Now That You Are Here

I run the fingers of one hand down the palm of the other, pressing hard as if it is my hand I am trying to bring back to life. I go to the bathroom and shut the door and stare at my face in the mirror, my hand moving all the while, fingers pressing into my palm, drawing down to the wrist, repeating the motion over and over as I move out and into the corridor to people whose mother has not just died. Not that I know of. I haven’t asked. They haven’t said. 

One of the nurses says: You have to order an undertaker.

Now? This minute?

The nurse looks at me. It’s the kind nurse, the one who came to me in the hallway when I’d been sent out by the doctors who had no space to apply their tubes and needles and ministrations, the room filled as it was with the press of my heart thrashing to escape, to cling to the contorted form lying on the bed.

She was the nurse who, moments later, told me to return to my mother’s side and I did, I pushed my way through the drawn curtains, through doctors and machines making the wrong sound.

Has she gone? I said and the doctors glanced away, stricken and wordless. I placed my hand on my mother’s forehead, her paper-thin skin bruised and torn there from the oxygen saturation monitor. I said, I love you Mum.

I heard no reply. There is nothing after death. You die, and then it is over. There is nothing else.

Nothing but my fingers pressing into my palm and my face in the mirror staring back. Nothing. 

My mother’s body is being prepared. Mine is not prepared. It breathes hard and fast, great gulps of air so I do not collapse on the corridor’s sterilized floor as the nurse goes off and then comes back and gives me a piece of paper on which she’s written the telephone numbers of several undertakers in Cork city.

You can go in now, the nurse says. The priest will come.

A priest? For my atheist mother? 

The curtains are still drawn. The elderly and vocal man in the next bed declares Yesterday it was peas, or maybe he says peace, I can’t understand his Irish brogue or perhaps the papery sound of my fingers against my palms is too loud.

Battery-operated tea lights wink from the overbed table; a plastic rosary and a picture of Jesus sits between them. The nurses have pulled the red blanket over my mother’s narrow body, a blanket I’d brought from her house to brighten the sickly yellow and the chrome.

Right you are, right you are, shouts the vocal man. 

The nurses have closed my mother’s eyes. The tubes are gone, wrapped up and tucked away. The heart monitor is not making the wrong noise anymore. It is not making any noise. My mother’s hands rest on her chest which does not rise and fall.

I sit on the chair beside. My fingers have stopped their pulling. I am suddenly very cold but I cannot put on my cardigan because the nurses have inadvertently used it to dress my mother.

I take out my cell phone and press numbers. Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry, my brother says as if she were not his mother, only mine. 

I ask him to come and he says he can’t. I shouldn’t complain, he flew over first. Three days he had with her. She’s rallying, he said when I finally arrived and we worried what was next because it was obvious she couldn’t return home not with her friend Joe dead and no money to put her somewhere that didn’t smell of boiled cabbage and skin cells and the sound of bingo and prayers echoing through overheated rooms painted pink.

I tell him we need to decide whether to bury her or cremate her and where.

It doesn’t make any difference to me, he says. You decide. 

Okay, then, I say. You’ll come for the funeral?

What’s the point? he says. 

The point is me, his only sister, sitting alone with our dead mother but I don’t tell him this I tell him I have to go now. Okay sweetie, he says, call me whenever you need. I hang up and telephone a young couple I know who live on the other side of the county, I ask them to come and get me because I cannot go back to the hotel and sleep in that room with windows I can’t open to the black river and the bright calls of gulls hunting for trash.

We’ll be right over, the young couple say. 

In fact it will take them an hour which seems both an eternity and not nearly long enough. When they arrive I will go with them to their overgrown dog and their view over the barren Tirnaspideoga hills although it seems right now to be too far away from the hospital, too far away from my mother. What will they do with her? Will they put her in a drawer in a cold room like I’ve seen on cop shows? 

