Small Talk

Amanda Avutu

It’s another block party. I’m holding another glass of red wine. Another guy snacking on chips and salsa is asking me about my “folks” while our kids run in circles shooting each other with Nerf guns. “Do you see them often?”

I want to tell him that my mother is buried in the Woodlawn cemetery without some of her limbs, which had to be removed when she started clotting and we still thought we could save her. I want to confess: we gave her left limb to keep her. We gave her right limb, too. I want him to know we asked the doctors: Just save us the trunk that holds the heart—weak, but still pumping. We’ll wheel her around, comb her thin hair. I want him to know that when the doctors refused to make these promises, it was left to me to convince my father to relieve my mother of what remained of her body. In the hospital’s basement cafeteria, he ate spaghetti covered in granulated sugar, chewing, sweating, and staring at me. Did the hospital have any Snickers, he wanted to know? He was in a manic phase. He ate the entire time she was dying. Weeks. He ate for the both of them, he joked.

I want to tell this guy, I think his name is Dan, that I was the last one to speak with her. They were evaluating her for shortness of breath, when my mother said something like, “I need to file for unemployment on Monday,” and I said something back like, “Don’t worry about that right now.” If we’d have known it was our last conversation, she might have said, “I’m proud of you,” with a period and no “but.” And I might have confessed, “Even when I hated you, I loved you.” The last words she said to me, to anyone ever again, were, “I think I’m going to pass out,” and then she did.

I want to admit to Bill that when all 200+ pounds of her slumped off the edge of the bed, I tried to hold her up. Leaned into our last hug. Felt the weight of her: a truth. If I had let her slide to the floor, I could’ve started resuscitating her, or pushed the call button faster, or flagged some harried nurse like a cab.

What would he think if I told him we’d taken a CPR class together just weeks earlier? The one I insisted on so she could care for my infant son safely. I knew I should’ve tapped her on the shoulder twice, asking, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I knew I should’ve called for help while checking her pulse, or asked a bystander to do so.

Behind a yellow curtain, in the bed next to my mother’s, the bystander watched Double Jeopardy and ate Jell-O. When I found no pulse, I should have administered two rescue breaths, my fingers kneading her skin to locate the space between her sternum so I could start chest compressions. Instead, my fingers (finally) rummaged under my mother’s body for the nurse call button. Which I hit it over and over again, a defective game show buzzer.


Things I screamed down the hallway for $200.

What is “HELP! I NEED HELP!”?


Actions I didn’t take for $100, Alex.

What are breathing into my mother’s lungs and pushing the life into her just like she pushed me into life?


The most important thing I ever failed to do for $500.

What is save her?


I want to whisper in James’ ear, “My father unplugged her, but I was the one who killed her.”

Joe would gulp his microbrew, look at his feet, understanding—finally—it is his job to listen.

Amanda Avutu’s essays have been published, or are forthcoming, in the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post, Brevity Blog, Atlanta Magazine, and Bitter Southerner. Her fiction has been published in Green Mountains Review, Fifth Wednesday, and Story. She lives in Atlanta with her two children.