Today I walk the shoreline only in my mind, when I so wanted to walk by the sea, to feel the wind, to walk through the stormy weather, unafraid. I’m “being held,” I heard them say. For my “protection.” My body and the rest of me, aged eighty-seven years, sit in a tiny cell with whitewashed walls. I might pretend this to be a cubicle inside a monastery were not the devil wailing in the corridor, making free with a man’s body, crying with his voice a pagan slander on the day, possessing a man he’s bought at some slave auction where souls are up for sale. The devil buys the soul and gets the body in the bargain.
I left my house this morning and took a bus to the seashore on a whim, but I lost my bearings, and now a young man in a blue uniform has brought me here, to this place where neither God nor any of his people live. They come to visit, though. They bring God crammed into books and tapes and cookie tins. The devil hurls the tins across the floor; he rips the pages from the texts, drowns out the tinny voices of tin preachers recorded in tin studios, shrieks above the recorded rants that God may or may not think much of in the first place.
“Next of kin?” one of my jailers, dressed up like a nurse, wants to know. How does anyone begin to answer that? My grandmother was next to me, kith and kin; she rescued and preserved what would become my life, working her magic with lemon-meringue pie and good advice: Have a cup of tea with anyone who asks you, even if he is a Chinaman. And When you grow up, you will meet a man and think that you will die if you don’t have him, and he’ll never give you a second look. More pie? She offered wisdom and bags of warm and greasy cashews from a lighted carousel in the front window of the drugstore. And pints of maple-walnut ice cream. And movies seen through fingers held over my eyes during the killing and the kissing.
“Next of kin: Harriet O’Sullivan,” I say. I spell it, and they write it down.
Scowl. “Next of kin?” At this rate, one page will take all night.
I lose interest and give my daughter’s name, inventing a street and numbers that sound right.
“Mother! Where on earth are you?” It’s my daughter, Andrea. She’s been arrested by her life, but they’ve let her make one phone call, and she’s called me at my jail. “What on earth possessed you, Mother?” My own mother used to say that. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that, since there were buses, it might be a nice idea to take a little ride.” It doesn’t sound quite as inspired as it did at dawn today. “Then I lost my way.” I lost myself, I do not say.
It seems the storm has strong-armed the night and will not let my jailers cross the causeway to transport me to some suitable asylum on the mainland, nor will it permit Andrea to come and fetch me. There is talk of marbles going missing. Such a slender crime. How have I lived on the lam for so long when they might just as easily have stopped a squad car beside me as I walked to elementary school, a thin child, tight with tongue-biting, tentative determination; a skinny girl, all knees and elbows in brown cotton dresses, with stringy hair and bangs I cut myself with pinking shears? “Get in” is all they would have had to say. “Get in,” and I would have and confessed to any number of small crimes, waived counsel, posed for mug shots with shoulders braced, my guilt already fixed in place.
Her stomach hurts, hurts bad. I sit up with a jerk, and her yelp comes from my mouth. I remember this confusion as a child. Until I could fully awaken and untangle pain from dream delirium, I sometimes thought the pain I was feeling belonged to someone else. I hear them talking about my liver. Isn’t that what someone said? We used to have liver a lot: liver and onions and mashed potatoes, and spaghetti, poured from a can and simmered on the stove with ground meat browned with onions and two or three good hits of ketchup. “Can you still buy spaghetti in a can?” I ask.
“It could be an ulcer,” the woman with a clipboard says. Can’t she hear me? Doesn’t she know I’m here?
An ulcer. My father had an ulcer in the 1950s, and they gave him tranquilizers and Maalox and heavy cream to drink. My father loved the tranquilizers. He loved any pills. He had a pharmacist friend who’d give him antibiotics every time he got a cold. My father was afraid of illness. He believed that he might die at any minute: his legacy to me. I don’t know if I ever met anyone as fearful as we two.
They tell me Andrea is on her way. I should have thought to have more children. I don’t know what I was thinking.
I should have thought to marry one last time and not let my life thin down to this. I had three late-in-life proposals, prompted though they may have been by my no-sex-outside-of-wedlock rule. Three men were prepared to step up to the plate on that one. The proposals were all along the lines of “Fine, so let’s get married.” But if sex is not a good reason to marry when you’re seventeen, it’s definitely not a worthy reason when you’re sixty-four and your boyfriend’s pushing seventy. When I told a friend I was thinking of getting married, she said, “Well, just as long as you’re prepared to change his diapers” — a thing they never mention when you are in high school and threatening to elope.
