Author’s Note: “I spent the first six months of the pandemic with my parents, helping to care for my dementia-afflicted mother. In therapy they encourage you to personify your anxiety, and so I came to see death as an obnoxious pest with whom I squabble constantly, while holding fast to love and beauty. Writing this story was therapeutic for me – but the character of Brett is pure fiction!”
DEATH IS NOT A GRIM REAPER. You know because you are watching it now across the table. It is an orange sponge, and it floats to the right of your mother, leaching small things at first. Phone number recall. Range of motion in the fourth finger. An aversion to oversalting. These absences occur on the margins. But over time, greater things go missing. Bearings. Empathy. Nouns. The sponge swells. Sometimes it teases you by releasing a damp spot, a trickle. Death winks at you through your confusion. Death says, You didn’t know I could breathe?
You would think Death would be a straight line, but it is a squiggle. It forces you around curves and spirals. Here you are, dancing with your mother to Mighty Sparrow. She is swinging her hips to Jean and Dinah, and today, for the first time all week, she is recalling the lyrics you feared she had forgotten. Her dimples deepen as she sings out the punchline: “De Yankees gone and Sparrow tek ova now.” Death watches from the broom corner, tapping off-rhythm. You see, you say, over your mother’s shoulder. We’re winning. Stay back. Death denies you the courtesy of a rebuttal.
Your mother is 78. Five years ago, she was driving, julienning. Now her memory is seconds long and she does not recognize herself in photographs. But her father lived to be 90, her mother to 98. Both minds intact until the end.
You’re early, you say to Death. Wrong genetic code.
Death shrugs. Take it up with the one who made the manifest.
Everything your mother used to be remains within her, sealed off behind a wall of amyloid plaque. Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition, the neurologist has explained. It swallows the brain like a fog, or a creeper vine.
It swallows the brain like amyloid plaque, Death says. I’m not big on metaphors.
Brick by brick, the plaque wall goes up.
You scramble to erect a wall on the other side, a wall to seal Death out. Everything you can lay hands on. Donepezil. Coconut oil. Beethoven for the Brain. Steelpan and maracas. Daily walks and stationary bikes. Journals. Legos. Photo albums. Family Zooms. Each achievement, brick by brick, your wall goes up.
If we can’t have her, you can’t either, you scream. Death looks on, impressed.
Between the two walls flows the essence of your mother, the parts of her that neither side can win or tame. Aphasia may have stolen her words, but it has not dulled the wit with which she forms her cheeky asides, even in moth-eaten sentences.
You watch with Death as your mother addresses her reflection in the bedroom mirror, thinking that it is another person.
“How are you?” she smiles at the face in the mirror. “You got a…a naughty?”
When the face does not respond, she drops her voice conspiratorially.
“Tell me,” she coaxes, in a near-whisper. “Our secret.”
You debate whether to answer for the reflection, just to keep up the conversation. You find yourself jealous of the face in the mirror.
In the middle of the night, as you sit in the dark on the toilet, Death tells you: I am an angel of mercy. That was my formal training.
You say: Let me pee in peace. You don’t know the meaning of the word.
But you know that things could be worse. In your weekly Alzheimer’s caregivers’ support group, other members speak of loved ones wandering off or turning violent, stabbing themselves with forks or altering wills under the influence of perfumed home aides. People forget how to sit, how to swallow. They forget the names of their children. Your mother calls you Spooks, your childhood nickname, but laughs when you say you are her daughter. This is mercy.
The support group has moved online because of the pandemic. Some of the members, including Brett, your favorite group member, have parents in nursing homes. The nursing home where Brett’s father lives has made news for its high death rate, and Brett has not been able to visit in months. On the chat, Brett looks gaunt and bloated at the same time. When he breaks down mid-testimonial, his Zoom square freezes, and his upper lip stays curled in anguish like a Kara Walker figure. The other members listen helplessly to his wheezing sobs. The group leader sighs. Your hand instinctively reaches for the tissue box that would normally sit at the center of the group circle.
