Tag Archives: mother

Empire State Building, a poem

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

Empire State Building

Twenty years ago we finally went to see the sights,
riding the train through flashing dim green suburb,
glassy sharp-edged slum, the skin stretched
pale and tight over your fine cheekbones —

you didn’t really know how to be afraid of death,
simply of heights and under-grounds:
you wanted always to be on the surface of the earth.
Your demise was still an abstraction,

discussed in the evening while sucking cool mints —
the natural order of things. I dragged you
all the way to the city under the water from Hoboken,
then marched you up to the roof of what was the tallest

building in the whole world when you were young.
I haven’t been here since it was built, you said,
and though the blood sank to your innards in panic,
you kept walking; I kept pushing and pulling you

forward, propelling your solid weight like a cart
loaded with spring lambs. Your hand, soft
wrinkled palm, roughened fingers speckled white
around the knuckles, gripped mine, but I showed

no mercy; I was forcing you to confront the bitter
end ahead of schedule. I was being cruel
to make you go look at the thin sparkling air
of the heavens and you knew it. But later,

my love, as you lay sweating, heavy and motionless
in your bed as though carved of wood, deprived
for weeks of even the common decency of words,
weren’t you glad you went with me once more to the top?

Leave a comment

Filed under beauty, compassion, courage, daughter, daughters, death, empire, enlightenment, eternal, eternity, faith, family, fear, grief, heart, hope, human beings, humanity, kindness, loss, love, mama, memoir, mortality, mother, mothers, mourning, mysterious, poetry, soul, spirit, spiritual, spirituality, transcendence, transitions, tribute, truth, universe, wish

She Hates Numbers

Leave a comment

Filed under women

Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

1 Comment

Filed under acceptance, adolescence, adult children of alcoholics, ancient history, apology, appeals, artistic failures, assholes, beauty, birth, black, blood, Catholic, child abuse, child neglect, childbirth, childhood, children of alcoholics, christian, compassion, con man, daughter, death, development, divorce, dream, dreams, enlightenment, eternal, eternity, faith, family, father, fatherhood, fathers, fear, fiction, for children, forgiveness, friendship, funeral, gay marriage, god, grief, he, health, Uncategorized

Night-Blooming Jasmine, a poem

illustration night blooming jasmine

Night Blooming Jasmine, a poem

After dark, anything could happen – each

moment was disconnected from the last.

There was no logical progression to our lives:

most events had the dramatic essence of a car

accident. One evening, my mother decided

to sneak out my bedroom window when my

stepfather cut her off. He was drunk himself,

but for some reason decided she shouldn’t have

more Scotch. I remember her butt, in white

nylon undies, decorating the center of my open

window. I both fretted and hoped that she might

fall and hurt herself. Another night, my stepfather

decided it was time to throw all the pillows away,

including mine, because to him they smelled like

“horse piss.” My mother followed, protesting

loudly, wrestling him for the pillows. She lost:

the pillows went into the garbage cart. This

happened in our front yard, on a warm night scented

with night-blooming jasmine. I watched the two

drunken grown-ups, distancing myself from the scene.

I watched it like a T.V. show or a movie. When

I try to tell people about these things now, I can’t

keep a straight face. The laughter chokes me,

renders me unable to speak. I am silenced.

They’re both long dead now… but I’m still here.

6 Comments

Filed under addiction, adult children of alcoholics, ancient history, anger, child abuse, child neglect, childhood, divorce, poetry

Things We Never Said, a short story

img058 alcoholics anonymous big blue book

Things We Never Said, a short story

She was beautiful, as all mothers are to their children, but it was far more than that. Total strangers told me how beautiful my mother was. She was particularly fine-boned and delicate. Her skin was the softest I’ve known, her arms and hands the most stubborn, the most lethal.

Mom was an alcoholic, of course, and the most gruesomely stubborn person I’ve ever known. She went past simple denial and created her own alternative universe. Once, some quack psychiatrist she was seeing told her she wasn’t a “true” alcoholic — that she only drank out of boredom. She clung to that unfortunate phrase of absolution, repeating it like a robot in a variety of situations, until the day she died at 44 from alcoholic pancreatitis.

The only way we ever got her into rehab was when we threatened to call the police about obtaining drugs by false pretenses. She’d call the drugstore and tell them it was Dr. So-and-so’s office, would they please fill a prescription for such-and-such, three refills, please.

She got stiff all over when she drank, not like a normal drinker who gets loose. Stiff, and with a duck-legged walk that made my flesh crawl. I can’t tell you how many times I just let her lay there on the floor where she’d stumbled in a drunken stupor. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her.

