I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person die. I mean in the flesh. I’ve only lost one person close to me—though close might be an overstatement—and that was my brother. I was young and he was always grouchy and all I remember from the day he died is that sterile hospital smell that makes me nauseous.
I’m working on a little mosaic. I bought a stiff sheet of posterboard and everyday when I’m wandering the city streets I hold a newspaper before my face opened to the obituary section. I look at the people’s faces. I’m not interested in their lives their survivors their cause of death. I’m interested in the little black dots that make up their faces. I hold the paper close so the flat ink smell encircles my head and I study the hues of their eyes the dots sewn together into a face darker or lighter and I find those who tonally match my overarching image. A dark patch in the clouds may be a little black girl killed in a car accident (though this isn't so important). The meandering of a river may be the smiling teeth of a hundred old women.
I cut out the faces and glue them onto the poster board. My project is hidden in my closet and my newspaper scraps are buried under a pile of books on my bookshelf.
My mother comes into my room occasionally but she’s never caught me. I need to shield her from the pieces of myself she couldn’t believe. She opens my door over the stretch of unvacuumed carpet and peeks her smiling face inside.
Hi she says. What would you like for dinner?
I don’t know I say. I’m reclining on my bed my feet waving together in their socks. The reassuring smell of an old book hugs my nose.
Do you want to go out?
I’m all right. I’m not really hungry.
Her eyes glimmer and she tosses me a wry smile before scraping the door back closed behind her.
There’s one piece of my mosaic which can't come from the papers. I’m working out a landscape with a sun roaring down upon a deep forest river. Never once have I seen an obituary where the faces could make up the sun. It is too radiant a thing for the blotchy black and white images. I need a picture in full color.
I think I was in the waiting room when my brother died. I remember the little cubbies lined in red carpet—the kind that scratches your palms and stings your throat with detergent. I remember a TV murmuring in the background and the doctor choosing his steps as he entered my cubby. The surge of relief or pain or whatever splashing across my chest when I heard the news.
Mother has an old girlfriend in the hospital. She goes to see her occasionally but never more than that. I see the deep shadows in her cheekbones when she returns. But I must see this woman. And my mother is more than willing to take me. She says it’ll be good for her to see a young face.
But she and I both know that the woman won’t see me at all.
When we first enter the hospital my throat constricts. My stomach gurgles along the long white corridors and when I’m confronted with the brown smell of old age and sweat my head grows light. My father’s old Polaroid camera dangling around my neck weighs upon my chest like a millstone. The woman is in bed—the sharp beep beep of the machine beside her—her hands clasped over the folded sheet and her skin whiter than glowing. It’s dull. The pictures in the obituaries are always so lively taken from the warmer days of the person’s youth not while they’re lying like a corpse with an oxygen tube and an IV.
My mother puts her hand on my shoulder. She can’t see you she says but she can feel you. Touch her hand. Hold it.
I shuffle up to the side of the bed. The wrinkles crease deeply into her face. She isn’t so old they tell me but she looks almost decomposed. Green veins arch high off her hand. I reach out my own and run my fingers over them. The skin is flimsy it's lost its elasticity. It holds my fingertips’ form even after I remove my hand. I pick up her index finger and slowly wrap my knuckles around her middle then her ring then her pinky. They’re cold but I still smell chemicals so I know she’s still alive.
How do you know when a person dies? It’s not from the machines. It’s not when the doctor saunters into your cubby and tells you. It’s because you’re there with them when the smell of the hospital disappears and you’re left with the stink of sweat your mother’s hand in your clammy hand and you’re standing over your brother’s corpse and your eyes exhale all the warmth inside.
I squeeze the woman’s hand and lugging the camera to my eyes with the other hand I train the small black cross between my thumb and her knuckle. Our hands are smaller behind the lens and when the camera spits out the white picture I worry for a moment that it was too bright for the picture to turn out. As if I had arched my sweating back into the sky and snapped a picture of the fullest noontime sun.