How to Help Your Best Friend Bury Her Mother

By Priya Thomas

1) Say Yes to the Black and White

When Lily asks you if you like the black-and-white, smile and nod. The way she gathers the fabric in her arms like an infant tells you she’s probably more attached to this one than the sapphire or violet. You never saw her mother wear it, but you can imagine the possibilities: date nights, trips to the opera, wine-tasting parties. Neck spritzed with Chanel Mademoiselle, earrings shaped like teardrops glistening against damp, ringletted hair. Hazel wore sequins and pearls and thick berry lipstick. She wore short black dresses that made the other mothers cluck their tongues. You still remember Lily’s blushing face when Hazel would sweep into school in her scarves and pencil skirts, anxious to whisk her daughter off to ballet. Lily didn’t like ballet, but she loved Hazel.

“REPETITION” © Rosmarie Voegtli https://www.flickr.com/photos/rvoegtli/31926163554/

You imagine the very same black-and-white cocktail dress that Lily’s cradling stretched tight across Hazel’s wiry figure, with white high-heels to match. If they had been anywhere near the Catholic school, Lily would have ducked her head and pretended not to know her mom. Around the girls of St. Mary’s Upper School, Lily was the prim little girl in the green-and-blue plaid skirt that never crept too high above her knees. While the rest of you sweated and squirmed in your uniforms and unbuttoned the tops of your white Oxford shirts, Lily was Little Miss Buttoned and Tucked.

You consider reminding Lily of this. Don’t. When a mother dies, the little things about them that used to irritate their daughters are often the things the daughters will cherish the most.

“Are you sure this is the right one?” she asks, running her fingers over the slinky fabric. You notice Lily’s nails are turquoise with dark red crescents at the top. The red is a rusty metallic color–not one you’d find in polish. When you take her hand, they leave bloody half-moons on your palms. But don’t talk about that now. Let her focus on the dress.

“Yes,” you say, because that’s what she wants to hear. Her mouth, a thin pink thread, unravels for a second. It opens wide, and you can see the flaps of dried, cracked lips fanning out like butterfly wings. You’re not sure if she’s going to smile or cry.

You take a step towards her, your arms lifting halfway, almost touching her. But there is nothing in her eyes that signal wanting to be touched: they’re glazed, empty. You drop your arms and pretend you were smoothing a fold in your shirt. Remember: Lily isn’t like you. She doesn’t melt under soft words and human hands. She’s tougher than you can comprehend.

She looks uncertain, so you add, “It fits her personality. Light, stylish, cheerful. The sapphire seems a little too grand, and the violet—”

“Too frilly,” she murmurs, nodding. “Dad got it for one of their anniversaries, but she lost weight from ballet after that, and this one was newer…” She fingers the black-and-white, biting her lip. The butterfly wings flutter down.

There are so many things you could say:

It looks really soft. Didn’t your mom always say she could wear a dress forever, as long as it was soft? Don’t say ‘forever.’ Forever is the last word Lily needs to hear. She still doesn’t truly believe that Hazel will wear this dress forever, and neither do you. You can’t believe that, in time, it won’t be a dress at all; it will be a zebra-striped blanket over a bone cage.

You could make a suggestion. You could offer that Hazel might like to wear her matching pearls. But then comes the trouble of tense. When does a person become past tense?

You think about your mother’s dresses — the royal blue she always pairs with the glass-beaded earrings; the sassy red she likes to wear with the stack of bangles she keeps in a shortbread cookie tin that you covered in Christmas wrapping and labeled “Jewelry Box.” You try to imagine which combination your mother might like to wear if — when–

You can’t. There are too many bracelets, too many earrings, too many skirts and dresses and blouses to choose from. You could never in a million years choose one to hold your mother’s body. It’s an impossible question, so you give the impossible answer:

“It’s perfect,” you say, taking the dress from Lily’s hand and draping it gently over Hazel’s bed. The comforter is still scattered with laundry Hazel was planning to fold: black pantyhose, a sweater, an orange scarf, a lacy bra. Lily’s eyes fall on her mother’s undergarments, and she blushes. Walk to the other side of the room. Give her some space. But first, you ask, “Do you want to show your dad the dress?”