“Don’t you elope now, sweetheart,” the nurse-jailer says to me.
Good grief! Now how am I to tell which thoughts I think and which I speak aloud?
“Mother. Hello.” My daughter speaks as though we have just met.
Andrea never did know what to say. She walks in, trailing her shuffling servant of a husband well behind her. I have never liked that man. I’d like to say I’ve tried, but I was convinced the day she brought him home that she had finally decided she could do no better. She figured him to be the compromise life offered her, and were she to say no, then life would turn and walk away. It took two decades for me to see that she chose him out of love.
She is my daughter, or she was before she grew into this person I cannot explain — I, who offer a mitigating explanation for every member of my family — but I feel I know the jailer-nurse, who hands me now a sheaf of papers to sign, better than I know this beleaguered woman standing here in the unforgiving morning light and saying, “Thank you, thank you,” as though the nurse had pulled me from the ocean floor and breathed into my lungs the raspy breath of life. “Thank you,” Andrea says again, and we walk out, just like we know where we are going.
I’m back in my own house, a little worse for wear and surely not so merry as I felt out in the world, moving my wobbly self through the great swirl. Now my job is to pretend I think it is a good idea that I be given care. Andrea has hired a raft of immigrants, women who have traveled different seas in worn, leaky vessels, now here to share the quiet of my afternoons, to fill my mornings with the vacuum cleaner’s droning, to lock my evenings into place with hot drinks and cold drugs and the TV.
These black-haired, brown-eyed women make me kick myself for staring intently at my navel for fifty years when I should have devoted the time to learning the languages they could today tell me stories in, tongues even now they sing in, humming melodies that I imagine speak of caverns and waterfalls, and young girls ready to be far away. I want to know the stories of the children and the men these women left behind to be with me.
Andrea is making her shopping list. She has an entire contingent of strangers bringing goods to my house: a man for bottled water, a boy for the paper, a lady for the eggs — God forbid we eat an omelet we don’t know the lineage of, and how the chicken spent her days, and in whose company, consuming what.
“So,” Andrea says, “what else?”
“A translator,” I say. “I’d like to understand the languages spoken in my kitchen. I’d prefer a man — or men, if we need to hire more than one.”
“Why a man?” Her voice rises to a squeak. She has believed since the day she was born that I was hoping for a son.
It’s not as though she’s going to shell out for a translator of either sex. We are, as she reminds me daily, on an austerity plan. We’re “making do.” This, despite the fact that I’ve been paying premiums for long-term-care insurance since I was fifty-five.
“I don’t know what you expect of me, Mother,” Andrea says.
I want you to be joyful, I don’t say.
But I fear she was fated for unhappiness long before the preacher at her wedding said, Does anyone know any reason why these two should not be wed? and every married woman in the room bit her painted lips and sat on her gloved hands.
No translator will come. I will have to invent meanings for the songs Marisa sings while she is scouring the stove top, make up tales to fit the patois of the endless narratives Carmen seems to tell — stories, I think, about the children in the photograph she shows me many times a day. (And they say I repeat myself.)
“Do you want to come to live with me?” Andrea asks.
“No,” I say. “Do you want to come to live with me?”
We share together one deep sigh. We should want to live with one another.
“Who would you like to live with?” Andrea asks.
“My dad,” I say. “Who would you like to live with?”
“A little girl,” she says. Andrea did so want a child. It wasn’t in the cards.
As soon as Andrea leaves, I telephone the college and ask for the foreign-language department. They say someone will call me back. I ask if it could be a man.
“The past.” This is my quick reply to the social worker who’s come now to ask where I might like to live. I ask where she might like to live. She says we’re here to talk about me. I had my suspicions that might be the case.
“Nineteen forty-six,” I say, “would be my first choice.” Back before I can remember. And, once there, I would spend my days peppering the family with questions, asking, Must it come to pass the way it does? Is there nothing we can do? I want to go back like a cub reporter with a tight skirt and a lined tablet and write everything in pencil so that we could erase things, change the facts if anybody came up with some notion as to how we might make the whole thing go some other way.
