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Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction, Issue #74

Where a Mother Ends and a Daughter Begins

by

Melissent Zumwalt


The buzzing of my cell phone startles me, piercing through my morning routine. As I grapple with the phone’s slick exterior, the caller’s name reads: unidentified, but the location of the phone number lists: Beckley, West Virginia. I reside 2,600 miles away from the anonymous caller, born and raised in Oregon, and nearly my entire existence lived on the West Coast. Only one person would still call me from West Virginia: the woman from the Sears Monument Company. “Monument” serving as a euphemism for headstone.

“We’re getting ready to do the engraving for Rebecca’s headstone. On the back, is the inscription supposed to read: ‘beloved mother to’ and then your names or ‘beloved mother of’?” she asks.

To or of. Such a silly, inconsequential question. Yet the outcome—the final concrete piece of my mother’s existence—fills our exchange with more significance than our words imply.

To or of. Is she a mother to me? Or a mother of me? I mouth the words, repeating the phrases in my head, trying to figure out which preposition more appropriately defines our relationship. Defines, present tense, because my mom isn’t dead, nor is she sick. She’s a quick-witted seventy-seven-year-old who enlisted my help in purchasing her “monument”—her cemetery plot already secured fifteen years prior.

The acidity from my morning coffee thickens my tongue, “To?”

“I’ll email the final mockup to you later this morning,” she replies.

On hanging up, I wonder: Is this normal? To be finalizing a gravestone before someone appears anywhere near dying? Are we provoking death? Or is this incredibly practical? A gift, actually, allowing me to answer these detailed questions now, rather than when I’m in the throes of grief? Because that’s where I’ll be when she goes, deep within the throes of grief, like some Shakespearean tragedy.

Every night my mom sends me a text at exactly 6:00 p.m.—so I’ll know she’s okay, that she didn’t die that day—and she’s remarkably punctual about it. Though, one evening, within the hour following her 6:00 p.m. text, she sent another message that read:

HEL P

I called her, frantic, to find that, as she’d zipped around her house preparing to go out with a friend, she’d slipped on a tennis ball (her dog’s toy) and hit her head on the floor. I rushed for the door, driving mad-dash to her house forty minutes away. While enroute, I stayed on the phone as she faded in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, my mom’s friend showed up and called the paramedics.

By the time I arrived, an ambulance had already come and gone, whisking Mom off to the ER. Once inside the house, I tried to think about what she might need at the hospital. She was often cold; perhaps a sweater? I rooted through her closet with an uncharacteristic confusion. I couldn’t make a decision about what to bring, and I couldn’t find a sack to put any of it in. The episode felt like being trapped inside a snow globe: One minute my surroundings were familiar and in the next, everything went upside down, reality altered beyond recognition.

Ultimately, Mom was fine. But that night felt like a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

Later, my husband said, “She’s lucky to have you.” His kind words, coupled with the intensity of the evening’s experience, jarred me: She had me, as if I were an accessory. Her story had always been so big—maybe it had even consumed my own. And, for the first time, I considered it: Was I really just playing a supporting role in the tale of her life and not the leading character in my own? And if that were the case, what would happen to me once she’s gone?

*

Four months prior to the phone call from the Sears Monument woman, my mom and I traveled back to West Virginia to visit family and procure her headstone. As the languishing, sultry days of summer shortened into the crispness of fall, Mom and I made our trip’s first stop at the Sunset Memorial Park in Beckley. (Beckley being the closest town of notable size to where she’d grown up). In my youth, we’d made frequent pilgrimages from our home in Oregon to visit Mom’s family in West Virginia; but now, as an adult, over a decade had gone by since my last visit.

On that long overdue return, we drove a meandering lane into the middle of the memorial park, the sheer size of the place disorienting. As we exited the car, an electric hum of cicadas competed with the dull throb of traffic from the adjacent highway.

“We need to cross the pond, but not go as far as to where the road forks,” Mom said as we picked a path through the endless expanse of marble and granite.

“See that headstone with the tall cross?” I motioned with my hand, “I think we’re supposed to be in line with it, but a few rows up.”

As with all our visits to the cemetery, we began with my mom’s mom. The front of her monument read: Helen Marie Wilson, January 21, 1923 – July 8, 1962.

Just thirty-nine years old.

My fingers lay atop the cool, gray granite, lightly stroking the rough edges, like holding hands with the grandma I never knew.

