Lit Thursday: Read an Excerpt From Zinzi Clemmons's Debut Novel

In What We Lose, a young woman questions her identity amid her mother's battle with cancer.

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My mother was unable to stay in the bedroom any longer. She could barely sit up on her own, and it was too difficult for us to move her on their old king-sized bed. A social worker came to the apartment and walked through each of the rooms, occasionally stopping to take a measurement and scratch the figure down on her clipboard. Two days later, a large truck pulled up outside our building and, an hour later, a hospital bed was set up in our living room.

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The hospital bed was stiff, menacing. It looked institutional and cold amid the warm colors of our living room walls, hung with my mother's African tapestries, blankets, and textiles that were her pride and joy. When we first brought her into the living room, my mother resisted.

"It pains my back," she said in her confused, drug-addled English. She insisted on sleeping on the couch. My father or I slept in the hospital bed instead.

She woke up several times during the night needing medicine or help going to the toilet. I would switch on the light, pull the plastic commode next to her, lift her off the couch, and then pull her back onto the couch. The whole process took around fifteen minutes, and once it was completed, we were up for the next hour. I barely slept during the nights I tended to her, so I rested alternate nights while my father took the replacement shift.

One night while on my shift, I was awoken by my mother's bald head hovering over me. Half asleep, I was happy to see her standing for the first time in months.

"I want to go home," she said.

She paced around the bed, possessed by some strange, dark energy.

"You are home." I got to my feet and walked after her. She began crying and tearing at her clothes.

She ripped at the few stray hairs that dotted her scalp. She walked faster, and I had to chase her to the other side of the living room. When I finally caught my mother, I hugged her to me. She was shaking, sweaty. I rubbed her back, trying to calm her.

"I miss my father," she said.

I realized to which home she was referring. I realized she would never see South Africa again, her father, brothers and sisters, her many friends. At times during the day I felt heroic, but then I felt small, worthless. I would never do this for her.

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Eventually I coaxed her into the bed and curled up beside her. The bed was so narrow that we never would have fit on it together when she was healthy. I tried to find words that would fill the space that her home had left, but there was nothing.

"I'm tired, Mom," I whispered as I dozed off.

***

My father and I didn't communicate much except to coordinate nurse visits for my mother or to give updates on her medicines. We were holding so much in, our pain distinct from each other's in many ways. I suppose we thought that if we ever acknowledged this, all our carefully assembled control would fall to pieces. I was terrified of his pain—that of losing a lifelong partner, so many years tossed out the window. And I'm sure he feared the destabilization of my loss—how much of my life yet to live would be marred by this trauma.

Because my father was a man and relatively young, a part of me was scared that he would leave. That was always the fear with men. I suppose this was a part of the not talking, the not crying. I thought that if I didn't acknowledge the horror we were living in, it somehow wouldn't be as bad, and he would stay.

But day after day he didn't leave, and his eyes never wavered from my mother when she was wheeled out of the hospital, or lifted into the car, or when she was being sutured or changed or intubated. So many times when I couldn't look anymore, he did.

***

In my nights off shift from caring for my mother, I started to troll online dating sites and personal ads. I found Liz and Patrick's ad in the personals section on Craigslist. They were a young couple in West Philly, on the opposite side of town from my parents' apartment. They were looking for a third "for occasional fun and spice." From our e-mails and phone conversations, they seemed intelligent and polite. They told me they both worked at the state office and were only two years older than me. I told them I was a teacher at a school near the university where I'd once tutored.

When I arrived at their apartment, they welcomed me in and we shared a glass of wine in their small kitchen. The house—a wood-shingled Victorian divided into three units— had the same layout as Dean's. The kitchen sat just off the bedroom, the dining alcove in the same spot. I pictured him and the thin girl at the kitchen sipping wine, his limbs slowly interlacing with hers. I took a big sip from my glass, closed my eyes, stanched the thought.

At times during the day I felt heroic, but then I felt small, worthless.

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Patrick asked about my school, my work. I stitched together an answer based on the one session of half-assed tutoring I did in my first year of college. I told him I was a math teacher, and I was relieved when he stopped there. Any more and I would have been exposed. To my surprise, they remained smiling in front of me, then reassuringly at each other until Liz summoned Patrick into the living room, where I heard them whispering. They returned to the kitchen.

