In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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© Lee Ann McGuireMy father, whom everyone calls Buzzy, and Alejandro, my brother’s Cuban boyfriend, are sitting at my parents’ kitchen table eating gefilte fish with horseradish. My sister Anna is doing a crossword puzzle — her fourth one today. It is midnight. My mother, a lifelong smoker, is in the hospital, having suffered a “massive” heart attack. No one knows if she will live. We spent the day in her hospital room, watching her vomit, mopping up the blood that spurted from her nose, and breathing in the pissy smell from her leaking catheter bag and the sour odor of death mixed with medicine. My father brushed her teeth, and my brother Emery rubbed scented lotion into her hands and feet, but the stink still remained, as if the air had been stained.
The gefilte fish is the fifth course of the birthday dinner I have prepared for Buzzy. The first course was quesadillas: two flour tortillas with slices of Monterey Jack cheese stacked between them, fried in a pan with butter, then topped with cilantro and salsa. I used the wrong pan, though, and the cheese melted out the sides and burned. Four tortillas were lost in the process. That left only enough for each person to have one quesadilla. My brother and his boyfriend eat a lot. They would have had three each.
The second course was frozen tofu corn dogs: “Remove from package and microwave for two minutes.” Emery specifically requested them after the quesadillas were gone. Buzzy fetched the mustard from the refrigerator. The corn dogs were a hit.
The third course was salad. Anna and I had bought a bag of greens at the store earlier that day: “Triple-washed for your convenience. Just open and serve.” I dumped the contents into a wooden bowl and brought out a glass jar of Italian dressing. Everyone served themselves salad, using their hands to dish out portions.
The fourth course was pickles. “Chill before serving. Refrigerate after opening.” Anna opened the jar and passed it around the table.
And the fifth course was gefilte fish.
We are in Santa Barbara, where the days are so sunny you’d swear a nuclear reactor has just exploded. My brother, my sister, and I grew up here, but we no longer live near our parents. We have each flown in from the East Coast, where we were still wearing weatherproof boots and scarves. Between us, my sister and I have left behind two husbands and five kids, all of whom we passionately love, but none of whom we currently miss.
I have brought a pedicure kit with me, because the last time I was in Santa Barbara my father warned me that women were getting hepatitis from pedicure instruments, even at the most exclusive salons. I will take the pedicure kit to a salon and pay a Russian woman (who was most likely an engineer or a physicist in her own country) to use it on my feet. She will laugh at my fear and say something in her own language to the other overly educated Russian women, slumped over other American women’s feet. This will not bother me, because everything that happens these next few days will be overshadowed by my mother’s heart attack. The pedicure itself, of course, is not important compared to the heart attack, but I insist on scheduling an appointment anyway. I cannot wear open-toed sandals without getting a pedicure, and I cannot walk around Santa Barbara in closed-toed shoes.
Alejandro doesn’t love the gefilte fish, but he finishes the jar with Buzzy, perhaps in an act of solidarity. Coyotes howl outside. We all freeze, like pointing dogs, and listen. Earlier today a bobcat ran in front of the car I was driving. It dashed out of the brush and silently bounced, like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh, from one side of the road to the other.
My parents live in a Spanish-style stucco house on a stretch of mountain acres that abuts a national forest. From their land you can see the ocean spreading all the way down to Los Angeles, a hundred miles away. My mother loves it up here, where the wind blows stronger and the sun is more fierce than in the town tucked at the base of the mountain. The house even has a name: Casa de las Ananás — House of the Pineapples.
When I am home at Casa de las Ananás, where paintings are hung three-high on the walls and there’s a fireplace in each bedroom, I have a vague feeling of being lost: not lost like when you’re trying to find a specific piazza in Rome, but lost like when you’re a kid in the supermarket and you mistake the woman in front of you for your mother, who has disappeared down another aisle. In this house, the possibility of disaster or death always looms over me. Through the years, I have compiled and refined a list of the ten most likely ways to die at Casa de las Ananás:
Death by mountain lion: A pony down the road was eaten by one last year, and when I was eleven years old, a small boy hiking with his mother in the forest surrounding Casa de las Ananás was snatched and killed by one. Lion droppings are a frequent sight during hikes.
