“Why aren’t you dressed?” I push past the irksome odor and hit the off button on the coffeemaker. The back door rattles behind me. She scrapes her black toast, fragments caking around her elbows, sinking in her scorched coffee. Hair sprayed, eyebrows penciled to perfection, all else haphazard. I drop my purse a little too loudly. She doesn’t flinch. A tear tracks her nose and slides between her naked lips. And she scrapes.
“Well…, the phone rang. It was your sister.”
“I couldn’t listen to her. Kept going on and on about.…” Her head shakes loose her trapped pain, “I hung up on her. Can’t believe I did that. I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”
“It’s okay, Mom. It’s over. You know, right? She’s safe now. She’ll be okay. We’re late.”
Her wool crepe dress is heaped on her bedspread, a semblance of the crumbs still on her kitchen table. She hasn’t worn it since Dad passed. I help her slip in. It swallows her frame, making a spectacle of her struggles the past year. I wonder if I will ever feel the grief reserved for mothers.
“We need to take her some clothes. What about that soft blush sweater dress she wore to your house for Thanksgiving? You know, the one with the pearl buttons along the shoulder seams and the lacy hemline. I love that on her. Reminds me of that sweet little dress she wore when you played Gabriel in the Christmas pageant. Remember?” Mom’s eyes flood with light and her mind rehearses that evening — what, twenty-five years ago? At least. I reel at the memories of us two vying for center stage in the spotlight of our parents’ adoration. “You were too cute, with your crooked wing. And your sister couldn’t sit still for love or money. Oh, I miss those days.” She has drifted to her ghosts’ sides.
My ghosts suddenly rush to taunt, reminding me of how my glorious, glittered wing got bent. Reminding me of how my sister shoved me to the concrete when I refused to let her try on my wings. Of how she always ran to Daddy toting tears at the ready. Of how her feathery lashes made all her fictitious words flutter like angel-wings. And how she would alight in his arms, a puffy pink cherub, chuckling. Maybe the two of them thought her the rightful heir of those wings. Maybe all three. Maybe I was the only one who saw the eyes that calculated moves, or smoldered at dissatisfaction, or seethed with envy. I seemed to be the only one forced to reckon with it all, really.
“I think that’ll work fine for today. Don’t you?” Mom’s words flush out my ghosts. They scatter and I’m freed. “She doesn’t need anything, Mom. They have gowns for her. We won’t see her today anyway.”
“Of course we will, silly! Whatever gave you that idea?” She picks up her Coach bag, checks it for mints, keys, lipstick. I open the door and she heads for the car, calling over her shoulder, “Check that door. Did I lock it?” I can’t recall my mother leaving home without telling someone to ‘check that door, did I lock it.’ I smile. Today my emotions need a free pass. Today I need to treat myself gently and allow the me’s of every stage of my thirty-three years to simply be — but gently, and in check.
“Who’s got my grand baby?” She catches me off guard, shifted in an instant from the big sister who got stuck with door detail to the single, hence always available, daughter who gets stuck picking up the pieces. I wrap around her frail shoulders. When did Mom’s stature escape her? Ten months ago, when my father’s heart gave way after he found my sister in an alley like a struck deer, losing body heat, laboring to breath, mangled? Or a week ago, when our world collapsed again? When my sister’s husband, Jude up and walked out, and she tried to make her newborn stop screaming? I wasn’t shocked. They all had limits, lines threatening to be crossed, taut as tripwires. We all knew it. Just didn’t know where they laid. My cheek presses into mom’s, reigniting her heartache and our fresh tears fuse. In the car, I’m firm — and tender, “Mom, it’s over. They’ve taken care of the baby. They’ve taken care of everything.”
I drive. She stares somewhere out there, and I hear a whispered tune that scrambles through my memories like an attic thief—
hush a bye baby
up in the sky
on a soft cloud
it’s easy to fly
She turns to me, tilts her chin, jaws tightening to arrest the quiver, and pastes a smile on her lipstick, “Carter’s baby clothes are on sale right now at Kohls. How about you pick me up around 10 tomorrow?” She turns back to her lullaby space, “You girls always looked so cute in their clothes. I can’t believe they’re still around.”
Raindrops patter the windshield. Tears, I think. The blades swipe. Wings. Heaven has banded with me. My breathing finds rhythm for one more moment. I pull in, park. I stop the blades, let the rain flood my mother’s view of the gurney by the back vestibule. The small Peace Box is swallowed by a spray of gardenias. Across the center console I touch the tenderness that rocked me moons ago. “Sure, Mom. 10 o’clock. Maybe they’ll have that red toaster I showed you. It’ll look great in your kitchen, don’t you think?” I turn off the engine, pull out my cellphone and call Jude. “You here? I can’t seem to get out of the car.” I slide the phone into my handbag, and say to no one, “He’s not coming.” The raindrops suspend. The gardenias are gone, their balm lingering to escort us inside.
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