“Can you believe your great-grandmother Rebecca made me pay for this?” Mom asked, indicating the headstone. “I got a $500 life insurance pay-out when your grandma Helen died from her cancer. Then your great-grandmother made me use it to pay for this gravestone.”

For as long as I can remember, I have served as my mom’s captive, non-judgmental confidant, a vessel for her pain—starting from an age much too delicate to bear her truth without it scarring me as well. Which meant this history was as engrained in me as if it were my own. My mom was only eighteen years old when her own mother (my grandma Helen) died—although, at the time, my mom thought she was sixteen. Once Grandma Helen passed, Mom’s abusive, alcoholic father revealed he wasn’t really her father at all, but rather a stepdad, and they’d been lying about her age to make the math line up.

“Great-grandmother Rebecca should have looked out for you,” I replied.

Thinking back on that different era, in their small Appalachian town, my grandma Helen’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy had ravaged the family’s reputation. But, her being a solid Christian woman, she’d sought to redeem herself, not only to the townspeople and the Church, but to her own mother and sisters, by finding a man—any man—who would marry a woman with an illegitimate child. Even if that man was an ex-convict whose primary interest in a wife was having her support his out-of-control drinking habit. After my grandma Helen’s death, Mom’s stepfather’s drinking had spiraled into a wild rage. He’d lost their apartment and Mom was out on the street.

“I was practically a kid,” Mom said, “I didn’t have anywhere to live and that life insurance money was everything I had.”

Even sixty years later, whenever she remembers this history aloud, her inflection conveys how her mother’s death had unmoored her—not just emotionally, but physically, too. How her life had shattered. How she did not have a moment to sit and grieve, but instead, by contrast, had to maintain some sense of forward motion. Had to figure out how to remain sheltered and fed through whatever means possible. Which for her, an adolescent female in the early 1960s, meant dropping out of high school and marrying a man—a sailor—who’d fallen for my mom’s dark good looks and witty charm.

To redirect Mom’s energy, I held up my phone to snap a quick a shot, “Would you like a picture?” She moved into place behind her mother’s monument, her hands resting on the stone, shoulders back, eyes bright. Because a daughter should be thankful to be with her mother, in whatever form that takes.

I have only ever known my mother’s loss—and in turn, that knowledge has served as the north star for our relationship. Which meant, I never sassed my mom or talked back, even as a teenager. Growing up, I didn’t cry in front of others or get in trouble at school. I wouldn’t mope about things I couldn’t have or shuffle my feet when I walked. At mealtimes, I never whined about eating something I didn’t like (including when we ate pinto bean stew for the third night in a row). I always got good grades and didn’t mess around with boys. And now, as a forty-two-year-old woman, that same guiding principle meant I’d dutifully traveled cross-country to help my mom prepare for her own end.

*

As we left my grandma’s gravesite, heading to Mom’s grandmother’s marker, a welcome breeze cut through the seasonal humidity. Leaves rustled in the powerful oak trees standing guard over our loved ones. After taking more photographs (year upon year, more pictures of the same memorials), our journey continued on to her aunts (my great aunts), along with an assortment of children and husbands, the number of sites to visit increasing as the years ticked by.

Early on, we used to make our trip to the cemetery with Mom’s favorite aunt, Ruth; and now, all those years later, her headstone completed the tour. Mom’s assigned plot rested next to Aunt Ruth’s.

So there, upon our recent visit, Mom stood on the tended grass where her corpse would one day lay. Stretching her arms out to the side of her petite frame, she chuckled. “What do you think?” she asked, as if trying on a new dress. “Does it fit?”

After everything, humor is what’s allowed us to endure all our family history; so, I appreciated her ability to lighten the mood. Perhaps, too, it’s what she needed in order to deal with the inevitability of her own eventual passing. Except, for myself, I’d rather not think about my mother’s spirit evaporated into ether, the decaying shell of her body lowered into a hole and dirt strewn on top. Couldn’t she fathom what her death will mean for me?

My mother, though, did not linger on such questions. Instead, she dropped her arms, the smile fading from her face. “When I die,” she said, “you better fly out here to supervise. Don’t just ship my body off without checking on things.”

Even then, I recognized her sentiments were rooted more in her own insecurities than in her estimation of me, but the fact that she felt the need to say those words out loud stung like antiseptic in an open wound. How could she have thought for a mere second that I would not take responsible care for her arrangements once she’d gone? To be certain, once she passes, I will ensure her corpse is properly respected and transported the 2,600 miles from Oregon to West Virginia. If I only know one thing, it is how to be a good daughter—and that I will most assuredly be a good daughter until the very end.

