Spirit lives as body fades. Close, cradled, caressed, kissed with such aliveness; memories fresh, scent, laughter not languishing, dipping her hand in the cool fast stream & gripping the dripping fresh cress pulling hard, head turning to me in triumph.
This middle seems the right place to begin. Although when you read this you will think to yourself that it is not a middle, but an end and perhaps a beginning, but it may be too soon to confirm the beginning part, without the rest of the story. You will definitely know it’s an end though, at least a conventional end, one that you are familiar with (possibly, possibly not; it would depend upon your world experience. You may know it as an end only intellectually, but not as an end emotionally. I can’t help you understand the difference. You will need to make that decision for yourself.)
Middles come unexpectedly and it is hard to determine, at the time the middle is happening, that it is the middle. You always know when an end happens, you’ll say, “well, that’s the end of that,” or “yes, I’m done with that, thank you very much.” It may be easy to say you are in the middle of a book, just from the number of pages you have read or the ones yet unread; the same could be said about a meal (or any number of everyday occurrences, such as driving to work, or walking the dog.) Lunch-time usually signals the middle of the day and heralds the downward count of time to evening. But isn’t evening a beginning?
And certainly there is no problem determining what constitutes a beginning. we are always saying, “I began this,” and “when that began,” and “life begins at __,” and “in the beginning,” (perhaps the greatest mythologies offer the assurance that there was a fixed beginning to help us place a time constraint on the happenings that swirl around us from birth — another beginning, so says everyone I know.)
You can see how defining the middle of something might cause you to pause in your consideration of how you know it is the middle of anything. That is the problem I have faced in deciding that this is the middle of the story of a mother and her son. Of course, that is not now, the now of you reading this, but the now of the time I have determined was the middle of the story. “But,” you might cry, “Is that not the beginning of the story?” And I would have to say that it is not. Of course, I have the power to decide what is the middle, the beginning, and the end; I am, after all, writing this. My fingers are touching the keys and my eyes are following the cursor as it moves across the computer screen; there is a bit of omniscience in that, is there not? I am not playing with you, but trying to help you understand the nature of middles (and by default, the nature of beginnings and ends,) which even for me are fuzzy and ill-defined.
That does give you and I a bit of an equal footing, my indecisiveness on whether or not this is the middle of the story of a mother and her son, although you may think you, the reader, have more control over that decision and who am I to determine what you think.
Then, there is this story, which we are interrupting in the middle. The bed seems enormous, but only because her body is so small now, as I lay down beside her, a son with his dying mother. We are in a home that is not our home, but one that she and my step-father have rented for this last bit of time she has, because she is dying. There is no more to be done to stop it and I have come to this house, a brick house in the rolling, wooded hills of the Missouri Ozarks, from my home in Chicago to spend time with her. Of course, it is a countdown and everything seems to be underwater or upside down–that is, my perception of time has a wave in it that is distorting my vision as if I’d been caught in the surf and tossed underwater and pushed down by the power of the ocean just long enough to panic.
Colors are both more intense and more subdued—all the furniture in this rented home appears to have been washed and dried so many times that the color has been leached out of it–only traces of browns, oranges, reds and blues remain. I don’t believe that description is true and at the time of my being there with my dying mother, I know I never gave it a thought, but now, when I conjure these memories that is the color palette I see, well-worn, bleached out by the sun, a faded Polaroid—a candid shot, not posed–but composed nonetheless, one of those photographs that are perfect for their not being perfect.
What distinguishes this middle? My mother and I are lying on our backs not looking at each other but staring at the ceiling of this bedroom. She has a shunt in her chest which she has just shown me. It is where the doctors pour chemicals (and morphine) into her. I thought I might fall into it, if I looked at it too long (a rabbit hole if ever there one,) so that did happen.
I fell into to it and rolled over on my back to ease the pain of knowing that I was free-falling without any chance of support, no net, no parachute, no one to hold me, that was ending. Even though this is the middle there was an end–you could see it in the not too far distance if you squinted and should you be inclined to be that introspective. I was not. I wish I could tell you what we talked about before she fell asleep and I slipped off the bed and out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me, that click of the lock like the snap of a neck or the crack of a knuckle, bone hard and sharp, a retort to my lack of consciousness. (Do you not see how sexual it all is? the little mechanism that holds a door shut, a tongue that slips into its waiting, panting hole, fill me, use me, ignore me, slam me, pull me closed so gently that it is a feather upon my breast. But finally and ultimately – redundantly — it is closed to you. Like love. Like death. But I am, at this time in this story, not thinking of death.)
