My father calls twice from the small hospital in our town – the first time he says: “They are working on her.” The second time, less than three minutes later, he says: “Your mother is dead.” I tell him to stay where he is, that I will come and get him, that he can’t drive after a shock like that. Then I hang up on him. The thermometer outside the kitchen window reads ninety-two degrees, but a chill spreads across my chest and down my arms; my legs shiver beneath my skirt. My coffee cup shakes in my hands, and I drop it in the sink with my cereal bowl. The mug breaks, shards of porcelain ricochet in the silver apron-front basin. In the cereal flakes and milk and coffee there is one perfect slice of banana. At the front door, I clutch the brass doorknob, because if I walk out of my house it will be true. I’d talked to my mother last night. She wasn’t sick, but withdrawn and quiet; we both knew something, but we didn’t speak of it, because she had begged me never to call my father a bastard again.
I have to go. She’s waiting for me. No, he’s waiting for me. She’s dead.
Suddenly I am eight years old at the beach and my father holds out his arm, flexes his muscle and shouts Hang on, and my brother and sister and I do, the thick bulge on his upper arm hard as a rock and he holds us up high, swings us around, and drops us into the water. Like little fish they swim away. I can’t swim and he knows it. The sand lifts around me, the water bright with sunlight and dark with his shadow; I’m flailing, reaching for him, but his legs push against the water, away from me.
My mother saves me; she lifts me out of the water and pats my back while I spew sandy water.
I have to leave my house.
I grab my bag and open the door. I drive to the hospital. My father stands by the coffee machine, staring at dirty pennies in his palm. When I put my hand on his shoulder, he cringes. “Let’s go home,” I say. He closes his fingers around the pennies and shakes his hand. The coins rattle; his body rocks.
We don’t go home. I guide my father to a chair and shove him down on the grainy seat. I sprint to the ER and see the silver gurney where my mother lies, her long silver hair in a tangle. Blood on the floor, tubes, the monitors, syringes, blue paper sheets. Discarded latex gloves. They are inside out. A nurse steps around the gurney, walking toward me; her mouth opens.
That can’t be me, but it is. I’ve been in this room many times, my patients young, trusting, and sick. My pediatric brood, my little friends.
“Amy, I’m sorry,” and I turn to the nurse. Her eyelids flutter; her face is gray with worry.
“Leave me alone,” I say curtly, and she leaves the room.
I wipe the blood from my mother’s face, examine the neck collar and the discoloration on her cheek. We’re a small hospital, more interested in care than paperwork, yet I stare at the clipboard. Time of death is duly noted; cause of death is blank.
When I return to the waiting room, my father is twisting my mother’s lavender scarf in his hands. He cocks his head and smiles weakly. “She could use this to tie her hair back when she’s better.” Untangling the scarf from his grip, I wrap it around my throat.
“Get up,” I say. On the short drive home, he hangs his head out the window, his mouth open against the rush of the air. His mouth is not a mouth at all.
I call my brother from my parents’ house. “Kenny,” I say, “Pick up the phone, I know you’re there, it’s Saturday, have you had your coffee yet?” (He’s thirty-two, but he will not leave the house until the coffee has done its job, and it’s not to wake him up, it’s to kick start his intestines, and I have asked him not to tell me this, but he thinks it’s funny.) I call three times before Kenny picks up and I say, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Mom is dead. I’ve got Dad here and he hasn’t said a word to me; and the hallway has been tossed, the tables turned, and there is a cereal bowl and orange juice on the floor. Should I clean it up?”
Kenny says, “Don’t.”
Then he says, “Let me pack a bag, and I’ll be there in an hour.” I say, “Don’t you want to know what happened?” and he says, “Please don’t tell me,” and I hang up. My father looks at me, and he opens his mouth as if to answer a question in his scholarly manner, and I walk away, and last night when I talked to my mother she said this: A boy should love his father no matter what.
I call my younger sister. It’s not yet noon, and I hear the ice in her glass, she giggles and says, “Iced coffee,” and I say, “Julie, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Mom is dead.”
