Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

How to Sleep Well

In your mother’s deathbed

There was always a bottle of Chanel №5 on Mother’s nightstand. Brass figurines crowded in around it: Lord Ganesha on his throne, Shiva and Shakti intertwined, Buddha touching the earth. On the floor next to her hospital bed, a sketchpad upended as though it had just slipped from her hand. Mrs. Dalloway competed for space with Vogue, which was buried under back issues of The National Enquirer — the chaos of a mind desperate to prove it could function.

I’d sneak whiffs of Chanel’s sweet fragrance, the last hint of Mother’s movie star aura. Cancer shrank her sweater-girl figure, but not enough to please her. “God, I’ll be the only person who didn’t lose weight from this shit.”

When the mattress pressed too heavily against her bones, she would sit in a rocking chair in the living room. Hours in the bedroom, minutes in the living room — a routine that passed for exercise.

I helped her back to bed, sliding backward in my sock feet as she shuffled forward facing me. She held my hands like a baby learning to walk. A muffled moan, buried deep in her throat, punctuated each scuff of her feet. We stopped to rest, alone in the house and toe-to-toe in the grief-shrouded hallway.

I searched her Natalie Wood eyes for the woman who’d waited up for teen-aged me to come home from dates.

She looked right back. Unflinching attention replaced the morphine stare. I was startled for a beat. And then I leaned toward her, careful to maintain our fragile balance, yet longing to close the space between us. Remnants of our past — harsh words and good intentions — drifted away on our mingled breath.

No longer daughter. No longer mother.

Men wearing dark suits wheeled her out of the house, through the living room where my family had gathered, past the rocking chair where Dad sat weeping.

I curled up in the hospital bed, tucking her blankets under my chin. Eternity sang me to sleep, and Chanel №5 wafted through my dreams.



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Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey writes about love and pain. Her latest book is Blindsided: Essays from the Only Black Woman in the Room.