The vocal man coughs a little and then is quiet. There is only my own breathing and then the metal swishing sound of the curtain rings against the curtain rail as the priest opens it and then closes it behind him. He is tall and old and he smiles at me as if today is a good day. He looks lovingly down at my mother and then he looks at me. I think he can tell I am not religious, not any more. Not now. In spite of my atheist upbringing I might once have been, just a little, hoping there was something greater than myself but now I know there isn’t. There is just me and my dead mother who I only discovered I loved three days ago when I first stepped into the room and she wrenched off her oxygen mask and held out her arms. I just wanted to see you, she said.

Out my heart flew, right out of my chest, a great bird, winged and shimmering. I’m here now Mum, I said.

I gazed into my mother’s eyes, and my mother gazed back, the gaze of mother and baby, one becoming the other, on and on, time stretching like light, recreating history, a history in which failures and betrayals and regrets were a language of love.

When I heard she was in hospital, I procured every reason why I didn’t need to be at her side. It was only pneumonia. I had my novel to finish. Where would I sleep? What would I say to her? My mother was being taken care of, she’d be just fine. My brother was going over, he’d be there soon enough. She didn’t want her daughter, she’d told me so herself. I don’t want visitors, she’d barked when I last suggested I come over for Christmas. Perhaps your neighbour can check on you? I said. That woman with her holier-than-thou mouth? You must be bloody joking.

When one of the doctors telephoned to say my mother had a heart attack in the hospital, It’s bad, I told a friend: I have this feeling she’ll die on Saturday. I should be there

Go now, you must go now, I kept whispering to myself, but I did not go. I couldn’t find a cheap flight, couldn’t find a replacement at work, couldn’t find my heart, no, no, that thrashing inside was just a sort of panic attack, nothing important. Forty-eight more hours I waited, forty-eight hours I could have sat with my mother, gazing.

The morning after I’d arrived, I asked her, Are you in pain

Not now that you are here, she said.

The priest puts his hand on my mother’s cheek. Och she was a great old thing, he says. A great old thing.

It’s not how I’d describe my bird-like mother. 

She never believed in God, I say.

He looks over. She asked me to pray for her.

A little dart of pain stabs me behind the ribs. She did?

I’d stop by for a chat on my nightly rounds, he says. She was always good for a chat. She asked me to say a blessing for her.

Why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t he come and find me and shake me and say, she needs you to be with her every moment you can? Instead I left during the day to find a print shop to print photographs of her grandchildren, instead I left during the night to lie on the hotel’s king size bed thinking, I’m wrong, I’m wrong about her dying on Saturday. 

I pick up the plastic rosary from the overbed table. Can I keep this? I ask. 

Of course, he says and I wrap it around my wrist, the cross in my palm, edges digging in. The priest leads me out to rapidly retreating glances from the vocal man and to a small room with filing cabinets and someone’s cup of Nescafé getting cold.

What happens now?

They’ll put her in the mortuary until the undertaker comes, he says. Saturdays are a bit slow.

My fingers have started their pulling again. I don’t know any undertakers, I say. I don’t live here. I’ve never done this before

He asks me the name of my mother’s village so he can contact the local priest for a local burial but I tell him that isn’t necessary, my mother barely set foot out of her house other than for the Sunday papers and milk. I tell him—I’m blurting now, I can’t help it—my mother hated the neighbour for being Catholic and she hated the farmer for letting his cows loose on her lawn and she despised the home help for hanging up the porcelain in the wrong order and the only person she tolerated was Joe the garden centre man and he had…my fingers dragging hard now…he had keeled over and died from an aneurism the day before the home help found my mother. No one had told her about Joe. Did some part of her know? Is that why she collapsed? She hadn’t asked why he didn’t visit her in hospital but he wasn’t the sort of man to visit hospitals. He had a face like a burnt tree-trunk and two brown teeth in his mouth and he’d go round to my mother’s house every day, bash on the door with his fist until she reluctantly opened it and he’d say, Now I know you’re alive I’ll fokkin’ leave you alone, and then he’d trudge back to his garden centre. 