Death by rattlesnake: Ten years ago my mother deliberately ran over one in the car. She saved the carcass as a souvenir. Buzzy almost stepped on one about three months ago. Mom screamed, and Buzzy jumped back and shooed it away with his walking stick. It rattled at him, but didn’t bite.
Death by falling: Buzzy did fall once. He was hiking with my six-year-old daughter when he slipped on some moss and tumbled over a precipice. Brushy chaparral bushes growing out from fissures in the side of the cliff broke his fall, and he landed on a small sandstone ledge, rather than plummeting to the stone bottom a couple of stories below.
Death by drowning: The stream is usually shallow, with big, jutting rocks like stepping stones, but occasionally, after a season of rains, it becomes surprisingly deep and rapid with a noisy, foaming waterfall. Two years ago a dead bear was found in it, apparently drowned.
Death by bear: If one drowned, then there must be others.
Death by earthquake: When I was a teenager, I was lying naked with my boyfriend in a cave carved out of a massive rock wall. I asked, “What do you think would happen if there were an earthquake right now?” He said, “This cave would collapse, and we’d be crushed to death.” A moment later the ground was shaking. My boyfriend scrambled out of the cave, abandoning me to my fate. The cave didn’t collapse, but the ledge we’d been sitting on a few minutes before broke off and smashed to the ground a hundred feet below.
Death by bullet: There’s very little crime in Santa Barbara, but there is a rifle club in the nearby national forest. If one were to hike to the far end of my parents’ property, and someone from the rifle club were to wander away from the target areas, it is conceivable that one could be hit by a stray bullet.
Death by fire: Months go by in Santa Barbara with no rain, and in the summer the hot Santa Ana winds blow through town like spirits on a rampage. In the last three decades, there have been three devastating fires in the vicinity of Casa de las Ananás. My parents keep two mountain bikes in the garage, in case the road to the house is closed by fire.
Death by falling rock: There are three yellow, diamond-shaped signs on the serpentine, cliff-edged road up to the house, all with two simple words: Falling Rock. Often, a boulder the size of a Volkswagen will appear overnight. No one’s been hit by one yet, but I can’t imagine it will never happen.
Death by sailing over a cliff in a car: Buzzy is famous for looking at everything but the road as he zooms down the mountain. When I imagine Buzzy driving my mother to the hospital, I think that, at that moment, her chances of dying from a car wreck were probably equal to her chances of dying from the heart attack.
In fact, death by heart attack has never even been on the list.
The morning of the heart attack, when Buzzy was driving my mother to the hospital, she choked out a single sentence: “If you tell the kids, I’ll kill you.” Had she died that night, those would have been her last words. Buzzy put off calling us for a day, but finally he broke down and sheepishly phoned: “You know, I promised your mother I wouldn’t tell you, but, well, she had a heart attack, and . . .”
When my siblings and I arrived late that night, she was too anesthetized to know we were there. Today, Day Three, she is alert enough to speak, and she’s pissed.
“I told your father not to tell you,” she says. She speaks uncharacteristically slow and slurs her words, as if her lips were numb.
“He couldn’t not tell us,” I say.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Go home.”
“Mom,” I say, “you had a massive heart attack.”
“Says everyone!” Anna shouts. “They thought you were going to die.”
“Well, if that’s dying,” Mom mumbles, “dying’s not so bad.”
No one tells her that she’s still in critical condition.
The doctor comes in and confirms our story. “Your husband saved your life,” he says. “Twenty minutes later and you would have died.”
“If he saved my life, what do I need you for?” Her eyes are closed as she speaks, as if she doesn’t have the energy to look and talk at the same time.
“It was a joint effort,” the doctor says.
“Thank you,” she says, and I swear she rolls her eyes under her closed lids.
