What Were the Words

One year ago, on February 1st, I boarded a plane for Minneapolis. Lee had called, Mom again was not doing well. I endured the three and a half hour flight, staring out the window at the dark landscape, at the lights of the cities and the small towns moving slowly below us.

We finally landed, and as we were pulling up to the gate I checked my cellphone and there was a message. It was Dorothy, one of their friends who helped take care of my mother. I could hear her crying, her voice was low, “Michael, your mother just passed. Call us when you get in.”

I pressed the “end” button, and slid the phone back in my pocket. I glanced around at the other passengers. I didn’t cry. All of us standing, waiting in the back of the plane, watching everyone ahead gather their coats and bags, and head up the aisle.

I pulled up to their house. There was a cop car idling out front. As I passed I saw two officers inside. They watched me walk up to the house. Lee came outside, and met me on the steps. “Prepare yourself,” she said, holding me tight.

There is no preparing for that. Several months ago they had moved their bed downstairs to the tv room, when my mother could no longer climb the stairs. In the living room a group of their friends stood. They watched me walk in, and though by now I knew them all well, I didn’t say anything. I walked past them, and rounded the corner, and there she was. Or there she wasn’t. There aren’t any new words I can tell you. She was gone, and left behind was a pale, small body, so obviously lifeless that the split-second sight of her dropped me to my knees. I buried my face in the covers near her feet and I wept for all I was worth. Lee crouched behind me, rubbing my shoulders, crying herself. Tears all around. Between the tears and the drool, there was no lack of bodily fluids in that house that year. Eventually someone dragged over a chair, made me sit beside the bed. I kept my face down, and I held her cool hand in mine, rubbing my thumb against the back of her hand. Someone handed me a glass of water. I glanced up, her face was so pale. Her mouth hung open a little. I couldn’t look for long.

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Most days it still feels as though it were a mistake, a clerical error; someone will change their mind, some paperwork will be uncovered, some doctor will check his notes again…someone will call on the phone yes, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding…

I catch myself saying She was fifty-five when she died, as though through sheer force of repetition the injustice of the whole fucking thing will somehow be repaired. I will catch another flight to Minneapolis, and she will be waiting there at the airport, standing strong and vibrant, beaming like she did the night I read my poems. And she will take me out to dinner. Anywhere but Figlio’s, I’ll say.

I can still hear her voice; the timbre of it, her warmth and her humor and her boundless passion. Sometimes at night I can hear her call my name.

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A month after the funeral I had a dream. I was at a party in someone’s dimly-lit basement, the kind of party we went to in high school, the kind with kegs in the corner and music shaking the foundations of the house. I was standing, alone, and I looked across the room and I saw her sitting under a blue light on a couch with Lee, holding hands. She was her old self: vibrant and unencumbered. She saw me and gave me a smile, inexplicably shy, and at that moment in my sleep I felt something move through me, my pulse beating, and I woke briefly, in time to feel it fading: I faltered on the edge of sleep and then another dream took me.

That morning I wrote: What am I forgetting? What was the gesture you offered, the moment my blood rushed quick? As the day progresses I am mocked by a message spinning in my head like a song; I can hear the rhythm, I can feel the form, I just can’t hear the words.

Run in a Circle

That spring her swallowing muscles are so weak that she begins to choke on her own saliva. By then she’s had a stomach tube implanted: everyday she pours five cans of Jevity formula into the tube, for nourishment. The doctors decide to perform a tracheostomy, which will close off her wind tunnel, preventing the choking. The hole in her throat will let her breathe. She will also need to have her larynx removed, and will no longer be able to speak. This is from my journal, the night of the operation.

May 3, 2000

I don’t much want to write, at home late on a Wednesday night, the air warm like summer already. Home from a run around the lake in the dark, to blow off steam. Mom had her larynx removed and a tracheostomy. I was at the hospital until 9 pm when we saw her after surgery. I don’t use the word “shock” lightly here. I hope the image scarred into my brain fades, I don’t want it to stay long. There is no easy way to say it. A long ragged scar all the way across her throat as though it had been slit. Angry stitches. A tube blowing steam on the wound. Another tube draining the incision. And worst of all, in the hollow of her throat, a hole. A hole with red ragged edges. A hole in my mother’s throat. A hole the size of a baby’s fist, right there. Mom. My little mom lying there drugged, her face the color of death, eyes rolling open, eyelids wet, waving her hand at me, her throat ravaged like animal prey, her voice now gone forever, no sound ever again to cross her lips, no grunts or laughs or improvised hello’s, I love you’s, good bye’s. I thought maybe I wasn’t mad anymore but my jaw was clenched the entire drive home. Nothing. Run. Run in the night in a circle, come back where you are.

