Because She Is Beautiful: A Novel

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Thomas was a three- hour drive away.

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We kept talking and talking until at last we had a deal: she would go to St. Thomas but we would have separate lives, dictated by me. I would live in the dorm and she would drive back and forth. If our paths crossed on campus she would not acknowledge me unless I acknowledged her first. She replicated my worksheets, wrote the same papers I had to write, read every one of the books.

I judged her a shaky student at best. She went to college and earned straight As.

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Sometimes I hugged her exuberantly when I saw her on campus; other times I sailed on by, as if she were no one to me at all. We were both seniors in college when we learned she had cancer.

Thomas anymore. I was married by then, to a good man named Paul. After she got sick, I folded my life down. I told Paul not to count on me. I wanted to quit school, but my mother ordered me not to, begging me, no matter what happened, to get my degree. She herself took what she called a break. She only needed to complete a couple more classes to graduate, and she would, she told me.

She would get her BA if it killed her, she said, and we laughed and then looked at each other darkly. She would be strong enough to start in on those last two classes soon, she absolutely knew. I stayed in school, though I convinced my professors to allow me to be in class only two days each week.

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As soon as those two days were over, I raced home to be with my mother. Plus, I was needed. Eddie was with her when he could be, but he had to work. Someone had to pay the bills. I cooked food that my mother tried to eat, but rarely could she eat. I took everything from the cupboards and put new paper down. My mother slept and moaned and counted and swallowed her pills. On good days she sat in a chair and talked to me.

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There was nothing much to say. I knew that her love for me was vaster than the ten thousand things and also the ten thousand things beyond that. I knew the names of the horses she had loved as a girl: Pal and Buddy and Bacchus.


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I knew how she met my father the next year and what he seemed like to her on their first few dates. Cursing and sassing off to her mom, bitching about having to set the table while her much younger sister played. I wanted to know. But now that she was dying, I knew everything. My mother was in me already. Not just the parts of her that I knew, but the parts of her that had come before me too. A little more than a month. The idea that my mother would live a year quickly became a sad dream.

By the third of March, she had to go to the hospital in Duluth, seventy miles away, because she was in so much pain.

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She sat on the bed and I got down on my knees before her. I had never put socks on another person, and it was harder than I thought it would be. They went on crooked. I became furious with my mother, as if she were purposely holding her foot in a way that made it impossible for me. She sat back, leaning on her hands on the bed, her eyes closed. I could hear her breathing deeply, slowly. It was a word she used often throughout my childhood, delivered in a highly specific tone. This is not the way I wanted it to be, that single honey said, but it was the way it was. It was this very acceptance of suffering that annoyed me most about my mom, her unending optimism and cheer.

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Her movements were slow and thick as she put on her coat. She held on to the walls as she made her way through the house, her two beloved dogs following her as she went, pushing their noses into her hands and thighs. I watched the way she patted their heads. The words fuck them were two dry pills in my mouth. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind.


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She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden.


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I held fast to this image for the first couple of weeks after we left the Mayo Clinic, and then, once she was admitted to the hospice wing of the hospital in Duluth, that image unfurled, gave way to others, more modest and true. I imagined my mother in October; I wrote the scene in my mind. And then the one of my mother in August and another in May. Each day that passed, another month peeled away. On her first day in the hospital, a nurse offered my mother morphine, but she refused. She slept and woke, talked and laughed. She cried from the pain.

I camped out during the days with her and Eddie took the nights. She was preoccupied with nothing but eradicating her pain, an impossible task in the spaces of time between the doses of morphine. We could never get the pillows right. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us.

When my mother asked him for more morphine, she asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then.

She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction. Not down over the light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth, but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed. She lived forty-nine days after the first doctor in Duluth told her she had cancer; thirty-four after the one at the Mayo Clinic did. But each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze. I was in heartbroken and enraged disbelief.

One friend told us he was stay- ing with a girl named Sue in St. Another spotted him ice fishing on Sheriff Lake. Mostly, I watched her sleep, the hardest task of all, to see her in repose, her face still pinched with pain. But it was just me. My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone.

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What did he know about losing anything? His parents were still alive and happily married to each other. My connection with him and his gloriously unfractured life only seemed to increase my pain. Being with him felt unbearable, but being with anyone else did too.

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