Get This Body Out of Here

Creative Nonfiction
Jason Irwin

Lake Erie shoreline in New York. The lake is a flat dark grey with low white-capped waves rolling in. The sky is fully obscured by gray clouds, a paler shade than the water. On the left side are some evergreen trees and brush. Behind them, a bit of land juts out into the lake. The brush in the foreground is a mix of green, yellow, orange, and red foliage.

Photo Credit: Michel G./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Jay! Jay!” my mother howled from the back bedroom. I rushed to where she lay coiled in a fetal position at the foot of her hospital bed.

“You better get this body out of here,” she commanded. “I died an hour ago.”

I was about to reach out to touch her, to brush her hair away from her face and try to calm her. Instead, I pulled back and stood staring at what she’d become. Purple veins, like dried up tributaries, spread across the sallow topography of her chest. The twin peaks of her clavicle threatened to puncture her skin with each labored breath. Her dark doe eyes held me in their watery gaze, boring into me, feral and pleading, as if I had the power to free her from her torment. At least those were the thoughts that raced through my mind.

“What are you talking about? You’re not dead,” I snapped, instantly realizing how bothered I sounded, how annoyed, as if I were talking to a petulant child. My mother was dying and all I could do was watch her die. It was five a.m. I hadn’t slept well since my mother moved in three weeks earlier. I had to leave for work in an hour.


Six months earlier, before we had any inkling my mother was ill, my partner Jenny and I drove to Dunkirk, New York—my hometown—to spend the weekend with her. It was July, a couple of weeks before my forty-seventh birthday. My mother was feeling good, so we decided to go for a drive. The sun was a hazy ball in a sky crisscrossed with contrails. Everything smelled of fresh cut grass, wildflowers, and diesel.

My mother rolled down her window and let the wind sweep across her face. Bob Dylan crooned from the CD player: “Someday baby you ain’t gonna worry po’ me anymore.” Grape vineyards rose and fell to our right, while on the left, the cement gray waters of Lake Erie passed in and out of view like the back of a whale.

We drove through Silver Creek and the Seneca reservation to Athol Springs, where we sat outside on a restaurant patio overlooking the lake—the Buffalo and Lackawanna skylines in the distance. A flock of white windmills stood on the shore where, when I was a child, the mills of Bethlehem Steel towered and spewed dark plumes of smoke and grime.

Jenny and my mother ordered porterhouse steak with mashed potatoes, while I had walleye, coleslaw and fries. My mother and I posed for a photograph, our shoulders leaning into one another, our smiles wide.


Two years before that summer day, my mother had suffered a stroke. We were in the habit of talking on the phone at least three times a day. Sometimes more. I called her during my lunch break, and while walking to the bus stop after work. She called to tell me what was happening in Dunkirk, what she’d heard on the news, or to remind me it was my turn at Scrabble, which we played on Facebook. Yet she waited two days before mentioning that she might have had a stroke.

It was a Friday in May. I called several times, but she didn’t answer. The day before she’d sounded groggy, a bit confused. She told me she had a terrible headache and was going to lie down.

“You can call me later,” she said. “But I might not answer.”

When she finally did answer, about 3:30 the following afternoon, her voice slurred.

“I think I had a stroke,” she said.

“Last night?”

“No, Wednesday.”

“That was two days ago!”

I hung up and called the Dunkirk Police. That night I drove to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she had been taken by ambulance to Hamot Hospital. My mother had suffered an ischemic stroke due to a buildup of plaque in her carotid arteries.

Even though my mother hadn’t received immediate care, care that may well have prevented her from losing the use of her left arm, she was lucky. Her mind wasn’t affected. She remained sharp and quick-witted as ever. Even her sarcasm was intact. Doctors put a stent in one of her arteries and after a few days she was released. Her doctors suggested she go to a rehab facility for a few weeks, but my mother refused. She was adamant about going home to her apartment. I’d asked her to move in with Jenny and me, but she refused that as well. Every time I asked she refused, saying she didn’t want to be a burden, that she needed her own space, that she loved her apartment. With the help of a walker, a home health aide, and an unyielding determination, she did manage to live on her own a few more years, hiding behind a facade of independence and fearlessness.


Now, as I stood over my mother, the early morning sky outside the window transformed from black to a dull chrome. That summer day along the lake and the intervening years of her “independent living” seemed like a lifetime ago.

I watched my mother watching me. Her eyes followed mine as I tried to look away, embarrassed and frightened by my sudden outburst of anger, for the truth I refused to accept. Images of Kafka’s hunger artist flashed in my mind, and I grew dizzy. It felt like everything was moving in slow motion, distorted somehow, like we were being pulled by some centrifugal force. It was how I’d felt as a child, on the operating table when the doctor put the ether mask over my mouth and the lights grew brighter and I thought I was being swallowed by their radiance until the darkness devoured me.

Get this body out of here! she’d yelled. Had she been dreaming? Was it a premonition? Or had the cancer spread to her brain? There were signs, but maybe I chose not to acknowledge them.

A few days earlier, I’d come home from work to find her sitting in the gray armchair looking on the floor as if she’d dropped something, her rosary perhaps, or a prayer card.

I asked what she was looking for and she smiled as if she suddenly understood the ridiculousness of it all.

“I thought my head fell off,” she’d said. “I was trying to find it.”

Now she was convinced she’d already died, and her corpse lay before her on the bed. “You’re not dead,” I said, as if trying to convince myself.

“Take my pulse then.”

I took her hand in mine and pressed my finger to her wrist, where the vein bulged. I could feel her eyes on me. I closed my eyes and counted to myself.

“Well?” she said, as if she knew the answer. When I admitted I was unable to find a pulse, she looked at me with a mix of frustration and disappointment, as if I’d somehow betrayed her. It was a look she’d given on nights, in my twenties, when I’d come home drunk, insisting I’d only had a beer or two. It was a look that said, “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’m your mother, remember?” It was a look that said, “See, I told you so.”


Jason Irwin is the author of the three full-length poetry collections most recently The History of Our Vagrancies (Main Street Rag, 2020), and two chapbooks. He was a 2022 Zoeglossia Fellow and has also had nonfiction published in various journals including the Santa Ana Review and The Catholic Worker. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

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