By Jeanne Shoemaker
When I call, her voice sounds like a bird’s. She chirps “yes” to every question. I say, “Are you cold?” or “Did you eat lunch?” or “Are they nice to you there?” And she says, “Where’s there?”
Then I try something else. I say, “Are you wearing your night gown?” and she says, “Yes,” in that child/bird voice that trembles out the syllables.
When my daughter speaks to her, my mother thinks it’s me, but me when I was young. So we have these conversations, when we can, when she’s more lucid and can hear me, and she speaks to the adult me—the one who’s worried about her and doesn’t know what to do—and then to the young me who was brave and reckless and didn’t think about her, at least not very much.
There is where you are, but not me. There is what I say when I mean where you are. My there is your here. Get it? No, I can’t say that. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I have to pose questions that are simple to get answers that may or may not be true. “Are you wearing a bathrobe?” My mother answers yes, but later says she isn’t. “What color is it?” I ask. “Blue,” she replies. I am not trying to trick her. I don’t think she’s lying. I know she’s not. The world swims before her like a blurry movie screen and she’s confused and it comes through in her voice.
In the South they speak in slow rhythms, let the syllables fall over on each other like old friends, intertwined, a filigreed pronunciation. But my mother is not from the South. She’s asking a question in every answer. “Yes” turns into three syllables because she is asking, “Is yes what I’m supposed to say?” She is not who she used to be. Or if she is, she is just hanging on to herself by one little filigreed thread.
When I visit, she is in the hospital-like wing of her fancy, assisted-care “home.” She’s propped up with pillows, tilted slightly to one side, but she won’t last long. Soon she’s going to fall over and bang her head on the hard shiny rail of the hospital bed. As I get closer, I can tell that she can’t see me, and when I say hello she casts her eyes about, scanning the room.
“Oh, hi,” she says finally, but she’s faking it. She can’t see and doesn’t know who it is. I tell her it’s me and take her dry little hand. She looks in my direction and grips my hand like she’s afraid I’ll go away.
“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to stay with you a while.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Not for a while. I’m here now.”
“Good,” she says and clucks her tongue like a hen and looks around. When her eyes fall back on me, she sticks out her head. Now she’s like a turtle. I hold her hand with both of my hands.
I say, “Let’s have coffee. Want coffee?”
“Sure. I’ll have some.”
I pry her hands off mine.
“I’m getting coffee. Be right back.”
“When are you coming back?”
“In just a minute. Don’t worry. I’m getting coffee. We’ll drink coffee, okay?”
I run out of the room—she can’t see me running—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what odd behavior is anymore. I ask one of the nurses where I can get coffee and she points to a buffet-like area in the back of the ornate lobby.
My mother’s “home” has an entrance like the Waldorf Astoria’s, but it’s all downhill from there. Each guest room contains a lost soul, cast out from their own life, adrift on an ice floe, though not dressed for the weather. And me? I’m standing on the shore, waving a white handkerchief. “Good-bye!” I say, over and over again. “Farewell!” I yell. “’Til we meet again!”
On a black marble counter, pitchers of juice and ice water drip with condensation. Next to them is a pyramid of cold muffins. Why is everything so scrupulously cold? Two thermoses, one for coffee and one for tea, sit on a silver tray surrounded by the sad pink remains of Sweet’N Low packets. Could anyone here be on a diet? My mother weighs ninety-five pounds. There’s a stack of extra-large Styrofoam cups, the size teenage boys drink Slurpees from. Everything is too cold, or too hot, or too large, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of dislocation. There’s an aura of impersonality, as though someone not quite human is in charge of this place. I splash coffee into the cups and run back to the room.
When I sit, my mother looks over with her blind eyes and I can see that the whites have disappeared— it’s all iris now. Did her eyes shrink? It doesn’t make sense.
“Here, I’ll hold it,” I say, steadying her cup.
We sip coffee and talk about the funny things I did when I was young. Her favorite story, the one she tells her friends over and over again, is about me. It is a fusion of fantasy and reality and, maybe, wishful thinking. My grandparents had a farm and four dairy cows, and I used to ride the cows. Well, not really. I used to sit on them when they lay down in the field, as cows do, and they never seemed to mind. Over the years, my mother embellished this event and I never corrected her. It made me seem like a daredevil, instead of a three-year-old looking for a comfortable spot to sit.
“Remember when I used to ride Grandpa’s cows?” I say, and we both laugh.
