My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.
My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.
My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”
My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.
My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.
My dad’s death certificate reads
(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(b) Debility and Decline
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(d) Dementia, Vascular”
My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.
Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.
This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.
I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.
My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.
My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.
“So, Dad,” I sit down at the kitchen table, face him, and speak loudly so he can understand me. “I think it’s time to go through Mom’s clothes. What do you say?”
My eighty-nine-year-old father puts down his cup of instant Maxwell House coffee laced with Sweet ’n’ Low and stares at me. “What?” he asks.
I give him a look. We both know that despite his hearing loss, he knows what I just said. It’s been four years since my mother left us for what she called the great Sak’s Fifth Avenue in the Sky and I ask my father this question every time I visit. And each time I ask, my father answers: “Not yet,” in the tone of voice he used throughout my childhood, which always signaled the end of discussion.
I repeat my question even louder, and my father surprises me by not offering his usual response. Instead, he says nothing for minute. And nothing for a minute longer. And then he lets out a huge sigh as if he’s finally admitting that my mother is never coming back. “I suppose,” he sighs again, “it’s time.”
While my dad turns on the TV and settles down in front of a blaring Yankees game with a can of salted peanuts and a glass of diet Coke, I trudge up to my parents’ bedroom. Off to the side is my mother’s “boudoir” which contains a makeup table, a fainting couch, and two enormous closets, each one bigger than the sixth-floor walk-up I rented in Manhattan four decades ago when I first graduated from college.
Where to begin? I had tried over the years to get my mother to at least start cleaning out her clothes but she wouldn’t let me touch a thing. “If it can’t hurt you and you don’t have to feed it,” she’d say, shaking a sharp red fingernail at me, “just leave it alone.”
I enter the closet on the right, lined with double racks on either side, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by blouses, skirts, sweaters, slacks, dresses, hats, belts, scarfs, gloves, stockings, slips, and shoes. I gaze in wonder at stripes, polka dots, plaids, paisleys, sparkles, sequins, lace, and leopard print. I run my hands along silk, velvet, velour, wool, cotton, leather, suede, and satin. I take a deep breath and inhale my mother’s unique scent: a combination of Chesterfield Kings, Arid Extra Dry, Chanel No. Five, and Aqua Net. Suddenly, I understand my father’s reluctance to let any of this go. Everything in this closet contains my mother’s DNA. Every blouse at one time was filled with my mother’s pale, plump arms. Every skirt swished around her short, shapely legs. Every pair of pants cradled her zaftig belly and hips. Standing here, I can almost pretend my mother is downstairs with my father, screaming at him to turn down the damn TV. Getting rid of all this is like saying goodbye to her all over again.
But as my father said, it’s time.
I head to the back of the closet where I come face to face with six hanging shoe bags, each one with sixteen pockets, which according to my quick calculation, adds up to ninety-six pairs of shoes. My mother’s love affair with footwear started long ago when she was a young bride working in the shoe department of Orbach’s. All day long, squatting on her heels, she measured feet and fit them into fancy footwear she couldn’t afford. Plus, she and my father lived in a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn. “The windows were above my head,” my mother told me. “I looked out at the street day after day and all I saw were shoes.” At the time, my father was a law student at NYU and, as he has told me numerous times, my parents were so poor they “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” My father promised my mother that when he became an attorney, he would buy her anything she wanted. And clearly what she wanted was an Imelda Marcos-size collection of shoes.
So many shoes! One shoe, two shoes, red shoes, blue shoes, black shoes, white shoes, left shoes, right shoes. I feel like a character in a Dr. Seuss children’s book. Or like the child I was once, clomping around in my mother’s high heels with one of her beaded evening bags slung over my shoulder. How I wish my mother were here to tell me the story of all these shoes. For surely each pair has a story to tell. Here are the pink satin pumps dyed to match the gown my mother wore to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in 1966. Here are the gold lamé tassled flip flops she always wore to the “beauty parlor” when she went to get her monthly pedicure. Here is a pair of red stiletto sky-high heels that showed off her stunning calves (it’s not for nothing she was known as “Legs Levin” during her salad days). And here are the most heart-breaking shoes of all: the flat navy blue sneakers she wore when the cancer made her feet so swollen, she couldn’t squeeze them into anything else.
Just for kicks, I take down a pair of black patent leather three-inch heels with a bow across the toe, and, feeling like one of Cinderella’s ungainly step-sisters, try to stick my feet inside. I know they won’t fit. Unlike me, my mother had lovely feet. Size six and a half. Baryshnikov-worthy arches. Alabaster skin. Delicate toes. Toenails expertly trimmed and buffed and polished candy apple red. I have no idea where my mother got her gorgeous feet.
Her mother’s feet were a sight to behold. Squat, flat, wide. Flaky, crusted skin. Gnarly prehistoric toes. Thick yellowed nails. Great big bunions. Still, like my mother, my grandmother loved shoes. When she moved into a nursing home at the age of ninety-nine, she marched in on white open-toed, high heeled T-strap sandals. The nurse took one look and told me to bring her some flats. “The last thing she needs is to fall,” she said. Since my grandmother didn’t own a pair of flats, I returned the next day with a pair of my own. My grandmother slipped on the moccasins, took two steps, and promptly fell down. “Please mameleh, can I have my heels back now?” she begged. I returned them and my grandmother wore them till the day she died.
