Swallow It Down

The first time Catherine almost did it was as she was brushing her mother’s hair. Brianna, the home nurse Catherine had finally needed to hire, had left twenty minutes ago. The house was quiet without her chatter that usually filled the space left by her mother’s silence. And in the stillness, Catherine’s heart slowed to the shushing rhythm of the brush in her hands as she went through the motions of caregiving.

There wasn’t a lot of hair left on her mother’s head. And what remained was wiry, white, and stubbornly straight, even though Catherine had black and white photos that proved their hair had once been the same curly auburn. She wondered what age might take from her as the brush snagged at the nape of her mother’s neck. Catherine gently pulled the tangle free and stared at the white strands held within it.

I should eat it.

Like the urge to water a drooping plant, the thought came from a place of such purity, it precluded any possible judgment. So, Catherine simply rolled the idea over in her mind like she would one of her mother’s old strawberry candies on her tongue.

She pulled the strands from the brush and made one tight knot between them. And then another, and another, until she had a tiny, tense ball of hair in her palm. A morsel just waiting to be swallowed.

Her mother coughed and Catherine shoved the tidbit into her shirt pocket before threading the brush back through thinning strands. She finished quickly and began dinner. Except for the incessant hum of the air conditioner, the house was quiet as Catherine spooned plain pasta between her mother’s thin lips.

To many it might have felt lonely, but Catherine preferred the silence since her mother had begun to deteriorate. It was a respite from the subtle sniping she had brought back into her life when her mother came to stay, along with the sickly-sweet scent of her aging skin.

For Catherine, silence had become a way of survival in such a loud world. At work, as she parsed through lines of code, she acquiesced to white noise in her headphones to tune out her just-barely adult colleagues regaling everyone with their weekend escapades. She understood the need for an open floor plan in her office, but desperately missed the plush fabric walls of her cubicle that filtered everything around her into cushioned echoes. And at home, the unignorable volume of her mother’s judgments had finally ceased.

It was a Tuesday morning last year when her mother stopped speaking completely. Catherine had hired Brianna by then, and the nurse said she would have been worried except that her mother started writing. Pages and pages until her hand cramped and curled and she could no longer manage it.

Catherine had still not brought herself to read the diary, which Brianna insisted on leaving atop the coffee table as if her mother might start up again someday. She was scared the words inside would be a nonsensical jumble  It was only after the small sips of whiskey Catherine allowed herself in the evenings when she would admit she was more terrified the diary would be perfectly understandable. That it held in its pages her mother’s last indictment of all of Catherine’s failures.

Unless I eat them.

It wasn’t her own voice in her mind, barely even a voice at all. But as her mother’s milky gaze watched Catherine mechanically lift the spoon to her mouth, she couldn’t deny the thought was there. The moist sound of her mother’s opening mouth only seemed to compel her more.

Once the bite was successfully masticated, Catherine stood from the table and went to the living room. The carpet had thinned, and her knees protested as she knelt down, but she didn’t want her mother’s incriminating eyes on her while she did it.

Her fingers hesitated over the diary. It looked like one of Brianna’s daughter’s cast-offs, with six puppies staring out from the cover on a grassy hill that could have been anywhere or nowhere at all. It was just the sort of nondescript image Catherine leaned on sometimes as filler while creating mock websites for clients.

She took in a small sip of air and opened to the first page.

‘This is for you,’ was all she read before closing the diary and staring once again at the puppies. For the briefest moment, Catherine entertained the thought that her mother had some sort of secret lover near the end and had written to them in her final moments of clarity. Maybe they, too, had been stricken down by age and couldn’t make it to her ailing bedside. She almost opened the journal again to check.

But her hammering heart knew all that waited behind the set of six droopy eyes staring at her was more misunderstanding, disappointment, and spite. Her mother had tried her entire life to box Catherine in, to cajole her into some semblance of the daughter she had imagined forty-eight years ago. Catherine wasn’t going to let her last written words be burned into her mind like every other thing her mother had ever said about her. In fact, Catherine would make them disappear forever.

Without looking, she tore out the first page and pinched off little sections of paper. She put a few in her mouth and let them sit. There was a brief flash of brightness to the taste—Catherine imagined the pen ink melting over her tongue in thin black rivers—and then bland nothing. She was mostly surprised by how tough it was to chew, even after her spit hydrated the pieces. But she took her time, piercing the paper with her canines to try to wear the pieces down until she finally swallowed them all in little pulpy balls, each smaller than the tied ball of hair still safe in her pocket.

She leaned back against the couch and breathed in deeply. She swallowed again and felt a calm settle into her bones. Another deep breath, through her nose, slower. Yoga breathing, the girls at work would say. As Catherine breathed her deep inhales and slow exhales, she found, for the first time since her mother had moved in, she didn’t mind the newer, mustier scent of her house as much when it hit her nose.

In fact, she more than didn’t mind, she felt like she could finally breathe in this space that had become oppressive with her mother’s belongings, lugged to and fro from each care facility until they had landed in her home.

She ate another handful of the diary, then a full page. She only stopped when she noticed the light had begun to fade through the windows. Her breath snagged, worried her mother might have died, quietly choking on a piece of food, slipping out of her chair and suffocating on the rug. She was sure the police would inexplicably know it was Catherine’s negligence.

