By Bethany Browning
Mother died cracking her neck. Balled her fist, positioned it under her chin and pushed sharply to the left. The hyperextension snapped her vertebral artery in two, causing a stroke there was no coming back from. First, the left side of her face slid into a slobbery droop. Next, she was twitching on the kitchen floor until she wasn’t anymore.
I’m not a big guy, so relocating her body down the stairs into the basement was a chore. Her shoulder popped a few times, the sound of tendon repositioning itself over bone. The sound I would always associate with feelings of love and protection.
Her constant joint popping was the background music to my childhood. Call it anxiety, compulsion, bad habit—whatever the reason, she was uncomfortable in her own body. Always trying to get it just right, find the position that would make her feel straight, release her pain, or put her right again.
She was incapable of sitting still. Watching a TV program was accompanied by twisting her hips, pulling her knuckles, opening and closing her jaw like an out-of-water fish in the hopes it would click. She’d push on her kneecaps (snap), press down on her toes (a quick “blick” sound), and contort her wrists into right angles (crunch-pop).
She’d even get her kids in on the action. “Pull my pinky toe,” she’d say if she had her feet up when I walked by. I’d grasp her toe between my thumb and forefinger like a cocktail shrimp, pull until it no longer resisted, and feel the surrender of the joint, hear the burst of nitrogen bubbles in her synovian fluid.
I wasn’t bothered by her constant adjusting and snapping. I found it soothing. Even as a little kid, I always knew where she was. I’d go silent and listen for the rolling crunch of a jerked shoulder, the deep tock of a pressed ring finger, or the crackle of a stretched ankle. Sometimes she’d let me cuddle with her on the couch and her joints would rattle as her muscles relaxed and she sank into the comfort of the sofa.
The sound was always there. Mother was always there.
In her final years, her neck sounded less like the rat-tat-tat of twisting vertebrae and more like cartilage grinding, bones scraping.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Every day,” she said, and she jerked her head back and forth. No satisfying noise, only her intake of breath as she re-injured herself and got no relief. “If I could get that one spot…” She yanked it again. Her eyes filled with tears. “Is it so bad to want to feel better?”
My siblings were horrified by her constant cracking.
“She contorts herself like she crawled out of a well in a Japanese horror film,” my youngest sister once said. “And the sound—.” She shuddered. “Nails on a blackboard. How can you stand it?”
I moved in with her when she was no longer able to care for herself, when she wasn’t much more than a bag of snapping joints and flatulence. Chiropractic manipulations, massages, physical therapy— nothing relieved the pain that plagued my mother. So we stayed home and she readjusted herself until she died.
After that final twist (I knew what happened quickly after thanks to a Redditor named sallback69 who responded with great care to my frantic post), my grief was profound. To think she’d spent her life obsessed with relief that would never come, her compulsion alienating everyone but me. Now that I was no longer tasked with caring for her breaking body, I was overcome with sadness for her spirit. My tears flowed freely and often. I stayed in the house. Fixed it up a bit.
“She’s doing okay,” I relayed to my siblings. I didn’t want them to meddle. They’d stopped coming by ages ago and took my updates as further evidence that they weren’t needed.
She shrank, of course. And her hair and nails appeared to still grow, but I think that’s an old wives tale.
I left a fan running. There were windows in the basement, those tiny ones that you crank open, the kind that kidnapping victims in movies are always somehow slipping out of. But I kept them closed. The smell was too powerful, and I didn’t want to attract the neighbors. I didn’t mind it, the same way she didn’t mind when I got a bedsore after a childhood kidney surgery that left me bedridden. She tended to my mephitic, oozing infection without complaint, her cracking knuckles calming my frazzled nerves.
Most days I’d start with her toes. Pull the pinky toes but press firmly and swiftly at the base of the ones that went to market and the ones that stayed home. Then, a small manipulation mid-foot to release the gasses from those tiny bird bones. Her ankles and knees always made a dramatic and satisfying “ka-chunk” sound, and so did her wrists. The hips were a puzzle, but then I found a YouTube video series of a chiropractor and I copied him. She was easy to put into position and I used his methods from her hips up to the neck bones that plagued her so.
“There, there,” I’d say when I was done. And then I’d wash my hands in the kitchen sink.
Her body stiffened over time. Her muscles were ropy and dry; her skin was slimy and tacky and it came off in sheets. A white fungus took root in her mouth and nostrils—I was afraid to crack her jaw because of what I might find in there. The odor never improved and was now taking over the whole house. I could smell her when I was at my mailbox, but I never sussed out whether the scent travelled or if it was living in my nose, like her fungus.
Her eyeballs bugged out. A dead body is a flourishing ecosystem of spores, gasses, and bacteria and what happened there was akin to a big bang inside her skull. I didn’t mind. She looked surprised, is all. Like she’d seen a ghost.
As the weeks ticked by, I realized I wasn’t in a healthy place.
Mother had deteriorated dreadfully.
How was I going to explain this to anyone?
