Life After Death

by Paul Hile

            Every morning, I sweep the kitchen floor.

            I pull the broom from the cedar peg rack in my dining room and gather small mounds of dirt and dust on the large slate tiles in my kitchen. I have done this every morning since my mother died. 

            The broom was purchased in Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and is a replica of the original flat broom, which was first introduced by the Shakers, a religious movement that made its way to North America in 1774 and thrived in the early 1800s before steadily declining due to their strict commitment to celibacy. My family has been visiting the restored Shaker Village in Kentucky for more than 40 years.

            When I was a child, we would visit twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. At the end of every visit, my mother would buy a new broom and pack it into our blue Toyota minivan, lacing it in between large black duffels and grocery bags filled with dirty laundry.

            Each day, she too would make small piles of dirt around the old kitchen floor and beg me and my brother to avoid them at all costs before ushering them into a pan. The morning after my mother died, this memory swept over me in a fit of grief and in my heartache, I reached for the broom as if it was my mother and I was holding her once more. Except, instead of her large, plush body, I was gripping a narrow and hard wooden handle. 

            My mother died of brain cancer 18 days after my son was born.  Like dark, sleepy shadows, they passed each other by, going opposite directions, without so much as a “hello” or “goodbye.” 

            Neither my mother’s death or my son’s birth were unexpected. In January of 2020, before anyone in the U.S. believed there would be a global pandemic that ravaged our local economies, closed our favorite restaurants and stores, left 30+ million people unemployed, and stole 500,000 lives in our country alone, my wife and I started trying for a second child. I was going to leave my job as a copywriter that coming spring and split my time between running the house and finally finishing my first book. 

            It wasn’t the most fiscally responsible decision, but it made sense for our family; I was craving more time with my daughter and my wife’s career was exploding. Fortune favors promise and I promised her long ago that I would support her in any way possible. 

            A few weeks after we started trying for another baby, I sat down across from my wife at the kitchen table and knew something was different.

            “I think you might be pregnant,” I said. My wife laughed, but within an hour I was at the corner pharmacy picking up a pregnancy test. That evening we wondered aloud whether our daughter Eleanor would have a little brother or sister. 

            We told my mother the news in May over a video call. She was locked away in a memory care facility, unmoored from reality. In 2007, my mother was diagnosed for the first time with CNS Lymphoma, a rare form of brain cancer that develops in lymph tissue and, with time, can spread throughout the body. While doctors were ultimately able to eradicate the four tumors on her brain, the effects of her treatment were harsh and irreversible. Within only a few years, her mobility had vanished. A few years after that, a form of radiation-induced dementia took hold. 

            When we told her about Henry, she said, “Oh, you really aren’t going to name him that, are you?” 

“Well, Eleanor is going to call him baby Hank,” I said, trying to keep the conversation light. Talking to someone with dementia is like trying to navigate choppy water in a small boat. You do your best with the control you don’t have, making micro adjustments to simply stay the course.  “Well, I like that better than Henry,” she said, and the conversation was over. 

            I only saw my mother in person once during the pandemic before Henry was born. For most of the spring and summer, we spoke over video. Each conversation was the same: I would greet her with a forced exuberance in the hopes that my joy might distract her from any anger or sadness or fear she might be stewing in. After our greeting, I would issue my standard apology for having not yet come to pick her up and take her home, and then try to explain what the world looked like outside of her small, confined room. The easiest way to relieve her FOMO was to simply tell her that all the stores and restaurants in town were closed. 

            Two weeks before my wife and I went to the hospital for her induction, I met my mother and one of the nursing facility employees in front of her building. It was only 54 degrees and they hadn’t put my mother in a coat. She looked more frail than I had remembered her being in March. Her hair was gray and unkempt, uncut, though still short –it had never fully grown back after the chemotherapy in 2008. Her eyes were shadows, all form without any substance. Her body, slumped over in the wheel chair, looked unforgiving, indifferent in its betrayal.  Her legs, which hadn’t held the full weight of her body in far too long, were splayed in front of her, bobbing restlessly in the chair’s stirrups. And yet, despite her rough appearance, it was deeply comforting to see her hands tremor in her lap. To watch her shift uncomfortably in her wheelchair. 

