I. The Burial of the Dead
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
When we pull up in front of my parents’ house I notice the trees first. The almond whose slender shimmering leaves splashed my bedroom walls with pale green light as I studied Eliot, then Heidegger, then Knuth. The ornamental plums that stood at sober attention in a row along the side of the house, cracking their burgundy study only for a brief riot of pink in the spring.
All cut down to stumps now. The fig and trumpet vines obscuring the chain link fence have been uprooted. The lawn has gone to crabgrass and the beds once full of impatiens and azaleas lie forlorn and empty.
I open the rusting gate, walk onto the porch no longer shaded by bougainvillea, ring the bell. It sings loudly in its complicated pattern, but no one comes to the door. I try again. No response. Before heading for the back I try the security screen door. It’s open. The front door, the same. In all the years I’ve known my father he never left an unlocked door.
* * *
My parents’ caregiver called as we were passing Hawthorne on the 405, about twenty minutes from their place. “I wanted to let you know that your father is very excited to see you. But when he gets excited – ” a pause, “well, he remembers that you’re coming but he may not remember you’re – just be prepared to introduce yourselves. If you need to.”
Perhaps I don’t know my father very well anymore.
* * *
He beams when my husband and I walk in. Physically he is unchanged from the last time I saw him, nearly four years ago, and at first blush I’m inclined to wonder if the caregiver is overstating his mental decline. Just past him my mother sits in a black and electric blue wheelchair, her paralyzed left leg stretched out before her, her useless left arm in a splint to keep the fingers from curling. Her thin hair, cropped inexpertly short, shows a distressing amount of pale scalp, and the blue and white check kitchen towel fastened across her sunken chest at a jaunty angle is dotted with food stains. She is wizened, frail, broken.
Still, her eyes are bright and she looks orders of magnitude better than the last time I saw her, in rehab, hunched over pureed food. And before that the hospital, lost in morphine dreams and not expected to survive the hemorrhagic stroke that felled her on a routine visit to the bathroom one October night. But my mother has always been a defier of expectations.
* * *
“Why do you use a ruler and underline every word in your books?” I used to ask her.
I don’t remember when she decided I was old enough to answer. “I was in a hospital for a year before you were born. They gave me shock treatments to make me better, but afterwards I couldn’t read anymore and they said I never would. This is how I taught myself again, one word after another.”
“That was long ago,” I said with my child’s sense of passing time. “Do you still need to do that?”
She tried a paragraph and smiled. “Maybe not.”
When my parents had a particularly bad fight she accused him of dumping her in the hospital. He asked what he was supposed to do with a wife who was sitting rigid on the sofa, immobile, unresponsive, flanked by two confused little boys. She cried, he threw himself onto the sofa and flung an arm across his eyes.
They replayed the scene every two or three months as if reading it from a script.
* * *
She squeals my name when she sees me, and clings to me with the desperation of a mother whose birthing vision of God told her, “You and your daughter belong to Me.” I have never lived up to that vision. But at least this is a moment when she does not wail, “Why didn’t God let me die?”
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”
II. A Game of Chess
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.”
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I remember my mother painting when I was a child. Priests with bull’s heads, faceless women in sackcloth, a sinewed arm holding out a black kettle for Cinderella to heat. And my father’s mantra, “Your paintings are crazy. You paint crazy things. You’d be less crazy if you didn’t paint. You should throw it all away.”
Finally she did. The easels, the canvases, the oils and brushes, the paintings. I lay in bed wondering if I could sneak out to the trash and hide just a few in my closet. A bullheaded priest. The hillside monastery, each tiny building inscribed with the name of a saint. Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, glowing in an indigo night. But if my father ever found them he’d be angry. And his anger was not a thing to take lightly.
So the trash truck came in the morning and hauled it all away. But it didn’t make my mother able to go to dinner parties, or call the plumber, or host a Brownie troop.
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My mother was known to burn dinner when she was absorbed in a book. She devoured Carl Jung, Gershom Scholem, William James, Hans Kung. She took copious notes on what she read, cross-referenced ideas, synthesized her own.
“Those are crazy ideas,” my father would say. “You shouldn’t read things like that.”
When she went to destroy her work I was older by then, in college. I ripped a notebook out of her hand before she could throw it in the wastebasket. “Don’t you dare,” I said. “Don’t you dare.” I shook the notebook in her face. “This isn’t what makes you crazy. This is what keeps you sane.”
“But it makes your father unhappy. I should just sew dolls.”
I told her to set the notebooks aside for a time, in case she changed her mind. Which she did after a few weeks, because dollmaking bored her.
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“Can I read?” she asked from her wheelchair in rehab. My husband had given her a smooth, cool worry stone and she rubbed it compulsively between the fingers of her good right hand.
It was the first time he and I had seen her conscious since the stroke, and I hissed to him in the hallway, “Why didn’t anyone tell us how bad off she is?” To her I said, “Let’s find out,” more brightly than I felt.
