April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Assisted Living

Joy Gaines-Friedler

 

You are going through your mother’s desk. It’s piled high with crossword puzzle books half solved, three boxes of Kleenex half-used, Medicare and prescription summaries mixed in with old mother’s day cards. She is sitting in a wheelchair looking at the photo you hand her, a photo you’re surprised to find underneath a broken stack of paperbacks: her at 21 with her friend Ethel on Woodard Avenue in Detroit—still bustling with street cars and people fashioned in hats. Both of you accept this reordering—other as child—child as mother. But her face, when you glimpse it as you find a soiled pair of underwear in the stomach drawer, looks so expressionless, and the way she still holds the photo in her two hands long after her eyes have moved over and away from it, the way she says nothing, makes you think, she’s given over. You can hardly imagine now the way she once lit-up when she talked about those days. Her girlfriends. The war.

Now you feel dangerously important. Too important. How has it come to this? You throw another pile of old receipts and unopened mail, some postmarked a year ago, into the plastic bag on her bed and feel resentful and blessed to be doing this. And you resist your imagining this as your future and no one there to tell you stories while they rummage through the unfinished, unopened, soiled pieces of your life.

You think of home and your cats, especially the old one, Max, now sixteen. You think of the stiffness in his legs and how difficult it’s become for him to clean himself. You wonder though, at his contentment, his joy to simply sleep next to you. You imagine him at home curling himself into the empty spot on your bed.

It’s 4:00 p.m. It’s April. It’s Florida and you’re smiling over your mother’s lack of concern that she doesn’t know the day of the week or the month:

“What day is it ma?” You ask, to keep her busy.

“Friday.”

“Nope, it’s Monday. What month?”

“November.”

“It’s April ma. Spring. Passover is next week. What day is it?” You repeat.

“Friday,” she says. And laughs.

It’s not the embarrassed laugh you’ve heard the last couple of years, but a hardy laugh you’re surprised by and incredibly grateful for.

You’re going through her closet while she sleeps curled like a question mark on her unmade mattress. You’re putting outfits together, blue pants, blue checked shirt and you’re thinking, will she ever go out again? Ever sit in a fancy restaurant or in someone’s living room? And, as you’re thinking what nice clothes she has, you know she won’t. So you put her dressy raincoat, the turquoise one you bought her, into the bag to give to charity and another wave of exhaustion comes over you. She wakes up, sees what you are doing and becomes concerned about the hangers. You turn a smile from her when she accuses, “what are you doing with those hangers? I need those hangers?” You show them to her and tell her that you are not getting rid of any of them, that they are all here, even the broken ones, that you’ll put them on the closet floor so she can get one any time she needs to. You are amazed how quickly she turns, and falls back asleep.

At night, in your hotel bed alone, more tired than you ever imagined you could be—you think, how did it come to this? How did her life become so fully your responsibility? And you remember as you stood at the side of your father’s bed the night he died, how your gaze moved from your father to your mother, and you felt the shift, like a narrator’s point of view or the way a light announces itself, a light that shines too brightly, not for safety, but because it craves attention—the way the neighbors installed ornamental lighting that burns through the quiet of the night. You are falling asleep remembering that shift like the click of a pen and remind yourself of the bills, her bills that need to be paid, grateful the post-office makes it easy to have her mail transferred to you. And that’s the word, transfer, that’s been floating around you all day, transfer, as the clock clicks 8:00 p.m. and you fall, deadly, asleep.

 

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