At 4:30, I awakened to the sharp bark of our dog protesting the presence on our porch of the paper delivery person. In the billowy space between truly conscious and completely asleep, I waited for silence to reassert itself. I drifted back to my dreams, as the dog settled into hers, and the white cat stood down from alert, stretching to her full length on the bed and sparing me a long, baleful glance.
My son's girlfriend has been visiting this week. I'm the unintended third party beneficiary of her presence. Patrick applied his furious energy to the cleaning of the house before her arrival; and the two of them have, with no small amount of charm, kept the place tidy for these past few days. My relief at meeting her must have been apparent -- she is lovely, smart, and well-mannered. I hear my son's voice in response to this editorializing: Of course she is. He would roll his eyes. I am not certain if her presumptive virtue arises from her selection of him, his selection of her, or the fact that she is a Kappa. But for whatever reason, it seems I should have assumed that she would pass maternal muster, and so she has.
Each filial milestone takes him further from my grasp, and he drifts towards independence with a lazy, natural instinct, much as I eased out of my dreams at the thought of coffee to be brewed and scones to be fetched from the bakery. My own departure from home occurred with a wrenching suddenness, on the heels of a telephonic spat between my mother and me about the time I should be home from some activity of which she apparently did not approve. If you are not home by 5, don't bother coming home at all. And I was not, and I did not, and the rest -- well, the rest is nearly four decades of history that could have taken a different path. But I have no regrets, except for any pain I might have caused her.
The lingering pain in a mother's eyes stabs the heart of those who gaze upon her. I am thinking this morning of a mother whom I met while I still wore the inverted box pleat skirt of a Catholic school girl, during the summer after my third year of high school. I volunteered at several Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, and on one particular Saturday, in a warm and humid St. Louis, my group went to a hospital so crowded that the residents lined its halls in wheelchairs.
We navigated the narrow corridors in a little clump of teenage earnestness. We carried baskets of samples donated by a pharmacy -- small bars of soap, tiny shampoo bottles, little packets of Kleenex. Our job consisted of inquiring of each patient what they might need, and pressing it into their hands or setting it on their bedside tables. We spread determined cheer as we did this -- How are you today? Can I get you some fresh water? Do you want some toothpaste? Clad in our uniforms, with our Peter Pan collars, our white Bobby socks, and our penny loafers, we journeyed the tiled halls with studied care, clutching our identical baskets, twitching our identical sheaths of straight, long hair parted down the middle, hiking our skirts a bit higher with furtive glances at the nun who chaperoned us.
Around one corner, we encountered a group of staff members gathered around a white-haired woman slumped in a gray-backed plastic chair. We girls halted our progress and moved closer together, unspoken worries overtaking us. We could not discern whether the woman was alive or dead, awake or unconscious. She made no sound. A nurse bent over her; a nun in full habit hovering just behind, holding a pitcher and a glass.
Our group had become one body, and we moved forward in that guise. As we neared the tableau, the woman stirred and one of our members jumped, giving a little cry that startled the other patients around us. The nun turned, seeing us for the first time. Her glance held efficiency and she spoke in sharp inquiry. Do any of you speak Spanish? she demanded of us.
My companions turned to me. As the only junior in the group, I had two years of Spanish and one of Latin to my credit. I cannot say if I moved forward or the other girls stepped back, but I found myself detached from their pack and thrust closer to the slumped figure around whom the staff stood helpless. I do, Sister, I admitted, and stepped closer.
The woman turned her eyes toward me, and met my gaze. I studied her. Thick, long hair, braided, wrapped around her narrow head; dark eyes, olive skin. Her small frame sank against the chair. She wore a flowered, muslin gown and thick woolen socks, too thick for summer, and heavy, laced shoes.
I leaned down toward her, at the same moment as she raised one hand and clutched at my arm. Buenos dias, I ventured. Como esta usted.
Her eyes flared, and a torrent of rapid Spanish flowed from her. The hand which gripped my arm tightened its grasp and she pulled me down towards her. I had little hope of comprehension. I smiled, I nodded, I desperately tried to sort through her words for something I could understand.
The flood of entreaty stopped as suddenly as it had started. I held her eyes for a few more moments, letting what I had heard sink into my brain, trying to sort out idioms, adverbs, verbs, nouns and names. I moved one hand to cover hers, and bent a little closer to her. No one else moved.
Finally, what she had said fell into some order. I felt a small warmth spread through me. I stood up. Can I look in her belongings? I asked the nun, who was undoubtedly in charge. She led me to a nearby room. I rummaged in a small, worn bag in the drawer of the battered hospital table between the two beds. I found a faded picture and a rosary, and brought them back out to the woman. Laying them gently in her hands, I knelt beside her, and began with the first prayer that I could remember in Spanish. Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo. . .the woman's voice joined mine. She matched my cadence, though talking so slowly must have been painful to her. She clutched the picture of her long-dead child against her heart, and her fingers instinctively found each bead, as we went through the mysteries, saying the Hail Mary's, the Glory Be's, and the Lord's Prayer; and calling out each decade as we went around the delicate circle. She did not mind when I stumbled. I could not recall the Spanish words for the Apostle's Creed, but I did creditably well with the other prayers, and continued, crouching beside the woman in a cramped, difficult posture, until we had gotten through the entire rosary. When I walked away from the woman, she wore a contended expression. The rosary fell idle in her hand. The picture rested on her breast. She slept.
My classmates waited in the visitor's lounge, having completed their rounds. Someone had brought sodas, which they had consumed; and chips; and bologna sandwiches, which had been abandoned, half-eaten, on a table. No one spoke as I rejoined them. We gathered the trash, then moved to exit the facility, and loaded into the vehicle which had carried us from our school.
My Spanish has receded into the jumble of useless facts that I have stored on brain cells that I could really use for other purposes, along with the telephone numbers of long-forgotten friends, recipes that I thought I might try some day, and the Rule Against Perpetuities, which I have never once had to deploy. I don't recall a second visit with that woman. I cannot remember even asking about her, or returning to that hospital. I might have, but only our first encounter has stayed with me, wrapped in its heavy smell of medicine, and unwashed old people, and grief. I feel her hand on mine; I hear her warm voice with its musical lilt. I hear her whispering the name of her departed daughter, whose picture she longed to hold, and that desperate voice might be the voice of my own mother, calling for me, over and over: Maria, Maria, mi hija hermosa, Maria, Maria, Maria.
It is time to start my day. In a little while, the young folks will awaken, and we will have a fine breakfast. Patrick will load Rachel's suitcase into his car, for the trip to meet her father in Springfield, from which she will travel to see the new home he has purchased in Galveston. I am sure that Patrick will have a few sad days, but he has work next week, hard labor outside, with shovels, and dirt, and growing things, which will no doubt provide some distraction. As for myself, later today I am meeting a dear friend whom I do not get to see often enough. We will explore my favorite bookstore, and spend a happy hour over coffee, doing nothing much at all other than swapping stories, exchanging our wise and wondrous reflections on a world gone crazy.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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