It is night. Micki took the kids to her mom's house for a couple of days. It’s funny how she can call her mother "mom," while mine I call, "mother." How impersonal, uncaring.
She sits across me from in our small but comfortable kitchen. I have made coffee, but only because I plan on having some. Though she drinks a mug of it, I do not make it for her. I hope she knows that. It's not something I can actually tell her without sounding like an idiot, though. "I didn't make this for you, you know. I'm not doing anything for you, you know." Yeah, that would sound real good. Not at all immature.
While the kids were here, my mother pretended to be asleep the whole time. "It must be hard, raising girls," she says now. Her voice is soft and gravelly, barely more than a whisper. I do not wish to engage in this conversation. I will not allow her to continue.
"I love them, mother. I guess you wouldn't know about that." I look her straight in the eye and I speak each word slowly, with conviction. I regret them almost as soon as they are out, as a tear spills to her lap and her face drops.
No, I will not allow myself this feeling. I have no right to feel pity for this woman. She's the one who did the crummy job raising me, the one who decided to move away when the going got tough, when she had made more mistakes than she knew what to do with. She cannot possibly provide me anything I don't already have in abundance. I will simply let her stay until I can figure out where else she can go.
Her head slowly rises from its defeated position. The tears have dried up, and I can hear her shallow breathing. We sit and stare at each other. Her eyes are glossy and she is far away. I wonder what she thinks, but do not venture forth to ask. There is quite an impressive display of pill bottles set up next to her on a TV tray. I didn't want her wheeling around the kitchen, taking up everyone's space and making a nuisance of herself. Not that she could actually wheel herself.
And how did we get to this point anyway? When I glance up and look at her, and she's looking at me like this is the place for her, like this is what all kids should do for their dying and aging parents, I have to quite literally hold myself back from jumping up and wheeling her out to the curb.
No one else in the family could take her. That's what I'm supposed to believe. They actually said that to me, that I was the one who should take ma because I was the oldest, and they would do it too, had they the extreme misfortune of being born first. Lovely. What a prize for being first. I always thought it was supposed to be a trophy, a big ass-kicking shiny gold plated trophy with my name engraved on the front name plate, and the word, "WINNER," in great big shiny gold letters. Gee, I won. Yeah.
In the morning, I get up to leave for work and the phone rings. It's grandma.
"Well, how does she look?"
"Not so good, gran. All she does is sit in her wheelchair and look around the place or sleep. Wanna talk to her?" I honestly don't believe she will want to talk with her only daughter, but she surprises me. It is to be a morning of surprises, regardless of what I might have to say about it.
"Yeah, sure. Put her on." Rustling on the other end of the line, her poodle yapping away like a mad dog, grandma breathing her smoker's breath. Carlton Reds. I remember them well.
I bring the phone into ma, who sits at the TV and stares at a blank picture tube. She looks up at me but I'm not sure she knows I'm there. I hand her the phone and go into the kitchen. I can barely hear her as she speaks to grandma.
"Ma? Yeah, pretty good. You? No, Ma, I don't want you to come over. I don't need anything. Yeah, kids are great. Such angels they turned out to be, huh? No, look, no, Ma, I really should hang up. I really shouldn't get into this with you."
She hits the off button on the cordless. For a moment I don't hear anything. I make another half pot of coffee and head to the door for the paper. A cold hand reaches out to touch me as I walk past. It feels like rubber, like a cold, rubber hand; a prank you'd buy at the novelty shop. I don't want to turn around. I don't want to see the tears well up in her eyes, sit and listen like a good son to her sorrows and all the things she regrets. I don't want to sit and listen to how much she missed me while I was growing up, how much she wished she hadn't made the choices she made, and how damn much she wants to be a good grandma. I don't want to hear. I won't listen to it.
Lowering my gaze, I note that her eyes are dry. Her lips, too. Her hand, the one on my arm, barely touches me, but fights to maintain some type of a grip.
"Johnny, when I go…” That is all I hear. I am outside for my paper before she gets the chance to finish.
At work later that day I think about ma. I think about how I walked out of the room on her, not a word of comfort from my mouth, not a word at all. She is dying and it's not like I didn't know that this was the inevitable end for her. For any of us, for that matter. But it was a different feeling, a feeling that it would go on forever, that she would live with us indefinitely, that maybe we would even talk peaceably. Maybe the girls would come to know their grandma, listen to stories from her childhood, laugh when they heard baby stories about me, like the time when I smeared poop on the wall next to my crib. I thought a lot about what could happen. I have dreams on many nights; forever it seems, about what it would be like to have a mother, a grandmother for my girls, a mother-in-law for my wife. Everything in its place, a place for everything.
The girls are still at Micki's mom's house. They called today to say they would be staying on a coupla' days longer. I sit here with a beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from the fingers of the other. Billowy gray plumes of smoke drift up to the ceiling and linger there awhile, then disintegrate. Carlton Reds. The dark living room becomes sinister, obscure. If Micki came home now, she would probably think she had the wrong apartment because I don't smoke, only on occasions. I’m glad she won’t bring the kids home to this.
Mom died sometime during the day. I found her still sitting in the same position I had left her in this morning. Her head is covered. She wore the hat to conceal her head, bald from cancer. Her shriveled hands lie still in her lap, the urine bag and catheter lie on the floor next to one big wheel of her chair. I unhooked the dreaded contraption for her when I got home.
I take a drag from the cigarette, inhale deeply. I think about the smoke and how it rages through my lungs, looking for a place to hide, a place to sleep for awhile, the cancer soon to follow, claim my life, too. I think I'll sleep for a coupla' days, dream about my Mom and how it should have been, dream about the perfect place to scatter her remains. I try and remember why I had become so bitter, and realize that I cannot.
I'm glad the girls aren't here right now to see their grown daddy cry. My littlest angel always used to tell me she wanted to see my cry. She didn't think boys knew how. And to tell you the truth, I didn't think I would remember how. Certainly not over my Mother, anyhow.
There is something so final about death. All the possibilities in life are taken away, all the chances you wanted to take, all the things you wanted to say, the people you could have comforted. I don't regret much about the way I have lived my life, about how unforgiving I may have been, how unwilling to take chances, give people chances. But looking at my Mother, her lifeless body slumped in her wheelchair, I think that maybe that part about my life has changed. I'll have to think on that one for a coupla' days.