Framed Beside Her
Funny… not so funny… how my father, always the evangelical atheist, never mentioned that someday down the line, when I truly needed a spot of faith, a few shots of tequila might have to suffice: sole diversion to the plainness of facts. When he meets my flight from Berkeley, his familiar smell of aftershave and White Owl Tips is at first oddly comforting, but straight off, with no warm-up, he says, “Those damned books. They all say to be peaceful, but what the hell good is that right now? I hope you’ll encourage her to fight this thing.” Then he adds, “She’s never fought.”
“…Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
“When she can’t take a full breath?”
“Ah, hell,” he says, as if I’m refusing to grant him even this small victory.
In the car, when he continues to hammer me with theory rather than provide me with news, I resort to an old trick I promised myself I wouldn’t: to show him how I feel, I pull a paperback from my jacket pocket and, right there next to him, casually begin to read. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I’m reading for lit class back at UC. My father slows down for a green light, recognizes his error and over-accelerates. Beyond the firm lettering of the book, I can feel his frustration, hear him mumble to himself, “Tell your brain… tell your brain!”
At home, Mom sits propped up and blanketed in her recliner next to the blinking Christmas tree, hands folded in her lap, dozing but clearly waiting for me. Framed on the shelf beside her is a pair of old Polaroids from Martha’s Vineyard: she carrying me across the beach, then the two of us in the shallow water, she, arm curled around my hip, smiling down at me as I stare off camera. Despite all the preparation from my sister, Natalie, I’m not set for the way she looks, her hair bone white, her cheeks drastically thinned, mostly loosened skin. I kiss her dry lips and she awakens. Her eyes seem larger than I’ve ever seen them. For a long moment she doesn’t seem to know me. Then she says, “Honey. Help me to the kitchen, where the light is better.”
“Sure, Mom,” I say. Playfully, I place my frayed Mets cap backwards on her head, but maybe this is to ease the sight of her hair. I flip down the lever on the recliner, lift her. Distended belly, lifeless arms, tangled oxygen tube dangling from her shoulder, she is not the package that I expect; there isn’t enough to hold onto. She slips through my hands like a sinker.
“Ma — I’m so sorry!” I say, as I scoop her up, notice the fresh rug burn on her elbow.
“No. It’s me.” She looks up at me. “I’m a mess.”
We settle into an attempt at normalcy, Natalie buzzing around like an inept bee, busy with newfound chores, Dad downstairs drinking gin and pounding away at the typewriter (“Dialectics for Teenagers”), as I lie on the living room floor propped up on an elbow, reading of Kilost: a Polish term meaning, as far as I can understand, humor in the midst of great suffering, a sensibility that Kundera accuses the pubescent United States of not knowing.
For the first time since I’ve been home — lone, jarring proof of an outside world — the phone rings. To my surprise, Mom struggles awake and answers it. The conversation is cryptic, over quickly.
“Who was that, Mom?” Natalie calls out. Natalie, unlike me, has taken a leave of absence from college to deal with the crisis.
“Oh… nobody. Wrong number. Some pizzeria.”
It is amazing here, the gnaw of dullness, the immensity of what’s at stake, pages that take hours to read, hours that slip past without identity. Beyond the sliding glass doors the dogs play as normal. When the phone finally rings again, Mom is deep in troubled sleep.
“Where is she?” asks a strong male voice, as soon as I’ve said hello.
“Where is who?”
“Marianne. Why hasn’t she been checked-in yet? Yesterday’s blood panel… this isn’t something we can play around with.”
“Who is this?”
“Dr. Green. Didn’t my nurse inform someone there that she needed to be brought in?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, drawing a few pieces together. “But we’ll be right there.”
Gently, then more firmly, I jiggle Mom awake. “Mom, was that Dr. Green’s office that called earlier?”
Mom’s eyes open slowly, groggy and feverish, then quickly become pensive as a disobedient child’s. “It’s Christmas Eve — the hospital isn’t even open,” she informs me.
I start to laugh, and in this small chasm, the situation suddenly becomes exponentially funnier, I can’t seem to stop, I am wiping my eyes. “Natalie!” I call out, sounding the alarm. Then, more to myself, more of a nervous humm, “I’ll pack a bag.”
