Cheryl Brown dropped off her mother at the nursing home on a Sunday afternoon, right after Mass. She’d already confessed the relief felt on being rid of her. She just wanted to know how many Hail Mary she needed to recite to be rid of the shame. She would be forgiven, she knew. But she would recite more, if need be, to feel less responsible.
That day was a chilly afternoon in fall, and the breeze burned a passage into Cheryl’s lungs, reddened the pale, almost translucent skin around her nostrils. She stepped from the car and made a shuffled run to the passenger’s door where her mother had already stepped out, a pink shawl wrapped tight across her shoulders. Cheryl made a fuss over it, adjusting and straightening, incessant repetition of the question, “Are you warm enough?”
Her mother jerked her arm away as Cheryl reached for it. She wouldn’t give way to sentiment now, Cheryl knew.
“I didn’t learn how to walk just yesterday!” she said. “Quit lording over me like I’m a child.”
A man stood in the doorway of the entrance, and Cheryl, not wanting to look cruel, attempted to place a hand over her mother’s shoulder and walk beside her, but her mother slapped her hand as she reached around.
“I said I could do it myself!”
The man walked over to Cheryl and asked if anything needed to be brought inside. There was a single suitcase, large, in the trunk of the car. Cheryl insisted on taking it in herself. Just to spend more time. To sit with her mother, enjoy some time together alone. She believed these words, if only for a moment, even as they emerged in short, clipped fragments. He nodded and left her there to gather the luggage.
Cheryl watched her mother disappear with him into the living center. She stared at the empty doorway, half expecting her mother to walk back out and demand to go home. But that didn’t happen, and the cool air seemed to pierce her exposed skin. Pangs of guilt. Cheryl grew defiant. Well, why should she feel guilty, there were no other volunteers in the family. She’d already spent enough time taking care of her mother. Plenty of time.
She thought about Mark. He had managed to convince her that their mother would be better with Cheryl. Besides, she could especially use her mother’s help in the house now that her husband was gone, Mark had said.
And Mark had continued to sip his coffee, his eyes peering at Cheryl over the lip of his mug. She imagined a smirk hidden behind the mug. Even as he stared at Cheryl, feigning a look of concern and sympathy, she knew he had only refused to let their mother stay with him because he didn’t want her interrupting the trysts he had with women.
“Look,” he said, his eyes shifting from Cheryl’s. “You keep her for another few years…”
“Or months,” Mark said, tapping a few packs of sugar with the tip of his finger.
He shrugged, and Cheryl remained quiet. She stared at him. His head shifted, his gaze jumping from his mug to the sugar to his cabinets. He looked everywhere except at her. Cheryl felt the silence filling the space between them, an uncomfortable position for both. It was like the games they played as children, always a competition in everything they did. Who could stare without being the first to blink; who could hold their breath the longest. This moment between them felt the same to Cheryl. Each one, seeming to hold their breath, waiting for the other to burst so they could slowly exhale, sigh relief. It was still a game, and Cheryl was losing. Mark refused to let the uncomfortable wear him down, she knew. She tired of holding her breath.
“You have an empty house,” Cheryl began.
“Yours isn’t so filled anymore,” he replied.
Cheryl stood. She snatched her coat from the back of the chair, and the chair fell to the floor. The clattering of it bounced off the cabinets and echoed in the kitchen. Mark had won, as he had almost always done when they were children.
Cheryl turned, opened his front door. And just before the door closed behind her, she heard Mark call out, “I just don’t have the time!”
She thought about Mark’s last remark as she stood in front of the nursing home, suitcase gripped in her fingers. Now that was her main excuse too. She just didn’t have the time to give her mother the care she desperately needed. Desperately. She emphasized this word when she told others where her mother would be. A fine place to live – better than a living center, a home. So said the brochure. And Cheryl tried to believe it.
Cheryl shut the trunk and carried the suitcase inside the center. The suitcase felt light. She had packed it herself, trying to pack what she would want if she were going to live in a long corridor of rooms that smelled like naphthalene and soiled linens. A picture of the family, comfortable clothes, a robe, some slippers. She imagined that these material possessions, as little as they meant, would bring some comfort. At least, she wanted to believe that.
