pam, who was still very much alive.

In the weeks leading up to her death, as her range of mobility and focus grew smaller and smaller, Mom turned the treasures in her hands, gazed long, and caressed the cherished mementos. I watched her, in turn, while trying to hide my own concerns. Checking her skin for signs of jaundice, eyeing the corners of her mouth for hints of pain. In her eighties, sick with liver cancer, but exquisitely beautiful in bearing and grace. Her long fingers, the knuckles thickened with arthritis, moved with a gentle elegance. My own memories came to life watching her hands, feeling how they used to touch my forehead when she’d check for fever. Now I touched her forehead, stroked her hands, wrapped soft towels around her edemic and oozing legs. In the evening we settled in to watch sunsets and old movies she’d already seen, so when she dozed and reawakened in her chair she could still follow along.

If dead reckoning involves navigating from a fixed place in time, then drift is surrendering our connection to that fixed point. A kind of sleepy floating. With trust we’ll find our way back, or at least find our way to something new. My fixed place was caring for her. Helping her out of bed in the morning. Her daily ablutions. Into the wheelchair, onto the toilet, back on the wheelchair. Breakfast and tea. I telecommuted into my IT job from a chair in my living room. Mom sat a few feet away, listening to my calls, watching me work. Between meetings, I warmed her tea. Later lunch. More work. We watched birds at the feeders. Goldfinch, chickadee, northern flicker. Then time to fix dinner.

Mom died the same weekend we hosted a writer’s workshop at our B&B. Stan Rubin and Judith Kitchen guided writers through sessions on image and memory. I had written Stan and Judith a few days prior to their arrival. Mom’s close, I said.

Do you want to cancel? they asked.

No, but I might have to be with her instead of with you.

*  *  *

The morning of her death, Mom woke confused. Walking had already left her. Now talking was impossible, too. When I tried to hand her her water and her morning medicine—morphine to deal with the pain—her eyes went from my hands to my face, as though even this routine was some new puzzle to be pieced together. I placed the pill in her mouth, brought the glass to her lips, but she pushed the pill back out with her tongue. I imagine it tasted bitter.

She had so much trouble getting out of bed, sitting upright in her chair was going to be impossible. So I helped her back to bed, propped her up on pillows, and tried to keep her company.

At that time, we’d owned the B&B for just under two years. We’d sold everything we could to make the down payment, but the mortgage was still high. Though occupancy was lower in the winter, we didn’t have the luxury of shutting down, turning business away so we could spend 100% of our time with Mom. Instead, my husband and I took turns. While he cleaned the kitchen, I read letters and emails to my mother. Notes family members had sent telling her how much they loved her.

The morning after Mom died, the mortician came early to retrieve the body, sheet-wrapped and small. I could still feel her presence. Or maybe it was her absence that filled the room. Trudging through my usual routine brought comfort, so I let muscle memory guide me through making breakfast. Turning on the oven, cutting the fruit, shaping the scones. My husband cooked beside me, slowly caramelizing potatoes in a Swiss rösti. We fed Stan, Judith, and the workshop participants, who comforted us while expressing their own discomfort that we’d cooked for them while gobsmacked by grief. It felt as though we were already in a state of drift, but I see now cooking breakfast in that familiar space, with the steady presence my husband and I provided for each other, was dead reckoning. A horrible term, under the circumstancesbut we both sought the stability of a fixed place and time. The kitchen. Our daily routine. Reaching for measuring spoons, cheese graters, plates. When the people we love die, the grief never really ends. We may be cast adrift from them, but their memories sustain us, too. They remind us how to rely on other loves, other ways of navigating this world.

It wasn’t until everyone checked out later that day, and we too headed off-island, that we could let go of our fixed places and begin the real work of grieving—driving onto the ferry, feeling the ferry leave the dock, sailing through gray waters under a gray sky. Just before we reached Anacortes, the captain cut the engines and let the vessel drift the rest of the way to the dock. Time slackened. A cormorant lit off from nearby pilings with a slow flap of wings. Gulls cried, plaintive, overhead. All those months knowing Mom would be gone, yet here we were, like the captain navigating his vessel, bringing us in as close as he could, then relying on momentum and tide to carry us back to shore—a distance that cannot be powered through or motored or steered. And, in many ways, a distance that can never be closed.

Jill McCabe Johnson is the author of the poetry collections Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown and Diary of the One Swelling Sea. Her honors include an Academy of American Poets prize, the Paula Jones Gardiner Poetry Award, and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Artist Trust, and Hedgebrook.

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