“We are talking about the present,” the social worker says, but she can’t fool me. The present is just fine, entirely capable of caring for itself. It is the future she has brought to frighten me, the future they mean to cast me into willy-nilly, with neither love nor grace. I know she’ll want my daughter to assume responsibility for me, but I am reluctant to consume my daughter’s life.
“Don’t sell the house,” I tell Andrea after the woman leaves.
“We have to. We need the money for the nursing home.”
“If I don’t go, then we don’t need the money.”
I do not believe God wants life to end this way. When my grandmothers got old — seventy-one and seventy-eight — they each one had a heart attack and died, and we were sad beyond all bearing. Now, when a grandmother dies, there is a mantra people chant: It’s for the best. And they do not have heaven on their minds; they are not seeing transport to immortal glory idling on the runway. The “best” they are speaking of is an ending, not a beginning. Death at ninety-seven comes as a relief, they say out loud, imagining that if you live that long, you feel as though it’s been enough.
“Don’t sell the house,” I say again.
My mother said the same to me, not much more than twenty years ago. I gave so little to her then: I, in my late sixties, with my grinding joints and cataracts and body withering, living all alone and feeling sorry for myself — appropriately, I thought. I was on my own and was expected somehow to be responsible for her, a frightening echo of the days when as a girl I was expected to care for the grown-ups. I, a bony, shy, and fearful child, was left in charge of them.
Someone needs to get your dad to stick around at night and give me a hand around here. Those were my mother’s words.
Here are the bills I owe. My father spread them out across the bed and said, How will I pay them? I was seven. I didn’t know.
“Don’t sell the house,” my mother said. I said OK and never did till she was dead and buried. She didn’t die at home, although she might have. She lived there forever. It got to where she didn’t know us, but she knew where the cocoa tin was in the kitchen; she knew how to check the mail. She thought she knew the neighbor’s boy but had mistaken him for one who’d died a lifetime ago.
“Tommy’s gone,” my mother had said to me when that long-ago boy died. “The diphtheria. They’re going to dig a hole and put him in the ground.”
Mother, you don’t say that to a child.
Let’s set the ages down. My brother and the boy who died are both five years old. That makes my mother twenty-seven.
“Mother, you don’t need to tell children every bad thing in detail,” I would say if she were here today.
“It’s just the truth,” she would reply.
“You told me my dog got run over and his guts were splattered everywhere.”
“I’m not going to lie.”
Then why did you become a mother?
I don’t know what my mother was thinking on the day she planned her life, or perhaps I do. She was going to be a singer, and she did become one. She was going to be famous, and she accomplished that, too, in a Western Pennsylvania, Upstate New York sort of way. She made money, lots of it. That may well have been her plan. I do not think she thought of me. There is no evidence that I was ever on her mind.
If you are to know your ending, first you must feel the color gray wrapped round your head and shoulders like a thin fog your sight could easily penetrate were the wispy mists not endless. It isn’t the thickness of the fog; it is how far it goes, how long it lasts. My story’s lasted now too long, and I have lived too much of it alone.
At one point, when the thought of life all by myself alarmed me, I left the house and swore not to return until I’d met a man with a loneliness as strong and enduring as mine, so we might pool our sorrows. I met the mailman coming up the walk. “Are you lonely?” I said.
“Of course,” he said and handed me my mail. “But there are things far worse than that.” He turned and walked away, and I went back inside.
I’ve lived in this one house for thirty-seven years, kept my salt in the same shaker, nursed decades-long intentions of slathering green paint on the basement door and hiring someone to clean the second-story windows. It is amazing what a person can let go for thirty years.
My mother and my father come now to my bedroom in the night. I don’t know why. Night used to be the time when they were only muffled voices rising from the chilly kitchen. We children, sometimes not sleepy, whispered in our beds — though not to one another; it wasn’t that sort of family. We whispered prayers, as we had been instructed: If I should die before I wake — every night speaking out the possibility — I pray the Lord my soul to take, a procedure I imagined being not unlike an appendectomy, with its attendant scar and specter of infection.
We were Protestants. Our prayers were simple. Help me, we cried in our ineloquence. It’s why we left the Catholic Church: so we could be plain.
