The Many Times My Mother Died

The author and his mother, 1975

The author and his mother, 1975

Everybody has a mother, and they all die. Mine did; yours will too. When she does–if she hasn’t already–you’ll be sorely tempted to make sense of what has happened. Ten years ago, a few years after my mother died, I asked my grandmother for some of my mother’s letters so I could write about her life. A book-loving woman, my grandmother nonetheless frowned. “Oh, I see,” she said, her lips curling inward in what I recognized as quiet fury. “You want to make a story of it.”

But I didn’t. Stories require faith, and I don’t have any.

My mother raised me unreligious in as many churches as we had friends. We went to Methodist to hear Roger the bachelor sing, to Episcopalian to listen to Shersti the Swede sing, to Dutch Reformed to watch our neighbor, Mr. Nelson, direct bell ringers, and to St. John the Evangelist cathedral across the river for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. Since my father is Jewish but didn’t know much about it and lived somewhere else besides, my mother took the Jewish holidays as her own as well. For a year when I was little she let a Buddhist named Veena live in the attic, and near the end of her life she invited Charismatic Christians in to pray. Around that time my granny drove up from Tennessee to take care of her dying daughter, and she brought her own gods, as many as would fit in her Buick: the Pentecostal Holiness god of her childhood, the singular Knoxville, Tennessee Christ’s Church of her age, and the spirits of the books she held dear, Doesteovsky’s pagan Russian Orthodox, Thomas Merton’s meditative lord, the bending willows of the Tao Te-Ching.

Surrounded by faiths, I had none at all. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, when she was 44 and I was 13, I sat mute in the churches we attended with increasing frequency. I didn’t know how to pray, not even for my mother’s life. By the time I began to learn, it was too late. All I could think to pray for was an end to the pain, hers and mine.

Before she died, while she was dying–disappearing for long spells to have her skin drawn on like parchment and blasted with radiation, to cling to an IV as if it were a burning rope and she a drowning woman, to have the marrow of her bones sucked out by long needles and replaced with fresh cells that quickly withered–I’d lie in my bedroom and follow the yellow vines adorning the wallpaper up to the blank ceiling and stare, trying to see God.

“Please,” I’d say. “Let my mother die.”

Useless prayers, they seem to me now; but then, in the 13 years since she died, I still haven’t found any of the faiths she wanted me to have, the belief that calms you like the hand of the lord.

The summer after she died, I sorted through the boxes of her papers she left behind: her half-finished stories, her abandoned novels, her never-sent letters, her journals, her poems, her patched-together prayers, thinking I might find the beginning of faith there. Instead I found fragments such as these:

Undated, from a letter about her treatment:

For about two days I was disoriented. No sense of time, no distinction between reality and fantasy. And I would clutch at the cloth on the bed, thinking it was my skin and wondering why it was so rough.

Three months before she died.

This body, bound in skin and downy hair, is shuddering, weeping. It breathes and whispers a thank you with each breath. It likes to walk fast and break into a run. It likes to be giddy. It likes the mysterious warm tingle of red wine on a dark winter night, the startle of fragrance when an orange is cut. It likes the smack of cold winter air. It likes to sweat. It likes to float in the water then dive, pretending it is a porpoise. It likes to dance until it is the music.


My mother drowned lying in her own bed. She died in her room on the second floor of the house in which I’d always lived and that she and I shared alone for the last year of her life. She was 47, I was 16. Her last breath was of water–fluid had filled her lungs, to which her cancer had spread from her breast and her skin.

My last glimpse of her I stole from my granny, who that morning while we waited for the hearse forbid me from looking at her daughter’s corpse, her sweet Nancy now gone. But out of duty and to repent for wishing her dead I snuck upstairs to the room she had died in and closed the door behind me. She lay in her bed, half-covered by blankets. It was quiet, my quiet and hers, so calm I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye.

She wouldn’t have heard. Not because she was dead, but because, Jesus, she died hard: her mouth open and dark, her lips pale and curved in to cover her teeth, her thick cheekbones worn thin like knives about to tear through her skin. Her eyelids had been shut by my granny’s hand but what they hid I couldn’t guess, there was nothing under them, as if her eyes had sunk deep down into her in one last bid to not see death.

When those prayer ladies came to save her before she died, I thought, she tricked them. They said “pray for your soul,” but she made them pray for her life. They prayed. She died.

