by Suze Allen
“Now, your grandmother is very frail. Her false teeth don’t even fit in her mouth anymore. Be prepared to be shocked. I was, I couldn’t believe how much she had deteriorated in just one month, she…” Mom’s voice trails off into a choked sob.
“So, what happens after 84? ” I ask imperviously.
“Follow signs for White Plains,” Mom huffs, making her initial ascent into anger. She blows her nose into a disintegrating blue tissue. My sister shoves a dented floral box of tissues between the seats.
“Thank you,” Mom sniffs.
My hands feel like they are welded to the steering wheel. They are starting to cramp.
“It’s hell losing your parents.” Mom is officially crying.
“Is it though?” I think. The passenger side window steams up.
I try to catch my sister’s eye in the rear view. She is my ally.
I crack the driver’s side window a bit. The air hitting my face is crisp. It feels like it might break. Vermont is in the full blush of fall. Shocks of orange interrupt the majestic monotony of the Green Mountains. There is nothing but the sound of the Chevy Lumina shifting to get up the hills.
“If you girls are getting hungry, there’s a D’Angelo’s in White Plains. Would either of you like a sub? My treat.” Mom looks at me like a doe that I have just shot. She wishes we were enjoying our trip to New York.
“Sounds great,” I try a little harder. Offer up half a smile.
“I’m in,” says my sister.
Our efforts slide into the tiny space around us with a sigh.
“Will she know me?” My chest clenches at the idea of being a stranger to Meme.
“Sometimes she knows me, sometimes she doesn’t. She’s not predictable.”
But I’m her favorite person in the world, I want to screech as the car chugs up the mountain, lurching itself into another gear. I hate automatics. No control.
“’Member how Meme would show up hours early for grocery shopping?” My sister’s memory loosens the grip around my heart.
“Oh, would she be indignant if we weren’t ready. Sometimes I was still in bed when she showed up. Can’t you just picture all 5’2″ of her standing in my bedroom, black purse hanging on her arm, tapping her toe? ‘I thought you said eight.’ What a bunny.”
I reminisce for my sister, not my mother. My mother obliterates all of my memories and erects hers in their place:
“She was not a happy girl when we had to take that car away. Despite what you girls may think, it killed me to do that.”
The pity monster swallows our mother with a whine. We hear the ancient litany in our heads.
“No one knows what I’ve been through with your grandmother.”
“No one knows what it’s like to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.”
“No one knows what I feel.”
My sister and I are no one.
Repetition is a Buker trait. Mom’s genes and the need to be understood fuel her on despite the lack of audience involvement.
“That Buick was like an assault vehicle in her hands. And did I tell you girls that she kept seeing those black figures in the trees even when she moved to Eve’s?”
Silence and wheels rolling.
“Why did she move to Aunt Eve’s?” My sister stirs the shit pot. I roll the window further down. The inside of this car is about to get to even more stifling.
“I didn’t have the stamina anymore, Sophia. She was thoroughly confused. She kept seeing other rooms in our house. Rooms filled with people she didn’t know. I took down all the mirrors because she kept pointing at them and asking, ‘Who’s that?’ Then she got very abusive to me. I know you girls don’t believe that, but she did. Ask your father. She claimed that your Dad and I were stealing money from her. She told Uncle Ken that when he called. He accused us of using up his inheritance to improve our house. Right. Well, who else was going to take her? No one, including you, Suzanne. She couldn’t live alone in that trailer by herself. I did what I thought was best and this is the thanks I get.” Mom sighs.
I picture a classroom in the Parenting School that my mother attended. She’s sitting in the front row of Mothering 101, as the instructor commands, “Repeat after me…This is the thanks, I get.” “This is the thanks I get.” “I bend over backwards for you kids, and this is the thanks, I get.” ” I bend over backwards…” Mom’s voice drones on. I am officially carsick. The bile of everything always having to be about my mother rises up and threatens to blow. I hold it in; shoot a “please kill me” look at my sister who is so much better than me at letting this fly right past her. She grins and fake wipes tears with closed fists. I resist the urge to laugh, to scream, to tell my mother that “Quaker’s Meeting has begun. No more talking, no more”… well there has been no more fun since we struck out on this Farewell to Everything Good Tour.
“And you don’t realize the damage you did, Suzanne, when you went behind my back and talked to my siblings.” And she’s back!
“I don’t understand how suggesting a family meeting does damage.” I bleat for the zillionth time. My attempts at reason are tiny swords in my mother’s heart.
