by Meredith Resnick
I remind my mother just before we drive past the cemetery to hold her breath. She inhales her L&M, tells me I’m crazy. We’re in her blue Pontiac, the one Daddy says matches her eyes. Every day we drive past the cemetery to get to the hospital to visit him.
“Maybe if you don’t breathe you die,” she says, turning the wheel. The orange tip of her cigarette follows in a wide arc.
I have to wait until we’ve passed the last cemetery gate, to explain, again, that if you breathe, someone else dies. I remind her–the smokestack at the hospital.
She glances at me, stubs her lipstick-marked cigarette into the ashtray. “You are too nervous for a child.” She briefly pats my leg, shaking her head.
I turn my face toward the heater and breathe deep and loud, because I can no longer see the cemetery in the side view mirror.
Back in autumn when my father went to the hospital I wasn’t afraid of the smokestack. Everyone knows God uses it to deliver babies to their new mothers, or take them away. I wasn’t scared because God was delivering lots of babies. Back then, when there were only orange leaves against the blue sky and no smoke my mother believed in it, too. “No one died,” she’d say, and jab her cigarette at the smokestack to make sure I turned, looked, saw what she wanted me to see.
We got used to it.
But it’s winter now and snow has buried the grass, and the ponds have turned to ice. And once, I saw my father lying on his belly in the hospital bed. I saw the wound on his back, the cavity he kept calling a road map. I saw the black stitches, the red blood. That night the smokestack blew, vapors rising in a halo in the black and starless sky.
The next day, in the hospital parking lot, I turn to my mother. “Can I come up with you?”
“No.” Her lips are so sealed they barely move.
Kids are only allowed on certain days. Daddy made arrangements with one nurse so I could visit when she’s on duty. When she’s not, I have to stand in the parking lot and wave to him upstairs, in his third-floor room in the tiny rectangular window. I wave and blow kisses and my snowsuit makes a whoosh-whoosh sound while my mother rides the elevator up. My father leaves the window to greet her. Her visit is short, only a few minutes, but it seems forever when it’s just me and his empty window and the smokestack and the ghosts that smell like burned sugar that twirl in ribbons toward heaven.
“The smoke does not mean babies dying,” my mother says when we are back in the car. “It’s just a bunch of old nurses taking their coffee break, puffing on their cigarettes.” She blows her own geyser straight into the air, as proof. When she tries to hold my hand it makes me cry.
We drive towards home. “Maybe tomorrow you can see Daddy.”
I nod. Then, at the first cemetery gate, I dry my eyes, and hold my breath.
Meredith Resnick’s essays have been published in Dancing at the Shame Prom, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Santa Monica Review, Psychology Today, Newsweek, JAMA, Bride’s, and many others. She is the author of Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved and the creator of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey blog. http://writersinnerjourney.com.