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Mom Won't Die

              Sylvia’s entire family – her parents, her husband, her son, and her daughter – saw her crushed beneath a trunk that fell through the rotten ceiling at her parents’ farm house. The trunk had been in the attic for decades, shielding Sylvia’s father’s collection of old radio parts from the same leak that rotted the ceiling beneath it. That the heavy trunk happened to overburden the weakened ceiling just as Sylvia paused under it to examine a stain on her sleeve was bad luck. Despite the fact that it took her father, husband, son, and daughter all working together to get the trunk off of her, and despite the fact that she looked bloody, broken, and flattened, no one checked to see if Sylvia had a pulse or if she was breathing. Why check? She was talking, telling everyone she was fine, shouting at them to not call an ambulance, trying to sit up. If she could talk, then she had to be able to breathe, and she definitely had to have a pulse.

                The first people to notice that this was not the case – that Sylvia was not breathing and did not have a pulse – were the paramedics who arrived on the scene.

                “You must be checking wrong,” said Sylvia, her face a swollen horror.   

                “I’m not checking wrong, ma’am,” said the paramedic. “I’ve done this thousands of times.”

                “Not on me, you haven’t,” said Sylvia. “If I didn’t have a pulse, I’d be dead. Do I seem dead to you?”

                “Take a breath,” said the other paramedic. “Let us see you do it”

                “Sure,” said Sylvia. “There.”

                “Nothing happened,” said the first paramedic.

                “Sylvia, don’t be difficult,” said Lionel, her husband.

                “I’m not dead, Lionel,” said Sylvia. She turned her busted head toward her father. “Dad, I took you to half of the antique stores where you got those stupid radio parts! They did not just kill me!”

                “Oh, Sylvia,” said her elderly father. He shook his head and patted the empty pockets of his jeans as if looking for something pocket-sized that might undo the tragedy that had just befallen his daughter.

                The paramedics loaded Sylvia onto a stretcher and stuck her in the back of the ambulance.

                “I’ll ride with her,” said Lionel. “Rainer, you bring Rhea and your grandparents to the hospital.” Rainer was Sylvia and Lionel’s 20-year-old son. Rhea was their 17-year-old daughter.

                “Do you think she’ll be OK?” asked Rainer.

                In response, Lionel turned to look at the ambulance. Though its back doors were closed, Sylvia could still be heard protesting her aliveness. Then the ambulance sped away in a blast of lights and siren.

                “Didn’t you say you were riding with Mom?” asked Rainer.

                “I probably should have told the paramedics before I told you,” said Lionel.


At the hospital, the doctors provided no clarity. Or rather, the clarity they provided on certain specific points only added to the situation’s overarching lack of clarity.

                “She definitely isn’t breathing,” said Dr. Hormven. “And she definitely doesn’t have a pulse.”

                “She’s dead?” asked Lionel. “You’re confirming that she’s dead?” He, Rainer, and Rhea stood clustered around the doctor. Sylvia’s parents sat in the waiting room, commenting too loudly on the other people waiting there with them.

                “She’s dead,” said Dr. Hormven. “But she isn’t behaving dead.” He had old-fashioned sideburns and glasses with oval frames. The tiny holes in his earlobes marked him as an unexpected earring man, but the earrings themselves were nowhere to be seen. In a drawer at home, maybe, or maybe in the pocket of the very pants he was currently wearing.

                “She isn’t behaving dead?” asked Rhea.

                “Yes,” said Dr. Hormven. “There’s nothing on the brain scan either.” He paused to clear his throat. “She is, however, speaking. And trying to get out of bed. She says she has to go to work tomorrow.”

                “So she isn’t dead?” asked Lionel.

                “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” said Dr. Hormven. “No breathing, no pulse, no brain activity. Wouldn’t you call that ‘dead’?”

                “You’re the expert,” said Lionel. “What do you call it?”

                “Perplexing,” said Dr. Hormven. “I’ll admit it.”

                “Can we see her?” asked Rainer.

                “You can take her home,” said Dr. Hormven. “I really don’t think there’s anything we can do for her. My guess is that the talking and moving around and so forth will stop soon, and then you can bury her. But for now, I suppose you should just enjoy this extra time with her?”