Mom is sixty-two years old, but at this moment she looks eighty-two. Her face is as gray as her hair, and her eyes are puffy flesh doughnuts. She has melted somehow.
“How do I look?” she asks. It is late afternoon, Day Four, and she has finally forgiven us for flocking to her side in this time of crisis.
“Like you just woke up from a nap,” Emery says. He is quieter than the rest of us and doesn’t shift or fidget in his chair.
“You look beautiful,” Buzzy says. Buzzy used to worry that Mom was so beautiful she would be “kidnapped by Arabs.” I’ve never understood the Arab part. Would they find her more beautiful than, say, the Turks?
“I think you look awful,” I say. “You don’t look like yourself.”
“She doesn’t look awful,” Anna says. “She looks like she just woke up.”
“Give me a mirror,” Mom says.
“No way,” I say. “It would be too depressing.”
Mom gives a breathy, weak laugh, and the nurse — there is always one in the room — looks at me askance.
We have brought the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the three books that were sitting on Mom’s bedside table at home, but Mom cannot hold her head up or keep her eyes open long enough to read. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to read any of these aloud. Plus, it would require a strength of concentration that none of us currently possesses. So Anna goes to the store and returns with the National Enquirer and the Star. We pass the tabloids around, reading out headlines and the captions under pictures.
“Hillary hired a private detective to follow Bill,” Anna says, “and found that he has been having affairs with a string of women.”
“Good thing Bill Clinton never met you,” Buzzy says to Mom. “He would have been all over you.”
My mother is too weak to open her eyes at the moment, but she rolls them anyway. They look like marbles under folds of ashy tissue paper.
There are six cats and two dogs at Casa de las Ananás. Three of the cats live in the barn. The other cats and the dogs live in the house. Each animal is neurotic in some way. We all suspect that Mom loves them more than she loves us. Buzzy, who has allergies and asthma, knows that if the silky blanket of animal hair that covers every surface in the house were to provoke him into life-threatening, chronic asthma attacks, he would have to move out, leaving Mom at peace with her animal kingdom.
As children, we were raised to be animal lovers. Sure enough, each of us now has his or her own pets at home. Yet my sister and I can’t find space in our hearts for our mother’s animals. Anna continually yells at the black Lab, Jasmine, sounding like an abusive mother from a made-for-TV movie. When Jasmine slinks over to a bowl of cat food in the laundry room, my sister snaps, “Jasmine, you sick fuck! Get your binge-and-purge ass out of here!” I feel sorry for Jasmine, with her slanted trot and mucusy eyes, but I can’t bring myself to touch her, as each stroke releases weightless piles of black hair that smell like wet wool. Occasionally I’ll pet her rear end with the bottom of my shoe, but that’s the best I can do.
Emery and Alejandro ignore the dogs but are nice to the cats: Even the dwarf black-and-white named Little Carl White, who lives under the stairs and won’t let anyone pet him. Even the old, bony gray cat Lefty, who climbs on laps and shoulders uninvited. Even Maggie Bucks, the fat, cross-eyed Siamese who hangs out in the cupboard and sleeps above the kitchen ceiling in the rafters. Maggie Bucks is my mother’s favorite and seems the most distressed by Mom’s absence. She has taken to pissing on the bed I sleep in and shitting on my sister’s bed. Alejandro and Emery are sleeping in the modern guest quarters on the second floor of the barn (built specifically for our visits, to keep us out of Mom’s space). The cats don’t go up there, and so Alejandro and Emery have not been pissed or shit on. The first floor of the barn, however, has cat shit scattered across it like land mines. The litter box remains clean.
I have decided that Maggie Bucks despises me. Whenever I open the cupboard and find her perched among the Grape Nuts and jars of gefilte fish and saltines, which have been pushed back to give her a place to sit, I speak for her — saying what I believe she is thinking. Because she is Siamese, I give her what I imagine is a Siamese accent — really a caricature of an accent, like Jerry Lewis when he plays a cross-eyed Asian.