And after that, who knows what I’ll be?

*

As we left the cemetery, fatigue bolted through me, the effects of jetlag from the three-hour time difference taking hold. Reflecting on our lengthy travel from the day before, it dawned on me that I would need to repeat all those actions—a minimum of two plane flights to cross the country, followed by a one-hour car ride—to visit my mom’s grave once she’s gone. Meaning there wouldn’t be just that initial trip to guarantee everything was in order, but any number of subsequently onerous trips if I ever wanted to visit her again.

What, I couldn’t help but wonder, were her true expectations of me? In life, we’d been so close, my assumption had always been that our emotional intimacy would follow us into the afterlife. Naturally, I’d imagined, we’d be like people I’d seen in movies, visiting their loved one’s gravesites to have heartfelt talks with them. But logistically, that simply won’t be possible for us more than once a year at most. Doesn’t she care? Who will visit her, if not me?

In my youth, it had been easier to comprehend Mom’s desire to “return home,” to be with her mother, whom she’d lost so early, and to reclaim what had been stripped from her. Back then, her own theoretical passing had seemed far off and my own eventual whereabouts unknown. But now, having expended myself in dedication to her for decades, wasn’t I—and our life together in Oregon—her home? Did she ever think about where I would spend my eternity, cut loose from her?

*

In spite of its name, the Sears Monument Company was not an impressive place. On the day following our visit to the cemetery, we dropped by that simple, squat, rectangle of a building. So unassuming, it was nearly hidden right in plain sight on the town’s main thoroughfare (and located ironically kitty-corner to Raleigh General Hospital). The old-timey signage out front reminded me of a place that might sell sewing machines or conduct vacuum cleaner repair. If not for the headstones littering their small patch of lawn, I’d have wondered if Sears Monument Co. was still a functioning business at all.

Mom and I wandered through their assortment of model monuments, assessing size and color, as if shopping for a car. After deciding on a favorite stone, we entered the one-room store to find a single employee behind the office’s only desk, and two guest chairs. Taking a seat, we introduced ourselves to the Sears Monument woman, explaining our purpose (Mom’s marker) and preferences (the rich red granite out front with the asymmetrical shape). Then we talked about the inscription.

“And, would you like anything besides name and dates? Any kind of special message?” the woman asked, as she slid over a book with examples of popular sayings, things like: Beloved by everyone, or the Lord is my shepherd.

“I’d like something,” Mom looked at me with an expectant expression, wanting me to cast the deciding vote. “What do you think?”

What did I think? The reality was, they all sounded clichéd: nothing at all like what I would have selected for her if I was here after her passing, doing this on my own. Who, really, was the process supposed to be meant for, done this way? Her or me?

“Well,” I stalled, not wanting to be disrespectful, “these are all kind of…. generic.”

Mom considered for a moment, then asked, “What would you write?”

As best I could, I tried to summon what it would feel like to be in that shop alone. What could be said in a one-sentence stone-engraving to fully honor this woman, whose life, at times, has meant more to me than my own?

The phrase came to me: “She loved to laugh.”

And, indeed she did. “I like it,” Mom brightened, as the saleswoman typed into the mockup. “My husband’s already been cremated,” Mom said, “and he’s going to be buried with me. We should probably mention him too, I guess.”

So, she provided Dad’s name and birth and deceased dates. The Sears Monument woman then flipped her computer monitor around to show us the current version. The front of the marker had Mom’s name and dates and the inscription I’d proposed. The back showed Dad’s name and dates, the font used for him equal in size to Mom’s on the front. Upon review, Mom’s face scrunched up. That was obviously not what she had in mind.

“Do you like it?” she asked and I shrugged—indicating, Sure, fine, what else does one put on a gravestone?

“I didn’t think his font would be so—big,” her frown deepened as she stared at the mockup. Clearly, the saleswoman had misread the situation, making an assumption that Mom and Dad were a loving couple sharing a headstone, rather than the underlying truth of the situation: how Mom, feeling bound by responsibility, was bringing her husband along into the hereafter as mere obligation.

Obligation, after all, is much of what my father had inspired in our lives. Eight years ago, when he’d passed away, early, still, into my mother’s elderly years, it had been natural for me to step into the role as my mom’s surrogate partner. In truth, I’d been playing that part my whole life. Even as a child, I’d accompanied her to the movies and to her work parties because Dad wouldn’t go. I’d long served as her trusted companion, to whom she’d vented about problems with my dad and my brother and our family finances.

