I understand that people process death in their own way, I really do. But this wasn’t our thing, it was their thing. Hell, even if it was our thing, I would never suggest something so disgusting. What did she expect? For me to take my shoes off, sit cross legged on the floor, and start sipping when the clock struck midnight? At what point does grief become insanity? I wasn’t going to do it, simple as that. They never invited me anyway; it was their thing.
“It wasn’t always our thing,” Bowie said, “not at first. She asked you to join so many times and you always blew her off.”
“I never blew her off. I was just busy.” Bowie waltzed a Yuka plant toward the front door. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to drink Yerba Mate in Patagonia, or Chai Tea in the Himalayas,” I said. “I had a daughter to take care of.”
“We never went to the Himalaya’s. And okay, so you were busy, how is that her fault? You would get annoyed whenever she invited you anyway.”
“Because she invited me on purpose,” I said. Bowie was orbiting around me, picking up poetry books and wooden idols and putting them into specific boxes.
“What could you possibly be talking about?” she asked.
“She knew I couldn’t come, Bow, and she asked anyway. It was like her little way of digging at me because I chose to live a normal life with the man I—”
“That doesn’t go in that box,” Bowie interrupted. She took the vase from my hands. “It’s a Dharmachakra. Tibetan things go in this box here.”
I looked around the room. Everything could have been Tibetan. “I’ll just pack the tea,” I said. Bowie stopped and turned to me.
“How about you do picture duty? They all go in that box there.”
If she wasn’t going to let me help, I wasn’t going to argue. I picked up the first picture and looked at it. It was the most colorful picture I had ever seen. Bowie and my mother wore flowing dresses with ornate braiding and beads. Bowie’s dress was a bright canary yellow, and my mother’s dress was a vivid red. They sat outside a building that was impossibly blue, drinking tea, of course, and looking more like sisters than Bowie and I ever had.
“Is this in India?” I asked. I felt Bowie over my shoulder.
“That’s in Chefchaouen,” she said. “I love that picture; mom looks so beautiful.”
“So, not India?”
“Morocco. The Riff Mountains.”
I went around the world with them in each picture I packed. They drank tea in France, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and other places I didn’t recognize. “So where do you plan on doing this?” I asked.
“Can’t I just watch? Do I have to…participate?”
“It’s what she wanted.” Bowie pulled a poster off the wall. “Do you want this?” she asked. The poster was of Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. I could see my mother swaying in the kitchen while she cooked, pointing the wooden spoon at me when it was my turn to sing.
“She bought it for you in San Francisco,” said Bowie.
“No, she didn’t,” I said.
“Yes, she did.”
“Then why is it here?”
“Because you didn’t want it.”
“I’ve never even seen it,” I said. “How could she know I didn’t want it?”
“She brought it over to your house when we came back from San Francisco. She had it wrapped. You stopped her before she could even open it. You said, ‘Mom, if that’s some crazy piece of art you expect me to hang, I don’t want it.’”
Bowie was still holding the poster waiting for me to decide. “She spent a lot of time picking it out. I remember my feet getting so tired standing in that gallery. It was between this album and Blue, and she picked this one because you guys sang it the most. The rest of the day she kept asking me if she made the right choice.”
“Why wouldn’t she have just told me, like an adult. That’s so petty.”
“I guess she didn’t think you deserved it, and frankly, I agree with her.” Bowie let that last comment trail off. “So, want it or not?”
I shook my head. “I have nowhere to put it.”
There were these glass orbs hanging in the windows. The sun set through them, and the light shimmered around the room like water. It danced all over Bowie, and It must have been dancing on me too, because she smiled at me and said, “Sun Catchers.” She walked slowly around the room with her arms raised, trying not to make any sudden movements, like she was covered in butterflies. I knew she was going to try and say it was my mom there with us, but I wasn’t going to let her.