Later, I leave to get muffins and almost knock over an elderly man wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. Is he wearing his wife’s robe, I wonder? He’s as thin and fragile as a praying mantis, and I watch him struggle with the walker, hands shaking, as he attempts to regain his balance after our near collision. But I don’t stop. I run backwards, saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Then I turn the corner and sprint down another long hall—away from him, away from her. And, when I ask myself why I’m running, I don’t have time to answer. I’m in that much of a hurry.
My mother is different though she must still be in there somewhere. Are you in there, Mom? Age and Alzheimers have worked their deadly magic and transformed her. But I’m different too. I’m always in a rush when I’m around her and I don’t know why. It’s like I’m a contestant on that old game show, Beat The Clock.
The night before my mother dies, I sit with her and play music on my laptop. My mother doesn’t have much time left, so everything I do feels contrived and weighted with import. I had turned off the lights, but the heart monitor glowed, the oxygen monitor beeped, and my computer cast a eerie halo of green light. It’s cozy, just my mother and me and these contraptions. But the vast universe is pressing in. The unknowable is just outside the room.
We’re listening to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” when the nurse barges in. She flips on the light, then pokes around the room. She fiddles with the IV, then glares at me because it’s after visiting hours and I’d turned off the lights. She knows my mother will die tonight or tomorrow, and she knows she should not ask me to leave. But she wants me gone and I imagine why. The nurses will play poker after nine p.m. or they’ll have a dance party. I can picture them limboing and mamboing down the halls, snapping their fingers and swaying their hips, swigging champagne and trumpeting, trumpeting with life.
“If looks could kill,” I whisper, and the nurse finally leaves.
My hand is drawn to the oxygen tube that snakes into my mother’s nostril, then to the IV that runs antibiotics and fluids into her stick-like arm. I play Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” then Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But my mother stares at the ceiling, never toward me.
“Hurry up, hurry up” she says, again and again. And I think, is she talking to The Angel of Death? But I don’t believe it. I only know that she is not talking to me.
I find the crabby nurse. “We need more morphine,” I tell her.
My brother and I have been trading off, not wanting our mother to be alone. We worry that in the time it takes to shower, or eat a pork chop, or park the car, that she will sneak away. I leave at eleven o’clock and then my brother spends the night sleeping beside her in a cold leather chair. In the morning, he drives her car, this big Buick, back to his house to change his shirt and to get me. We’re going to have breakfast and spend the day with her. But she dies minutes after my brother leaves, sneaks out the moment his back is turned, just as we feared. There had been a plan and now it is all goofed up.
Someone calls from the “home.”
“Your mother passed this morning,” says this person I’ve never met.
Passed is the P.C. term, but I don’t like it. It reminds me of passing gas, pass the potatoes, pass the buck. Why be coy? She died. She’s dead. There will be “arrangements”: cold storage, caskets, morticians, cemeteries, body bags with heavy zippers.
When my brother walks in, I hand him a mug of coffee. “Sit down and drink this,” I say, before I tell him.
I remember my parakeet and the three childhood dogs I loved and lost. I buried my dead pets in the backyard, marked their graves with crosses made from Popsicle sticks. For the parakeet’s casket, I used an old metal lunchbox, filling it first with thick rolls of cotton, and sprinkling the tiny weightless body with pink and yellow rose petals and red cinnamon Valentine’s hearts. For the dogs, I used cardboard boxes covered with Christmas wrap, even a bow if I could find one. A shiny, boxed gift for God! Each pet wept and prayed over on one knee. I was only devout in my faith at times of death. For my dog Pearl’s funeral, I shot an air rifle into the sky—a 1-Gun salute—and wore a black armband for weeks. But my mother’s funeral will be modest by comparison, lacking the high dramatic flair of my youth. She will be buried in a strange place by strange people. I will not dress or touch the body. I will not shovel the earth, say the prayers, or fire the gun. I will stand squarely in the dirt, like a lump of stone, a tombstone myself.
I call Diego and Sons Mortuary. I need to find out what my mother had pre-arranged for her funeral. She’d told me she had already done it—long ago when death seemed far away and talking about it was a silly thing to do. A man with just the whiff of an accent answers. His voice is silken, almost romantic.
I say, “Can you help me?”
“I hope so,” he replies.
I explain that my mother has died and that she had already arranged for the funeral, or at least I think she did. He asks her name and when I tell him, he repeats it.