“What you do here, Baltimore Girl?” I scream on behalf of Maggie Bucks. “Smoker Lady no here! Smoker Lady in hospital! You go home now! You go back to Baltimore! I no want you here, Baltimore Girl!”
“Sorry,” I say, in my own voice, “I’m hanging around until Smoker Lady comes home.”
“No one want you here!” Maggie Bucks says. “I piss on you bed! I spray stinky piss-spray all over you pillow! Don’t you know what stinky piss-spray mean? It mean, Go away, snotty Baltimore Girl! No one want you here!”
The first couple of times I do this, everyone laughs. By the second day, however, I am so compulsive about speaking in Maggie Bucks’s voice that no one even looks up from what they’re doing.
The name Smoker Lady has caught on, though. Mom’s forty-year, two-pack-a-day habit is surely the single greatest factor in this heart attack. There are cigarettes and butt-filled ashtrays everywhere in the house. Burn holes, like tiny craters, dot the upholstery of my mother’s car. In Buzzy’s new car, a German luxury auto that he has finally given himself permission to buy (he has always considered expensive cars frivolous), there is a cigarette-tip-sized divot on the leather passenger seat. I was fingering it one day, the way one might worry an acne scab, and I noticed Buzzy visibly wincing — although he would never complain. Buzzy doesn’t smoke, but he has tolerated my mother’s smoking because he knows that, as with the animals, she would choose cigarettes over him.
We debate what to do about the packs of cigarettes we find in the house.
“Smoker Lady will be furious if you throw them away,” Emery warns.
“But she can never smoke again,” Anna says.
“She needs to decide that on her own,” Emery says. “We can’t make that decision for her.” Emery also smokes, although my sister and I insist that he go outside to do it.
On Day Five the doctor comes to speak to us. We all stand around my mother’s bed, like a scene from an Italian painting.
“She should never smoke again, right?” my sister asks.
“No,” the doctor says.
“No?” we all say, except Mom, who has her eyes shut and is wincing with nausea.
“I mean yes. You’re right.” We laugh at the mix-up.
“Just a minute ago, a funny thing happened,” the doctor says.
My mother begins to retch a little, and Emery, who is standing closest to her head, grabs the kidney-shaped vomit receptacle.
“There was this very old woman, and she seemed malnourished,” the doctor continues.
Emery doesn’t know quite where to put the dish: under Mom’s chin? Near her shoulder? He waves it around a bit. The retching stops. Nothing has surfaced.
“I took her to the nurse, who was standing near the scale, and said, ‘Nurse, this woman needs to get laid.’ ”
Everyone laughs except Mom, who vaguely smiles.
“You meant she needed to get weighed?” Buzzy asks. He is a documented genius, yet often has trouble following the simplest ideas.
“Yes, she needed to get weighed,” the doctor says.
“She probably needed to get laid, too,” I say, and now my mother actually laughs.
I am in charge of dinner every night. Buzzy doesn’t cook, Alejandro and Emery eat only in restaurants when they’re home, and Anna, who cooks all the time for her family, sees this as a vacation from cooking.
I make the same meals I prepare for my young daughters at home: macaroni and cheese with peas; canned soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches; pasta with red sauce from a jar. Whenever my husband cooks, he prepares a substantial meal: grilled asparagus, salad, pork tenderloin. He doesn’t know it, but I like my cooking better than his. I’d rather eat grilled cheese than grilled asparagus.
Everyone at Casa de las Ananás eats my dinners as if they were ravenous, as if they had never tasted anything better. We are like that in the hospital, too, gathering around Mom’s lunch tray and devouring everything she doesn’t eat, which is all of it.
On Day Seven a social worker drops by Mom’s room. We are busy eating Mom’s grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, dinner roll with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, and Jell-O cup. Emery looks up and says hi to the social worker, but then goes back to eating for fear that my father, my sister, and I will finish everything. My mother’s heart alarm is dinging; it has been dinging off and on all week, and we have grown immune to it. Mom’s arm or leg is always kinking a small hose.
“What seems to be the problem here?” the social worker says. She is thick, long-headed, and tall: a human rectangle.
