Gil Arzola

My mother’s death




From Gil Arzola:  "I am the second son of a migrant worker living in Valparaiso Indiana with my wife Linda.  I was named Poet Of The Year by Passager Press in 2019.   My first book of poetry PRAYERS OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE was published in 2020.  Rattle published a chapbook THE DEATH OF MIGRANT WORKER in September of 2021 after selecting it from 2000 submissions for their annual prize.  My story LOSERS WALK, originally published by Chaluer was nominated for a Pushcart Award in 2018.  My work has appeared in Whetstone, Palabra, Crosswinds, The Tipton Review, Passager, Slab and The Elysian Review among others.   Other work can be found on Facebook @ArzolaGilbert.Author."

When I was six years old, I saw Indians outside the window.

It was January in 1957 and we lived in a three-room house on the farm where my father worked.     The house was not ours.  It, like almost everything we could see in every direction, belonged to the farmer who had hired my father three years earlier as a farm laborer.  

The small, sad house had once been white but now was mostly bare wood; only white in streaks and spots, where stubborn paint had not peeled off.  It was one in a row of three houses that are no longer there.  

Three hundred feet north of the houses down a dirt road, were four rows of barracks where fifty or so migrant workers lived when they came to work the fields every spring.   The barracks and migrants are gone too.  Now there is only a rise of dirt with bushes and weeds that hide all evidence of what was.

We lived in the second of the three houses, reserved for the workers that stayed all year long. After the migrants had gone they stayed and worked through the winter mending what was broken, making piles of things and minding the livestock. 

The largest room of the small house where we lived was in front, where a large black coal stove provided heat.  There was no running water.  Outside a hand pump filled our buckets in the morning and evening.  An outhouse in back sat between two trees a hundred feet behind a pile of coal where we fetched a bucket full every night for the stove before the sun went down.  It was our job and I remember the chunks of coal shiny like black glass, with sharp edges that would cut your hands if you weren’t careful. 

Every evening we took turns, my brother and I hauling the bucket into the house and setting it beside the stove. 

Enough to last through the night.

The house was cold everywhere except beside the stove.  It was impossible to regulate the heat, so twenty feet away you were cold, five feet away you would sweat.  You learned the right distance eventually and tried to spend most of your time there.

Sometimes when we misjudged how much to toss into the stove, the side of it would glow red and once, a few years after I saw the Indians, the creosote lit on fire in the chimney.  I remember standing outside shivering in the yard wrapped in blankets as men climbed the roof and put it out.  

Life went on.

In the two back rooms where my brother and I slept, the heat didn’t reach and it was always cold.  Ice covered the inside of the windows.  There was nothing to be done about it.  Years later I still sleep better in a cold room.

On the night that I saw the Indians it was especially cold.   And yet they snuck past the window shirtless, one after another unaffected by the January snow and wind that whistled outside.  

         As each passed they made eye contact with me; their evil eyes determined; each in turn  tip-toeing past in a half crouch, their tomahawks held high.   

         “Indians!” I said sitting up from the bed where I lay.  “They’re surrounding the house!”

         But my mother who sat on the side of the bed told me to lie still and put a wet cloth on my head.  I had been moved into the bed where my parents normally slept which was closest to the coal stove.  But even so I switched between sweating and shivering beneath the blankets.    

I can still see my mother’s worried face as she is dipping the washcloth into a pan of water, wringing it dry and putting on my head.

         “Indians,” I said again lying down.  

         Sixty-three years later my mother is dying and we have traded places.   I am sitting beside her bed holding a plastic glass of water as she sips from a straw.  

          Today is October 1st 2020 and my mother is on the thirteenth of fifteen floors in a downtown Chicago hospital.  She has been here for five days.  

Today is my fourth trip to see her.  I have memorized the steps.

I make my way to her room with a fog in my head as if I am waking from a dream, the way I would arrive at work sometimes after not having slept enough, without remembering any stoplights or turns.  I simply arrived there automatically, conditioned from making the trip a thousand times.  

I could not tell you about the weather, I do not care about the news today.  If there are stoplights or disasters, today I take no notice.  I take the steps to her like a machine that simply does a job without emotion.

It is a defense I learned when I was growing up so that I could deal with a life that was less than idyllic.  We were poor, Mexican migrants growing up in the sixties in Indiana.  Bigotry was common.  It was no place for the weak.  And so to defend myself I learned to put away emotions. 

 I pulled myself out of my own head.  Later I could be angry or sad.  Later I would feel what there was no time to feel then.   There were problems to solve.  Emotions only kept me from seeing them clearly.

I park the car and enter the hospital.  Sign in at the door, where they take my temperature, ask a few questions and wave me through.  I walk down the long, polished hall to the elevators.

I know the way.  

 Room 1354.  Take the elevator to the thirteenth floor, make a hard right, go through the double doors and then take a left.   Five rooms down.  

We are in the middle of a pandemic.  Everybody wears masks.   At the nurse’s station   I pass a dozen people poking at keyboards and staring at computer screens.  Some make notes on rows of clipboards.  A few look up and glance at me but offer no greeting.  I am just one in a line   of people.  A line that never stops.

