My mother is dying. Dy-ing in fact. She's dying in a Dominican way, which means that she's dying just as fast as I'm dying, which is as fast as anyone this stressed is dying. But it also means that she must remind me that she is dying on a weekly basis. Daily if we're arguing. Hourly if I mention moving out. I'm often bombarded with images of me, standing over her open casket. Her hair is freshly cut and straightened by her friend at the salon over on Seneca Avenue. I am standing by that casket in a dress she requested in her will, making sure that she is buried with all her rosaries.
But nonetheless, my mother is dying, and I'd better not forget it.
There are a lot of cultures around the world where death is talked about openly in folklore, music, and everyday discussions. Mainstream U.S. culture is not one of them. Death is barely discussed in a meaningful way here. Movies highlight people who are forever young. We have pop-culture obsessions with coming back as zombies or living forever as vampires. Funerals for more-Americanized households seem pretty quick, as are the wakes. Prayers in funeral homes usually last only a few hours, and bodies aren't viewed at home, and there don't seem to be official mourning periods — compared to the nine days of prayer I grew up with so that the loved ones' souls could make it out of purgatory.
Meanwhile, both the Puerto Rican and Dominican sides of my family talk about death. Old stories mention ghosts and hauntings. My maternal grandmother used to tell me not to catch fireflies because they were souls that had to make it to the other side. Funeral homes in my dad's hometown serve snacks and juice because families and friends plan on spending an entire day there — or more.
My 95-year-old grandfather's favorite way to say goodbye when he's about to catch his flight back to the Dominican Republic is to tell us that he'll see us eventually, if he doesn't die first.
One particularly eventful morning when he was visiting about two years ago, I heard him yelling over in the guest room, and I ran over to make sure that he hadn't hurt himself in any way.
"Estoy vivo," he told me.
"Of course you're alive; you're right there," I told him.
"Yeah, you're right," he said. "Anyhoo, gotta go pee."
The first time I remember mom mentioning her upcoming death was in elementary school. All I recall is feeling afraid that my mom would actually disappear one day if I wasn't careful enough. That was before I was old enough to notice nuances, like how an ultimatum in Spanish isn't necessarily one in English. So that whole time, my mother wasn't dying. She was just dy-ing. And when we didn't come across a body the next day, I figured that it wasn't all that serious. That epiphany didn't erase my own nerves when I had to confront the fact that I, too, would age and die one day. But I figured I'd be better off adding memories to my life instead of having a countdown in the back of my head.
Sometimes I'd forget myself and actually panic when my mother spoke about dying. I'd forget a sock on the floor, and she would tell me that one day she wouldn't be around to remind me how that one sock had almost destroyed a household.
"You don't understand," she'd say, pointing around my room with the renegade sock. "You're killing me. This is killing me. It's like you do it on purpose."