Fathom Mag
Short Story

What I Know of Mourning

A short story

Published on:
October 10, 2016
Read time:
9 min.
Share this article:

Most death comes quickly. People die in their sleep, or from a stroke, or a car accident. A death like that is somber, but it’s easy—especially to mourn. You might cry for a week if you knew the person, a month if you were family, but then you kind of just move on. I suppose we were made for this—to move on with life.

But some death comes slowly. Some death is a steady, growing beat of a drum that you know is coming but can’t do anything about. This kind of death is harder to deal with. Harder because of the inevitability of it, the raw tension that it fills people with.

We knew mom was going to die three months ago. The drum beats closer every day. But we—really, I—don’t quite know when to cry for mom because while she’s not dead yet, she will die. We have to deal with her death more than once. It’s daily. And what’s worse is that in our minds, she is almost as good as dead. Brain cancer does that to you.

I’ve never been physically tired before from crying, and my body has never ached before from grief, but it’s slowly becoming a reality. I don’t really know when a proper time to mourn is and don’t know if I’m justified breaking down in the times that I break down. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to cry at her funeral. My eyes might be parched, and my tears spent.

The tricky thing is that I do have to let my mom go. I do have to say goodbye to her at some point—something I’m dreading. I would rather break every bone in my body than have to go to her funeral. I was not made for this kind of mourning. I was made to play soccer and to run around and study and form my mind to its naïve thinking like every other girl in my grade. I wasn’t supposed to know this kind of grief, this kind of emotional maturity, till I was an adult.

I also feel guilty every single time I step somewhere else that isn’t my mother’s bedside. I feel like I should be spending every single waking hour with her. And now I have to feel guilt on top of grief. These will be regrets that I have for the rest of my life, I am sure, but for now, I can’t stop living because someone else is dying. And this is what I don’t get about death. How do I go about living my life on a daily basis when someone is dying or has died already? What does this or should this do to me?

And this is what I don’t get about death. How do I go about living my life on a daily basis when someone is dying or has died already?

The truth is that I feel guilty whenever I am not with mom, but the truth is that I have to keep living.

I have to keep breathing.



Life doesn’t freeze where I left off before I knew my mother was dying. The world is still turning and people are still learning and getting good at math and throwing a football, while I am stuck in this hospital room, stuck not doing anything because I have to mourn. But I don’t know how—or better yet, when—to mourn. Teach me how to mourn; there must be a time to mourn and a time to move on. I’m just not sure when that is.

One thing that has changed drastically in my life is my perception. Lately, as we’ve been going to the hospital, the sun has been setting over the buildings and the trees and the tarmac. I see this beauty like a newborn baby. My sister told me when she had her baby, it was like she was seeing things for the very first time, the time when there is no past, there is just the present, the future. I suppose it may not be that accurate now that I mention it because whenever I see the sunset all I can think of is the past, how fortunate I am to be looking at this sunset at this time, even though I am driving to my mother’s death bed and that all around me people cry and whine and look miserable.

These are rare moments when I feel like this. Most of the time I am so upset that I can’t even speak. But the times when things calm down, when we’re driving to the hospital, or when I am walking to the car in the morning and crunch through the dewy, frosty grass, and leave dark footprints behind and where, when I look back, I see the grass sprawling back upright as if stretching after a night of sleep, like each blade is dazed and confused and pops up not even knowing why—when this happens, I see the world in slow motion. I see my past laid out before me and for a second I escape what is happening in the present, what will happen in the future, and only think of the fortunateness of my life. I suppose my mother’s death is the stimulus for this, the antennae, the stone in my shoe that makes me realize something rather than go through life frostbitten, numb.

I see my past laid out before me and for a second I escape what is happening in the present, what will happen in the future, and only think of the fortunateness of my life.

I think of how at any time a bullet could come through the window and hit me square in the temple. All the times when my planes didn’t crash. I think of all the times that my skin hasn’t melted, my atoms haven’t exploded, my eyeballs fallen out, my muscles given up, my bones not dusted—and think of what keeps it all together.

I suppose what makes me think of this now is that my skin feels as if it’s melting, my atoms like they are exploding, my eyeballs as if they are popping, muscles drooping, bones shaking to the point of breaking. It is in the moments that I don’t feel this—the moments when I can actually function and walk across that dewy grass, tracing my life as it has been—that I feel.

And now I can’t help but think how much beauty mom is going to miss out on when she dies. I can’t help but think how much dad is missing at the present moment because he goes from work to us to the hospital to cooking us dinner to falling asleep on the couch for four hours before he has to do it again. I hope that he has at least some time to quiet down, to sit in peace and think of trees or water—oh, how mom loved water—of the concrete building that he’s in—for there is beauty in things we do not often think there is beauty. And even though I’m sixteen, I’ve been able to see it. Because through mom’s death, I’ve awakened.

