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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

My Mother's Body

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Assistant Editor for Lightspeed Magazine, occasional narrator for StarShipSofa, and co-blogger at Inkpunks.com, a website for new, nearly new, and newly-pro writers. Her fiction can be found in the magazine Crossed Genres and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, both from Prime Books. She lives on the central coast of California with her two amazing daughters, her husband, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on twitter @inkhaven.
***Editor's Warning: Brief adult language, and graphic details of dying and death live here.***
I never saw my mother's body after she died. The man on the other end of the line asked me if I wanted to--whether they should delay the cremation so that I could make the two-and-a-half hour drive up the coast to where she lay in storage. Pale and spotted with bright red cherry angiomas, her sides striped with purple scars from multiple kidney surgeries and her arms mottled with worn red gashes where the tremors had caused her to scratch herself, I had seen enough of my mother's body when she had been alive.
It's different now that it's my own body. I find myself fascinated and curious as I'm prepped and marked. Striped, as she was, but with markers and dotted lines. It makes me think of a butcher's diagram describing different cuts of meat, and that makes me laugh because it is so close to the truth.
My mother's feet were blue and cold, as if she were dead already, and the thick yellow nails of her big toes always had a "v" cut in them, to keep them from becoming ingrown. They were ingrown anyway, more often than not, toes swollen red and white from the infection. My grandparents would ask me to rub her feet sometimes to try to bring the circulation back to them. I hated touching those half-dead things. It seemed to me that if they were dead then they must not hurt, and I was afraid that rubbing them back to life would cause her pain.
My own feet are cold and the nurse brings me another warm blanket, tucking it carefully around my feet with almost maternal care as she thanks me again for what I'm about to do.
"You're so brave," she says. I murmur words of appreciation because I know she means it, but she couldn't be more wrong.
My mother's eyes were blind, the sclera a dingy yellow, and the right one turned permanently up and outward in such a way that was always looking half at me and half into her own skull. Her eyes rarely closed, even in sleep, and even knowing that she was blind, I superstitiously stayed out of the line of sight of that one eye when her breathing slowed, so that my movements would not interfere with her dreams.
My own eyes are blue like hers, and my vision is perfect. It pleases me to know that corneas are always in demand.
Toward the end, my mother's body had a flexible rubber tube protruding from her belly. The nurses would ask what flavor she wanted: chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. They would laugh as they said it, not maliciously, but trying to make a joke, trying to evince a smile. "Pink," she would struggle to say, partially choking on the "k" sound (before the disease robbed her of her speech as well). She was beyond humor then. There was nothing funny about flavors she could not taste, but she knew cheerful pink from waste-brown and pus-white.
All of the pleasures of life: the sight of something beautiful or beloved, the taste of something sweet or tart, the satisfaction of standing or stretching or rolling over in your bed unaided, all of them were taken from her, until my mother was just a body, covered in bed sores and skeletally thin.
I have fasted as required, taking nothing but water for the past twenty-four hours. My stomach protests loudly, and I wish I could tell it not to worry, its sufferings are nearly over. My stomach, useless thing, will be one of the few parts of me that are discarded. There is no market for stomachs.
I have thought often of my mother's brain. Gray matter sealed over with lesions and plaques, she wanted to donate it to science. She may have imagined white-coated researchers, peering through microscopes at tissue-thin slices of her brain, unlocking its secrets and finding a cure. But it's complicated, donating one's remains. There are papers to sign, and her hand had stopped cooperating for even the duration of a shaky "x" years before. She wanted some good to come from her suffering. None has.
My own hand shook as I signed the first release. By the tenth my signature was smooth and practiced; by the twentieth it was crabbed and shaking again. No fewer than three lawyers, two advocates, a pair of psychiatrists and a panel of twelve members of the medical community were required to get me to this moment.
They shave my head and for the first time I am frightened. The technology is new, and there is always risk. They've gone over the procedure with me three times, and made me watch a video. They assure me that the discomfort is minimal, that the "information" will be just as "organized" as it is now. What they mean is that I will still be me. If nothing goes wrong.
"This a good thing you're doing," they say. "You're going to help a lot of people." They ask if I have any questions.
"Just one," I say as the needle enters my spine, sending a jolt through me like an electric shock. "How much longer?"
I still wonder about my mother's mind. Trapped inside that pain-wracked body that she could no longer control, brain compromised, what was left of her? Did she listen, understand, dream? Could she hear me when I read to her, and did she know the stories were not real? Was she sane? It has long been my opinion that it would be better if she were not.
She cried whenever she heard music. We left the radio on a soft-rock station that she had enjoyed, but at some point--after her tongue betrayed her and she could no longer tell us why--she would cry any time we turned it on, tears leaking out of her always-open eyes. Was it the lyrics? The melody? Was it too painful to hear those songs about love and loss, too much a reminder of what she didn't and would never have? Or did it move her because it was the only thing that she had left to enjoy?
Eventually we stopped turning on the radio, just in case.
Back in surgery they are carefully harvesting what I've left behind, the price I paid to be a part of this experiment. The body that would have eventually broken down, that got sick and sweated and shit and stank. It's no part of me anymore; it will become part of others now, others who want and need it.
When I was little I believed in an afterlife. First the Heaven that I was taught in Sunday School, and later my own version, in which my consciousness was decoupled from my body and I was free to roam the universe, to see all that there was to see, to know all that there was to know. This isn't quite like that, but it's close.
I wonder if her heart had still been good enough, and her liver. I wonder if there was enough of her left for her to buy her freedom.
No, I said. I do not want to see her body.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 18th, 2012

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