How I wish I had my mother’s dainty feet! “Mom,” I say aloud, “I could wear your shoes as earrings.” Standing in her closet, my mind wanders back to the last day of my mother’s last hospital visit. She was lying in her hospital bed on top of the blankets in a sweat. “You have such beautiful feet,” I said to her, for even at that point, her pedicure was perfect. “I wish I’d inherited them,” I went on. “I have your mother’s feet.”
“And her face,” my mother said, gazing at me with love for the last time. “You have my mother’s beautiful, beautiful face.” And then she shut her eyes. And now I wipe at mine.
No wonder my dad didn’t want to go near my mother’s closet. Though we buried my mother four years ago, this feels like a burial all over again.
“You can do this,” I tell myself. I step out of the closet to fetch a cardboard box big enough to sit in and start chucking my mother’s shoes into it. Each one makes a dull thud that reminds me of the sound made by the clumps of dirt we dumped onto my mother’s coffin on that blistering August afternoon long ago. That was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. Until now. “I can’t,” I say aloud. My mother’s voice appears in my head. “One step at a time,” she says, as she reminded me so many times when she was alive. “Brooklyn wasn’t built in a day. You can do anything you set your mind to.” And she was always right.
Somehow the afternoon turns into evening, and by the time my father comes upstairs to tell me that the Yankees have lost, I have seven huge boxes of shoes and pocketbooks, fifty enormous plastic bags of clothing, and two empty closets. I am exhausted. My dad is amazed.
Since we scheduled my mother’s clothes to be picked up the next morning between seven a.m. and noon, I set my alarm for six. When it jars me awake, I leap out of bed, pull on some clothes, and lug everything out to the driveway. Then I drag myself back inside, crawl between the covers, and try to go back to asleep. But a minute later, I throw off the blankets and creep outside again. I can’t leave my mother’s clothes out there by the curb waiting to be picked up like trash. Soon I hear the front door open and see my father coming towards me. We stand side by side, each of us with one hand raised to shield our eyes from the glare of the morning sun, as if we are saluting my mother’s wardrobe. Neither of us says anything, for what is there to say? My head tells me that these are only things, but my heart disagrees: these are my mother’s things. There’s a big difference.
An hour passes and my father goes inside to get ready for work—though he is about to turn ninety, he’s still practicing law. I stand guard over my mother’s clothes until ten a.m. when a big yellow truck pulls up to our driveway. “Thank you for choosing Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” says the driver as he tosses bag after bag into the back of the truck. It takes him all of five minutes, and then he is gone.
And so is she.
LESLÉA NEWMAN’s seventy books include the poetry collection, I Carry My Mother which explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. From 2008-2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, Lovely will be published in January 2018 by Headmistress Press. More information here: http://www.lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm
As I saw my mother walk out of the international terminal at the San Francisco Airport barely able to push the cart stuffed with two enormous suitcases, I hardly recognized her.
The mother of my childhood was a stout, severe-looking authoritarian. “Don’t just sit there wasting your time—do something!” was her favorite mantra. She played the role of a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and career woman with a sort of zeal that was impressive, intimidating, and almost always exhausting to watch.
Now my eyes rested on a short, drooping woman in her late sixties. Her shoulders curved in weighed down by some invisible burden. Her once long, dark hair, turned salt and pepper, was gathered in a small bun at her nape. White sneakers stuck out conspicuously, at odds with her festive silk saree and the bright red bindi on her forehead. She blinked nervously, scanning the crowd for my familiar face. When exactly did my mother, the invincible superhero of my childhood, shrink into this fragile, vulnerable person? The transformation felt both rapid and stealthy (hadn’t I seen her just a few years ago?). I was not only unprepared for it, I was suddenly aware of the role reversal and unsure of how to navigate this new shift in power.
I hurried towards her, trying to mask my surprise, and gave her a hug, breathing in the familiar smell of Ponds cold cream and coconut oil. I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.
When I left Madras for Chicago, I was twenty-five and too old to be living at home with my parents, but this was the early nineties and Brahmin girls like me left home either married (usually arranged) or dead. Neither option was particularly appealing to me. Luckily, I wriggled through a loophole that middle-class India, especially Tamil Brahmins, couldn’t resist: education. I headed to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree.
That day, our home was a tornado of activity, and my mother was at the eye of the storm with a single-minded goal—sending her oldest daughter safely to America. Dad reconfirmed my flight, and my brother was dispatched for the third time to check on the taxi’s arrival. My sister, with rising exasperation, was stuffing my suitcase with things my mother deemed necessary, if not critical, for my life abroad: rice, lentils, spices, pickles, a pressure cooker, and an Idli steamer. I, of course, had no say in the matter whatsoever. “When you land in Illinois”—my mother enunciated the s at the end with a hiss—“and want to make sambar, you’ll thank me.”
I was raised in a traditional “Tam Bram” (short for Tamil Brahmin) home, and my mother had decided that her primary duty was to equip her daughters with skills essential to fulfilling their life’s mission: finding a suitable husband and raising a family. This included learning to cook all the traditional South Indian dishes, studying classical Indian music and dance, and learning the bafflingly nuanced rites, rituals, and superstitions that came with an orthodox Tamil Brahmin way of life—touch your right elbow with your left hand while lighting an oil lamp, prostrate two or four times (not thrice!) at the feet of an elder, and my favorite, when you leave the house never shout, “I’m leaving,” say “I’ll be back.”
I watched my mother juggle the binding responsibilities that accompanied a woman born into an orthodox Brahmin family and a career in banking (unusual in those days) with only a high school diploma. She could have a career as long as she didn’t neglect the duties and obligations of a good Brahmin woman. This meant she was the first to rise, often as early as four a.m., and the last to retire. She kept up with all the rituals and traditions expected of her, tended to the needs of our five-member household while advancing her career and doggedly pursuing her various interests that ranged from learning Sanskrit to playing the violin. Like a bonsai tree, she found a way to grow within her established confines and she somehow made it all seem effortless. She had, without explicitly intending to, passed on her independent, ambitious spirit to me.