Now, escorting her through this final navigation with her husband, I lowered my voice, hoping the Sears Monument woman would not judge us, “You didn’t want his part to be this prominent, did you?”

Her head bobbed instantly in response. After being married just two years, Mom’s first husband—the infatuated sailor—was killed in a car accident. Without any other clear place to go, she’d traveled west, then, on a road trip with a man from Oregon—a man who would become her second husband. The adventurous Oregonian, though, had a gambling addiction and soon pawned their limited assets without a thought, even when that meant their child—my older brother—might go hungry. Fearing for their future, Mom had taken her son and left her second husband. Thereafter, she’d married her third husband, my father (also an Oregonian), for the stability he’d promised.

But that stability was a ruse. What my mom quickly discovered was Dad’s true nature: unreliable, unfaithful, and self-serving. In spite of several failed attempts to leave and return home to West Virginia, though, she stayed with him to his end, thirty-nine years later.

“Maybe there could a single line about Dad,” I said, “instead of all these dates and everything.”

Mom turned her head from the mock-up. “Yes,” her tone optimistic, “and what should it say?”

“Lanny Zumwalt: loving husband of 39 years?”

She snickered, because of course, I was kidding.

“Just: husband of 39 years?”

But she shook her head—still no good.

Impatience gurgled inside me: Why did I have to make all the decisions when she was the one who had wanted to come to this place? And why did we have to do this now, anyway? And then, my sarcasm bubbled to the surface: “Well, what do you want? P.S. Lanny’s here too?”

“I kind of like that,” the ends of her lips curled up in a smirk: “Lanny’s here too.” She waited another beat before confirming, “Yes, that’s what I’d like it to say. On the back. At the bottom.”

A brief laugh escaped from both of us, signaling our agreement over the statement’s perfect irony. The moment encapsulated two of the reasons my love, admiration and loyalty have been unwavering to my mom all these years: her humor and her audacity.

*

As our session with the Sears Monument woman neared completion, Mom had one final request: “I’d also like to write my kids’ names on the back.”

Nodding, the saleswoman flipped through her book and displayed the sample text:

Beloved Mother of

“Something like this?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mom agreed, then listed us each in turn:

Anne-Marie

My half-sister was not long for this world, born both hydrocephalic and with spina bifida, she survived less than twenty-four hours. During a life-threatening labor, the physician realized Anne-Marie was coming out breech and administered a fourth-degree episiotomy. Mom remained in the hospital for a week, drugged up and grieving the loss of her first child.

Christopher

My half-brother found himself in a world of drug abuse, alcoholism and criminal justice before he was old enough to drive, (and from which he has never recovered). Bailing him out of jail, retrieving him from emergency rooms and schlepping him to rehab became a full-time job for Mom, in addition to her three other full-time jobs.

Melissent

 Imagine how impeccably good, how downright perfect, one would have to try to be to compensate for both a troubled brother and a dead sister.

*

At the day’s end, we retired to our hotel and headed to separate rooms. My lungs released a deeply held breath as my body collapsed into a stiff armchair. Drab upholstery melded into non-descript carpet; the muted surroundings serving as a balm for my exhausted nerves.

Within a few minutes, a knock sounded. Mom had come back for me. Her half-aunt and a smattering of cousins on the aunt’s side (who were not related to us) had gathered for an impromptu reunion at the same hotel.

As soon as I opened the door, Mom beckoned, “Let’s go downstairs to visit.”

In that instant, though, I wanted space to myself, to process all the emotions dredged up by planning for the inevitability of death. “I don’t really feel like it.”

But Mom insisted, “You should come.”

And then, my fatigue getting the best of me, I did the unthinkable. Posing something neither she nor I had ever believed I would—because I never questioned her in these situations, because I understood the importance of appearances, especially around family. Because, too, I knew we had something to prove here—that she would always be seen as the bastard child, and me the child of the bastard—that we didn’t have the luxury of acting however we felt. Yet, I did it anyway, asking her, simple as anything: “Why?”

The air rushed from her mouth, indignant: “It’s your family!” she said. That, surely, I needed to spend more time with my half-great-aunt (who Mom could find reason to complain about) and my half-great-aunt’s cousins. “And you probably won’t see any of them again until someone else dies.”

Which also made me think: Yes, that’s right. We were the ones who had to travel all this way. No one ever ventured out west to see us. Our existence was only relevant to her side of the family if we came out there.