I retrieved her reading glasses from the closet and picked up the hospital newsletter, printed in large, bold text. I had her read out loud to me. It began badly; she seemed to miss the first few words of every line. She had shown other signs of left hemisphere neglect – only eating the food on the right half of her plate, gazing at her left arm and wondering who it belonged to – was this another symptom?
My husband snatched up a napkin and colored its edge with bright ink. I held it at the left margin of the paper and told her to look for blue before she started to read. It was a slow, painstaking process. She confabulated once or twice a sentence and could recognize long words only when I had her spell them out – “P-O-R-T-U-guese!” but some fragment of the faculty remained.
Her initial excitement faded to disappointment. “I thought I was a good reader.” There was something disconcertingly childlike about her defeated expression.
I took her hand. “Your brain has been damaged. But you can get better. It will just take time, and practice, and patience.”
Later my father arrived. He was sitting beside her, stroking her arm, whispering. When I bent to straighten her drool-stained towel I heard what he was saying. “We need to do something about all those books. They’re taking up too much room in the house.”
“Why did you take all the books off the shelves?” my brother asked our father two weeks before she was due home from rehab.
“She doesn’t care about them. She cares about people now.”
“It might be best to keep everything as familiar as possible,” I suggested. “So she’ll feel more comfortable.”
“She’ll never read again.”
“Even if that’s true,” my brother said, “she might just like looking at them.”
“What does she need books for? She’ll have me.”
“I think you should leave things alone,” I said. “And she can already read a little. We don’t know how much better she’ll get.”
After I’d driven the two hundred miles back home my father called. “I don’t think you’d appreciate someone coming into your house and telling you what to do, and I don’t either.”
The next time my brother visited they argued. My father threw him out of the house and told him never to come back.
Over time my mother learned to use the computer again. The last email I received from her read: “Don’t bother about the books. They are all gone.”
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
III. The Fire Sermon
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
I am loathe to close the front door when we enter, for the house is stifling and dark. A few years after I moved away my father had the decaying wooden windows replaced with vinyl frames and low-E glass. Within a month all the houseplants died. My mother said they were too much work anyway and replaced them with silk flowers.
The silk flowers are gone now too. Every surface in the dining room and kitchen is cluttered with precarious paper stacks and pill boxes.
* * *
“Your father wants to talk to you,” the caregiver said before putting the phone down to call him. I waited as minutes went by.
Finally my mother picked up the phone. “He’s filing.” She barely slurred at all; she was having a good day.
“Filing what?” I asked.
I thought I heard a sigh. “He can’t remember. He’ll be doing this all morning.”
* * *
The caregiver has cleared two tables in the living room, set festive red and yellow paper plates and vases with yellow daisies. A printout reads, “Family reunion! Attending: “ followed by everyone’s names. My father sees me glance at it and says, “Your brother and his wife are coming sometime this weekend too.”
“Today, in fact,” I say.
His eyes light up. “Are they? That’s great!”
“It is!” the caregiver exclaims.
I like her. An ex-ballerina who once danced on a Baryshnikov television special, she seems genuinely fond of my parents and hopes to be with them until – she trails off but we both know what she means. I tell her I am grateful for that.
She seems not to hate me for my long absence. I don’t tell her, but I’m grateful for that too.
She spends about half an hour chatting with us. She is an engaging storyteller, and I begin to understand why after the quitting or dismissing of over a dozen caretakers my parents have managed to retain this one.
* * *
As my father became more alert in his recovery from quadruple bypass surgery he asked my mother, “How did you manage during the operation?”
“Oh, you know,” she waved a vague hand. “Lorraine’s husband told me stories. About sports water bottles, and pattern recognition, and elevator algorithms. Do you know how that works? What they do is – ”
He was nodding off by the time she finished explaining it to him in perfect detail.
* * *
I have come back after nearly four years away because my mother asked me to. When I excuse myself to use the bathroom I find two pieces of paper taped to the mirror, large block letters in a hand I don’t recognize printed in heavy black ink.
Morning routine in the bathroom
Run hot water
Put soap on washcloth
Turn off water
Morning routine in the bedroom
Put on clean underwear
Put on shirt
Put on pants
I have come back after nearly four years away because my father is too damaged to be an obstacle any longer, to tell me that if I try to visit he will leave the house.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
IV. Death by Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and the loss.
“Do you know what’s great about this house?” my father says. “Ever since we bought it, we’ve never had to do anything to it.”
“Well, we did have to paint it when we first moved in,” I say, glancing at my mother. “Do you remember, all the rooms were pink?”
“And those filthy white carpets that the owner’s four white poodles made messes on,” she laughs her crooked laugh with the right side of her mouth. “And there was an Asian print embossed on the living room wall.”
“That was the only nice thing in here. Too bad it was on top of a pink wall.”
“The great thing about this house,” my father says, “is that it’s like it takes care of itself. Always has.”
* * *
Before lunch my mother asks to be wheeled out to the kitchen to get their afternoon pills. She glares at me when I offer to get them for her. I navigate the narrow corners poorly and bump her into walls more than once, but eventually we get there and back again. She measures out a small pill for my father and Advil for herself.