She winced as the suitcase slipped from her fingertips and fell to the floor. Cheryl heard her mother’s harsh words: condescending and unforgiving. The potatoes are never cooked properly. They have to be firm but not hard. They need some bite to them. And what was this mush anyhow? How was Chris supposed to grow on meals like these anyways? Cheryl’s son needs something substantial, meals that take most of the day to prepare. This is what a woman should be doing, making sure her husband is satisfied, that her son becomes a strong man. And where was her husband, gone to find a real woman, no doubt.
Resentment. Cheryl had gone against generations of this kind of rearing. She became a woman with priorities, at times, higher than her family. When it mattered most, she chose to stay at work late to finish a memo or financial report instead of coming home in time to make dinner and get her son into bed. She must be reminded of this daily, psychologically reprimanded. And she was. Her mother slid her disapproval into any conversation she could. Even when Cheryl tried to enjoy a conversation together about Chris, her mother found some way to interject dissatisfaction in the way Cheryl raised him. Cheryl felt each remark like nettling thorn pricks.
When Cheryl brought the suitcase to her mother’s new room, she placed it on top of the vanity and started to unpack. She placed the photo of her family next to the mirror. It would end up turned over in the sock drawer next to the slippers, broken and unappreciated.
“I can situate my own things,” her mother said.
Cheryl stepped away from the suitcase and watched her mother push the items around in it.
“Where is my jewelry?” she asked.
“You said you didn’t want me to pack it. You insisted it would be stolen from here.”
“I said no such thing!” Her mother slapped her hand down on the dresser. “You’re impossibly incompetent, you know that?”
But Cheryl didn’t answer. She recognized it as a rhetorical question, one meant only to provoke her.
“I wish your father could see you now. I told him you needed more discipline.”
“I know you’re upset about being here,” Cheryl said, moving towards her mother, attempting some kindness. She wanted to know that she hadn’t made a mistake. She wanted to leave with no guilt, maybe a tiny moment of peace between them to show that her mother was going to be okay here.
“That’s your problem, dear child.” Her mother turned to her. “You think you know. But you don’t! You don’t know not one damn thing about anything.”
Cheryl touched her mother’s arm, but her mother jerked it away.
“It’s why you’re still pining over that husband of yours. If you’d known anything at all, it’d of been that you didn’t satisfy him. Had to get someone else, and if you’d of known anything, it would have been how to keep the man in your home not out gallivanting with someone barely old enough to drink.”
There was silence that filled the empty space. And before it could be interrupted by another tirade, Cheryl left the room. Once Cheryl started the car, she turned to see her mother watching her through the bedroom blinds. When their eyes met, she walked away from the window. And Cheryl watched the vertical blinds shifting in her mother’s absence. That image would be what Cheryl pictured when she called to see how her mother was doing over the years. Cheryl would insist that she only had a few minutes to talk, and it wasn’t necessary to speak with her mother. She just wanted an update, she’ll call later, she would say. After the first six months, the nurses all knew only to give an update when Cheryl called. Then some months later, they stopped asking if she wanted to speak with her mom. At first, Cheryl refused to speak with her mother because of resentment, anger. But at some point, Cheryl was simply embarrassed by the time that had passed since they last spoke, embarrassed by having to remember she should feel guilty and not sometimes relieved.
Two years later, Cheryl brought her mother home to die peacefully; it’s what her mother wanted. At least, that’s the reason the hospice nurses gave her. They told her that her mother had limited time; she’ll feel more comfortable at home, they said.
Cheryl noted how the building had aged since she’d last seen it two years ago. The gutters scratched, bent and clogged; the welcome mat tattered, unreadable. The building had obviously changed, but her mother seemed – at a distance – to look just as she had when they first arrived at the home two years before. When Cheryl approached her mother, though, she noticed how visibly her mother aged. The same pink shawl swathed around her body. It made her appear smaller, wrapped almost twice around her shoulders. Her mother’s shoulder blades jutted out like two impossibly steep mountains. Cheryl walked towards her but stopped after only several steps. She felt obligated to help her mother to the car, but she was frozen in the moment, watching her mother inch towards her. Her back curled, pressing her upper body forcibly down as if time were running backwards, transforming her once again into an unrecognizable fetus.
