Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Being an editor bonds you with the other editors on your team: you discuss the full range of human emotions and taboo topics, inadvertently revealing yourself through your preferences and obsessions. It’s vulnerable work. And just when you think you might be able to keep some parts of your emotional life private, this story by Rob Travieso is on the agenda, and you cry in front of each other on a video call.
Look, the story is called “Mom’s Ashes.” The mom dies; she’s already dead when the story begins, and it is really, really sad. Heartbreakingly sad. Cry-at-work sad. But being sad is not what makes this story great. What makes this story great is the mind and heart Travieso has crafted for his young narrator, a boy who blames himself for his mom’s death because her tumor was discovered after they bonked heads, causing her nose to bleed uncontrollably.
Travieso’s propulsive sentences and ability to select the perfect detail make the story rich and surprising, while the narrator’s circuitous reasoning and self-awareness avoid any risk of being maudlin or saccharine. Mom’s feet, under the sheet in the hospital bed, are “little peaks.” Her protracted illness is characterized by the pull-out couch where she rides out the pain, drugged in front of the TV. Understanding his guilt is a product of magical thinking, the narrator reasons: “I guess it was just hard to accept the inevitability of the pull-out, the fact that she would have ended up on that pull-out no matter what we did.”
The ordinariness of that description, of their home and the remote in Mom’s hand, in the face of the extraordinariness, even sublimity, of death, gives “Mom’s Ashes” its central, unresolvable tension. That, and the gradual understanding that the narrator’s mom is his mom but also a human, independent of him, and the clock is running out on his chance to get to know her.
At the end of her life, the book she is reading, an old high school classic by Edith Warton, becomes a key to her private mind, to her pleasures and her missed opportunities. “Mom’s Ashes” is the story of her son recounting the slow shock of a loved one dying, and trying to find her, and himself, in the details of her last days.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Edith Wharton Was Mom’s Love Language
“Mom’s Ashes” by Robert Travieso
At first I thought I was the one that killed her. In the hospital, they couldn’t get her nose to stop bleeding, so they made her stay overnight. And there were all these nurses taking turns coming into the room, and she had an IV, and my dad was holding an ice pack under her nostrils, and her eyes were already black. And nobody was saying it but I’m looking at my mother and she’s barely conscious and sort of babbling and pushing the little red button for more pain relief and I can feel a bruise on my forehead that’s the exact shape of her nose bridge, so…yeah, I thought I’d made it all happen, somehow. Even later on, I thought that, for a while. And I kept thinking all these stupid thoughts that anyone would think, if they’d done what I’d done, like, How badly did I really need that glass of water? Or, What if I’d just allowed myself to be parched for a little while longer, or just waited to see if my thirst went away, or, if I was still thirsty, just gotten up to get myself a drink after everyone else had gone to sleep? The sort of run-on thoughts where you stay inside each one for as long as you can because you don’t want to go on to the next one.
And she was just trying to give me a kiss goodnight. And it must have been a million-to-one shot. And she went down so hard, and by the time I sat up to look at her, she was already on my bedroom floor, with her chin pointed up at me and blood pouring out of her nose. And the only way I can describe it is, not real seeming. It was like—I think I literally said “Jeez” out loud. Like, “Jeez.”
“She’ll be fine,” my dad said, sitting there across from me at the hospital, because what else could he say? You get on the train, you make your stops. Most conversations are predetermined in some way. People say the thing they have to say when they have to say it, and you’re supposed to believe them, even though you know they’re just saying what they’re saying because they have to. And even if you don’t believe them—and I only half-believed my dad—you can’t even be mad at them for lying. Because they have to.
But in that moment, just because of the way my dad was looking at me and trying to be all strong and dad-like despite his own probably super-concerned feelings, I could sense my eyes welling up like I was about to cry and I did that thing where you just go, No! No! NO! internally until the feeling goes away, like you’re scolding a bad dog. We were sitting on either side of the bed and my mom was sleeping between us, and her feet were making these identical skinny triangle peaks under the covers. I reached out and gave one of the peaks a little squeeze and a shake, I guess just to make sure it was really her in there, and she made a little noise in her sleep, like, ahhhhhhllright sweetie, or hooooookay darling, something like that, a typical mom noise, I think she was just even in her sleep trying to be like, I’m here, I’m here for you, don’t worry, don’t worry, which just made me feel even worse.