If only Mom could have been more like Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer in “Sweet Charity” who, after being pinched, pawed at, fondled, ridiculed, robbed, tattooed, thrown from a bridge, trapped in an elevator, and deserted at the altar, rather meekly accepts the cheery and somehow redeeming gift of a single daisy from a group of 60s flower children, pulling herself out of her misery yet again, and living “hopefully” ever after.

My mother and I both said “I love you,” a lot, and to no avail. Neither of us believed in love. We believed only in self-preservation. Trust was unknown. I have never learned the reasons for staying with another. All I can think of, now that I’m married, is what I’m missing, giving up for the other. How short life is, and how unhappy.

I took a developmental psychology course once, while my mother was still alive. The teacher explained that no child ever actually dreams of killing the mother. Infantile rage exists, yes, murderous anger exists, yes, but the true desire to kill can never be resident in the child’s subconscious. “The instinct for preservation is too great,” she said.

When I told her, later and in private, how I’d dreamed that very act, how in my dreams I’d taken the great butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed it viciously and repeatedly into my mother’s fine and delicately boned chest, she shook her head skeptically.

“You didn’t really dream that,” she insisted. “You only think you did.” I didn’t argue. I was still too afraid it might happen in reality to insist that it had happened in dreams.

She was never a very good mother. I was never a very good daughter. After she died, I went to confess my guilt over my record as a daughter once, to an Episcopal priest. “I let my mother down,” I told him.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. “You were the child. You had the right to go off and live your own life.” I was angry at him, and never went back.

I still feel guilty about the first time I knew I’d hurt her feelings. She made me a bunny rabbit salad – a scoop of cottage cheese for the bunny’s face, cut up vegetables for the bunny’s ears, eyes, nose, and whiskers. It was adorable. But I hated cottage cheese, and salad. I was four years old. “I don’t like cottage cheese,” I told her.

“Just try it,” she said.

“No.” I refused over and over again. Finally, she ran out of the kitchen, to the bathroom, and I knew she was crying. I sat in the kitchen, staring at the rabbit, not eating it. I didn’t follow her, I didn’t apologize, and I sat there until someone, probably my grandmother, covered the plate with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I knew I was never going to eat that bunny rabbit salad.

I mailed the invitations to my own daughter’s birthday party today. She’ll be four in sixteen days. Oddly enough, all I could think of as I wrote out the cards was how much my own mother would have enjoyed seeing my child, her first grandchild. I know exactly what my mother’s face would look like if she were at the party — lovely, tremulous, inevitably a little weepy. I also know half of my pleasure would come from seeing the tenderness in my mother’s wide brown eyes as together we would watch my little Katie blow out all her candles.

 

3 Comments

Filed under addiction, alcoholism, blood, child abuse, child neglect, childhood, children of alcoholics, compassion, daughters, death, development, fiction, forgiveness, girls, hope, life, logic, love, mama, matricide, mea culpa, mortality, mother, mothers, mourning, murder, parenting, personal responsibility, regret, relationships, short stories, soul, spirit, truth, woman, women, youth

Blood Mother, a poem (sculpture in the Orsay Museum, Paris)

illustration blood mother
Blood Mother, a poem (sculpture in the Orsay Museum, Paris)

She is made of wood, a silken hardness that begs touching.
Should anyone reach, trail a fingertip across her flesh,
the man in straps would speak, his mumbled words rasping
through the stopped air, turning beating cells boorish,

piercing desire’s heart, killing a love so old, so pure,
it has no real name. Such is obvious from the way she stands,
lifting her heavy hair, each hand the careful cynosure
of being — she drapes the primal fiber like garlands,

letting it flow free only to capture the thickness of trees.
Her eyes are closed. Under abraded lids resides the look
everyone knows: pupils enlarged by pain; simple refugees
from knowledge received of the body, woman’s final textbook.

The belly asks first. It says come, reside here within me,
neither cold, nor afraid, nor desirous — twirl and dream
of nothing but this spare salt universe, wear only veins, silky
wisps of hair, discreet, pale limbs enfolded by soft cream.

Her feet nourish the ground, her head becomes the forest.
Walk where her shadow falls, seek the margin of her arms,
soothe your tired neck in mother’s lucid heat, hedonist
entity you have become, set in blind motion under charms

worked by no laboratory scientist in a trim white robe.
Rather, you emerged redly from a thousand other deaths,
one messy cauldron holding shapes; the patient, springy web
of chosen elements drawn together, joined by many faiths.

The breasts want, too. Child, they sing in unison, nourish your
body with our thin white blood — suckle, cradle the nipple deep
against the palate, pull the flow from a dozen small pores, gnaw
strong like a velveted vise, drink true until you swallow sleep.

The need to believe is more than skin. Need is the whole glossy
image on this lonely wall; what it means to be such a mechanism!
She never schemed for her fey power — nor does she expect mercy.
You exist, mere fragile accident, in perfect jeweled synchronism.