"Why don't we move to the bedroom?" Patrick said.

In the bedroom, there was a camera set up to the side of the bed. I saw the red light blinking, already turned on.

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"Is this all right?" Liz asked.

I wasn't sure if it was. She kissed me and we fell to the bed. Patrick joined in, tearing our clothes off like we were Christmas presents. We made love for two hours, and when it was done I was satisfied, but more important, my mind was empty, my lips tingling.

I fell asleep and awoke at dawn. I dressed while Liz and Patrick were still sleeping, their arms crossed over each other. I caught the 7:00 a.m. bus back over to my side of town. My father would be eating breakfast then, almost ready to leave for work. From the bus, I watched the sun rise over city hall. The bus was nearly empty. There was no one around to see me cry.

***

That night, I didn't eat. I collapsed early and slept into the late morning. My father spent the night at the hospital with my mother while I rested at home. My father called from the hospital in the morning to say that my mother had had an accident.

He was in the hospital room, waiting with the nurses to decide their next move. He lowered his voice so that no one else could hear.

"Can you bring me a change of clothes?" he said.

She had peed all over the bed and her clothes, and when he tried to clean the mess before the nurses came in, it got all over him. His voice cracked, and he began to cry. He put the phone down.

I packed him a shirt and sweater from his closet and some new pants from his drawer. I headed to the hospital, fighting off the image of my mother and father covered in her piss.

This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me?

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By the time I arrived, they had fitted her with a catheter tube. "No more accidents," the male nurse said, smiling, trying to be upbeat. I imagined the painful method by which he had connected the catheter to my mother's bladder. From the bottom of her blanket ran a tube connected to a clear plastic container tied to the foot of her bed.

I sat in a chair by her right side while my dad changed in the bathroom in the hall. When he returned, the doctors told us she wouldn't wake up after this. I wondered if she could hear, if she knew what was going on, and I decided it was better if she didn't. I decided not to think anymore. I stared at the urinal, the tubing, not watching, not reacting. The room smelled acrid because she had a bacterial infection, which was forcing her into a coma. I let the smell overwhelm me until I couldn't smell it anymore. The stench was nothing more than molecules moving in and out of my nostrils, the scene nothing more than light reflected off objects alive and inanimate, some dying.

***

We moved her to a hospice in downtown Philadelphia, across the street from one of the cafés I used to visit when I was a teenager. She was taken there from the hospital by ambulance, by two young women around my age—one of them larger, darker-skinned, with hair gelled to her forehead in plastic- looking curlicues. They wore smiles to which I had no concept of how to respond and joked in a careful way with me and my dad. I imagined them being trained to handle families with extreme sensitivity: You can use humor, but not too much. Stick to neutral subjects, nothing controversial.

My father rode in the ambulance while I waited outside the hospital, under the neon emergency sign. After I'd spent twenty minutes in the cold, my mother's best friend pulled up in front of me in her old Chrysler.

She cried as she turned the wheel, almost running red lights. We didn't speak. Her car smelled stale, of smoke. The oldies station played on the radio: Al Green beneath a light layer of static.

***

The hospice was a new place on the top floor of a cold brick building with few windows. When we arrived, a tie-dyed social worker tried to steer me into a cheerily lit kids' room. The staff had a phrase for what was happening to my mom—"the dying process"—and they said the words like they should be followed by a ™. Like she was in the process of walking to the store or buying groceries. Just another thing that humans do.

While my father was out grabbing us prepared sandwiches for dinner, I crept into her room. I closed the door and shoved a chair against the doorknob so no one could enter. I had many things I wanted to say. Some sleepless nights ago, I'd made a list of all the things I needed to apologize for, all the things I needed to tell her I forgave her for. But as I stood there with those mathematics in hand, the weight of the moment on me, I said nothing. And when I tried to speak, only tears came. The pain was exponential. Because as much as I cried, she could not comfort me, and this fact only multiplied my pain. I realized that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft, accented English telling me Everything will be all right, Thandi. This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.

Excerpted from What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons, forthcoming from Viking on July 11, 2017.

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