“No — no bag!” says Mom. “I don’t have the right kind.”
With her body swimming in its own toxins, it is impossible to gauge the level of thought beneath her duplicity, but I am struck by the immediacy of her fear: that if she is handed over to nurses, she’ll never again see home, that if she is hooked up to machines, she’ll never get off them.
I look on as she takes clearer measure of the situation. “I can’t remember where I hid the presents I got on eBay.”
“You’ll remember, Mom.”
“If you only hadn’t picked up that phone!” she scolds me.
At the hospital, her blood pressure is even higher than Dr. Green feared. She is rolled immediately to ICU, hooked up to monitors and intravenous. Another hour and she would have slipped into a coma, they tell us.
Everything is left exactly in place beneath the tree. Christmas is postponed until New Year’s. And Mom does break from the grip of those machines. Dr. Green agrees that she should be home where she wants to be. She’s doing “Okay” he tells us. But late that night, her first at home, Natalie and I are awoken by cries. “Help me! Why won’t you help me?”
My father, who sleeps downstairs, doesn’t hear, which is probably for the best. Natalie and I arrive at Mom’s bedside simultaneously. Mom is pawing at her blankets, at her pillows, in a desperate attempt to raise herself.
“Mom, calm down. You need to stay calm. It will all be okay…” It is difficult to tell who is speaking, me or Natalie.
Mom’s eyes come open in slits, then wider still, as if she needs to say something of utmost importance, but can’t. Natalie and I measure each other, and each take one of her hands. Mom stares at the ceiling, a great, incomprehensible void, before her eyes slip closed and stay that way.
“Mom, its okay,” I whisper, “…it’s okay to let go.” I can’t believe I am saying these words, have no idea if she hears them.
Her face relaxes, then her arms and legs. Natalie and I look on helplessly as Mom’s breathing slows then disappears. From deep inside comes a chilling gurgle.
Uselessly, I whisper again, “Mom… it’s okay.”
Then her eyes come open again. “Why do you keep saying that? I know it’s okay. If you would help me fluff the darn pillow!”
The next morning, when we lift her into her recliner, Mom’s eyes are sharper, the hospital stay seems to have been good for her. “Why don’t we go ahead and get rid of all these stacks of newspapers?” she asks. As far back as I can remember — my entire life — I’ve harped at Mom to give up this hopeless game of catch-up, this backlog of NY Times, The Nation, Sunset, etc., that she believes she’ll one day get to. Now, when the pile feels sacred, she finally wants to give it up. “And could I have some of that walnut ice cream. And maybe a small snifter of cognac?” Her voice is free of all familiar constraint. Snifter? Who is this woman?
Later, though her own nourishment seems to come only through the oxygen tube, she gets excited about dinner and insists that we all stay longer than usual at the table. Even my father submits to her authority. Though no one does anything special, she looks on with enjoyment, nodding approval, even when her head grows heavy and she rests it on a back of a propped forearm. There is the rug burn — unchanged. I remember her plunge through my hands and for an expanded moment feel all I’ve ever done is drop her. Then I catch a glimpse of her, seated in the same chair, years before, staring at a Christmas card with an expression of sad confusion. Later, I picked up the card, saw that it was from one of my paper route customers. “Michael is so expressive!” it read.
Now, Mom’s downward gaze seems to be at something far beneath the tablecloth. For the first time I am staring not at my mother, but at someone I can’t measure, someone who has read a different “card.” I feel a sudden, desperate need to bring her back. I reach over, again place the Mets cap backwards upon her head.
“Ma, you look like Eminem,” Natalie says.
She shrugs, stares back at me, and quickly appears to forget entirely about the cap. For a second, a bewilderment overtakes her face, and I see that I was wrong, that death leaves no card to ponder, but creeps up from behind, a sudden, chilling shoulder-tap.
She shakes her head, breaks out of her stupor, looks back at me warmly, but there is nothing to say. Natalie begins to cry. Dad gets up and leaves. I just sit there.
My father and I decide to take the dogs down to the beach, like we used to do.
“Well, she’s stabilized, that’s good,” I say.
“She’s telling her brain.”
The remark sounds innocent, but it is a correction, an indirect reference to Pavlov. Over the years, Dad has instructed us all to “tell our brains” to resolve everything from depression to poison oak.
