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.”
Other times, my rebellious older sister would announce a new boyfriend, or my mother would get a call from my brother’s school about his behavior, and death would slowly shroud our home as mom would begin to lecture and remind us that her time is near. And if we didn’t stop, we’d make it nearer.
“Don’t you dare cry at my funeral,” she’d spit out angrily at us. “Yo no quiero que me lloren después que yo me muera.”
My favorite death argument happened right after my graduate-school graduation. I gleefully told my mother that my school did not provide photo sessions for students while wearing our caps and gowns. I am pitifully unphotogenic in a time when Instagram reigns supreme. Therefore, any situation where I don’t have to present my face in front of any camera translates into a very good situation for me.
My mother wasn’t about to let this opportunity slide. She wanted to go over to the photo studio nearby where the cameraman who took all of my awkward elementary-school photos still works. I said no. I dug my heels in and said that there was no way in hell that I was going to smile through a photo session with problematic skin, a large forehead, a wide nose, and a weak chin.
Her first reaction was disbelief. She didn’t understand how I didn’t want a photo to commemorate my accomplishments. And then the guilt showered down on me like a mid-summer monsoon.
I tried to ignore it for a day. She would passive-aggressively bring up that she really wanted a graduation photo to send to my godparents. I tried calmly explaining that I wasn’t going to take more photos.
That’s when she started in with the death talk. “Mami isn’t going to be here forever,” she said in her eerie low voice, the one she uses before she yells. “Can’t you do this one thing for me … just to make me happy?”
If I were to say no to that, she would be devastated, which would mean that I’m devastated. She swore up and down that all she ever wanted before her death was to have a token of my accomplishments to hang on her wall. So I watched four contouring tutorials on YouTube and listened to a soft-spoken man telling me to be confident and serene, and I took the goddamned photos.
Some reminders of death are more concrete. Life-insurance papers arrived in our mailbox, and I saw that there was an option for planning funerals down to the smallest detail.
“Look, you get to choose having a rosary in the casket with you,” I told her, pointing to the options on the paper.
“I have a hundred rosaries. I’m not paying extra for one of theirs,” she told me.
Other times, when I’m in the car with my parents and we’re driving up Cypress Avenue, past the large graveyard near Cooper, we make plans.
“You can’t cremate me,” Mom always says. “I swear to God, don’t you dare cremate me. You have to have my body all in one place.”
My dad says that he wants to be buried in Puerto Rico. I visit the graveyard where most of his side of the family is buried in tiers on the mountain. It’s scenic, and there are trees, and he wants a flamboyant tree of his own nearby. I want one, too.
“I want an ecofriendly tree grave,” I tell them. “Don’t embalm me. I want to become the tree for a little bit before Judgment Day comes.”
Sometimes I want a weeping willow tree. Other times I want a quenepa tree, but I don’t know if it’ll grow in New York, assuming I die here. Other times I want a headstone and an ecofriendly casket or just a rosebush. Mom doesn’t give any suggestions at all; she just reminds me that after I turn 27, I should call up a lawyer and make sure that my funeral demands are documented. Twenty-seven is a decent age, because I’ll be a little older, and by then I’ll have made up my mind about certain details. I understand that they’re subject to change, but if I want to save money in the long run, I’m better off getting my affairs together now.
My grandmother had picked out her own funeral clothes years before her strokes started. My mother and my aunt carried them around during her last month. When she stopped breathing, everything was ready. Her death hurt, but it was dealt with. It gave us time to mourn. No one was inconvenienced. I don’t want my death to be an inconvenience.
I think about all the times I’ve longed to pass over ever since I learned about mortality. That lesson came very early in my life. It was mentioned in my Catholic religion classes during elementary school for my first Communion. But then death became so much more real after my mom brought it up when arguing about the cleanliness of the house.
Sometimes the supermarket runs out of that low-sugar protein ice cream I stress-eat after a long day. I’ve died a little death.
Sometimes a pitch I worked very hard on isn’t accepted, or sometimes I’m sick and I miss a deadline or an opportunity. I’ve died a hundred deaths.
Sometimes I get into an argument with someone I care about deeply. And before we part ways, or before we put our phones to the side for sleep, I text, “I love you.” And sometimes I don’t get that as a response back. I’ve died a thousand deaths.
Sometimes a relationship reaches its last straw. I accidentally turn my phone over in class because I can’t figure out how to shut the vibrate setting off, and so I read a dissertation of texts that hurt. I quietly ugly-cry behind my laptop screen because I don’t want to leave the room and show everyone my tears. When I try to hold in my tears, my eyes get red, and I want to turn to my classmates nearby and whisper, “I’m not high, I promise … I’m just sad.” I’ve died a million deaths.
A million to my mother’s billion. So she wins and I lose. A stray shoe is a score of little deaths. As is my giving sass, or when I painted my nails black for the first time like those “crazy people she heard about on the news.” Or when I announced that I wanted to go on vacation with my boyfriend, to which my mother replied, “Are you trying to kill me? Because I swear to God you are. Eso no está bien. Eso no se hace.”
She said the same thing when I casually dropped that I was saving up to move out.
“You don’t know how stressed out I am,” she tells me some days after work if I happen to complain about freelancing.
I want to tell her that she’s not special, that I’ve had a full day of work, too, and that I’ve stayed up all night applying for jobs. But I can’t. Because she’ll suddenly be out-dying me. Dy-ing with a capital D. I know it means that she just wants attention. She was a middle child like me. The good child like me. She wants love. I want love. She wants to live out her life and not face little deaths at every bump or every milestone. I know she wants me to appreciate her, to cherish my time with her since it won’t be forever. I’d rather remember that than ignore it. Maybe it’ll make me a better daughter.
It will definitely hurt when she’s gone, if I don’t go first (I’m clumsy, so we’ll see how that goes). And until then, I want her to be happy, even if she mentions her impending demise at every given situation. Until then, I need to pick out a lawyer and a tree.
*Angely Mercado is a native New Yorker, writer, and part-time troglodyte whose work has appeared in the Billfold, Hello Giggles, City Limits, and more.*