In what world was there a reasonable explanation for why a 35-year-old man was keeping his dead mother in the basement?
“Her body was crooked, Officer,” I imagined saying. “I was trying to straighten her out.”
I could almost feel the handcuffs rubbing my wrists raw.
That wasn’t going to fly.
Her left thumb had popped off into my hand. I’d been carrying it in my pocket, rubbing it like a talisman, pacing the house.
The doorbell rang, and I stood frozen in place.
No one ever rang the doorbell.
There was only one thing to do. Put on my big boy panties. Face the music. They were here for me. Police. My siblings. Nurse Ratched.
Oddly, I felt relief. I wanted this to be over.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants and opened the door.
A rabbit. A black cat. Buzz Lightyear.
“Trick or Treat!” they shrieked in unison.
I looked over their heads to catch sight of a woman in yoga pants and a witch’s hat waving at me. She mouthed “thank you” to me, as if I were okay. Normal. Nothing to see here.
Other kids in costumes swarmed the street. Clowns. Batmen. Wonder Women. A Meghan Markle carrying a silver suitcase—the Deal or No Deal Meghan.
I held a finger up and ducked backwards into the kitchen where there was a bag of butterscotch from forever ago. I dropped a few into each child’s bag and closed the door.
My brain fog cleared, and I was overcome with the clarity one only gets in moments of extreme grace.
I carried Mother’s fragile, collapsing corpse to the front porch and placed her on the grungy wicker chair she liked to sit in.
A Thor came bounding up the steps followed by a Princess Tiana. “Whoa,” Thor said. “You get that at Spirit Halloween?”
“Don’t touch,” I said. “She touches back.”
I handed them each a butterscotch and they disappeared.
Checked the hall closet for a box marked “Halloween.” Took everything out as fast as I could. Draped Mother in nylon cobwebs. Placed a black plastic cauldron at her feet. Plugged in a strobe light. It wasn’t much but it looked legit. Mother loved Halloween.
I handed out candy like a regular guy until the last revelers arrived. A group of teenagers, too old to trick or treat, not wearing costumes, kind of rowdy.
“I love you, Mother,” I said before going inside and locking the door. “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t try to hide it. Made a big show of taking down my “decorations” and putting them in a waste bin. I folded Mother up like a deck chair while I chatted with a neighbor about the joys of living in such a family-oriented community.
“You throwing that out?” he asked. “It’s awesome. So realistic.”
“Thanks, man,” I said. I pulled the thumb out of my pocket and showed it to him. “It was cool, but you know these Halloween pop-up shops. Crap made in China. Smells weird, too.”
“I hear that, buddy,” he said, recoiling after leaning in for a whiff.
“Hey, how’s your mom?” He asked. “Haven’t seen her in a while.”
I felt beads of sweat form on my upper lip. Did I drag this out? Or did I come at it directly?
“She died,” I said without breaking eye contact.
“Sorry to hear that,” he said, his discomfort apparent. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Once Mother rested comfortably in a nest of Halloween trimmings and doodads, I closed the lid of the bin, waved to the neighbor, and rolled the bin to the curb.
I rang my siblings to explain that Mother had gone to her great reward and that I’d had her cremated. They seemed surprised but not shocked. It was fine that there would be no service. Busy lives. No time to come all the way back here. Not for a woman they wrote off years ago.
The bins were dumped by noon, and my dear mother was nothing more than a crumpled heap wherever she was. It was all for nothing.
Night fell early as it always did that time of year. I sat alone, bereft, in the dark. Midnight came and went. November second—All Soul’s Day. The veil is thin on this day, they say. The dead are near, they believe.
Grief makes a person do ghoulish things. I lit a candle and got on my knees. I begged through my sobs for her to return, for my sweet mother to come back to me. I wore myself out, like a child having a tantrum, and slipped into an uneasy sleep on her bedroom floor.
When I awoke, my neck was cramped, and my eyes were swollen. It was still dark. I rolled over, a heap, unable to get comfortable. Craving sleep but unable to calm myself. I stretched; the vertebrae in the upper part of my back settled into place. I thought of her and felt my throat close.
Then, a click in the kitchen. A clavicle?
I straightened up. It couldn’t be. I cranked my neck to the right, and it released the most pleasing sound. It was different inside my head. Louder. Deeper. More satisfying.
A crackle of knuckles in the living room. I wrenched my lower back in response, and it immediately gave way to a low crunch.
A kah-hunk of hips in the hallway.
I tilted my ear toward the door. I shook my head back and forth to clear away any auditory hallucinations.
The bedroom door creaked open. I heard the pleasing, percussive sound of a ball and socket joint being pulled too far.
Salvation. Comfort. Homecoming.
I sat bolt upright and cried out for the only person who ever mattered to me, my jaw clicking with the force:
Bethany Browning was once named Most Likely to Lie on Her Resume. Her hobbies include collecting her thoughts and spending her time. She has excellent credit and a need for speed(ers to be pulled over and ticketed. A car is not a toy). Follow her on Twitter @buzzwordsocial.