And then I looked over and my dad was holding her other foot in exactly the same way. And I mean exactly the same way, same hand placement and everything, like our hands were positioned on her feet at DNA-levels of exactitude. And normally I’m against that sort of thing, I don’t even like it when two people pet a dog at the same time, it’s creepy, it’s like you’re double-teaming or molesting the dog—but this time I liked it, or, it felt good. It’s not that I liked it, it just felt like we were all connected somehow, I guess because we literally were connected. Me, her, him. Kid, Mom, Dad, connected. And I thought, Okay, here’s Mom. Good old Mom. And here’s her foot. But then over there, there’s Dad, and that’s a wife’s foot he’s holding. And I can’t really explain why that felt like such a big discovery, but it did. It really did. Like, how could someone be two different people at the exact same time? And not just two. Four, five, six, twenty different people. I had this urge to say something, to see if the math was the same out loud as it was in my head, but the only one there to talk to was my dad, and I didn’t really want to get into it with him, not with the lump still in my throat, and not with him looking so increasingly trembly-chested and whatnot, so we just sat there and held her feet without talking.
After two nights in the emergency room, the doctor said we could take her home, and thank heaven for thirsty sons and all that, or else they’d never have found it, and so we set up the pull-out downstairs and dragged the TV in and got all her books and things, and she got into bed and then…just kind of never left. It was weird. For a while I wished we’d never put her in there. I thought if we hadn’t put her in the pull-out, if we’d just sent her back to work or asked her to cook us dinner, it would have been different, she would have worked her way past it and recovered, which I knew was crazy even as I thought it. Or if I’d never head-butted her. That whole thing again. But I guess it was just hard to accept the inevitability of the pull-out, the fact that she would have ended up on that pull-out no matter what we did.
Anyway, she had her books and her tissues and her phone and the TV and everything was in piles, and everything was organized in and around the pull-out; that’s where we had dinner, where I did my homework, everything, and it was like our house was down to just that one room, and Mom was in the middle. And Dad was on the landline nonstop, and we didn’t even really use the landline at that point anymore, and then we started getting lasagnas and seven layer dips from neighbors and people I hadn’t seen in years—all Dad’s college friends, and all the ladies Mom went to book club with. And that’s when I basically knew. Like if you’re a sick little kid and Lebron James stops by the hospital while you’re getting your blood drawn just to hang out and maybe give you a balloon, that’s when you know it’s over. I always wondered about those guys, those Make-A-Wish guys. Didn’t they ever feel like they were just harbingers of death? Or maybe at that point everyone has already just accepted it. But I always wondered, even the dying kid? Did he accept it too?
After a while my mom’s book club friends dropped off, because there wasn’t really that much for them to do, they mostly just sat around talking with themselves around the pull-out, like a book club where my mom just happened to be asleep the whole time. But my dad’s friends kept coming, at night now when Mom was asleep, and they’d sit in the backyard on fold out chairs and you could tell they didn’t really know what to do or say so they just drank, like, so much beer, and they set up a projector to watch sports on a sheet strung up between two trees, and my dad would sit out there with his friends watching basketball and they would drink and drink and he would get drunker than I’d ever seen him before. And that sounds so maudlin—that’s a word I just started to use, I looked it up and it was perfect, the perfect word I was looking for—but it wasn’t maudlin, not at first, because at first actually it was sort of fun, they set up a cornhole and started using the grill or else brought Mexican food and it was like a little party at our house every night. I’d stay out there for a while and then it would be my bedtime. But my window looked right out into the backyard and I’d stay up late, looking at them talking and roughhousing and acting like kids, getting beers from the cooler, laughing, yelling, hugging each other, peeing in the bushes, tossing a football around in the little half circle they’d arranged in front of the projector, and then when it was basically totally dark except for the porch lights they’d leave, one by one. And then it would just be my dad out there, drinking, sitting for a while and then getting up and going to the cooler, and me, at the window, watching him. And yeah, that was a little maudlin. But it felt all right, I felt okay with the maudliness of it all. And then in the morning even though I always fell asleep at the window, I’d wake up in my bed. And that was that for actually a pretty long time. Like most of the summer, I guess.