Of course, it is a mercy that your mother is not in a nursing home. She is here, in her own house, a house she no longer knows. She follows as you march her through a tour of her own walk-in closet, stuffed with the evidence of her past life, items she chose back when she could choose. She looks dispassionately at the once-favorite earrings you show her, at the rows of shoes that rouse no recollection. The gowns and purses and hair ornaments pass beneath her gaze like artifacts in a diorama.
Do you get what you’re hoping for? When you look behind you, there’s no open door.
The closet is humid with Death’s low-slung cloud. It is here that you feel your mother’s absence most, standing next to her amid the orderly wreckage of a life joyfully lived and summarily abandoned after the stroke. You hold her hand, straddle the gulf between the two, and breathe deep. Your mother looks at you like a puppy awaiting command. She does not register the despair in your eyes.
What are you hoping for? Do you know?
You clear your nostrils and think of a Megan Thee Stallion song as you guide your mother back downstairs.
Megan lost her mother young, Death remarks, apropos of fuck all.
Downstairs in the kitchen, your father is extricating corn kernels and cherry tomatoes from your mother’s store-bought salad. He slices open each tomato, scoops out the seeds, and puts the hollowed-out tomato back in the bowl. Doctors have confirmed that kernels and seeds are not hazardous to your mother’s intestines, and you yourself have repeatedly pointed out to him that salads can be ordered without corn or tomatoes. But salad surgery has become an essential ritual for your father. It is as productive for him as the closet tours are futile for you.
All day, the COVID casualties mount on cable news. Old and young, black and brown, fit and immunocompromised, the body bags pile up in double-parked freezer trucks.
Busy season, you quip bitterly.
The scale of it exhausts me, Death replies.
Late that night, instead of sleeping, you check on Brett, your favorite support group member. Brett is Caribbean (Jamaican), like you (Bajan), divorced, like you. Unlike you, Brett has not moved back home to quarantine with his parents. He has remained in the city, in the apartment where his wife and sons left him last year, an apartment that now suffocates him. Like you, Brett has trouble sleeping, and so you text each other late at night and trade stories of the way your mother and his father used to be. You talk about the other members of the group, of the steadiness of your group leader.
You talk about sex. Missing it, having it, possibly with each other, post-pandemic. Before lockdown, your talks had been veering in that direction. You had started to notice how Brett lingered, how he would time the buttoning of his coat to coincide with your picking up of your bag. You would walk to the elevator together, chat in the lobby. Pause, hold each other’s gaze.
Now the pandemic has foreshortened this delicate pas deux, and here you are, stuffing your phone down your pajamas.
What is the point, you hear Death intone as the flash goes off under the comforter.
Go away, you hiss. Your phone vibrates. You examine the dick pic Brett has just sent, the first penis your eyes have beheld in months. It is an object of glory, luminously hued, masterfully proportioned. Instantly you regret the weeks you both have wasted in Victorian lash-batting and cuff-straightening.
He leans to the left! you gush.
So what, Death replies. There’s a pandemic. Who knows when you’ll be able to even touch it, let alone ride it.
Brett sends a tongue emoji in response to your pussy shot, but the moment drains away. Death hovers thick breathed over the floral bedding, over your tangled desires, over the pair of genitalia photos stacked diagonally on your screen, boxed off from each other, borders unbreached. You make up an excuse about checking on your mother and end the chat.
The days slosh by like stale frying oil. Coagulating in spots, pooling in others. With the world on pause there is no sense of falling behind, only of being constrained together. Stuffed together into a cannon with an unlit fuse, waiting in the dark.
Again, with the metaphors, says Death. I take it you find them useful.
You ignore the taunt as you slip your mother’s walking shoes onto her feet.
“Look how pretty today is,” you say to her. “Let’s go and see what the neighbors are up to.”
Your mother’s smile lights up the breakfast room. It is still possible to tap into her sense of adventure. The excitement in your voice lifts her.
“Let’s go,” she giggles.
