She sits crossed legged; her camel hair slacks have stains on them. Her hair floats in old lady wisps on her skull, which is prominent. My mother wears no make-up anymore and she's missing a tooth on the lower left side of her jaw. Her skin is dotted with coffee colored age spots.
"Take me with you," Mom speaks in a cracked voice. Her finger, pointing at the door, looks like a claw.
"Mom, you're going to be fine," my sister-in-law is cheery. Kind.
"I'm freezing," Mom says. "I will not stay here."
My house is cooler than my mother likes. I wish that I had not agreed to let her spend the night. Just one night, I tell myself. I've washed the coverlet and made up the guest bed. I've even removed the clutter, including the large L.L. Bean bag in my guest room. It is stuffed with Dad's sweaters and shirts which I took home with me when he died. I have been unable to take the clothes out. At least once a day, I place my face inside the bag to sniff my father's scent. He always smelled clean, like Ivory soap.
I watch my mother hug herself with arms encased in a pink wool blazer and my stomach churns. Uncomfortable. I want my brother and sister-in-law to take my mother back. To return to their home where she lives with them in the next state. It is a four hour drive away and I know this will not happen. My brother is about to escape and he stands up, his eyes on his wife, "Ready?"
My sister-in-law turns her head, smiling, and rests her eyes on me. They are going off to a college football game which does not take place for several hours. There are tailgate parties to which they are invited with fellow alumni.
My brother is a decade older than I am. He's done well. Married his college girlfriend. They have two grown children, one graduated from college a year ago. The other is a sophomore.
I have no children. I've never married. For seven years, I've slept with a man whom my family has never met. He is my secret.
Nick would not have been able to see me tonight, anyway. It is Saturday. The weekend. He spends them with his family. Even though he was the first person I called when my father died, I knew that Nick would skip the wake and my father's funeral.
"I'll see you as soon as you get back," he said. "Clear your calendar. We'll take a long drive."
I had bereavement leave, so Nick took a day off and we drove to a small town in Virginia. It had a two lane street lined with trees full of rust, yellow and red leaves. A string of little shops shared a plank wood sidewalk and a covered porch. We turned off the main road onto a gravel parking lot surrounded by spruce trees. A stone and mortar cabin looked inviting and we stood in its foyer on wide, uneven wooden planks. The booth in which we sat was cushioned in tapestry. The table's wood was scarred. Caddy corner from us, a fire crackled under an elaborate wooden mantel, surrounded by large, rust colored stones. I remember how much I liked the dark beer Nick ordered for us. I did not realize until later that my father had not come up in conversation.
"I can't stay long," Nick told me this morning. He'd stopped by on his way to the hardware store. Just to say hello. Hello with both hands cupping my buttocks.
I pulled the storm door closed behind him. The same door my brother is now opening.
My mother follows my brother, plucking at the hem of his jacket. It is an L.L. Bean jacket; quilted on the inside with a corduroy collar. My mother holds onto the hem with both hands, "Take me with you!"
"Mom, it's just one night. You'll be fine," my brother steps away from her, but my mother will not let go of his jacket.
"I'm not staying here. I'll freeze to death."
"Mom, C'mon, let go," my brother twists around to face her. She drops the hem of his jacket.
"We have to go," my brother places the palm of his hand on my sister-in-law, who stands just inside the door. I can see him apply pressure to her back as she pushes on the door.
"Bye, Mom, see you tomorrow," my brother says.
The door pops when it closes, and Mom bangs on the glass, "TAKE ME WITH YOU!"
My brother does not look back. I watch him swing his long corduroy covered legs into the driver's seat of his Ford Expedition and slam the door.
My brother moved our parents into his home and put an elevator in it for them. They could no longer take care of themselves. My Dad was found crawling on the kitchen floor of their independent living facility. He was trying to retrieve multi-colored pills that had spilled, like sprinkles on a festive cake.
"I'm not staying here," Mom turns from the storm door and slaps me.
The force of her hand is strong. Surprising. My face tingles. I feel uncomfortable prickles of anger. The hatred I can see in Mom's eyes is familiar. I want to strike her back.
Instead, Nick comes to mind. How he stayed exactly a half hour this morning. I glanced at the clock on my night stand -- shining 9:38 in bright red numbers -- when he nudged me into the bedroom. I let him yank on my sweatshirt, unzip my jeans. The time clucked softly. His warm skin covered mine and I hit the wicker headboard of the bed trying to scrub my hand through his hair.
I keep telling myself that I should end our relationship. I've told myself that many times. In my head, I know it is going nowhere with Nick. I've tried to date other men. I am growing older and I do not want to be alone. But I can't shake Nick from my skin.