Her spine arched up like she’d have jolted out of bed if weren’t for her arms, thick and shapeless, swelled to bursting from radiation. I wanted to slip my own skinny arms beneath her and lift her up high as the morning light, coming on white and soft through the winter clouds. But the longer I looked the darker it got. That’s not my mother, I thought, and a second later I knew I’d betrayed her more thinking those words than I had wishing her dead. But all I saw was her mouth, gaping: filled with darkness, an empty universe within a corpse.

“That’s my mother,” I said.


I believe in my mother’s body–her corpse–more surely than I believe in God. Of course, it’s not exactly original to build a theology on a dead body. The Christianity my mother fled from and was drawn to is at its heart morbid: alive, and transfixed by death. The Christian savior redeems his followers with the flow of his own blood. Catholics celebrate their redemption by eating his flesh. Less inclined to beat around the bush, a small tribe in central Africa used to believe in eating the dead bodies of their beloved. Otherwise, they thought, the corpses would cause them to mourn forever.

We buried my mother a few miles from a home. A somewhat soulless cemetery, ecumenical, well-mowed, each grave capped by a stone of uniform shape and size. Hers is several yards up a hill from a landscaped stream. A modest rectangle set flat in the ground. I stare at it, looking not for her body but for the world it once contained. But that’s the tricky thing about the stones we set over graves–only once a millenium do they get rolled away. For the rest of us, they’re walls between now and then. Now: undeniable belief. Death will happen. Then: incomprehensible love. How could it end?

For answers, you have to look somewhere in between.

Years after my mother died, I decided to read her medical records. There I thought I’d find the most precise evocation of her fate: the facts of her death, the hows and whys that stand independent of stories and dreams. So I asked my sister, Jocelyn, who’d been named executor of the estate, to obtain them for me.

Doing so wasn’t easy. At first my mother’s doctor’s office fell back on confidentiality. That such facts were secrets presented a clue: a sign that they were not facts at all, but forbidden knowledge, stories none but a doctor could understand. Still, I grew more determined to have the records, which in my mind had metamorphosed into a manuscript. I must have underestimated the power of such details. The records would reveal not only results but also calculations: Dosages of medicines multiplied by careful counts of red blood cells; the tumors that killed her known not only by names but by measurements; the width and depth of her disease a record of its age, a number discerned by peeling back layers of exponential growth to its origin, then tracing it back into the present. One mutant cell gives birth to two daughters, the two are mother to four, the four become forgotten ancestors of billions, a world born within my mother’s breast.

Not only did the records contain secrets of the disease’s beginnings and my mother’s condition — really my mother’s secrets–but also secrets which in all fairness belonged to the doctors: their estimations of the future. The prognosis, the prophecy–the story of her death laid out before its event. We wouldn’t understand such stories, the doctors warned, and would unjustly turn against those who told them. We would sue. We would sue, and we would lose, because before the law the doctors would read aloud the records in voices of reason while we’d sputter with rage. The doctors would with authority refer to the “spirometry” record of August 21, 1987, observe that eight months earlier there had been no palpable lymphadenothapy, and that the white count on that day had been 6,000. Spilling papers onto the floor as we struggled to find the same page we the plaintiffs would desperately counter that on December 8, 1986, you, Dr. G., wrote “Lungs are clear and the heart has a regular rhythm without murmur.”

How can a dying heart not murmur? Yes, of course, we understood that the murmurs of medicine are not the same as those of emotion, but given such clean and lovely words, “the lungs are clear, the heart has a regular rhythm,” how is it that the women in possession of such virtues would drown in the fluid of those once-clear lungs, while her heart, calmed by morphine, did not even murmur in its own defense?

Here the doctors must sigh. Turn then, to the pathology report recorded by Dr. C. on March 20, 1986, for SHARLET, Nancy, born June 28, 1941. Submitted for examination: Two specimens. 1. The specimen… consists of a… tissue mass measuring approximately 2 cm. in diameter. On sections approximately half of the parenchyma is represented by ill-circumscribed, firm, pink-tan tumor…. 2. Received is an elongated piece of skin measuring approximately 1.3 x 0.3 cm. DIAGNOSIS: 1. Infiltrating duct carcinoma of breast (left). 2. Fragment of skin showing multiple foci of dermal lymphatic invasion by breast carcinoma. [Her skin burned with cancer.]