            It took my mom nearly 15 minutes to remember who I was. She would say my name as a question, though I understood it to be more of a test. A need to prove my identity before her deteriorating brain would allow her to access far away regions that were known to betray her. I’m not certain she ever truly believed it was me sitting 10 feet in front of her, outside in the cold, but I showed her pictures of the bathrooms I had remodeled over the summer. Pictures of her granddaughter, whom she struggled to remember. I promised her that when the pandemic was over, I would bring her a large pepperoni and mushroom pizza and a pint of moose tracks ice cream.

            “I’ll call you when Henry arrives,” I said, as I stood to leave. 

            “Who is Henry?” she asked but I didn’t bother answering. 

***

 

            My wife’s second pregnancy was challenging not only because she was growing a human during an isolating and deadly pandemic, but because doctors feared our son might have heart block, a condition that prevents the upper two chambers of the heart from communicating the beat to the bottom chambers. I thought of my son as a symphony without any percussion, without a beat to play to. Regardless, I could still hear the music, and so could my wife, so with each passing week as we arrived at the hospital for another ultrasound, another heart echo, the music grew louder as if building to a crescendo we weren’t promised we would ever hear. 

            When Henry arrived, healthy, his heart beating right on time, I set up a video call with the events coordinator at my mother’s nursing home. I hated that I could not just call her on her phone, that she couldn’t simply get in her car and come to the hospital. I hated that the pandemic had driven an even larger wedge between us, but I couldn’t wait to show her my son. Yet, when I reached her via video, she simply stared. She did not react to her son’s voice, or the new sounds of her son’s son cooing and crying. Her face remained expressionless. I pulled the phone back and studied the video wondering if our connection had been frozen, but her eyes blinked, and I knew to hang up. 

            A few days later, my mother was rushed to the hospital after suffering a stroke. Doctors found another large brain tumor, 13 years to the month after her original diagnosis. Henry had only been home for two days when the phone rang. I was bouncing him in the kitchen and passed him along to my wife to take the call, stepping out into the backyard. The grass had grown long, needing a final cut, and already the October leaves had begun to fall. The doctor’s voice waivered as he unpacked my mother’s day. The ambulance ride. Intake. Questions and scans. I could picture my mother through it all and felt a pang of heartache knowing that she had been alone, strapped into a cold, sterile gurney, waiting in some long hospital corridor between one scan and another. I hung up the phone just as my father was walking up the driveway and told him what I knew. His eyes widened; his heart sank. He leaned against the back of my car. We called my brother and he set out planning his trip home. Later that evening, when the doctor called again, we told him we weren’t going to seek treatment and he agreed with relief. Sometimes doing nothing means you’re doing everything. 

            We had always expected a call like this. But even after 13 years of false alarms and worsening health, the return of her brain cancer felt like a betrayal. After so many years of terrible falls that would leave her bleeding, bruised, or broken, bad infections that led to long hospital stays, and worsening delusions, brain cancer felt surreal. She had been in remission for 12 years. Year after year, brain scan after brain scan, at some point, her neurologists had said there was no reason to believe that the cancer would come back. Mom had seemed to defy the odds that cancer would kill her. And yet, in a year where we spent so much time worrying about the Covid-19 virus making landfall in her nursing home, about the efficiency of my son’s heart, in a year filled with so much death, cancer had my mother’s calling card.

            Everything seemed inevitable and impossible all at once. Of course, my mother would die. But was she really going to die from brain cancer? Was she really going to die now, after everything she had been through? After staving off death for so long, and only a few days after her grandson was born, when we hadn’t been able to see her for nearly a year?

             That evening I called my mother’s identical twin sister. I called a few more family members and then I joined my dad while he spoke with his own mother. Hearing the pain in their voices was an anchor. It allowed me to feel the weight of my own pain by validating my worst fears. Yes, the cancer was back. Yes, that was very bad news. Yes, my mother was going to die. Yes, I should feel sad and angry and scared.