Not as simple as punishment, nor as complex as grace, her skills
for life reside at a place men cannot enter, no fault of their
own. They build instead the world, of brick, stone; shy stabiles
meant to appease longing, courageous memorials to light, to air.

2 Comments

Filed under art, art history, beauty, blood, compassion, earth, eternal, eternity, heart, love, man, mother, mothers, nature, orsay museum, paris, poetry, sculpture, soul, spirit, spiritual, warmth, woman, wood

Hungry Baby, a short story

hungry child

Hungry Baby

Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.

She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.

The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.

Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.

Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.

Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.

They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.

That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.

3 Comments

Filed under addiction, alcoholism, anger, apologia, black, child abuse, child neglect, daughters, ella, eve, evil, funeral, girls, god, good, health, ignorance, justice, karma, kindness, love, mama, matricide, mothers, mourning, murder, mysterious, parenting, regret, relationships, short stories, truth

Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

illustration heavenly dances heavenly intimacies

Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved?  They are not “dead” to me.  Not even H.  How can I be “dead” to H.?  They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust.  It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11.  He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened.  We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos!  I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him.  Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with?  Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.”  H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school.  He was on the debate team; need I say more?  When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.

Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H.  The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me.  He left me for my best friend!  I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married.  And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did.  She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with:  dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react.  H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her.  At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her.  He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her.  Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again.  She is definitely “dead” to me.  Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.

The upshot of all this boring history?  I’ve been waiting for something a long time.  I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore.  There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered.  I gave up, when?  When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow.  When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family.  Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.”  And it’s true!  I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life.  Yes, there are still problems.  My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.”  My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father.  I am getting old.  My face is melting.  My neck is turning into a wattle.  I am drooping.

Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me.  Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her.  Wanting her removed from my memories.  Wanting never to have met her.  Not missing anything about her.  She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to.  I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend.  I don’t even want to get as close as that!  Because of reasons.  Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons!  No further comment!

1 Comment

Filed under artistic failures, assholes, boys, con man, con men, criminal, criminal behavior, criminals, fathers, he, health, humor, hypocrisy, idiots, jerks, karma, love, mothers, mysterious, sex, short stories, tea party mad hatters, ultra right wing loons, users

Alabaster, Briefly, a short story

illustration alabaster briefly

Alabaster, Briefly

After the hurricane, but before the power came back on, Ella went out walking with her daughter, Katie, to survey the damage.  The huge old ficus tree in front of the library had toppled over, its immense grove of roots lying naked, withering now in the sun.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” the three-year-old said.  Humidity bore down on everything like a weighted fishing net.  The tree had been a twig thirty-five years ago, when Ella was a kindergartner.  She remembered the planting ceremony — her mother, president of Friends of the Library, in a blue linen sheath and white gloves, stepping on the edge of a shiny new shovel.

Now the tree, too, was dying.  The shelter it had provided was still dark and cool — the web of roots from each branch created a division of rooms like a house.  Ella pitied that sodden, gigantic mass, torn from the soil, not dead yet, but no hope, terminal.  How long did it take a tree to die?  Uprooted for half a day, the leaves were still supple and green.  It would take days for them to wilt, weeks for a crew to cut the tree into logs and load the logs into a wood chipper.  Her mother would be long-buried by then.

It was late August, and Sophia’s diagnosis had come in January, just after New Year’s.  Ella was far away when it happened, stuck in New Jersey with a new job.  Now her mother needed her and she was marooned.  She had turned into one of those people she hated, one of the ones who moved away from their family to chase money, thoughtless and selfish, leaving their sick, their aged in the hands of underpaid nurses.  “She’s in good hands,” Sophia’s friends told her over the phone, meaning the hospital.

Ella flew down after her mother’s surgery.  The decision to operate and the actual sawing open of her mother’s skull had happened faster than Ella could get there.  When she arrived, her mother was in the Surgical Intensive Care unit, bed number three.  Sophia couldn’t talk yet.  Her head was wrapped in a helmet of gauze, and over that, someone had placed a flowered disposable surgical cap.  She looked like a confused scrubwoman.

Ella’s reaction when, at first, Sophia didn’t know her was not heroism but, rather, numb acquiescence, a slow nod to absolutes.  Ella performed the worst sort of cowardice:  cutting the lines free before it was over.  In that first hour, Ella could feel the passage beginning, away from her mother — the slow casting off from love, the mournful horns, departing from a foggy land of illness.  Her mother had a ruddy stubbornness Ella was shocked to see.  Over Sophia’s lunch tray — each food sealed in a separate dish — her hands danced above a nonexistent teacup, squeezing a lemon primly into thin air.  She had gone another way, in her soft hat, her skin hot, glossy as if with fever, the surface papery-soft but no longer familiar.