                “So we should be sad?” asked Rhea. She wasn’t just asking Dr. Hormven. She was asking her dad and her brother too. But Dr. Hormven was the one who answered.

                “My job isn’t to tell you how to feel,” said Dr. Hormven. “But overall, yes, I’d say the news is sad.”

                “Don’t you want to study her?” asked Lionel. “She’s a medical anomaly, right? Wouldn’t examining her further have the potential to advance medical science?”

                “No,” said Dr. Hormven. “Nothing has less potential to advance medical science. Progress in medical science would screech to a halt if we dropped everything to study every new impossibility that popped up. But if your wife goes on the news and they want to say ‘doctors are baffled,’ then tell them to feel free.”

                “She won’t want to be on the news,” said Lionel. “We don’t want that.”

                “Well, then, you can tell your friends that the doctors are baffled,” said Dr. Hormven. “People love it when doctors are baffled. Sometimes even when it’s to their detriment. I do not envy psychologists!”


Because Lionel, the kids, and Sylvia’s parents had all come to the hospital in one car, Lionel had to drive all the way back to Sylvia’s parents’ house to drop them off before heading for home. After helping the elderly couple inside and promising to keep them up to date on the state of their daughter’s health, Lionel returned to the car to find his family arguing about whether or not Sylvia should go to work the next day.

                “They’ll think I’m unreliable if I don’t show up,” said Sylvia. “That will affect my performance review, which will affect my raise, which will affect all of us.”

                “You got crushed by a trunk,” said Rhea. “The library isn’t gonna be mad at you for missing work for that. You went to the hospital and everything.”

                “I’m not very good at my job,” said Sylvia. “I mis-shelve the books all the time. The one thing I have going for me is that I’m so reliable.”

                “Mom,” said Rainer. “You don’t have a pulse. No one expects you to work at the library when you don’t even have a pulse.”

                “I agree with the kids, Sylvia,” said Lionel. “You should rest for a few days, see how you feel, see what happens, and then we can see about you going back to work.”

                “‘See what happens,’ huh?” said Sylvia. “You mean give me a few days to die.”

                “No,” said Lionel. “That’s not what I mean.”

                “This family needs me,” said Sylvia. “And as long as I can, I’m going to contribute. I’m going to do my part.”


                That night in bed, Lionel felt as if he were lying next to a corpse, and maybe he was. Sylvia’s eyes were closed as if she were asleep, but she still wasn’t breathing. Perhaps her will to live had animated her long enough to act out the remainder of the day, but now that she was lying down, she would finally go to her eternal rest. Lionel hoped so, for her own sake. He would miss Sylvia, of course, but he didn’t want her driving herself onward out of a sense of duty, especially not with her body deceased. That didn’t seem healthy. It couldn’t be.

                But at seven o’clock the following morning, Lionel awoke to find Sylvia lurching out of bed. The damage done to her body by the trunk made her movements laborious and clumsy.

                “Oh,” said Lionel. “You’re awake.”

                “Of course I am,” said Sylvia. “Why wouldn’t I be? You thought I wouldn’t wake up, didn’t you?”

                “Not necessarily,” said Lionel. “I mean, I wasn’t sure.”

                “The kids need breakfast,” said Sylvia.

                “They can make their own breakfast,” said Lionel. “They’re old enough to pour cereal.”

                “Rainer likes eggs,” said Sylvia.

                “Rainer’s old enough to make eggs,” said Lionel.

                Sylvia struggled into her robe and glared at Lionel. Her face looked worse than the previous night: blacker and bluer with purple between. Her left eye was a slit in swollen flesh. Her nose was mushed. Her jaw was not properly centered. She turned her back on Lionel and limped out of the bedroom. A few moments later, Lionel heard Sylvia fall down the stairs, a dramatic series of bangs and thumps accompanied by no cries of alarm or pain. Then there came sounds of scraping, sliding, a few lesser thumps, and Sylvia, it seemed, had reached the kitchen. Lionel got out of bed, shrugged his robe on over his pajamas, and followed his wife downstairs. He found her fumbling eggs into a pan on the stove. Her neck did not look right. There were bumps in unnatural places, signs that Sylvia had endured her second deadly accident in as many days.

                “Rainer isn’t going to like having that much shell in his eggs,” said Lionel.