Obviously, we obtained the records. The doctors relented and sent them to Jocelyn, but the odd thing was that I then forgot. I forgot for months that I’d wanted them, forgot they even existed. And I only remembered while crouching on the floor of a library, looking for what I don’t remember, when my eye fell on a book about fortune telling. It was a dusty old hardcover and on its spine, embossed in gold, a campy, cartoon gypsy woman wrapped in scarves peered into a crystal ball and for no conscious reason the fact of the medical records that I’d imagined into being a manuscript came rushing back to me so hard that I literally fell down. With a thud I rolled off my toes and onto my seat, and then I slapped my forehead, my mouth open in a comic O. Shit. I’d forgotten to read the book of secret things. At the very same moment, I saw in my mind my mother with her green scarf hiding her baldness, my mother the gypsy fortuneteller searching for the number of her days.

When I finally received the documents–not a manuscript at all, just a thick stack of doctors’ reports, nurses’ reports, radiologists’ reports, records of physical exams–I cried at the modesty of the pages. In their letters to one another about possible treatments her caretakers write cautiously and without clear vision, hopeful but uncertain. They turned out not to be priests meditating on life and death while my mother was consumed, but technicians with a homely concern for a nice woman with whom their trades had brought them into acquaintance. “A pleasant lady,” observed Dr. G., her primary physician, on her first meeting with my mother, “she is very intelligent and she is also very scared.”

My mother’s doctors prescribed several cycles of a chemotherapy regimen called CAF, a combination of three drugs: cyclophosphamide, adriamycin, and 5-flouricil. Sometimes the drugs made my mother nauseous; sometimes just thinking about them would make her want to vomit. She had frequent sore throats, and feared that they signaled the spread of cancer cells into her neck and throughout her body. Then she woke up one morning and found her thick red hair coming out in bunches on her pillow. If this upset her, she didn’t let it show. Instead, she bought herself silk scarves, gold, green, red, purple and turquoise. She also bought a wig of tight red curls.

I saw the wig for the first time when, at age 14, I came home from a friend’s one Saturday afternoon and found it on the dining room table. At first I didn’t realize what it was. I picked up the mass of red curls as if I’d discovered a new species of animal. Then I laughed; I was holding a wig! “Mom,” I shouted, not connecting it to her, “look what I found!” My mother came down the stairs wearing a green scarf wrapped tightly around her head. She took one look at me holding the wig in the air with a grin on my face and barked a sharp “Jeffrey!” My name boomed through the house, summoning my sister and snapping my eyes open to the purpose of what I held in my hands. Jocelyn ran into the room just as our mother demanded the wig. “Oh, you idiot!” Jocelyn hissed. But our mother had regained her composure. She stepped into the kitchen for a moment, then reappeared wearing the red curls atop her head as naturally as the long wavy hair she’d had most of her life. That’s when she announced her nickname to us: “I,” she said, “am Curly.” Cautiously I smiled, then Jocelyn relented from her angry face and smiled too. I grinned, our mother laughed.

“I’m not calling you ‘Curly,'” I said.

“That’s alright,” our mother decided. “Because I just am.”


From notes kept by her doctor:

Feb. 17, 1988: “Today the patient has a subcutaneous nodule at the angle of her left jaw.”

May 9, 1988: “The right breast is entirely replaced by tumor. She continues to have multiple erythema, one in a necklace distribution.”

November 8, 1988: “necrotic”

November 21, 1988: “She is severely short of breath with any exertion, including just speaking.”


From a letter to one of her doctors:

I tend to pray in the style that I imagine others have prayed. For some reason I don’t find it necessary to be exclusive. I concentrate on Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer. And sometimes a phrase comes to me that seems addressed to the Great Spirit. This morning: please keep Nancy-Body together longer. Let me make a larger pattern.


And, as I’ve said, early on the morning of January 2, 1989, she drowned. Her lungs had filled with fluid and her doctors had emptied them and they’d filled again, been emptied again, filled again. And she died.

After I’d seen the body I walked downstairs. My granny was in the kitchen trying to explain to my grandfather what had happened. He was far into Alzheimer’s then, but that morning was for him one of the worst in the course of his disease. Every 15 minutes his daughter died anew. “Oh,” he’d say each time, a word so soft when he said it that it fell from his lips like snow. Then he’d forget again, and amble up to someone to ask, “Say, who’s that hearse out here for?”

I heard Granny in the kitchen–”Charles. Nancy is dead. Nancy our daughter”–and turned away, into the living room, where my father was standing. “I saw,” I said, but before he could respond the undertakers were at the door, in the hall, at the foot of the stairs, their bodies between ours and the dead one on the second floor, their condolences stringing a tasteful curtain behind which they could do their work. They carried her down on a stretcher, out the door that my father held and past my granny who whispered, “Goodbye, Nancy.” Then Nancy was gone. My grandfather saw me crying and asked me what was wrong; I told him my mother had died. He thought that was sad, even though he didn’t know who I was, because it’s a shame when anyone loses a mother.

