Rolodex by Meredith McCarroll
I keep wanting to call you to tell you that you died.
Some days I forget the sound of your voice.
Once already, I couldn’t remember your eyes.
Fifteen thousand, three hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how many days I got to live in this world with you, Mom. I have lived without you now for three hundred and nineteen days.
At night lately, I rolodex through times together to grab a moment and pin it down.
You at Myrtle Beach with a gin and tonic on the mini balcony looking at the sunset. The sound of the ice cubes in the glass you’d only hold with a cocktail napkin.
You walking into the living room where the stereo was. Flipping the switch up with your manicured finger to release Sade through the house (there is a woman in Somalia/ she is trying to survive/don’t know what she’s made of).
You on the sofa, reading Southern Living, starting always on the last page.
You and Alley’s mom in their kitchen, newly single beautiful women ignoring your daughters as we practiced our tap routine on the slate floor. Lionel Richie dancing on the ceiling, cigarette smoke hovering, thick cable knit sweaters with turtle necks and pleated jeans and gold shell shaped earrings.
To get to these images, I have to push past the curtain of you in those last months. Skinny thighs in soft pants, bent at the knee, to relieve the pressure on your tailbone. Feet that swelled and shrank and left your skin stretched and dry so that no matter how much Jergens I rubbed in, they thirsted for more. The sound of your dying that I can’t describe without cliché. I push past those recent and haunting images to remember. You were sick like that for 204 of your 26,095 days. I want the other 25,891, but I sometimes have to walk through your dying to get to your living.
Roanoke. We met there one weekend. Your heart was weaker by then, so we drove to the top of Star Mountain when we would have hiked before. We found the perfect restaurant and sat at the bar. We ordered fries and talked with the bartender who made us cocktails that weren’t on the menu until the place had closed down. I could look at the mirror behind the bar and see the two of us. That’s the snapshot that I pulled back out and glued into the scrapbook I’m building in my mind two nights ago as I fell asleep.
Knoxville. You and I lie on my bed. I nurse Jasper and when he hears your voice, he pulls his head back and grins up at you. You rub his hair as he relatches. His eyes close.
I want to reconstruct every meaningless conversation.
We could put that in the salad.
Yeah. And we’ve got a loaf of bread. Do you wanna make cheese toast?
Yeah, or we could just do toast. What cheese do we have?
We’ll have to look.
Will I ever talk to anyone about nothing again?
I hand you two glasses. I get ice while you pour gin. The ice has melted and refrozen and I use a knife to chip away to get a piece.
It’s so hard, I say, jabbing. I can’t get ahold of it.
That’s what she said.
We nod and smile, but don’t laugh.
You reach for a spoon and stir the drinks after squeezing the lime. You hand me a glass and raise yours.
If I work every night, can you be reconstructed of pulled apart images and one-sided memories? You are a patchwork doll that I hold to me too tight until your stitching comes apart. Your stuffing falls out. And each time I restuff and patch, you’re less you.
A picture of a picture of a picture.
I want you to read how I’m writing about your death.
I want to ask you how to parent a 13-year-old.
I want you to remind me how to make the dressing.
I want to call you crying because I can’t call you anymore.
Instead, I mine for solid moments that I can pull from all of the moments that were nothing and everything. Solid moments I can hold and pick up to be with you.
. . . pictures of you scuba diving, swimming in your dress at your fiftieth party, and smiling as a young mother with shoulder length hair. That time you, Matt, and I took a funny family portrait in the bathroom . . .
When you died, we went through photo albums to make a slide show for the funeral home. We made a play list of songs to play for the party. The files were too big. They edited them down. Marvin Gaye made the list, but the Sinead O’Connor didn’t. The Tams got cut, but the Moldy Peaches made it. We had pictures of you scuba diving, swimming in your dress at your fiftieth party, and smiling as a young mother with shoulder length hair. That time you, Matt, and I took a funny family portrait in the bathroom got cut. So did one of you with all the grandkids that last Thanksgiving.