“She’s constantly setting that thing off,” my sister says. “It would take handcuffs or a rope to keep her still.” Her mouth is full, and she waves a roll as she speaks.
“Oh, I see the problem,” the social worker chirps. “You’ve got to put your arm down,” she says to Mom, and she tucks my mother’s arm to her side as we continue with our meal.
“Well, then,” the social worker says. “I guess I’ll just check back later.”
“Oh,” Buzzy says, “did you want to talk to us?” A glob of red Jell-O quivers at the corner of his mouth.
“I really wanted to talk to your wife,” she says, “about how she feels.”
Mom instantly shuts her eyes and feigns sleep.
“I’ll come back later,” the social worker says, and she quietly backs out of the room as if she were leaving a viewing in a funeral home.
Moments later, the nurse returns to tell us that the social worker did not approve of our behavior.
“She thought you were an uncaring family,” the nurse reports. “She thought the children were ignoring their mother.”
Mom opens her eyes, suddenly awake, and laughs in a big, open-mouthed way. It is the most vociferous she has been all week.
Buzzy is insulted. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What are we doing wrong? What do other people do?”
“Most people just sit quietly in the room,” the nurse says. “I told her you weren’t like most people.”
“She probably didn’t like us because you talk too fast,” I say to Anna. The teachers in elementary school all wanted her to go to speech therapy, but Mom and Buzzy only laughed at the suggestion, and she never went.
“Maybe she’s upset that we were eating Mom’s lunch,” Emery says.
“Well she’s not eating it,” Buzzy says. “Why shouldn’t we?”
“Listen, Buzzy,” Mom says, “the next time the social worker comes in, you come over here and pet my head or something.”
“I’ll stand on the other side of you and stroke your forearm,” Anna says.
“Maybe I should pray,” I say.
“Yeah!” Mom laughs so hard that she snorts. “And tell the social worker that I don’t need to talk to her because our family pastor —” She is laughing too hard to continue. “Tell her our pastor is on his way to see me!”
We are all almost in tears at the idea of my mother being visited by a pastor. Mom does not believe in hierarchical relationships and would never assume that a pastor was more godly than she. The word pastor itself is foreign to us — like block parties and Christmas caroling and other civic-minded activities that our family has never known.
“He needs a name,” Emery says. “You have to give him a name.”
“Ken,” I say.
“Yeah,” Mom says, her voice weakening as she runs out of energy. “Pastor Ken. Our family pastor.”
© Mark Townsend
We have been watching cartoons for at least an hour every night after dinner. Emery is a television producer and is developing a new cartoon series. He watches the most popular shows to see what works. The rest of us have begun to watch with him and are so entranced that we talk only during commercials.
On the evening of Day Eight, we all gather in the TV room for Sponge Bob Square Pants. The animation alone makes us laugh: one character’s nose hangs down his face like a penis. Lefty the cat crawls across our shoulders and runs his tail across Alejandro’s eyes while he is trying to watch the show. Emery picks up the cat and settles with him on the floor. The dogs lie between the couch and the coffee table. Like a litter of puppies, everyone is huddled into the smallest-possible area.
“I don’t get this,” Buzzy says during a commercial. “Is he a sponge?”
“He’s Sponge Bob Square Pants,” Emery says. “He’s a sponge who wears square pants.”
“Is he a kitchen sponge?” Buzzy asks.
“He’s a sea sponge,” Anna says. She has little tolerance for people who can’t see the obvious.
“Ooooh,” Buzzy says, “so a moment ago when he was up in that alternate universe, that wasn’t an alternate universe at all. That was land above the sea, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Emery says. “What’d you think it was?”
“I thought he was in heaven or something.”
“Did anyone feed the dogs?” Alejandro asks. He’s rubbing their bellies with his bare feet.
“Somebody’s gotta feed the dogs,” Buzzy says. “They never eat this late.”
“So why don’t you feed them, Dad?” Anna says.
“I’m watching Sponge Bob.”