I remember the heat of his breath tingling on my neck, my breasts. His hands that cupped my buttocks were greedy, strong. He was rough. He growled. And I was aware that I held my breath when he entered me. Holding onto the rubbery skin of his back, tracing my palms along his full sides, I felt the bump of his belly on mine. Nick's skin was redder and he looked angry when I stared into his face. His lips were a tight line. I strained to kiss him. He darted his tongue quickly in my mouth before he lifted his head higher; away from me.
It was 10:08 when Nick let himself out the front door, downstairs. I reached for my coverlet, pulling it up to my chin.
My arm up to strike my mother back, I keep it in the air. My face stings and my eyes feel like hot embers. Gritting my teeth, I surprise myself by opening my mouth, "It's always been all about you, hasn't it? I have cleaned this whole house. I've given up my weekend for you. You are a goddamn bitch!"
My mother's nostrils are round, flared. Her eyes squint, "I am your mother. Don't you speak to me that way."
"And I am your daughter. I deserve respect, too."
I stomp up the stairs. Breathing hard. Relief grows with each step. I have never yelled at my mother like that before.
On my last visit before my father died, Mom punched and pummeled me with the same surprising strength she has just shown. I had helped him into his bathrobe, holding up a large bath towel to steer him to the bathtub.
But my mother had shouted, hitting me, "Stay away from my husband!"
The next day, my father was transferred to a nursing home. It had bright floral curtains, held back with ties, over floor to ceiling windows. The walls were painted yellow, with chair rails and framed sections in a glossy white that covered the lower part of the wall. I didn't realize there was a white bar along each chair rail until I watched one of the residents using it to pull himself along the hall in his wheelchair.
My father's room was right off the nurses' station. He had a rich, dark wood headboard that looked like it was supposed to be teak. It was attached to the wall, not the hospital bed, which had been lowered to the floor so he wouldn't fall out. If he tried to get off the bed, an alarm sounded.
I lock the door to my bathroom and sit on the toilet. When I flush and stand up, I look in the mirror over the sink. I am surprised that I look energized, excited. I unlock the door.
"Did you put the heat on? I'm cold," my mother shouts from the first floor.
"I thought we'd get some lunch," my voice is neutral.
As I descent the stairs, I see that my mother is sitting cross-legged again. She wears nylon knee-highs with beautiful, salmon colored suede loafers.
"C'mon. Let's go," I pick up my mother's coat that is folded over the banister.
Mom grips the sides of the chair and pushes herself up. Dragging her cane, she lets go of it to shove her arms into the thick wool coat that I hold out for her.
"OOOhhh. I am SO cold," she moans.
I press my lips together, hard. I lift the shoulders of the coat and the front flaps enclose my mother's slight frame. Opening the front door, I hold my mother's arm as we take small steps across the porch. On the path to the sidewalk, I count the hours I have left with her: twenty. Less than one day.
Holding the door to the passenger side of my car, I wait for Mom to settle in. She bumps and squiggles, fumbling with her cane. She is unable to fit it into the space between her and the dashboard.
"Hurry up, Mom," I spit the words.
My mother looks up at me; her eyes slits, her eyebrows knitted together. She raises her right index and middle fingers, pressing her thumb against them. "Zip it," she sneers.
I push the door shut, hard. I think of walking away. Just leaving my car and my mother in it. Goddamn bitch, I mutter as I pause on the curb to scan for traffic. I live on a one way street. Cars are lined up, parked on each side. I cannot open my car door unless the street is clear.
A dark sport utility vehicle inches down the street. Wide, the car moves slowly. I know the driver is being cautious and I welcome the wait. When the car passes, I look at the driver who turns and nods at me. Sorry, she mouths and I smile. Nod back. I open my car door. My mother is still fumbling with her cane, pressing it between her seat and the stick shift, next to the driver's seat. I place my hand over my mother's, "I'll put it on the back seat for you."
"Oh. Ok, dear. Thank you," Mom's tone of voice is light. Civil.
I fling the cane onto the backseat and slide into the driver's seat. My mother faces the windshield, "My, it's a lovely day."
"Yes. It is," I say, releasing the clutch.
In the parking lot for the café, I am annoyed that my brother has not left me with our mother's disabled parking placard. I try to find a space close to the door and retrieve the cane before I open the passenger door for my mother.
"Oh! Thank you," Mom says, taking the cane I hand her.
We move slowly across the parking lot and I swallow a goddamn it with each step. We should not have had to park so far away. An old, dusty white sedan swings into the lane in which we walk. The car stops with a screech when the driver sees us.