“Her name was Nancy,” I said.

“I have a daughter named Nancy, too,” he said, glad to make a connection between us.

“That’s who died,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said, and his mouth dropped open. In the flash of darkness within it before he forgot again and closed it and smiled, I saw the emptiness of my mother’s body’s face, so pained and so quiet. “Oh – ” I said, because even though her body had gone, there it lay for a moment before me, still lingering in my grandfather’s eyes despite his now-amiable smile.

When at the funeral I explained to him a dozen times who the woman in the casket was I saw her a dozen times over, each time more the body in the bedroom rather than that which I saw in the coffin with its reconstructed face, its lips pressed together, its eyes brushed shut beneath perfect mascara.


From her journal, undated:

You can, if necessary, keep warm with memory. In the darkness it gives off silent sparks like a star that falls slowly and disappears. When you have seen what you need, your sleep will be dreamless. In the morning, you can start something new.


The really crazy thing is not that some people believe in resurrection, in Christ rising from the grave; it’s that anyone doesn’t. Not the Christian resurrection exclusively, but any faith’s concept of continuity. Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation, Jewish sparks of the soul, the insanity of the rapture, when, according to born-agains, the dead will rise from the grave just as they were. I remember, during the months after my mother died, going to sleep on a given night with peace in my heart and the belief that at last I’d learned to live with her absence, only to awake in the morning with, as my first thought, an incredible frustration: “Wait–she’s still gone? I thought that was yesterday.”

Once my mother went on a vacation and wrote a friend a postcard, which she forgot to send. But she told him about it, and at her funeral, he told me. “She said she would have liked it if I could have been on vacation too, so she wrote me a postcard that said, ‘Wish you were there, and you are.’ My mother’s friend laughed. “Then she wrote, ‘See how powerful I am?'”

This is how powerful she was:

One Sunday the summer before she died she took my sister, my friend Andrew, and me on picnic. We went to Thatcher Park, a strip of grassland with a mountain rising above it and a cliff dropping from its edge. While the three of us ate my mother sat against a white pine with her eyes closed. When I asked her what she was doing she said, “Smelling.” So I sniffed the air too: pine needles and tree sap, burgers grilling and farmland far below. Then she opened her eyes. “Let’s go to the waterfall,” she said.

We walked with her down a series of metal staircases–each step for her a jarring bolt of pain–to a trail along the base of the cliff. Andrew and I ran ahead, looking for caves. Jocelyn stayed with our mother. Our mother had always moved slowly on hikes, but once she’d gone from each curious stop to the next with giant steps and swinging arms, her long hair flicked from her eyes. Now she strolled, an elegance to her gait that disguised the necessity of its caution. Even as she paused to inspect a mushroom or a gnarled root and declare it especially interesting, she used the moment to gather her wind; the deep draughts of air she’d taken under the pine had turned shallow. But as labored as her movement was, it was a pace, and her progress satisfied her. She gave Jocelyn leave to go ahead, and despite the red in her face when she joined us at the waterfall she grinned. We groaned, embarrassed but pleased, as she held her tired arms in the air like a marathon winner.

By then we’d all taken showers, perched on rocks beneath the thundering column, our heads bowed laughing, our arms held before us, our palms turned up to gather the rushing water. When she saw us my mother rolled her eyes and called us foolish, but then she ventured closer. Leaving the safety of the cliff, she stepped onto a boulder then sat down and rested. Restored she stretched a leg to the next one and with her hands behind her, she pushed herself further. Like a crab she made her way down until she reached the point of contact between the waterfall and the stone, where the roar and spray and overpowering smell of nitrogen-positive ions, if you believed my mother-confused all the senses; where you couldn’t tell what was up and what was down, whether the water fell from the sky or shot up from the center of the earth. Shoulders bunched to give herself strength, she poked her finger into the water.

I knew she couldn’t stand under the waterfall, but I wondered, if she could have, what she would have made of the water cold as creation washing over her brittle bones. I didn’t think about faith then, and I don’t have one now. And yet: I still wonder what my mother might have told us when she emerged from the stream. A dying woman granted a glimpse of a moment not frozen, forever recurring anew; what she might have told us about a place where water meets stone.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).