She says, “No way.”
“Yeah Way,” I reply.
And Julie asks “Are you sure?”
And I say with some exasperation, “I saw her body, they cracked her chest, and there was a tube in her mouth.”
“Did you take it out?” she asks me.
“I think you had better come home. I have Dad here and he’s not talking.”
Julie laughs, “Do you really think he wants to talk to you?” and I say coolly, “He called me.”
“But did he talk to you?”
“No,” I reply, “but it’s going to be me or the police,” and she panics and says, “Don’t do anything stupid before I get there.” She forgets to hang up the phone, and I hear her howling like a baby locked in a room in the dark. I scream, “You forgot to hang up the phone,” she throws it against the wall, and we’re disconnected.
My father sits on the couch in front of me as I dial Paul’s number. “Paul,” I say, and Paul says, “I heard, I’m on my way, and I’ll take care of it.” Paul is my best friend from high school; he is my best friend in this small New England town. He runs Doherty’s Funeral Home with his father even though Paul wanted to be a doctor.
I say, “Paul, I’m counting on you,” and he sighs. “I know,” he says, and for the first time that day I know someone understands what I have to do. “I’ll see you soon, Amy,” and he hangs up.
My father stares at me, he has not cried, but his eyes are red.
“Amy,” he says, and the cinnamon swirls in the carpet start dancing.
“Not now, Dad,” I say. I pick up my mother’s address book and I call her secretary at the college where my mother teaches History, and I break the Saturday news to Sally, who weeps uncontrollably as she sits in her apartment decorated with glass frogs. When she pulls herself together her voice is firm and dedicated, and she says she will inform all Joyce’s colleagues at the college, which takes care of at least twenty phone calls. I don’t know who to call next, and I excuse myself – from what? – and I go into the bathroom, and I throw up, all over the place, but specifically on my father’s toothbrush that he left sitting on the side of the sink as usual.
I call Annie, my mother’s sister. She makes everyone laugh; when she picks up the phone she says, “Hello, Darling.” She is one-thousand miles away. I say, “Annie, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Mom died this morning.”
From the dark mouth of the phone comes the sound of heavy wind, and I am swept up in the air and I find myself sitting on the floor, my hand and the phone all one piece. “That bastard,” she says, and I say, “Yes,” because we three, Joyce, Annie and me, have no secrets, and from the roaring phone I hear Uncle Doug’s voice, “Annie, you look like your best friend just died,” and Annie whispers to no one in particular, “She just did.”
I say, “Annie, I can take care of things,” and she says, “You better keep me away from him or we will have a double funeral.” She starts to cry, great gobs of hiccups punctuated by dry rasps; then Doug is on the line.
“He finally did it,” he says.
“We don’t know that, she had a bad heart.” (Already I have started the lies.)
“He has no heart.”
“You’ve got to trust me, Doug.” And Doug says, “You get him, you hear me?” And I start to cry, because my mother is dead, and there’s no changing that, but maybe there’s a way to set things straight.
In walks Kenny; he needs a haircut and a beard trim; otherwise he looks as consumptive as a Yoga guru, which he is in these parts. He heads for Dad and hugs him and holds his hand; my father warily looks at me out of the corner of his eye. While Kenny pats Dad’s bald head, my sister walks in carrying a jumbo bottle of Cutty Sark and a small overnight bag made of leopard-spotted fabric. Julie looks like a hooker with her platinum-streaked hair, green contacts and little spandex skirt. The three of them go into the kitchen where my sister solemnly pours three glasses (although there are four of us in the house) of Cutty, no ice. She puts the glass in my father’s hand; my brother stares at the counter as if snakes were slithering on it, knowing his three sober years are over. The three of them drink; within an hour they are on the back deck telling dirty jokes and singing. The neighbors bring food, and I explain that grief takes many forms. They nod, because they saw the ambulance take my mother away, they saw my father’s car rush after it, they tell me all this as they quietly place deli platters and baked beans on the counter. (Did they start cooking at the first sound of the siren?) Someone brings a honey ham; I tear off a sweet slice when no one is looking, and I chew it so long that I start chewing my tongue.
