by Amanda Yskamp
You know how I hate this. I’ve always felt, okay, it happened, all right, laugh, cry, whatever, move on. Don’t think I don’t know what all this means, your asking me to record my life story. You’re counting on the odds of the prognosis. But what’s a percentage? If you’re part of the 30% who survive, you’re your own 100%, right?
Oh ye of little faith! Have I ever let you down before? Don’t answer that. Until I’m dead. Which isn’t anytime soon! Oh right, by the agreed upon terms or whatever, if you’re listening to this, I’m dead already. So go ahead, talk about the ways I let you down, get it out of your system: laugh, cry, move on. That’s an order, ha ha…from your mother… from the grave. On second thought, I could get the hang of this.
She switched off the machine when I came in, making a big show of taking her long finger in a sweeping arc to land on the button with a loud click.
“Thank you,” I said.
She can be so stubborn. It took me forever to convince her to do this. And now she’s refusing treatment, saying there’s no way she’s going to let her body be invaded by chemicals and radiation.
“Isn’t it bad enough the cancer has already breached my barricades?”
“Breached your barricades?”
“You know what the hell I mean. Just look at Frank. He looked like a caved-in mine. Like they took all of his ore and let the rest of him just cave in. It’s my funeral, anyway.”
“Exactly,” I said, and teared up.
She kept my gaze long enough so I could see the little veins in her beautiful brown eyes. She was only 61. Her look said, “that’s life.” Her look said, “love lasts forever even if the body doesn’t.” Her look said, “I’m not dead yet.”
You know the early years. Roughly. Fourth kid and the only girl, I grew up in Brooklyn on a block dominated by Brekkers and all of our offshoots. Talk about claustrophobic. Everybody always in your business in the name of family. How can anybody grow under that kind of scrutiny, everybody sizing you up. As soon as I could, I got out of there. Thanks to my good grades and my better looks.
She laughed a little, only a little, but then ended up coughing, coughing, then, click, she turned the machine off.
“You ready? You don’t look ready to go out.”
She was sitting on the old leather club chair we’d had forever, her bare feet up on the ottoman.
“Well excuse me. I’ve spent the morning making a recording for posterity. Or maybe just for posteriority.”
“Very funny. Look. If one day I have kids, they’re probably going to want to know about who their grandmother was, what she did and thought and….” The thought of having kids who wouldn’t know her was just too much. A world without her, what could that be?
“When that day comes,” she said and pointed right at me, taking aim, looking down her arm past the tip of her pearl painted nail, “they can come ask me all the questions they want, themselves.” And she let her arm drop heavily to her lap.
When I met your father, I never told you this, because, okay, it casts me in a pretty unflattering light. Okay. You asked for it. So, the real night I met Thomas, I was so drunk on Brandy Alexanders, I couldn’t stand up. There was a party for some girl’s birthday, anyway they were serving Brandy Alexanders, I don’t know how many I had, but I was so gone that your father and my good friend Jake Walker had to carry me home to my dorm. Your father just grabbed me around the waist and carried me. And then of course I spent the next two weeks avoiding him. I mean, how could I face him, after that? I know I told you we met in that German class, and that’s strictly true, I guess. That’s where I first noticed him. He was so striking, smart and handsome, comfortable in his own body. Oh no. Look. This recording. It’s a nostalgia factory. He’s gone now how many years? And look, there he is, fresh in my mind, holding me around the waist, and saying, with his New Jersey accent “don’t worry, I got you” A goddamn nostalgia factory. Enough. I’m done.
And the click.
“Come on, Ma, you’ll feel better if you get out,” I said.
“Move it or lose it,” she parroted.
“That’s right,” I called from the bedroom.
She held still for me to put on her socks and sandals. We’d gotten past a number of other indignities, with battles, balking, and the final relenting. This was nothing.
It took a while for her to stand, there in her sweater and black leggings that had begun to drape on her scrawny ass.
“I’m moving. I’m moving. I want to see how far my swallows have gotten,” she said.
“Hold on. Let me put on some lipstick,” she said, and I stood behind my mother, reflected in the mirror over her shoulder, watching as she made that overwide smile she always made to stretch her lips smooth: the smell of carnauba wax, the color burgundy.
In the elevator, my mother closed her eyes and held the chrome rail.
“That morphine makes me woozy,” she said. “It’s like the bottom is constantly falling out, falling, falling.”
When she opened her eyes, I saw a focused awe amidst her lost bearings.
She shook her head and her long, still-lustrous hair found a new way to settle on her shoulders.
And then there was you, you, and our whole world was thrown cockeyed. Oh you were such a good baby, and I thought I was the worst mother in the world to have to leave you to go to work. I knew you were in good hands with Abilene, though. She was heaven-sent, that one. While I was suffering from what they’d now probably call post partum, I never told you that either, just how miserable I was, so miserable I thought I would, I mean I almost…but never mind that.
Even as a baby, you seemed to understand. And of course who would you rather be with, a crying zombie woman who left you every morning, or a jolly young thing who liked to dance with you? Your first word was “Abby”, and don’t think that didn’t hurt.
The peace garden was planted with shade trees so you could sit beside the reflecting pool, and, well, reflect. It made for a good destination. Pretty much a half mile from mom’s house, so just one mile roundtrip. That was about what she could manage.
“Oh look,” she said “A new bench.” And there it was, a length of a redwood, cut at an angle for sitting.
“Look,” and “look” and “there” she said, noting all the differences since Tuesday. But the main event had to be the swallows.
“It’s just mud and twigs,” she said again. “And just look!”
Their nests covered the lee side of the rocky hill: all those gobbets and dollops, a colony of snug clay enclosures. The birds flew, their scalloped wings like boomerangs, carrying bits in their beaks, their hovering flutter like treading air.
“Behold! Life’s renewal in action!”
Along with agreeing to that whole life story thing, she spent a lot her time lately trying to cheer me up.
“Why? Because if it happens, and I’m still not saying it will, you’re the one’s who’s going to be left behind. I get it. I’m the one taking, what do they call it these days? The journey. I’ll take the journey. I’ll be the one to leave.”
“Right. You’re the one leaving. You’re leaving me.” And then I was full-on crying, sitting in the peace garden, crying in my mother’s arms.
I guess I understand. Times and generations aside, if you weren’t my daughter, maybe you would never… Maybe that combination of Thomas and me wouldn’t ever begin, the collision, I mean. The collision that made you… It all seems so unlikely that any of this could happen… and a life passes, I never saw it that way, but it’s as if it passes through you, and anything that happens… Because of course there was you, and Thomas, the times we’d go up to the lake, that time when… Oh I don’t know. Where was I? I was going to tell you about how it happened when… What was I saying?
Her voiced faded out so that you could hear the clock’s tick tick tick and the radio in the background, tuned to the jazz station she liked, and then at 77:33 on the tape, when I got there, you could hear me calling from the doorway, “Mom? Mom? Where are you?”