My mother careened between pride and despair as the days of my impending journey neared. Part of her was deeply dismayed about sending me to a country thousands of miles away, one she had only seen on TV. She worried that the conservative values she had so painstakingly instilled in me wouldn’t withstand the liberal assault of the West. Part of her was very proud and excited that I was making this westward journey—a first for our family and a woman, no less. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to give up her education to care for her sister who had been incapacitated by polio. She married my father at the tender age of nineteen and had me at twenty-one. My siblings followed shortly thereafter. Her life was never carefree, and she wanted more for her daughters. She wanted us to live freely without societal expectations clinging to us like a petulant child.
I, on the other hand, was already in Chicago. In my mind, I had left the familiar landscape of my Indian life far behind to stroll the streets of Evanston, drive along Lake Shore Drive, and soak up campus life. After years of living under the iron fist of a highly competent but controlling mother, who had either directly managed my affairs or influenced my life decisions, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start fresh in a new place. A place she couldn’t get to easily.
My mother responded to my excitement with an equal measure of fire and ice—one minute sending the household into a tizzy with her rapid-fire marching orders to prepare for my departure, and the next sulking in the prayer room with her books and prayer beads. When friends or neighbors threw a party for me, she would make excuses not to attend. I was annoyed by what I misjudged as petulance (she should be happy for me!). I failed to understand that my eagerness to get away from the home and family she had worked so tirelessly to create only substantiated the fact that I could leave. She couldn’t even if she wanted to.
Three weeks later, as I was navigating the aisles of the local grocery store in Evanston, I stood there, teary-eyed, unable to choose from among the numerous brands of neatly stacked shelves of tea. My mother would have picked out just the right type of black tea to make that perfect cup of chai. My sambar never tasted like hers, and my kitchen could never smell like hers—a seductive mix of sandalwood, turmeric, and curry leaves. I missed her strength, her confidence that everyone’s problem could be solved with a good home cooked meal, her remarkable faith in some universal power that would make things work out just fine for everyone, especially her children. I missed her rare and awkward display of affection (“you’re so thin, eat some more” or “don’t be out in the sun too much, you’ll get dark and then who’ll marry you?”) I even missed her marching orders.
Fifteen years had passed since I left my hometown and a lot had changed in both our lives. My sister married and moved to Malaysia. My brother followed me to America. Suddenly, empty nesters, my parents were nearly strangers. Their marriage, a brittle shell they both chose not to shed. A marriage that was once bonded by children was now held together by familiarity and obligation.
My mother followed my life from afar, reading and hearing about it through snippets in e-mails and static-filled phone conversations: graduation, new jobs, new homes, new adventures in new cities with strange names. Each step forward in my American life seemed to drive a wider wedge between us. The more independent and confident I became, the less I relied on her. She had a life scripted for me: a successful Western life on the outside—respectable education, career advancements, and professional success—and a traditional Eastern life on the inside—a successful (preferably wealthy) Indian husband, a couple of adorable kids, a suburban home where I kept all the Tam Bram traditions alive. I couldn’t blame her—it was what she wanted for herself.
While I happily embraced the former, I resolutely rejected the latter. I married a kind artist who lived modestly after abandoning his career as a geologist to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Although a South Indian like me, his Tamil was terrible. He could barely sit crossed legged on the floor (a basic requirement for a Brahmin) let alone be well versed in all the Tam Bram traditions. Neither of us wanted to have children, which bitterly disappointed my mother. She was convinced that I was missing out on a defining life experience. I refused to blindly follow the Brahmin traditions, declaring myself spiritual and not religious. With every passing day, I was becoming more of a stranger to her. She struggled to understand my new life and the different set of values I was embracing. Yet secretly, I wanted her approval, wanted her to accept my choices, even as I defied her traditional wisdom.
When my husband and I separated amicably after seven years, I agonized for days about sharing this news with my mother. This was yet another first in our family and not a first to be proud of. I had to share this news across a transcontinental phone line, not an ideal medium for such a personal conversation. I mentally prepared myself for her reaction. How would I respond if she reproached me? What would I do if she hung up on me? What if she started to cry or scream at me? I had replayed all these scenarios over and over in my head and crafted “mature responses”—take the high road, I told myself—for each of these potential outcomes.
Finally, one morning I gathered the courage to call her. She listened patiently. After I finished, there was a long pause. Just when I thought that she had hung up on me she asked, “What took you so long?”
It was the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for. Surprised, I blubbered incoherently and she said simply, “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to spend a minute longer in a life where you are not happy.”
She refused to let me dither about in self-doubt and pessimism and with her trademark unflappable spirit she reached across the ten-thousand-mile divide—I could almost feel her hand on the small of my back—to guide me gently yet firmly towards a brighter future that she was certain was waiting for me. She was in my corner after all. In fact, she had never left.
Over the next few years, our bond, which had floundered due to distance and years of separation, strengthened. I found myself sharing fragments of my life I had never dared to share with her: my fears and anxieties, my stumbling dating life, my travel adventures and misadventures, my hopes of rebuilding my life after my divorce. In the beginning, she mostly listened, but slowly she started to open up. About her own dreams, disappointments, failures, and joys.
