It’s been over four years since I last saw Mom. Two years ago we all found out she had cancer. I should have visited then. But I never had enough money to come home. And I couldn’t get the time off work. There were other excuses too, none of them valid as I stand on her doorstep, genuinely happy to be here, even under these circumstances.
I didn’t even have a chance to do a courtesy knock before entering, as the door opened in front of me.
“Debbie! Debbie, so nice to see you. It really is.” Nobody had ever called me Debbie before, even him, but a variation was somewhere in the middle of my name, so I was allowed to assume that at least he recognized me.
“Thanks, Uncle Frank. I was hoping you’d be here.”
As I made that unconscious, inevitable reply, I realized that I hadn’t given time to a thought of Frank in quite awhile. I wasn’t hoping he’d be here, and I wasn’t not hoping either. He was just one more tire kicker intent on having amicable but essentially meaningless conversations. However, later that night he would pull me aside and tell me he was sorry, and although I had no idea what he was sorry for, and didn’t want to push further for an answer, it was the closest I’d felt to anyone in my family in a very long time.
“Debbie, I just made some tea. I’ll get you a cup.”
“What do you mean ‘What kind?’? Tea!” He looked perplexed but said it almost angrily – it’s my fault for even suggesting that Red Rose orange pekoe might not be the only tea ever produced – and then he walked up the stairs, following the steam.
I stood in the porch, lifting my legs onto the second step one at a time to remove my shoes. “Frank,” I called out into the kitchen, “where should I put my things?”
“Wherever you want, Fay.” I was expecting to be directed towards a room, but this reply would have to do.
I made my way down the stairs and found the spare bedroom empty. I fell onto the bed and half-formed a thought that, if completed, would have wondered how exactly anyone would choose to purchase a waterbed. I may have fallen asleep briefly, even though I wasn’t tired, but I was startled awake by two children who just ran into the room to play on the waves of the mattress.
I knew from the elaborate Christmas cards, rigorously ridiculed by my friends and I, that they were Lydia’s twin eight-year-olds, Geoffrey and Georgina. Geoffrey was the inspiring lead in his class’s version of Peter Pan this year, and Georgina was having trouble fitting in with her classmates but has shown a great interest in becoming a veterinarian. I would not have have chosen two names starting with the same three letters, but then, I would not have chosen to be a mother.
Neither of them acknowledged me, at least at first. Their minds were elsewhere and they probably didn’t know who I was. I barely do sometimes. I sat up and pulled my knees toward my chest to avoid being a bother. I was staring through them while leaning against the headboard, watching my niece and nephew jump on the bed. After an uncertain amount of time, their mother came in.
“Fay,” she said, confirming my name to the room. “Welcome back.”
“Hey Lyds. How is she?”
It was easier to pretend that it hadn’t been so long since we last saw each other. I see no reason to refer to the time between encounters while trying to determine the number of days or years that passed.
“We’re nearing the end. You came back at a good time. It’s almost over.”
She spoke as if her children were oblivious and as if it meant nothing to me, was nothing more than an inconvenience. I still don’t know why I came back. I wasn’t expecting to have a great time here, and the twenty minutes that passed since I showed up reminded me why I left.
Family is everything, I was always told. But that platitude needs to be reevaluated. Sure, family can be important, if you’ve got a great family. But most people don’t. Ever since I was old enough to think for myself, I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind unconditional love. There are conditions for everything, the decisions you make and thoughts you act on, and there should be. Unconditional is illogical and shows that situations are not being properly considered.
I never even saw her on my first day there, even though I could smell her, what was left of her, wherever I walked. The next morning, I woke up early, earlier than anyone else and much earlier than I’m used to. The full cup of tea Frank poured me when I arrived was still sitting by the sink. I washed the dishes, a chore I’ve always found comforting. As soon as the sun moved enough to peer through the window of the kitchen, I decided to make my way to the end of the hall, to my mother’s room. I opened the door slowly and saw that she was still asleep, but I went inside anyway. She looked completely unlike the woman I knew. Her feet were creeping out from the bottom of the sheet. Her nails were painted green. It’s hard to comprehend that this frail skeleton was who she was, who she used to be. She was the reason I left, the reason an invisible tension strengthened the void between all of us.
The last time I saw my mother, I gave her a copy of my first novel. I was more nervous to find out what she thought of it than anyone else, even my editor, my best friend and confidant. Her only comment was that I’d misspelled ‘stationery’ on page 34, a note that was related to me without looking up from her crossword puzzle. I told her that it actually was spelled correctly, since the context referred to the aisle in a drugstore that contains paper and other office supplies. She told me it was very rude to make my own mother feel stupid like that. I apologized. She has an effect on me that I have been trying to shed since I was a child. My aspirations were hers, and her child-rearing tactics prevented me from ever fully gaining independence, the kind needed for proper self-fulfillment anyway.
She opened her eyes slowly, but she showed no recognition of where she was or who I am. I knew she couldn’t speak, but I still expected something. Eventually, she fell back asleep, and later that day she was gone, dead.
A few days after the funeral, I found a torn sheet of paper behind her vanity, one that had clearly rested there for awhile. Beautifully handwritten, it was the beginning of a story. Even though everything I read was true, the details anyway, I could never imagine that the thoughts and perceptions were actually hers. She was too cynical to write a memoir and too proud to leave open the possibility of anybody ever reading it. Maybe because she’s my mother, but I couldn’t decide if she was an actual writer. She may have been faking it, like her sister, my aunt Joan, who would coerce her simplistic poetry into my ear canals until I pretended to grasp its intricacies. Sometimes Joan saw through the facade, but she was so lost in her own world that she assumed the content was beyond my comprehension. It’s not, Aunt Joan.
On my last day here, I went for a walk. The trail’s opening was where it had always been, but the entire path had been given an aesthetic boost since I used it as my hideaway, where I could smoke and sit in peace. A community garden neared the entrance today, and the synthetic wood chips under my feet made me briefly see myself as a guinea pig. I stumbled over a rock, lightly jogging to stay upright, but this soon turned into a full sprint, and by the time I was forced to stop, to catch my breath, I felt tears streaming down my face.
I don’t like to cry. I never saw the point. But at least no one else was here. I wondered how I would leave this world, when it was time. Would anybody come to see me, out of obligation or not? I haven’t felt a real connection in a long time, the kind that requires only a meeting of eyes to remove any self-imposed doubt. I want to be strong, on my own, but there’s nobody left to impress. A sharp pain rifles through my chest, and I scream in agony or confusion. I imagined my skin sinking into the ground, as the rest of my body evaporates, leaving behind only memories in people who never really loved me.