My shoulder is the place where the mourners rest their heads when they hug me, but I can’t cry with them. “She went quickly,” I say, and I hope it’s true, but I’m a doctor and it’s never that simple. When Paul enters the crowded kitchen where I am pouring glasses of water and passing tissues, I wonder how far I will go to take care of things; Paul whispers to those he speaks with that my mother had heart trouble. Even now he cannot help but emphasize heart because we both know how my mother loved my father.
Paul wraps his arms around me, and asks, “Are they at it already?”
“Yes they are,” to which he replies with a wink, “No Way.”
I wink back at him but my right eyelid sticks and I can’t see. Paul touches my eyelid, it pops open, and I say, as I lose my balance, “Yeah Way.” Paul holds me up, because my legs have buckled and the one little piece of honey ham I ate is on its way up.
“I’m right here, Amy,” Paul says. He raises his finger to my lips, and a hush falls over the neighbors. All those eyes are on me as Paul walks me to a chair. Someone offers me a sweater and I wrap it around me. Paul kneels before me.
“Have you decided?” he whispers.
The neighbors lean in.
Paul’s hands are on my knees. I place my hands on top of his and pat them.
“I need some time,” I say.
Paul removes his hands. The neighbors sigh.
Evening comes. The first wave of mourners have left their offerings everywhere. I think I will open a soup kitchen to get rid of all the food, but then I see my father standing by the ham, ripping slices of meat from the bone. He drops the pink ham on a plate as a siren wails in the distance. He flings himself against the kitchen wall and the telephone falls off the hook. When he turns around I am standing there. Our eyes meet. I narrow my gaze. He doesn’t move, not one single inch, not a breath raises his chest, not a blink closes his eyes, and I walk towards him as if I am taking my first steps. My balance is off, but my head is clear, and to him I say, “You have to tell us what happened.”
I clamp my hand around his thick wrist and walk him into the family room where he sits in his gray Laz-Y-Boy chair that he bought off the back of a truck in a bad part of town for twenty-five dollars. His fringe of hair touches the towel-covered headrest. Kenny and Julie see us through the glass door leading to the deck; I motion for them to come in, but my sister shakes her head with vigor.
Kenny drags Julie in; she screams, “You just ignore her, Dad, she thinks she’s so smart, but she doesn’t understand, does she?”
Closing his eyes, my father asks, “What do you want to know?”
“How did she die?” I ask.
“Don’t do this, Daddy,” my sister whimpers.
My father’s left eye twitches; the stubble on his face beads with sweat. He sips his drink; he chokes. Clawing at the air, he bends over and a thin line of scotch comes from his mouth. I smack him between the shoulder blades, and he straightens up.
“Sorry,” he says, wiping his mouth.
“So,” I say, leaning over him, “What happened to my mother?”
He pales. Out of the corner of my eye I catch my reflection in the sliding doors leading to the deck. My thick blonde hair, my height, all six feet of it, and my thin white t-shirt – I’ve grown into my mother’s form. My full lips tighten. They will never touch my mother’s soft cheek again.
“Daddy,” Julie pleads. “Come on out back. I’ll pour you another drink.”
“Take it easy, Julie,” Kenny says. His face is creased with fear.
My father’s not going to speak to what I know, that my mother’s neck was broken, and I know Paul, with his mortician’s skill, will be able to hide the welt on her cheek.
“What happened?” I ask. I am the only one in town who will ask. The law, the doctors, even Paul, will not ask, because my family is The Family.
Julie snivels, Kenny hands her a tissue. The air is thick with Cutty Sark and sweat, and I shove old issues of National Geographic and The Economist aside and I sit on the coffee table directly in front of my father. Julie and Kenny move so that they are on either side of my father.
“She couldn’t breathe,” my father says.
“How did the mirror get on the floor?”
“She pulled it when she fell.”
“She couldn’t speak.”
“You shook her?” He nods.
“And the ambulance?” I ask.
“I called the ambulance. The paramedics took her away. The ambulance stopped at the top of the street and I raced on to meet her at the hospital.”
“I arrived before the paramedics. I waited.” He looks at Kenny and Julie. “They worked on her heart,” he says.
“Was she alone?” I ask.
“Damn you, Amy,” Kenny cries out.
My father waves his hand. Kenny shuts up.
“Blood,” my father says. “I saw the blood. It’s barbaric what you doctors do,” and his face contorts with rage, his hand is in the air, the chair flips back and he’s kicked the coffee table out from under me. “My baby is dead,” he howls as he raises himself to his full height.
“Oh, Daddy.” Julie touches his shoulder.
“She was mine,” he bellows, and the pictures fly off the walls as he tears past them, and he’s gone.
I’m flat on the floor; I check myself. Kenny hugs Julie; Julie hugs Kenny.
“Go get him.” Julie pushes my brother. Kenny looks at the floor.
“Go get him,” she says again, only now she is pouting her best little-girl pout, the one that she used to make me do shadow puppets on the wall in the dark of the bedroom we shared as children. “Please,” she says to me, and the word sounds like a zipper coming undone.
“No way,” I say. “You two take care of him.”
But in the end it’s me my father comes to. He slips out of the dark study as I straighten up the house. Tapping my shoulder, he walks past me into the bedroom he shared with my mother. I follow him. He flicks on the light, and strips the sheets off the bed: the bed they bought at the PX when he was in the Air Force; the bed where I slept between them when I was sick; the bed where passion and heat outstripped reason; the bed that cushioned my father as he sang Baby It’s Cold Outside and my mother sang Shine On Harvest Moon. My father dumps the sheets in the hamper. He walks to the linen closet and pulls out crisp white sheets. Silently, he makes the bed. You could bounce a dime on it. It’s dark outside and the hydrangeas under the window glow in the moonlight. I scratch the screen; a woman walking her dog looks at the house and hurries past.
My father’s hand is on my shoulder. “I’ll sleep in the study,” he says.
“Oh no,” I say. “Sleep in your own bed.”
“When she comes back, I want her to find you.”
Tears run down his face.
“She was so proud of you; I think maybe she loved you best. Those two” – he twists his head – “are mine. But you belonged to her.” He wipes his face on his sleeve.
I scratch my cheek. Her fragrance is everywhere. I decide to sleep in the bed.
“You always hated me,” he says.
“I don’t want to hear it,” I reply. “Go to Julie. Go to Kenny. Go to hell.”
He leaves the room and I hear the door to the study shut. I kick off my sandals and feel the dense mauve carpet between my toes. Above the bed is the watercolor by Annie, a picture of a woman on a rock, her hair wrapped in a thick auburn coil around her head, her eyes the color of water on a sunny day, her body languid, naked and thin except for her pooch of a belly. Her glasses rest on a hump of moss. She holds a baby, pink, naked, and sleeping. This is my mother. This is me.
I take the picture down and wrap it in fluffy white bath towels and I take it out to my car where I put it in the backseat. On my way back in, I pass Kenny and Julie in the family room; they are playing rhyming games.
“Amy,” says Julie. “What rhymes with head and begins with ‘d’?” Julie laughs so hard she blows a sliver of ice out her mouth. “Dead!” She screams hysterically. “Don’t you get it? Dead, dead, dead,” and then she’s rolled up in a ball on the floor while Kenny kicks her with his bare foot and calls her “Hedgehog,” because she always does this, rolls up in a ball when she’s afraid, and once I rolled her down the hill out back when it snowed, but she stayed curled up tight, and my mother made me go and kiss her.
There’s brown sugar and garlic and yeast in the air. I step into the kitchen. The neighbors have been too good. Not only did they bring food, but they brought paper plates, plastic utensils, napkins, Styrofoam cups, plastic cups, and the silver urn from the church. If I turn it on I will have thirty-two cups of coffee. Instead I pack up all the food and put it away. The refrigerator won’t shut, so I pull out the orange jello mold and start eating. There’s so much food, and then I remember that Saturday night is potluck at church; they probably cancelled and brought all the food here. I look at the wall calendar and see that it was my father’s turn to lead the informal discussion group that follows the meal: “Education Priorities in Our Town” and I laugh, because it’s just one more attempt on my father’s part to garner votes in the fall election. His campaign button, “Re-elect Brian Gordon for School Committee,” is stuck next to the list of emergency numbers my mother kept handy.
The jello tastes fabulous, so good that I eat the entire ring including the maraschino cherries. Kenny wanders in and I hand him a spoon. While Julie whimpers in the other room, we dig into the baked beans.
“Think he’ll win?” I ask, pointing to the button.
“Yeah,” says Kenny, “unless you make a mess of things.” I glare at him. Kenny looks at the floor.
“He never hurt me,” he says, sipping from his scotch.
“That,” I say, “has to taste like sewage after eating baked beans.”
Kenny raises his glass to the campaign button. “Cheers,” he says. “Cheers,” he says again as he clinks the glass against my forehead. “May all your dreams come true.”
Suddenly I’m exhausted. Leaving Kenny in the kitchen, I walk to my parents’ bedroom and kneel beside the bed. I reach under it and pull out my mother’s journal. It’s nothing but a spine of fabric; all the pages have been ripped out. I stuff it under the bed and stumble into the master bath where I puked earlier. Someone has cleaned it up, probably one of the neighbors, and there are fresh toothbrushes on the sink. I grab one and brush and brush and brush until my gums bleed. I rinse; I drink; I strip; I pee; I pull out my mother’s peach-scented body lotion and rub it all over me. I’m so naked.
I lock the bedroom door. My mother always did when things got wild.
I crawl into bed; I finger my eyes for tears, but they are dry and sandy. My mother’s glasses are on the nightstand; I try them on – I had no idea her vision was so bad. With her glasses on, everything is blurry and I find I like it that way. My heart races; I can’t breathe; I count to one-hundred and I realize I am having a panic attack. There’s a low moaning coming from the walls and then a dog-like howl; it’s my father, and he’s definitely not sleeping. I hear Kenny knock on the study door; when there’s no answer he walks away. I hear Kenny and Julie talking; then Julie marches down the hallway. Her knock is shrill and demanding; it, too, is ignored. I wait until I can breathe again; I pull on my underwear; I pick up my jeans; and I pull out my cell phone and dial my father’s business line. It rings in his study; my father picks it up.
“Hello,” he says.
“Knock, knock,” I say.
“Boo,” I whisper.
“Boo who?” He catches himself. “Who the hell is this?” he roars.
“Boo hoo,” I say. “Now quit your crying and go to sleep.”
“Amy,” he says slowly. “That’s not funny.” And he hangs up.
But I hear my mother laughing. It’s a howling, snorting, raucous laugh, the one she never could hold in even when she should have, the kind where she held her hands in front of her mouth to stifle the snickers and the shrieks. Once she laughed so hard her fingers shot up her nose and she bloodied it with her carefully manicured nails.
I’m laughing now just thinking of all the times she laughed: the day I bought little snap-its, tapped the tobacco out of several of my father’s cigarettes, stuffed the snap-its in, and packed in the rest of the tobacco – my father lit a cigarette and it blew up in his face, and my mother laughed so hard she cried, and then her tears of laughter were replaced by tears of fear when she saw he’d smashed me up against a wall, his hands against my throat (Brian, please don’t kill the girl, she wanted you to quit smoking, it was just a joke, let her go Brian, damn it, let her go), and the freefall down the wall, the cool cloth on my throat; the way she mocked my father’s religion whenever she saw one of the red, white and blue road signs indicating High Church was nearby (Look, Dear, an Episcopal Church!) and my father blushing deeply, caught between her laugher and his pride; the time my father went waterskiiing and his bathing suit dropped around his ankles, Uncle Doug looking back at my father, still upright, and saying, Tell me again, Joyce, just why do you stay with him?, and Annie saying, Doug, Darling, Put on your glasses, and we all laughed so hard that we nearly drove the boat up the shore. Oh, I’m laughing now, laughing so hard I’m crying, and then I’m pounding the pillows and tearing the sheets off the bed, right down to the mattress cover, and I huddle in a corner staring at the bed like it’s quicksand. If I touch it I will be sucked down by memory. But I silently repeat to myself in my best medical voice, There’s no need to panic, and I crawl back on the bed and close my eyes.
My cell phone rings.
“Dr.Gordon,” I say.
“Hello,” I say, and now I’m angry.
The phone crackles and my father says, “She was going to leave me.” I hear him waving paper. “She wrote it down.”
I’m spinning away now, back in time, to the day I graduated from medical school, when my mother turned to me and said, Now you can really help people, and I asked her if she would please let me help her, and all she said was, I’m fine, darling, I’m just fine, you need to move on, and I said to her, I can’t leave you like this, and she cried till her face turned pink. She hugged me and whispered, Promise me you won’t make the mistakes I did. Then she laughed, and I nearly wet myself.
Which I have just done. My father is crying so very loudly that I am not sure if I hear him through the cell phone, or through the two thick doors between us. I reach for the box of tissues my mother keeps on the nightstand, but I’m still wearing her glasses and I knock the Kleenex off the nightstand onto the floor. My hand plunges down to the carpet and I reach and I swipe and I come up with what I think are Altoids. My mother loves Mint Altoids and I pop one into my mouth, carpet fuzz and all. It’s sour; it’s bitter; and I spit it out. I pull off the glasses and stare at the scored pill. It’s Trazadone. And there are more of them on the carpet.
“Dad,” I say into the cell.
“What is it, Amy?” His voice is sharp.
“Would you like a sleeping pill?” I ask as I finger the Trazadone.
“What?” he asks, and his voice is tinged with fear.
I hang up. I hear him pacing in the study across the hall; he settles on the creaky leather couch; and I’m suddenly touched by silence. I blot the mattress and spread a towel over the damp spot. I remake the bed. I step out of my underwear, kick it into a corner, and step into my jeans. I’m careful with the zipper. I open my mother’s top dresser drawer and yank out a soft white t-shirt and pull it over my head.
When I step into the hallway I smell sour milk. My watch reads ten o’clock. I keep walking, past Kenny sleeping on the couch, past Julie curled up in the Laz-Y Boy, and out to the back deck. My toes curl when I step on the wet grass.
Flipping open my cell phone, I stare at my directory. I call Annie.
Annie’s voice is hoarse. “I’ve been thinking,” she says.
“Me, too,” I reply. “You tell me first.”
“I never was one for heaven. Neither was Joyce.”
“And now?” I ask.
“She can’t be gone,” Annie says staunchly. “A person can’t just up and disappear like that.”
She can’t see me nod, but I do. Annie sighs.
“Wherever she is, she’s better off without him. Maybe that’s heaven.”
There are probably stars in the sky above me, but I refuse to look at them. An owl hoots and I kneel before my mother’s butterfly plant. Tiny night moths, attracted by the long reach of the porch light, flutter around the white petals. I blow them away.
“I can’t do it, Annie.” The words fly out of my mouth. “It’s not up to me.”
“I suppose it isn’t,” she says quietly. “It never was. You’re a doctor, not an executioner.”
“I don’t know about that,” I muse. Before she can answer, I say good night.
As I walk across the lawn, I think of all my patients, all those I’ve saved, the one that died – the hundreds I’ve stitched, poked and prodded, the ears, noses and throats I’ve peered into, and the training, the promises, the oaths, and quizzes, exams and tests, and all the way back to the pigtails that strained my scalp.
I knew all along I couldn’t save my mother. Less than twenty-four hours ago I asked her if she regretted marrying my father.
No regrets, she’d laughed. That’s no way to live.