“How should we pack these?” I asked. “Are they expensive?” I unhooked the Sun Catchers from the window and laid them out on the couch. The strings of light fell away. I switched on a lamp; its shade was embroidered with jewels, and their gaudy colors splattered against the walls. “Jesus,” I said, and switched it off. I thought I heard Bowie laugh but she might have just been clearing her throat. I found a different lamp, a crescent moon with a bulb that was hanging at the center, kitschy, but at least it had normal white light.
Bowie walked to the couch and held up the sun catcher. “They’re not expensive,” she said, “but she blew the glass herself—we need to be careful with them.”
“Never volunteer to move a sentimental person,” I said. “Is there anything in this house that doesn’t have some strange significance?”
“Why would anyone put something in their house that isn’t significant to them?” Bowie asked.
We cleared everything out from the first and second floor. We stood in the middle of the empty room staring at the red spiral staircase that curled down into the basement. Bowie looked back at me. “Thanks for helping,” she said, “You don’t have to do this part. I got it.”
“Bow, you’ll be here all night. I’ll help.”
“This part is important to me,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “It was your thing.”
Bowie rolled her eyes. “I want to show you something,” she said. “Let’s go down.”
So, I was finally going to see it. My mother’s sacred room. She talked about this room so much that I made it a point never to go down. She brought it up in every conversation, like when you’re fresh in love, and you wait in the wings for a seamless opportunity to talk about the person you’re in love with , and you think you’re being subtle or maybe you just don’t care. Mel, you have to see this compartment I just added. Mel, you need to try this Cambodian tea. My shoulder has been hurting too, I think it’s from hoisting up that bamboo lattice.
I followed Bowie down the stairs, expecting to slip at any moment. “What’s wrong with normal stairs?” I asked. “If she had gotten older, she could have fallen down.”
“But she didn’t, did she?”
We reached the bottom of the stairs, and much like I had expected, it wasn’t a room that could be processed all at once. Open bird cages overgrown with ivy hung from the ceiling, stone fountains of women pouring tea were placed around the room, every wall was made of bamboo lattice except for one—the fourth, and biggest, wall was a map of the world. Tea bags were pinned across it in chaotic fashion. Bowie walked up beside me like an art seller.
“So, like what,” I asked, “each of these bags are from the place they’re pinned to?”
“Right,” said Bowie, “and the colors are coordinated with the shelves in the next room.” She pointed to a small door that I hadn’t noticed.
“It must have cost a fortune to order all of it,” I said.
Bowie laughed. “She didn’t order any of it. She bought every bag in person.”
“That can’t be true; you were never in Russia.”
“I was never in Russia,” said Bowie. “She went by herself after college. A lot of these places she visited before we were even born, Mel—I told you, it was her thing, and she wanted it to be our—”
“What did you want to show me?”
“It’s in here.”
I followed Bowie into a room that wasn’t really a room at all. It was more like a small, very colorful, cellar. “Didn’t she ever get claustrophobic?” I asked.
“Don’t you?” asked Bowie.
“Show me what you’re going to show me.”
“This is it.” Bowie motioned around at all the boxes of tea.
“It’s just more tea,” I said.
“It’s your tea.”
“I’m not taking mom’s tea, Bow.”
“It’s not mom’s, it’s yours.”
“Listen, Bow, I’m really tired and—”
“Everywhere we went she bought a third box for you. I think she put notes in some of them. I don’t know what her plan was, because clearly you were never going to take them. And I wasn’t going to show you, but I thought she deserved for you to know.”
“Again, why wouldn’t she just give them to me? I like tea as much as the next person.”
“Maybe because you would have dumped it into a thermos and drank it while you filled out a spread sheet.”
“That’s exactly what I would have done, Bowie, and do you know why? Because that is what people do with tea.”
“I’ll never understand why you place so much importance on the things you do,” said Bowie.
“That must be a joke,” I said. “It’s tea Bowie, fucking tea. And you know, it would be nice to have the time to travel, to not have to answer to anyone, but I chose to have a family and to have people that I care for and that care for me, and that takes having a job, Bow, and having health insurance, and going to teacher conferences, and sometimes it sucks, but you know what? I have them now. What do you have?”