He should have been the one to find my mother drowning in her own fluids but instead she was found by the home help who’d driven to my mother’s house to give my mother the news about Joe. Instead she rang 999. 

The nurse gave me these. I push the paper towards the priest. Who should I call? 

I tell him I need the cheapest burial on offer. I remember a cardboard box in Canada that a friend’s mother was cremated in. That’s what I want for her and it’s what she would want for herself but the priest tells me an eco-coffin is as expensive as a normal one and in short order in County Cork but if this is what I want the undertaker will surely do his best and the priest writes the name Paddy O’Reilly and a telephone number on the back of the list of numbers the nurse gave me. 

Undertakers are bleeding sharks, he says. They’ll try to sell you your own mam for five grand but call Paddy. Paddy will see you right. Tell him Father Murphy sent you. Maybe he can do it for less than twelve hundred.

I wonder, briefly, if the Father will get a cut.

I don’t care. He is the only one here helping. 

He is the only one here at all.

I stare at the oily skin coagulating on the cold Nescafé.

Is there someone coming? he asks gently. What about your brother?

Some people I know, I say, are coming.

Shall I bring you a cup of tea while you wait?

I can’t drink the tea. He’s brought a biscuit too, round and limp, but I can’t put anything into my mouth. I go out into the corridor and I walk down to the covered bridge that looks out over that black river and there I meet a huddle of people moving towards me. A young man stops and says, Are you alright?

My mother just died, I say brightly and I realise I do feel bright, buoyant even, my feet barely touching the floor. 

I’m so sorry, he says and I can tell he is, genuinely sorry. I have to go, he says apologetically and I nod, Of course, I say and he catches up to the huddle who must be going to see some sick or dying or dead person.

I walk to the end of the covered bridge and back again, one foot after the other. A woman clutching a polystyrene cup glances up and then away.

I walk to the toilet where I stare at my face once more, but no one gazes back. I turn on the tap and run the water just for something to do. I splash water on my eyes and then I think what’s the point because they won’t stop leaking.

I open the bathroom door and go back into the corridor and the nurse who’d been sometimes kind takes me by the arm and she too asks me if I’m alright. 

Yes, I’m alright, I say and I walk back down the corridor to the bridge again and then I stop for I have no more energy, not one iota. I can barely keep myself upright as I watch the river move sluggishly towards the ocean and the birds sweep and dive over a tree standing sentry. And I think, I would be a tree if I could. Arms raised effortlessly and having no more thought of myself than of birds alighting. The tree doesn’t need to hold or to be held and when the tree dies she will feed the earth with its grit in colours from black to stony white, and out of the grit will sprout another tree. 

And above the tree a bird and above the bird a star, hydrogen forming into helium, helium into carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, into iron and sulphur, the dust from which we all are made. 

And I think to myself, my mother will be up there, will be down here. How exactly it works, I do not know, I am not an astrophysicist but I grasp the possibility that my mother is not gone, that there is something, if only a piece of star, after death.

And I wonder if this thought will ever be a comfort.


  • Sandra Jensen is a writer and teacher of writing living with chronic illness. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, AGNI, The Irish Times, Descant, Hobart, and elsewhere. Awards include the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel, the Grindstone 2020 Novel Prize, and top 12 in the 2019 Writers’ Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition. She recently completed a comic coming-of-age novel and a book for writers living with chronic disabling conditions. The latter will be published in 2024. She lives in Brighton, England, with her partner and her cat, Ronan.

  • Metaphor in various images and imaginings of the brain. As Michael Shermer writes in "Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us" (Scientific American, Oct 1, 2008), "The brain has been thought of as a hydraulic machine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century), and an electronic computer (20th century). Scientists often use metaphors such as these as aids in understanding and explaining complex processes, but this practice necessarily oversimplifies the intricate and subtle realities of the physical world. As it turns out, the role of those blobs of color that we see in brain images is not as clear-cut as we have been led to believe."