In my pause, she added, “Just come down for a few minutes and then excuse yourself.”

Briskly, I began mentally calculating how long it would take to re-touch my hair and make-up in order to look “pretty enough” to see family, to gather my shoes and bag, then dig into my gut and find the will to paste a smile on my face. Because it wasn’t just about me being there, it was about me representing Mom, demonstrating to our reputation-based family that I was polite and engaging and successful. That Mom had done well because I had done well.

Noticing my hesitation, she concluded, not kindly, “Fine. You don’t want to go, just stay here,” then turned and started to leave without me. She moved slowly, though, as if treading through water, waiting for me to call out, Hold on! Wait up! I’m coming. Because that’s how it invariably happened between us—me always seeking to please her, to ease her burdens, regardless of what it required of me.

Instead, a paralysis overtook me, rooting my limbs to the spot while my mind raced: I am a middle-aged adult. Why do I have to keep doing this? Proving myself—ourselves—over and over, for people I hardly knew? What about what I needed?

A surge of chemicals—induced by guilt and fear and sorrow—flooded my bloodstream. And then, all I wanted to do was scream: “I’m not just an extension of you!”

But of course, I didn’t.

*

Before we flew back home, Mom wanted to visit the town where she grew up: Sophia (which she said locals pronounce “Sofie”). Present day population: 1,107 and no less than seven churches prominently visible from a quick drive through.

A main street bisected the sleepy town. Two-story storefronts with awnings that shielded first-floor windows like eyebrows lined one side of the street. Railroad tracks bordered the other, with a verdant green hillside climbing sharply behind.

Our first stop was at the old dry cleaners, which had been converted into a coal mining safety training facility. Mom’s grandmother and step-grandpa ran a dry-cleaning business out of the box-like building decades back. Her own mother had worked there, too; and, for a while, they’d all lived on the second-floor above the facility.

“When trains came through town, I’d race next to them on my bike!” Mom exclaimed as we strode across the railroad tracks.

I laughed, but I could never imagine doing something like that myself. Even as a kid, I’d have rather sat and watched the train cars chug along, imagining where they were going to and from, what stories they might hold inside, than try to race them.

In front of the old dry cleaners, our feet stirred up an earthy musk of warm dirt and dewy grass. “I used to come out here and do cartwheels and handstands. My mom would get so mad,” she said. “Girls weren’t supposed to be flipping around.”

Easily enough, I could envision her young, wiry limbs and reckless energy, tumbling and falling fearlessly as the town’s judgmental eyes watched on. As an adult, she’d channeled that passion into being a professional dancer and fitness instructor.

“I always loved to move,” she said. Though during my own youth, Mom sacrificed her dance career for a fallback gig in healthcare—for the consistent paycheck. My dad couldn’t keep a job—nor did he want to—and he fell instantly for get-rich-quick-schemes, which contributed to our family’s financial troubles.

But there was no sense dwelling on those losses, which were years gone by, as we began making our way past the old cleaners, up a steep, winding side-street. Houses perched on the slope, their exteriors clad in moldy siding and eroding masonry. Mom’s love of physicality, and her aspiration to dance, had both been born in her childhood, in that town. During my own childhood, I’d witnessed the ruin of that same ambition. So, I too, had decided to pursue a career as a professional dancer: My dream was to fulfill her dream.

Clouds threatening rain prompted us to turn and head down towards the main street. Thinking back, I did love to dance, but I’d pursued a difficult path for the wrong reason—to right an injustice done to my mom, not out of personal desire. I’d pushed aside my own interests—in literature and writing, my hope to contribute to society through community service—and ultimately, my professional dance career ended a failure.

Later, I discovered I had a knack for business and fell into a respectable line of work, the most gratifying aspect being that my income enables me to provide luxuries for Mom she never could have imagined—like Mother’s Day brunches at fancy restaurants and flowers for no reason and trips to Paris and Hong Kong.

Without exception, people I haven’t seen in a while will ask: “How’s your mom?”—in the same manner others might get, “How are your kids?” My friends know I dote on my mom, that I’m always on the hunt for small items to bring her joy—like a new chew toy for her adorable Jack Russell or artisanal apple hand pies or an oven mitt embroidered with a picture of a fierce little girl on a bike (reminding me of her). I’m consumed with her well-being to the point it sometimes feels like a calling—that my mom’s life has been filled with such agony, maybe God put me here just to try to make up for it all.