            That night, with my son asleep in the bassinet next to our bed, and my daughter asleep in her room next door, I felt a growing guilt take hold in my chest and had the urge in that moment to wake up my children and apologize. Apologize for bringing them into this world where so much grief and heartache dwells. Apologize that they too might have to one day tell doctors that they no longer want to seek treatment for their father or mother.

            After all, they did not ask to be brought into this world, but they are here all the same. How could I hold my newborn son and promise him I would always be here to protect him, when the very woman that had given me life, was nowhere to be found?

            Time blurred. Days neither seemed to start or stop. We moved my mother into hospice, and I split my days between caring for my newborn son and caring for my dying mother. The line between birth and death, it turns out, is thin. In the days after my son was born, his eyes remained closed to the world except for the occasional moment when he opened them to discover where a sound came from. He was oddly silent, making few noises save for small cries when needing food or sleep. He offered us nothing except for his presence, which became increasingly comforting. 

            When we were allowed to finally visit my mother in hospice, her eyes sat fixed a few feet ahead of her and, like her new grandson, she hardly moved. In the coming days, her eyes remained shut as she spent more and more of each day sleeping. Experts call this “going inward”. She could no longer speak, so she made short, breathy pleas for water. I sat with her, the nearness of her body to my body a comforting gift I hadn’t felt in 9 months and soon would lose forever. 

            I am not certain what I thought would happen when my mother died. When my son was born, I watched in awe at the power of the universe on display as my wife brought new life into this world. I reached for my son to feel his body. I wept and wept as he fell asleep on her chest, murky in the liquids that kept him alive and growing for 10 months, laying still as nurses and midwives and doctors circled around us, in orbit, trying with urgency to stop my wife’s bleeding, to deliver the placenta, to cut the cord, to change the linens. Henry’s arrival was like an explosion, a big bang that created new life. He was undoubtedly here, with flesh and bones and soul. He was the beginning of something new, something that would grow and change and evolve.

            And my mother’s death was an absence, a black hole, suffocating in its darkness. A world, a life, retreating into itself until there was nothing behind her eyes except bone and organ. Her breaths became extremely labored. The room was desperate with sorrow, the only sounds were the music we played to send her off, Nat King Cole’s Christmas album, and my throaty cries. 

            I am not certain what I expected to happen when my mother died, but I wanted something. Maybe I thought the earth would shift, or the night sky would fill with a crack of light as if it were a muggy summer night and a midwestern storm had just rolled in, loud in its purpose. I remember watching her body as she took her final breath and wondered where her soul had gone, wondered why I hadn’t seen it leave her body. But there were no answers. There was only stillness.

 

***

            If cleanliness is next to godliness, then I continue to look for my mom in the small piles of dirt and dust, leaves and dog kibble that gather on my kitchen floor in the early hours as morning churns. When I’m done sweeping, I make coffee and see my wife out the door for work. I cook eggs and feed my daughter breakfast, all while holding my newborn son.

            The dirt and dust will return in only a few hours, the cycle of cleaning never-ending, but I don’t mind. The messiness of my children and our home is proof of life. Evidence that we are well and alive, living and moving. It’s a moment of control in an otherwise busy, chaotic world. I wonder if my mom ever felt this way, or if she always saw sweeping as a chore. I wouldn’t blame her if she did; my brother and I were constantly tracking in mud and grass from the yard, leaving black streaks across the linoleum and tile from the wheels of our roller blades.

            Maybe one day, too, I might tire of it, all this sweeping, but for now it’s a gentle reminder that the world keeps moving forward. If I’m lucky, my children might remember these small, quiet, early morning moments, and me, when they are older, and I am no longer here. Perhaps brooms will remind them I was always there, prepared to help clean up the messiness of life without question.

About the Author

Paul Hile is a writer based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After 8 years spent working as a copywriter in advertising, Paul become a stay-at-home father. He now spends his days writing, exploring our local nature preserves with my children, cooking, cleaning, and hosting fantastical tea parties.