These people, so long dead now, come to me at night before my caretaker, snoring from two rooms away, can lull me off to sleep. They like for me to be asleep so I can’t get up and move about. We couldn’t move back then as kids. We couldn’t make a sound. We would be killed by our mother or our father — we never could anticipate which one; they took turns being terrifying. If one was loud and angry, the other would be calm and watchful. My mother was mostly mean; my father was warm and kind, except when he wasn’t. It is only now that they come into my room at night bereft of menace, now that I am all alone, my brother and my sister dead for six and thirteen years.
I’d like Andrea to meet them, especially my dad, her granddad. I’d like him to meet my little girl.
“Andrea!” Where is that girl?
I didn’t meet my grandfather Max till I was eighteen. I’d stopped in to see my dad at work one day and found this stranger standing there, this man who’d left his family high and dry when my dad was still a baby. My father seemed so glad to see him. “I’d like you to meet your grandfather,” my father said to me. “You should come up to the house for dinner, meet my wife and the other kids,” my dad said to his dad that day.
“Why, sure, sure, wouldn’t that be grand,” the old man said. “Friday?” Friday.
My mother borrowed money from her sister and bought fish. She knew Max was Irish Catholic, although she wouldn’t have mentioned it if he had come. Of course he didn’t. “I hate the Irish,” my father said. “I’ve always hated the Irish.”
Every family has a nationality: we were mostly Irish. Every family has a color: we were mousy brown, gray, tan, beige in a certain light. Every family has a shape: we were amorphous. Every family has a sound: we whined, complained, bemoaned, groaned on occasion. Every family has a tone: we were monotonous, droning. We were not lively. We spent a lot of time in church, and when we were at home, we ate unconscionable amounts of ice cream and worried about things.
My dad is sitting on my bed.
“Can’t you get to sleep?” I say.
“Too much on my mind tonight,” he says. “The roof man wants thirty-five dollars to fix the leak.” This would be the leak that lets water droplets plunk into the silver bucket by the dining-room table. Whenever it is raining at dinnertime, no one gets slapped or yelled at or sent to bed. I don’t know why the rain protects us, but it does. I hope they never fix the leak.
“We are going to end up in the county home,” my father says. “How can I sleep? Who will help me, Maggie?”
I think of Jesus. I can’t not, really. I am a child, and they’ve told us He likes children.
Yesterday my teacher instructed us to bring fifty cents to school to pay for the Tonette — a plastic flute for music class — but I couldn’t ask my parents. They would only have asked me who I thought I was. Didn’t I know anything?
I have already played the Tonette. They let us each borrow one to bring home. Eileen told me Bobby stuck the mouthpiece of mine in his bottom. I don’t know if he did or not, but I always wash it with soap before I play it, and it will sometimes bubble out the first few notes.
“Did you ever play a Tonette?” I ask my dad.
“I never did,” he says, then starts to talk about his father: “My dad sent me a postcard last week, said he was taking me to the fair and bringing me a bike. I was ready on the porch by 6 AM. It turned out to be one of those long days, the kind with extra hours in it. They brought me out toast with cinnamon on it, but I didn’t want to drop crumbs on my shirt. They brought me out a chicken sandwich at noontime. They made me come inside for supper. They said that I could listen to the radio. They said that someday I would understand, but I don’t really want to. They think he didn’t come on purpose.”
“We could go find him. I could drive you. No, wait. Andrea took my keys away. Andrea! Come here!”
“Who’s Andrea?” my father asks.
“Oh, she was born the winter after you died — Andrea, is that you, honey? Come in here and meet your grandfather.”
“Who’s this, then?” my father asks. “Why is her skin black like a Negro?”
“This isn’t Andrea,” I say. “Andrea!” I call out in the voice mothers use to call their children home at supper time.
“Is she our maid?” My father smiles at her with gentle eyes.
“Time to sleep, Ms. Mackenzie,” the black woman says.
“I am asleep,” I say. “I don’t know why my father hit me. Why did you? Daddy, are you there?”
“I’m afraid to ride the train,” my father says. “I want to go see my mother, but it’s so far. I don’t want to ride the train.”
“Here,” I say. “Crawl in beside me and close your eyes. You don’t have to ride the train if you don’t want to.”
Andrea walks into the room. “Mother, are you all right? Did you just call for me?”
“I wanted you to meet your grandfather, but he’s asleep. He didn’t want to ride the train. I don’t know why he hit me.”
