I had been 21 for a month when my aunts, who I barely knew, had to take me to the hospital to get my mother’s things. When someone collapses at work and dies, this is what happens–they get taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and personal belongings are taken away from them and put aside for the next of kin to come and collect. In this case the next of kin being me, the only child.
When scientists say things like before the universe there was nothing, nothing is hard to conceive. Darkness? No. Darkness is still something. There is nothing. Nothing is rather difficult to wrap your mind around. Like infinity. Or forever. When I, college kid a thousand miles away from home, get the call that my mother is, as my grandmother put it, gone, I glimpse what nothing means because that’s what I see before me. A future not of darkness. Not of anything. But of nothing. Wednesday morning the world had my mother in it. On Thursday morning it did not. It is hard to remember how that was to comprehend.
So, I fly home. I try to say the right thing to my grandmother who happens to be dying of cancer. Needless to say at 21 I am fairly inept at consoling her. From there I go to my mother’s apartment and pack everything. She was in the process of moving and this fact saves me some amount of trouble. Some boxes she had packed I just store and don’t open for years. But on this day there comes that time when I have to go to the hospital to get her things. The things she had with her at the office.
When I got the call about my mother and became incapable of clear action, one of my very best friends packed my suitcase for me. Given the urgency of the packing, she packed whatever she found clean in my closet. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t done laundry in several days and most of the clean clothes were party clothes. She packed things like mini-skirts and cute blouses. I don’t know what my aunts, who knew next to nothing about me, must have thought that morning when I show up to console my grandmother in a denim mini skirt and black ankle boots, but that’s how it goes.
To the hospital I wear cool black pants with gold swirls (from Pier 1, no less) and a tight black shirt. At least the clothes are black.
At the hospital my aunts and I are directed down to the basement. There are no windows. There is a hallway that would be wide if not for the file cabinets and boxes lining both sides. There are no pictures on the walls and no soft music. This is a place where paper gets pushed around and nobody says very much.
My aunts decide that I do not need to see my mother’s body. Listening to them tell me why that would be bad, I am grateful that the only thing being asked of me is to get my mother’s things, whatever they are, and sign for them. That’s all. Easy. Takes a minute. In a basement. I don’t know what else to do, because outside of doing what I am told, there is nothing.
The man in charge of people’s things wears a short-sleeved, buttoned-down shirt with a tie. His office is crammed with files and boxes. The chairs, common office chairs, don’t face his desk; they line the walls. I have to sit at an angle to talk to him. I sign something on a clipboard. I don’t care what the form says. Just give me the things so I can go. He reaches down, opens a metal desk drawer, and pulls out my mother’s things. He plops them on his desk.
“Here you go,” he says.
Her purse and her hoop earrings. In a plastic ziploc bag.
The thing about a middle-aged man in a bad shirt behind a cluttered metal desk, is that when a college girl becomes hysterical, he becomes baffled and confused. He asks questions like, “Is something wrong?” and “Do you want a cup of water?” and “Is she always like this?” And he is clearly bothered that no one is appropriately grateful for the time it took him to prepare the ziploc bag. He says,
“See. Everything fit.”
“It’s yours now.”
“You’re free to go.”