Renée E. D’Aoust
In Tai Chi, everyone knows I have a dachshund, but no one knows that my mother is dead.
It is a five-minute walk to the Gayatri Centre, through Cureglia, a town in southern Switzerland. Our dachshund Tootsie stops to sniff, and my husband Daniele grabs a poopy bag from a dispenser. The piazza has a bronze statue of a peasant with his shirt off. A bronze rope holds up his pants.
Daniele coaches me: "Io sono Renée. Sono qui per QiGong. Can you find your way back to the car?"
"Ce la faccio da sola!"
After class, perhaps because I fell asleep during the final meditation—chronic pain in my right arm is unbearably exhausting—I cannot find the car. I'm at the Cureglia cemetery. The urns have creepy porcelain pictures of the dead, illuminated by tiny electric lights, years of life reduced to one image. I make a note to rotate the photograph of my mom on my bureau. In it, she's holding her unusable right arm. We called her right hand a "chicken claw." The radiation that saved her life damaged the nerves to her arm, burning them dead.
A cemetery is a good place to end up lost, because we all die, someday. I start down a trail next to the cemetery wall, walking into the darkness that dwells within. The trail veers into the woods, so I turn back. On the church steps I find two young women sitting with a bottle of vodka between them.
The women eye me, suspiciously, as if I'm going to reprimand them. The lamp on the bell tower creates a spotlight.
"Ho sbagliato," I say. I have made a mistake. "Chi sono?” Who am I?
Because the parking lot is next to the soccer field but I cannot remember the words, I make a kicking motion with my foot. "Juventus," I say. "La mia macchina!" My car!
"Dov'e il parcheggio?" one asks. Her black eye liner is thick and streaks out to her temples in cat-like strokes.
"Sì, sì. Grazie."
"Vai laggiù. Fino in fondo." She points, making a stabbing motion.
I set off across the church steps to a path on the other side of the cemetery, still skirting my final destination. Behind a hedge, I see the soccer field and the parking lot. Hedges are ubiquitous in southern Switzerland, separating churches from soccer fields, private homes from trails, vodka drinkers from the lost.
The inside car light illuminates Daniele. Tootsie must be in his lap. After I explain that I got lost and that we're all on a pilgrimage to death, my husband is reluctant to let me drive to class alone.
Although I have a frozen right shoulder and a list of problems that make it impossible to shift into second gear or pull on the emergency brake, I argue that my mother would insist it's time for me to go to class alone. A Renée Independence Project: RIP.
I do it. Faithfully, not like my current Italian language class where I drive there on time, pay for parking, but sit inside the car and eat Pringles.
After my mother died, we didn't have a memorial service, but I had a lot of dental work. Five root canals, four times on the same tooth. My pulled teeth were holes to be filled with something new.
I want to tell my mum I have horse and cow bone as part of two dental implants. I want to hear her say "neigh" and "moo."
My teacher Lorenzo humors me when I make up keywords in English for key movements in Tai Chi: "The John Travolta," disco flair; "The Chicken," the right arm is bent next to the body, elbow down, wrist up, fingers flopped over like a chopped off chicken claw. Il Pollo is easy because I can only raise my arm half way to the sky. Lorenzo doesn't even know that I have a frozen right shoulder until he touches me and I squeak. "Ho la spalla congelata."
Our black-and-tan dachshund Tootsie was five when we adopted her. Her breath smelled like a buffet of rotten meat, she needed three teeth pulled and surgery to remove bladder stones, and she was diagnosed morbidly obese. When Tootsie tried to jump up, she tipped over.
My mother never liked dachshunds, but she would have loved Tootsie. Mom would have picked her up with her left arm, cuddled her, and said, "Good dog. What a good dog."