After that, Sophia’s pale and knowing return to her usual self was anticlimactic.  Ella had expected to cry more, to feel something else, not this.  Nothing was how Ella had imagined it, not Sophia’s furtive, over-the-shoulder glances of fear, not the way Ella’s stomach dropped as she stepped into the room, not the aching bones, not the past no longer claimed.  Her mother seemed glued, as never before, to the newspaper and the television news shows.  Finally, Sophia confessed to Ella how, for a couple of weeks after the operation, she had been under the brain-surgery-induced delusion that she’d murdered somebody, by stuffing them full of shoe trees, and had been waiting for it to be on the news, in the paper.  How she’d kept waiting for the police to march in and cuff her, drag her off to jail.  Sophia and Ella laughed, and the way the humor was mixed with horror was something entirely new to them both.  Brain tumor jokes — a new genre, previously unexplored.  How do you get a woman to stop shopping?  Remove part of her brain.

The social worker at the hospital sent Ella out to look for nursing homes.  In one of them, a man, or rather, a man’s body — with no visible, communicable cognitive function — was being fed through a gastric tube, through his abdomen.  Ella took in the odor of urine, other bodily smells and functions.  The man was an ideal nursing home patient, permanently hooked to his nourishment line like a freakish, prize-winning, squash.  The nurses rolled him side to side in stages, every two hours, to prevent bedsores.  He never opened his eyes or moaned.  His family seldom, if ever, visited, the nurse said.  Ella stood at his open door until the nurse drew her away.  Ella wondered if she was seeing Sophia’s future.  Is that what her mother’s life — everybody’s life — would boil down to?  The specter of death winked at Ella through perfect cat’s eyes.  What was past the curtain?

There are far worse things than dying young, dying suddenly.  And so Ella said no to the nursing home.  She calculated how much money her mother had and decided to spend it to make Sophia’s remaining life as comfortable as it could be, considering the fact that inside Sophia’s skull was a bomb, gathering energy to explode.  Ella hired someone to nurse her mother twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Someone with the right hands, the right smell.  She interviewed them over the phone, scheduled in-person interviews.

Lillie had a gold tooth in front and wore outrageous wigs:  red, blonde, honey chestnut.  Her bosom was soft, like feather pillows.  Ella knew Lillie was right for the job from the first second.  How was that possible?  All Lillie’s Bible-thumping was okay by Ella.  She knew Sophia would be well cared for.  She knew Lillie wouldn’t steal anything.  She knew Lillie wasn’t, in any way, a spoiler.

Lillie believed in Hell.  She described it one night, a pit filled with fire and snakes.  Lillie’s eyes widened and Ella could see the white all around the dark iris, merged with the pupil in fear.   Lillie believed in speaking in tongues, in visions, but she hadn’t made the commitment to become a Christian because, she confessed, she knew she wasn’t strong enough yet to keep all the Commandments.  Lillie had borne a six-year-old son, father unmentioned, who lived back home with family.  He was her shame but also her delight.  She named him Christophe and had him baptized the same day he was born.  She might not be saved, but her son was.

She was from Jamaica and already spoke in two tongues — one, a lilting version of Standard English, the other, a speedy patois she used to converse with family and friends.  Ella wondered if Lillie had secrets — when Lillie spoke like that, Ella tried but couldn’t understand.  She had inklings she, herself, was being talked about.

Lillie was good to Sophia and Katie.  Katie loved to snuggle with Lillie in her bed, rolling against her enormous bosom, watching cartoons.  Katie sought out Lillie’s bed even when Lillie was not in it.  Lillie cooked chicken and rice dishes with a lot of saffron.  Her hair oils and hygiene products covered the bathroom counter and the windowsill in the shower.  She had feminine cleansing wash, feminine cleansing wipes, feminine deodorant spray and coconut-scented douche.  Ella wondered what Lillie was trying to wash away with all that stuff.

Ella and Lillie met frequently in the night, checking on Sophia.  Ella usually slept in a T-shirt, Lillie in a long, shiny pastel gown with lace about the neck.  She glided softly on her plump bare feet and suffered from insomnia.  When Ella couldn’t sleep, she’d listen at Lillie’s door and if the television was on, she’d knock.  Together, they passed hours watching twenty-year-old British slapstick on PBS.  Lillie never laughed, but most of the time Ella couldn’t stop until she suddenly remembered why the two of them were there.