As we finish eating my father’s eyes light on the bottles, still sitting on the table. “Did you take your pills?”
“Do I have to take anything?”
“I already gave you your Zyrtec.”
“Did I take it?”
“Are you sure?”
“Did you have to take anything?”
“What was it?”
“Only two Advil.”
“What do you take that for?”
“Are you in pain?”
“No, that’s why I take Advil.”
“Do I need to take anything?”
“You already did.”
“Did you take something?”
She is very patient with him but I remove the bottles to the kitchen, hoping his mind will leave the track on which it seems to be stuck. He stops talking about pills, but he is restless now and watching her closely. In truth she is beginning to look unwell. Her head is drooping, her mouth falling open. The skin between her eyebrows creases spasmodically as if she is anxious, or in pain. He sits near her and holds her hand while we children and spouses chat among ourselves, trying to maintain an air of normalcy. “Am I tiring your arm?” he asks.
She smiles at him. “No, never.” When my brother asks if we should go and let them get some rest she straightens up and widens her eyes like a small, tired child. “No!”
My father grows more restless still, muttering to himself. Finally he gets up and goes into the kitchen. I hear him pick up the phone receiver, the click of buttons pressed. I rise and follow him. “What are you doing?”
“Calling the caretaker. Your mother – ”
“She said she wasn’t going to be home. She’s celebrating her own Mother’s Day.” He stares at me resentfully and I know better than to tell him to put down the phone. “Whatever it is,” I say as gently as I can manage, “we’ll deal with it.”
He hangs his head, sets the receiver down. “Who were you calling?” my mother asks when we return.
He looks at me. “I don’t remember.” Of course she takes him at his word.
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
V. What the Thunder Said
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
My father’s mind is stuck in a new groove, that my mother’s wheelchair needs repair. I don’t see anything wrong with it. “I have a spare one in the office,” he says. “Do you want to see it?”
My husband and I exchange glances; my father and his “spares” have been notorious for years. He stashed four identical VCRs under the bed, “in case the manufacturer stops making them.” A second refrigerator in the garage holds nothing but orange juice, and my sister-in-law tells me there are no spare glasses because the cupboards are filled with cereal boxes.
“Sure!” I say as I accompany him down the hall to his office.
Unlike the rest of the house it is completely free of clutter. A computer is tucked under the desk, although it is off and the keyboard is dusty. The room has the feel of a museum to it. He shows me the wheelchair then looks around mournfully. “I used to work in here.”
My husband tells me later that though he made no move to follow my mother said to him, “It’s okay, you can go look too. I don’t mind being alone.”
* * *
My parents and I stopped speaking over my refusal to move back in and take care of them for the rest of their lives. “I have a husband. I have a house and responsibilities. I have a sixteen-year-old dog slowly dying of kidney failure with no one but me to take care of her. It’s not my fault Dad alienated the child who lives nearby. Maybe he should apologize.”
“We’re dead if you don’t come back!” my mother wailed. “Your father has forgotten how to use a computer, how to pay the bills, he’s forgotten everything! And we’re going to die right now!”
I asked to speak to the caretaker, a woman named Lolita whom my brother’s wife disliked on sight and who quit a few months after my father and brother fought. As my mother passed the phone over I heard her slurred stage whisper, “Don’t make things sound too good.”
They called six, eight, ten times a day begging, then demanding, that I move back to their home. No compromise, no alternative arrangements would suffice. I cried. I stared at the walls. Finally my husband told me to unplug the phone. When I plugged it in a week later, the calls had stopped.
* * *
By mid-afternoon my mother grows animated again, as if a key in her back has been rewound. She refers to something as “surreptitious” and my father interrupts her to say, “That’s a big word.” I can’t read the expression on his face. Hers registers simple pleasure and pride, like a child who has done something clever.
But her rally is short and as my father’s protestations that she needs rest grow louder than her insistence that she doesn’t, my brother and I announce that we should go. He and his wife invite us over for dinner, and it is well after dark by the time we leave L.A. I wish we’d left in the daytime. Usually I love the city at night but now the thousand points of light suspended in the blackness – white and red and sulfurous yellow – oppress me. I want solidity, particularity, clarity.
We draw near to Santa Barbara where we’re spending the night and I want to tell my husband to keep on driving, to drive on until we’re home. To break into the kennel where our healthy young boxer mutt is sleeping so I can give her a hug and take her with us. To go back and wear good, deep grooves into our lives so that when the stripping away comes what is left is benign and contented and tranquil.
Perhaps in their sixty years together my parents have won their way through to a state of grace. Perhaps I imagined the bitterness when my mother said she had the trees cut down because if she could no longer care for them herself she didn’t want to look at them. Perhaps my father had forgiven – or forgotten – the pain and the anger when he raised his glass of water to my brother and I and said, “It’s really great to have everyone together again.”
Perhaps they are happy enough.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. – Aeschylus
I wish them peace. I wish them grace. I wish it for my brothers, I wish it for myself.