But then in the fall truly the weirdest thing happened. It was just me and Mom one day, so it must have been a Saturday, or else I’d have been at school. And I had this sort of niggling feeling in my head, like something was increasingly wrong, or just not right, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was—like there was an absence, or something I couldn’t see, like a buoy clanging in the fog. You can’t see the buoy, but you can hear it, that’s the point of a buoy, it tells you where it is, that’s what it’s for. We were watching Grantchester. “Mom,” I said. “Hey, can I ask you something?” And it was just this funny feeling I had, this hunch. It’s not like we’d even spoken that much. She’d gotten almost spookily into Grantchester. Looking back I guess she was just trying to stay calm, trying to find a way to breathe for a while inside the least rapey police procedural she could find. “Hey, Mom,” I said, and tapped her on the shoulder. “Look at me for a sec.”
And so she looked at me. She hit pause on her show, and I can still see the face of the guy from Grantchester, this very handsome vicar guy who solves crimes. His mouth is open like he’s just hit upon this huge case-breaking discovery, which was weird because that’s exactly how I felt.
“Hey,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” she said. She put her thumb on the play button.
I didn’t know how to say it, so I just said it. “Hey Mom,” I said. “What’s my name?”
She was just staring at the paused screen. I could see her heartbeat in her neck veins. The vicar guy was standing in front of one of those perfect gardens with bridges and little stone pathways that you only see in TV shows set in England. “Yeah. You know,” I said, trying to find a casual way to slide into my next thought, “Just because, you know, I just kind of want to hear you say it.”
“Honey,” she said. But then she didn’t say anything after that. It was pretty late in the afternoon. I have no idea why we were the only ones home, why I was just sitting there watching the beeb with my mother. That’s what we called it, the beeb. I could have been anywhere, doing anything. I was eleven. I should have been outside building a fort or something, but I wasn’t, who knows why, it’s not something I really feel like I need to investigate. And then I heard Dad pulling into the driveway, turning off the car, and it was like I felt we had to hurry up and finish our conversation before he walked in the door. His car always made a kind of rumbling sound before it totally shut down, like when your dog does a tight little lap before lying down, and it made that rumbling sound and then went quiet, and I knew he was getting out of the driver’s seat, putting his feet on the driveway, hoisting himself out the way he always did, both hands curled around the roof, like he was jumping out of a plane, and then Mom and I just sat there for a little while, listening to his steps crunch up our driveway.
“Mom?” I said again. She wouldn’t look at me. “Mom?”
“Hold on,” she said. “Just hold on and let me think.”
And so then yeah, we had to go back to the hospital. And it turned out she needed to have the big surgery, the one they were hoping to avoid, and the panel said it needed to be now, which I thought meant like, they were going to pull the curtains around and get right to it, but now turned out to mean in two weeks, which was the earliest they could schedule it. So for those next two weeks I was just hovering around her trying to get her to say my name, and she couldn’t, and I knew it was making her upset—how could it not have?—and it was making me upset too—but I just couldn’t stop myself from asking. I can be really persistent, which is usually a good thing, but it’s also actually one of the things about my personality that I’m a little bit ashamed of or annoyed by.
At this point in my life I don’t really care about dogs, almost to an unusual extent, like people notice it, but when I was really young, like six or seven, we had a dog named Bonzo who I pretty much loved the same amount as I did any human, and it was my job to walk her every afternoon. But one day when she’d finished doing her thing and it was time to turn around and go home, she wouldn’t go. She just sat there and wouldn’t move. And this is what I mean about being annoyed with myself; I was this little kid, but I could feel this weird sort of anger bubbling up inside of me, because Bonzo wouldn’t do what I wanted her to do. And before I knew it, I was pulling and pulling on Bonzo’s leash, and basically dragging across the sidewalk, just a little way at a time, and then eventually I just got super mad and pulled her really super hard, until I was basically choking her, and she’d scoot a few feet forward for half a second and then sit down again, and I’d just pull harder and harder and harder and Bonzo would scoot and then sit down, scoot and sit down, and it was dark by the time we finally made it back to the house, and I was sweating like crazy, and my t-shirt was all drenched underneath the jacket I was wearing.