“How about we lay off all the theoretics, just for ten minutes?”
He shrugs. “It’s all connected.”
“But where does it leave her?”
He stares straight ahead, eyes wide to make sure that it is indeed a stop sign we are approaching. Since I’ve last seen him he’s had cataract treatments. He reassures everyone that they have restored him to the keenness of youth, but this is hard to believe. “You sweep in with all this wisdom. But before she got sick how often did she hear from you?”
“And you have been there for her all of these years? That’s what you call it?”
“There’s so much you don’t know,” he admits. “You have no idea. All those years, seeing you grow up under her spell, knowing how I would have raised you.”
“Would have? How great.”
“We did our best.”
“Oh — now there’s a we.”
It is a stop sign. My father has been stopped at it for half a minute. There is dead silence in the cab. We don’t move.
“Leave her the fuck alone!” I scream. I see that I’m in the middle of the front seat, the seat belt tight against my neck.
I have to get back to Berkeley — to school. I catch mom in a lucid moment to let her know of my plans. Her voice is low and raspy, her eyes recessed, a new vacancy to them. “Remember the bluejay that used to peck at the window every morning?”
“Maybe it was trying to tell me something,” she says.
“That’s a raven, Mom.”
“Is your father taking you?”
“Go to La Guardia. Kennedy’s always a snarl.” The conversation ends with a hug, but not much more than this distressing practicality.
At the airport, I tell Natalie that I’ll make it back it a couple weeks.
“Will you?” she says. “Please.”
Settled into my plane seat, it is these final conversations, all that isn’t said, that gnaws at me. I manage to finish the Kundera, as a madcap Ben Stiller comedy runs soundlessly on the diminishing line of overhead screens. I will write her every day, I promise; gradually say all that needs to be said.
It is Natalie, then, who is left behind, all but alone, to give Mom the massages she can no longer feel, to read to her my scattered, aimless letters, to soothe her with lost memories. No more real connection, only Mom’s anxious groans about the specific way she needs to be: propped up, let back, onto her stomach to ease the bedsores. With mammoth doses of morphine delivered by a home nurse, no more real pain except the vague humiliation of utter helplessness. And this is how Mom finally drifts off — only Natalie there, no final message, the world already too distant to fully depart from.
She is gone.
In my cramped Oakland apartment, I sit alone at my desk, self-conscious of every small motion, unsure what to do next. On the screen of my laptop is a scan of the second Polaroid, the two of us in the shallow water, she, arm curled around my hip, smiling down at me as I stare off camera, next to it, one sent from Natalie’s phone: frayed Mets cap backwards on her head, chin resting on the back of her arm, oxygen tube fixed to her nose, eyes fixed on the camera, eyes so sunken and deep that they follow me as I get up and move about the room, walls pressing in on me. I have refused to return for the memorial; I am done dealing with my father.
A remote is on the floor. I pick it up, scan for something to distract me, but there are too many channels, too many smiling faces. I settle on a 90’s hoop game on ESPN Classic — Knicks and Bulls — that brings me back to a time when rosters and statistics were riveting drama. But the long-ago game is coming to a close, too, the seconds dwindling, until the station segues to an interview with Jimmy Breslin, longtime beat reporter for the Daily News, speaking about some colleague.
I flip through more stations, more faces, but I can’t stand them. I wind up back where I was — on ESPN Classic. There is at least something about Breslin’s face, a haggardness that makes him bearable, like white noise. And something else that is unusual — he seems to be upset. Even the youthful anchor has taken notice.
“…there was the whole early crew…,” Breslin rambles, “then, I guess we drew apart. That whole friendship with Bobby Fischer, I didn’t get.”
The anchor turns to the camera uncomfortably, and says, “Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Dick Schaap, American sportswriter and author, dead at sixty seven, following complications from hip-replacement surgery.” Then he turns back to Breslin, tries to cue him. “You miss him, Jimmy.”
The sparse words appear to fatigue Breslin, who merely stares at the floor, and quickly his face is replaced by a photo montage of Schaap amidst various interviews, all to plaintive music.
I stand there in the middle of my cramped room, hands pressed into my pockets, staring at the frame of photos, but I want Breslin back, if only for another moment. That haggard, broken face of Breslin.