A Corporal Work of Mercy

I was nearly two weeks late, so I already knew the answer, but I took the test anyway, in the bathroom of my dad’s house in Louisiana. We’d driven down from Virginia, two solid days in the car with our children, ages seven and two.  My sister drove her two days from Kansas.

The long drive isn’t the only reason our reunions have become increasingly rare. Since I left more than ten years ago, I don’t go home often. Except in dreams.

It was New Year’s Day. Standing there in the dim light, staring at the positive result on the test stick, hearing the competing voices of my sister and children in the next room, I felt as if this might be just another garbled midnight transmission, a dream of that first positive test, eight years ago now, in the bathroom of our first house in South Bend.

The kind of dream in which nothing is as it should be.

I put the test in my suitcase. I had saved the other tests, too, and then the hospital bracelets and striped beanies, the desiccated remains of the umbilical cords. But I already felt sure that this pregnancy would end in a miscarriage. Slidell is not a place of new life for me. It’s an unhappy ending.

On the neutral ground of Virginia, it’s easier, at least in my waking life, to pretend that I am as I should be and that Louisiana is a place of magic and solace, as I wish it was. In these years away I have grown practiced in pretending and forgetting. But with each turn of the wheel toward home, my resolve unspools.

I avoid the friends and family. I haunt schools and church and neighborhood, now inert, outgrown and harmless. I avoid the living; they show me what might have been. Who I might have been. If she had lived.

On the last day of our trip we went to my aunt’s to watch the Saints game. My husband Dave took a picture of her cutting the Mardi Gras season’s first king cake. For the first couple of days back at home in Virginia, I couldn’t keep from staring at that picture, her hands poised above the sparkling green and purple sugar, my sister’s lower body just behind her in the frame, standing just as I do, legs crossed.

My aunt’s hands, all her rings and bracelets, her skin pale and delicate under the gold cuffs of her Saints t-shirt—they could be my mom’s hands, aging, pale, smooth, white, feminine. Performing that little act of motherly care: the cutting of the cake. I want them to be my mother’s hands. I will them to be my mother’s hands.

It was a game I played that night—to think I’d be a grown woman, still playing such games—pretending my aunt’s home was really my mother’s home, and that my aunt was my mother, that my mother had never gotten cancer.

It was like prayer, or maybe a perversion of prayer, this conjuring of what might have been. I blurred my vision and willed that it be so. I let my aunt hold me close like a child. I sank into her body and listened to her voice vibrating in her chest as she spoke to me kindly and called me baby. I am her daughter, I told myself, visiting with the grandchildren.

She lived. This is her house, with the framed front page of the Times Picayune from when the Saints won the Super Bowl hanging on the living room wall and the gumbo on the stove. My dad asleep in the living room while my niece and daughter play dress up in feather boas and carnival masks. My aunt and sister singing Bon Jovi in the other room. The wine poured in all our cups (well, all but mine, since I was pregnant). Dave smoking cigars with my uncles. And me, a woman with a mother and a refuge.

I had forgotten what it felt like—the feeling that you can sink into someone, that you can rest in their love. For that brief moment it returned to me: Home.

I knew that night that the baby in me would not survive. There was something not right about the way I ached, the intensity of the cramps, the fatigue. I was so, so tired. I stayed there in my aunt’s arms as long as I could. When I walked in the other room I found my sister crying. My head cleared. Here, again, was reality.

This was not our home or a game or even a vision. Here, for us, it is always a funeral.

Before I left town I went by Rouse’s grocery store on Hwy 11 to get some flowers for my mother’s grave. I picked out the tackiest silk Mardi Gras arrangement I could find—all purple, gold, and green glitter. This perpetual funeral might as well be a jazz funeral.

My daughter walked with me to the mausoleum and together we filled the urn and hoisted it up to the top row on that long arm. I pointed out all their graves, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my grandfather’s, my uncle’s.

This is one of the corporal works of mercy, I told her, visiting the dead, caring for their graves. I did not add, and today it is the only kind of prayer I can manage. It was cold and she skipped on ahead of me to our car, pointed north.


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