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Proud Flesh photo

Once, we had a horse who split his head open on a beam and grew proud flesh. Proud flesh is when granulation tissue fills space in a wound instead of healing. Pink tissue blossoming, mushrooming. This is grief. A wound upon a wound upon a wound. Red and poisonous and raw. A tongue that lays still, heavy.

*

My family sits together. My half-brother is dying and we hold this knowledge quietly. The lake is gentle and green. A caterpillar crawls across the deck. Orange-spiked and slow. Once, I was making kale for dinner and I found a caterpillar on a leaf, and he said he’d eat the caterpillar but not the kale. My mother’s stories fill an absence of our own stories.

*

Two years ago, my mother lay in the hospital with eleven broken bones. A rib punctured a lung. Her breath shallow and jagged. Imagine the moment before a skipping rock sinks. We find comfort in the electric rhythms. Our eyes tracing the IV lines. A bag of saline empties one drop at a time. Time passes strangely in hospitals. All at once and not at all.

*

My grandmother died the week before we all started staying home because of the pandemic. My mother had been visiting her multiple times a day in her assisted living facility. The last time I saw her, the air was thick with death. As I looked at her eyes, hands, blue-rivered and jagged, I did not see my grandmother—I saw what was left of my own mother in her. I understood the meaning of skin and bones. A white sheet crumpled. Fallen from the clothesline. I admit: I was grappling with gratitude more than grief.

*

My family wasn’t sitting together when my half-brother died. I didn’t know him very well. My memories are sharp and fragmented. A red-glossed Mazda Miata. Christmas, it’s just another day, he said when he told my mother he wouldn’t be joining us. A window seat promised but never built. A rust-glow ponytail. A wildness I admired.

*

At bedtime as a child, I once asked my mother which of us would die first. She explained to me that mothers are supposed to die before their children. I said I wished it would happen the other way around so that I would never have to feel the absence of her. My mother told me to think about things that brought me joy so that I could fall asleep. I did. I can no longer remember those thoughts of joy. I can only make out the shadows of joy. Now, I lay awake worrying. I worry for my mother, my family. I worry for myself. I worry that my worry is too heavy for my partner. My worry is the scab I reopen with my anxious fingers. My worry is the pile of clothes teeming in the corner of my bedroom. Untouched. Dark. Collecting dust. I’ve hugged my mother once in ten months. The distance between us aches.

*

When someone dies, all your grief opens inside you. Not like a flower opening. Not like a mother opening her arms. Not like a child opening a present. No. A grief opens inside you like a wound. Like a sternum cracked, ribs spread. Like stitches coming undone. Like a mouth opening, swallowing, silent. Like the ground being opened to home a body.

*

I used to have nightmares where my mouth was filled with mulch and I had to scoop it out in order to speak. Now, I have nightmares where my mouth is filled with flesh and I have to cut to tongue, to form words.

*

The vet takes a scalpel to the pink between the horse’s ears, spilling blood onto the dirt. Proud flesh can sometimes eclipse the original wound. A pink moon, cratered. Wound filling distance. I wince. In order to heal, the tissue must be cut again and again, until it is living. A scalpel to memory. There are no nerves in proud flesh, so the horse doesn’t feel the cut.

*

My mother’s bones healed. She walks more than eight miles every day. Fractures change a body. Now, my mother carries her grief—on the sidewalk, on the treadmill, as she rests. Our grief stays, remodels each new day. Stings, burns, numbs. Skin grows over. We scrape away until we once again are living.

 

image: Dina L. Relles


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