Yet she won’t be able to see these things soon.

In church people keep telling me that she’s going to a place without pain and suffering. But she’s also going to a place without the oak tree in our front yard that pelts our house with acorns every autumn, or dad's yelps in pain as he plucks his nose-hairs, or the Teton mountains that have a touch of white on their tips when we usually go there in October—it’s as if they’re ageing old men. She is going to miss the sun rising and illuminating everything in a honey-brown glow in this way late summer nights. She won’t be able to see the dripping of water from the leaky bathtub faucet in the upstairs bathroom that makes a harmonious and baritone drip when it’s filled with water. She is going to miss out on peanut butter spread perfectly over bread, how it glides along with the knife—or even the varieties of bread—whole-wheat, whole-grain, white, potatoe, rye, bread without yeast. She won’t be able to let it touch her tongue and tickle her throat. She won’t be able to pick out the remnants of bread from her back molars and triumph when she finally cleans them out.

I’d do anything to feel her cheek against mine. We were made from this world and so we were made for this world.

When people say she won’t feel pain it might be true, but she won’t feel, she won’t be physical according to them. While her soul won’t feel pain, her body will be rotting. I don’t care about a painless life. I would gladly endure pain if it meant that I could hug my mother or feel the bony massage of her pencil fingers on my skull or on my back. I’d do anything to feel her cheek against mine. We were made from this world and so we were made for this world.

And while they say my mother won’t feel any pain, my pain increases every day. My pain has gone from headaches to bone-aches. My eyes dry heave. Even though that is one of the only things that makes me relieved. I can’t cry. But it really sucks, you know, knowing that my mom won’t experience the small beautiful things that I have experienced over the past few days. This world is a beautiful place if you simply open your eyes.

My body has been growing more achy recently. I haven’t told dad, obviously. Mom is dying of cancer. What would I look like if I complained about a little achiness? It’s weird though. It’s been happening when I wake up mostly, or sit still for an hour or two. The other morning it took me a good five minutes to get out of bed because my muscles didn’t seem able to move my bones. It was as if my bones had outgrown my muscles just by a little and my muscles were playing catch up.

I don’t know why but sometimes we visit your plot with you on summer days. It’s rather unfortunate because it’s hot, so hot that you can see the steam rising from the grass even. This is a bit of a harrowing experience as we are at a graveyard and there is heat, visible heat, coming from the ground. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to a graveyard in that kind of temperature when you can actually see the heat coming off the gravel and moving slowly along the grass. It makes you think of hell, and hell is not something you should be thinking of when you go to a graveyard.

I think when it gets colder, I’ll like being around your grave much more. There won’t be any leaves on the trees and I’ll be able to see my breath as it comes out of my mouth and be able to think that the air that I’m breathing was part of my mother at one point, your DNA. That this breath could be my mother’s. Every time I breathe, I am sure I will see the frosty breath transform into your figure and will start dancing with you around your grave. I just want you to keep living as soon as possible so I can hold your hand and dance with you, even though I never did these things with you before, or even anyone for that matter. I want you to live just a little bit longer so I can do them with you. I mean you never really did them either, but I think we would have fun, holding hands and dancing until we both fell on the grass and laughed because of how foolish we realize we would look.

But as we walk around your plot, I’ve realized something. This feeling of pain that I constantly feel, if it has done anything at all, has at least taught me that I love you, that your death is going to be the death of me. That I barely want to keep living because you are going to die. A life lived without you, mom, is a bleak prospect. It is a gray world. You made things colorful in my world. You taught me to see.

I got more of my genes from dad’s side of the family, and I couldn’t quite see the purpose of the things that you wanted to do. But things that happened, like when I would see you in the kitchen and you would be looking out the window at a bird, watching its movements, but you’d also have a pencil in your hand and you were drawing lines on the paper without looking at it because you wanted to trace the movements of the bird, to “see its visible grace” as you’d say. I can still remember the times that you would do that. Your perfect posture on the wooden chairs, holding the pencil almost like your hand was a claw.

Then there were the times I absolutely hated. When you would sneak up on me when I was slouched on the couch with my computer on my knees, and you’d shut it on my fingers. After that you’d just look at me from the ground where you were sneaking around on your hands and knees, and smile up at me, almost prodding me to live. I would always get angry with you for doing that. I wish I could take that back. I wish that I could see you do that again so maybe I could joke with you or something and tackle you to the ground where I could wrestle you and you’d tickle my side—a place you know all too well to be my weakness, and I’d tickle your feet—because you were always walking around barefoot—and we would just laugh till dad would come in the room and call us a bunch of crazies. That’s what I want.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the video producer for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

Next story