I can’t be locked up before I eat the rest.

She dashed back into the kitchen from the short hall that led to the living room to find her mother sitting. Alive, fine. Maybe a bit grayer than before, but mostly the same.

The doctors had told her to expect a slow decline. One had even pulled her aside to relay an anecdote of his own parents, how it had felt like living with the dead. Catherine hadn’t been able to decide if he had been fruitlessly, and rather inappropriately, flirting with her, or if he was being kind. Either way, he’d been right.

Her mother was in the chair in front of her, still very much breathing. But in the time it had taken Catherine to eat those first two pages, she’d seemed to slump more towards the ground, as if begging it to become her grave.

Catherine ate three more pages that night after her mother had been tucked safely in bed.


Brianna arrived just as Catherine was leaving for work the next morning.

“I made some extra coffee, please help yourself, Brianna,” Catherine said as she gathered her phone and keys. She heard a lightness in her voice that mirrored her mood and liked the sound of it so much she kept talking. “Too much caffeine makes me shaky, so it’s half-caff, but still a nice dark roast flavor!”

Brianna only smiled awkwardly.

“Mother and I stayed up a little late last night watching some of her old shows,” Catherine continued, smiling to herself. “Hopefully she’s not too difficult for you today.”

A little white lie, but she wanted Brianna to like her. And it wasn’t completely untrue. She had stayed up watching mother’s old shows, it was just that her mother had been asleep already for hours when she did it. In the same way that eating the diary felt right, watching her mother’s favorite sitcoms felt like some ritual she needed to go through to begin to say goodbye, to close the book on this person she wasn’t sure she ever really had known after putting so much distance between them after childhood.

“That’s…umm, really sweet,” Brianna said, shuffling through her bags. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m sure she loved it. Have a good day.”

“You too, Brianna. See you at six!” Catherine grinned before walking out into the heat of mid-summer, relishing the smell of the warm air baking the pavement and how her blouse clung to her skin.

She picked up donuts for the office and laughed at her coworkers’ jokes over flaky sugar that she licked from her fingers. She felt new, reborn. Eating her mother’s final words, unread, made her feel powerful. She was no longer the child, forced to listen. In erasing her mother’s voice, she felt she was finally finding her own.

She rolled the ball of her mother’s hair between her fingers while she worked, anxious to get home and finish what remained of the diary.


Brianna’s face was flushed when Catherine pulled her keys from the lock.

“Everything alright?” Catherine chirped.

“It’s Meggie… she’s different today,” was all Brianna said.

“Different good or different bad?” Catherine asked, holding her breath.

She was suddenly worried her mother would die before she had finished her strange goodbye and it made her blood burn, like it would steal away her newfound confidence. Her mother’s last hurrah would be to beat Catherine to the punch.

“Different…scared?” Brianna squeaked. “I don’t know. She just isn’t responding the same. Her heart rate is high. I think she’s been trying to speak, which she hasn’t done for months. She should see her doctor.”

Brianna stood by the door with her bag already slung over her shoulder. Her arms drew tightly across her chest and she chewed at her nail so hard that Catherine had to control the urge to swat at her hand and tell her to compose herself.

“Of course. I’ll make the appointment, no need to worry. I’m sure it’s just the heat,” Catherine reassured her.

“Thanks,” Brianna mumbled before flying out the door.

Catherine knew her mother would be seated comfortably at the table, ready for dinner, as Brianna always made sure to leave her. So she didn’t bother looking in the kitchen to check on her before kneeling in front of the diary and carefully ripping out each page. As she did it, she stared at the upholstery of the sofa and decided it might be nice to redecorate when all this was over. She wondered when her taste had gotten so modern and austere as to have a white couch with unwelcoming teak armrests at each end. Once this was done, she wanted comfort, maybe even companionship again.

She boiled the pages with two quarts of water. As she watched them disintegrate back into the pulpy mess they came from, she thought it might be nice to add a little flavor to the final send off. In the end, she made a slightly thick, slightly too-sweet tea concoction, but it went down alright, and the taste reminded her of muggy evenings on the porch set to the tune of buzzing cicadas.

When the pot was almost empty, she began to feel like herself again. She pulled out the small ball of hair and popped it in her mouth. It smelled of shampoo and tasted strawberry sweet. She swallowed it down with the last sips of the diary.

Back in the kitchen, she regarded the lifeless body in the chair. It had gone ashen, with its age-curved spine hunched over a bowl of rice at the table. She caressed a sallow cheek, shuddered at the deep rivers of wrinkles on the skin. Pulling her thick curls into a bun, Meggie pushed away the panic of almost being lost to the dying shell.

No matter. The diary had finally done the trick. Catherine’s weakness and insecurity had fed from its pages and let Meggie take hold.

Leaving the body to deal with in the morning, Meggie went to the kitchen to cook something with some flavor to it.

She would go for a walk tomorrow, visit Catherine’s work and maybe find a date to the movies, take advantage of a life her daughter had squandered. But tonight was for celebrating, Meggie thought, as she pulled some ham from the fridge. She hummed a cheery tune and set Catherine’s weak coffee leftovers to boil for a red-eye gravy that would rid the taste of her daughter’s failures from her mouth.