It seems Andrea has found a new home for me. She drives us up to the asylum — I have decided we will not be calling this nursing home by any other name — her hands gripping the steering wheel as though she’s passing through a narrow tunnel and might scrape the sides if she veers an inch. You’d think she was the one signed up for dying here.
“It’s OK,” I say. I pat her hand. On her first day of preschool she said, “Mom, you don’t need to park. Just let me out by the door.” She was four years old. What happened between then and now? I like to think I am responsible for every single minute aspect of her personality and every choice she makes. But that demeans her. It says that, even at this age, she is not competent enough to throw my influence aside and just decide for herself.
This building looks like a bowling alley from the outside. A bowling alley with a chapel. There is one large stained-glass window depicting some cockeyed version of a busy village thoroughfare — shops and people and carts and horses and garden walkways and a blue stream through the middle, all done in colored glass. I think I will pay some passing boy to throw rocks at it, take out a few shoppers, a couple of horses. Stained-glass windows used to be of Jesus, back when there were still things to wonder at.
A matron greets us at the door. She has a dreadful cold. I hope she doesn’t sneeze on that tiny woman by the water fountain, who looks as if she’ll be dead by supper time even without Typhoid Mary here.
“Mary who, dear?” the matron says.
Andrea carries a cardboard box of my things. Code for my life: Your things.
“It looks like there will be plenty to do,” she says, eyeing the day room — as opposed to what, the night room? I hope that someone in this crowd will be willing to stage a revolt, take hostages if need be. I glance around to see which one looks most likely to have access to explosives. I understand completely crimes in populations where no independent action is allowed.
They feed me pills and say I have a “you tea eye.” I frown. “You tea eye. Your wee-wee,” the pill pusher says.
Wee-wee? Every word’s in code here.
“Urinary-tract infection,” says the woman swabbing down my bathroom.
When I was sixteen, I started having bladder trouble. My doctor told me then that, when I married, I would have “honeymoon cystitis” on the first morning I awoke as a new wife. He spoke of a sharp pain, like a tiny knife blade. He described it very well — though it did not appear on either of my honeymoons. He was remiss, though, in neglecting to mention the other pains a marriage brings — perhaps not localized but just as sharp; surprising pain there is no pill to parry.
No one expects this is going to take that long. People ask me how old I am at least once a day. They do the math, then check their watches. When Andrea was little, I used to go into her room at night while she was sleeping and hold one finger underneath her nose to feel the soft, warm, even breath. People do that to me metaphorically a dozen times a day. Oh, so you want lunch? So you’re still alive, then.
Perhaps I overdramatize. My long-dead father says I do. (He should talk.) I want to leave this place, but they have put up a twenty-foot-high iron fence around the borders of the property, erected watchtowers, and hired guard dogs. The fence and watchtowers are invisible, but late at night I can hear the dogs prowl and sniff the misty air.
I wake with a start and don’t know where I am. I blink a few times. The light from the window seems to grow brighter, but slowly, as if God has His finger on the dimmer switch.
I’m in a room I’ve never seen before. I was afraid this might happen, that I would wake up one morning and not recognize the world. But I thought things would be lost to recognition one familiar item at a time. On a certain Tuesday it might be the refrigerator. What is that? I would ask the empty kitchen. Why is it standing there, towering over everything and humming so? Then, on another day, the stove, and so forth. This sudden general confusion seems unfair — as though oblivion would be fine if memory faded according to some set of rules. It doesn’t, or certainly there are no rules that a person in the process of losing her mind could ever reckon.
A woman comes to the asylum on Tuesday evenings to sing. She turns the songs we sang as green-suited Girl Scouts into nursing-home tunes. I wonder if anyone has sung these chanteys even once between the ages of eleven and eighty-four. My mother’s here to lead the songs tonight. She’s brought her best guitar, a Gibson, and a voice that’s served her oh so well. She must be fifty, and there’s not a single cracked note when she sings. Her voice is a smooth alto flowing underneath the antique sopranos sung through thin lips with breath in limited supply. She’s gracious to the wrinkled people; she’s made gentle by the knowledge that she can drive away. Do I judge her harshly? Yes, I do. I have enough corroborating evidence inside this briefcase to convict her of unkindness a hundred times. And even were this kindness of hers real, its appearance so late in the day does juxtapose so strangely with the way she treated me.