I felt privileged. Singled out from my siblings. Her confidante. I remembered a time, not too long ago, when we couldn’t have a conversation without either one of us bursting into tears or storming out of the room. We argued incessantly about everything from hairstyles to grades to boys. After years of mother-daughter strife, we found ourselves embracing our strengths and vulnerabilities, instead of being repelled by them. We were connecting as adults, as women from different generations trying to find our own place in this world.
Now she was finally here. I would have her all to myself for three whole weeks. Our past stood between us both binding and dividing us. My life here continued to puzzle her and I was just beginning to piece together hers. Somehow we managed to establish a connection between our divergent worlds and we found ourselves clinging to it. Each day provided an opportunity to strengthen that fragile bond. As I walked her to my car, my arm around her thin shoulders, I felt that same anticipation that I felt years ago when I left her home. Only this time, I couldn’t wait to bring her into to mine.
HEMA PADHU is a writer, professor, and marketer. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and American Literary Review. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.
Remember that time you went to a therapist because you were having vivid, disturbing dreams you were convinced were part of a past life, but you ended up talking about shopping with your mom for your prom dress in 1970?
On the rack of springy pastels, you found the perfect dress: empire waist with puffed sleeves, the white top covered with white daisies, the rest a soft brown. You and your mom stood in that tiny dress shop on Lorain Road, where the owner remained in the back pretending she couldn’t hear anything, and your mom said, in her outside voice, “Why do you always have to be such a Plain Jane? What will people think if you wear a brown dress to prom?” You hated when your mom used your middle name, Jane, to make fun of you, and you cared a lot what about what people thought, though you’d never admit it. But brown was your favorite color, the dress fit you perfectly, you refused to try on anything else, and, finally, your mom gave in.
Remember that time you wrote an essay about your grandparents, and you asked your mom for stories? And she told you that she bought a beautiful black and white two-piece dress for her at-home wedding, but your grandmother had a fit and said, “No daughter of mine is wearing a black dress to her own wedding. Take it back.” And your mom did. She bought a cream-colored dress. When she told you this story, you said, “Did you like the second dress?” She thought for a minute before saying, “It was okay.”
Remember that time you and your husband were eating dinner out after spending time at your mom’s house? In between bites of blackened salmon and roasted vegetables you were gulping your wine and recounting the hurtful things she’d said to you, and your husband said, “She’s competing with you,” and you said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re nothing alike. There’s nothing to compete about.” And you ordered a second glass of wine.
Remember the time the women in your extended family got together, and you and your mom stayed in a hotel suite together? And every morning while you took a shower, your mom started to do the crossword puzzle in USA Today. While you were making your coffee, she read clues out loud to you. “What’s a three letter word for ‘Yale student’?” she asked, and you answered “Eli,” not telling her you only knew that because you watched Gilmore Girls. When she asked for longer words, you said, “I have to see it, Mom.” Then she gave you the puzzle, and you tried to finish it as fast as you could, between sips of coffee, so you could plunk the completed crossword down on the counter like it was no big deal, because words were your thing, not hers.
Remember when your daughter said her two-month-old was “verbalizing,” and you corrected her and said “vocalizing,” because you’d studied language development in college for five years and it still comes back to you sometimes? She has jokingly mentioned this since, and that makes you think of all the times you said the wrong thing to her, or used the wrong tone of voice, or said something when you shouldn’t have, or didn’t say something when you should have. And you hope you haven’t irrevocably damaged the delicate ecosystem of your mother-daughter relationship.
Remember when you finally realized your mom said nice things about you, just not to your face?
Remember when you and your husband were cleaning out your mom’s condo, after she died? You were sorting everything into piles: “donate,” “trash,” “take home to sort through later.” And, at the bottom of an antique trunk filled with drawings your daughter, an artist, had made, you found a zippered portfolio case, which you assumed contained more drawings, but when you opened it, you found a copy of everything you’d ever written, including the terrible poem in your high school literary magazine and letters to the editor? You started to have trouble breathing, so you looked away from those pages you were holding, and all around you at the boxes, and piles, and trash bags.
You had so much left to do, and you hoped you wouldn’t forget anything.
MELISSA BALLARD has written essays for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things, Under the Sun, and other publications. She writes far too slowly to even consider regular blogging, but you can read her work here: https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/
Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
Hit the brakes hard.
Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
A cursory check for traffic.
Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.
LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.
Dad believed that the countless objects he amassed held value, and he took great pride in that. My parents had both come from families of working poor and weren’t familiar with terms like 401K; my dad played keno as part of a financial plan. Being able to pay their bills in full and on time was a Herculean feat. When my dad died, there were no life insurance policies or inheritance to claim. There was only his stuff.
I was raised in the countryside of Oregon, but my mom often recounted a story of when we once lived in town. I was still a baby then. She and I were home alone together. Holding me on her hip, she answered a knock at the door and was surprised to see a policeman. He told her this was a city and there were ordinances. She was going to need to clean up her yard, or he’d have to fine her. With the pride she took in her appearance and her impeccable housekeeping skills, she choked up with embarrassment. She didn’t mention my dad, that the mess was his. She spent the afternoon with a neighbor woman feverishly cleaning up the small yard and garage. When my dad came home, he was enraged. He screamed at her, red-faced, for touching his things, accusing her of trying to get rid of him. My dad was over six feet tall and barrel-chested. When angered, he was a charging bull.
Mom had a decision to make; either leave him or accept this craziness as the life she had married into. She was a young mother, seeking stability for herself and her family in whatever form she could find. She wanted us to stay together. She looked for a way to make it work. Within a week, she found a house for sale in the country, and they moved every last item away from the judgmental gaze of city life. Mom always wanted to move back to town, but Dad’s stuff kept them rooted until the day he died.