A phone call to my aunt, three years ago, questioning Mom’s authority as chief care giver, made me a card-carrying Disappointment Child. I was advocating for Meme’s wellbeing not trying to crucify my matriarch, but Bethro can’t take one for the team; just admit that maybe she was burnt out and not coping in healthiest of ways.
“Mom, can I let you in on my perspective or would it be too fair, for you to consider that there is another side?” I see my sister slide down her seat.
“Fine.” Mom is steel.
“When I called Eve… uh, well I am just going to say it, you were drinking like a fish.”
Mom clenches her jaw. In my periphery I see her armor go on, anger, her trusty shield. She won’t address the alcohol thing no matter what. But I am ready to joust.
“And every time I came to visit Meme you cornered me with your list of complaints as you followed me into her apartment. Like you were afraid to let me see Meme without you because we might talk about you or something. Mom, I know it was a hard job caring for her. I do. But you were burnt out. There were things…you were short with her. You bossed her all over the place and you grabbed things out of her hands…”
“I never grabbed things out of her hands! That is a bald face lie. Oh, you are blind when it comes to your grandmother, and you have x-ray vision when it comes to me.”
“I saw you grab things. I get it. You were frustrated and tired, but I watched you chip away at her dignity because it was easier for you. The day I called Aunt Eve, Meme was crying about her driving privilege being revoked, which I understand, and she told me you wouldn’t let her even see her checkbook anymore; that you were mad at her most of the time. You were downstairs having your first black Russian at 10 am. Both you and Meme were miserable, and it was getting unsafe, so Yes! I did it! I called Aunt Eve to set up a family meeting. I’m sorry. I did it to help, so fuck me.”
“Watch your mouth. I’m still your mother whether you love me or not.”
Gravel pinging up under the car is the only sound, for miles and miles. My thoughts whip around my head like the rocks under the car. I regret that call to Aunt Eve more than ever. I shudder.
” If you’re cold, honey, why don’t you roll up the window.” Mom’s going to kill me with kindness now.
“Someone musta walked over my grave.” I say wishfully.
“Can we go right to the hospital?” I ask.
“We’re going to Eve’s house tonight then to the hospital first thing in the morning.”
I cannot go to Eve’s house. She’s a Jesus Freak and I am Satan’s disciple.
“Mom, I didn’t come here to visit. I came to say good-bye to Meme.”
“I know, honey, but I don’t know how to get to the hospital. I want to follow Eve and Dwayne there in the morning.” Mom is afraid of new places.
Sophia finally pipes up from the back seat.
“Aren’t they at the hospital now? Call ‘em there and ask ‘em to wait for us so we can follow ‘em home. I really want to see Meme tonight, too.” My sister. My hero.
“Great, let’s call from D’Angelo’s.” I swing the car into the restaurant parking lot as if to say, “There will be no argument”.
“Fine,” Mom miffs out of the car and slams the door.
“This is torture!” I shriek when Mom is out of earshot. My sister smiles.
“Thank Goddess, I got high before we left. If you care to join me, I’ll be preparing for the last leg of this joy ride in the ladies room.”
“Oh, I wish I liked pot!”
When we get out of the car there’s Mom smoking her Eve cigarette, leaning against the brick of D’Angelo’s. She’s crying. The thin cigarette accentuates her weight.
“Do you want us to order you something?” I ask ignoring her tears.
“I’ll get it. I’ll be right in. You girls go on ahead. Here.” Mom thrusts money at us. I don’t take it.
“Do you have the number to the hospital?” my sister asks as she grabs the 20.
“I’ll take care of it. Just go. I’ll be in, in a minute.” Mom glares at me.
It’s hard not to take her money but I have a pact with myself. No more new entries in her book, “THINGS I HAVE GIVEN MY CHILDREN FOR WHICH I GOT NOTHING IN RETURN:
September 10, 1996 – One hundred dollars for a trip to New York.
April 4, 1984 – Lunch at the Mei Le Wau.
1/12/62, 1/29/65, 3/6/66, 1/29/71 – Their lives.
My sister passes me Mom’s twenty and winks.
“Hey, order me anything vegetarian with extra provolone. I gotta date with a stall.”
I feel like I’m in grade school again, too goody-two-shoes to steal the fountain pen, myself, but thrilled that Clark Rogan chose to steal it for me. I hate ordering for people.
When Sophia rejoins me in line, her eyes are shining and blood shot.
“All set. Let the wild rumpus resume. “Her tongue keeps sticking to the roof of her mouth.
“I wish I brought a flask.”
“But you’re the designated driver, El Capitan!” My sister cracks herself up.