                “I’m doing the best that I can,” said Sylvia. “That’s all anyone can do.”


                Lionel insisted that Sylvia not attempt to go to work at the library. He did not confiscate her car keys, however, because whether dead or not, she was still an adult. So after Lionel left for work, Rhea left for school, and Rainer left for whatever it was he did during the day, Sylvia went to work against her family’s wishes. Her boss tried to send Sylvia home since she was clearly in no shape to work, Sylvia made a scene, got fired, and then, due to her diminished powers of perception and motor skills, she crashed her car through a guard rail on a bridge over the Runoff River on the way home. By the time the rescuers pulled her out of the river, Sylvia had been underwater in the upside down car for over twenty minutes. But she was no more or less dead than she had been before the car accident.

                That night, back at home after being again released from Multioak General Hospital, Sylvia said, “Good thing I didn’t breathe while I was in the water. I could have drowned.”

                “So now you’re admitting that you aren’t breathing?” asked Rhea. The family had assembled in the living room out of shared disquiet. They had not planned a discussion, but the fact that a crisis was upon them was obvious.

                “I held my breath while I was underwater,” said Sylvia.

                “For twenty minutes?” asked Rainer.

                “It was a miracle,” said Sylvia. Her body was exhibiting more signs of physical trauma. Probably from the car accident, but the Multioak Public Library’s front steps were steep and made of cement. It wasn’t hard to imagine her tumbling down them while coming, going, or both.

                “Will you stay home and rest now?” asked Lionel. “Like I asked?”

                “I have to look for a new job tomorrow,” said Sylvia.

                “I make plenty of money,” said Lionel. “We haven’t touched our savings in years.”

                “The kids are used to a certain standard of living,” said Sylvia. “They don’t want to cut back. They don’t want fewer Christmas presents. They don’t want to eat out less. Right, kids?”

                “We’ll be fine, Mom,” said Rainer. “We don’t care.”

                “This family doesn’t appreciate my sacrifices,” said Sylvia.

                “We appreciate you,” said Rhea. “But you should let us sacrifice for your sake now that…”

                “Now that what?” asked Sylvia.

                “Now that you’re dead,” said Rainer.

                “I will not sit here and listen to my own son say that I’m dead!” shouted Sylvia. She propelled herself off of the couch and staggered out of the room, banging her shoulder on the doorway leading to the hall with a sickening crack.

                Lionel, Rainer, and Rhea looked at each other from their respective chairs, three points of a morose and frustrated triangle.

                “Do you hear that?” asked Lionel. “What’s she doing?”

                “It sounds like she’s cleaning the hall bathroom,” said Rhea.

                Rainer lowered his voice to a whisper. “Should we do something about her?”

                “Like what?” asked Lionel. He kept his voice low, following Rainer’s lead. He felt self-conscious about not having an idea of what to do about Sylvia. He hoped Rainer had something good that he could latch onto.

“You know,” said Rainer. “Maybe we have to make sure she’s dead.”

“I think I know what you’re hinting at,” said Lionel. “But she’s been crushed, her neck seems pretty broken, she was underwater for 20 minutes. Dr. Hormven said there’s no brain activity. What if we try something extreme, it doesn’t work, and then it just makes everything that much harder for her? What if she tries to find a job with no head?”

                “That’s gross,” said Rhea. “And sad. I don’t want to hurt her anymore.”

                “She doesn’t feel any pain,” said Rainer. “But I guess Dad’s right. We’re gonna have to convince her to die.”

                “That’s sad too,” said Rhea. “I don’t want her last memory to be us telling her we don’t need her. I don’t want her to think we won’t miss her.”

                “Will you miss that?” asked Rainer, gesturing toward the sounds emanating from the bathroom down the hall. “Mom cleaning the bathroom no one uses at 10 o’clock at night while she’s got 20 broken bones?”

                Lionel rose from his chair to display a little extra authority over his children. “She needs to understand that she’s already dead, and that we want her to go along with that because we love her, because that’s what’s best for her now. Best for her and best for us. Best for everyone.”

                “How are we going to make her understand that?” asked Rainer.

                “I don’t know,” said Lionel. “I don’t think she’ll listen.” He sat back down, relinquishing the little extra authority.