When I was growing up, we would constantly find new things strewn about the yard: battered oxygen tanks or a discarded boat motor, pieces of sheet metal twenty feet long and wine distilling equipment. How he got some of those things home single-handedly remains a mystery. He had an idea in mind for all of it; he would cultivate a vineyard or engineer a new type of sea-going vessel. Not one of the plans ever came to fruition, but he refused to part with a single thing.
There were rare occasions when mom spotted the latest addition out in the yard and couldn’t contain herself. “What is that? What’s that metal for?” she’d demand.
“I’m going to build a two-person passenger plane,” he replied. ”I can fly you to Chicago to visit your sister when it’s done. Think of the money we’ll save on airfare.”
Out in the countryside of the Willamette Valley, my dad was free to accumulate to his heart’s content. The wooden skeleton of his barn sagged with rot, unable to contain the vastness of his imagined treasures. The contents piled up to the rafters and cascaded out, covering the yard and becoming entangled with the rampant, wild vegetation. There was no system to any of it. Wherever he put something down last, that’s where it would stay, and he heaped new things on top of old as he brought them in.
When he passed away, my husband and I began working to help my mom prepare the house for sale. As I looked out over their property, I realized I would have to touch every relic of our lives from the past four decades. I would have to revisit each painful moment; and ultimately, I would have to grieve that his entire lifetime of ambitions amounted only to the worthless piles stretched out in front of me.
Dad always bragged about his vintage coin collection, his prized guns, and his classic cars. For safekeeping, the coin collection was stored in a locked briefcase shoved under the bed. The combination had long since been forgotten. We pried it open to find a sea of wheat pennies and US state quarters encased in plastic. We found two-dollar bills squirreled away in his sock drawer. A coin collector assessed nothing we brought in was worth more than face value, including the plastic-enshrined quarters. At work, an older colleague of mine had also recently lost a parent and he would say things like, “I’m going to be out tomorrow; I need to tend to my parent’s estate.” I thought about this phrase as I slammed plastic-enshrined quarters against the kitchen floor to break them free of their casings: “I am tending to my parent’s estate.”
Dad had left his two-dozen assorted guns and boxes of ammunition lying haphazardly in a pile on the garage floor. We were too frightened to touch any of them, not knowing whether any remained cocked or loaded. My uncle, who we had not seen in years, showed up to claim them all. That would be the last time we heard from him.
Dad’s automobile collection consisted of nine vehicles in states of mild to severe decay. He constantly talked about his intention to resuscitate each of them to the glorious condition of their heydays, and the amazing fortune he would reap. The best car of the lot was the one pick-up that still ran. The driver’s seat was broken into a permanent position of recline and the rearview mirror dangled by a thread. Most perplexing of the bunch was the 1972 Chrysler Crown Imperial.
Even in my earliest memories, the Chrysler never ran. I never saw it driven, never saw anyone start it up, never even saw anyone open the driver’s side door and sit on one of the plastic bench seats to reminisce.
In the early years the Chrysler sat adjacent to the driveway. After a decade without improvement it was decided—I’m not sure exactly who decided—to move it to the back of the house, near the barn. In Dad’s mind, this probably equated to progress. The car needed to be near his tools if he was going to repair it. In my mom’s mind, I’m certain she just wanted to get the eyesore out of sight from the general passerby.
In Oregon, the elements of nature are subtle. There are no bone-rattling earthquakes, the complete and sudden devastation of hurricanes, or the intensity of a Midwest blizzard. There is only the rain, the omnipresent dampness. It seeps in quietly, seemingly harmless. But left unchecked over time, that ubiquitous moisture is power.
Over the years the two-ton Chrysler turned from dusty rose to a bleached mauve to forest green, covered in moss. The sodden earth began to consume the car—the tires buried up to the rims. And out of nowhere, the descent of Himalayan Blackberry, vegetation that seemed like science fiction.
When my aunt came to visit a few years back, she looked out the family room window onto the overgrown backyard and asked, “What’s that red thing sticking out of that bush?”
Sheepishly, my mom murmured, “That’s a tail light.”
Brambles had grown up and around the Chrysler, devouring all of it except one final piece of tail light. They grew twelve feet tall, surpassing the height and width of the barn, engulfing not just the car, but the expanse between the car and the barn, using both as makeshift trellises.
After Dad passed away, I wasn’t sure my husband and I were up to the challenge of unearthing the car from the grips of the brambles. But my wiry husband assured me we could do it. Not knowing where or how to start, we each simply bought a new pair of work gloves and hedge clippers.
On a crisp winter morning, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air, we embarked on our odyssey. I began clinically, like a novice surgeon taking the first cautious snip. The weed was covered in stickers, shooting out in catawampus directions like an army of angry penknives. It clawed at us with vicious tentacles, pulling at our arms and legs. We emerged from the bushes with scratches everywhere, on our backs and faces, blood dripping down our forearms.
Soon I was hacking and lunging with unquenchable hostility. Questions cascaded through me. What other daughter had to engage in an activity like this in the wake of her father’s death? Why did he leave this mess for us to clean up? Why didn’t he take better care of things? Why didn’t he take better care of us?