I see now that my mother, all her life, was playing to an audience. I think it’s how she would have liked to end her days: onstage.
This lady singing here tonight tells us she won’t be here next week; she’s getting married.
My parents got married. I wish I could somehow get inside their marriage and take the thing apart and spread the pieces out across the table, to have some idea of what held it together in the first place.
No one came to their wedding. This much I know. Almost all their family lived within walking distance of the parsonage where they wed, but the preacher’s wife stood as sole witness, called in from the kitchen with her apron on, trailing the scent of cinnamon, the sweet smell easily confused with blessing. Still, she could have cried out, Stop! She could have pulled the preacher out into the hallway and hissed, You can’t do this. But she witnessed the whole thing and signed where she was told and wished them well. I never knew her name, never heard it mentioned. The preacher’s first name, Robert, was given to my brother.
This singsong woman here tonight: I want to ask if she knows my mother, what with them both having light-brown hair, both playing the guitar and singing “Side by Side.”
“Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money / maybe we’re ragged and funny / but we’ll travel the road / sharing our load / side by side.”
“Do you know my mother?” I ask the woman.
She scowls and looks around for someone who might rescue her. She’s got songs for us, but nothing else.
We’ve got us a new man. He’s very tall, or would be if he would just stand up straight. I want to tell him not to slouch, but I’m learning to dole myself out, give people small doses, watered down. “Good morning,” I say, muted, noncommittal. As I round the final bend, I’m learning what it takes to occupy the planet with some grace. I never understood before that what goes on between two people in a room is made up of a thousand whispered hints and saffron threads. I’m learning that no one alive has just one self all the time. He’s always an amalgam of himself and what he apprehends you to be, as the two of you negotiate the sharing of some minutes and geography. You meet a man and say, Oh, he is saucy, and then sometime later you spot him standing with a giant woman in stocky shoes and a tight vest, and he is a tiny mouse man. And when his fat daughter comes to scrape the dried egg yolk off his tie and smooth his hair and wipe white spittle from his lips? He is a baby then. But flirting later with the lady come to clean the bathroom sink, he’s smart and lovely. And who is he when he’s alone? No one will ever know. Most of all not him.
My maternal grandmother, Leitha Watt, devoted years to dying, was always slightly terminal. I think there was a lot of that sort of thing back then. One day she did die, just like that. She was far younger than I am today. I thought she was a hundred. Anticipating death was just something my family did. When my sister Eileen was in the ninth grade — I would have been safely off at college, dealing with death only on holidays and school vacations — my mother thought my aunt Ethel was checking out and asked Eileen to spend the night with her. “No,” Eileen said, “I’m sure she’d rather be alone and get a good night’s rest.” Eileen, who herself is long gone now, didn’t go, and Aunt Ethel lived on well into her nineties, mean and strong. If Eileen were still alive, I’d send for her. She would refuse to come — of that I’m certain — and then my death would not come. There should be some delaying tactics we could use. No, I can’t leave just at the moment. Give me five minutes, just to catch my breath. Was that the telephone?
I just heard some woman say, “What next?” setting off a string of questions in my mind: What will it be like? How big is heaven? How small is hell? Is it divided into rooms, or is it one big, open space, as I have always thought? I think of heaven and hell each as being perhaps the size of the large social hall at the Baptist church — so God has only, say, one hundred people, tops, to bless, and the devil has no more than that to torture. Some people I have known might easily make miserable twice as many folks as that. I’m certain I myself have made a hundred people unhappy in my lifetime. I wonder: should I go and visit them to say I’m sorry, that I never meant to hurt them? But I don’t know where they live. I do not know their names.
The day my father died, I came back home to sleep that night in his bed, though I am not sure I have the details straight, and I pray to God that no one ever straightens them for me. My mother said he’d died in bed that morning, lying on his back, which is how he prayed. He slept only on his side, so my mother knew he had not died in his sleep, as people are so often reported to have done. My sister said she’d seen him in the afternoon in the hospital sitting upright in a chair. So only one of their stories can be true. I choose my mother’s. For my part, I only know I slept in his bed that night, after driving hours through an eerie sort of darkness.
