Published on February 20th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein


In the Fire

We are trying to brush our teeth and go to Orange County to visit my in-laws. We are trying to go to Trader Joe’s first. He wants a lollipop and I need eggs. Always, so many things are happening at once.

He has questions: “Where is Grandma Valerie now? What happened to her?”

He has never met my mom, who died in 2003. She exists for my son Dash, who was born in 2015, in the same universe as Frida Kahlo, dinosaurs, and his own birthmom (who is very much alive, but not currently in touch). Time and imagination stretch and wrinkle and converge.

“Well,” I explain again, “Grandma Valerie’s body is in a cemetery. When people or animals die, they don’t need their bodies anymore. All the things that make them them aren’t there. They don’t breathe or talk or eat or walk around.”

“So they put her in the fire? Like OC?” OC was our cat, whom we euthanized two summers ago when Dash was two and a half. His first up-close brush with death. Now he understands more, but not all of it. I do not understand all of it either.

“Yes, it was kind of like a big oven. But after she died. When she didn’t need her body anymore.”

“Was she very old?”

“She was a little bit old. And she was very sick. She had something called ovarian cancer. And doctors gave her medicine that helped her for a long time. But it didn’t make her completely better, and so she died…. Great job on your teeth. Can I do the back ones? Remember Dr. Choi said you need to have a mom help you.”

I run his Buzz Lightyear toothbrush over his molars. 

“And she went in the fire.”


“And then she was sand?” I know repetition is part of understanding. Part of grief. It is also a little bit torturous to have to tell the story of your mother’s cremation again and again. 

“Dash, do you want to visit the cemetery where Grandma Valerie’s ashes are buried? You seem to have a lot of questions, and I think it might help answer some of those questions.” 

Photo by Diego Marín on Unsplash

I am not the spontaneous type, but I am efficient. My mom is buried a few blocks from my partner’s tía’s house. Some of her relatives are buried there too. Our parents went to the same high school, but mine were a little older and white, and hers were younger and Mexican, so they didn’t know each other, although my aunt has tried to conjure a few wishful memories. 

Dash says yes, he wants to visit Fairhaven Memorial Park. After Trader Joe’s, we hit the freeway. My partner C.C. is at the wheel, trying to dictate texts to her sister as we whiz by outlet malls and gray industrial parks. I open my laptop and try to recreate an email that didn’t save to my Drafts folder earlier, an act that annoys C.C.

“Can you be present for a minute?” she says.

I apologize, grumpily. Dash tells us not to fight: “It’s waking me up,” he says, though he was not napping.

Dash has more questions about the cemetery. “It’s like a park, but no playground?” 

“That’s right. There are headstones, gravestones, that are big rocks with people’s names on them. That’s how their families and their friends know where they’re buried.”

“And they went in the fire?”

“Some of them, yes. Other people’s bones got put in the ground. All of them died.”

My voice is winding tighter and tighter. My words are still thoughtful and matter-of-fact, those things that I try to be as a parent. But my tone is rote, annoyed, on the edge of something I haven’t fully realized is here, in the car with us.

I try to focus on my second cup of coffee, and spill it on my white dress.

Before the cemetery, we meet up with C.C.’s sister, husband, and our one-year-old niece in a park that does have a playground, along with pony rides and a miniature train that loops around a small lake. The driver tells heroic stories of James Irvine, Orange County land developer.

“Do we still have time to visit Fairhaven?” I ask, after pony and train and french fries and crunching leaves with his baby cousin.

“Of course,” C.C. says.

“It can be quick.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

The last time I visited Fairhaven was Easter 2011. I’d just miscarried twins. I put a necklace my sister gave me–two green pearl peas in a silver pod–on her headstone. I thought about leaving it there, but I didn’t. Later I put the necklace on the giant Día de los Muertos altar at work; back then I worked at a nonprofit for former gang members, and so my babies sat were memorialized alongside dozens of young men in big shirts and tall socks, who’d been taught never to smile. The necklace disappeared from the altar and I tried not to be mad, but it was a loss on top of a loss, taken by someone who’d probably been blinded and hardened by many more losses.

We turn onto Fairhaven Avenue, passing a 7-Eleven.

“Do you want to bring flowers?” C.C. asks.