After several days of relentless toil we stood smugly over the decimated thicket and beheld the Chrysler in full exposure. The initial victory was sweet; we felt like laborers excavating the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Once we turned our attention to the car, our spirits sank. The windshield looked like a kaleidoscope. The interior seats were brittle and splintered, the ceiling upholstery torn and dislodged; where the passenger side floorboard once existed there was now an irreparable hole. After waiting for decades to be restored to its former glory, the car was unceremoniously sold in an estate sale, purchased by an anonymous buyer for the paltry sum it could fetch as scrap.
I looked up the number for Molalla garbage service online.
“I’d like to arrange for delivery of a drop box.” I used terms I found on their website and hoped I could translate my needs into their language.
“What size do you need?”
Barn-size? “What are the options?”
“Our smallest is twenty yards. That’s 7’5” by 16’ by 4’7” and the largest is forty yards. 7’5” by 22’ by 6’8”.” She rattled the numbers off with quick efficiency and I hurried to jot them down.
I shoved the figures imploringly in front of my husband with a “???” and a helpless look on my face.
“The biggest,” he mouthed back to me.
“The biggest one,” I responded. I feared the woman on the other end would question me. What does a well-spoken young lady like you need with a dumpster that large? I thought she would doubt me. That’s really large, honey. Are you sure you need something so big?
But she did no such thing. She merely asked when I wanted it delivered.
I responded without hesitation, “As soon as possible.”
For over two decades, with joy and fear I’d envisioned the day I would walk into the barn and clean it up. In my imagination, I’d be wearing knee high rubber boots and would have somehow gotten my hands on a Hazmat suit. In reality, I wore a grey Army t-shirt (Dad’s) and my mom’s jeans with an elastic waistband. The clothes were foreign to me, which fit the foreignness of the experience. It is hard to remember what my gloved hands touched first, but once started, I was transfixed. We had always been forbidden from touching his stuff. This would never have occurred in his lifetime.
On our first pass, we filled the forty-yard industrial dumpster in less than three days. It was so full, I’d end up owing over-tonnage fees. We’d only scratched the surface, though; we decided the rest would need to be addressed in stages and subsequent visits to the dump.
As we loaded the bed of my father’s truck with memories from my childhood, I was mystified to find decomposing rolls of shag carpet Dad had removed from the house when I was eight years old. My mom made plans for its disposal back in 1986. But Dad demanded to keep it; he planned to repurpose it. How did he think he was going to repurpose used 1970s Granny Smith apple–green shag carpet?
The hundreds of pairs of identical, fringe-beaded earrings intrigued my husband. The summer before I started high school, my dad was fired from his job. I don’t know if he looked for other work and couldn’t get anything, or if he became enticed by a pyramid scheme before he ever got that far. He sent money in to some unknown destination, and in return, he received a set of beads and string. He simply had to construct them into earrings and make five times the profit on his money. Except, of course, his beaded constructions were never purchased, leaving us with hundreds of sets of identical earrings and a hole in the bank account. When my childhood friends asked what my dad did for a living, it was hard to explain.
My mom hadn’t had reason to visit the dump in ages, but she thought she remembered the way. She was mistaken. Neither of us had any idea where it was. Unbelievably, in the year 2013, neither of us owned a smart phone or GPS. My mom’s idea was to roam through the Wal-Mart and ask for directions.
Upon entering the store, Mom instructed me, “Look for someone who looks like they’d know where the dump is.”
“What would someone who knows where the dump is look like?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Someone like us.”
I gazed over at my mom, a reflection of myself, in her messy flannel shirt, muddy boots, and stocking cap pulled tight over her ears. We burst into raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all. Silently, I also prayed this would not be the instant I run into someone I knew from high school.
Once we found our way to the facility, I stood at the edge of the platform and tossed our mold-infested memories into the dump. It is hard to throw away a life.
In the next round, we rented a metal “drop box”, another forty-yard container we’d fill to brimming and sell the contents for scrap. I was determined to get all the riding lawnmowers in there. Dad bought a new one every few years on credit. Whenever he mowed for the last time in the fall, the lawnmower would stay put right there on whatever the last patch of grass had been, uncovered all winter, until the next spring. After several cycles of this, the machines would rust into disrepair, the wheels would lock up, and he’d buy a new one. On the day he died, there would be four riding lawnmowers scattered around the yard, immobile.
My mom, husband, and I groaned collectively under six hundred pounds of riding lawnmower. In perfect synchronicity, we exhaled and lifted on the count of three. We progressed across the backyard in inches. There was a point where I looked down and saw I had gashed my leg. Blood ran into my shoe. I felt nothing. I was a robot-o-tron with one thought: Metal in the bin. Not metal to the dump. Surprisingly, many things had morphed to a point where it was impossible to tell what their origins were.
Mom begged me to come inside the house and spend time with her.
“Mel, why don’t you take a break? We can visit.”
“What do you mean? You can take break. I want to keep working.” Throughout my life I’d been merciless with my own belongings, throwing things out without a hint of sentimentality. With all that was in front of us, how could she think of stopping with so much still to get done?
“It’d just be nice—to visit for a while.”
“We can talk while we work. I came to work.” At my response, her shoulders slumped with a heaviness I didn’t understand. I was oblivious to the loneliness of my recently widowed mother. I felt nothing except a driving desire to finish this. I had to finish this.
Among the ruins, I found a handicap bar, the kind attached in restroom stalls. When I was ten years old, my dad worked security at a rehab facility and brought the bar home. I had begged for a ballet barre in my bedroom. The stolen handicap bar was his solution to purchasing a real one. When he showed it to me, it didn’t look sleek and pretty like a real barre, but it would be mine nonetheless, and I was excited in the way only a child could be. The bar sat on the floor of my bedroom, awaiting installation, until I left for college. Seventeen years later, I threw this symbol of my dashed childhood hopes into the dump.