“I’m never feeding them,” Anna says. “They’re obese.”
“I’ll feed them when Sponge Bob is over,” Emery says. “It won’t kill them to wait.”
“Your mother would die if she knew the animals weren’t being fed on time,” Buzzy says.
“She’d die if she knew you were making fun of Maggie Bucks all the time,” my sister says to me.
“She’d die if she knew that you were using one of the antique quilts on the bed,” I say to Anna.
“She’d die if she knew that Little Carl White barfed on the stairs,” Emery says.
“What do you mean?” Buzzy asks. “She doesn’t care about the carpet on the stairs.”
“She wouldn’t die because of the carpet,” Emery says. “She’d die because Little Carl White actually barfed.”
“Shhh,” Alejandro says.
The show is back on.
There is a saturation point during each hospital visit: a moment when one of us can no longer take the beeping, stinking room. It usually hits Anna first. She stands, paces, eats the candy that she keeps in her giant backpack-purse. Then she says, “Let’s go run an errand.” Sometimes it’s Emery who snaps. He walks to the doorway and says, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Anna, Alejandro, and I rush after him. It would be entirely unfair for one of us to take a break without the others. Buzzy stays behind, his entire being wholly devoted to my mother.
These breaks last three hours, no longer. One day we went shopping. One day we went to a park. One day we sat in an outdoor cafe.
Today, Day Nine, Anna has hit her saturation point earlier than usual: only eleven o’clock.
Mom is sleeping. The machinery that frames her quietly hums.
“Let’s go to the club,” Anna says.
When we were kids, our family belonged to the tennis club. Buzzy and Mom joined to get us out of the house, although they had no interest in the place; they never even drove up the long, wooded driveway, dropping us off instead on the street. Anna went to the club daily for tennis and swimming. Emery hung around the clubhouse with friends. I always preferred the ocean.
“Are we still members?” Emery asks.
“Of course not,” Buzzy says. “You think we’d pay all that money when none of you even live here?”
“I go every time I’m in town,” Anna says. “They always let me in.”
Anna spent so much of her childhood at the club that she’s still in contact with the tennis pros, the club manager, and the couple who run the cafe.
“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” I say.
“They sell suits in the pro shop,” Anna says.
“I bet they only have Speedo suits,” I say. “I’m not wearing that ugly, swim-team stuff.”
I am wearing a matronly navy blue Speedo suit that covers me from collarbone to thighs. I look like a mentally disabled adult who has been dressed by her mother. I paid seventy dollars for the suit — in cash so my husband wouldn’t see the charge on our credit-card bill.
Anna’s bikini is minimal. When I saw it, I said, “I can’t believe you brought your bikini to Mom’s heart attack!”
“You brought a fucking pedicure kit!” Anna shot back.
My sister has giant tan breasts that bulge around the edges of her suit. Her legs are thin and well-toned; she runs ten miles a day. She lies on a lounge chair in the sun reading a celebrity magazine that she bought for my mother but has forgotten to give her. A Mexican boy rearranging the deck chairs watches her closely.
I dive down under the water. Everything goes silent. I kick my legs once, as hard as I can, my eyes shut. I feel like a blind seal. When I surface, I am Sponge Bob Square Pants in the alternate universe, heaven above the water. The sky is bright blue, like the sky outside the window of an airplane. Everything seems hushed and still, the way it does before an earthquake.
Anna buys lunch for everyone. She orders me a grilled-cheese sandwich that is so good I am practically humming as I eat it.
“You have to taste this,” I say to her, offering a bite.
“It’s amazing,” she agrees, and hands it to Alejandro.
“Oh, my God,” he says. “That’s way better than gefilte fish.”
“Let me try,” Emery says. He takes a bite and laughs. “That is so good. Why is that so good?”
Back at the hospital, we smell like chlorine and sun. Everyone looks tanned but me. Mom is still sleeping. Buzzy looks up from his book and examines us.
“You had your suits with you?” he asks.
“We had to buy them,” I say.
“Did you buy a suit, too?” he asks Emery.
