VISITORS AT THE GATE
They’ll be here any minute, and I haven’t done the grocery shopping.” My mother’s eyes worry about the room as if searching pantry shelves. Her pale ivory face is barely discernable from the wrinkled pillow case on which her defiantly blond head rests.
“Who?” I ask.
“You know.” She shifts with difficulty in the small hospital bed by the south window of her room in the home we share. “We’ve known one of them for years, but I can’t remember her name.”
“Nobody’s coming except the hospice team.” A week of sleep deprivation has sucked away my patience. I feel like an eviscerated chicken.
“Chicken soup,” my mother says. “They always liked my soup.”
Can she read my mind or did I actually mutter what I thought was just that—a thought? “What people are you talking about, Ma?”
“You know,” she repeats herself, her voice stronger than it’s been in days. “Their country’s at war. We saw it on TV the other night.”
My mother hasn’t watched TV in over a year. Her soaps got too crazy, she said. There was nothing worth watching.
“Is the tree with the orange berries blooming yet?” she asks, the refugee guests forgotten.
“The flowers are just opening.” I raise the shade so she can see outside where the tree presents its gift of white blossoms just a few feet from her window.
Her colorless eyes—once green-flecked amber—find the tree, and she smiles. “The birds will love it when the berries come.” She closes her eyes, and I feel her enter the dining room of my childhood to feed her guests.
A twitch of her mouth, and I hear her ask, Did you get enough to eat? There’s plenty. Her skeleton arm rises and talon fingers grip a platter. The brisket is piled with fresh sliced mushrooms, sprinkled with Lipton onion soup, then drenched in wine. It comes from the oven so tender you can cut it with a fork, unlike mine that resembles a well-worn shoe.
I doze and hear the click of her three-inch heels on the kitchen floor. She brings out more brisket, mashed potatoes and gravy. My father pats her butt affectionately as she passes, eager to fill her guests, whoever they may be. More brisket? She persists until they are filled.
Always with the three-inch heels, even when she’s vacuuming the house or cleaning the toilet. Or walking to Safeway because we didn’t have a car. Click-clack, click-clack, a rapid cadence, hers, followed by my clop-clop child’s feet, running to keep up with her.
A rattle of breath pulls my eyes open. She’s sleeping with her mouth ajar. The muscles of her face twitch busily. Under ivory sheets, veins like ropes in her legs bind her to the bed, but she’s going somewhere, intent upon something.
She sees the neighbor’s cat with a mockingbird in its mouth and leaves my side. I clutch a pink-tinged clover blossom in my two-year-old fist as I watch her scale a monstrously high fence and snatch the bird from the cat’s jaws. I am in awe of what my mother can do. Did she wear high heels that day? I can’t remember. Probably she did.
Always good with birds, she would take fallen featherless hatchlings with limp necks and nurse them to adulthood. When I tried to follow her example, my birds always wilted and died. Mother instinctively knew what to feed them, grinding a fine mash comprised of hardboiled egg yolk, goldfish food and water. Feeding creatures of any species was her calling.
In the small, cream-colored stucco home of my childhood, her refrigerator was always stocked with fresh food. We didn’t do McDonalds or microwave dinners. Today, my refrigerator contains something sinister. It arrived by Fedex the morning after I engaged the services of hospice. It’s called a “Comfort Pack,” and contains psychiatric drugs, though Mother doesn’t have Alzheimer’s and has been lucid until this week.
“She may hallucinate when her organs start to fail.” The news was delivered matter-of-factly by the hospice nurse yesterday when I inquired about the purpose of the “Pack.”
“My mother doesn’t take anything stronger than Aspirin.”
The nurse raised a furry gray eyebrow and gave me an all-knowing look. “At some point, you’ll be glad for the drugs.”
“I thought they were for her.” I nodded toward my mother’s inert form, and received a disapproving look from Nurse Comfort. Perhaps if she thinks I’m seriously considering appropriating the drugs for myself, she will rid my fridge of the heinous package.
It didn’t happen. It’s still there, ready to be an instrument of euthanasia, if I choose.
I don’t choose. Instead, I push it farther to the back and block the sight of it with prune juice bottles.
This afternoon Mother squints at the wall opposite her bed where the light from the descending sun illumines it. “Who’s that?”
The picture on the wall is of a teenage girl in a dress, standing on the back of a dark-colored horse. The teenage boy holding the horse’s reins looks up at the girl, his infatuation still bleeding through the faded photograph.
“It’s you, Ma, and that boy from the ranch. Bill.”
“Can’t be. My horse was buckskin.” She turns her cheek to the pillow and leaves me for a while.
I wonder where she goes. Does the picture trigger memories? We’ve all heard her stories of the cattle ranch where she grew up. The pre-three-inch-heels days.
