My mother tells me she’s outwitted the thief who wants to steal her underwear. Three months ago, the doctors said she would die of congestive heart failure in three days. She’s outwitted them too. She’s worried about her underwear, not heart failure.
We’re in this together. It’s the moment when everything counts and we’re talking about protecting her underwear, all those pretty garments stashed in a box under her bed—a metaphor for something I don’t want to decode.
“No one will think to look there,” she says.
She’s insistent, urgent, specific, and irate. She’s angry at the unfairness of everything. It’s not bad enough that she got old, that she can no longer keep the wolves from the door, or that she’s dying. Now they’re after her underwear. Her eyes, bombs with lit fuses, flare.
She shares her strategy with me so I’ll be her aide-de-camp in her war against the underwear thieves. I wade through words, hoping to find a way to reassure her that no one will take her panties. Uneasiness stirs my stomach. There’s history at work here, a more terrifying, unmentionable theft she’s never told me about, a story that, in the end, I don’t want to know. A story that might explain everything. Perhaps some things should not be uncovered; perhaps I don’t want all the answers. Maybe truth isn’t enough.
Finally, helpless, I say, “Good plan.”
Her hands are cold, her legs are hot. She throws off the sheet. For weeks she has been sleeping almost continually—or what passes for sleep, periodically punctuating the long silence by slamming the flat of her hand against the mattress. “Enough,” she yells. “Enough! Enough!”
Today she’s talking. When I ask about this new phase, the hospice nurse says matter-of-factly she may be talkative today but it’s all part of the dying process, a kind of illumination as the body rapidly heals itself before the final sigh. I take this explanation with a grain of salt. I no longer believe anyone knows anything about dying.
My mother pauses, daintily puts the tip of her pointer finger against the corner of her mouth and dabs away the grit that has gathered there out of nowhere. Her nails are cut short but are still painted red at her insistence. Her white hair has been brushed into two short pigtails at the top of her head by the nurse’s aide, who intends to be kind and has no sense of irony.
Back to the ninety pounds she swears she was when pregnant with me, she wears only an adult diaper and a blazing red t-shirt. Her speech is difficult to understand and lucid moments are rare. I lean in. We conspire together against what’s next.
“The people here don’t like me,” she says. “My daughter thinks I don’t know this, but I do.” Her brown eyes blaze with indignation. Then she smiles, her winning smile, the one that induces me to run across the hall to the nurses’ station and fetch her chocolate ice cream in a paper cup.
On my way to get the ice cream she won’t eat, I remember standing in the bedroom I’d given her, my entire body shaking with rage. “Where did you put the checks?” I ask.
She lifts her chin and looks out of the window at the safe suburban neighborhood to which I’ve brought her. She’s in complete control of this situation, even though she’s old, frail, and living in my house.
“Where are the checks, Mom?” I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror over her desk. It’s a mask of shock and despair. She has stolen checks from my checkbook. She wants to harm me. Her theft brings up every old attack she ever launched on my survival. I am a child again, helpless against her, raging.
She shrugs and smirks at me. “Behind the boy.”
The boy, I think, behind what boy? She’s being coy, manipulating me. I struggle to be rational, to think my way through this maze. I’m good at this, compartmentalizing my feelings, engaging my left brain. I look around the room and see the framed photograph of my sister’s son, the boy whose name she’s forgotten. I pick up the picture, open the back, and find the checks folded into a tiny square. I extract them.
“Why did you do this?” I ask her, even though I know she doesn’t know why. We are playing out the old drama between us. She must steal something from me to be even for having gone through the agony of having me. I ruined her life, she always told me. To be even, she must take everything—my identity, my father, my sister, my money.
She stares at me with that look on her face that used to precede a beating. She doesn’t have the strength to hit me. “If I had a gun,” she says, “I would kill you.”
I walk out of the room and go downstairs out to the porch. I stand outside and breathe deeply for ten minutes, waiting for the mountains and trees to calm me, for all that space to do its job and clear my head. Then I go inside, call her doctor, and tell the nurse what she said.
“You know how it is,” she tells me. “The last thing you remember, you were watching Gone with the Wind on the movie channel and suddenly you’re standing in the produce section in your pink nightgown as if you’d walked all the way to Tara in a dream.”
She pauses again, for effect this time, to see if I’ve gotten the joke. I nod and smile. I appreciate her sense of humor. I take her hand but she complains my hand is too hot. I remind myself we’re not close. I shouldn’t expect anything new.