“Alejandro bought two.”
“I needed a new one anyway,” Alejandro says.
“I’ll pay for the new ones,” Buzzy says. “Let me give you the money.”
We all wave him off. No one will let him pay, even though it would make him happy, relieve something for him — the way tension is relieved through a fight, nervousness through a jiggling foot.
Mom is suddenly awake. “Let your father pay for the suits,” she mumbles.
“Mom, the suits were nothing,” Anna says. “It’s the plane tickets that set us back.”
“I’ll pay for those, too!” Buzzy says.
“I was kidding,” Anna says. “I used frequent-flyer miles.”
“I used miles, too,” I say.
“I’ll give you all plane tickets to pay you back,” Buzzy says.
“Forget it,” Anna says.
“Let your father pay for the tickets,” Mom groans.
“Mom,” Anna says, “why don’t you take another shot of morphine and check out for a while?”
“I had this grilled-cheese sandwich at the club,” I say. “It was so good, it was like I was on drugs or something.”
“It was like being on ecstasy,” Emery says.
“I thought she had the sandwich,” Buzzy says.
“We all tasted it,” Alejandro says. “It was amazing.”
“You’ve done ecstasy?” I ask my brother.
“You shouldn’t do it,” my sister says. “It will mess up the serotonin balance in your brain.” Anna has been on Prozac for ten years. She says she will never stop taking it.
“We do it, like, twice a year,” Emery says. “Nothing major.”
“Don’t do drugs,” Mom croaks.
“Listen to your mother,” Buzzy says.
Buzzy once grew a marijuana orchard for my mother when we were kids. He never smoked himself: because of his asthma, I suppose. Around that time, Mom went on housework strike and stopped doing any chore that she deemed “housewifey.” Buzzy wanted to hire a cleaning service, but Mom refused; she thought it was too risky to let a stranger on the property with all the marijuana around. The house remained filthy for years.
On Day Ten, Mom is deemed strong enough for surgery and is sent to another floor, where doctors snake tubes through her thigh and up to her heart, cleaning out her arteries as if they were clogged plumbing. Following the surgery she is checked out of intensive care and sent to the cardio-care unit. The doctor expects a full recovery. Mom will be released to Casa de las Ananás within four days.
We all know that Mom won’t want us here when she gets home. She will feel crowded and claustrophobic with our noise and our bodies and our things strewn about. Although none of us would ever ask her for anything or make any demands of her, the simple fact of our presence would be like a sore that wouldn’t heal. That’s why Mom has always preferred the animals — they don’t make her feel guilty when she puts them out of the house.
We each spend part of the evening on the phone with the airlines, arranging for a flight home later in the week. While I am on hold in the kitchen, the Captain and Tenille singing in my ear, Maggie Bucks jumps out of the cupboard and stares at me with her misdirected eyes.
“Guess what,” I say to the cat, “Smoker Lady is coming home soon.”
“Then you leave!” I answer myself in Maggie Bucks’s voice. “Smoker Lady no want you! Smoker Lady only like cat and dog!”
“Oh, yeah?” I say. “Well, fuck you.”
“You still talking to the cat?” Anna walks into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator door. Jasmine the dog approaches Anna; my sister stomps her foot and yells, “Scram!”
Emery comes in. “I bet they’ll be glad to have us gone,” he says.
“Nah,” Anna says. “Deep inside, they’ll really miss us. They probably even love us.”
“Just like Mom,” I say.
In my right ear, the Captain and Tenille sing: “Love, love will keep us together. . . .”
It is early morning on Day Thirteen, the day we leave. I am in the kitchen eating a bowl of Grape Nuts, looking around at the things with which my mother has chosen to surround herself. Along the wall above the stove is a line of wrought-iron Pennsylvania Dutch trivets with pictures on them. One has an angry-looking woman in a red apron raising a black frying pan in one hand. Above her are the words Ach! Don’t talk so dumb! When I was a kid and Mom would pull a bubbling-hot pan from the oven and yell, “Get a trivet, quick!” I always grabbed the Ach! one.
