In a few hours, I will turn the Prius eastward to St. Louis, abandoning the dog and house to the best house-sitter ever, a woman whom the neighbors have hinted should adopt our little old Beagle-Lab mix since she renders far superior care. I've been mumbling about taking the dog to the groomer; Catherine actually took her and did not even ask me for repayment. The dog stands in the hallway mooning towards the guest bedroom as she usually does after my son has visited. I'm obviously more suited to the disdain of cats.
The madness of mid-September has abated. Stillness descends on the waning days of summer. The umbrella maple in the front yard bears tinges of auburn in her crowning glory; the monkey grass has bloomed and the black-eyed Susans have dropped their petals. Soon I will shake the mustiness from the woolen quilt and bring my coats out of the cedar closet. Winter looms.
Last evening I drove thirty minutes to walk through an art gallery at which an old acquaintance had a display of her hand-made jewelry. I don't usually venture to the hinterlands but this display needed my attention. The woman suffers from advanced cancer and needs money to pay for her treatment. I don't know her well and have not seen her for years, but the strength of my affection does not dictate the degree of my compassion. Besides: I can always use a source of gifts. So off I went.
The rush-hour traffic demanded most of my attention but in the space between lane-changes and slowing for semis, my mother's face rose to claim brief contemplation. Her wispy hair, fallen to the chemo; her olive skin stretched across sharp bones. But even in her waning days, at least until the cancer claimed her mind, the warm eyes danced and the familiar curve of her smile greeted me. I'd drop my bags in the living room and walk through the doorway to the bedroom where she rested. Sinking to my knees, I'd wrap my arms around her neck and breathe her fragrance, a mixture of tea and powder. Then she'd speak in her low throaty voice, uttering the familiar cadence of my name, and I'd stand and start to do her bidding. Lucy's word had become law.
I spent so many Friday evenings, Saturday mornings sitting in her garden or by her bedside, depending on her strength. I would babble about my little life, the life in Kansas City without cancer. I didn't talk about the arguments with my boyfriend or the hours hunched over a bar top. I avoided the lameness of my limited role as a city prosecutor and the sparse work in my private practice. Instead I talked about the walks around the lake in Loose Park and my attempts to take yoga classes. She listened carefully, no doubt hearing between the lines, but nodding, patting my hand, and asking for another glass of water or bidding me to play the New World Symphony one more time.
When I stepped into the Gallery last evening, the woman whose work I had come to see had not yet arrived. I stood in front of the display, fingering the fresh water pearls and the hammered metal. When I had known her, this gentle creativity had been as yet unseen. I knew nothing of her story since we'd parted. I knew only of the grief through which I had once tried to navigate her; and the grimness that sharpened her anger in those days.
As I stood at the counter contemplating which earrings to buy for my sister, the door opened and Ruth walked into the room. I saw at once that she bore the stamp of a difficult disease but gamely. She had clipped her hair, let it go its natural grey, and lightly applied a layer of make-up. Her shoulders squared above her spare frame, and only a slight pinch of her brow testified to pain. We embraced; and we walked around the large open room, while she told me about the cancer and the abyss into which she nearly tumbled before a miracle treatment had been found.
I'm a super-responder, she told me, her voice tinged with the wonder that must never abate. A year ago, I sat in a wheel chair and now, look at me. I did; I looked so closely that she must have thought me odd. I saw a woman game to try, to push, to stand and move. She greeted others who had come to support her efforts or who had wandered in from the Oktoberfest outside. She talked with the gallery director and the artists whose work graced the walls. I watched, not speaking, until her circuit brought her back in my direction.
Then we stood together at the counter talking about her jewelry. While I picked a few items to buy, I felt my mother's spirit in the room, just briefly, just a whisper, so faint that it could have been that a momentary madness had overcome me.
I completed my purchase, and we sat talking on a metal bench. Suddenly, Ruth turned to embrace me and I leaned closer to her, breathing in the fragrance of her fragile body. After a few moments we parted and I said goodbye. I went into the night and drove home, with something close to love settling lightly on the barren contours of my heart.