I asked nothing. I wanted to ask everything. I thought I had some time. The O.J. trial was the soundtrack. For three straight months, night and day, the trial, and news about the trial, blared from the room as my mom lay dying. The real news for us was that she was diagnosed as terminal at age sixty-five, which was a great shock. Especially to my father, her husband of just a few years. You heard right. My father had remarried my mother after 35 years of blissful divorce. His age, then over eighty, and her future Social Security benefits, played a part.
A stampede of red and blue Power Rangers ran wild through my home. "Granny's dying in the other room," I yelled. "Keep it down a little." I didn't demand silence with any conviction because I liked the activity. I loved when my three kids had tons of friends over, playing and laughing. I never wanted the quiet of my own childhood home that featured just two kids and the elusive Southern Gothic character that was our mother. When my father moved out, he took the noise and fun with him. I yearned for chaos and now I had it.
Each morning I shuffled out of bed and into the kitchen, making buttermilk biscuits from scratch. My Granny's recipe. My mother's mother. I knew it by heart and could make them in my sleep, which was pretty much what I was doing.
We were not close, my mysterious mother and me, although she had always nurtured us in her quiet way. She made spectacular pecan pies, guacamole on demand, and flaming cherries jubilee for special occasions. Most of my clothes came from her sewing machine. Now, I sat in her room and between us there were few words. Sometimes utter silence. Our connection was food. I would fetch us lunch. Later, bring her dinner. In between, I carpooled kids and went about my life as if this wasn't really a reality. The TV trial droned on. My mother loved a real-life drama, oblivious to her own. Her eyes were fixed on the screen as Chris Darden asked O.J. to try on the infamous bloody gloves. I thought of my mother's kid gloves that I wore to play dress up. Even as an adult, I would never have her long, slender fingers to fill them out.
The doctors gave her three to six months. I was determined to nourish my mother the way she had me those first eighteen years of life.
My father, stricken with polio as an infant, had a modest collection of stolen wheelchairs. My brother and I might wheel him out of a hospital after a small stroke and, shamelessly, he'd tell us to throw the wheelchair (property of the hospital) into the back of our car. He gave me one for my weakened mother. When she had visitors, and there were very few, we would wheel her out in it, Brotman Memorial blazoned on the back. She would do her best to dress up. The failed attempt at chemo left her blind in one eye, so she would sport a black patch over it. With the scarf covering her hair that never got the message about falling out, she looked like a pirate. I flashed on one of my earliest memories: me, in an eye patch. My mother was militant about me wearing it to avoid the corrective surgery of which she was fearful. She was right; I am no longer cross-eyed.
In a bedroom I kicked one of my kids out of to let Granny die in it, Mom stared at that old school TV (this was before flat screens). I sat next to her. A thought bubble floated over my head filled with questions. I was in my 40s, menopause looming. "How old were you when you went through the change, Mom?" But I never asked. "Who were the big loves of your life?" "How do you make that brilliant pie crust?" "Tell me about the day your dad committed suicide, the man I was ominously named after." No, I never got to any of these. Doctors are always wrong, I kept thinking. I still have time.
My mother stayed sequestered in her assigned bedroom waiting bravely to succumb to her fate. I played the jailer. She, my prisoner. Mom didn't live to see the verdict in the OJ trial. NOT GUILTY. She would have been stunned.
I got my last period at age fifty-three, except for a few sporadic eggs firing off in a kind of wishful thinking. This resulted in some heavy and unexpected periods. I reveal this to my kids. I tell all my stories so they won't have to live with unanswered questions. Including this: my mother's last words. I handed her the lunch I picked up from a charming beach shack in Santa Monica. After devouring every last morsel she said, "This is a really good patty melt. Where is it from?" "Patrick's Roadhouse, Mom. I'm glad you liked it." And not another peep from her.Now, I'm in a not-so-exclusive club of orphans who live in fear that we might die at the same age as our parent. I try hard to outrun that fate. I have five or so more years until then. Only unlike her, I'm not going down without a fight. ***