                “Why does Grandpa even collect old radio parts?” asked Rhea. “He doesn’t even look at them. They just sit in that chest.”

                “He just likes knowing they’re there,” said Rainer.

                “Did he tell you that?” asked Rhea.

                “No,” said Rainer.

                In the bathroom, the scrubbing stopped. Lionel and the kids looked toward the dark hallway and listened to Sylvia’s slow, labored approach. When she appeared in the doorway, they saw that the shoulder she had banged on her way out of the living room was dislocated. “I cleaned the toilet,” said Sylvia. “I know you all hate that job, but I was happy to do it.”

                “I don’t know if I hate that job or not,” said Rainer. “I’ve never tried it. Doesn’t seem that bad.”

                Sylvia tried to respond to Rainer with some kind of motherly look, but the condition of her face rendered her expression appalling and only appalling. “Since my car was totaled, I’ll need to borrow one of your cars tomorrow so I can look for a job.”

                “No,” said Rainer.

                “Mom, you can’t drive,” said Rhea.

                “Rhea’s right,” said Lionel. “Maybe when you get better.” He avoided the accusatory looks of his children.

                “Fine,” said Sylvia. “I guess I’ll have to walk.”

                With nothing determined or decided, the kids retreated to their respective bedrooms.

                “It’s time for bed, Sylvia,” said Lionel. “You’ve had a long day. We all have.”

                “That’s true,” said Sylvia.

                “Maybe we should sleep down here in the guest room,” said Lionel. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

                “You don’t think I can make it upstairs,” said Syliva. “Admit it.”

                Syliva lost her footing three times on the way up to the bedroom, but Lionel was able to catch her each time. He was exhausted by the time he collapsed into bed next to his wife, who lay utterly still, dead to the world, but not, perhaps, dead enough.


                The next day was Saturday. When Lionel woke up just after 8 a.m., Sylvia was still motionless on her back with her eyes closed. Had she passed on for real this time? Was she gone? If so, Lionel would finally be able to grieve. But he didn’t want to jinx it by grieving too early. He slid out of bed and tip-toed out of the room and down the stairs to the kitchen. He was surprised to find Rhea already there, eating cereal at the table. He was even more surprised when Rainer appeared in the kitchen, bleary-eyed but dressed for the day.

                “Neither of you slept in much,” said Lionel. “Rainer, I don’t think I’ve seen you before noon on a Saturday in years.”

                “We want to help around the house,” said Rhea.

                “So Mom can’t,” said Rainer.

                “So Mom doesn’t have to,” said Rhea.

                “She doesn’t have to whether we sleep in or not,” said Rainer. He turned to Lionel while he waited for his toast to pop. “Where is Mom?”

                “She wasn’t moving,” said Lionel. “Not last I saw.”

                “So we could have slept in?” asked Rainer.

                “I don’t know,” said Lionel. “I don’t know how much time to give her before we call it. Dr. Hormven wasn’t very specific.”

                “Maybe me and Rainer getting up early to help around the house is what did it,” said Rhea. “Maybe that’s why Mom can stay dead now. Because we proved that – ”

Her solemn theorizing was interrupted by thumps from upstairs.

Lionel looked at his kids, saw their faces droop, their postures deflate. “I’d better go help her,” he said. “Before she – ”

That was as far as he got before Sylvia again plunged down the stairs. Injuries upon injuries. She entered the kitchen as a shambling wreck. When Rainer’s toast popped, he bitterly allowed Sylvia to butter it for him despite the fact that she could barely wield the knife, her fingers splayed in all directions. Despite the fact that she had not buttered toast for him even before she died, not since he was little. Rainer then ate the toast, but did not enjoy it. The butter was distributed too unevenly for him to enjoy it.


                After breakfast, Sylvia again tried to commandeer one of the family cars for her job search. Rainer ended that argument by pointing out that he didn’t want her destroying his car like she had her own. “It was an accident,” said Sylvia. “You don’t appreciate what I go through for this family. I got in that accident because I was trying to help put food on the table for you, Rainer!” She then began to prepare herself to search for work on foot, as she had threatened the night before, but when she saw that Rainer and Rhea were doing chores around the house, she hobbled into action, attempting as many chores as she could think of, or redoing chores already done by the kids, claiming they hadn’t done them properly. Rainer got competitive, using his superior physical condition to race ahead of Sylvia whenever she headed for a new chore. Rhea kept crying and pleading with her mother to rest, trying to explain that the whole reason she and Rainer were doing the chores was so that Sylvia wouldn’t have to.