Being smart, my mother always said, was being able to devise solutions to whatever problem presented itself. I look out the window, watching the afternoon shadow thrown by the building slowly cross the grassy hill and ride along the fence. It’s sometimes hard to look at her, this dying stranger who bears no resemblance to my mother. I have no solution for this problem.
She explains her new strategy for dressing. “I just wear a flowered housedress. I’m always presentable when guests arrive. If I find myself in the hallway unexpectedly and don’t remember if I’ve thrown trash down the chute or I’m on my way to the laundry room, I’m still respectable.”
What if she threw her underwear down the trash chute instead of putting it in the washing machine? What if the theft of her underwear is about her virginity being stolen? I don’t say anything. Either way, how would it matter now?
She’s silent for a while, her eyes closed, breathing slowed. I realize she doesn’t know where she is. It’s dark in the room. I look at my watch. I look again at the photographs tacked up on the bulletin board, hung on the wall at the foot of her bed. My sister put them up in an effort to help recapture some of her memories. In one of them, a woman with abundant, brunette hair strikes a provocative pose with some man I don’t know. This is the mother I remember.
When she opens her eyes, I ask who the man in the photo is. She says, “Oh I don’t know. He doesn’t matter.” Decades dissolve in a flood of disinterest. Perhaps she never cared.
Her bed is backwards in the room, her head facing away from her roommate. The footboard is against the wall so she can lie in bed propped on pillows and watch her own TV. She’s on her fourth roommate since she’s been in the nursing home. The others have all died.
A few of my mother’s precious things remain from the last thirty years of frenzied collecting. Enamel plaques of stylized stone flowers bought in Hong Kong hang on the wall to the left of her bed. The hand-painted lingerie dresser with its scrolled brass drawer pulls stands to the right of the television and holds dozens of pairs of colorful socks rolled into balls. Her upholstered rocker faces the television, away from her roommate. And, of course, there are the frilly French unmentionables in a box under the bed, the underwear she never wears anymore.
A nurse complained to me a few months ago that the patient insisted on wearing several pairs of adult diapers at the same time. My mother is clearly planning a quick getaway. If the prince pinned to the wall comes to her rescue, she’ll be ready to fly the coop, an expression of hers that always made me imagine fluttering wings and a snowstorm of feathers.
“When I lived in Hawaii, we called these dresses muumuus,” she says suddenly, picking up the thread of her own thought. “Muumuu is the perfect word,” she tells me. “You want to murmur something soothing when you’re wearing them.”
She drifts off and I sit there, empty of thoughts, incapable of solving the problem of death.
“Have you told her you forgive her?” the hospice nurse asks when she bustles in for a vitals check.
“As much as I can,” I say and don’t even ask how she knows I’m supposed to perform this ritual. We are all priests now, absolving those who trespassed against us so they may go to heaven unburdened.
Is there an invisible tattoo on my forehead that marks my tribe—those who must forgive before death? Perhaps it’s a pictogram, or a spiky hieroglyphic of fear, rage, and sorrow. Perhaps the clue is in how far I sit from my mother’s bed.
The nurse places her fingers on the inside of my mother’s wrist. “Thready,” she says as if I know what that portends. “You should tell her it’s okay to go.”
“Don’t let that woman vacuum under the bed,” my mother mutters, opening her eyes.
I giggle. It’s too late now to distress her with questions about her childhood, too late to ferret out the story of the thief who comes in the night and steals her most private things. I turn away from this thought again. I can’t bear the effort of hating anyone today.
She tells me she put a few of her best undergarments under the sofa cushions. “When I sleep on the sofa, no one will be able to get them.”
“Perfectly logical,” I say.
She looks at me with some alarm, as if she had forgotten something critical, or was suddenly afraid. “Did Willie call?” she asks for the third time in three days.
I shake my head, no. Willie died years ago, but I don’t say that. Instead I tell her I can stay a while longer. I pour water from the pitcher into her glass, place the tip of my finger over the top of the straw and watch the water being sucked upward by the vacuum into the straw. I hold the straw near her lips, slowly dripping water into her mouth.
She sips, licks her lips, and turns her face away. “That’s enough,” she says. She hasn’t eaten for three weeks. She asks if I’m hungry and offers to ring for an ice cream.
I shake my head, no. I don’t need anything. “Tell me about the muumuus.”