The phone rings, and I answer it. Anna has already answered on the extension in her room. It’s Mom.
“Don’t stop off to say goodbye,” she says to Anna. “I’m going to be busy all morning, and you’ve got to get to the airport early.”
“Mom,” Anna says, “you’re in a hospital bed. How busy can you be?”
“Busy,” Mom says. “You know, the doctor checking on one thing, a nurse checking on another; and then I’ve got to walk a lap around the cardio unit before they’ll let me out.”
“We’re stopping by,” Anna says.
“Please,” Mom says, “I really don’t want you to come.”
“Mom?” I say.
“You on the phone?” she asks.
“Mom doesn’t want us stopping by,” Anna says. “She’s busy.”
“Mom,” I say, “I’m only going to tell you this once.”
“Ach! Don’t talk so dumb!”
Mom laughs, and I hang up, leaving Anna to sort out our plans.
By 8 a.m. we are in Buzzy’s car, speeding down the mountain. I am in the back seat, even though I get carsick, because long ago I decided it was the safest place to be with Buzzy at the wheel.
“Wouldn’t it be funny,” I say, “if we all died right now in a car wreck and Mom ended up outliving us?”
“We’re not going to die,” Buzzy says. “No one’s dying.” He takes a sharp turn too quickly, and I rock back and forth between my brother and Alejandro.
At the bottom of the mountain Buzzy stops, puts the car in neutral, and turns to my sister in the front seat. “Well?” he asks.
If he turns right, we go directly to the airport. Left, and we’ll be on our way to the hospital.
“Left,” Anna says.
“She’ll be pissed,” Buzzy says.
“Fuck her,” Anna says. “We’re her fucking kids.”
“Let’s not upset her,” Emery says. “Just go to the airport.”
“I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of,” I say, “Mom being mad because we’ve stopped off to say goodbye, or Mom dying before I get a chance to visit her again.”
I close my eyes as Buzzy puts the car in gear.
© Aaron Serafino
Mom looks up and scowls when we appear in her doorway. She is decidedly not busy.
“What the hell do you want?”
“The kids want to say goodbye to you,” Buzzy says, nodding as if to say, I knew she’d act like this. We, the kids, are huddled behind him. Alejandro is half smiling; it’s easy to be amused by cantankerous people who are not related to you.
“So, goodbye!” Mom says. “Go.”
“Honey —” Buzzy says.
“They’re acting like I’m about to die! I’m fine. I’ll see them all this summer — they never stay away long.”
Anna pushes ahead and enters the room. “Fine.” She leans over and kisses Mom’s cheek. “Goodbye. I love you.”
“You too,” Mom says.
Anna heads for the elevator. The boys scramble in and out of the room. The exchanges are quick: words, kiss, words, kiss. The words sound like clucking, the kisses like hen pecks — we have been reduced to a herd of chickens.
Then it’s my turn.
“All right,” Mom says. “Give me a kiss and get out of here. You’re going to miss your flight.”
“I think Maggie Bucks hates me,” I say as I approach the bed.
“I don’t know, she just glares at me every time I open the cupboard.”
“Maggie Bucks doesn’t hate anyone. She’s a loving, kind soul.”
Mom sounds a tiny bit hurt, as if I’d criticized her. I decide to lighten the mood.
“Did I tell you Maggie Bucks came out of the closet?” I say. “She’s a lesbian.”
“I’ve always had a strong gay-dar reading on her, so it was really no surprise.”
Mom laughs harder, wiping tears from her eyes.
“I think she came out because she thought you were going to die,” I say. “She thought, Ah-so, now I be my true self; Smoker Lady dead. I no fear judgment.”
Mom is rolling. “All right, honey,” she says, “get going.”
I lean in, working my hands under the tubes attached to her arms so I can hug her, and suddenly I am crying. No, not crying. I am sobbing.
Mom sobs, too. Neither of us can speak. And that is how we finally say goodbye.
Jessica Anya Blau