The atmosphere in the house drove Lionel to the shed in the back yard. There, he sat on a stool in the late-morning light admitted through one small window and tried to think of a solution to the problem of his dead wife’s ongoing martyrdom. He had never been a great problem-solver. In high school, his chemistry teacher had given the class a speech about how some of them were “modelers” and some of them were “problem-solvers.” His point was that it was better to be a problem-solver, and that the modelers should seek to become more like the problem-solvers. But if Lionel had been able to solve the problem of being a modeler, then he wouldn’t have been a modeler in the first place. As a modeler, his only hope of becoming a problem-solver was to see someone else transition from modeler to problem-solver, and then emulate their process step by step. Which did not happen. So he had stayed a modeler, and would presumably always be a modeler. And of course, no one he knew or had ever heard of had dealt with the exact situation he was dealing with now, so who was there to copy? After whom could he model his approach? No one.

                From inside the shed, Lionel heard two vacuum cleaners screaming at slightly different pitches inside the house. Then, a third vacuum noise joined the chorus. He hadn’t known the family owned three vacuum cleaners. The unpleasantness of Sylvia’s condition continued to drive more unpleasant revelations out of the shadows. Lionel propped his elbow on his dust-free workbench, propped his head on his hand, and pondered Sylvia’s funeral, wondering if that longed-for day would ever come. Lionel could not wait to be a normal kind of sorrowful.

The shed smelled like several kinds of chemical fertilizer for the lawn, some of them so potent as to be of questionable legality. Maybe if Lionel focused on organizing the fertilizers, cleaning up some of the spills, and arranging them so their various bags and buckets would stay upright, a solution to his problem would come to him unbidden, it would just appear in his head. That seemed more likely to Lionel than arriving at an answer via some logical train of thought. He rose from the stool next to his work bench, crossed to the light switch inside the shed’s front door, noticed a peculiar hot metallic smell that did not belong to any of the fertilizers, flipped the switch, and the shed exploded.


“Well,” said Dr. Hormven.

“Are we orphans?” asked Rainer.

                “I’m standing right here,” said Sylvia even though she was sitting in a chair outside of Lionel’s hospital room.

                “Your dad isn’t breathing,” said Dr. Hormven. “And he doesn’t have a pulse. We haven’t done a brain scan yet, but you can probably guess what we’re gonna find as well as I can. So why bother?”

                “So it’s the same thing as Mom?” asked Rhea. “The exact same thing?”

                “He keeps saying he has to ‘come up with a solution,’” said Dr. Hormven. “He say that he’s the father, so it’s his responsibility and he can’t leave you two to figure it out on your own.”

                “Us three,” said Sylvia.

                Dr. Hormven glanced at Sylvia, but seemed hesitant to acknowledge her further than that. “Anyway,” he said, “you can take him home. You know the routine at this point.”

                “But we don’t know what to do,” said Rhea.

                “That’s not really a medical question,” said Dr. Hormven. “I don’t have much to offer beyond ruling out medical remedies.”

                Rainer drove the family home since neither parent was in any condition to drive. Sylvia sat in the back seat with Rhea. Her morning of frantic housework had undoubtedly done some more damage to her, but it was getting hard to tell which bodily trauma was from which incident. Lionel rode shotgun next to his son, his body more structurally sound than his wife’s, but much worse to behold.

                “Rainer, Rhea,” said Lionel. “When we get home, we need to brainstorm.”

                “Why are you excluding me?” asked Sylvia.

                “You need to rest,” said Lionel. “You’ve had a long day.”

                “You’ve had a long day,” said Sylvia.

                “I feel fine,” said Lionel.

                “I feel fine,” said Sylvia.

                “I don’t,” said Rhea. “I feel terrible.”


                Both Lionel and Sylvia insisted on sleeping in their own bed in their upstairs bedroom. Getting them there was a huge ordeal. With the help of their exasperated children, they eventually managed to arrange themselves side by side on their bed, lying on their backs on top of the covers. Lionel’s charred skin flaked onto the comforter. The room was dark and the door was closed. Not a heart beat, not a breath was drawn.