“Never be unkempt in front of strangers,” she declares. “It was the Depression, I was the ninth child. My mother could have cared less what happened to me. She never had time for me. I just tagged along behind Willie.”
This is her refrain. I’ve heard it all my life. I’ve never known what to do with the information. When I was a child, she used to tell me my clothes were clean and paid for. It was a point of pride, something to use as a rebuttal when attacked. We expected to be attacked. We had contingency plans. I realize now she gave me a weapon she didn’t have when she was young: clean clothes.
I offer her water again, putting the straw to her mouth. It dribbles down her chin. I blot her mouth with a white tissue. “Oh, excuse me, my mouth just isn’t where it should be,” she says. “Something always falls out.”
It’s an old joke. I smile. We are people who spill things. Our minds are always somewhere else.
“They’re killing people here,” she says. “Strange things happen. I’ve tried to tell my daughter about them but she just says, ‘Oh, Mom, I’m sure that’s not true.’ My daughter thinks she can talk me out of believing what I know.”
I nod slightly. She’s right. I used to think I could talk her out of her paranoia. I’ve reformed. Paranoia is what happens to you when you’re haunted by evil as a child, taken by it, violated at will. The past makes you vigilant. There are signs of imminent danger everywhere. I see what she sees. People are dying. The only effective plan here is escape.
“There was that fire when we all had to be evacuated,” she reminds me.
That wasn’t here. She has flipped to four years ago. Time, distance, and space are irrelevant. In a blink, memory sets one thing against another, rearranging the narrative’s atoms, changing its species and genus.
Years ago, her apartment building was evacuated in the middle of the night because of a fire that started in her kitchen. I wonder if all memories are like this, a kernel of fact around which nacreous layers of invention are secreted.
She goes back to her underwear, the recurring melody of her old age. She tells me I need to be wary of the woman who comes to clean because she’ll want to vacuum under the bed.
“My daughter is in cahoots with the cleaning woman,” she says. “She can’t wait to get her hands on my things.”
She’s quiet again for a while, her eyes closed. Her breathing is what the nurse calls shallow. Her arm is icy cold when I touch it. I pull the cover up over her legs. My mind wanders. I think about what I’ll prepare for dinner and make a shopping list in my head. Later I wonder if this is a defense mechanism, my way of escaping.
“You need to be careful about telling your daughter everything,” she says in the barest whisper. I startle.
“I can tell you that daughters come and go around here. You can hear them walking the hallway if you lower the sound on the television. Up and down the hallway they walk, as if they were waiting for someone to give birth. I’m sure you know about giving birth.”
She gives me the once over, able to tell by looking at me whether I’ve succeeded in that department. I’ve given up reminding her she has grandsons. Perhaps she remembers for a minute and then another memory whisks her away.
She turns her head and looks out into the hallway. “Is Willie coming?”
I surrender and nod. “He’s on his way,” I say.
I stroke her arm. She sleeps for a bit, or does what passes for sleep, the cells of her body straying into the air around her. I tell her it’s okay to go. I think about who she is, her obstinacy, her determination to save the last shreds of her dignity, and correct my statement.
“It’s okay to go, Mom, if you want to.”
The nurse comes in for rounds and another semblance of taking her patient’s vitals. They are charting the countdown, the soul’s liftoff into the ether. I tell myself I am inured to this. I gather my things to go and my mother wakes abruptly, turns her head and looks at me in panic, wordless, her eyes wide with terror, her mouth open without sound.
“I’ll be back,” I say from the door. “Don’t worry.” I still haven’t said I forgive her. I’m working up to it, debating with myself about the utility of forgiveness. The words hang heavy in my chest like an obligation.
I wave goodbye from the door. Holding my breath, I walk quickly through the halls to the back door on the lower level. I punch in the code to release the door lock. All my focus is on escape. Outside, I exhale and take deep breaths of the cold March air. I open all the windows in the car and leave them open the entire drive home to shed the smell of impending death.
Four hours later the nurse calls. “She’s gone,” she says. Her voice quavers.
My mother has flown the coop and all that will be left are feathers in a box under the bed.
Genny Fite earned degrees from Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of the Sam Lagarde mystery/thrillers Cromwell’s Folly, No Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating & Occasionally Murder. Her chapbook of poems, The Last Thousand Years, was published by Loyola College.
Delmarva Review publishes compelling new writing from authors within the region and beyond. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and book copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.