As a killer pandemic swept through the world, my mother died from cancer, alone in a Minnesotan hospice facility. A thousand miles away, also alone in my Brooklyn apartment, I held my breath as my heart caved into itself, salted with guilt.
A week later, I encountered my first common New York house centipede. He winked at me from the white walls of my apartment, wobbling on his many legs. “HELP ME,” I scream-texted at friends, paramours, anyone who would listen.
The centipede began dashing madly up my wall, pausing as if to catch his breath, then continuing his ascent. I envied him, exempt from social distancing, able to sneak into dark crevices, able to run everywhere unmasked, able to be with other centipedes he might love. No one in our family could be with my mother during her final weeks; the pandemic robbed us of the last decency of death, the comfort of each other.
I took photos of the centipede, then videos, one sound-on to capture my cussing, and one sound-off to capture the abject loneliness of the encounter. Sitting on my floor with my centipede content, I was reminded that bug removal, whether smacking a mosquito that landed on a child’s fleshy arm, or prying a flea off a fleshy family dog, was a distinctly matriarchal domain in our Malaysian home. “Only the boys are scared,” my mom would say, gesturing at my father and brother, legs curled off the floor in fear of a scurrying insect. “Not us.” I was also reminded that my mother, who usually received my photographic mundanity, and who laughed at all my jokes, was gone.
As I glowered at the centipede and contemplated all modes of murder, he sprinted—balancing precariously on the right-angle that separates wall from ceiling—straight into a spider’s web coiled on the corner of my windowsill. He struggled, tangled himself further into the strings, then tipped upside down, his many legs scratching the air, the futile dance of the already doomed.
People kept saying, “Maybe it’s for the best. Your mom wouldn’t want you to see her this way. Remember her the way she was.” But now my memories are darkened by bitterness; there’s no peace in wondering if she stared quietly at the ceiling alone, or if she clawed at the sheets, the air.
If I were a centipede, I wouldn’t stop to catch my breath on walls or run mindlessly into a predator’s web. I’d rush across state lines, hold my mother’s hand, tell her I loved her. I’d remind her how, in fact, it was she who first told me the difference between a millipede and a centipede—that the millipede, common to Malaysia, was not venomous, but that most centipedes are in fact venomous, and to stay away from them.
But Mom, I would protest, my group-text friends say New York house centipedes are the good guys—they eat other bugs, and don’t bite unless provoked. In fact, the internet says what centipedes do isn’t biting, because they aren’t using their mouths or teeth. What they’re doing is poking you with one of their many legs, a sharp kick, so you get out of the way.
“Well then, get out of the way!” my mother would say. “No need to pick a fight.”
As though listening, my multi-legged menace tugged through the webby mess and inexplicably, miraculously, freed himself! Resuming speed, the centipede scurried up and down my wall, a dance of the victorious. He paused right at my eye level, as though proud of his achievements.
Somewhere, my mom laughed.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower