My mother leaves the phone off the hook, blames me, she’s confused about charging the battery, simple things like that perplex her; my dad drives himself into the city for his physio and returns bruised and shakey.
Stupid stuff, bury my head in the sand stuff. The opthamologist gave me prednisolone for the iritis, should have asked for Maxidex, never had any luck with the other, need to follow the schedule from Cherry, my previous ophthalmologist, dilate the pupil, cortisone cream at night.
The ingrate who keeps stabbing my eye with a needle, almost makes me wish for blindness. Have to find distractions, lower my stress.
Think of Lisa, the intensive care nurse. She appears on my walks like a mirage, her auburn hair prismatic with colours, her skin appearing so radiantly soft. I’m afraid a husband or boyfriend lurks somewhere like a disease.
Hours later, my mother phones me, convinced that my father has died again.
“He didn’t suffer at all. He looks so peaceful.”
“Call the ambulance.”
“No, they’ll put a mask on him.”
“Is he still breathing?”
“I’ll go check.”
She puts the phone down. I hear her footsteps as she walks away then returns. I’m thinking what happens if this time it’s really true. She picks up the phone.
“He’s breathing but I still can’t wake him.”
“He’s just in a deep sleep.”
“Who can I call?”
“I did. But a voice said the office was closed.”
“That’s her work number. Call her at home.”
“Donalda . . . my sister . . . your daughter.”
“No. I don’t want to bother her again. I’ll check myself.”
“Which phone are you on?”
“That’s the portable. Take it with you this time, let me speak to him.”
Garbled noise as she pokes my dad with the phone.
“I am wake.”
“It’s Andrew. Your son. He wants to talk to you.”
“I’ll talk to him later. I just woke up.”
“Please talk to him.”
“Hello,” he says into the phone.
“Hi. You’re okay?”
“Mom thought that you had permanently left us.”
“No. I’m still here. I was asleep. She’s having one of her spells.”
We’re in the kitchen, once impossibly clean, now there’s grime around the sink and the faucet drips. I sit at the table, remembering breakfasts of pancakes, waffles, and bacon. Now, my mother can’t even be bothered to make coffee, instead everything comes directly out of a box, or frozen from Meals on Wheels.
She lines the cereal boxes up in a row, tallest to the shortest, counts them.
“Seven. See, nothing is missing.”
My father bangs his spoon on the table. “You forgot again.”
“What now,” says my mother.
“How now brown cow,” my father says, emphasizing each word. His hearing’s gone bad but he blames my mother’s pronunciation. “I told you to buy Cheerios, not more Wheaties,” says Dad.
“I did too. I did too. You ate them already.”
“Bah . . . you’re a silly old woman.” He shakes his finger at her and gives her such a cold-hearted scowl.
She stands up bawling like a baby, tears streaming down her ancient child’s face, while dad sticks his tongue out at her. She lurches forward, drops to her knees tugs down on his pyjama bottoms.
“Ow!” Her nails have scratched his skinny thighs.
He slaps at her head until she becomes this human puddle on the kitchen floor.
“Mom. Dad. Stop it.”
A specialist doctor has diagnosed my mother as having Alzheimer’s disease. She doesn’t quite believe it, and some days I don’t either.
Once upon a time, she was very pretty and smart, now she’s gotten old and not quite with it, her words to describe the little problem that’s found its way into her brain.
This can’t be the same woman who helped me launch a Texaco kite by taking a nail in her foot. I remember the kite soaring for a few seconds before it nosedived and wrapped itself tight around a dead tree.
It’s all a bad dream and maybe I’ll wake up. It’s like that splice in an old family movie; we know it’s coming but unreasonably hope that it can run through the projector without snagging, and turning everything into a horrible burst of light.
My sister and I are talking on the phone. Mom found Dad dead again, this time on the living room floor while his twin slept in his bed. After the firemen and police arrive, they discover Dad sitting up, reading the newspaper.
“That’s not the worse part. Dad has gotten aggressive again with Mom.”
“What do you mean?”
“His damn doctor put him on Viagra, can you imagine giving an eighty-three-year-old man Viagra. Now he won’t leave Mom alone. If she says no, he pushes his way into her. Do you know terrible it makes me feel having to talk to him about this?”
“Do you want me to talk to him?”
“It won’t do any good. I have to speak to the doctor and tell him to stop prescribing the Viagra.”
“He’s only taking the Viagra to give himself more energy.”
Mom and I sit in the living room. In the past, we’d use these occasions to talk about dad and the tyranny he sometimes imposed on her; now she’s found an ally.
“I always knew there were two of them,” says Mom.
I try a joke. “You mean you are living with two different men? What will the neighbours think?”
“One of them is retired, and doesn’t work and I don’t want to tell him to leave though the last time he was in hospital he treated the staff so miserably that they kicked him out.”
“Which one is that?”
“And the other one?”
“That’s D.P. Somewhat nicer, more like the man I married.”
I travelled, backpacking my way through South America, then a flight to North Africa where I sat in the cafes imagining how I could smuggle hashish or at the very least teach English in South Korea as a way of earning a living.
When I returned home, I had no place to go to, having given up my apartment and sold my furniture.
When the airport limo dropped me off in front of my parent’s house, I thought they had thrown a welcome home party for me, the place lit up like a birthday cake and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” spilling out onto the sidewalk.
In the kitchen, Mom was in her pink chiffon party dress, all flirty-eyed with tons of mascara, and her cheeks rouged up.
She had blissfully found her way to a place that made her happy again.
“Hi,” she says, now flirty-eyed with me.
“How are you?”
“Great. But I might have had too much to drink.”
“Just a strawberry daiquiri. Very sweet.”
“Did the doctor say you could? What about the drugs?”
“Oh. I don’t need those now.”
“But they’re to help you.”
“Now, listen, I don’t know who you are but if you don’t like the way I live my life you can leave right now.”
“He’s dead. He died a long time ago . . . ’71 no ’72.”
“Not your father. My father.”
“He’s dead too.”
I watch a man and woman helping themselves to mother’s silverware, stuffing it into in the man’s vinyl brief case, the pockets of his suit jacket, then her purse.
I notice a puffy-faced, middle-aged man lifting an oil painting of my father’s aunt off the wall.
“What are you doing?”
“You better grab something before it’s all taken. The old bird won’t mind. She’s more gone than most of them.”
“That’s my mother you’re talking about.”
“Sorry. But she ran the ad in the paper.”
“Free silverware and paintings. I thought it was a clever come-on but decided to show up anyway. But as you can see I’m not the only one helping himself.”
I stood next to him, putting my hand on the painting. “Go right now.”
“No need to get angry.” He patted his pockets. “I got what I came for.”
“The war medals.”
I reached for his coat pocket to retrieve my father’s World War II medals but the man twisted away then punched me on the side of the head. I fell heavily into the front door that was opening to let more people in. He squeezed himself through and started running down the street.
When I went downstairs I saw two teenage boys fighting over a wooden antique hockey game that had belonged to my uncle. Mom came down the stairs.
“Oh he got sick and we had to put him in the hospital again. I decided it was a great time to clear out all the crap.”
“But mom . . . your silverware?”
“We don’t use it anymore.”
“Didn’t you tell anyone else you were doing this?”
“Oh sure. I told them I was having a garage sale and they were all going to help but everyone cancelled at the last minute so I decided to go ahead with it.”
“You’re not even charging these people money.”
“Money? Why? I have all I need. So does your father.”
“We have to get rid of these people right now.”
“But it’s so much fun.”
“They’re stealing everything.”
“Okay . . . you do what you want. I’m going to lie down. I feel a little dizzy.”
By the time, I pushed the last of the pillagers out the door, the place was a mess with furniture knocked over, cabinet drawers half-emptied and the contents kicked about, and clothes in the closets pawed over and tugged off their hangers.
I felt crazed by my mother’s madness, yet ready to cry with her when she realized that her collection of Toby pitchers had vanished too. Of course, so had my computer and winter clothes.
In a place behind the wall, lives a Mrs. Ellis. Mom tells us to keep our voices down in case we wake her. If we do, she’ll take out her revenge when we’re asleep: re-arranging the furniture and rooms, mixing up pill bottles, condemning us to shift work in the plate factory that mom believes she can never leave, the hum of the production line sounding like a hive of bees inside her head.
My younger brother is demanding money. He has repaired one of the outdoor lights at my parent’s house.
“They owe me $54.”
“I’m sure they’ll pay you.”
“No way, we will,” says Dad. “Who asked him to fix the light?”
“Mom did,” says Rick.
“She’s cuckoo,” says Dad. “You shouldn’t have listened to her.”
“Rick, forget it for now.”
“No. You give me the money then.” He pushes his finger into my chest.
“Boys, stop fighting,” says Mom.
“We’re not fighting.”
“Stop it. Stop it.” She slaps at me, tears spilling behind her small rectangular framed glasses.
The house stands empty of its furniture, though marks remain on the walls and carpet from where chairs used to rest. The real estate agent pokes her finger into a dent in a door where my father had hit it with his fist.
“That should have been fixed before the listing,” she says.
“Oh well, the house sold.”
“We had to take thousands off because of its condition.”
I watch the new owner get into her car, her black burqa hiding her face.
“They’re probably going to gut it anyways, if not tear it down.”
“I never tell my clients to list a home without some new paint, cosmetic work.”
“We don’t blame you. My mom wanted to fix it up but my dad always said no. Then it didn’t seem to be worth the hassle.”
“Still, the price isn’t too bad.”
“No, it’s okay.”
We’re alone in the house I grew up in, the overly perfumed, made-up real estate agent whose blouse has come slightly undone during the last hectic hours of signing back offers until a final price was agreed on. Her pink bra is worn, frayed around the straps, her right breast partially exposed.
An image pops into my mind that I had tried to forget. I was eleven, we had recently moved into the brand-new house and I said or did something, maybe pulled on my sister’s hair, and my mother was scrambling on top of my unmade bed to get at me. Her bathrobe came open.
You could call this a purification rite or a bad dream or perhaps I need to accept everything as a form of grace already forgotten.