When my brother called to tell me my mother was dying, I didn't know how to respond.
Memories of ma came in waves, hitting me hard. It wasn't fair. What did he want me to do? See her? Call her?
I hadn't seen her in all of ten years. You make life choices, you know? I mean, everyone has to decide where his or her own life is headed. And mine? Well, mine was headed nowhere fast and it was all because, at the time, she was in it. And then she left. Just left, one day when things got a little weird. Not to be seen nor heard from in ten whole years. And now this.
Coming from my brother, things didn't sound all that bad. Really, that's the way with him. I mean, his wife will go out and cheat on him, he’ll call me up the next day and say, "Johnny, she cheated on me. What do I do?" And that's it. No tears, no emotion, just a question. And he doesn't even take my advice, that's the real let-down with the whole deal. I told him I would kill her if it were me dealing with my wife, but what that means in the language of brothers, is to find the guy, mess him up a little, and don't talk to her for a week or two. That should set them both straight.
He lets her off the hook with a couple of nights in the sack, and it's over. Man, I don't know how he could do it. Sleep in the same bed with her, I mean. That stuff is pretty hard to take, if you ask me. I don't deal with things all too well.
My mother is mean. She says one thing and means the other. My grandmother, her own mother, doesn't even like her.
"Your mother, Johnny, she's a rare bird, she is. What's the matter with her, doesn't even call me on my birthday? I tell you what, she's out of the will if I don't hear from her in the next coupla' days." My grandmother's a bit crackers herself, if you ask me. Always taking people out of the will, then putting them back in if they do something nice for her. Piss her off, though? You're out of the will. Nothing to it. Just like that with my grandmother. It kind of makes you wonder when she's going to kick the bucket, just to see if there really is a will. Sort of mean, I know, but look where I get it.
Anyway, my mother is baby-sitting one night - my wife and I, we hardly ever get a night to ourselves - and she brings a bottle of vodka with her. This wouldn't be so bad if my kids were older. But they're not. A one year old and a five year old can't take care of themselves all too well. So I tell her not to drink in front of them and maybe take it easy until we get home, we won't be too late. She passes out cold on the living room floor with the kids still up. I mean, they're climbing on her, my oldest daughter screaming in her ear, "Are you dead, Nana, are you dead, Nana?"
When I spoke with her the next morning, she was actually surprised that I would point the finger at her for being drunk and irresponsible. Accused me of being a bad son, that's how far she takes it. I haven't seen her since that night. And now this.
The airport. Shiny, chalk white. Almost too white and I feel like I am in a hospital waiting to be seen by a doctor. I don't like it one bit. And then I see her. Only what I’m seeing is not her, it can’t be her, it's a skeleton and I'm back in my room at the house on Chester Street. The skeleton moves slowly yet certainly and I know I will not be able to do a damn thing except lay there under the covers and wait until the vision fades. It comes across the floor and it jangles its bones. They clank together as they swing toward me and I begin to feel a wet spot between my legs where I have just pissed myself. And here is my mother as I am thrown back into reality. And I am repulsed.
She is wheeled across the shiny linoleum of the airport lobby area. The stewardess looks at me. And I don't move. I only stare.
Yes, she is my mother I want to tell the stewardess, only I don't want her. I smile at her. The stewardess, that is. She is pretty and I would rather take her home instead. Think of the fun we could have, you and me, I think. Dinner, movies, the beach, trips to foreign countries.
My mother motions to me. The stewardess turns and disappears back up the tunnel to the plane.
Mother’s eyes are not any certain color. Oily, dark, sunken into her head. Black rings engulf them, and the glasses upon her nose can serve no imaginable purpose. Her hands are shriveled, crippled, and there is a tube leading out from under her hospital smock. It leads to a bag under the wheelchair and as I watch, it fills some of the way up and still she motions for me to come closer.
I take large steps and quickly I am behind the chair, pushing her to my car, not wanting to speak to her. I only want to get her home before anyone sees me with her and I have to identify this hideous woman as my mother. If this sounds illogical, it probably is. It's not like I would run into anyone I know at the airport in the middle of the night on a weekday. Only I don't care, I am so damned ashamed of this woman.
We do not speak on the car ride back to the apartment. A one hour drive from the airport. I had no idea the silence could be so thick. It is rich and syrupy and I love it because I have no intentions of speaking with her. What would she have me say?
Once in the apartment, I sit and stare at her until light breaks through the living room shades. Micki doesn't ask why I did not come to bed the night before, and she keeps the kids away from me for most of the next day. I love them, I miss them without seeing much of them, but I need time to process this thing that has just happened.
The phone rings.
"Johnny boy." An old childhood name only my brother can get away with, except I don't think it is all that funny at the moment.
"Lee, what do you want?" My mother sleeps across from me in her wheelchair. I don't know if she would have been more comfortable somewhere else for the night, but I didn't care enough to ask. It is 7a.m.and Lee is talking to me as if nothing happened. Maybe in his life nothing has, but mine is a whole different story.
"John, what's ma doing?"
"I don't know."
"What? She's in a wheelchair, for God's sake; it’s not like she went out for the night. What time did you get in, anyway?"
"I don't know. Listen, can we talk about this some other time? Mick wants to go out today, some outlet mall. Will you be around later? I'll call you back." Anything I can do to get him off the phone.
"Yeah, sure. Listen, Johnny, you're a good son to take her in, man. You should know that."
I hang the phone back in its cradle and look at my mother. Her eyes are closed and her glasses rest in one hand. I have a sudden urge to snatch them from her and smash them under my foot. Elsie, my youngest daughter, creeps into the living room and sits next to me on the couch.
"Daddy, is that grandma?" She whispers this so close to my ear that I can feel her breath and my ear tickles and I love her so much that I don't want her to get wrapped up in all this, this crap, but I don't know what else to do. I nod my head. It doesn’t require much effort.
"What's that?" She points to the urine bag that is still only filled as much as it was when we came in last night. And then she notices her hat. "Why does she sleep with her hat on, Daddy?"
"Cancer, honey. She lost her hair."
"Does it hurt?"
"No, honey, it doesn't hurt." I wish it did, though, I want to add. I don't.