Later: 12:45 a.m, still awake. She’s alone now, in that hospital. Sleeping, I hope.

That winter I write in my journal: Nobody else’s story is good enough anymore.

I become very familiar with that chapel in the months to come. Six weeks after the healing service, I buy a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. I tell David that I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but that I can’t stay in San Francisco, losing sleep over my mother every night. There’s not much he can do but give me his blessing. I think he hopes that a change of cities will sober me up. So do I.

Lee still can’t stand God. Every Sunday I wake early in the little studio apartment I have rented a mile from their house. Sometimes I am hung over, and very scared. Sometimes, though, I have managed not to drink for several days. I make myself a cup of coffee and shower. While I dress I listen to NPR. I have it on all the time now, even when I’m sleeping. The murmuring voices make me feel less alone.

They’ve loaned me their Subaru, now that my mother can’t drive. I pull up in front of their house every Sunday at eight. She watches from their front window, and when she sees me coming up the street she pushes open the front door, bundled tight in her long winter coat, her canvas bag in her hand. She wears a brace on one foot, and she takes forever to navigate her way down the stairs to the sidewalk, which fortunately gives me time to run up and grab her arm. She won’t wait inside. Lee has tried for months to get her to relax and slow down, to stop cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming the rugs and doing the laundry, but since she had to leave her job my mother has refused to sit down. She won’t stop moving.

Our ten minute drive to church grows more silent over the weeks, as the disease and the dementia progress. She does not grow disoriented, like a person with Alzheimer’s. Rather it seems like the dementia simplifies her. She stops initiating conversations, answers questions with one or two words. She carries small pads of paper in her bag for the times when I can’t understand her. Over the months to come I will save many scraps of paper, and I will know when they were written from the gradual deterioration of her handwriting, as her fingers grow weaker and weaker.

The eight-thirty service is small; only forty or so regulars. She and I sit on the right hand side of the chapel, always, four or five rows from the back. I sit on the aisle, as though placing her between me and the wall will protect her somehow. We smile and nod at the other parishioners, though we rarely talk to anyone. On the mornings when I am hung over I can barely endure the service. My mother’s been sober ten years by now, and those mornings I am consumed with guilt, my soul sick and fearful. Fearful because I am beginning to realize that I can’t stop.

But other mornings it is easier for me to sit with her, and to believe in myself as I look people in the eye and say “Good morning.”

Each week a woman who wears turtlenecks and cardigan sweaters and a red pair of glasses with large, round frames sits at the piano beside the altar and begins to play. We stand together, clutching hymnals in our hands, our voices barely filling the small chapel. When the music begins, my mother cries. Each and every time. Barely five notes into the hymn and her shoulders start shaking. The muscles of her face have weakened, and her mouth falls open while the sobs shake her entire body. Her eyes grow frightened and confused and sometimes she looks up at me, standing beside her, with a look of such utter pain and bewilderment that I vow to myself to hunt down God and kill Him.

Every Sunday she cries, and every Sunday I do the only thing I can. I hold her with my right arm, and I hold the hymnal in my left hand, though by that point the book is useless, as we are both crying too hard to sing.

When the music stops we can sit again, and collect ourselves. She opens her canvas bag and searches for the pack of tissues inside. After three weeks I buy a handkerchief and carry it in my pocket on Sunday mornings.

We dry our eyes and blow our noses during the sermon. If I haven’t completely soaked the handkerchief, there’s always the Communion. Once a month the small congregation gathers in a circle at the altar, and Communion wafers are passed, followed by a chalice of grape juice. My mother often chokes on the wafer; her swallowing muscles have weakened, but she’s too determined to call it quits on the body of Christ. Let it dissolve on your tongue, I whisper to her, but even that becomes risky. She tries to wait until we’re back in the pew before spitting it out into the handkerchief.

The parishioners are good sports. They notice the tears and the choking and the spit, but look away politely. Sometimes after a service one of them will come up to me, hold my hand between theirs and say “You’re a good son.”

I know they mean well.

One day during the sermon she opens her bag, fishes around inside, then pulls out a pen and her pad of paper. She grasps the pen as well as she can, places the tip against the paper, and scrawls something there. I pretend to pay attention to the sermon, but wonder what she’s up to.

She finishes writing, then turns the pad to me.

I’m afraid I won’t get into heaven, it says.

I swallow and blink. I read it twice before I breathe again. Then I turn to her.

“I’m not,” I say.

Later that night, after dinner, she comes up the stairs from the basement, something in her hand. She laughs silently, mouth open, eyes shining. She hands me the handkerchief, laundered and folded into a square.