Sunday, after dinner, I found Mama sitting in the hard metal chair where she spends so much time, squeezed into the narrow space between the small cluttered kitchen table and the counter where she keeps the snacks she nibbles throughout the day and crushes her post-dinner Centrum Silver, mixing it with the juice left from whatever canned fruit I gave her for dinner, followed by an applesauce chaser. She often falls asleep there and wakes in spine-twisted, neck-kinked pain when I rouse her.
Sunday night she had removed her ever-present visor, perhaps in preparation for me to put her glaucoma drops in her eyes. She has been doing that nightly ritual since she was my age, but turned it over to me several weeks ago, after confiding she was beginning to miss her eye—or was unable to squeeze the drop out—and had been opening a second $7.50 one-use vial. (She won’t use the generic because it’s manufactured only in a bottle with preservative, which she claims she’s allergic to. Medicare will only pay for the generic. What is wrong with that scenario?)
I stood watching her for a moment. It hadn’t been a good day. Dan the Handy Man had cancelled. Dan is the light in her life, and he helps her with her tape recorder, on which she’s telling her life story in minute detail, beginning with her mother’s childhood. She’s up to herself in third grade. She’s been at it for months. I’m convinced she won’t let go until it’s finished. “And miles to go before I sleep.”
Rebecca came for breakfast Sunday and was still here when Dan called with the bad news. She needs Dan to check the tape before she starts, to make sure she got what she thought she recorded. She doesn’t trust anyone else. It was a day-changer for both of us.
There’s an elaborate setup to help her know the recorder is ready for her to speak. She isn’t strong enough to push the record/play combination. She can’t see the position of the pause button and can’t remember if she’s supposed to talk when it’s up or down anyway. She doesn’t want someone to sit with her to help her, or really even be in the house. She wants to do it herself, when she wants to do it. Except for Dan. He can be there.
She is getting increasingly frantic about getting her story down. She says she can’t think of the right words anymore. She says she’s forgetting the story and the dates. She’s in a race with total memory loss, if not with death. I tell her behind every good story is a good editor. Just get it out and her editor will get the words right, and the sequence corrected. She’s not buying it.
Sunday morning she was sure she had taped more the day before than we could find, but that there was a long silence between words. She couldn’t explain why she thought that, and she didn’t appreciate our exploratory questions. “It’s on there!” she insisted. She didn’t understand that the end would be at the point where the tape was stopped, since it hadn’t been rewound. I hop-skipped through the whole rest of the tape to be sure, while Rebecca tried to mollify her. “Perhaps you were speaking, but the pause button was on,” I suggested, expressing my sympathy for this recurring problem. “No!” she said, “I could hear it running.” “You can always hear it running,” I explained for the umpteenth time, “unless it’s turned off.”
Eventually she offered that maybe she had filled in something she had forgotten and that’s why the last bit wasn’t what she thought it should be chronologically. She accepted the suggestion that we put in a new tape, then Dan could listen to the previous one. He would find what wasn’t there.
At the end of the day she said she hadn’t done any taping, she was “taking a break.” Apparently she had put on a happy face, probably to get us to shut up and go away.
Back to Sunday night. She looked so old, so weary, so alone sitting there. Without her visor, she looked so much like her mother at the end of her life. My chest tightened, until I could hardly breathe. No matter how many people are around, the end of life is traveled alone. I wanted to pull her onto my lap, fold my arms around her tiny self and hold her to my bosom; like she once held me when I skinned my knee. I wanted to tell her I was so sorry. Sorry she had to still be alive, and not really living. Tell her she could stop working so hard to stay tethered here. Tell her to go find her true love.
I’m reading the letters my father wrote over their long separation during World War Two. Sunday morning I read one from the summer of 1945. The war was over, but for the atomic bomb, but it would be seven more months before he shipped home.
July 1945, Ansbach, Germany: “I know one girl I wish I could see tonight, tomorrow night and every night. Last night too. That’s you, my darling. I hate so to think of this summer slipping by without being with my wife. And I hate even more to think of spending another winter over here. I’m surely hoping hope on hope that we’ll be together next spring. Don’t be sad or unhappy, my dear. Time goes faster if we forget ourselves and make the best of a bad situation. And after that first kiss, we can forget that we were ever apart, and probably will.”
She continues to make the best of a bad situation, and increasingly the best falls far short of satisfactory. She told me some time ago she no longer believes in an afterlife, or reuniting with loved ones. She said she’s had a wonderful life, and she doesn’t deserve anything more. I choose to imagine them together again, forgetting they were ever apart.