And that’s sort of what it was like with my mom. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t enraged, exactly, the way I was with Bonzo, that’s not why it was the same, it was more just, I could feel myself entering a place where I was going to get her back to the house any way I could, even though she wasn’t moving, and we were really far away. I’d hold up these old phonetic flashcards we still had, I’d quiz her on famous people with my name—I have a pretty stupid name for a kid, and there’s really only like one famous person who has it, and he’s pretty stupid himself, and it used to make me self-conscious, but it doesn’t anymore—but it was just like, there was this roadblock. She couldn’t do it. She could say everyone else’s name—I tried, she could—but she couldn’t say mine. And I wondered why. And I still wonder why. On a synapse level, I wonder why. It almost made me feel special, you know? Hurt, obviously, but also, special. Because I was the only one. And I wondered, was there some specific thing going on between us that I didn’t understand? I felt like I knew her pretty well, but maybe I didn’t. She was just a mom to me. I don’t mean just. How do I say it. She was a mom to me. She was Mom to me. And that’s a pretty big deal, especially for a kid, she was like, my whole world, she was the most important person in my life by far, but you also couldn’t really say that I actually really knew her.
So the two weeks came and went and then she had the surgery, and the doctor said it went well, but when she came out, her eyes looked really funny. I guess they’d been weird for a while, especially right after I head-butted her, but this was totally different. This was her actual eyes that were weird. Like, her eyeballs themselves. They were glassy and the gray parts—my mom had gray eyes—it was like she couldn’t really control them anymore, and they’d just start drifting toward her nose or up into the top of her head, or down and to the side, like she was trying to look behind her. And she wouldn’t look at me either, when I was talking to her, and I kind of started to take it personally, because she seemed…I guess mad would be the word? At me, specifically? It could have been a trick of the light, or just the way her eyes were setting, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like she was blaming me, like it had just started to occur to her to blame me, and I don’t know if it was just my own guilt or whatever or if she really felt that way, or if it really was just her eyes, but she had to know that I regretted head-butting her, right? It didn’t need to be said. But I said it anyway. She was on the pull-out, reading a book.
“What did you say?” she put her book down.
I said, “You know, sorry, Mom. I’m sorry.” I hadn’t actually expected her to answer.
“For hitting you. You know. For…the head-butt.”
“Honey,” she said. But then she just went right back to reading her book. Classic Mom. But I wouldn’t let it go. Classic me. She’d been reading the same book for the last few weeks, but it was really short, so she must have been reading it over and over again, or else she was reading it super slowly. “What’s it about?” I asked.
“What’s what about?” She actually turned all the way to face me.
“Your book,” I said. I picked it up. On the cover there was a picture of a toboggan lying sideways in the snow, and the legs of two people you couldn’t see the rest of, wearing duck boots. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about love,” my mother said. “And cruelty, and isolation. And sacrifice. And desperation. And duty, and fate, and winter.”
Which was a really weird thing to say. And I kind of felt it right in my chest, or my back, or sort of where my ribs curl around from back to front. Just the sound of her voice. Her explaining voice, not her asking me for something voice. It was different. And she hadn’t been talking very much since the surgery, so I wanted to keep it going somehow, hold onto or get out of the way of it, or do whatever I could to make or allow it to happen, or keep happening. I said, “No Mom, what’s it about?” And I turned to a random page and said, “Like, here—what’s happening on this page?” And I could see her eyes, I don’t want to say lighting up, because I know that probably isn’t true, but that’s what it felt like. It felt like her eyes were lighting up. She leaned over and looked at the page that I’d picked. She licked her finger, what I think of as her reading finger, and found a spot she wanted to talk about.
“This is where Mattie is dancing with Denis Eady,” she said, “and Ethan is outside, looking in through the window.” She smiled and put her finger on the paper and traced along underneath a little sentence, a little shadow of spit that evaporated almost instantly. “He tries to get Mattie into his carriage after the dance, but she won’t do it.”
