Folding Laundry

By Kelli Perkins-Bauer


It’s funny, the strange thoughts that come to mind when doing household chores. Usually for me, small moments pulled from memory will sift through the body, formulating themselves into lines of literary images, where I’ll find myself looking around for a pen to jot them down (memory can be faint as we get older). Eventually I’ll find one and write it down in a dog eared journal, as the sun (or maybe the moon) comes through the windows, hands still wet and warm from doing dishes. My nightstand full of papers meant to belong in a story or poem some day, crumpled in error from their previous dampness.

The day after your funeral, I found myself folding laundry. The thoughts which ran electric still course through my being, much like the feelings of love when they rush through in a surge-like urgency, but die out when reality sinks in and the blackout overwhelms. As if love is supposed to work in a strange cycle, defying the laws of physics: the lights come on after being out for so long, its electricity flowing too fast, looking for a spot to ground. Yet instead of shooting fireworks out of outlets, it ends in another power outage of darkness where lovers often find themselves when things don’t go their way.

It all came to me when I took the clothes out of the dryer. It seemed like a regular day at that point. It was just me trying to do my duty to your husband, my secondary father, now that he didn’t have you around to fold and iron his clothes. You know that when I would visit and stay there, I sometimes would organize a cupboard, clean out the refrigerator, or fold your laundry. I was shitty at ironing. You always genuinely appreciated that, laughing with me at requests from your husband to iron his underwear back in your marriage’s early days (because he didn’t know any better), as we tag-teamed getting stuff done. Organizing the cupboards usually started with me about to prepare something in your kitchen, and finding that the cumin had expired, and next thing you know, I was dumping out old spices and swearing I would show you how to grow fresh herbs, making a grocery list for our next trip. You hated grocery shopping. I never minded it. But my favorite thing to do for you was cook. Do you remember the time I made pears poached in wine and anise that sat atop a chocolate glaze one Christmas morning? Or when I made a triple layered confetti of marzipan goodness, topped with lavender-infused whipped cream, just for you? You always had a sweet tooth. You said the poached pears were a favorite; they were as good as sex, or maybe better (something you whispered in my ear, as if we were teenagers, as if it was just our secret).

When you were terminal with cancer, and hardly able to walk, you would sit in a chair and listen to the room around you. You stared straight ahead, none of us able to know what you may be thinking, but I was sure you heard every word. You always did. One day you surprised us, and actually got up out of your chair to walk over to get some of my salsa. Your husband joked and said it must have been so good that it got you up to walk three steps. Every ingredient (except for the limes) was from the farm I had joined, and the tomatoes were so sweet in their ripeness that you may have decided they were better than poached pears, or making love. You never said so, perhaps unable to formulate these thoughts for us, but I think that day I could read your mind. We were all trying to heal you with food. Your daughter with her kale smoothies you didn’t like. Me with my home-made salsa.

This was the point when the family had moved a twin mattress and box spring down beside your hospice bed in the formal living room, because you were too weak to walk upstairs. It was only fair that your husband of forty-seven years could sleep next to you in those final days. When I arrived at your house after death, it was surrounded by visitors. It seemed too much for me at the time, and I headed for that living room where you last slept. They had already removed your bed. Just as well. I can’t blame them. But that was hard, you know. I sat in the dark, terribly upset, I’m sure you saw it all happen. I also hope you remember when I came into that room a few weeks before, you sleeping while your hair tried to grow back (indigenous flowers), and I sat next to you, touching your head in that calm blackness, and I gave you a kiss. You seemed to have stirred, perhaps believing I was someone else, perhaps a god coming to take you away, but I wasn’t. I said it’s just Kelli, I just wanted to say goodnight, that I loved you. It was the last time I touched you tenderly. Your feet and hands were starting to develop purple spots and earlier that day you had told me you were ready to die. I witnessed all the angel statues people had placed on the piano to watch over you. They stared across the room in silence. You used to call me your angel, remember? You said that I saved your son. The day that he passed away, we called you from Grand Rapids, and I cried into the phone that I wasn’t anyone’s god damn angel, and I failed you, how sorry I was that I had failed you, me – the eternal apologist. But you assured me I didn’t fail anyone. I’m still working on believing that.

When I pulled that load of laundry out, I mindlessly found myself folding men’s undershirts, socks, towels, as if it was second nature. Then I pulled out your nightgown. And then another. There were several of them. How small they looked in my hands, my memory strong of you always dressed so nicely, your last days spent in those nightgowns, all of them pink. I had to stop for a moment. I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of your nightgowns being washed, thinking of their previous moments being next to your body (alive and pink as well), and now dried, as if the cycle’s heat had removed any part of your being, removing you from that large and empty house, with your bed tucked away and folded neatly in a corner. I looked around the laundry room, desperate, as if moving quick enough, and if I searched hard enough, there may be some ointment I could find that you had stored away behind the carpet cleaners and stain removers, and old toothbrushes you used to scrub out oil marks on my shirts (because I was very good at spilling olive oil), and if I rubbed that ointment on the nightgowns, it would bring back your warmth.

I know the room was bright. It was only two in the afternoon. But at that point I experienced the blackout, where everything turned dark, that moment where reality sinks in and I knew that you were gone. I had almost felt it before. Because your calls to me had decreased, you grew too tired to talk on the phone. And when I came to visit, you no longer wanted to eat my food. I had slowly grown used to not having you around, almost like a lost lover. But like the lover, I only put you on standby because I guess I just thought you would change your mind. I guess I just thought you would get better. I guess I just thought you would one day whisper something sweet in my ear again, that you would say you want to live. That you would be able to walk up those stairs to your bedroom, where the windows are taller than you, and the curtains are transparent in a way, so transparent and magical that when the light shines through, it makes the entire room glow no matter what time it is, no matter if the sky is named day or night. The room where you would put on the television, while folding laundry, laughing with me on the phone like we used to, in that room where I will instead picture you floating in soft focus – not in the darkness we experience when we are lost and without love, but instead with the laughter and its beauty; instead, where you have become one with its light