“Do you think we should order something for Mom?”
“Like a special Kool Aide concoction?”
“Do you have some cyanide on you?” My eyes are bright.
“It’s here on the D’Angelo menu board under drinks – the Guyana Smoothie.”
“We’d have to deal with the body, though. She’s heavy.”
“Yeah, and jail time. Sex with plungers. Ouch”
“Damned if we do, damned if we don’t,”
Sophia and I laugh. We laugh harder. We can’t stop.
Lines of D’Angelo patrons watch as my sister and I fall over ourselves with laughter.
“Being damned sure can make you crazy,” I inform the crowd. My sister completely dissolves in hysterics. She’s so easy.
“Uh oh!” She pulls me toward her pot-stained breath.
“I pissed myself a little,” she whispers.
“But you just went to the bathroom,” I remind her.
“Oops, I forgot to pee.” This just kills her. She trots back to the bathroom.
I order for Soph, and I get my mother, a turkey sub with everything and a …smoothie. I jump as Mom touches my shoulder.
“Is that 20 enough?” Her eyes are swollen. I feel bad for a minute.
“Yeah, thanks.” I eat humble pie before lunch. Bring on the catalogue.
“You’re welcome, honey,” Mom says sniffing suspiciously in Sophia’s direction as she sidles up in a cloud of home grown. Mom’s sense of smell is second only to her hearing. I snicker.
“What?” Mom demands.
“Yeah, what?” My sister’s bloodshot eyes twinkle mischievously.
I laugh again and lead us out into the parking lot.
“What is so funny?” There it is again. Mom hates it when Soph and I giggle together. She feels like we are purposely leaving her out.
“Soph had a little accident.” I rat her out with a wry grin.
“What happened? Mama loves Drama.
“I PEED MY PANTS” my sister says too loudly. I stuff her into the car as a family of four stares open mouthed.
“Well, put some napkins down first. I don’t want my car to smell like urine!” Mom opens up her sub.
“Hot peppers? I can’t eat hot peppers. They give me such gas.”
Sophia arches her spine against the back seat, and stuffs napkins under her behind.
“Sorry, I got distracted when my 25-year-old sister soiled her pants.”
“Hey, I didn’t do Number Two, I just peed a little. I only shit myself in fancy sit down restaurants.”
My mother ignores us. She is transfixed by the hot peppers.
“Can’t you just scrape them off, Mom?” I suggest.
“I guess, I can, but the spicy juice stays on the bread.” She sighs. I know I don’t understand anything about her.
“What did Aunt Eve say?” I try to change the subject.
“I got the directions. I hope you can make sense of them. I hate not knowing where I’m going, especially when it’ll be dark soon.”
“Think of it like low risk exploring, Mom. It’s not too daring because we’re already in New York with at least 5 hours of daylight left. We’ve got food. Sophia’s gone to the bathroom.”
“Okay, fine, you’re driving.”
I watch her, engrossed in scraping off the hot peppers. She peels off the part of the sub roll that has the pepper oil on it. The Adirondacks replace the Green Mountains. The directions are simple.
By the time we pull into the hospital, both Mom and Sophia are asleep. Mom spent several miles quietly crying. I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to her.
I slam the car door and fling myself toward the hospital where my grandmother is, each step a mini fit. I don’t want to share this moment with my mother or my aunt. For two years Mom and Aunt Eve have chaperoned Meme and me, like we were two young lovers.
“You found us!” My Aunt Eve is rushing toward me like a choking weed. Fortunately, Mom is right behind me and entangles herself in the brambles of my aunt’s arms. I pick and roll past them.
Mom was right. Be prepared to be shocked. Behind the door that says Buker, Meme is all white, a tiny white bird-angel, her too thin hands dancing like a newborn’s in the air above her bed.
“Hi Meme, it’s me, Suze, your favorite,” I whisper, before anyone gets there. She doesn’t respond. I sit on the edge of the bed.
“Hi Sweetie. It’s me, Suze.” Meme’s eyes flicker with a little recognition. Her dancing hands rise up towards my face. I lean in and she brushes my cheek with paper-thin skin and bone hands.
“Does she know you?” my sister whispers.
“I don’t know.” I really don’t.
“Hi Meme, it’s Sophia. Hi, how you doin’ Sweetie?” We coo and stroke Meme like she’s a baby.
“I told you it’d be shocking, didn’t I? She’s even worse than three weeks ago when I was here.” I want to cold cock my mother.
“Why is she still in the hospital?” I ask my aunt.
