It’s been a decade, almost, since I smelled olive oil on skin.
Not olive oil on skin like when you’re cooking and you get some of it on your hands and it stays there for a little while until you wipe it off on a towel. Olive oil on skin that’s put there intentionally, and allowed to soak in, and then reapplied. I imagine the smell is a little different on everyone, the way it mixes with each person’s unique chemistry, but I haven’t tried it on enough people to know for sure. I’ve only done it on my mom and only when she was too sick to do it for herself. The hospice nurse recommended it, so her lips and the soles of her feet wouldn’t crack and bleed in the dry mountain air.
Several times a day, while she lay in bed, glassy-eyed and calling out for her dead father, I pulled off her soft gray socks and rubbed olive oil into her feet. It felt more crude than compassionate—this was an act meant for preparing bread dough for the oven, not human skin. A few times a year, especially around holidays, I made a salted-rosemary-and-garlic ciabatta bread, and there, in the kitchen, it was right and satisfying to pour out green oil, dark and translucent, straight from the bottle and watch textures change and cohere beneath my hands. Here, on my mother’s invaded body, it was neither.
As she interacted with her visions, I thought about her father, my grandfather, and wondered about him. I knew just two hard facts. The first was that he hurt my mom and her siblings. One time, the worst time, he hit my mom across the face with a belt buckle, and she couldn’t go to school because the bruise on her cheek would betray him. She, in some fucked-up way, was lucky; he abused her twin brother so relentlessly, he left home at fifteen and never went back.
The second thing I knew was that my mom loved him without restraint. He was sick for five years before he died, living with cancer for much longer than her she would. The doctors applauded his lifestyle—he was so physically fit that his musculature continued to hold him erect for months after tumors had deteriorated most of his spine. When my mom talked about her twenties, she talked about her decision to move to San Francisco from Michigan and looking back as she boarded her flight, carrying only a boarding pass tucked into a book, to see her dying father in a wheelchair, crying.
In the days before own her death, everyone came to our home—my mom's brother, his wife, my dad's sister, our pastor Rachela. My mom's eyes were milky and she didn't speak. She only moaned and thrashed, so I couldn't tell how coherent she was. Did she understand when my dad kneeled by the bed, touched her face, and called her my love? Or when I sat in bed next to her and read from the Book of Psalms? I couldn't imagine that she did.
But one afternoon, late, when her physical pain was so palpable the air in the room vibrated with it, Rachela took her hands and told her it's okay to let go. I know you're holding on for Hannah. I know you want to stay. But it's okay. You can let go.
Mama rocked back and forth with her hands between Rachela's hands. Her face was tight and a tear dripped down her cheek. She understood.
I watched and I cried, as hard as I could, to try to keep myself from screaming: No, Rachela. You're wrong. She can't let go. No, she cannot do this to me. She can't leave me in this world.
I wanted my mom's life at any cost, even if the cost was her suffering. So I did scream, I couldn’t help myself, but I did it silently. I cut my insides with those words instead of saying them out loud because somewhere, in a place beneath thought, I knew I would be grateful someday for this person who could say to my mother what I couldn't. Someone needed to release her from her life but it couldn't be me.
Once she was gone, and her body had been taken down our spiral staircase and out of the house, a fire broke out on the other side of town. Someone, a tourist, left their campfire unattended and by the time it was fully extinguished, more than a week later, it had eaten over 250 homes. It was everywhere in the local news, all anyone in town could talk about. I tasted smoke on every cup of coffee I drank, and felt it resting heavy on my skin.
In the valley, at the funeral home, my mother’s lifeless body was fed into a fire of its own, an artificial one, controlled and full of purpose. Thank God I looked at her knuckles when I could. Thank God I laid next to her body and took her hand, still warm, in mine and imprinted it in my mind.
When my dad and I drove to the other side of town to buy outfits for the memorial service, we heard glass bursting in the heat of the fire. Ash piled up on cars and front decks until it needed to be swept away with a broom. When I looked out, all I saw around me was the indifference of nature.
Eventually I stopped reading the Book of Psalms.
I wonder if, before I die, I will call out for her like she called out for her father. Perhaps I will and perhaps a child of mine will be there to hear me do it and then she will do the same when she’s dying and we will all call out for each other through the generations in our moments before eternity.
Hannah Harris lives and writes in San Francisco, CA.