You never know enough about a particular cancer until after the patient, in this case, your mother, is dying, Ella thought.  Then you know, you get the whole picture.  Then you’re suddenly an expert on the ugliness of the tumor’s tentacles laying waste to the brain, pushing aside healthy cells, strangling them in the search for nutrients, a vigorous weed nothing can kill.  Healthier than normal brain tissue, hardy as a kudzu vine.  The operation had removed a clump from inside Sophia’s head — mixed normal brain and cancer.  What part of Sophia’s personality had been stored in those cells, then disposed of and lost to the hospital’s furnace?  These neurons and those neurons, together, perhaps held the memory of Ella’s birth — Sophia couldn’t remember what she couldn’t remember.  Ella didn’t want to know for sure what was gone.

An area of brain, diseased, removed, yet the surgeon explained how the microscopic roots fanned out — to remove Sophia’s entire tumor would be to remove her entire brain.  The surgery would provide some extra time on earth, a substantial number of better days, but would not stave the weed off for long.  Eight months almost to the day.  The radiation treatments barely slowed the growth.  The terrible vitality of the cancer equaled the slow deflation of Sophia’s life.  Ella was useless to help in that regard, but took care of all the practical details, made it possible for Sophia to die in her own room, her own bed, on her own sheets and pillows.

Time moved forward but memory moved in many directions.  Sophia’s oncologist said, “The cancer appears to be in remission.”  Ella, an intelligent woman, a scientific woman, found herself pleading for divine intervention, for the laser beam of God to drill into Sophia’s head and burn out the tumor.  Appearances of remission, external, controlled for a time.  Sophia walked, talked, and played bridge again.  But for eight months lived in the shadow of death.  Ella was buoyed by the mercy of not knowing; crushed by the agony of not knowing.  Sophia lived on the edge of the river, where each tussock of cool grass might be the last.

Sophia became confused, just as she had before they opened her head.  She started taking pain pills for the growing headaches.  “I don’t know if they think they’re fooling me,” Sophia said.

Ella caught her mother looking through her 19th-century medical dictionary, the same one Ella had pored over as a child, staring endlessly at the pictures of congenital birth defects.  Hydrocephalus, and the like.  You never know what cancer will do until it’s already done it, Ella thought.  She wanted to transcend her awkwardness in speaking to her mother about her own death, but wasn’t able to.  She held her breath until she felt faint, but no words came to her.  Sophia knew she was dying; Ella pretended she, herself, didn’t.  It felt like Sophia knew Ella was merely pretending, and spared her anyway, one last act of maternal grace.  Apparently, Ella was good for only the simplest things, things like comforting her mother with voice and touch as she became more and more childlike.

But really, Ella wasn’t good even for that.  One afternoon when Sophia was knocked flat with pain, Ella tried to lie down in bed with her, stroke her back, the way her mother had done for her all her life.  “No, don’t, it hurts,” Sophia said.

Ella, feeling helpless anywhere but at her mother’s side, stared for hours at old photographs.  In one was the three-year-old Sophia, sitting on her father’s knee, dressed in white, a huge bow on the top of her head, a mass of dark curls, her small legs unexpectedly spindly, her feet surprisingly bare.  The sole of her foot held the whorls of this day, this moment.  Ella tried but couldn’t decipher the expression in her grandfather’s eyes.  What would he say, that circumspect ghost?  How to explain to him, how to excuse the futility of all Ella’s lavish preparations?

That night, Ella dreamed Sophia gave her old Bible to Lillie instead of her.  And in the dream Ella was terribly hurt by that, but since her mother was dying, tried not to show it, and wondered, with the agony of a child, why her mother hated her so much.  Lillie’s eyes, round and widened, with either alarm or fear, darted hawk-like around each room, and those eyes, surrounded by her smooth features and her gleaming, dark-brown skin, those quick eyes seemed to hold all feelings, all knowledge.

It was Lillie, Ella had to admit, who did the most work for Sophia.  In the days that followed, Ella could only watch as the bond between the two became stronger.  The next week, Ella was back in New Jersey, resigning from her job and packing the contents of her office.

“Take as much time as you need,” her boss said kindly, but she knew he didn’t really mean it.

“I need more time than you can possibly imagine,” she said, and he nodded and tried to look sad.

On the phone later that morning, Lillie told Ella how Sophia seemed so much more cheerful since Ella had departed.  “She’s perked up so much,” Lillie said.  Ella wasn’t surprised.

Back in Florida for good, Ella grew angrier by the day.  She lay awake nights fuming about the receptionists in the oncologist’s office who made her feel like an obnoxious pest for calling.  Their crisp, girlish voices made plain there was nothing more they could do other than prescribe painkillers.  Why didn’t Ella realize that and leave them alone?  Then she chided herself for being enraged by their callousness.  Rational thought had vanished.  Ella’s remaining thoughts and feelings flew around like feathers and fur and sometimes, like lazy dust balls.

