By Nicole Cooley
Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.
Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.
Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.
Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.
My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.
Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”
Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.
I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.
Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?
I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.
In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.
I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,
Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).
As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.
Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath
Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?
Drown suffocate smoke.
The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.
Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.
Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze
I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.
My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.
Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?
Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.
For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?
A different time, I tell my daughters.
Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.
My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.
After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.
I want to ban this language.
Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—
Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—
What could my mother tell me now?
What can I tell my daughters?
Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.
Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.
Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.
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