The flower shop is cooler, darker than the sticky day outside. I pull my sunglasses
up into my hair and stop just inside the door.
“Can I help you?” asks the girl behind the counter.
“No, I’m just looking.”
I don’t want to tell her that I have no idea what I’m looking for, that I have never been to a florist. I don’t know how to say that I have waited fourteen years to go to my mother’s grave and that’s what I am doing today.
My sister always takes her red roses. Always three—one for each of her children.
My mother loved roses. When my father brought them home, it was a dozen in every color
possible. They would end up clustered in the same olive-green glass vase on the dining room table. She would choose a different one as her favorite each time—pink, red, white, yellow. I walk past the Mother’s Day baskets and the teddy bears with caps and gowns to stand in front of the refrigerator cases. They are full of arrangements ready for sale, finished off with coordinating ribbons and sprays of greenery or baby’s breath.
I don’t want this. I want simple flowers to lay at a headstone.
At the register, prepared to ask the counter girl what else they have, I see a woman in the back arranging a tall bunch of long stemmed, star-shaped flowers with bright pink and white blooms.
“What are those?”
The girl turns as I point. “Stargazer lilies.”
They remind me of the orange tiger lilies that used to grow along the road near our house when I was young. I used to beg my mother to stop so I could pick them and take them home. I thought they would have a sweet, heavy scent. When she finally stopped and let me pull a few, they didn’t have any scent at all.
The girl brought some of the lilies for me to see up close. I put a creamy one up to my face and inhaled. It smelled the way I had dreamed the wild tiger lilies would.
“I want three.”
The day my mother died, she didn’t pick us up at school. She called and told the
school that she would be late, that her mother would come to get us and we would wait
with her. She asked to talk to my sister and cried on the phone. Stephanie was still
crying, her eyes red to show how much, when she came to tell us.
Huddled like conspirators at the top of the porch stairs behind my grandmother’s
house, we waited with expectant silence.
“Mom should have been here by now,” Steph said.
“It can’t be five yet,” I answered, still too young to own a watch, “It’s not dark enough.”
“It has to be. I’m hungry.”
Jesse, always the little brother, dug his fingers into the nearly empty tub of prunes.
My sister scooped out two more, one for me and one for her, before letting the waxy cardboard disappear into our brother’s arms. He wrapped it safely against his chest. The Diet Pepsi made one more pass before the last drops rolled down my throat.
“I’m still thirsty,” I said, knowing they weren’t listening.
We were all staring at the yard and the shadows forming across it as the blue in the sky started to fade. The breeze that had made me turn my face up to the sky earlier was now getting chilly and made me want to be at home—warm inside the house and waiting for dinner.
“Mom’s late. She’s always late.” My sister’s voice was clipped, like she couldn’t get enough breath. It sounded like an answer, but no one had asked a question.
It was true. Late was normal for her. She would drink a beer too many, forget the time, and fly down the road to us at school. I had even stopped listening for our number in the carpool line because so many afternoons found us trooping across the school grounds to the convent where the sisters lived, all the other staff having left for the day. They would always call home first, as if she might have forgotten that we existed. Some of those calls found her at home, unconcerned, long after the lines of cars had deserted the parking lot.
“She’s just not coming,” I said. “She forgot us.”
“She never forgets us. She always comes.”
I looked at the ground below us. Steph was right; she always came, no matter how late. No matter what else either—drunk or angry, happy or sad—she was always there. I never knew who would be behind the wheel at the end of the day—which mother. The angry mom usually told us to pile three in the back so she didn’t have to look at us. That also meant quiet. Any noise meant there would be yelling, someone would cry, and she would reach for the leather belt neatly rolled in her purse—all while maneuvering the car near sixty.
But there were other days. Days when she pulled into the empty pre-dinner parking lot of Mr. Dee’ s, her favorite barbecue place, and we would eat dripping sandwiches and deep-fried onion rings before 4 o’clock. We would sip Cokes in red and yellow plastic booths that gave loud squeals as we climbed in and out of them. She laughed with us and told us jokes we were too young to hear.
“Your mother will be here,” our grandmother said through the open kitchen door, putting an end to the conversation.
Driving down the road with the heavy scent of lilies hanging in the hot, May wind, I wonder why I have waited fourteen years to go back to the cemetery. I could have gone with Steph. She goes every year. I could have gone alone once I was old enough to drive. But I never did. I have always remembered this day, the anniversary, and I have always spent it alone, quiet, holding everything in. Almost like I was still waiting for her to come home.
I think I decided to make this trip when I found the death certificate I had never before seen. For so long, I’d held onto the child’s dream that she wasn’t really dead, that she would come back some day. I needed the paper to make it real. I found it in an old family album. The pages were thick, black paper with little pockets to hold the photographs, browning with age. Snapshots mostly, her parents in childhood scenes—a rope swing at a lake, a family drive in the country in what looks to be a Model T. The certificate was flimsy and white. I ran my fingers ran across the ridges and bumps of the county seal.
I opened the tri-fold and read: Diane Lynn Jacobe, May 8, 1987, single-car accident, approx. 5 PM.
I did not blink, and I could not feel the page in my hand.
I wanted more than the words. The police report said a cigarette and the dash lighter were on the floor, that she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, that she went through the window when the car hit a telephone pole. I have known these facts since she died. They do not tell me what I want to know. I imagine her crying as she leaves the house, hot tears blurring her vision.
Maybe she drops the keys in the gravel and kneels to search for them, the rocks stabbing through her jeans and leaving marks that never heal. She gets in the car, somewhere between hysterical and drunk. She forgets the divorce papers under the seat, which the State Police will later return to my father unsigned in their manila envelope. Less than a mile down the narrow road, she decides to light a cigarette. It will calm her–it always does.