Later—it may have been earlier, time again aggrieves me, I do not remember all of my visit — was it a week? two? — this month before her death has a cloak over it and even now, as I divine that time spent there and push myself to remember what I did not want to remember then, time has fucked it all up. It is all snatches of memory, laundry hanging on a line, snapping in the wind, ragged little pieces of cloth not even defined as clothing, sheets, towels, shrouds, windings, all of it just rags and then she, my mother, is having her hair washed and set in the house. The beautician has come to her and confides to me, “She wanted to look her best for you,” Which, it was too much then and I know that I excused myself to cry alone in the guest room. There may have been deep hacking sobs, I do not remember. I do remember not being able to watch the beautician make my mother beautiful for me.
There were also my stepsisters. But I am jumping ahead of this, the first part of the story, but not the beginning, it is the middle. Only one stepsister, the other one having been banned from being around me—at my insistence, I could not bear the sight of her for what she had done to my mother, as cruel as if she were the cancer to my mind, and I am certain, by default the other daughter of my loving stepfather, later, rather than sooner, also fell into the trash—not harsh, but true.
The sisters then: There were two, Betty and Sheila (B. & S., these abbreviations self-fulfilling, had I but known.) Betty lived with her husband and brood in upstate New York; Sheila with ne’er-do-well husband and three children in southern California. My stepfather began courting my mother in 1970 and they were married in September of 1973; his daughters played no role in his life with my mother until they married and I had moved away. Let’s jump ahead here as I’m afraid that I will lose the thread of the middle of this story, the one that opened this book, a beginning no doubt, but also an end, with them so closely linked like that I have no choice but to determine it is the middle.
My introduction to Sheila went like this when I was visiting for Christmas in 197_ and she and her family had been packed up and moved and installed in a home on my parent’s property when their lives took a turn for the worse in California. My mother doted on the children, a relief to me, burden of reproduction lifted, but regardless, I am at my parent’s house, it is Christmas and we are about to go over to Sheila’s house for dinner. Mother turns to me and says, “Promise me you will not laugh.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, you can’t do that to me! What do you mean?”
“Just promise me you won’t laugh,” she reiterated. “Fine, I won’t laugh,” as we put on our coats for the walk across the yard to the house next door. The door opens, it’s a small house and with the kids running to greet grandpa and grandma and their parents big, in that way that only happens in the country of canned foods, KFC and TV dinners, taking up space, so there’s some jostling of bodies as introductions are made, and the younger two children pull at my mother in greeting.
Then I see it. Well enough that there was a warning, although I must admit it did not adequately prepare me for the shrine. To Elvis. In the corner of the living room. A white plaster bust of the ‘king’, maybe a foot and a half tall, with Italian lights circling the base–they were nestled in a cloud of angel hair—and all of that then protected by a Plexiglas box. It was not ironic. It was their altar. I should have been concerned then, but I wasn’t—another warning ignored.
The evening and the holiday unfolded without incident. Until well into their life together and I’m down for another visit. This then when I was told she had cancer and before they moved back to Rapid City to care for her mother–my psychic grandmother–but still and all, it is when she began to detail the abuse of Sheila. As my mother slowly faded away, she shared a lot with me, perhaps I will with you as well.
My mother would say, “I’m going to drive to Jeff City for the day, may I take Robin (the youngest granddaughter) with me?” Sheila would reply, “Well, I don’t know, lay-about, out-of-work husband and I were hoping to get a new washing machine sometime soon, Robin might be available then.” To make it plainer, she pimped her kids because she knew my mother loved them unconditionally and to have them around her she would acquiesce to her demands. I felt bad for my mother, and at the same time I am surprised that she would stand for such nonsense and where was my stepfather in all of this? It was a scab that I picked at over the course of the next few months as my mother’s health deteriorated.
In a letter from my mother dated 22 Feb 81, she writes,
“Wish you were here to help me — I’m putting my pictures in albums — at long last. It’s gotten to be a horrendous project. I’ve let them accumulate for about 7 years. [This note added in parentheses on March 1: didn’t get it done – put all back into boxes & will try again later.]
“Thot you mite like to have this one of you & me taken about 17 years ago. You sure were a cute little guy – & look at that hair cut!!
“This macaroni & chicken recipe looks like something you might of [sic] conjured up. Sounds real good. When you throw a conglomeration of stuff together it usually comes out pretty good – when I do it, it isn’t fit to eat! I just fixed some scalloped potatoes – I put some onion in it – cut up some link sausages & put them in – ran out of fresh potatoes, so sliced up a can of them & put in. Covered whole mess with cream of mushroom soup & cheese & it tastes terrible!!
“1 mar 81.
“Don’t know what happened – must of jumped the track somewhere.