“Who does? Who won’t?”
“Denis Eady.” Her voice was like C’mon, keep up. “And Ethan is in the shadows, watching, and listening to her say no.” She closed the book and turned to me. I looked down at the bed and saw that she was holding my hand. But it was so light I couldn’t feel it. “Why don’t I just tell you the whole thing? Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” She wasn’t in space, she knew where she was, there, on the pull-out, talking to me, but I also think on some level she didn’t care who she was talking to—she just wanted to talk, in this weird brief moment of her being able to, and I just wanted her to talk too, so I didn’t interrupt, except to say Ok, uh-huh, right, I get it, ok, wherever and whenever those words seemed to fit, and she worked her way through the whole thing, back to the beginning and then right up to the end. Ethan and his limp at the start, and then the flashback, and Zeena in her bed, and Mattie looking after her, and the farm, and the jug of milk, and the pickle dish, and Harmon Gow, and the wind and the cold, and the hill on Corbury road, and she didn’t explain a single thing, she just told the story as if I’d heard it all before and she was just reminding me, and I could just about hold on to the whole thread of the plot, but then when she got to the end, she stopped, and wouldn’t go on, and said I had to read it for myself.
“Aw c’mon Mom.” It was dark in the house. I hadn’t noticed. I had no idea where my dad was. He could have been anywhere.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t,” she said. “It’s too much. It just kills me, every time. And I don’t want to cry. And I’m tired. Okay? I’m sorry. Maybe in the morning.”
I could tell what kind of look I must have had on my face by the way she was looking at me, but I couldn’t let it go. “Mom, c’mon. What else are we going to do? Come on.”
I could see her doing that mental calculation thing I’d seen her do all her life, which she probably didn’t even know I knew about, where she’s trying to figure out if the thing I was asking her to do was worth it, if her suffering or exhaustion was worth my subsequent joy or even just worth my not throwing a fit, if she was up for one more story, if she could physically push her way through, if she could do one more spiders down my back, one more hold me on the monkey bars, another race me around the playground, one more listen to my song, one more watch me jump, watch me swim, film my dance, help me draw, one more airplane, one more horsey, one last kiss goodnight.
“Fine,” she said. But she wasn’t happy. Or maybe she was. I don’t know. She was somewhere in between. And she had this kooky look on her face, like she was almost about to laugh. She scooted up a little in bed and took a sip of water. Her eyes were still pretty glassy, but her voice was strong. “Okay,” she said. “Remember how Mattie and Ethan walked home together, in the beginning, after the dance, in Chapter One? After she tells Denis Eady to buzz off? We need to go back there or else the end won’t make any sense. So they’re walking arm-in-arm as slowly as they can, and they’re under a bright winter moon, and they can’t look at each other or else they’ll explode, and you know how you can transmit feeling through just a knuckle or wrist bone against a ribcage, or just the inside of your elbow against the inside of another person’s elbow, just that little insistent pressure, even through winter coats? That’s what they’re doing. And it’s erotic, actually, if you want to know the truth. The way they’re just making little blinkings of nothing small talk, while their bodies are pressing together under their overcoats. And Ethan’s got those wrinkly eyes, and Mattie’s so sweet and full of light. And it’s not wrong but it is wrong. You know? And then they pass Corbury Road, which is this steep and icy lane, with a big tree at the bottom, and they see all the marks of the sleds, the little cuts that a flexible flyer would make, thin blades cutting into the ice, people going fast, feeling alive, and Ethan asks Mattie if she’d like to go coasting with him some night. That’s the word he uses, coasting. He’s feeling very bold. And she says, ‘Oh, would you, Ethan? It would be lovely!’ and he says, ‘We’ll come tomorrow, if there’s a moon.’ But of course they never get there. Or, they do, but…well, now here we are at the end. And there they are, back on Corbury Road, at the end, at the top of the hill, and they’re all hemmed in. They can’t be together, and they can’t be apart. They can’t run away and they can’t stay and wait. They can’t do anything. They’re stuck. And they can’t even stay stuck—they’re animals, and they’re trapped, and they’re scurrying this way and that way, in their hearts, in their bodies, and in their souls, and they’re on this little sled that isn’t even theirs, just some old sled they found under a spruce tree, and Mattie says, Take me down, Ethan, take me down so ‘t we’ll never come up any more, that’s what she says, and just before they push off Ethan shouts, Get up! Get up! Get up! and he says he wants to switch, can she sit in the back, and he sit in the front, and she asks him why, and he says, he says—he says I want to feel you holding me. And it just kills me! Every time! It kills me!” And she let out a sob. “It just does, I don’t know why, but it kills me, oh, I can’t take it.”