You stroll the tree-lined walkways together, arm in arm, making up gossip about each home you pass. Your mother laughs breezily and lands her comebacks with effort. As the spring sun warms your faces, it occurs to you that your mother’s days have not been sloshing like old frying oil; they have maintained their structure and rhythm. She is unaware of the pandemic, unaware that you have been lodging here for months. Moments are the meter of her life. A chain of good moments adds up to a good day, only she is not keeping score. All that matters for her is the quality of now.
Her life is not viscous frying oil. It is glints of sunlight and moonlight on the surface of the sea. Your life, and the lives of those around you, stuffed into a cannon, your mother, in her world of now, regular as the glinting tides.
Nature, too, has kept its pace. It has reclaimed the neighborhood lawns. Baby bunnies watch without wariness as you pass: with the world on lockdown, they have not learned fear. You keep a steady gait so as not to startle them. Robins trill in the trees. Even the earthworms look cheerful as they turn the soil along the path. A monarch butterfly poses on a blade of grass.
All this as you roam the quiet subdivision with your mother, her collarbone gleaming, your Afro big and bushy. Life as a Kerry James Marshall painting.
Fancy, Death says. I was going to say Disney cartoon. Bambi or Jungle Book.
Now who’s dropping metaphors?
You laugh, you and Death, the birdsong warping in your ear.
Your mother starts to sing nonsense syllables to a familiar tune. She waves at a masked couple pushing a stroller on the opposite sidewalk. Your mother is strong, an extrovert who loves children; you pray she does not use the bicep power you have only recently discovered in her to drag you across the street within six feet of these strangers. You distract her by launching into an off-key version of the song she has been singing. She stares at you, astonished, then bursts out laughing.
A bunny, a baby, a birdsong, a bad song. The daisy chain of a happy afternoon. You lean on your mother’s toned arm and take a deep breath, feeling the living world expand with your lungs.
That night, in the small hours, an idea stirs you awake: you must form a COVID pod with Brett. Past time to fall in line with nature. To slough off the rankness of this pandemic that itches like an unwashed shroud. Nature commands that you touch and be touched. That you fuck like the rabbits and writhe like the earthworms.
And don’t you start, you spit at Death, crouched in the predawn indigo.
Your parents. His father.
Is that a threat?
You give me too much credit sometimes. Other times not enough.
Stay out of this.
You text Brett before you lose your nerve. Your phone buzzes before you can put it back down: God, yes. When? How?
With fevered urgency, the pair of you start to plan. Brett will close his place and drive down from the city. You locate an Airbnb across the park from your parents’ subdivision, within running distance. He’ll quarantine. You’ll each test twice: first when he arrives, and again five days later. After that, you’ll see each other for two hours each morning, early, before your house awakens, before your mother’s night nurse leaves. Your morning workout time. For the next few months, your morning workouts will be each other.
In group session that week, you and Brett smize conspiratorially at each other’s Zoom squares. You sext each other on WhatsApp while other members reveal their pain. One woman has been laid off from her third job, which she had taken to fund her mother’s care. The group leader has lost a godson in Ohio. Somebody’s someone is in a ward they cannot visit. The pandemic has invaded the sanctuary of solace that has held your group apart from the world. Grief crushes in from all sides, mingling with your peculiar, protracted mourning.
You listen, your inner sunniness out of place amid all this ash. You cough to lift the ash that is starting to settle in your chest.
“Are you okay?” someone asks, with barely veiled alarm. “I think so,” you reply.
“Was that a cough or a sneeze?”
“Sneezing’s not a symptom,” someone else says.
“Who knows anymore. They change it every damn day.” “Are you implying she has coronavirus?”
“Why you say it like that? Ain’t no stigma. She got it, she got it.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Friends, let’s focus,” the group leader tries.
“So, we’re catching it through screens now. Okay.”
“I don’t have COVID, guys,” you say.
You text Brett a facepalm emoji. His reply is a face with a water droplet.
“This is all just… a lot,” you hear him say quietly. “It’s a lot.”
There is a silence, and the group resets. You try to read his expression. You cannot be sure if the droplet is meant to be sweat or tears.