“Just talked – very unsatisfactorily – with you about your little chair. I’ll do whatever you want, but you should know we are getting rid of some junk we have – we plan on selling this place in a year or so & renting a place to live. Roy is getting older & we don’t want the responsibility of keeping up a place–he is going to put the trailer & those 4 acres up for sale 1 April. That will give S. a month to find another place to live–we can’t take this sh__ any longer–Roy has aged 10 years & it just isn’t fair!!
“Guess this is enough griping for now. Love you very very much, mom”
In the dying house I am about to meet Betty, the other daughter and she comes in and gives me a big hug before I can retreat from our initial handshake. She is smart and verbal and funny in a self-deprecating kind of way that immediately puts me at ease (and off my guard, another warning ignored). My mother responds well to having her there, I can see it in her eyes and how they brighten when Betty is around her, fussing over this doily or that cushion, solicitous and caring, it was not unlike being rocked to sleep. I wish I could remember how long she was there visiting, but as I’ve told you my memory of this time is a series of snapshots without sound, and without much color, and although these images are there for me, it is a challenge to bring them forth (and in the light of self-examination) that is all.
You will forgive me if time is conflated here–the middles collapsing on top of each other–the next thing in this series of recollections is a walk that Betty and I took on a sunny afternoon down a country lane and into the fields of scrub that were behind the house that they were using so my stepfather would not have to live in the house after my mother died. He would be able to go back to their own home that was down the road between Dixon and Vienna (Missouri) and eat ice cream without the furniture screaming at him that the love of his life had moved on without him.
But I have jumped ahead of my tale: Betty and I take an afternoon walk, and yes the sun was out, it being April, possibly warm, I don’t remember having a jacket and we’re walking through hayfields and talking about her family and my life in Chicago and she asks me, “are you gay?” so feeling all warm and comfortable with her, I say, “yes”, when normally I might have changed the subject, she was after all, a stranger to me, and my sexuality was none of her business, and I didn’t like being defined by who I slept with <insert angry young gay man still fighting the good fight here>, but it seemed okay with her and I let it go.
We walked and talked and came across an abandoned schoolhouse, weathered clapboard, white paint peeling, shifted on its foundation as if it had suffered through an earthquake or tornado like someone who might have had a sneeze that rearranged their hair (that hard one that lifts the hair on the back of your neck); we climbed into it through a broken window, giggling at each other’s nonsense and the lighthearted tone we took with each other helped lessen the burden of my mother’s sadness and decline.
There was a map of the world on one wall, the corners curling up from its fight against nature, its colors as faded as those colors in that house where death lay, that yellowy peeling varnish washing out Europe or Africa (pink and blue, but so subtle as to only be a ghost of their former glory) and it crossed my mind then that I might not ever get to see the world after my mother died, that that opportunity, whether I wanted it to or not, would evaporate with the exhalation of her last breath. The lens of her life would disappear with her and the world as I saw it through that lens, even on this day in an abandoned schoolhouse, so narrowly focused on this point in time–would, as it must, lose its color and vanish, perhaps its shape faintly outlined by the oceans. This I did not share with Betty.
I do not know how long I stayed or the exact day I left my mother’s arms to get back on the train in Jefferson City, but I know that writing this now, I can feel her warm embrace, it was a challenge for her to hold me tight, there was so much pain in her face and as she often did, she took my face in her hands and pulled me close, nose to nose (our Eskimo kiss for as long as I can remember, and one I often asked for no matter how old I was) and said, “son, I love you.” I may have cried in her arms, but I know she would not have any of that, but held me close until it was time for me to leave. It is possible that she made herself see me off at the train station, just as it is possible that she did not and my farewell to her was carried out on the brown sofa in the living room of a house they had chosen for her death.
The month between our last goodbye and her death was filled with the idle gossip of my co-workers—it’s not as if I could not hear them—“How much money will he inherit when his mother dies do you think?” or “Will he have enough to leave here and travel?” or “It’s sad to see him suffer so, do you think his family has any money?” and frequent nights out to my local Leather & Levi bar (italics mine. It is the vernacular, and not unlike a foreign language the words themselves carry an important meaning) where I tried to bury my feelings in the hot embrace of any man who would have me. As sad as I was, I never shared with strangers what was happening, but how could you not know that I was weighted with some impending loss? The addition of many beers not withstanding—it was as if I could not get drunk, the month passed by as clearly as if nothing had happened, nothing worth remembering.