Lily shakes her head. “He doesn’t want to know.”

 


 

2) Choose Maple Hill

Lily likes Fairmount because it’s close. It’s a long strip of yellow grass right off the highway, beside a blocky strip mall with big, LEGO block department stores and coffee shops. It’s a gravestone city, packed with stone slabs like swarms of people in gray overcoats. It seems a little irreverent. Motorcycles are revving their engines mere feet away, and golden retrievers are blinking at the two of you from the other side of the fence.

Lily glances at the retrievers, irritated. Behind them, in one of the suburban yards, a little boy is blowing bubbles through a star-shaped wand, a jug of red “Miracle Bubbles” clutched in his fist. He gives you a cheeky smile and blows a bubble in your direction. Lily turns her back on him, but the other side is not much different. Across the street, people are licking salt crystals off Wetzel’s pretzels wrapped in greasy yellow bags, as they flip through cardigans on the Old Navy sales rack. Life is stubbornly chugging along, and right now Lily needs to escape into a bubble of her own. Fairmount is not the right bubble.

“Cemetery” © Michael Himbeault https://www.flickr.com/photos/riebart/3911684360/

You need to tell her. The other cemetery you visited, Maple Hill, is forty-five minutes away. If Fairmount was a city, Maple Hill was a kingdom. It was sprawling and spacious like a palace courtyard, and at the same time, sequestered into a tiny pocket of nowhere. There were long, winding trails and trees that stooped over the graves with limbs interwoven, creating a ceiling of leaves. When you looked up, you saw a labyrinth of branches, shafts of sunlight. But Lily didn’t see any of that. All she saw was the thirty miles of distance that would soon lie between herself and Hazel.

The golden retrievers and the Miracle-Bubble boy are stressing her out. You can see the color slowly rising in her face; tears bead on her eyelashes and freckle her cheeks in mascara. Her dad shuffles up to you, hands deep in his pockets.

“She’s set on this one, huh?” he says quietly, his face tight. It’s clear he wants Maple Hill, but he’s determined to let Lily have the final say.

“I’ll talk to her,” you offer.

“Not yet,” he says, grimacing against a gust of wind. He clutches his stomach, as if the wind is a fist slamming into his gut.

There’s a man in a yellow windbreaker standing a few feet away, scribbling away on a clipboard. His lips are smothered by curls of mustache, the ends of them dark and moist from falling too near his tongue. Lily’s dad walks slowly up to him and murmurs that they’ll be back later. He makes eye contact with you. This is your cue. Go get Lily.

The three of you clamber into the car, hair waving in torrents around your faces from the wind. Lily is silent as you pull into the road.

“If they were both the same distance from your house,” you ask, “which one would you choose?”

“They’re not the same distance,” she says flatly, picking at a piece of lint on her jacket. She presses her cheek against the window, watching the strip malls streak by like bolts of lightning. You hate the strip malls, suddenly. They seem so stubbornly upright, oblivious that the world is supposed to be crashing down. They should be toppling, crumbling.

“Do you think, maybe, the distance might be worth it if the setting itself is less…” You grapple for words. Less suburban? Less ugly?

But you take one look at her and clamp your mouth shut. Her face is stone. The lint from her jacket is gone; her chewed-up fingernails are clawing at the fabric itself.

When her dad stops at Wendy’s and offers to buy you milkshakes, say yes, because Lily’s not going to. Even though the milkshakes are basically chocolate-flavored ice crystals that look like sidewalk slush, get one anyway. Then Lily will get one, and give the two of you an excuse not to talk.

You slide into a booth together, crunching milkshakes in your mouth.

