New Directions Personal Essay
The shade of her lipstick is wrong. Scarlet is her trademark, but today she smirks in coral.
The color clashes with her dress. The dress she wore to my wedding, the one my sister and I searched for, the one we picked specifically for her. We chose it for the folds and shirring in just the right places to disguise the bulk lurking beneath. We made sure it had a high neckline to cover her chest wrinkles, that network of valleys and canyons carved deep into her skin. We found one with sleeves that were long enough to cover the fat that cascaded over her elbows. It was the dress we hoped would help my mother blend in with the rest of the wedding party, at least until she opened her red-lipped mouth.
Now it is the dress she will wear forever.
My husband, walking beside me, stops a few feet from the coffin, sensing my need to close the final distance alone.
I can’t stop looking at those lips, caught up in the wrongness of them. But as I approach the coffin, it is the self-satisfied expression on her face that mesmerizes me.
Even in death, she mocks me.
The familiar, fiery nidus ignites at my core. But this time it expands, oozing into all the empty spaces, under the deadbolted doors, through the hairline cracks in the barricades.
It gathers itself, builds, then explodes.
My insides turn molten.
I am rooted at the side of the coffin, my skin aflame, my hands clenched.
She looks as if she is about to open her eyes into the judging slits I know so well. To draw those vermillion-colored lips back over her huge front teeth and toss her head back, opening that mouth to fill the room with her derisive laughter.
She’d do anything to win, including dying. Never give an inch. Winning is everything.
Her death closes the door, seals the deal, steals my last vestige of hope of hearing words I have waited a lifetime to hear. Words she spat back into my face. “Sorry? I’ll never tell you I’m sorry.” And then, with a harsh laugh. “Not. Ever.”
Fury becomes my puppeteer. I raise my hand to slap the smug expression off her face.
Spousal intuition pulls my husband behind me. His arms encircle mine, holding me like a preserved butterfly, and he eases me away from the coffin.
When I was 13, she told me I was cold and distant, that no one would ever want to marry me, that I was unlovable. And I believed her. For decades, I believed her.
I lean back into my husband’s chest and his arms slide down my sides until both of his hands hold both of mine.
Diane Birnbaumer, MD
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA
(Written for New Directions February 2023 weekend, Poetry and Psychoanalysis)