I just wanted to understand. “Do you really not know why?”
And then she laughed, and it looked like maybe she did know. “Regret, I guess.”
The thing about Bonzo was that it turned out she had something seriously wrong with her hips. They were paralyzed, or not paralyzed, but almost paralyzed, and she was in so much pain, the doctor said. Major pain. That’s how he put it. And I still feel so bad, pulling her leash like that, choking her, making her scoot all the way home, and she was yelping the whole time, and I was yelling at her to shut up, which I didn’t mention because sometimes I just don’t mention that part. A lot of times I just leave that part out. And then they laid her down on her side on the gurney so that she was facing us, and we all petted her and gave her little hugs, and my mom had brought all these candles so we started lighting them and putting them all around the room, which was probably not even really legal but nobody stopped us, and then we all gathered around inside the circle of candles and turned the lights out, and it was so dark in there, and the candle flames lit up our faces, and we could see Bonzo breathing in and out on the gurney, and there were these tiny threads of smoke rising from the candles we’d already lit, and my mom has a candle in her hands and she’s lighting another one that’s right next to all the rest, and then she’s putting her candle in the candleholder, and the last candle’s light seems to be so much brighter than the rest of the candles combined though I know that’s not actually possible, and I see Mom’s face flickering in the shadow and the light. I’m eight years old. My mother is forty. She’s so beautiful. And Bonzo is lying there on her side and everyone is petting her and scratching between her ears and saying all her favorite phrases that make her feel happy and safe, like my brother is saying, Toast is coming, toast is coming, which is what we used to say when we were making her toast, because she was crazy for toast, but I just can’t get into the mood or think of anything comforting to say. I can’t even touch her. I have this feeling like, if I touch her, I’ll burn my hand or something. And then the doctor comes in with the nurse, and the nurse hold her legs down while the doctor puts her to sleep.
And now I’m holding my mom’s hand, and we’re back in the living room, on the pull-out, and I don’t know why but it’s important to me now to try again, one last time, even though I know she’s tired, and we’ve been through a lot, and she’s almost already asleep. I have my flashcards right there by the side of the bed, and so I pull them out and I hold them up right to her face, just before she falls asleep, and I say, Just say it with me now, Mom, just say it with me now, that’s all you have to do, I really don’t want you to fall asleep without saying it, and I hold up the one that’s just the letter D, just a big D, and then I hold up the other one that’s just the word No. There’s one for Yes, and one for No. And I keep showing her the two cards over and over again, and I know she’s trying to sleep, but I won’t let her, I keep showing her the cards and she keeps shaking her head, and she says she’s in a forest, and I say, No, no Mom, you’re not in a forest, you’re here with me, can’t you see? And she says she’s in a forest and there’s a demon and I say, No, no, there’s no forest, there’s no demon, it’s me, your son, I’m here, and she says she can feel it getting closer and closer, and she whispers, I’m scared, I’m scared, and I’m almost a little angry, and I say, C’mon Mom, please, and I show her the cards, and she says, No, no, no, and I hold up the first card and she says, D, just like that, and I hold up the second and she says, No, no. And that’s almost it, and I hold up the first card and she says D, and then I hold up the second and she says, No, and then she looks at me, and I can see her, like, I can see her in there, I can almost see past her being my mother, right into her eyes, right before she closes them, and she says, Sweet boy, sweet boy, sweet boy, and I lean in so she can hold me and then she whispers into my ear, she says, Deano, Deano, Deano, over and over again until she dies.