And then there were the papers.
Stashed into dozens of file cabinets, boxes, nooks and crannies, we uncovered every “official” piece of paper that had ever entered our home. Every phone bill, bank statement, tax return and department store receipt since 1974.
Some of it was just plain odd—prescriptions my mom had received for conditions long since forgotten; the pay stubs I’d received from my first job at age fifteen.
Some of it inspired a spark of pride—a commendation memo Dad had received for some task he’d completed in the Army Reserve.
Much of it told something deeper.
The court summons addressed to Dad for stealing from his employer (items which were likely still sitting out in the barn at the time he passed away.)
Business cards that had women’s names and phone numbers scrawled on the back, which my mom pulled angrily from my hands.
Written warnings Dad received for being too aggressive with his co-workers.
A lay-off notice addressed to Dad when the cannery shut down.
Records from a financial consultant when my parents filed for bankruptcy.
Notices from the IRS regarding the lien they had had on the house.
Through these papers, the story of our family was told.
We burned all of it.
After many months, we were coming to the end. We’d worked our way across the yard, to the outer reaches of the barn and into its depths. Only the “wine distillery,” a slapped together addition at the back of the barn, remained. Dad fermented cherries into a putrid concoction he generously called “wine” and then boasted of his plans to sell to major distributors once he’d produced enough jugs. After all we had dealt with, this final hut would be simple. The structure and everything in it were completely dilapidated. I just needed a stash of garbage bags and a bit more endurance.
The space was more disgusting than I had anticipated; it smelled like the walls were doused in cherry wine. It was nauseating. I hastily started to sweep whole shelves into a sack. But the stuff—a conglomeration of rags, plastic tubing, cardboard boxes—was molten and disintegrated under my touch. I discovered glass beakers that still had a deep burgundy substance in them, solidifying. I stepped in something far too squishy and found myself gagging reflexively.
Before I knew what was happening, I was doubled over, convulsing, tears soaking my face. I cried until I felt empty. I crumpled onto the waterlogged plywood serving as a floor.
In that moment, I finally understood. I was not cleaning up my dad’s selfish mess; I was cleaning up the remnants of a disease. This yard, this barn, were not merely the objects of a careless man who brought home too many bicycles. He had a psychological condition. I was only able to recognize this after he passed away, after spending countless hours cleaning out his things. I had spent my life feeling so much anger toward him and so much shame about the turmoil we were forced to live in. But I could not hold on to that resentment. Just like I would not feel irritation at a stroke victim for slurred speech, I could not continue this animosity towards my dad for a mess he couldn’t stop himself from making.
I saw now he was not collecting garbage—he was collecting possibilities. The possibility of a gleaming classic car, the possibility of success and accomplishment. He wasn’t a perfect man and didn’t follow through with his plans, but he was able to believe in the impossible. And there was beauty in that.
Out there in the space that had been the source of so much shame and humiliation, I was able to find my own form of forgiveness.
MELISSENT ZUMWALT is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She learned the art of story telling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.
Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.
Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.
It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.
“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.
My father sighs audibly.
I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”
Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”
I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”
They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.
“Well….” Mom’s dubious.
I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”
Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.
“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.
As Dad reads, I relax a little.
My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.
This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.
The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.
So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.
And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.
Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.
That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.
Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.
I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.
Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.
“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.
Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”
Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.
I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”
As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”
My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”
She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”
I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”
She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”
“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”
“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”
“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”
She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.
I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”
I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”
She says, “But I worry about you there.”
I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.
“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”
Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.
I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.
She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”
I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.
She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”
I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”
I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”
Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.
But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.
Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.
When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”
When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.
For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.
Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.
In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.
That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.
When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.
The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.
At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”
Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”
I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”
“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”
I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”
“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.
“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”
“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”
I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”
She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.
Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”
She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”
I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”
But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.
In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.
The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.
Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.
Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.
Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.
When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.
Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.
I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.
Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.
Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.
The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.
She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.
As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.
MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.
“It looks like you’ve got a horn growing on your face.”
That’s what the dermatologist says—literally says—to my father. A horn. I hadn’t thought of the growth as a horn until this moment, and now I wish I had looked at it more closely, even though it’s the kind of thing I don’t generally like to get too close to. I thought it was a big wart or a skin tag, or maybe a weird looking skin cancer, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a horn. I won’t get another chance to look at it, because the dermatologist cuts it off with no ceremony or drama—just a quick shot of Novocain and he starts digging it out. He’s done in five minutes. A horn on someone’s face is not a big deal to dermatologists. They’ve seen worse.
I should have said, actually, that I don’t get another chance to look at it attached to my father’s face, because the doctor shows it to me in a little vial, suspended in pinkish liquid.
He’s sending it off to the lab. Right now, the horn could be skin cancer or not.
Either way, the dermatologist isn’t concerned. He says, “There’s nothing to worry about. If it’s skin cancer we’ll take care of that, too.”
Maybe cancers that take the form of horns are easy to treat. Or maybe dermatologists just don’t get that worked up about eighty-four-year-olds who may or may not have skin cancer.
When I get home I google “people with horns growing on their faces” and it’s an eye-opener. You can’t mistake them for anything else because they are clearly horn-shaped. They’re hard, like dark, super-charged fingernails, and they’re huge. There are all kinds of horns, each resembling the horn of a different animal. Elk, moose, goats. Some curl up in a spiral, like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Just when you think you have a handle on all of the ways human bodies can go wrong, you learn something new.