Bowie didn’t say anything. I walked back up the absurd spirals and stood for a second to breathe in the empty house—even empty it looked whacky, not a single square frame, and I thought, what other way could she have decorated this house? It begged for the Sun Catchers, and the Dream Catchers, the Totems, the plants, the god damn tea, and for her. I heard Bowie starting to pack up the tea boxes downstairs. I stopped and stood in the empty room. Then I turned around and walked back downstairs.
“Alright,” I said,” where is it?”
“The Carbon Tea.”
“Mel, you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
Bowie walked to a small cabinet and pulled out a triangular box, ornate—each corner had a beautiful engravement of a woman’s face, each different but familiar.
“It’s us,” Bowie said. “She made the box herself; it’s what kept her busy all that time in bed.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. Bowie looked at me with the same incredulous smile she had as a girl, when we would say liberating things under our bedcovers, like sex and penis, and the most scandalous of all: Like like. Bowie smiled so widely at me—was beautiful a word I so seldom used? I had aid it to Jane after her recital last week, hadn’t I? Or when we visited Artist’s Point in Yellowstone. I know I thought it, but did I say it? No, I guess I didn’t. I said it was nice. Yeah, let’s not get crazy Melanie, it's nice, it’s fine, maybe even pretty, but beautiful? That’s a word for little girls.
Bowie opened the box and pulled out a jar that was—since I’ve already said it once—also beautiful. After the jar, she pulled out a spherical sift that attached to a silver chain. She sat pretzel style on the floor and began packing the sphere with the contents of the jar. I had never seen Bow put that much concentration into anything. When it was fully packed, she swung the sift back and forth like a hypnotist to make sure the contents were secure.
Water started boiling in the corner and she walked over and took it off the heat. I could feel my heart beginning to pound; my stomach turned a little. She placed the sift into a glass pitcher and I watched the colors travel through the clear water like lavender smoke. It filled the entirety of the pitcher, and then Bowie poured it into cups. She walked over to me and held one out. “This cup was mom’s,” she said and handed it to me.
“Should we say something?” I asked.
“The steep time is five minutes.”
“The time it will take her to fully release. We usually meditated while we waited.”
“Bowie, can I just—”
“Just count your breaths…one in, one out, one in, one out, until you reach ten, then start the count over.”
“What should I think about?” I asked.
“Nothing—that’s the big misconception about meditation—people think they need to think. If you’re thinking, you’re not in the present. Just focus on your breaths.”
And so, I did.
I counted my breaths, and every time I wandered up to the cluttered attic of my head, I would gently escort myself back down. I could hear my mother’s voice throwing out that cliché: Live in the moment—for all her eccentricities, she was quick with a platitude.
“Should I close my eyes?” I asked.
“I do,” she said, “but you don’t have to. Keep counting.”
I kept my eyes open and counted my breaths. At first, there was nothing, but then, something changed. For a very brief moment, and for the first time since I was kid, I was present in my own life. I was sitting across from my sister, and I was there, or here? And the philosophy of living in the moment, the one that had been beaten into a meaningless cliché, suddenly became the only truth I knew.
And then it passed.
Sean Cahill-Lemme was born in Park Ridge, Illinois—yes, he does consider that to be Chicagoland—to a family of raconteurs, the Northside descendants of Erin. He has no problem admitting he’s not the best storyteller in his family (you wouldn’t either if you ever shared a pint with his gramps), but he does believe storytelling can be more than just entertainment after the real work is done.
He has always been hesitant to share his stories, but encouragement from an incredible culture of Chicago writers has convinced him otherwise.
When it comes to writing, Sean puts truth above all else—if readers walk away feeling something real, he will have done his job. Beyond that, he hopes that readers enjoy his stories as much as he has enjoyed writing them.