I had jumped and was free-falling like a <you may insert your favorite metaphor here: parachute not opening, the earth rushing up to meet me, Alice skipping and bumping down the dark rabbit hole—which I’ve used previously; the entrance to hell, Dante beginning the descent, the screams of the damned closer and louder with each step; a stone thrown into the well> and as far as I could tell in my waking life there was no end to the nightmare of loss I was experiencing, the only sound I seemed to hear was the whispered chant of “when, when, when”, it was there with me in the morning when I roused myself out of bed, it was there in the metal-on-metal screeching of the ‘el’, the very act of walking down the street seemed to be a rebuke and a time bomb; forget a ringing telephone as it was the signal of my execution.
I know there is a date affixed to the day my mother died, but I could not tell you how long it had been between the day I last touched her and the hesitant, sad sound of my stepfather’s voice telling me of her death. I know I heard him speak, but I could not have told you then (or even later that day) what words he used to tell me of my mother’s death, had you asked me. And it may have been that the words he did say to me, “She’s died, Robert. I tried to get her to the hospital, but she died in the car on the way, I’m sorry, I tried,” were the words I did hear but could not make sense of at the time, the comprehension of language had left me then.
I do not know how I got to Missouri for the funeral. I believe my uncle, my mother’s half-brother, picked me up at the train station or the airport, but I may be mistaken, it could have been a stranger, a local friend of theirs that volunteered to meet me and drive me down into the back country where they lived. It was May, a month shy of her next birthday and on the day of the funeral the three of us rode in the cab of my stepfather’s pick-up, and all big men squeezed together in grief, that tight closeness keeping us upright. it was not until we were in the funeral home—and suddenly now, because I’ve put off coming to this part of the middle of this story, for it is a middle and not an end, I find myself struggling to adequately describe, to find the right words, the proper grammar, the language I know I possess to share with you how hard, how unfathomable the loss, I am digging deep–Digger O’Dell-like–and perhaps the best thing to do would be report the time as cold-eyed and steely-tongued as a reporter writing for the local weekly.
There were a lot of strangers in the visitation room, my vision, even now as I look back on those moments, is blurry around the edges, erasing their faces. There was the smell of farming (horses, sweat, manure); there was the smell of lilies laid over top of that; there was my mother in an open coffin, wearing her favorite red outfit (it was red, as in the photo, someone, somewhere had told her at some point in time, that ‘red is your color’ and she stuck with that advice even in death); there was a preacher speaking, but his words I did not hear; there were men and women stopping by my chair touching my shoulder or taking my hand, their gentle tenderness and concern is, even now, a cue for tears as I hit the space bar and the back bar repeatedly finding the words I know I have; there was Roy and my uncle lifting me up from my chair, my legs too weak to stand and walking me toward the open coffin; there were hacking sobs (they were coming from me, I thought I was drowning); there was a moment then that I thought I could not look at her, I knew that if I did, it would be true, and I did not have the courage to face that; and there was just one quick moment of recognition, that the woman in the coffin was my mother and wisely, prescient as it happens, they held onto me and turned me away from her and walked me down the aisle and out the door.
And outside the funeral home, standing for a moment on its porch, Roy and uncle murmuring their thanks to the sorrowful, from that blurry edge lunges Sheila, the ugliest of step-sisters, grasping at me with her pinched face and thin hair and heavy weight, “I loved your mother, Robert,” she cried and I know these words, “you had a fine way of showing it,” formed themselves and I may have yelled, screamed them at her or it’s possible I said nothing and only thought it, but she fell back into the penumbra that made up the edges of that day and I never saw her again.
We drove to the cemetery in Vienna (home to an Americanized version of the Wiener schnitzel. I know this for a fact because it said so on the side of a barn or a welcome sign as you entered this small town in the rolling hills of the Ozarks) and up to the grave site they had purchased a few years in advance with its russet and gray marble headstone, their birth dates already carved into it, a wedding bed for the end of their lives. This time, this here and now, was the hardest for Roy, a veteran of wars and witness to many deaths, but this one, this one stopped him, dulled him, but there was for both of us a dark, swirling confusion without her right then. As is the case with funerals such as this one, after the burial there was a gathering of mourners and well-wishers—yes, it’s true, they were wishing us well on our journey without her—at the house they had rented for the very purpose of her death. Women laid out casseroles and meat platters and sandwiches and salads all the while eying Roy, talking amongst themselves about what his prospects for life without a spouse would be; the men stood out on the front lawn talking about the weather, a new winch one of them had bought and why seed was so expensive at the feed store these days. I know these things because they were all happening in my peripheral vision; I could not focus on anything but my loss. I may have sat in the living room for a moment, but more likely, I excused myself and went into their bedroom and lay down on the bed, just as I had the month before and stared at the ceiling and wondered if I would land on my feet.