The phone rings at 7:00 a.m. That’s never good. I make an educated guess.
“Tom.” My brother.
They say she’s had a stroke, he tells me. It happened sometime after she went to bed last night. She’s breathing but that’s about it. “She probably can’t swallow,” he says. “There’s not much to be done for her.” Our mother. Ninety-two years old.
“He’s coming here first. We’re going over there together.”
Outside, between our house and the widow Beverly’s house, I see that it’s snowing. A hard wind whips across the lawn, swirls around the big apple tree between the two houses. The light outside her garage flickers on and off, its motion detector seeing things.
Yes, I can come right away.
The last months of visits to the memory unit, a couple days a week I enter the lock code on the door, let myself in, and find her in the day room, on the blue couch with my father. He looks up, smiles and nods, as if to say, She’s still here. At least that. Residents mill about the room in random traffic patterns, losing their way, then finding it. “Hello, Alice,” a woman named Annie says on every lap. Mother does not look up. For a while, sitting next to my father, she would raise a hand to her mouth and bite at the nail on her index finger. It looked like she was thinking, letting her mind wander. If it was thinking, it was formless and blank; wandering in a void. Now she sits. It’s been months since she has said anything.
I take it easy on the 90-minute trip north. The snow lets up. I still take it easy, needing the silence, letting my mind wander. As she’s disappeared over these last months, I’m grateful she has not been angry or even seemed afraid. She’s been serene through most of it, smiling, growing increasingly quiet, then all but gone. It occurs to me now that she must have been afraid much of her life. A child of the Great Depression, she knew real deprivation. It left a mark on her. Her mother died a long death at home. Her brothers went to war. She left home with her sister to attend university. When they had to, they hitchhiked.
After college she wore high heels to work. She taught school in farm towns, first home economics, then math, then English. She introduced seventh graders to the beauty and hell of sentence diagramming, and read their hand-written autobiographies, hundreds of them. She made formidable lemon meringue and rhubarb pies and sang harmony to hymns in church service. Her singing voice was warm and low. Once or twice, when the phone rang and she recognized a prank, she told the caller her name was Minerva.
One summer up north she rescued me. Every year we stayed a few weeks on the edge Lake Missaukee. Between the trailer park and the water, in a wide sandy space, there was playground–a slide, monkey bars, a couple swing sets, and merry-go-round. I walked through this area carrying a diver’s mask, snorkel, and flippers. I might have been nine years old. Sea Hunt was my favorite tv show. One week that summer, every time I passed the merry-go-round, three boys would jump me, knock the stuff out of my hands, and pin my arms against the rails on that ride. They were bigger than me. They threatened to torture me. It was play. But not fun.
I told my mother.
“You go get your things right now,” she said, “and walk back toward the beach.”
Was I supposed to fight them?
“Do as I say now. I’m going to handle this. Now get going.”
While I dragged around looking for my snorkel, she slipped on a pair of flip-flops and left the trailer. I did as I was told. When I got to the edge of the playground I saw it was a stake-out. My mother was lingering over by the slide, looking nonchalant. When I reached the edge of the playground, sure enough the three toughs were there, waiting. They jumped off the swings, trotted over, and grabbed me. Didn’t they say they would torture me? And now I was back again? For more? I glanced in the direction of the slide, blinded by the mid-day sun crashing off it. Then she was there, in full militant teacher mode, telling them to take their hands off me and mind their own business, or else.
Or else what, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. They ran off and left me alone after that.
She looks small, lying in bed covered with a sheet, old woman, old girl. The three of us sit with her. No hospital, we decide. No feeding tube, no drips, no life support. On regular intervals an attendant puts a drop of morphine under her tongue. She will dehydrate and starve. When we ask how long, he shakes his head. A few days, maybe. Sometimes a week or more. Hearing, he says, is the last sense to go. We can talk to her. We can give her permission.
Reluctant at first, we eventually take turns telling her that it’s all right, that she can go.
I hold her hand–until I can’t anymore. I don’t tell my father or brother, I’m embarrassed and ashamed, but it’s the smell of her death rubbing off on me, the scent of it in my hands, that’s more than I can bear. I disappear into the bathroom and scrub my hands with soap and water, raise them to my face and smell them. I want to remember her sitting on the Lake Missaukee beach, in her blue flip flops, her pink and white bathing suit; the comforting fragrance of lotion on her arms.
She kept watch, never went in the water unless she had to.