Pared down. Edited out. Condensed and condensed again.
Picture of a picture of a picture.
My early memories all low angle.
I am in bed while you stand in the doorway to tell me goodnight. You are backlit. You stand 5’9” in the doorway, looking into a room at a little girl whose hair you just braided, tucked into a single bed.
I am walking into your bedroom at the farmhouse, eye level to the bed side table. You are stretched out in the warm bed, lifting the covers for me to crawl in.
I am reaching up to hold your hand as we walk through the elementary school I’ll soon attend. My head just comes to your waist, my hand held up by your soft hand enveloping mine.
(It took weeks to find a way to remember your hands from before. First, I know how it felt to rub lotion onto your hands without disturbing the scabs that formed. First, I know how your thumb failed you in a strange solitary arthritic location. I spent hours to re-remember how it felt to hold your hand as a little girl.)
The last few months of your life spent in my living room in Maine in a rented hospital bed. When I came to help you get to the bedside toilet, what did you see in me? When I laid beside you and cried that one time, and you told me “Let’s not cry,” were you glad that I learned to stop? When you lost your words and could not focus, did you see Matt and me on either side of you? Did you see Jeff at your feet? Did you hear me read Robert Morgan to you on the day that you died?
(I saw stillness and vacancy and focused on the task ahead and morphine and cleanliness and did not let myself understand that this was you, my mama, who made salad with every meal and wore make up to the mailbox and took me outside to see what new had come up in the yard and let my kids sleep in your bed when they visited and fed the birds and grilled squash in the summer and read till the books overflowed all the shelfs and now you were dying right here while we watched.)
I went back to that elementary school when I was 16 to volunteer. I was convinced they had shrunk the water fountains. Even the door handles had been lowered.
I’m writing to you dead to keep you alive. I’m frantically pulling files from a computer as it crashes.
Most days, we talked on the phone. About nothing. Quiet would hang there and we’d wallow in it. No rush. I want to call that disconnected number now. You’d ask, slowly, Well, what’s going on? I’d tell you I’m just not doing as well as I thought I was. I’d tell you how I can’t sleep and how I’m trying to remember things that I’m afraid will slip away. You’d say Yeah. You might ask if I’d written it down. You might remind me about when you couldn’t see your mama’s face so you looked at pictures and it filled back in. You’d be quiet. You wouldn’t fix it. You’d hear me. You’d ask me what I’m making for dinner. I’d say I have to go. (You never said you had to go.) You’d say I love you and I’d say I love you too and then on a certain day you’d say Bye. Bye. like the Violent Femmes and together we’d say bye bye bye bye. I’d laugh and say, Ok, bye.
And put the phone back on the receiver. Hit Off on the cordless. Flip closed the flip phone. Hit the red button on my cellphone.
You are squatting under the deck when I get off the school bus. I run up the driveway and my jacket is around my waist and my braids have come out and I sprint up as you look down at me. I see you see me. I throw my bag down and you stand up. My head is at your ribs. My arms reach all around your waist. Your arms overlap on my back and we squeeze. Quick. Then you squat back down and weed. I squat beside you and pull leaves off the flowerbed.
How was school?
Was Mrs. Walker back today?
No. We had another sub.
Hands lift leaves. Pull unwanted roots.
Get your homework done before we have to get you to dance, ok?
Ok. I don’t have much.
Plants emerge. Dead leaves pile.
There you are. Squatting on noisy knees. Quiet in the spring sun. Hands in the flower bed.
There you are. Peeling potatoes at the sink, leaning on one hip.
There you are. Sunglasses and hairspray and a hot pink bathing suit.
There you are. Glass of wine on the table, asking another question.
There you are.
There you are.
Meredith McCarroll is an essayist and scholar from Western North Carolina. She is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018) and co-editor of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019). Her essays have appeared in Southern Cultures, Bitter Southerner, Avidly and elsewhere. She teaches at Bowdoin College in Maine.