The day that picture was taken, she’d just won the horse race at the county fair. On a borrowed horse (the boy’s), in a dress because she’d wanted to look nice for the dance that was to be held in the evening. And, controversially, as it turned out, she’d ridden bareback because by the time Bill persuaded her to enter the race, there was no time to saddle the horse.
After Mother was presented with the prize—a crisp new five-dollar bill, another contestant, a young married woman, whined loudly to her husband that Mother had taken unfair advantage when she’d ridden without a saddle. The scene was so disruptive that Mother made an unprecedented show of sportswomanship. She strode up to the dissenter and shoved the fiver into the woman’s hand without a word—just a look that said it all. I can picture that deep-set amber gaze of hers that shifted the steadiest of glances once it homed in on target eyes.
She wakes in the early evening. “I smell smoke.”
I lie across the room on the bed she used to occupy, awake in case she chokes as she did the night before.
“I don’t smell anything.” Not entirely true. I smell the cat box. Tofie, her ancient lynx-point Siamese, ambles unsteadily across the room, stopping by the east window to pick litter from her toes. A waning gibbous moon floods the room with light.
“Don must be burning trash again,” Mother says, referring to our neighbor.
“Don’s dead, Ma.”
“Oh?” She sounds surprised, tries to sit up. I don’t want to raise the bed or have this conversation. If I’m quiet, maybe she’ll go back to sleep.
“How’d that happen?”
“He…” I really don’t want to go there. Our neighbor burned to death while disposing of his trash with a blow torch. I think of citing old age as the cause of death, but discard that instantly.
“Now I remember. He had a barbeque.”
I hear something that almost sounds like a giggle. She could at times have a macabre sense of humor.
The smell of smoke has always been one of Mother’s major aversions. It influenced her burgeoning disaffection for my husband who smoked a pipe. He also chewed, but not wanting to feed the fire of her disapproval, I kept this to myself.
After one of our frequent dinners at my parents’ home, James had the poor judgment to light up after the meal, unmindful of the amber bullets firing off in his direction. “You know how I feel about tobacco smoke.”
“Then you may take that thing outside.”
His response was to blow smoke in my mother’s face. The alacrity with which she snatched the meerschaum from his lips must have surprised him. Not I. The cat and the mockingbird came instantly to mind.
Before James could even utter an oath, she took the pipe in two hands and snapped the stem at the bowl. Then she disappeared into the kitchen, closing the swinging door with her hip. A click of cabinet doors below the sink where the garbage was kept signaled that the pipe would not resurface. And eventually, neither would James. It still galled me that she had been accurate in her initial assessment of him.
Tonight I sit in my father’s chair, my feet resting on the matching ottoman. The chair is the wrong height for my long neck, and I’ve stuffed a pillow behind my head. Mother would never part with this chair with its worn cocoa-colored damask pattern, now shredded and popping puffs of stuffing from its arms and back where Tofie has sharpened her claws for the last twenty years.
Like Mother, Tofie’s eyes are clouded and her hearing gone. She’s fur, skin and bones, with only ridges left where teeth used to be. In spite of the cat’s frailty, it looks as if she may outlive Mother. The popping of claws on fabric accompanies Tofie’s ascent onto Mother’s bed where she nestles close to her deity. Eyes closed, Mother reaches for the cat and strokes her short, lumpy, cream-colored fur.
There is an ancient cat crouching in my chest with cold claws around my heart. Is this my future? Will this be me lying helpless, surrounded by aging pets while my children contemplate a “comfort pack?” Will they fill me with “comfort” to still my unwelcome raving about guests they cannot see or hear?
“Oh!” Mother’s voice is alarmed. My eyes flick open as she tries to sit up. I move to her bedside and push the button to raise her head and shoulders.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I’m short thirteen dollars. They have the dogs with them.”
I don’t ask who this time. “Thirteen dollars?”
“The groceries. I’ll need dog food, too.”
Tofie presses against Mother’s body, seeking warmth where little remains.
“Will the dogs get along with Tofie?”
“You know they were raised with cats. Of course they will.”
Through the night I float, fully clothed, in my father’s chair. I watch Mother’s restless legs flail to move the cat’s unyielding body. When I rise and touch Tofie, she’s stiff and cold. Carefully, I pick her up, place her in her sleeping box and return to my father’s chair with its low back. I don’t know how the six feet of him reclined there comfortably. My neck hurts from the angle, but I can’t move.
“They’re here.” Mother rustles the bed sheets. My eyelids push against gravity to no avail.
She’s at the window, the one that opens to the front where moonlight sifts through the branches of the bittersweet tree, illumining the filigrees of creamy white blossom clusters. A spill of cool, sweet air falls on my cheek. I try to follow, but the chair holds me in its arms.
Outside, a cacophony of voices greets her. I can’t understand the words, but she answers them. “Hurry, I have a few more things to get at the store. Of course, we’ll take the dogs with us.” Her high heels beat a staccato on the cement walk. As I hear the gate click shut behind her, she calls out my father’s name.