By taking my dad to the dermatologist while his horn was so little I saved him from possibly ending up with a giant horn, which would have been (presumably) more difficult to remove. Nobody gives you a medal for that though.
I send my dad the link to the page of pictures of people with horns. I tell him, “If I didn’t take you to get your horn removed, it might have ended up like one of these.”
He correctly points out, “We’ll never know how my horn would have turned out because we cut it off.”
Right now, his horn is in a vial being looked at to see if it’s cancer or not. It might be cancer and it might not be. It’s one or the other, but at this very moment it could be either. We have to consider both possibilities.
It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat. A couple of smart people have explained this to me and I still don’t understand it, because a cat is alive or dead, not both, no matter if we know it or not. But the relevant point here is that since we don’t know, we need to treat it as if it’s both alive and dead. You need to cover all the bases.
In the days leading up to this dermatologist appointment, my father, who has early Alzheimer’s, took it upon himself to make a dentist appointment the same day. His dentist is in the same medical park as the dermatologist and, coincidentally, has the same last name too.
“They must be brothers,” my father tells me every time he calls me about the appointment, which is more times than you might imagine.
“They might not be,” I say, because that’s the truth.
But they are. We learn that because when we get to the dermatologist’s office, the dentist’s office is right across the hall and my dad says to the dermatologist’s receptionist, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
Three minutes later as I’m filling out his medical history form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
A minute later, before I finish the form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
This time she gives me a long look and when I quietly ask her if she could call me instead of my dad with the results, she quickly agrees.
Because he made the appointment with the dentist for the same day as this appointment, but four hours later, and because I don’t have time to stick around all day, my dad has formulated a plan. He will walk across a busy road with no crosswalks and have lunch at a shopping center, and then will walk back afterwards, find the dentist again in this medical park, which is the most complicated medical park in the world.
I have told him several times that this was not a safe plan, but he assured me that he did this kind of thing all the time, and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew several kinds of complicated airplanes and he could certainly manage crossing the street. I had put off the argument for later because I was so tired of talking about it.
He mentions this plan to the nurse once we’re in the doctor’s office, and she says, “No, you won’t. You’ll get killed, and even if you don’t, you’ll never find your way back here.”
He replies, “Oh!” and looks truly surprised.
“No, I’ll drive you to lunch and then I’ll drive you back here,” I say, even though I really don’t have time. I agree with the nurse. It was a crazy plan. But, also, I’m aware that I would seem neglectful if I let him do it, and I’m sensitive about looking neglectful.
My choices are to piss him off or to look neglectful to everyone else in the world.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle. I have power of attorney, and, sure, I can play it safe, err on the side of caution, but every little freedom that he loses diminishes him a little more.
He’s stopped driving. Although he’s in “independent living” at his senior living home, someone comes to his apartment twice a day to make sure he takes his pills. I started handling his banking after he made a few concerning mistakes with his money. He’s unhappy with all of these changes.
When an older person wanders off and gets lost, it ends up in the news, and the reaction in the comment section is predictable. “Someone should have been watching him!” Just like when a kid is allowed to walk home from school by herself (imagine!) and something bad happens. “I’d never let my kid walk around without supervision! Bad parents!” The online judgment comes fast and hard.
The problem is, until the older person goes missing or something happens to the kid, you don’t know for sure that it’s not safe to let them do this thing that they want to do. Maybe the kid is ready. Maybe the elderly parent is still able to take an unsupervised walk. How do you know? Maybe this will be the last time he can do it.
With Schrödinger’s Cat, the way it works is this: the cat is in a steel box. Also in the box are a radioactive substance, a vial of poison, a Geiger counter, and a hammer. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter detects that and makes a hammer smash the vial, releasing the poison, killing the cat. But the thing is, you have no idea when the radioactive substance will decay. So at any given time you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead.
It’s the same thing with elderly parents with dementia. Until something goes wrong—they mess up the bank account, they forget to take their pills, they get lost—you don’t know that the decay has gotten to that point. If you wait too long to start giving them that extra supervision, there can be a disaster. If you jump the gun, you’re taking away some of their quality of life before you need to.
After the appointment I drive him to the shopping center and we have lunch. Then I drive him to the dentist. It will be two and a half hours until his appointment. I can’t stay. The home where he lives provides rides to and from doctor’s appointments, so I have him call and request a ride, but he can’t get anyone on the phone.
“Try again,” I say, because I don’t want to leave him without a ride.
“It’ll work out,” he says. It’s one of his favorite things to say and it drives me insane. It happens all the time. He tells me about a problem and asks for help. Something with his computer, or his phone or TV, or something more important. Maybe his knee is bothering him. I start looking into it, but before I can do anything he says, “It’ll work out.”
It works out because I make it work out, not because it magically works out.
He assures me, though, that he will just call again after the appointment and get the ride. I tell him to let me know if he can’t get through. Then I leave and drive the forty minutes to get home.
That night he calls me and says that he never got through so he walked across a major road, this one with a crosswalk, at least, to catch a bus back home. He got on the right bus, had cash for the fare, got off at the right stop, and crossed the road again to get home.
“It all worked out,” he says.
Three days after the appointment we get an answer about the horn. The dermatologist says it’s benign.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.
At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.
She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.
You’re my only.
I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.
They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.
My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.
He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.
From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.
During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.
Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.
A match was made.
Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.
I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.
Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.
Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.
Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.
“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”
As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.
Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”
As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.
On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.
While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.
A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.
When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”
While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.
When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.
“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”
By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.
Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.
So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.
I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.
LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.
Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.
I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.
I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.
I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.
My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?
We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.
My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.
In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.
BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.