“Dorothy,” he says, as though he knew her and misses her already.
He is so nice that I wish I could meet him, see him, but I know he is trained to be nice, like realtors, but not my mother’s nurses. Still, I wish I could talk to him forever, this exotic sounding man, this under…taker. Will he be the one to drive the hearse? Collect her from her “home?” Zip the bag?
I ask, “So it was pre-paid?”
“Let’s see,” he says in that beautiful, seductive voice. A pause. “Yes, she put it on her Visa card.”
I laugh. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He laughs, too. We laugh together. I never want to hang up.
Later, I attempt to write my mother’s obituary. “You’re the writer,” my brother says, delegating the enormous task to me. So, I try to produce something heartfelt, but my sentences are bad and sound phony. She lived here. She lived there. It’s too short. I freeze as if it is an extra-credit question on an exam that I’m ill prepared for. All I can think of are weird moments from my childhood, odd behaviour, hers and mine, and fights we had.
My brother and I sit on the sofa and look through the family albums. There’s a childhood photo of my mother with her six siblings taken in front of their gigantic house. Even as a child, my mother had a wary expression as if she knew what was in store for her. We stare at our parents’ wedding photo. They look so young and skinny. We keep looking, hoping to find a suitable photograph to run with the obituary I have yet to write.
Then, for some reason, I remember one of the last times my mother and I did something together, before she had Alzheimer’s, before she was in her new “home”— when she was still here. I’m in the car and my mother is driving that stupid Buick of hers down the Bayshore Freeway, going 30 m.p.h. though the speed limit is 65. People honk, one guy gives us the finger. The car is so old and decrepit that it won’t go any faster and the turn signal broke off, so my mother had made a new one with a popsicle stick and some duct tape. We’re a family of oddballs, cow riders, and duct tape mechanics. The obituary should reflect this somehow, shouldn’t it?
My brother and I can’t find a photo we like, and again I try to write the obituary. But, it’s all a big jumble. I can’t do it. I appeal to my brother to write it.
“You’re the writer,” he says again, managing to make the word writer sound both truthful and accusatory.
Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I sum up my mother’s life in a few simple paragraphs? I realize now, too late, that I should have asked her to write the obituary herself, when she was still lucid, and before the Alzheimer’s kicked in. “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d ask. But no one is that organized, are they? Must I have the final word?
Once upon a time my mother was young and hopeful, but then things happened. Her first born child died when he was a month old, and her marriage turned so bitter it was like a cancer spread through our home. But in an obituary, you’re only supposed to write about the wonderful things. I’m having trouble thinking of any right now. The recent past is so filled with tragic events, it blocks out all earlier years. At the end, my parents’ lives were, well, pretty bad. My father had a heart attack and later a stroke. My mother got Alzheimer’s, then broke her hip, and, over time, became so fuddled up that she had to live in that fancy assisted-living “home.”
Still looking for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, I come across an album I’ve never seen before. Old and dust-covered, clearly it has not been touched in decades. The first pages contain my oldest brother’s birth certificate and many cards of congratulations—happy cards with bunnies and kittens and colored balloons—then his death certificate. I turn this page. More than fifty cards of condolence have been carefully pasted into the album by my mother’s own hand. With shock, I realize that this forgotten tome had started as my brother’s baby book. It was meant to be filled with celebrations, birthdays, Christmasses, graduations, and the progress of his life.
Two years ago, when my mother and I sat down to write my father’s obituary, she scratched out the sentence I’d written about their “three” children and wrote in the word “two.” She was already editing, rewriting her life, improving it, leaving out the bad parts. I guess I will do that too. Why not? My own life, if I look at it objectively, has nothing as tragic as the loss of a child, but there are moments of failure I’d rather not think about. Suddenly, I understand the form and its purpose—to call into high relief the events that can be celebrated. And those high points will, we hope, cast a shadow over the things we must forget.
For inspiration, I look in the local newspaper, and read the obituaries. I need a template. I see that a friend’s mother has also died. What luck! My friend’s mother and my mother are almost the same. They’re the same age, both mothers and wives. My friend’s mother even looks like mine in the youthful photograph they supplied—same blond pin-curled hair and pretty lip-sticked mouth. The obituary is beautifully written. Our beloved mother, etc. I have to change a few facts but not that many. I copy the words and the sentiment I don’t feel and pawn it off as my own. I don’t know how I feel. I’m not there yet.
JEANNE SHOEMAKER graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, the Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.