Katie, at bedtime:  “I’m scared of monsters.  A tiger is in here.”  When asked to cease and desist:  “I’m just being quiet.  Don’t talk, Mommy.”  Ella watched her breathe after she fell asleep — both her daughter and her mother were flying along far, far above her, and she couldn’t seem to rise.

The day before the hurricane Sophia said, “Hi, sweetie,” and smiled when she saw Ella.  Sophia was close to dying but Ella felt her mother still knew her.  Sophia held Ella’s hand and kissed it.  She rubbed Ella’s arm.  Her mother’s head, as Ella adjusted it on the pillow, felt so warm, so heavy, and so sweet.  Her hair — smoothed flat behind her ears.  Her nails painted red by Lillie, she lay on pink embroidered sheets, sporting pale shamrocks on her homely nightdress.  The steel bed-rail gleamed, chilling against Ella’s thighs as she leaned in to try to glean some intricate, fine-grained meaning from the hour.  The charging ceramic horse she had hung over her mother’s bed, the one which had driven bad dreams away in childhood, his mane still wild and golden against the gloom, would be only a minor talisman in the end.

A urine catheter and bag hung on the hospital bed’s side-rail.  “Is that juice?” Katie asked the first time she saw it, and Sophia and Ella both laughed.  The tubes were transparent at first, then, growing clouded and organic with use, became less a fixture than anything.

It was too hard for Ella to bear.  Every time she went in the room her mother grabbed her hand, gripping with all her strength.  The way she looked at Ella — she wanted to tell her something, but what?  Ella wished she could stay away.  She wished it wasn’t like this.  She wished they could just sit in the living room together, watching TV and Sophia could needlepoint.

Ella waited for the hurricane.  Last week had been her mother’s birthday — the storm would be her penultimate gift.  But Ella didn’t know that until afterward.  Memory back-filtered such telling details — pictures of the dying mother were snapped, then parts of the view faded but parts brightened.  Life as journey, as vision, as caress.  Each thing became smaller at first, then loomed larger.  Her mother’s eyes, teeth, hair.  Perception was flawed.  The hopeless interpretation of the mind.  Where was her guardian angel?

Suddenly, Ella was in love with hurricanes as never before — yes, there was the threat of death, nothing new, especially these days, but there was also the stupefying power of the wind, the pelting rain.  Ella longed to be in awe, in supplication, flattened, watching the storm roll over her body like a man would, naked, trembling with powerful need of her, shouting with passion as she lay under him.  She was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was the way things needed to be.  For so long, a storm had been raging inside her — it was a relief to have it visible, a relief to simply be reduced to holding on.

In the past, when Ella’s mother wasn’t dying, she always drank to excess when a hurricane was approaching.  Sophia had always seemed terrified by the darkening sky, the strengthening gusts of wind, and the first huge, cold, solitary raindrops that pelted heads at random.  When hurricanes were on the horizon, she cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon-and-honey tea shot with brandy in crystal cups.  When a hurricane arrived, Sophia was always more or less unconscious.

But this time, Sophia wasn’t afraid at all, instead, comforting Katie from her deathbed — the three-year-old crawled in with her, not Ella, in the middle of the hurricane.  Ella was too tired to have any more hurt feelings.  “There, there, nothing’s wrong, baby,” Sophia crooned.  Ella pretended it was herself in her mother’s grasp.

Sophia wasn’t afraid, and then Katie wasn’t, either.  Sophia, in the middle of that hurricane night, showed Katie it was just the wind… showed her the trees, whispered into her ear, in the midst of baby curls.  Ella knew how that felt, her mother’s velvet skin between the ear and the shoulder, all of it perfumed silk.  Ella closed her eyes and slept.

Later that night, just before dawn, while the wind ravaged the trees and tugged on the roof of the house, Ella woke to hear Sophia speak for the last time, the sleeping Katie draped across her chest.  “Ella, Ella,” her mother breathed over and over, quietly, so as not to wake the child she held.  “Ella, Ella.”  Sophia smoothed hair she believed was Ella’s as she whispered.  Ella watched from her mattress on the floor, afraid to move.

Sophia’s death waited while the wind roared, her death staring with great golden leopard eyes, unblinking.  The mercy of the teeth sunk into the throat.  To stay, to leave — it became the tiniest of steps.  The tears in her eyes.  The death dance, the death rattle.  The odd, rhythmic, hitching respiration, the sticky sweat, the clock wound up by Sophia’s parents’ lovemaking finally unwound.  Sophia died late on the morning after the hurricane.  Ella was there, holding Sophia, as she drew her final breath.  And then exhaled.  Tick-tock — then nothing.