"Oh, my!" Mom says. "He could have killed us."
"Just keep walking, Mom."
"I am. I AM," my mother whines. "Leave me be."
Inside the restaurant, I steer her to a table. When she is seated and her cane hooked on the table's edge, I turn to join the line of folks ordering food. I am relieved to be away from my mother. Scanning the blackboard behind the cashier I see that clam chowder is the day's special. I order the chowder and half a turkey sandwich. I know my mother will want ham. It is what she always orders; a ham and Swiss sandwich.
I take the ham sandwich off the tray and place it in front of my mother. The bowl of soup and turkey sandwich are on the table in front of my chair. I sit. Dipping a spoon in the soup, I touch it to my lips. The soup is too hot. I cannot eat it.
My mother struggles to fit her mouth around the thick, crunchy French bread which encloses her ham. She does not bite it and puts the sandwich down, "How's work?"
"Do you have a beau yet?" she asks.
I stiffen and do not answer, dipping the spoon into my soup again. I sip. It stings my tongue, it is still too hot.
"No beau, dear? No one special in your life?"
"Nope," I turn my head away from my mother, watching the customers tapping at lap tops all around us.
Against the wall in a booth, is a young, pretty woman with hair so curly, she has it tied back off her face. She is studying her iPhone and sits sideways at the end of the booth's bench, her side faces the table. There is a young girl wearing a soccer uniform, sitting opposite the woman in the booth. I can see black socks, wrinkled and bunched over her cleats, under the table. The little girl has curly hair too. Beautiful corkscrews of white blonde are tangled and hanging over her forehead. She is frowning and she holds her head in her hands. The woman sits, not looking at the child as she snatches pieces of the sandwich, a potato chip, another, from the sole plate on the table.
"Mawwwwmmmm," the girl moans. "Get your own."
I watch the mother pluck half the sandwich off the plate, bite it and put it back.
My mother clears her throat, "I miss my husband."
I look at her; Mom's eyes are damp. They glisten. My eyes sting, too. I cannot think about my father without pausing for breath. His last days were excruciating. I put compact discs of Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Benny Goodman in the console on his night stand. Holding his hand, I lifted it from time to time, pretending that we were dancing.
My father worked in advertising and he got me a job when I graduated from college. He was so well-known and respected, his association with me helped throughout my career. I often wonder if the assistance he gave me -- something my mother knew little about - was offered out of consolation for my childhood. I know now, decades after it all happened, that my multiple trips to the emergency room were not my fault.
With twenty-seven stitches to sew my lip back together, I was sore. Tired. I sat in the kitchen nook, waiting for my father to come home from work.
His voice was light. Playful, when he strolled through the back door: Wow, kiddo. What the hell happened to you? His fedora in hand, he shrugged off his overcoat before he knelt on the kitchen floor in front of me; studying the bandage which was taped to my cheek.
A year later, my mother told my dad, "You'll never guess what she did now." I needed more stitches to sew the gash on the back of my head. It had cracked open on a radiator in the hallway. I was 5.
Not long after that, a pencil's black lead pierced the skin under my right eyebrow.
"If the lead had gone in any closer, she would be blind," Mom had folded her arms, a cigarette twilled smoke from between her fingers, and the smell made my eyes tear.
"Oh, Sweetie," Dad hugged me, pressing me carefully against his starched, white shirt. I could see a light green streak of snot on his shirt when I lifted my face. He kissed my forehead and turned to Mom, "How did this happen?"
"Who knows?" my mother had shrugged, but she bent her head, shooting me a stern look. I stared back, my mouth shut. Terrified. My mother had slapped me with a pencil in her hand, the same hand in which she was holding the cigarette.
"Aren't you going to eat your sandwich?" I ask my mother.
"Do you want it?" she pushes her plate toward me.
I think of how my dad did the same thing. In the nursing home, they watched what he ate; You've left seventy-five percent of your food on the plate, Mr. Devine. They'd record it on a chart.
"Mom, you need your strength," I say, calmly. I am surprised at the tone of my voice. I am not angry.
"I know," Mom says and hooks the plate with her claw of an index finger, dragging it back in front of her. "I'm just not hungry."
I watch her pick up the double slices of thick, crusty bread. A tomato slips out, then a slice of ham. "Oh my," Mom says.
"Why don't you just eat the ham? Forget the bread," I say.
"Ok," Mom's voice is so soft, it is unfamiliar.
Once my brother moved him into his house, my father would wait for me to visit, skipping his afternoon nap. He would welcome me at the front door, gripping the handrail, and ask me to turn around and get back in my car. He'd sit beside me and direct me to the International House of Pancakes.
