Which Words Come Last by Cara Lopez Lee
Which Words Come Last
By Cara Lopez Lee
As Mom traveled through time, I wondered which words would come last. Such unknown words required more listening than I ever before considered. I feared they’d be in old East L.A. Spanglish, and I wouldn’t understand. Or that they’d slip through tiny holes in my phone, impossible to hear.
“Who is this?” she asked, confused.
“No, Mom. Your granddaughter, Cara.”
“I don’t have a Grandfather Sarah.”
She was wandering Boyle Heights in 1934. Sometimes her grandpa gave her Aunt Sarah a dime, sometimes he gave it to her. He only had one coin, not two. Heads: She ate lunch in the cafeteria. Tails: She hid in the bathroom.
“It’s Cara. Remember? You took care of me when I was little.”
“You can send her over,” she said, “but if I don’t remember her I’m sending her back.”
Before my first words, Mom understands my first cough. “Cara sounds funny,” she says, and rushes me to the doctor. Her translation saves my life. “One more hour,” the doc says, “and this girl would be dead.”
I called her back, hoping for another chance, another word.
Her voice was warm as peek-a-boo: “Hi!”
“You know who this is?”
“Of course! My granddaughter, Cara. When are you coming?”
“In a couple of weeks.”
“No, Mom. I live in Denver, remember?”
She was wandering Downey, California, in 1981, where I wore a long red cocktail gown and sang for the audience she never dared, though she sounded like Billie Holiday and dreamed of Ella Fitzgerald.
What’s my first word? She’s the only one who might remember, but I never think to ask. Mama? Dada? Unlikely, because my grandma eclipses those ideas and I call her “Mom.”
Her leg died first, when a clot sent word that this season’s color was indigo.
From her hospital bed, she declared me her last word on success, introduced to every last doctor, technician, and nurse. “Have you met my granddaughter?”
On a TV bolted too high for her to hear, I changed the channel to I Love Lucy and 1957. Lucy thought she had mortared her wedding ring into the backyard barbeque so she tore apart the bricks, but the ring was on the tail of Little Ricky’s kite.
I said, “Lucille Ball was so funny, people forget she was pretty.”
Half an hour later, Mom had an epiphany: “You know…Lucille Ball was very pretty.”
I touched thick-knuckled, thin-boned fingers, looked into eyes graced with constant surprise, and said, “Although my mother and I are good friends, you feel like my real mother.”
She prodded my arm, the way you check a peach for ripeness, and quipped, “You feel like a mother to me, too.”
Mom was so pretty, I forgot she was funny.
My first books are Dr. Seuss. I sit on Mom’s lap and read to her.
“Only three years old,” she brags. Showing off rhymes about cats and hats.
The doctor gave her a week. She took two. Mom always took forever getting ready to go, as detailed with deep coral lipstick as I was with bright green words.
In the cruel white light of the nursing home, sans makeup or comb, she repeatedly asked if I had met her boyfriend, “Soyen,” until I pretended I had.
“He’s handsome,” I said, because looks were important to her.
“He’s studying to be a doctor,” she said.
I pictured her in 1941, the glamour-girl in my favorite photo, with hourglass shape and long rolled hair. I imagined the rare sight of a Mexican medical student standing on her grandpa’s porch in East L.A. on a warm summer night before all the soldiers went to war. But if the boyfriend with the strange name ever existed in a real time or place, nobody knew except her.
She and Grampa return me to Daddy’s house every Sunday night. She prays with me before they leave: “Deliver us from evil” and “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I cry after she’s gone, watching my stepmother’s wedding veil turn into a skeleton in my closet.
My godfather prayed with her, earnest face hanging over her bed like bad news. I hoped my padrino would soothe her with words of hope or peace. Instead he asked her to accept his God. When she said she had already accepted her own, he asked her to do it again. What, once was not enough?
When he left the room and I returned, her eyes gripped mine like a child afraid the lights will go out.
“Did he scare you?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let him do that again.”
Not that she liked my meddling much better.
When she yanked the oxygen tubes from her nose, I said, “It’s good for you!” and put them back.
“Not in this situation it’s not!” She pulled them out.
She always had to be right. I once told her this trait runs in our family, but she assured me I was wrong. This time I guess she was right. What use was oxygen now?
She asked why her legs hurt, “¿Por qué sufren las piernas?” It was 1928, when she was only four, too young to understand.
I replied in Spanish, and words like “funciona” and “circulación” turned gangrene into poetry.
“Oh, is that why?” she said.
She did not ask what would happen next, so nobody told her, just gave her morphine and sent her floating through time. Still, I felt the knowing within her rise and fall, like the shouts of the young woman in the next bed who was sure the nurses were trying to kill her, like the rise and fall of her own fading voice.