Days later, the two of you stand two car widths apart in the parking lot of the clinic where you will take the first test. You are masked, almost shy, as you take each other in. Brett has lost weight, to an extent that in Barbados would be considered “falling away.” But you tell him he looks good enough to eat, because he does.
“It’s your appetite talking. I’m hungry, too,” he says, remnants of his Jamaican accent flattening the word into hungrih. Right away, your fog-proof face shield starts to fog. You have trouble telling whether his eyes are sparkling, or the sunlight is glancing off his glasses.
You take the earlier appointment and leave immediately afterward. You and Brett have agreed to keep your distance until you can talk horizontally. At the stoplight on the way home, you apply abundant sanitizer and flick your fingers dry in a semicircle, casting a spell of protection.
That afternoon, you prance while your mother plays low G on her steelpan for 40 minutes. You praise her like a parent at a recital. She brightens when you recount her musical achievements on the pan, the piano, the shak-shak, the flute, all fictitious, no matter.
“You had people twirling in the streets. Remember, Mum?”
“Everything you play sounds sweet,” you say, peppering her forehead with kisses.
“Where you get all that talent? How come none ain’t rub off on me? I jealous. Teach me, nuh.”
Your mother laughs, beginning in a low rumble. Her belly starts to quake. Then she throws her head back and peals. Your father runs in to see what the commotion is. When he finds her cackling with the pan stick in her hand, you feel the atmospheric pressure of the house recalibrate.
Your buoyancy over the next four days is medicinal. Mere proximity to dick has turned you into a joy machine. It has improved your sleep hygiene and raised your oxygen levels. You wallow less, check in on friends more. You bring uncharacteristic focus to your work. In the evenings, you make vegan dulce de leche for your parents with coconut milk, lucuma powder, and pureed cashews. Everyone’s sugar goes down. Your father starts choosing Netflix comedies over crime shows. The ripple effects of sex you are yet to have prompt dreams of miracles to come.
The first test comes back negative, and you exchange thumbs-up emoji. When you go for the second, Brett is not there because you have scheduled the appointments separately. As soon as the second test results come back negative, you send him a tongue-out emoji. He replies with a checkered flag.
You are still panting from your run when Brett opens the door in shorts and pulls you in. True to his word, the man is as hungrih as you. The mechanics of how he lifts you in a single motion straight out of your running shoes and tights and panties and wraps you around his waist and carries you over to the couch and places you down and unsheathes the magnificent left-leaning dick and kisses you while sliding on the condom and drops to his knees and buries his beard in your bush and teases your clitoris with his tongue for the ten seconds it takes you to come and then penetrates you as you fling your right thigh over the back of the couch and writhe like earthworms for the seventeen seconds it takes him to come and holds you as you tumble onto the floor still joined at the crotch and cry-laugh and clean up in the bathroom and switch condoms and go at it again on the sink and then the dining table before you check the time and haul on your panties and tights and shoes and kiss him goodbye until tomorrow is something that does not enter your thoughts until you have panted your way back home, after which you think of nothing else for the balance of the day.
Good sex lights in you an undousable flame. Your elation runneth over. Loading the dryer while your mother naps upstairs, you notice a pair of squirrels having sex in the tree outside the laundry room. They fuck with clinical efficiency, separating and recoupling in brief bursts. Perfunctory. Titterless. Zero evidence that either party is into it. Mating season is here for the rabbits, the earthworms, the squirrels and, now, for you. But perhaps nature has given you the edge.
“Life is Good.” You read out the slogan on your father’s T- shirt as you toss it into the dryer, and you laugh long and loud so that Death, wherever it has disappeared to, can hear.
Yet it is not triumph that you feel. You have not bested COVID because you happen to have arranged a workaround. The pandemic has spread to the middle of the country. People are starting to die deaths of caustic irony. Doctors who publicly declare the virus a hoax are gone in weeks. Big, defiant weddings turn into superspreader events. The president and his men end up in the hospital. Observing these developments in the light of your new routine, you feel all the more dwarfed by the grand turbine of life as you thrash and flail through its cycles, grateful for every day you manage to avoid the blades of its motor.
