Pennies from Heaven
Oh every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don’t you know . . .
lyrics by Johnny Burke
On my wedding day, my dying mother-in-law asked me to help her style the last three hairs she had left on her head. On that day I succeeded in only helping her with one.
Her request made me unable to look away from her, this former school teacher now crudely tattooed with radiation markers that spelled out her journey in an undecipherable hand. Her wedding gift to me: this first and only lesson. No longer able to look away from the jagged railroad tracks of incisions that went round her bald mountain. They’ll be coming round the mountain when they come. The tracks ducked into the tunnel behind one ear. I have never been able to un-see her journey, the tracks, those scars left on her small naked head. I tried to hide my fear as I stood there regarding her. No insights, no priors. I was young. I did what was asked of me. I helped her get ready. I simply turned on the curling iron.
Her son said she once had been a gifted seamstress. I could tell she used to be pretty. I imagined the clothes she made for herself, regarded the draperies on her windows, the doilies under cups, so many they now were carelessly used as coasters. The projects piled in a corner waiting to be done. I couldn’t help noticing after all her surgeries what she had really needed was a brain zipper. How many zippers had she completed for others? Yet no one could fix her one. No more stitches that would need pulling, seam ripping, repeating, redone.
I have lost that moment now like a penny. Dropped and forgotten. Later found in the deep crevasses of couches and cushions.
This was only our second meeting. I had met her once when she was simply a woman named Penny, an encounter so brief I didn’t consider, nor retain its memory. Not realizing its worth, its foretelling. I have lost that moment now like a penny. Dropped and forgotten. Later found in the deep crevasses of couches and cushions. Discovered when vacuuming floorboards of cars. They wedge and stick in the hose, demanding your attention, your action to free them. I struggle with stuck pennies: the plugged vacuum they leave, the choke hazards they become.
She didn’t ask to be a penny. The nickname found her. Pennies, musical, jingling: they fill and add weight in pockets. Pennies tossed in wishing fountains, shining up from bottoms of ponds. Pennies gathered and bundled in orange wrappers, eventually becoming enough bits to be worth something. But glioblastoma replaced her and this— this final settling an insurmountable debt. The rip that could not be re-sewn.
She was tiny—only 4’10”—and looking down I saw the wisps where hair had been. I picked up the curling iron, hesitated. The heat threatened to ignite the air between us. Only one thin curl, my hand placed gently under, waiting. I touched the air just above her dry, chemo-laden skin. Holding up my creation. Waiting for warmth to leave it, then cool. Not wanting to burn her. I let go the single curl and it slid down. Hopeful and timid. I stood back and considered this creation.
Surprised then at how comical it looked. My hairdo for her, wrapped in a tight spiral…Why was that little hair not only defiant; that hair, it had sprung?
We regarded her image in the mirror and for a moment neither of us commented. Proper words we could not begin to articulate. We had arrived at our ending. We had never begun. She guessed at my secret: a baby still lies hidden. No questions, just a knowing. The power of that moment, her hair spring pushed us lightly. She reached up, pulled it. The spring retracted, lifted. We started laughing, and for one brief moment held on.
She said she liked it. Patted my hand and then she was gone.
In my favorite picture from that day she is backlit. No scars, nothing illuminated, her curl lost in darkness. In her silhouette, she’s pinning a boutonniere on the lapel of her only son.
Our impromptu wedding was the gift I gave her. I, not ready to be mother, she not ready to leave her son. We both accepted, compromised and will always be in this together. Her granddaughter not quite ready: a baby tiny and hidden, waited to spring forward, laugh, and live on.
Tia Jensen grew up in Florence, Ky., and now writes from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. Her essay "Mirrorwalking" was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2013 literary edition of New Southerner. Currently she is working on a memoir, Along for the Ride, a midlife adventure in a Volkswagen hippie van. She travels with her husband, two of their three children, and two 150-pound dogs.