The tears are drying now, alcohol or sobriety gaining control over emotion. I imagine her reaching for the dash lighter and see it slipping. Imagine glossy soft pack of Merits falling on the floor. She looks down. She reaches. She knows this road. She knows how to drive with vision hazy from tears and beer.
I don’t want to picture her after that–the fear, the rush of trees and the telephone
pole. The wide field that may be road. Did she know? She must have seen the coming
because there were skid marks. She tried to stop. I don’t want to think about the
broken windshield, her body in the grass, the blood. I don’t want to ask if she felt the
impact, the crash of the glass. I cannot let myself think that she could have laid there
knowing what had happened.
What I want to know is this:did she think about us. About all the other times this could
have happened? Did she think about the past or wonder how she would heal, believing
she would live? The police report says she died on impact, but how could they really
Grown now and behind the wheel of my own car, I am traveling backward. I
Begin close to my old school, By her mother’s house. The places she didn’t see that
day. I drive on the one road into the rural county where we lived then, the road she
never made it to. I never drove these roads, too small when we moved away and no
reason to come back. I am coming to the road—her road—and I turn, even though it’s
not the way to the cemetery.
I never knew where she died; our father would never say and the county gave us house
numbers long after. For years after I searched each telephone poll along Rural Route
694 for signs of an accident, checked the pavement for skid marks. That’s what I do
now. I pass the same houses, fields of wheat and corn and hay that she must have
passed. These were the last things she saw. Some of them. Somewhere on the road, I
pass the place where she died . I want a marking place, something to label—it began
It was dark when I woke that night, lifted from bed by big hands. I knew my father in
the dark, his cologne, the shape of his lap. I felt safe. I sighed as if I had been awakened
from a nightmare. I took handfuls of his shirt. My fingers twisted the buttons, found
the gaps between them. My hand fit there, and I felt the warmth of his skin. When I
opened my eyes and blinked sleep away, I saw light slanting sideways across the room,
making him a silhouette. I thought I heard crying behind me, behind him.
I couldn’t see his face.
“Daddy? Daddy, where’s Mommy?”
“In Heaven with Jesus.”
I felt tears in my hair as he pulled me up under his chin. It is the only time I’ve
seen him cry. Even at the funeral, he didn’t cry. He held me in his lap because I couldn’t
feel my feet on the ground to walk. I don’t remember falling down but he must have
known because he carried me down the aisle to the front pew. I walked behind the
coffin, holding his hand with both of mine as we left the church. I watched as my uncles
fed the handrails onto the runners in the back of the hearse. The white curtains swung
against the coffin as they closed the door.
At the cemetery, green cloth covered the mountain of dirt missing from the dark
pit. The coffin was suspended high above it, out of my reach, on a silver frame that left
room for me to stare into the dark. A green tent kept the rain off my head. I sat in a
cold metal chair–a folding chair like in assemblies at school. People walked by and
touched me, as if they could heal me, put back the piece of myself that was gone. The
priest moved his mouth, but I didn’t hear him. All I heard was the slow, mechanical,
slightly rusty grind of gears as they carried the coffin into the ground. . I looked away
when the coffin’s shiny silver frame was the only visible sign left.
This cemetery sits beside US 301 as it winds toward Maryland and the
Chesapeake. I park in the empty lot beside the office and find her just beside the tan
gravel walking path, a flat, bronze marker with an inset for a vase. I’d expected a
headstone, though none of the graves have them. I wanted something to wrap my
fingers around. I kneel or maybe my legs just can’t hold me up, seeing this—her. I
want to dig my arms into the dirt. I don’t know if I am breathing or how, and before I
can stop them, tears are on my cheeks. My mouth is open, but my throat is choked
closed. No sound can come out.
I clean away fourteen years of nature and weather on that marker with spit, the
way she used to wipe my face after mud pies or a fall from a swing. My fingertips are
stained red and brown. When I lick them to scrub at the ridged letters spelling her
name, they leave a metallic bitterness on my tongue. I don’t stop until each letter and
number looks new. I think the years I’ve stayed away won’t matter if I can clean her
I pick up the lilies I don’t remember dropping. Maybe I just let them
go as I cried or when I knelt. I strip away the wrapping the flower shop girl tied so
carefully with a pink ribbon and place them across the bottom of the marker. I leave her
two stems and set the third one aside. I want to take it home and hold onto this scent,
The wind dries the tears on my face as more roll slowly down. My fingers trail across
her name the way I would touch her face if I could. Tenderly. Uncertainly.
“I don’t want to be a ballerina anymore,” I tell her. “And my front teeth finally grew in.”
I tell her how much has changed and I find myself saying things like “but Steph probably
told you that” or “do you remember her?”. I say “I’m sorry I stayed away.” First I lie,
saying, “I’m not mad. Really.” Then I pound on the earth below the marker and
demand to know how she could have left us, what could I have done. I say “I needed
you and you never came home.” I tell her I spent my life looking for her face in crowds
Then, I stretch out next to her grave and prop my head up with one arm so I can lean
down and whisper all the things I would have told the mother I imagine.
Monica F. Jacobe is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer based in Washington, DC. Her creative work has appeared in The Ampersand and Prism, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University and is pursuing a doctorate at The Catholic University of America. A teacher of all kinds of writing, Monica currently teaches for the English Department at Catholic University, the AU/NTL program at American University, and the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. She also runs a reading series for DC writers at Riverby Books. Monica is hard at work on a novel, revisions of a collection of essays, of which Whisper All the Things is part, and scholarly writing about literature.