“¡Ay!” Mom cried, “I want to cut off my leg!”
I prayed, “Please, God, take the pain away.”
When I’m 12, I forget to feed Dixie until three hours too late. Our black lab-pointer lies shaking under the avocado tree. Panicked, I sprinkle nuggets of dog chow near her foaming mouth. Why won’t she eat? “Mom, something’s wrong with Dixie!” Mom rushes outside, but it’s too late. Dixie is dead from her desperate final feast: snail poison from a garbage can.
Mom never blames me.
Each time she wrestled her cotton nightgown over her head, I wrestled it back on…until her helpless eyes begged me to stop. I closed the curtain and sat silent with my naked mom, splayed like a starfish, savoring cool victory. Next time, the nurse tied a knot in her gown.
I shrank to a murmur in her ear, a damp cloth on her forehead, a warm palm to her cheek. I feared her breath would smell bad. Instead it smelled like fresh baked bread.
When I tried to sit her up to feed her, she stiffened and cawed like a crow.
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” I said.
Soft bits of rice, beef, and gravy fell from the diagonal slot of her mouth, and I saw Dixie under the avocado tree.
But Mom was right here, right now. She looked up with hound-eyed trust and said, “Thank you for taking care of me.”
I’m twelve and she’s fifty, when Grampa leaves us for the girl from karate class.
Years later at a diner, over pie à la mode, Mom says, “Grampa ruined my life.”
But I won’t let her have the last word, not yet. “Mom, it’s been twenty-four years and I’m ready to move on.”
She opens her mouth, but says nothing, the unspoken retort hanging from her jaw until she closes it around a forkful of sugar-free apple. She asks how the boysenberry tastes.
“Almost as good as Knott’s Berry Farm’s. Remember?”
One day we return for another slice, but the diner is gone.
I wore a blue mask against infection, a bandido stealing whatever words remained. She didn’t recognize me, so I pulled the mask away. Wild eyes found mine and twinkled like little stars.
“You look pretty,” she said.
“That’s because I look like you, Mom.”
“You look like me,” she echoed, and then predicted, “I’ll be you.”
She was in the future, when we would trade places. She would turn young again while I would grow old without her. Then she would walk the earth as me, or I as her. I had already caught glimpses of this truth, reflecting unplanned portraits from the mirrors of my house.
But she wasn’t ready for the future yet, flailing and clawing at blue bed bumpers, trying to escape.
After I get married, I fight with Mom long-distance.
I hate her complaining: “You bought me the wrong pants!”
She hates my disrespect: “Can’t you just say thanks?”
Whenever we hang up, her last words are not for me, but for my husband. “Take care of each other.”
I do what I’m told.
She fell silent for days. Then nurses rolled her on her side, her eyes rolled toward mine, and she exhaled the words only I could hear:
“I’ve always loved you,” her words slack-jawed and thin.
“I love you too,” I said, before she closed her eyes.
It was all we had in common, except bowling, ice cream sundaes, and 1940s musicals. It was the only thing left to say. Unless Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland shout, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”
I always have questions for her.
She mails me her recipe for albondigas soup, but I never make it, so I never ask her how much cumin to use.
I record her story about the time her family got evicted and lived in Uncle Frank’s restaurant, but I forget to ask which part of L.A. it was in, and whether she slept in a booth or on the floor.
I always forget the punch line to the old Mexican joke about el peloncito, the little bald man, so I always call her to remind me. All I can remember now is that a man shaves his head so Death won’t recognize him, but Death has yet to meet his quota and decides el peloncito will do. It’s only funny in Spanish, but the words are gone.
What were the last words she heard? I tucked earbuds in her ears, and Ella Fitzgerald bebopped as morphine drip-dropped and Mom’s eyebrow arched. When was she?
A tisket, a tasket, she lost her yellow basket.
I counted breaths: nine slow beats a minute, then eighteen and up-tempo, then nine and staccato, the soft hi-hat of a swingin’ tune, then nothing but the susurration of the oxygen tank. It was 2013.
I kissed her forehead. “Goodbye, Mom,” I said.
I wondered if she heard me, or if, lipstick finally perfect, she had left for the concert to sing her first song with Ella.
© Cara Lopez Lee
Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away (forthcoming from Conundrum Press; Ghost Road Press, 2010). Lee’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, and Connotation Press. She teaches youth for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and she edits books. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. She has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. Lee married her husband at a volcano in Costa Rica. They survived and live in Denver.
Join the Community
Support the Mission
Get the Book
Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream
The anthology that started it all. Available in trade paperback and ebook from most online retailers, including: