The Embroidered Roses Breathe

Chivas Sandage

From the door, I can see the change—her mouth’s gone. In its place, an open hole serves a single purpose: to breathe, or try to breathe. Only one month has passed since I last flew south but Opal appears to have aged two decades and no longer drinks, eats, speaks or swallows. She seems deeply asleep as I approach the bed, and though I move quickly, the memory of walking toward her will survive as a series of stopped frames taken mentally as I try to comprehend what’s happened to this woman who’s always been more of a mother than grandmother. Finally at her side, I realize that her jaw stays fully open now, never again to close, at least not while she lives, and her lips have almost entirely receded, leaving only thin, faint, rosy-brown seams around the cavern of her mouth. From that dark opening, a crown of deep lifelines radiates before softening into the fragile landscape of her sweet face.

Teeth tucked away in her bed-stand drawer, tongue flat behind her gums, her mouth’s become an extension of her body, her body an extension of her mouth. Opal’s entire being fights for each breath, gasping in short, quick, raspy inhales, every exhale a submissive downbeat like a frustrated sigh. Only a few things help now: her head tilted upwards on the pillow, the steeply raised bed, a standing fan and morphine.

Her newly too-thin body lies in the last position the hospice staff placed her—on her back, arms casually wrapped as if she wrapped them herself. Through the sheet, I see not her thighs but femurs. It’s as if all that is left of her is focused on trying to breathe, or trying to die, and her lipless, toothless, gaping mouth is the most alive part of her dying.

Opal does not appear to be in pain. In fact, her face and body seem beyond pain, utterly surrendered. She looks peaceful we say to each other before she’s even dead. If this is peace, it’s a kind I’ve only come close to for seconds at a time, like the sensation of sinking under warm water in an empty pool, sight gone, sound muffled, body weightless and face expressionless. We cannot know, but I want to believe that she’s within peace—and that we aren’t construing this in our own tired minds to ease the pain of watching her die.

I’m told that during the last weeks she’d say, “Help me.” Then she’d look right at you and say it again.   

But there’s nothing one can do but raise her higher on the pillow, raise the bed’s angle, check the fan’s direction and ask the nurse to administer the morphine. Because of those few drops in the side of her cheek, drops that are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream whether or not one can swallow, she’ll sleep all day. In fact, she rarely opened her eyes or spoke lucidly the past few days. Then, twenty-four hours ago, they stopped giving her food or water. I’m told that to do so would force her systems to continue working, force her body to do the opposite of what it’s trying to do.  To give fluids of any kind would overwhelm her organs while depriving her of endorphins—mercy in the form of endorphins.

Seven close family members and a former partner have died over the years and here I am again, camping out in hospice, reading the blue booklet cover to cover, trying to understand something about which I know too much and nothing—how to die.

Opal pressed me to write her obituary several years earlier, a request that I struggled with, procrastinating until she pushed the issue. When she began to plan her funeral, I began to write. In the beginning, we worked on it together, Opal telling me what to put in, what to take out. I knew it would have to somehow include essential details like chicken and dumplings. Chocolate pie.

Then I had to face that page alone. But the hardest thing I had to do was read her obituary out loud to her one morning. We sat in easy chairs wearing our nightgowns, well, wearing her nightgowns and sipping coffee. She wore her burgundy gown with a necklace of vines. I wore the mint gown with pale roses. While I’ve never been terribly fond of pastel roses, this is the nightgown I love to borrow. We’d been telling old stories about Dad and laughing uncontrollably, drunkenly, while trying not to wake her sister or my daughter, laughing until we had tears streaming down our faces. Then she asked me to read the folded white pages I’d placed next to her coffee cup.

I got up for a refill while she stared into a distance only she could see in her small apartment. When I sat back down, she put on her glasses, as if they would help her hearing. “Opal was an optimist who loved to laugh,” I said, my voice sounding thin. “Born June 14, 1919 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma…” I forced words into the air between us. She listened intently with her chin propped up on her thumb, a darkly polished index finger covering her mouth. “A single parent, Opal worked for thirty years as a supervisor for the clothing manufacturer Kellwood Company, volunteered at the V.A. Hospital and was a member of the Disabled American Veterans and Auxiliary, serving in numerous positions and finally as President for the State of Arkansas.” As she had instructed, I’d reduced her life to nouns and verbs, names and numbers.

“I don’t mean to interrupt you but,” and then she’d interrupt, correcting the details of what she’d lived. “I worked there thirty-one years.”