Her mother shuffled across the pavement in her slippers, the thin, rubber soles scraping against asphalt, each tiny pebble seeming to pose as an obstacle for her. Her eyes were fixed at the ground. Cheryl’s skin prickled at the sight, and she rushed over to her mother in such a hurry, that her mother became startled and unbalanced. The nurse standing there held her upright until she regained her footing.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing?” her mother shouted.
Cheryl’s body stiffened. The tone had not changed at all. Here was this frail woman, shriveling and nearly unrecognizable, and yet the force in her voice had not changed at all. A condescending, critical voice untransformed and trapped within a woman who didn’t have the strength to look in the eyes of the person she was judging.
Cheryl wanted to speak to her mother on the way home, to ask how she managed at the living center. But she feared the answers she would get, the pitch of her mother’s voice ringing disapproval in her ears. She even expected to hear something from her mother, unprovoked. But there was nothing. Cheryl rolled down the window and let the air rush past her ears, hoping the sound would drown her own thoughts.
That night, Cheryl awoke to her mother staring down at her, hovering over her body, her shawl laced loosely around her shoulders.
“Mom?” Cheryl wanted a reassurance that she wasn’t dreaming.
“Where’s Chris?” her mother asked, pulling her shawl until it fell to the ground.
Cheryl slid off the couch and reached down to pick up the shawl.
Her mother shuffled away, “Chris?”
“Chris isn’t here mom.” Cheryl took a robe from her closet and put it on before following her mother. “He’s gone to summer camp. He’ll be back in a week.”
Cheryl wrapped the shawl around her mother again and pulled her shoulders back, an encouraging gesture to get her to turn towards the stairs so that she could put her back to bed. But she wouldn’t go. She jerked her shoulder forward.
“Chris, sweetheart. I’ve got that chocolate you love.”
“He’s not here, mom.” Cheryl dropped her hands.
“We just talked this morning,” her mother insisted.
She let her mother shuffle across the kitchen, and watched her open the front door and walk outside. The doorway was empty, and she strained to hear her mother dragging her feet against the deck, the gravel in the driveway. But there was nothing. The whole house was suddenly still, and darkness seemed to flood it. She wanted to walk towards the door, but her feet were like two blocks of cement. Unable to move, grounded in the spot where she had picked up her mother’s shawl. It was aged, ragged and worn. It was unraveling, falling loosely towards the ground, transforming into one single thread of yarn.
She stepped towards the door, her mind a mist of sleep and confusion. She walked outside to find her mother there, leaning over the rail, sobbing. The image seared in her mind, and no other movement her mother made registered in her vision. There was only an old, confused woman doubled over the deck; she was barely recognizable.
“Mom,” Cheryl said, finally moving towards her mother.
“I wanted to see Chris. Tell him to come here,” her mother said.
Cheryl stopped. She watched her mother lean away from the rail, pressing her body upwards in an attempt to uncurl her back and hold herself steady as she looked into Cheryl’s face. And Cheryl strained to see her mother’s eyes. But there was only the shadow of a woman, a silhouette of her mother standing there in the darkness. Only silence lingered there between them. It was several minutes before it was broken.
“I am so sorry.” Her mother’s words seemed deliberate, as if she were savoring an uncommon moment of clarity.
“Momma?” The words emerged from Cheryl’s mouth, some hesitation on her tongue created a stutter. Cheryl wasn’t sure if this was her mother speaking, or the disease that had stripped her of lucidity. Was she hallucinating, did she really know what she was saying?
“I should have said do what you need. I trust you.”
“I don’t understand,” Cheryl said.
Her mother’s arms shook as she continued to prop herself up. Cheryl stepped closer, and her vision focused. Her mother’s form filled out. Cheryl recognized the face, hidden in small folds of wrinkled skin. There was no critical stare, no disapproval.
Her mother’s arms collapsed, and she fell to the deck. Her body tucked in on itself, almost completely still. Cheryl ran to her and wrapped her up in the shawl. She embraced her mother, and buried her face in her mother’s hair just as she’d done as a child.
Cheryl didn’t know how much time had passed before her mother shifted beneath her. She stood up and helped her mother to her feet, tucking her arms beneath her mother’s and leading her towards the empty house.
“Chris, honey, come get some candy.”
Cheryl started to hush her mother but stopped herself. Instead, she listened to her mother’s buoyant tone transform with each word until it softened to a sob.