Brett feels this way too. You surmise this from his constant weeping. When he buries his face between your breasts, his tears dry a different grade of salt from your sweat. Whether he is laughing or ejaculating or squinting to read the time on the microwave clock, his eyes are never not brimming. At first this unnerves you, but, as with much of life under a pandemic, you make room for the discomfort. Besides, grief and depression have been your common currency from the start, even before COVID. You have never experienced each other in any other state. You have never seen each other happy.
“How is your father?” you ask one day as you lie in bed, playing in each other’s hair. You have been missing his dad updates since you no longer talk on the phone overnight and the two-hour morning trysts have proven tight. You miss the chats and also do not want him to feel objectified, to imagine that he is to you but a heaving, left-leaning scratching post.
He sighs a quivering sigh. A tear escapes onto the pillow.
“You have absolutely no idea how tough it’s been,” he says.
“You don’t,” he whispers. “When you leave here, you run home to your mother and father. You get to see them every day.”
You caress his cheek. “One day,” you whisper. “Is he okay?”
“The only way I know he’s alive is they don’t call me yet to say he’s dead.”
“They don’t check in with you?”
“They’re overworked. No time. Of course, he can’t make heads or tails of his cellphone. I just can’t find a reliable way to get to him. And COVID is rampaging through that place. Might as well be a morgue with a waiting room.”
He shakes his head, spilling more tears. You watch him with an aching heart.
Happy?! you scream at Death. Angel of fucking mercy?
Death wafts up from the pillow in evaporated saline, too scant to catch a punch.
“Baby,” you whisper. You draw Brett close. You have to leave in nine minutes. You consider initiating a consolation blow job, but that feels wrong. Your hand travels down and gives his soccer-toned behind a squeeze.
Into your clavicle, he says, “The whole world is a morgue with a waiting room. You’re either dead or pre-dead.”
The phrase chills you. Still, you reply: “We’ll get through. We’ll make it.”
He draws back. His watery reddish eyes scan yours.
“That is metaphysically impossible,” he says with the weariness of a dentist imploring a patient to floss. “You. Me. Everyone in the group has spent years watching our parents waste away. People who used to be able to do the things you and I do here. They won’t get through or make it. None of us will. Absolutely nothing lasts in this world. Not us, not health, love, vows, nothing. Don’t matter what you do.”
In another time, before COVID, before your mother’s diagnosis, watching a lover disintegrate before you like this would have melted you. Lately you have begun to wonder whether you have lost the ability to cry. You try in vain to remember the last time. Can it be that you are depleted, so early into middle age? Some sorrows run deeper than the bottom of the well.
You take Brett’s face in your hands, kiss his salty beard, and press his cheek against yours. He is crying again. You pull him close one more time, but there will be no graceful winding down. Time is up. You have to go.
He pads to the bathroom as you make your way to the front door. It is a misty morning, the kind one might have enjoyed spending in bed with a man like Brett. It has been only a week or so since your arrangement began, but already you are settling into a cozy familiarity. So, what if he drips like a rainforest. You can accept that. You know from your time in group that trying to cheer the despondent can be a form of selfishness in disguise: it is one’s own discomfort, not theirs, that one is often seeking to cure. You allow yourself to look forward to the day when it is safe for you and Brett to return to the city and see what this might become.
You hear the shower start up as you slip on your socks. Like you, Brett has been working remotely, but how he spends the rest of his days is unclear. You think about the carefully choreographed day ahead: home to shower and make breakfast, then to supervise your mother’s reading while you work, then a quick session on her stationary bike, then one of your father’s doctored salads for lunch, followed by a nap, and so on. Steelpan in the evening. Baked cod for dinner. A Nollywood drama with your dad once the night nurse puts your mother to bed. You wonder what it is like for Brett to fill these hours.
You are lacing up your shoes when Brett’s phone vibrates on the entry table next to you. Instinctively, you glance at the screen:
HI BRETT, LOOKS LIKE YOU’VE MISSED YOUR COVID+ CONSULTATION. REMEMBER, NOTIFYING CLOSE CONTACTS OF THEIR EXPOSURE TO COVID-19 CAN HELP LIMIT THE SPREAD IN YOUR COMMUNITY. REPLY ‘YES’ TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE YOUR DIAGNOSIS.