                “This has gone on long enough,” said Lionel. “You know you’re dead, Sylvia.”

                “I won’t let that stop me from helping my family,” said Sylvia. “That’s how committed I am. Besides, you’re dead too. You’ve got no room to talk.”

                “You died first,” said Lionel. “I’m only sticking around because I need to figure out how to get you to accept your death.”

                “No, no, no,” said Sylvia. “Don’t stick around for my sake. You should rest. You’ve done enough for this family. Enjoy your death!”

                “I can’t rest until you do,” said Lionel. “It’s that simple.”

                Sylvia contorted her disfigured face into a frown. “My sacrifice is keeping you from surrendering to your death?”

                “Yes,” said Lionel. “One hundred percent.”

                “My sacrifice is forcing you to make a sacrifice almost as great as mine?” asked Sylvia.

                “Exactly as great,” said Lionel.

                “Well, no,” said Sylvia. “Because I’ve been working hard in spite of my death. Going to work, doing chores, taking care of the kids.”

                “I’ve been thinking,” said Lionel. “Racking my brain.”

                “That’s not as taxing as what I’ve been doing,” said Sylvia.

                “For me it is,” said Lionel. “I’m not a problem-solver. I’m a modeler. You know that.”

                “So if I go through with my death, you will too?” asked Sylvia.

                “Of course,” said Lionel. “I’d love to. This is no way to be.”

                “OK,” said Sylvia. “I’ll do it.”

                “When?” asked Lionel.

                “Right now,” said Sylvia.

                “We should tell the kids,” said Lionel.

                “They’ll figure it out,” said Sylvia.

                “Thanks for doing this,” said Lionel. “I know you’d prefer to go on doing Rainer’s laundry forever, but he needs to learn.”

                “I’m doing this for you,” said Sylvia. “I’m dying all the way for your sake.”

                “And I appreciate it,” said Lionel. “I appreciate your sacrifice.”

                “I loved you,” said Sylvia, using the past tense without consciously choosing to do so.

                “I loved you too,” said Lionel, modeling his pronouncement after his wife’s.

                The room was silent. No hearts beating, no breathing. Not that there was a machine present to confirm this fact, but there were no brain waves either. Just two dead bodies, neither feeling nor thinking, free of obligation.


                The next morning when Rhea found the bodies of her parents, she could tell something had changed. She could tell they would not get up and try to wash the windows or draw a mind map on the back of an envelope. Rhea was filled with relief and grief in equal measure, all mixed together. She walked down the hall from her parents’ bedroom and knocked on Rainer’s door. “Are you awake? Mom and Dad are finally…gone. We need to figure out what to do next. We have to plan a funeral and all that.”

                Rainer did not respond. An unnatural quiet came to Rhea through his door.

                “Rainer?” Rhea opened the door. There, lying amidst the layers of stuff that covered his floor from wall to wall, was the body of her brother. It didn’t take a forensic genius to determine that he’d tripped on something – it could have been any number of things, or several things – and struck his head on something else – again, it could have been any number of things, although judging by the severity of his head wound, it must have been something hard. Rhea waded through the clothes and trash and cords and cables and books and bowls and plates and video game cases and sports equipment, and knelt next to her brother. He was not breathing. He did not have a pulse.


                “There’s nothing we can do,” said Dr. Hormven. “I’m sorry, Rhea, but Rainer’s gone.”

                “He’s dead,” said Rhea. “Right?”

                “Yes,” said Dr. Hormven. “He’s dead.”

                “And he’s not trying to get up?” asked Rhea. “He’s not saying anything? He’s not saying anything about needing to help me with the funeral plans? He isn’t insisting on helping me get our family’s affairs in order?”

                “No, he isn’t,” said Dr. Hormven. “He’s dead, Rhea. Would you expect him to?”

                “No,” said Rhea. “I guess not. Not him.”

                “It was an accident,” said Dr. Hormven. “You can’t hold that against him, Rhea. I’m sure Rainer would have helped you if he could.”

                Rhea knew that wasn’t true, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. Dead or not, Rainer’s inaction spoke volumes.

Discussion Questions

  • No questions this time. I have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to catch a plane. Maybe I'll add some later.