The nurses here wear dreadful polyester smocks printed with bright cartoon animals and clowns. There was a time when nurses wore white uniforms and tall, crisp hats. When I was in high school, everybody in my Girl Scout troop became a candy striper. We got red-and-white uniforms and worked two afternoons a week in the same Maple Avenue Hospital where we’d all been born. We carried food trays, offered magazines to people coming out of anesthesia, and sat beside beds and answered questions about school and who our mothers were. There was one patient, Mrs. Robinson, we were not allowed to visit. The nurses said her face was “eaten up with cancer.” I never saw her, but I can still see the way I imagined her: one whole side of her face gone, the remaining skin bloody, ravaged, red, and raw; her eyes wild, her body bone thin and still beneath the sheets, as though her face was the only living part of her. She is the one I can’t forget.
It seems I am to be moved again. “Hospice.” What kind of a word is that? It sounds Swiss, or maybe Spanish. Perhaps it is an acronym. I rule nothing out. I’ve ruled things out forever, but I am done with that. I’d like to think, before the end, that I can rule a few things in.
“I’ll go with you,” my mother says, insistent. At this late date she has decided to be my shadow. She’s here now day and night.
“It may not be pretty,” I say.
She is. Pretty. Her long, curly brown hair and pouty lips, even with the space between her two front teeth, a space we paid a surgeon to eliminate from my Andrea, who is nothing like my mother. I take that as given grace. You might think that if you know the story of anybody’s life, then you can’t help but love them, or at least understand why they are the way they doggedly persist in being. But that’s not the case. Certain parents leave teeth marks on their children, and no matter that the scarring heals and fades, the old, soft indentations are always there to finger and call memory back.
“Do you like her?” I ask my father, who is here a lot now, too. I point to my mother’s hand-colored photo. First they printed the picture, then added the rosy glow. I catch my father polishing his shoes, a ritual he has performed as long as I have known him. I caught him at it just last night. I smelled the polish in the dark, heard the quiet sound it makes.
“Do you like her?” I want to ask him this before their makeshift wedding, the event that set in motion all these lives and strivings.
“I love her.” His whole body answers me.
“I know,” I say. “But do you like her?”
He picks up the other shoe, which he can already see his face in, and holds it up to catch the light. “I love her,” he says. “Are you coming to the wedding? You could sign the book.”
“No,” I say. I want that day to forever be an open question. I want never to know if they did wed in the sight of God, or only in the presence of the preacher’s aproned wife. When my mother was very old, I looked into getting her military benefits based upon my dad’s six weeks in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Send in the marriage license, I was told, but there was no record in the county courthouse, no evidence of legal union — much as there was for forty years so little proof of any love, at least not on my mother’s part.
“Did you love Daddy?” My mother is curling her already curly hair, painting her already painted lips, hitching up her slipping slip, tugging at the strap of her brassiere. (“I’ve always been big busted,” she will say to me when I come home from junior high in tears because in home-economics class, where we are making vests, my bosom measured twenty-eight. “Flat as a pancake,” I will cry. “I was always big there,” my mother will reply.)
“Do you love him?” I ask again.
“Oh, he’s a crazy guy,” she says. “We’ll give it a whirl. I told him we can get divorced if I don’t like it.”
“Did you have sex with any man before Dad?” I tug at the wedding dress she thinks she looks so fine in, the brown gabardine. And she does look beautiful.
“Are you coming?” she asks.
Does this mean I am already in her belly? “What about other men?” I say.
“Get the door,” she says. “I just painted my fingernails.”
“Are you coming?” I ask my dad. “To this hospice place where I’ll be dying?”
“You go along,” he says. “Mother will be there.”
“But I don’t want Mother. I want you. I want you to come with me and stay with me until I fall asleep.”
“She can’t go with you,” my Andrea says. “She will kiss you goodbye.”
A stranger leans over me and kisses my cheek. “Would you do that again?” I say, and she does. I do not remember my mother ever kissing me. I never saw her kiss anyone. I can feel my father’s lips touch the crown of my head — as they did a thousand times — and then his hand, and his words, always the same, “God bless an angel,” before he walks away.
I feel like I am going to my execution. If they move you to a building where you are expected to breathe your final breath, how is that different from a hanging? At any moment I might well be asked to walk across the dusty cobblestones and climb the rickety gallows to stare the hangman in the eye and place a penny in his hand. Someone drops the black crepe hood over my face; an old priest mumbles unenthusiastic prayers.
