“Do you want to be buried or cremated?” I ask my mom over breakfast with the nonchalance of a query on the day’s weather. The kids and I are back in Tennessee for our last visit of the summer, this time with my two nieces in tow, one of whom is seated at the dining table with us quietly eating a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles.
”Cremated,” she replies instantly. Sounds familiar but best to check in every once in a while. That she’s healthy and not planning a hasty departure makes the conversation all the more innocent.
”Or,” she adds, “you could donate my body to the UT body farm.” I put down my Nalgene bottle. This is new. Mom’s decaying body, a teaching tool for forensic science majors who’ll one day famously solve the kinds of cold cases she enjoys so much on Dateline. The University of Tennessee website notes in bold: We do not give tours of the body farm. I wonder if the rule applies as much to future residents as future students. I’d like to reserve a low spot on the farm, you know with tall grasses that get all swampy in spring and fall. I sip my water while perversely pondering the names of burial (or partial burial) packages that might be offered while my niece clutches her cereal bowl and slowly retreats from the table.
”I find it interesting that you’d donate your body to the farm but you’ve never signed up to be an organ donor. Are you still afraid of waking up in an ice bath missing a kidney?” I know for a fact that’s what she’s afraid of as I inherited the fear as a teenager and have carried it in my emotional baggage ever since. Even this year when I got my Ohio drivers license I denied becoming an organ donor recalling her warning. I get that it’s irrational but here’s how it could play out:
A disgruntled, underpaid DMV employee in search of a lucrative side hustle to stave off bankruptcy becomes connected with organ traffickers. She begins supplying donor information for a substantial fee as organs fetch high dollar on the black market. Your name gets passed along. Ice bath.
This assumes the criminals abide by a code of ethics in which one’s status as an organ donor is absolute.
A doctor falls in love with an ICU patient facing heart failure and in desperate need of a transplant. He searches patient records discovering a car accident victim in a coma on the third floor (you), an organ donor. The doctor secretly removes you from life support ensuring your imminent demise, performs the heart transplant and saves the life of his beloved.
“Listen, it’s happened (on Dateline).” Mom eyes me over the rim of her coffee mug. “Just be sure I’m good and dead before you do anything.” She says this for my younger brother’s benefit more than mine though he’s sleeping in and missing all the fun. He lives with my parents and will likely be her keeper/tormentor and I his.
”Don’t worry, Mom,” I reassure her. “I’ll make sure you’re good and dead.”
“Check out this picture of Sean as an old man.” I’m sitting on my parent’s bed while they relax in flanking recliners. We’re half watching a rerun of 48 Hours. I hold up my phone to show them an image generated in FaceApp that my husband, Sean, posted on Instagram. He looks like a thin Hemingway. Not bad.
“He shouldn’t have done that. Now he’s given his face to the Russians,” my mom and step dad reply in tandem.
“Don’t you go using it,” Mom cautioned.
“Are you kidding? I don’t want to see what I’ll look like old.”
“Well, if you want to know just look at me. We look alike except your hair is blonder.” As the words leave her mouth our eyes lock, widen knowingly and we fall apart laughing. Mom let her brown hair go gray a few years ago but has been coloring my hair at least twice that long. Who the hell knows what color it actually is.
Frank is my aforementioned younger brother. He’s a devoted uncle and loving brother and as such will go along with me, both literally and figuratively, on just about any adventure. In 2017 when my family lived for a couple months on my parents’ property in our Airstream Frank agreed to attend barre classes with me. All went comically but well - he only slipped once (he refused to workout barefoot on account of hygiene) and we avoided making eye contact when one of our classmates accidently pulled a length of barre off the wall and landed on her rump; in her defense the craftsmanship was shoddy - that is, until the day I showed him an Instagram post from the studio in which his socked feet were captured on film. At this he became irrate for two reasons, one of which was legitimate: 1. He’d not given permission for his photo to be taken and 2. (his far greater concern) somewhere out there foot fettishists were lusting after his toosies. It turns out he has a foot thing.
Now that we’ve given up on barre (out of principle and because his attendance required my payment) we’ve taken to walking the neighborhood when I come to visit. It’s our sibling time, just me and him. We walk every day. Neither rain nor humidity nor mosquitos will slow us down. Unfortunately as we experienced this week, a flare up of gout on the other hand, will. Frank is simultaneously Peter Pan and Benjamin Button. I observe in amazement as each morning he wields a gallon sized freezer bag of vitamin and supplement bottles. He’s convinced he suffers from osteoperosis. His gout - as diagnosed by WebMD and indicated by swelling - can be cured by cutting his salt intake, theraputic foot baths, cherry juice and Crocs.
One morning, while Frank and the kids were sleeping, I entered the kitchen and spotted a giant metal mixing bowl filled with water on the dining table. As we’d weathered several summer storms over the week I thought perhaps the roof had sprung a leak. The bowl had been used for the kids’ popcorn the previous night and surely was grabbed in a pinch to save the floor and furniture. Fortifying my hypothesis was a towel strewn on the floor in the vicinity of the bowl. I looked up quizzically for the better part of a minute yet there was no leak to be found. I peered into the bowl and saw that it was sparsely littered with grass clippings. Odd, but I shrugged and got on with making my breakfast. When Frank eventually made his way into the kitchen later that morning he pulled the bowl from the table, placed it on the towel on the floor and unhesitatingly submerged his swollen foot. Later that afternoon my dog, Scout, on hiatus from backyard galavanting, drank from it.
Frank sells collectible action figures for ridiculous sums of money on Ebay. What he can get away with charging for shipping alone is mind boggling. Mom and I are convinced he’s rich but every time we hint around the question of his bank balance he evades us with a devilish grin. Mom wants to ensure he can support himself in the future. I’m just nosy. We joked that this will be the conversation on her deathbed:
“Mom,” says Frank, “I don’t want you to worry about my finances in the afterlife so I’m finally gonna tell you what I’ve got in the bank.” Mom waits, eagerly gripping onto life as he bends to whisper in her ear.
“Four? Thousand? Hundred thousand? Four million?”
He smiles that smile. She dies.
Mom says gout is a ‘rich man’s disease’.
“Is Frank going to be offended if I write about him on the blog?” I ask Mom on our drive home from a Walmart run, the trunk full of groceries including two bottles of cherry juice.
“I don’t think he reads the blog.”
“Whhhhaaaatttt?!?” I gasp. “Well. Maybe it’s for the best.”