“Okay, thirty-one,” I said. “In 1935, she married Carl Sandage with whom she had three children. Two were lost as babies and Larry Sandage, former Vietnam combat photographer, died at the age of thirty-eight.” She blinked. Nodded. Said nothing. Our laughter from only minutes before had evaporated from the air around us. “In 1975, she married Fay New of Little Rock. For twenty-five years, they enjoyed a happy life together in the home he built.” She stared straight ahead, and then looked at me, nodded again. “Opal ran a small quilting and alterations business out of their home for twenty years, sewing 1,705 quilts, 1,108 baby quilts, and crocheting 67 afghans.”

“Sure sounds like a lotta’ sewing. Glad I kept my notes,” she said. I nodded.

“After Fay’s death from cancer in 2000, his large family remained close to her and was always at the door to pick her up for doctors’ appointments and for dinner, for the holiday feast and the errand, or just to sit and visit.”

”Did you write that letter I asked you to?” she interrupted.

“Yes, Granny. I did. Finally.”

“Did you tell them what I told you to tell them?”

“I did.” The first time she asked me to write a farewell letter on her behalf to Fay’s family, to be delivered at her funeral, she was sitting in the same blue reclining chair drinking a cup of coffee, adjusting her glasses at one side with a polished mauve nail. She looked right at me with those alert brown eyes and said, “You’ve got to tell them I’ve loved them like my own blood.” Perhaps I put it off because it was the last thing I had to keep her here—as if she couldn’t leave until I wrote it: “Thank you, for everything, forever.”

I study Opal’s closed eyes, already swollen, flushed and ringed in pale brown, her lashes laced with gray, and her thin eyebrows, perfectly shaped. Fine, blue veins ripple along her temples. Her wide, open forehead—speckled with faint, brown age spots—still remarkably clear of lines and luminescent in the lamplight. Gently, I brush her hair away from her face. For once, it’s uncurled. Silver spills onto her pillow. I want to remember the intensity of this beauty. And so I do what might be considered by some an irreverent act, even taboo—I take photographs. But I think she would have understood. I want to believe she would. I need some way to hold her.

I take several photos of her silver hair against the plain, white sheets, then three in profile, photos that reveal the degree of her open jaw and the deepening of death in her face. The living image is shocking. I need evidence—for myself alone. Then, I take several photos of her folded arms and hands and the light green gown with pale pink blooms at the neck, the one she always let me wear. I study her long, shaped nails with polish erased from all but two. I have never seen her fingernails so nude, and never without her rings. Now, she wears only one—her wide, yellow gold wedding band—even though her fingers swell around the metal.

Her gown’s gently scooping rosy necklace frames the photo’s top edge, while her arms and hands, one hand crossed over the other wrist, frame the sides and bottom edge. The embroidered roses breathe with her. There are four, sweetheart-sized pale pink roses in the gentlest full bloom. The two outer roses are slightly smaller, cradled by delicate, pale green leaves, petals and leaves forming the gown’s irregular, scooping, wave-like neckline. From this necklace, mint green fabric falls gracefully over her chest like water easing toward its shore, these shores being the thinnest parts of her, formerly fleshy places most vulnerable to the powers of lung cancer. The waves of her gown lessen as they make their way over her still ample breasts, below which her hands rest, her thumbs with their notable joints that bend easily in ways most thumbs refuse. “We have the same thumbs,” she’d always tell me, holding my hand, working my thumb like a small toy. “You’ve always been the little girl I lost,” she’d say, her steady eyes gazing straight into mine. Now, her fingers swollen and immobile, I hold her hands in mine and gently stroke their elegant, veined backs, her delicate, bony wrists and long, thin, shapely arms.

Finally, I lay down on my side, lay next to her on the thin edge of mattress and talk to her, but it’s when I sing to her, a slow, quiet version of “Amazing Grace,” it is then, after the first line, that her breathing suddenly pauses for an instant. She takes what seems her first full breath and then, with that exhale, her body seems to soften.  

Later, after midnight, I kiss Opal’s forehead and hair and then nap in the extra empty bed we’re lucky to have in her room. I fall quickly into a dream.

“She’s gone,” the nurse says, waking me.

“But I’ve just arrived.”

Chivas Sandage
Chivas Sandage

Chivas Sandage’s first book of poems, Hidden Drive, is forthcoming from Antrim House in August 2012. Her work recently appeared or is forthcoming in Evergreen Review, Knockout Magazine,  Naugatuck River Review, Paradise Found (Levellers Press, ’12) and Morning Song (St. Martin’s Press, ’11). She’s taught composition and world literature at Westfield State University and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches women’s writing workshops, is at work on a memoir and second book of poems, blogs at and and lives in Collinsville, Connecticut with her wife and daughter.