In truth, she lost track of her mother’s breathing as it stuttered and missed — her own heartbeat seeming to slow down — had that really been the last, the last?  Waiting for the next inhalation, straining to hear.  Ella just missed it, missed it.  Then it dawned on her, too late, Sophia wasn’t breathing any more.  Or was she?

“I think I saw her chest move,” Lillie said, panting hard.  She ran to Sophia’s dresser and grabbed a mirror, holding it in over Sophia’s face, peering for signs of breath.  Lillie’s eyes were dazed, her hands trembling, humid, as she passed the mirror to Ella.  At first Sophia’s hand felt the same as always, but in a few minutes her color had completely gone.  Her skin was whiter than Ella had ever seen it.  White, translucent, her dead mother became alabaster, briefly — a warm, heavy sculpture.  The funeral home people didn’t let Ella watch her mother stiffen, cool.  They hustled her out of the room, didn’t let the daughter see them zipping her mother’s body into a bag.  Had they forgotten that zippers made noise?

Lillie hovered over Ella as if she were spun glass, falling toward the floor.  Lillie’s hands were once again warm, strong and capable, but in the end had not been enough to keep Sophia alive.  She stripped the rented hospital deathbed and sponged the plastic-covered mattress with lilac-scented disinfectant.  Ella crept into the bathroom and locked the door, listening to the sounds outside with great weariness.  She eyed the bathroom window, wondered if she could fit through.

The water Ella drank to wash down her first tranquilizer was terribly cold.  On her tongue it was like an immaculate knife.  When Ella told Katie that Sophia was up in heaven now, with God and the angels, Katie’s voice grew soft and sad:  “I wanted her to stay the way she was.”  Me, too, Ella thought.  Me, too.

Ella stood in the driveway and watched the black hearse move off down the road.  Lillie was soon engrossed in cooking — gigantic pots of black beans and yellow rice.  The smells filled the house, harmonizing with the soapy lilac already there.  Ella’s first post-hurricane, post-mother walk with Katie was a mixture of familiarity and revelation — she was used to seeing that kind of wreckage.  She was prepared for the smell – the ocean things, dead and rotting washed-up things.

That night, Lillie snored through it all, her mouth hanging open, trusting, defenseless, still waiting to be strong enough to get saved.  She had not heard Sophia’s last words, and for that Ella was glad. Ella, Ella, Sophia sang out in the night like a chant, the repetition of the name apparently bringing her ease when might otherwise have been terrified.  Ella realized, as she had not before, how much she loved wind and rain, how much she loved how the world was made disheveled and clean by a hurricane.  She clutched her daughter’s small, hot hand, wondering how the child would remember this day; remember her when it came to that.  “Nana’s tree gots broken,” Katie said again.  The child lifted her arms, asking to be held, and Ella obeyed.  She buried her nose in the curve of Katie’s neck and breathed.

3 Comments

Filed under acceptance, anthem, baby, beauty, bible, birth, childbirth, childhood, compassion, courage, daughter, daughters, death, development, dream, dreams, ella, eternal, eternity, evolution, faith, family, health, love, mothers, mysterious, science, short stories

Sisterlove, a short story

illustration sisterlove

Sisterlove, a short story

            I was teaching my sister to drive that year.  We had bought a weird old ’66 Barracuda, silvery-mauve color, and we’d spent weekends compounding the surface, getting ready to give it a coat of wax that would make it really shine.  Vickie and I used the car to cruise the strip and troll for boys.  My sister loved the boys.  The boys loved my sister.

            She had long hair, golden brown, with blonde ends.  It turned green when she went swimming, then we’d cut the green parts off with nail scissors, her sitting on the toilet, me catching the hair in an ancient orange beach bucket.  We’d leave the hair on the compost pile for the birds to line their nests with.

            Vickie had gone crazy about this guy Michel she’d met over spring break, and all she could talk about was getting up to Canada to visit him.  It might as well have been China.  She was still a virgin, but crazy over the idea of sex.  I pretended I didn’t care about boys in the slightest, but I did, maybe more than she did.  I’d never had a real boyfriend, just a few short flings.  Vickie was always falling in love, which made me sick to my stomach.

            I was two years older.  I was named Edna for my great-grandmother, but everyone called me Jessie, because for some reason that had been her nickname, too.  I always wondered how they got Jessie out of Edna, but I was glad they had.  Mom got really crabby whenever I asked her about the family history, she never showed old pictures, though we knew where they were, stuffed on the highest shelf of her closet, over the old college dresses she’d kept. 

            My mother was completely hippied out — she didn’t shave her legs or under her arms, and the compost pile was her altar.  She didn’t pay much attention to us unless we were sick and then she was the most wonderful nurse in the world — even though she was a strict vegetarian she’d make us chicken broth with little stars, mostly stars so that it was more of a chicken pudding, a glob of butter oozing on the top.  She’d spoon it into our open mouths like a mother bird.

