The sky spans over me, mottled grey. Distant but clear notes from tiny, hungry birds echo on the chilly morning air. Saturday, late May, a day for feeling satisfied. The end of a week which began eight hours from here in a hotel from which my next phase of living would launch -- the phase in which I would no longer identify myself as the mother of a college student, except with reference to my husband's son. What will I do with the conversations that I previously filled with talk about his potential?
In the cold of this soft day, I feel wood against my feet, the wood of our small deck. I lean against an iron table and shudder as the wind quickens. How many sentences have I written on the porch of this home -- the old porch, the new porch, and now this wooden structure which provides an extension of our outdoor living? Words which fall into space, time, appearing on the screens of friends and strangers alike. My words exit this realm with a sweet passion; how do others read them?
Words appear on paper, scrolled words, scrawled words, the hastily written and the carefully formed. I can defend my own words but all I can do with the words of others is to collect them, in boxes, on shelves, under beds, in drawers.
I found a post card from my mother the other day. My mind instantly raced backward in time, to the day when I first received it. I pulled it from my mailbox and eagerly scanned its meager lines. Written from somewhere near Saint Louis, on a road trip; St. Genevieve, maybe -- or Hermann. As I sit here, I cannot recall and it lies again in a box so I do not go back to find out.
"Dear Mary Corinne," she wrote. "Daddy and I had a nice drive to this quaint town. I found a nice junk shop and bought a Haviland plate. Thinking of you. Love, Mother."
I'm making that up, of course. It's inside, in my house. I've shoved it back into its container and I can't quote it from memory. But I can see her curlered head, bending over a postcard, in the early morning. Daddy sits in his recliner and works the crossword puzzle. Neither of them speak. Mother lays down her pen and goes into the kitchen to freshen her coffee. I watch, from this distance, as she stands at the kitchen window, a window at which she has stood for thirty years. The view changes only slightly over the years. A tree that once rose high above the neighbor's yard fell victim to a furious tornado. The orange sliding board followed the course of the wind and landed a half mile away. Different cars stand in the neighbor's driveway. The daughter has taken over the house, both the parents having died. But the view still reveals a small town in a larger county, a suburb really, not yet the rough area that it will one day become.
Once I came behind my mother while her hands lie idle in a sink of soapy water. Her eyes gazed, unseeing, out that same window. My brother Stephen bellowed from the basement, "Mom! Mom!" She remained silent. "Mom, Mom! Mommmmm!" She finally spoke, in a tiny voice, one that only I could hear: "What?"
Just the one word. "What?" I gasped, and she jumped. "Mom, what's wrong with you? He can't heard you! What's the matter?" She responded with a shrug. "I answered him, didn't I?" She went back to washing dishes. I waited, then finally went to the stairs and hollered down to my brother that mother was busy, what did he need? I don't remember his answer. But I vividly recall the tight set of her shoulders, the hunch of her back.
I park my car two or three times each week at the Memory Unit where my mother-in-law resides. "Memory Unit" means she has dementia. The disease has brought out her sweet side. She still knows her family. She cannot quite figure out who I am. Most days, she seems to think I am a hired aide. She's only known me for four years, and she's lost the last decade or so.
I come into her room and bustle around, picking up used Kleenex, straightening the blankets, throwing out dead flowers. I cajole her out of bed and make her walk down the hall and sit in the little sunroom. I take her picture, and post it on the internet for her sisters and daughter to see. Then we walk back to her room, and I ask her what she has done that day. She stumbles though a ragged account that I know is a mish-mash of what she might or might not have done, peppered with names and references of people that I know have not visited.
One day, in the muddled account, she mentions that a special man has come to visit her with her husband. She does not know his name, but she does not deviate from describing him that way: "A special man". From the parking lot after the visit, I call my father-in-law and learn that he brought no visitors. I sit in the space, engine off, car quiet, and think about my mother in her garden. It is 1984, in late summer. "A man came to me in my sleep," she says. "A special man, I think maybe an angel. He told me I have a year left. I'm okay with that."
She died eleven months later.
I wonder about the special man whom my mother-in-law saw. I had asked her if he spoke to her. She said he had not, he just came and sat. I nodded when she told me. Not the same man, I thought. Or maybe not the same purpose. I started my engine and left, watching a flock of geese in perfect formation, rising over a nearby pond, away, away, to wherever geese go when spring is in the air.
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