“Well, after she broke her hip, she deteriorated. We thought it would best to keep her in here for round the clock care. I didn’t have the stamina to keep her at home.” My aunt’s red hair is graying.
“You’re not going to leave her in here, are you?” Do I mean to sound so accusatory?
Eve looks down at her pale hands.
“Your mother and I think it’s best.” Her words, Stinging Nettle wraps around my throat.
“Hi Mom. Hi, pretty. Did you miss me?” Mom asks while she and Eve get to work straightening out Meme’s bedclothes. Mom should have been a nurse.
“I hope you girls don’t mind heading back to the house after you say hello. I’ve been here all day and I’m exhausted. I told Dwayne I’d be home to make supper.”
“I’m going to stay at the hospital. I’ll sleep in a chair.”
My mother and my aunt look at each other, worried.
My aunt has an idea.
“How about, I drive home with your Mom and Sophia, and you take my car back when you’re ready?”
They hate the idea of me staying over. There’s a possibly that Meme will come to her old self in the night, and we will once again share secrets that they will never know.
“I’ll write you out the directions. It’s easy. You’ll sleep with Sophia in the cellar. We’ll leave the night lights on so you can find your way.” Eve looks washed out by her hair and the situation.
“That’s what I have to look forward to,” I think, wearily, fingering my own red hair.
“You know what? I really want to stay here but thanks any way.”
“Well, lets get going before dark,” Mom concedes. “I hate driving new places in the dark.”
“I’ll drive,” Soph takes over.
I smile at her in appreciation. She winks back.
As soon as they’re out the door, I take off my shoes and crawl into Meme’s bed. I slide her under my arm, guide her head onto my chest and stroke her bed-head hair. She is as stiff as bones. Her hands come to rest for a minute then she turns into me and touches my hair, searching my eyes. She sees me. She knows me. She fixates on my hair. I untuck my braid from my shirt and let her feel it, pat, pat, pat.
I’m starting to doze when I hear her,
“Alouette gentille alouette, alouette gentille plumerai.” She stops.
I hold and rock my baby grandmother.
“Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot.” I sing our favorite song while Meme falls asleep, dry lips puffing out with each breath.
I wake up with an aching amount of dread, like it is the morning of my execution. Shooing the nurse out after she empties the catheter bag, I sponge bath Meme, comb her hair, and try to fit her dentures in. Her mouth did shrink. Mom was telling the truth. I stick the blue striped straw into a tepid cup of tea and cap the end of it with my index finger. I remove the straw and place the other end of it gently under Meme’s dry, dry tongue, then pull my finger off to release the milky tea into her mouth.
“Swallow,” I say gently. She swallows, says nothing, sings nothing. Her hands are constantly moving. Our last tea party.
The hospital room smells like castor oil. Meme is sitting up, strapped to a metal armchair, listing to one side. Mourning dove, on a wire, in a windstorm. Her hair sticks straight up.
“I want to cut a lock of your hair, is that okay?” I look down at her hands in mine.
Incredulous, I look back up at Meme. Then I realize it’s Mom’s voice. How odd to get permission from someone whose hair it isn’t.
I don’t know when she and my sister got here but I’m glad to see them. I hug Sophia as Mom goes to the nurses’ station for some scissors.
How was it?” My sister’s voice is little and scared. She doesn’t deal well with illness or good-byes.
“We sang and snuggled.”
“Did she know you?”
“Maybe, just for a minute. I don’t know. Do you want some time alone with her?
My sister sits at Meme’s feet and rests her head on Meme’s knees. Loss opens up inside me like a crevice.
I am absolutely empty when Mom passes me the scissors. Snip. I put the hair in my locket and pass my sister the scissors. Snip. She hands the scissors to Mom. Snip. Mom puts the scissors on the tray.
For several minutes my mother, my sister and I do some kind of Braille memorization of Meme. Her paper skin and brittle bones feel foreign. Our sobs keep time by snapping the air like electrical shorts.
Mom cuts the wordless quiet with a frail voice; “She’s so emancipated.”
“Wrong word,” blips across my brain. I make a conscious decision to let it pass.
“That’s not the right word,” Mom says, “is it?”
“No,” I answer.
“What do I mean to say?”
“Emaciated.” Pause “What does emancipated mean?”
“I think it means that she can vote.”
“Well, she can vote but I don’t think she wants to right now.”
Three nurses are staring at us through the open door. We are laughing so hard I feel a muscle in my side tear. My sister pees her pants. Mom throws her head back so far you can hear her neck crack.
Meme stares off into the distance as we fall around her.
Good-bye Meme, we emancipate you.