“Are you ready, Mother?” Andrea says.
How could I be ready?
They have an ambulance for the occasion. They move my body from the bed in several pieces.
“Turn around!” I call out. “Turn around! Take me back home!” My mother only shrugs. I’m riding on a stretcher. I look out the window. My father’s running alongside the vehicle. He’s pounding on the glass, yelling at the driver.
“Let him in. Let my father in.”
“She always was his favorite,” my mother says to Andrea.
“He loved me,” I say.
“She’s missing my dad,” Andrea tells the woman dressed in faded blue who sits holding tubes and bottles and my life in her cold hands. She touched my skin, and her fingers were made of ice, a kind that will never melt. “They will be cold forever,” I tell my mother.
“Let’s put that other blanket on her,” Andrea says.
“Not on my face! Not on my face!”
The woman sticks a needle in my arm. It goes in one side and comes out the other.
Air starts moving through my veins where the blood used to be. Cool air. Like on a mountain.
“Lie back now,” Andrea says. “The nurse will take care of you.”
“No, no. My mother’s here. I want her to.”
“It’s the shot,” the woman says. “It makes them loopy. She’ll sleep now.”
I wake up in a pleasant room, the sort of room I could have spent a happy childhood in, then grown to be some calm and gentle person.
“This room is too late,” I say. “How can I change now?” I always meant to change. I did. Even on my eighty-fifth birthday I made a list of ways I would be different.
“You don’t need to change a thing.” It’s my grandma Harriet. “You’re perfect as you are.”
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” I say. “I should have been with you on the night you died, but I didn’t know that you were dying. I never thought that you would die. When I was little, did you know you would be with me here tonight?”
I’d thought in heaven it would be all glaring yellow light and swarms of angels and all the Christians I’d truly hated in my lifetime looking smug together. I didn’t know that it would be a congregation of the ones I loved so, all of us, only whole, not damaged or distracted, not impatient or asthmatic; not ourselves, or not ourselves as we were, but beautiful and better.
“I don’t want to die on Halloween,” I say.
“You won’t,” Andrea says.
“All Saints’ Day starts at midnight.”
“We’re not even Catholic.”
“You have Catholic blood in your veins,” I say. “Max, your great-grandfather, was Catholic.”
Irish Catholic, to be exact. Grandma Harriet, who is back now, is neither Irish nor Catholic, but they are going to marry anyway, over his mother’s clear objections. Harriet has paid three weeks’ earnings for the cream-colored blouse she wears, and her sister, Effie, has threaded ribbons through her hair. She looks like a wrapped present.
“Will you come to my wedding?” she says to me.
“People have been asking me to weddings all day long,” I say.
“Well, come to this one. Bring the girl.”
“Will you come with me, Andrea?”
“Come where, Mother?”
“It will be a small affair. It doesn’t matter what you wear.”
“Well, that’s good,” Andrea says.
“Would you like to be a flower girl?” Grandma Harriet asks me. “Sprinkle rose petals all down the aisle?”
“My mother will be mad about the mess,” I say.
“No she won’t; it’s a wedding. We can buy you a pretty dress.”
I try to think if I have ever had a pretty dress.
“I have a dress in a box in the attic at home,” I say. “It’s red velvet and has lace around the collar. I thought you would wear it, Andrea, when you were small. Andrea?”
“I’m here, Mother.”
“You should wear the red dress for my wedding,” Grandma Harriet says. “Be a flower girl.”
She pulls the dress over my head. For just a moment I’m afraid inside the dress-tent, but then I’m out. The dress no longer has the wrinkles made by eighty years of lying crinkled in a box; it’s smooth and fine. She puts a flower in my hair.
“Wait for the music now,” I say.
“What music, Mother?” Andrea hands me a glass of water with a straw. I have always, always loved a straw.
“Wait for the music,” I tell myself again.
“She wants some music,” Andrea says. Her voice is far away.
“Stand up nice and straight now.” My grandmother spits on her finger and smooths down my hair. “You’re ready. You look beautiful.”
“Maggie, Maggie,” my dad says, and he bends to kiss the top of my head, then takes my hand.
The flowers that I hold, the baby’s breath and lilies, quiver.
The music sounds. The people all stand up.
We start down the aisle.