            Vickie and I liked to sneak into Mom’s room while she was at work, and dress up in her old clothes and look at her old pictures.  She’d been married before she married our dad, straight out of college, and so we always tried to guess who he was from the pictures.  Our favorite was the one of her going into a dance, frothy skirt and strapless bodice, her sharp collarbones like exclamation points underneath her satiny, satiny skin.  She wouldn’t say, but we figured she’d had a pretty wild career, before we were born.

            Neither of us were as pretty as Mom, though.  We’d play all day with her makeup, trying and trying to get her look.  It was no good — Vickie had her chin, I had her eyebrows, but there was too much of our dad in both of us, and this was unfortunate, because he was homely.  Since Mom was drop-dead gorgeous, we came out average-looking. 

            Not that we didn’t get plenty of attention in our own way.  We’d get in the Barracuda and drive up and down the beach road, honking at cute boys.  Once in a while they’d motion us over, and we’d park, take our sandals off and hop across the burning sand to find out where they were from.  Most were from Boston, a few from New York.  We liked the Canadians best, they loved the sun so much they’d fry themselves, joyous to turn red and peel — they thought it looked so healthy.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented, we mixed iodine with baby oil and slathered it on.

            Vickie and I had good skin, the kind that never burned, so we looked like Indians, and I’m not talking the American kind but the Hindus.  Our brown legs shone — they were our best feature by far, all the boys said so.  We learned to kiss from those sunburned Canucks.  The ones from French Canada were the best, but they’d never write to you once they left.  The other Canadian boys were all earnest and geeky and would write us millions of letters, which eventually we stopped even opening.  Instead, we’d take them to the beach, put them in empty juice bottles, then cap them and throw them in the surf.

            So, Vickie went more than a little nuts this time, started calling Michel in Montreal every night after Mom was asleep, and when the phone bill came she was put on restriction for a month.  Mom yanked our bedroom phone out of the wall.  I laughed, but Vickie cried, she was really serious about him.  “Love isn’t real,” I told her.  “Do you think this guy would ever, ever cry over you?”

            “Michel loves me,” she said.  “But now he’ll think I don’t love him and he’ll go back to his girlfriend.”

            What had caught her eye first about Michel were the brilliant red scars on his back, streaky and painful-looking.  We thought he’d been wounded playing hockey or something.  His English was so bad, at first we thought he was kidding when we pointed to his back and asked what happened.

            “My girlfriend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.  We were so dense, we didn’t know what he was talking about for days, until Vickie came across this ratty copy of the Joy of Sex while she was babysitting for our best client, a lady who danced Polynesian-style at a big tourist restaurant downtown.

            “Scratches are given during the throes of passion,” she whispered over the phone.

            “Bring the book home,” I said.  Later that night, we snuck out of the bedroom window and went driving.  I let her drive and held the book on my lap, reading it to her while we went up and down A-1-A, bending down and swigging our beer at the stoplights.

            “His girlfriend scratched hell out of his back, and he let her do it,” I said.  “He seemed happy about it, even.”

            “He was,” she said.  “Let’s drive to Canada.”  She put her foot down hard on the gas and passed a couple of cars.

            “No way,” I said.  “We’d get caught before we got out of Florida.”

            “I’m going,” she said.  “I want to see him again.  You can come if you want to.”

            “This is insane,” I said.  “You don’t even have your license.”

            “There’s only one first time,” she said.  “I want mine to be with Michel.”

            “You’ve been loony over a dozen boys this past year,” I said.  “How is this different?  What makes you think this’ll last more than a week?”

            “So what if it doesn’t?” she said, and the look in her eyes was fierce.  “You’re missing the point.”

            “The point is, we’ll be in jail,” I said.

            “Where do you want me to let you out?” she said.  She swerved over to the side of the road and slowed way down.  Her hair rippled over her face like a million tiny whips.  I knew I couldn’t let her go alone.

            “God damn you,” I said, and she threw her head back and laughed.

            “Hijacked by your baby sister,” she said.

            “Hijacked by a victim of raging hormones,” I said.

            “Damn right,” she said.  “And deep down, you’re not any different.”

            “Oh, yes I am,” I said.  “I’d never drive to fucking Canada to lose my virginity.”

            “I feel sorry for you, then,” she said.

            “Shut up and drive,” I said.  “The farther we get tonight, the better.”

            “Mom is going to be so pissed,” she said.

            I felt my stomach twirling with fear and excitement.  “I would say Mom is the least of your problems.”

 

1 Comment

Filed under boys, daughters, girls, health, humor, love, mothers, mysterious, science, sex, short stories, sisters