I came in breathless from carrying bags, plopping them on the little island in the kitchen. Her favorite psychologist, Dr. Laura, was on the radio telling people how to live their lives. The so-called doctor had some bizarre answers too. The little light over the stove gave a soft yellow glow to the pottery bowl hanging lopsided from a macramé hanger, filled with salt and a miniature spoon.
“Hi,” she said, moving toward the bags to inspect whether or not I’d brought what she requested. She’d reached a point where she was unable to go with me or ride the small bus with the other seniors in the complex because the electric wheelchair, along with her weight, made it too heavy for the lift. She could no longer negotiate a plain wheelchair even for the purposes of just getting on and off the bus. That loss hit her hard. She had been quite the speed demon with an electric shopping cart.
Watching Mom in one of busiest grocery stores in the area was a sight to behold. Stand back; she took no prisoners. I cannot believe she didn’t hospitalize someone with her speed cart. She focused on finding each item as if other shoppers were mere apparitions, brushing by so fast that they must have felt her tailwind on their behinds. I stood in horror, relieved when she gave me other things to find in the store, because my stomach couldn’t stand the lurching excitement of so many near-collisions.
The muumuu of the day was a silky number with gold, brown, and black stripes, like a tiger. Somehow she made a shapeless dress look stylish, adding a hand-strung necklace and chunky bracelet, her fingernails freshly polished and neatly filed. As she worked the walker sideways towards the island, a little sweaty from the effort of dragging the oxygen tube behind her, I absorbed the scent of Mom, Lair du Temps. It was distinctly her. The gift set I bought at Christmastime with perfume, powder and lotion had been a success.
“Let’s see, did you get the capers?” she asked, because unloading each item and quizzing me was especially enjoyable since she couldn’t shop anymore herself.
But I was tired and grumpy, hating the inquisition each time, and snapped at her, “Go sit down while I unload.”
She moved away, trying to act happy, but I’d hurt her and knew it. When I acted up as a child, she’d say to me, “There’s a girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid.” I knew which girl I was being then.
Once I finished, she risked returning to the kitchen. I sat down on a high stool on the other side of the island. We chatted about things, mostly her asking the questions.
“How’s Samuel?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” I answered, not one to elaborate much.
Though exasperated by my one word answers, she kept trying. Then she added, “Can we sit down?” Her breathing became labored as she took the tube from her nose and placed the nosepiece directly over her mouth, pulling in as much oxygen as possible. Just standing for short periods became difficult; obesity and twenty years of her four-pack a day Benson & Hedges habit had taken their toll. She had emphysema. She perspired even more as she pushed the walker slowly towards the couch. I focused on her face, hoping she sucked in enough of that precious gas so her face wouldn’t tinge blue like it did at the craft store.
On one of our outings, she happily picked out stretchy necklace cord for the beads collected from her broken jewelry. She would make them into new pieces of jewelry, like the necklace she wore. It was the last time I’d take her out in the car and we argued.
“I’m all right,” she said as I opened the car door for her, wondering how I’d call 911 without a cell phone, having to ask the cashier to call, picturing an ambulance coming to the Beads & Buttons craft store.
“Mom, you can hardly breathe. You’re sweating and you’re blue!” I sniped.
Her face seemed to splinter, brokenhearted; she was at my mercy and gave up, knowing I meant it. All I felt was mean but it was the last time I took her shopping or out to lunch, though I did do dental or doctor appointments when Don couldn’t. I felt guilty, again, a common theme. Krista took her out now and then. I’m sure Krista believed me to be a lazy, thoughtless, reprehensible daughter—because I sure did.
I never said, but thought, “But do you know, Mom, how much it takes to load the walker, unload it, bring it around, open doors, then do it all over again on the way out?”
I’d done it every week for many of the ten years she lived there. It was worth it, we had fun, but that day was the last; it had become too much. I wimped out after seeing what a toll that last shopping trip took on her. I couldn’t stand to see her like that, though I could break her heart, let her down, disappoint, and ground her.
“How’s Cory?” she asked. She needed to hear stories other than what her friends talked about, which too often centered around disease and dying. Moments of clarity cropped up like white flags of surrender amidst my chronic anger. I realized she’d made all new friends in the big city of Chester, but they were old like her, and she slowly lost them to sickness and death. My heart ached for the reality of where she really lived. Beautiful, brand new, with a pool she adored down the hallway, but her new friends became sick as she knew she would…and they died.
“Oh he’s great,” I said.
And he was. My youngest had graduated valedictorian though I don’t remember him reading one book except for pleasure. Shane had to work harder, studying late into the night, but also graduated with honors and scholarships.
She was proud of them, and me, and tried to relay it, exclaiming, “You were always like a tiger with those boys.”
I wondered what she meant, and after hearing that description more than once, I asked her to explain—not something we usually did, go deeper.
“You mean I jumped on you if you tried to tell me anything about how to raise my kids?” I asked.
But I already knew the answer—I had, and with vehemence. I wouldn’t allow her any chance to have a voice, or any opinion at all, not about my kids. She had plenty of opinions, and in spades, especially about me, but about raising my kids? None she dared speak of. She kept them to herself, except this newly repeated theme, “You were always like a tiger.”
No way was I going to pass on to my children the neglect I felt I’d endured. I worked diligently and persistently to keep both sons safe and their feelings about themselves intact. I didn’t always succeed. During my biggest downfalls, I glimpsed how it felt living with the knowledge of not protecting one’s child, living with it for life. That’s a burden too, a terrible one. But I didn’t know this then. I knew mostly anger and I blamed her.
“No, you were a great and wonderful mother, always doing what was needed no matter who you had to fight or confront,” she said without pause or question.
And I knew she meant every word. But it surprised me. It was mostly her I fought. Things were slowly changing between us. These compliments, once rare, came more frequently. It could be out of need as her body broke down, or maybe when finality stares you in the face, you want to say the things that haven’t been spoken before it’s too late. I felt I had the upper hand and didn’t want it, or partly did, but feared abusing it. Or maybe for the first time, I felt on equal footing and didn’t know how to proceed or how to handle that feeling.
I didn’t want her to be so sick but liked this new, softer side that gave compliments.
During one visit, while unpacking groceries, before she needed oxygen and the hated electric wheelchair that no skilled driver could master, when she could still get on her scooter without the O2 canisters, she had something big to discuss. I hated it when something “big” was coming. It didn’t work out; any discussions other than the kids, the weather, or food led to trouble.
She prefaced it by saying with too much drama, “I want to talk to you about something.”
My gut curdled as if I’d guzzled a glass of milk with lemon. Oh my God, no, I thought. Keep it on topics that are safe and we are sure of. I dreaded her next words.
“Why can’t you and Tom…” she said, and kept talking, but I didn’t hear the rest.
Tom was the first son, my oldest brother. I’d been the recipient of her advocating for Tom at other times, too many of them, but every time she spoke his name, fury erupted as if a molten iron block landed in my belly.
“Why can’t you forgive Tom?” she repeated, noting my blank look and shocked, frozen mouth.
She was almost in tears and shaking with emotion, and over Tom? What about me?
“He’s fun,” she explained. I understood the much needed comic relief and his ability to make her laugh about her infirmities, but I felt furious as if my insides exploded.
Is he some kind of baby needing his mother to make peace with me? I wondered, enraged, because speech escaped me, though I did manage to spit out something nasty. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d attempt to make peace between Tom and me.
I stormed out spewing words like daggers through lips pressed tight, but never the words that needed to be said—what her son had done.
I muttered, “I got to go” and left.