I’m mindful of time, always. It is always compressed, even as it plays tricks and doubles back on itself. I once heard Miranda July describe being an artist and a parent as living inside an Instant Pot. 

“It’s okay, we don’t need to,” I say. I know my mom wouldn’t mind.

I know that she would have said the same: Don’t bother with flowers. But knowing that makes the need for flowers suddenly urgent. My mom thought she wasn’t worth the time, the expense, and now I have to show her that she is.

“Wait, no. Yes. Flowers.”

C.C. veers into the 7-Eleven parking lot and flags down a guy holding a white bucket of bouquets on the corner. She returns with a bright mix of lilies and Gerber daisies, wrapped in Valentine’s Day cellophane. 

We’ve been through enough seasons of my grief that I know this about her: She wants to feel useful. I want soliloquies about how It Will All Be Okay, but that’s not her jam, so she buys flowers.

Fairhaven looks like a cemetery should. Old stone chapel. Marble-columned mausoleum. Tall sycamore trees. There are ornate headstones from the nineteenth century and simpler ones from the twentieth. And the twenty-first. English and Spanish and Vietnamese. 

“I can feel their bones!” Dash announces. He leaps from gravesite to gravesite. “I feel them!”

I hope my intuition will guide me to the spot my dad and sister and I chose for my mom seventeen years ago. At the time, our first visit, I was shell-shocked and a little giddy. I copied names from headstones for use in fiction. 

Dash is learning to read. He knows Valerie starts with a V. 

“I found it! I found a V!” he yells whenever he encounters a Victor or a Vasquez or a Vuong. I know that she’s near a corner and a tree, but there are a thousand corners and a thousand trees. I’m lost.

“I’ll go ask for a map,” C.C. says. Useful.

She returns with a salmon-colored photocopy and we find my mom’s headstone. It is early January and the park is full of tinsel and poinsettias. My mom’s headstone is half covered by mud from the recent rains. 

I don’t believe dead people care about their headstones, but I want to say I’m sorry, because that’s what I always want to say to my mom. She was an artist and a librarian. She liked to draw witches and dragons and angels, and we had one of the latter engraved on her headstone, along with big cabbage roses. My mom’s angel is sly-looking, and vaguely seventies in dress. She looks like the kind of angel who would smoke cigarettes, even though my mom never did.

C.C. pulls a tissue from her pocket and tries to wipe off the mud. I sit on the grass and Dash splays his body on top of my legs. 

“Are we so happy for Grandma Valerie?” he asks.

Yes, I say. I tell him that she is dead and can’t hear us, but we can think about things we might want to say to her. I make an introduction. This is your grandson, I know you would love him so much.

I’m no atheist. More like a hopeful agnostic or a God-is-love believer. I think maybe my mom can see or hear us on some level, but I don’t want to confuse Dash. Sometimes–and here I am very much my mom’s child–I feel like my role is to bear the bad news of the world, to slow its trajectory with my body so it hits him with less force. 

“Do we still love her?” he asks.

We do.

“Can we go now?” He looks at the sky. “Look, the moon is still up!”

The day-moon is a white marble on a porous expanse of shifting blue. How will he remember this day? As the time his open-hearted mom answered all his questions? Will he remember his moms arguing in the car and one of them crying? Will it seem heavy with something he couldn’t quite understand, but knew he shouldn’t touch? Or will it seem mysterious and special? Will he mostly remember the Minions ice cream bar he got later, from the truck outside his living grandma’s house?

“Does the moon move?” he asks.

“It orbits the earth. And also the clouds are moving, which makes it seem like it’s moving.”

“Why does it move? Oh I know, is it because it has electricity?” 

“It’s something to do with gravity,” I say. “I’m not sure I understand it completely.”

“What’s gravity?”

I am so tired. I think about the things my mom may have wanted and not asked for, and the things she was deeply grateful to have. Earlier in the week, my coworker did an amateur tarot exercise, and the card I pulled was the High Priestess, a woman on a throne between two columns. She has an elaborate medieval headdress and is surrounded by pomegranates. The websites I find talk about fertility and duality. Two things can be true at once. Happiness and sadness, hunger and fullness. 

I want answers and soliloquies, and I can’t have them. I try to give them to Dash when it seems like he needs them. I hope he’ll be okay when I fail. Always, so many things are happening at once.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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