"Dad, I know the way. We go every time I come here," I would answer, though I savored the time alone with him. At the IHOP, we would order buttermilk pancakes and coffee.
"You getting along ok, Sweetie?" he'd ask me.
"Yes, Dad. Don't worry about me."
"I don't. I know you can do anything."
"I love you, Dad."
"Love you, too."
Before he died, he would whisper that he loved me until he lost his ability to speak. Finally, all he could do was study my face with his light blue eyes and wink at me. He died of kidney disease and his loss has caused me to tear up at unexpected moments. I'll get the mail at the end of the day and there will be a note in it from someone I have not seen in years, telling me how sorry she is that I have lost my dad.
I had to tell my boss that I could not attend the media event we planned for the family of victims of drunk drivers. I remember how my eyes filled and I excused myself from his office. Locked in a stall in the ladies' room, I used toilet paper for a tissue, wiping off my mascara. When I washed my hands, I was shocked at my image in the mirror over the sink. The skin on my face was gray and lined as though I was looking at a corpse.
I leave the soup. Uneaten. My mother places her sandwich in a take-out container, "You can eat this later."
Back in the car, I drive to a clothing store she likes. Inside, I find a big, cushioned chair in the center of the store and catch glimpses of my mother, wandering along the perimeter. She is smiling; scanning the racks of clothes. I sit behind a display of earrings and two mannequins dressed in black cocktail dresses. My mother picks up a scarf and points out a gold, sequenced sweater on another mannequin which is placed against the wall. She asks a sales clerk where the sweater on the mannequin is located.
I watch the clerk pull the sweater out of a rack beneath the mannequin. The clerk is older than me; carefully dressed. A scarf in beige tones is tied around her neck, and the warm, brown sweater she wears is tight, revealing a thin torso with ample breasts. She wears a black, suede skirt and paten leather boots with high heels. She has painted a thick line on her lids that makes her look burlesque.
My mother frowns. The sweater is sleeveless. On the mannequin, it is covered with a cardigan. "Oh, I'll be too cold in that," Mom says.
The clerk shakes her head. She is not aware of me, sitting a few feet away behind the black cocktail dresses. Another woman I can see standing behind the counter with the cash register, smirks.
After she replaces the sequenced sweater on the rack, the clerk raises her hand, drawing a line along her neck with her index finger, while she sticks her tongue out. The woman behind the register snorts.
My face heats. My mother is circling the store, again. She fingers a scarf on display next to me and stops, smiling, "Hello, dear!" The space on her lower jaw, where a tooth was recently removed, shows. I know that the imperfection would never have been tolerated had my mother been younger.
"What do you think of this?" she asks, holding up the scarf. It looks like it is silk with a paisley pattern that I have seen her wear before. She must have several already.
"Hold this for me," she says, handing the scarf to me.
Mom returns to the corner where she found the sequenced sweater and points to the mannequin again, asking the same clerk where the sweater is located. The reply is short, in clipped words, "I just showed it to you."
I rise. I don't feel my feet moving swiftly across the carpeted floor. I reach my mother and the woman scowls at me. I can see the line all around the woman's jaw where her make-up does not match her skin tone.
"It's right here, Mom," I say, digging in the rack beneath the mannequin and pulling out the sweater.
"Oh, it's sleeveless!" Mom replies. "Thank you, dear. I didn't know that."
"They've put a cardigan over it on the mannequin," I say, lifting the shoulder of the sweater up to show my mother.
"Oh! I didn't know that," she repeats.
"She'll just purchase the scarf," I say, handing it to the clerk.
The clerk nods. Smiles, "Certainly."
"My mother had dementia," I add.
"I'm sorry," her eyes do not meet mine.
"I DO NOT HAVE DEMENTIA!" my mother shouts. She raises her arm to punch me, but I step back, out of her reach.
I take my exit on the expressway, heading home. My mother opens the red handles on a white bag in her lap. She folds back the light pink tissue paper that is inside the bag.
"You bought a new scarf, Mom," I say.
"Oh, I didn't know what it was."
The asphalt road curves. It is covered with leaves and I press on the brake.
"E-e-e-e-ch! Watch it!" my mother screams. The scarf flies out of the bag and her arm bangs me across the chest.
I want to scream at her, tell her to cut it out. That she'll cause a crash. I glance at her briefly as the car slows on the asphalt.
My mother looks old. Like she might die soon, too.
"It's all right," I manage to say. My throat feels dry. I blink tears.
When I lift my hand off the clutch, I cover one of hers. My mother drops the bag's handles and places her other palm over the back of my hand.