By Charlotte Matthews
I plan to be a cadaver when I die. I’ve learned that you have to make this official with a nearby hospital or medical school. So that is on my to do list. I’m figuring it could help someone out along the way: this body with its mastectomy scars, its radiation tattoos, its chemo brain. I’m a teacher now — so why not keep on with this trade after I’m gone.
Even though my mother had few friends, she read The Washington Post obituaries faithfully and exhaustively. I have a feeling it’s the real reason she took the paper. Occasionally she’d break the breakfast table silence: Oh, John Oliphant died. I dated him in tenth grade. He was dreamy. Wonder what happened? And this would be the first time I’d heard of such a person. But I shouldn’t be surprised. She favored the mysteries she read over anything that could happen in real life. I bet she was all the time trying to solve them. I say this because she rocked at the detective board game, Clue, was truly exceptional at it. Knew to keep quiet even when she was certain that Colonel Mustard had killed Mrs. Peacock in the ballroom with a kitchen knife. There’s a real art to keeping secrets.
Next to my writing desk is a photograph of Christmas morning. I look to be four, which makes my brother nine. We are standing in front of the fireplace, three empty red stockings hanging glumly over the fire screen. My mother is stooping so as to be low, down at my level. Her left hand cradles a doll who is half my size. My mother is teaching me how to hold my Christmas present, how to properly cradle a baby’s head. If only she knew how distinctively I remember that lesson. To swaddle an infant properly you first place the baby in the center of the blanket, then tuck in the blanket’s left side, followed by the bottom, and finally the right. You make it compact, a tight, tight bundle.
When someone casually mentions cancer—like today at the barbecue— mentions it like you would a new recipe or documentary movie, something shines in the dark woods, wakes me up and I’m on high alert, antennae calibrating. At first I can’t be sure what I’ll do or say. And the conclusion I’ve come to is I have two options: I can pretend to have no familiarity with the disease whatsoever or I can feign getting bit by a horsefly and walk away to swat at the open air. This all reminds me of the one good thing about airport standby: you might go and you might not. Few things are that blatantly uncertain. In art, the vanishing point is where all receding parallel lines appear to converge. In life it’s when something ceases to exist.