*

On that afternoon of our literal and physical journey down memory lane, Mom and I crossed to the other side of Sophia’s main street and strolled by a structure made of gray cinder block with a satellite antenna clinging to the front.

“That place used to be a soda shop” Mom said. “One time, I stole a piece of candy from there, just stupid kid stuff. But when my stepdad found out—it’s such a small town—I got a beating.” She shook her head. “He’d make me take off my clothes and he’d beat me naked. It was bad.”

I bowed my head, brow furrowed, sensing that my response was not really the point. As an adult, I’ve learned more about the effects of trauma, and how a multitude of severe childhood events—recurrent physical, emotional and sexual abuse—most assuredly impacted my mom’s development. Which provided an explanation for me as to why there’ve been countless moments throughout my life where I seem to disappear in her presence, a non-entity floating in limbo, listening as the past is recounted yet again. Moments where she cannot stop herself from re-telling a story for the tenth or hundredth time, re-living the unfathomable.

Over the years, this dynamic between us has taught me how to swallow my own suffering because she simply couldn’t understand my emotions. If my safety, my physical body, was not compromised—what problems could I possibly have? At times, I’ve been curious what it would feel like to talk about hardships and have a mother who consoled me, versus one who rendered my experiences trivial. I’m aware of the horrific events that’ve led to her perspective, but I’ve also come to know that any pain I might ever endure will always be eclipsed by hers.

*

Since the rain clouds remained at bay, we saw no reason to cut the tour of Mom’s childhood town short. We turned a corner behind the main street and came upon a set of precipitous concrete stairs leading to the schoolhouse. We began our way up the ninety-four crumbling treads, a slim metal bar, meant for use as a hand rail, ran down the center.

“I used to walk these every day,” Mom said, grinning as she eyed the distance back towards the bottom, “And on the way home, I’d slide down this!” her hand grasped the rail, now rusting in spots.

“It’s a miracle you never fell off and cracked your head!”

We caught our breath as we crested the top step, looking around the empty school yard and the contemporary playground with its vibrant colored jungle gym and bark-chip-covered-ground.

“I did well in school here,” she said. “But when we started moving around, I really struggled. I’d be ahead in one school and behind in another. And my stepdad called me stupid all the time, that I’d never amount to a hill of beans.”

Once Mom entered middle school, their family remained in constant motion, her parents searching for work in factories and mines wherever they could find it. Her mother performed backbreaking labor at every turn; her stepdad often disappeared for months at a time (“on a drunk,” they’d say), showing up for work only when he was sober enough.

As we ambled around the grade school building, Mom’s recollections continued, “We’d move up to Chicago and other kids would make fun of my accent and call me a hillbilly. And we’d move back down here and they’d call me a city slicker.” She kicked a rock, just as I imagined her kid self might have done all those years ago, the stone clacking against pavement, the lone sound in the motionless air. “And you should have seen some of the places we lived! Flooded basements and people’s attics. I was so embarrassed.”

My mom’s ability to survive through it all—the abuse, the loss, the betrayals, the poverty—never ceased to amaze me. She didn’t harm herself or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or even languish in therapy. Beyond that, she was so capable—holding down multiple jobs, keeping us all housed and fed. She was funny and pretty and enjoyed books and music and wanted that for us kids too.

Maybe I don’t know what would happen to me after she’s gone; but I do realize that, although, I am more than just an extension of her, I am still of her—and if she could keep going in spite of everything, I will too.

*

Several months after our visit to West Virginia, an email arrives with the subject line: Sears Monument Co.

The email has a photo attached. It’s a picture of Mom’s finished headstone, installed at her plot in the Sunset Memorial Park. A wave of nausea curdles through my stomach as I slam the photo shut. Tears leak from my eyes: one day she will leave me and lay under that rock.

Pushing my hesitation aside, though, I steel up my nerves and re-open the photo in order to check all the details for accuracy. To make sure it’s perfect for my mom, because that’s what a good daughter does.

Once the proofreading on the front of the stone is complete, I open the second photo displaying the back of the monument and review each spelling in turn, oldest to youngest, until my gaze falls on my own name and lingers there. Noticing the way the M juts upward with a quiet grace, how the t is crossed with purpose. How that word—Melissent—stands there on its own line, separate and alone.

 

By Melissent Zumwalt

Melissent Zumwalt is an artist and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She has been recognized as a Best of the Net finalist and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her written work has appeared in Arkana, Hawaii Pacific Review, Hippocampus, Pithead Chapel, Rappahannock Review and elsewhere. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com