 


 

3) Let her Disappear

You find Lily crouched in her parents’ bedroom, photographs scattered on the carpet. Photo albums with embroidered covers are splayed open in between the individual slips of paper. You catch glimpses of Hazel in a strapless wedding gown, dark chocolate hair coiled in a thousand little truffles atop her head. In one picture she’s under a gated archway adorned with cream-colored magnolias, tilting backwards in her husband’s arms as he kisses her. In another picture she’s in a black bathing suit by the ocean, holding Lily, an infant in overalls and pigtails. The other photos are strewn too far away for you to see; you start into the room. Don’t.

This will happen many times. You and Lily will be shuffling through old mail, folding laundry, or sorting through the endless trays of coffee cake and fruit baskets left by the neighbors, when suddenly Lily will vanish. You’ll find her upstairs, dissembling photo albums you never knew existed, or quietly listening to Enya’s Watermark, Hazel’s favorite CD. Her face will never crumble like you imagine yours would if you were in her situation; she will never sigh or hug herself or curl up into a fetal position, or betray any other signs that she might need you. She will be the same pillar of strength you always knew her to be, only she’ll want to be alone.

Don’t expect her to act like you did when Kyle broke up with you, or when you had to quit the swim team after you broke your arm. You ate up the attention; you reveled in each gold-Sharpie signature scribbled on your cast. You spoke with Lily for hours on the phone about the sandy color of Kyle’s hair, and how much you missed the twangy strum of his guitar. She listened patiently while you cursed your birthmarked, pockmarked body, while you blubbered about every whitehead and coffee-colored freckle that might have made Kyle lose interest. You could never manage to grieve alone, not even over the little things.

“Perfect Pan” © Jim O’Connell https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimoconnell/2659944902/

Now, as you watch Lily face this by herself, don’t assume your shoulder is the one she’ll cry on. Don’t wait for her to dissolve or explode; she is not combustible. She is not you.

 


 

4) Trust the Silence

You’ll be tempted to feel a little entitled, a little neglected. She has always been the warm silence at the other end of the phone, the presence that rarely spoke when you ranted, but listened. It never occurred to you that she does not crave that feeling of being listened to. You will want her to let you dip your feet in the water she’s drowning in, and then feel incredibly selfish for feeling a prick of resentment when she doesn’t. Everything you’ve ever complained to her about, every trivial problem you’ve treated as life-or-death, will make your neck burn in shame. Sometimes those memories will make it hard to look her in the eye. But do it anyway. It’s not your place to look away. Remind yourself, over and over again, this is not about you.

She’ll seem busy all the time: rummaging through baskets of Hazel’s favorite editions of the New Yorker, scrolling through online pictures to include in a photo montage at the funeral, feverishly scrubbing black spots from Hazel’s old frying pans. You’ll want to follow her, to constantly offer help and ask her what she needs, but at some point you’ll have to face it: what she really needs is not anything that you can give her. The sixth-month age gap between you makes no difference now; her eyes alone have aged several years. The skin is still butter-smooth, but the pupils are harder and darker — not a trace of sleep in them, even in the earliest hours of the morning. When you glimpse yourself in the mirror as you follow her out of bed, you flinch at your own dewy eyes, still crusted with sleep. Your hair like ruffled feathers, your baby-soft face, make you blush. You’re still a child.

But you don’t have to stand wooden-legged by the kitchen sink, hating yourself for being useless, purposeless. Because everyone here is lost and shell-shocked, floundering with laundry and grocery lists and plastic plates.
There will be fleeting moments when the whole house grows quiets, and Lily seems quiet inside it. And she’ll look at you.

She’ll sit cross-legged on a kitchen chair, feet bare and ice-cold. She’ll smile with shiny eyes, and you’ll feel bewildered by her. Whatever she wants to do — cry, laugh, talk, or just smile like it’s another beautiful day — do it with her. She hasn’t asked you to stay, but do it anyway.

 



Priya Thomas is eighteen years old. She is a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School, where she is the editor of Pandora’s Box, a literary journal featuring students’ creative writing, photography, and artwork. Her work has appeared in Canvas, Crashtest, Glass Kite Anthology, Bluefire, Daphne Review, Paragon Journal, and The Sun. She is an alumna of the Sewanee Young Writers’ Program and CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts.) She loves to read, run, dance, and hike.

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