Watching Mom Die on TV

Amber Burke | Flash Fiction

Mom, looking up from the filing cabinet to greet someone we can’t see, smiles girlishly. She was trying, I think, to seem even younger than she was, closer to my age; she must have been twenty-seven when she played this ill-fated college student with a night job in an office. “What is it?” she asks him—a him, we can tell now, by the enlarging shadow on the wall. Mom’s pretty face is amused, then concerned, then afraid. Someone’s heart beats faster and faster; we hear it like we’re inside it. Mom lifts her arms to block something coming toward her. “No!” she cries, but the knife—it’s a knife, we can see it now—slashes her neck. She claps a hand to the cut; her other hand, groping, knocks a desk lamp to the floor; her face, suddenly lit from below, turns skull-like. Her eyes roll up in their sockets as she slides down the white wall over which her blood spurts. Her body falls out of frame, thumping to the invisible floor.

Though Mom doesn’t appear in the procedural after those first two minutes, it is her death that is investigated, her murderer prosecuted. This small role was the meatiest—and the last—of her modest career.


Dad was amazed to discover, after a game of “You look familiar,” that he’d seen Mom’s episode only a few weeks before he met her at the restaurant in New York where she hostessed. He liked that show—many lawyers did; it glorified their courtroom theatrics, even if the lack of objections was unrealistic.

Dad had studied acting in college, hoping it would help him at trial, which he believed it had; his studies had also given him a great respect for the craft. He was impressed with my mom—actresses were rare in his world—and he swiftly became her biggest fan and fiancé. Mom’s approach to her career, like her approach to my father’s courtship, had been desultory, even passive; she hadn’t so much as collected her work in a reel, and after they got married, my father made a point of tracking down her commercials for paint, cars, potato chips; the country music video that had her rolling in a haystack with the lead singer; the movie in which she was a prostitute in a pink fur coat rapping on a car window. And the procedural, of course. I saw it a thousand times growing up.

I thought Mom was reasonably good, and I didn’t see why she’d stopped acting. I asked her about this at one of the obsessively healthy dinners she made us. I was in high school then and full of judgment; I thought she’d thrown away something for my father she shouldn’t have.

“Don’t look at me. I wanted her to keep at it.”

“From Westhampton?” I asked Dad, dubiously. It’s two hours to the city.

“It was my choice. I wasn’t getting anywhere,” Mom said. She glanced at my father, who smiled at her tenderly. But by marrying a lawyer, where had she gotten? She got me, of course, and a large house; she was its interior decorator and art curator, the manager of its cleaners and handymen, its painters and gardeners. She was always impeccably groomed, her skin polished to a glow that could be mistaken for success. But for what was she keeping the house, and herself, in a state of perpetual readiness? All of it seemed to me purposeless.

“I was never serious about acting. I was just lost.”

“Are you still?”

“Of course not.”

I didn’t tell Mom I’d opened her closet door, meaning to borrow a belt, and seen the note she’d written to herself above the mirror inside: “This is the life I chose.”  It hurt me that she would need to remind herself that her life with Dad and me was a choice, not an affliction—that she would need this affirmation to overrule some rising inner objection. The note made her presence at the table tentative; she seemed to flicker.

“You could’ve been famous,” I insisted.

“Every actor in New York was on that show,” she said, trying to sound dismissive, but I was paining her, I could tell.

“I’m very proud of your mother,” Dad said in her defense, kissing her atop the head and clearing our plates. He was. Whenever he had people over, he put on her procedural. “It’s a Pollock,” someone usually joshed as Mom’s blood splattered the wall. (It’s true that its excess was almost comedic. TV blood has since improved; I’ve seen shows where it even congeals.) And, if they watched long enough to see the ragged, red-eyed suspect confess, unchecked by his defense, a dozen lawyers put their heads in their hands and groaned. She took it all good-naturedly, chuckling with Dad’s colleagues. And Dad. It’s strange now to think of him watching it and laughing.


“There you are,” Dad says to the TV as I come in with groceries; he could be talking to Mom or me. Mom is on screen, looking startled behind the filing cabinet. Dad is on the couch, slumped, unshaven, in yardwork clothes; he’s not doing yardwork, of course; his sweatshirt rent with holes is testimony to his grief.

“Need anything?” I ask, unloading fruit and vegetables on the counter.


I grab an orange bag from the cupboard. He never used to eat Cheetos. Or watch TV during the day. Injustices: that Mom died so suddenly, that we weren’t with her at the hospital when she did, that Dad couldn’t even find anyone to sue afterward, the competence and kindness of her oncologists condemning him the inaction that he’s been locked in ever since, five months now.

I hand him the bag, trying not to look at the screen. “How many times today?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s healthy?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer. It’s true health hasn’t seemed to matter to him lately. I’ve been cooking, but Dad seems committed to eating only substances absent nutritional value, imitation foodstuffs made of corn syrup and chemical dust. To prove something, I peel myself some carrots and poke them in a glass; I’ll gnaw on them in my room until my stomach hurts.


I pause behind him on my way upstairs. On the screen, I see our house reflected piecemeal: none of its walls, just beams and bright windows; I see my father—myself, too—in the dark box, our non-actor faces slack and pale and gaunt. This is not the life I chose. Motherless, and a father so stricken he needs mothering. Dad told me go back to college, but I won’t be a negligent daughter twice. (If I ever committed a crime, I’d have to confess immediately; I’m finding guilt unendurable.) Today I got an invitation from a friend to a graduation that was supposed to be mine. I threw it away.

“Sit with me. Please.”  His red-rimmed eyes. His body odor, like decay. I hate seeing him like this.

“You need to stop.”

“I can’t.”

I refuse. I’ll do anything else he asks, but I refuse to watch him hurt himself this way. I’ve been been pretending a strength I don’t have only to give him strength, pretending I don’t watch Mom’s show just to show him it can be done.

But late at night, like a criminal, I do put on the procedural, volume low. Soothing, how quickly she loses consciousness, the peacefulness that washes over her face, the ease of her slide down the wall. The improbable blood is a shock I’m getting used to: I don’t know if, by watching her die in a way that looks so unreal, I’m coming to terms with her death or denying it. I don’t stop there: I watch until the end for the satisfaction of seeing Mom’s murderer convicted. An addict, my mother the casualty of his addiction; he weeps on the stand, and good: he should. But, as usual, the hard, ancient feeling of the justness of justice doesn’t last; in the darkness after the final strike of the gavel, it’s already draining. I grope for the remote as the closing credits roll; I rush back to the beginning. There Mom is again, smiling, and here my heart is again, beating wildly; her young face is both the wound and the hand over the wound, the world outside my room is sliding off somewhere unreachable, and I let it fall, I let it fall.