The blood rushes to your eardrums. You snatch the phone and scroll up the text thread:
HI BRETT, LOOKS LIKE YOU’VE MISSED YOUR COVID+ CONSULTATION. REMEMBER …
HI BRETT, LOOKS LIKE YOU’VE MISSED YOUR COVID+ …
HI BRETT, LOOKS LIKE YOU’VE MISSED …
YOUR COVID PCR TEST IS: POSITIVE. REPLY ‘HELP’ TO ARRANGE A CONSULTATION.
You barge through the bathroom door and find Brett balled up on the floor of the tub, clutching a bar of soap under the shower stream. Orange-scented suds froth down his knuckles.
“You have it?!” you scream. “You fucking have COVID?!”
He does not register your presence.
“Answer me!” you yell. You fling the phone at him. It dings off the metal frame of the tub door and lands on the bathmat. Brett lifts his wet head from his knees without looking at you.
“Have it, don’t have it, it’s the same,” he says. “Heavy same way.”
“You asshole! You know I live with two elderly parents, right?”
“This nah living,” he mutters. “Long time me and you stop live.”
It is enough. You lunge forward to throttle him where he sits, but it crosses your mind that he is infected now. Instead, you start to throw everything you can lay hands on: a basket of beach shells, a toothbrush, a tub of hair gel, the wastebasket, the plunger. He protects his head with his arms as the missiles land.
“Speak for your asshole self!” you shout, as you lay waste. “You can be pre-dead all you want, but I am alive, and I plan to stay that way!”
You kick the tub door as hard as you can, causing him to flinch. The door fails to crack.
“I’m pressing charges,” you inform his bowed head. “Reckless endangerment. Feel free to kill yourself.”
You hear a gasp as you storm off.
It is only when you are out of the house that your knees start to buckle. You make it to the park and sink onto the sidewalk, hyperventilating. Your head throbs.
Get up, you command. Now.
You fumble for your phone.
Your father answers groggily. “Morning, sweetheart.”
“Dad,” you begin. “Dad, you and Mum need to go get tested right away. As soon as the clinic opens. I’ve been…exposed.”
“What? When? How?”
His confusion cracks your chest wall. You slap your forehead to shake out the words.
“A…I just got a notification for contact tracing,” you say wildly. “A cashier from, like, the sup— the liquor store, or something. They must have got my number from the…”
The story trails off.
“What?” repeats your father.
A line of ants proceeds along the sidewalk crack under your shoe. Their disgust is palpable.
“I don’t know,” you say. “Maybe it’s nothing. I’m going to isolate in the basement. Just in case. Don’t touch anything. Watch Mum.”
You hang up before his next question, and an old photo of your mother fills the screen. She is about your age, luminous and smiling, hair glossy, skin plump, the very embodiment of health. No pandemic to navigate, not then, not now. Whereas you, reckless contaminant that you are, have shrunk your chances of ever again being worthy of serving as a screensaver.
Take these ants instead, you plead with Death, as it settles in mist on the back of your neck and the base of your tights. If it’s all the same to you.
Breathe, Death replies, massaging your pressure points.
Please. I took precaution. Don’t punish us for living. It’s our job to grasp at life. The rabbits and the earthworms.
Death says, Do you know the lifespan of a suburban rabbit? All the animals you saw are dead.
I don’t believe you!
You begin to cry as you rise to your feet, tears merging with mist.
Andie Davis is a Barbadian-Antiguan writer and global development advisor for the United Nations. The story “Orange,” in the 14th annual Delmarva Review, is semi-autobiographical. Her writing began as an exercise in coping with the dual grief of the pandemic and her mother’s worsening dementia.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Financial support comes from sales, tax-deductible contributions, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.
Letters to Editor
Beth Lawton says
Wow, powerful story – thanks for sharing.
Powerful and articulate expose. Is there a continuation published anywhere?