It is just another workday to them.  They are four hours into their shift.  There’s shit to do, rounds to make, questions to ask, answers to give.  No matter what happens today, tomorrow there will be more shit to do.  There is no ending. They look back at their clipboards.  They get on with the day.

I walk slowly, looking into every room that I pass.  Each has someone in it; some rooms have two people with a curtain on a curved rod to divide them.  To offer some privacy.  But sickness doesn’t care about privacy.  Death can find you behind a curtain.

         In some rooms visitors stand stiffly at the foot of the bed and stare as if they are watching a movie or they slouch in chairs leaned against the wall.  They handle it well or they don’t.  How they handle it is of no consequence to calamity.

         There are thirty rooms on this floor with sick people in all of them but I care about only one.

         My mother is in that one.  Old and frail.  Sick and dying.

         I spend most of the hours watching her sleep.  Sometimes she stirs or wakes for a few minutes.  Then I offer her drinks of water.  I coax her to eat something.  I try to anticipate what she might need.  I smile and make small talk, I ask questions expecting no answer.

We didn’t have much money when I was growing up.  Even less in the winter when there wasn’t as much work to do on the farm.  In the winters my father didn’t work many hours.  Less work, less pay.   We ate rice and beans a lot.  Whatever would keep and didn’t need a refrigerator because we didn’t have one.  

But on the night that I saw the Indians I remember my father coming in with a bag of oranges.  I smell the cold on him as he shakes off the snow beside the stove and peels an orange, handing me a slice. 

         It must have been a sacrifice to buy oranges.  In my memory it is all grey and dark, the walls colorless with shadows.  All grey and dark like a black and white movie, except for the oranges.  

         My memories are interrupted by doctors making their daily stop.  They tell me that my mother must try to eat.   They’ll give her another day before feeding her through a tube.  But her lunch sits undisturbed on the tray.  I don’t know how to force her.  I know she must eat.  It’s like a dam bursting and someone telling you that we have to stop the water. 

         As the doctor pokes and takes readings, I wonder how many stops he makes.  How many times he repeats himself, staring at charts, remembering his training.  How many souls does he carry in the pockets of his white coat?

         My mother sips the water.   She is ready to die she tells me. 

         I did not go to see the doctor the night I saw the Indians.  The doctor came to see me. 

         We lived in a town of two thousand and there were two doctors. 

         It was Dr. Ufkes who ran marathons and died at fifty-five who made a house call. 

         I remember how he looked out of place in the tiny house.  He sits beside me and opens his black bag.  He takes my temperature, he listens to my chest.  

         I can’t say what he did or if he gave me anything.  I don’t know if he saved my life.  Years later he would mend the broken collarbone I got from playing football.  I don’t know if he remembered making the house call.    

           My mother says again that she wants to die.   She tells me in almost a whisper that she doesn’t want them to feed her through a tube.  No more poking she says.  

         She is going to die I text my family.   We should be prepared for that.

         But she is not dead yet.   That will take a few more days. There’s still time to get a word in if you have something to say.  She may still hear you.  There is still time to make your point.

But because no one knows how much time, they hurry.  Brothers and sisters call and drive for hours; one gets on a plane.  Grandchildren and brothers. Sisters and nephews.  Everyone hurries.

They don’t want to be late.  They want to get a last word.  They want to say, “just one more thing before you go” as if she was leaving some party and they had forgotten the gift they wanted to give her.

They want to review.

         When faced with ends we all want to review.  We want to take stock, to settle our tab.  We want to sum it up. 

Would it be better to know when you will die I wonder?   So that you can pack your bags and give away your things.  Organize and put your life into boxes so that it won’t be any trouble to carry it all out?  So that you can hide your secrets and finish a sentence. 

What would I do? 

Stand in the sun and water the flowers one more time.  Touch my books. Touch the hands of my wife and daughters.

People that commit suicide leave nothing to chance.  They decide when.  Some even leave letters, cliff notes to their passing.  Sometimes the dying say last words if they’re able.  

But the living have to hurry.   They have to put it in a nutshell, wrap it up and wait their turn.  There are others waiting outside.  And only two can visit at a time they tell us at the desk.

There’s no way to know of course, as we ramble on; how much she’ll remember, how much she is taking in.  She stares sometimes as if she’s about to respond, as if she’s trying to get her thoughts together like remembering the words of a song.  

But because the pain medication is doing its job, it has built a wall.  She is on one side and we’re on the other.  How many words get through?  We don’t know how much she hears.  So we keep talking.  Just in case.

Others are waiting.  We have to hurry.

Sometimes it is not about words at all.  Sometimes it is about touching.  Some just want to hold her hand.  They want to touch the living because we don’t know how to touch the dead.  Like stroking the pedal of a flower before it dies.  Before it folds into itself, falls and becomes dust.

We want to touch what can touch us back.    

The living want to keep the party going.  The dying are looking for a door.  

Winter became spring and the Indians went away never to return.  I went on living.

And I don’t know it, but my mother will leave the planet in four days.  But for now she wakes and tells me she’s worried about her children.   Children all grown with children of their own.

I tell her that we are fine.  I tell her that she has lived a wonderful life and all that we are is because of her.

She smiles.



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