With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I can’t tell you this, but my mother has a dot on her lung. It’s a small dot, on the left lung. If her lung were a map of Texas, the dot would be roughly the size of the city of El Paso, which is large enough to be written in boldface type by Rand McNally. When I think about her dot, which I’m not supposed to do, I imagine a wet circle of India ink spreading quickly toward all sides of a sheet of yellow, gauzy paper. I also see a knot, a thick ball of mucus, my hand ripping open her lung and squeezing the ball until blood and pus and membranes slide between my clenched fingers. But remember, I’m not angry, because I don’t know this. I’m not telling you this.
I would put a finger to my lips and say shhhh, but I’m afraid I would hiss so loudly and for so long that I would awaken my boyfriend, who sleeps with earplugs, and saliva would slide down my lip onto my chin. To a Protestant girl like me, such indiscreet messiness would be devastating. You must understand, I was raised to doubt even a decision to honk a car horn, except in the friendly toot toot of neighbor passing neighbor.
I called my mother a week ago Wednesday, and she wasn’t home. I called after attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the peach-colored basement of the Church of the Holy Ascension. It was a morning meeting, and seeing all those housewives dressed in stylish sweat suits and tailored dresses made me think of my mother. Claire F. was talking about how hard it was being middle-aged after winning the California state beauty contest at nineteen, when she was still blond and susceptible to dreams. I kept looking for some sign of her earlier beauty in her small, starved, blotchy face, but all I could see were two large bobby pins holding thin, C-shaped curls, one beside each ear. I wondered if she’d forgotten the pins were there, the way she’d forgotten where she parked her Ford Squire station wagon the week before. I began to doubt the reality of Claire’s beauty contest.
Sitting on our yellow plastic chairs under the humming fluorescent lights, we can testify to anything. A young man with wire-rimmed glasses weeps at every meeting over losing all his buddies in Vietnam. He’s no more than twenty, born about the time of Nixon’s pardon. A freckled Irish woman named Cassy M. tells of her “day of peace” when — accidentally, she says — she gave her colicky infant a drink from the bottle of Scotch and ginger she kept stashed under the front seat of her car. The baby’s afternoon nap lasted ten hours. Now Cassy’s husband drives her to meetings and waits in the gravel parking lot. I have watched her climb into the car on many occasions and I can report that there are no words, no smiles, nothing but a man shifting out of park, a woman wrestling with her seat belt, pebbles grinding under rubber.
There are more stories but, like my mother’s, they are not to be told. Confidentiality is a small hand covering the open mouth and it is everywhere. At AA we confess and cry, at times we shake, but we do not reveal last names; we are together and unknown.
While looking at the former beauty queen’s curls, I began to see my mother on our patio. She was wearing her satin bathrobe, her hair set with curlers the size of beer cans. My mother never claimed to have won any beauty contest, but there, on the slate steps in the summer sunshine, with just a hint of mascara, she was lovely. Her hair smelled of White Rain and soap, and I sat enchanted beside her as she carefully painted her toenails fire-engine red, each toe separated from the others by a wedge of white cotton. Sometimes I would blow on her nails, which made her laugh. It’s impossible to explain how great it felt to make my mother laugh, to see her mouth open so wide even the gold of her fillings sparkled with joy.
Sometimes these distilled images, this dangerous nostalgia, can make me call her on the phone. Until Wednesday, I sometimes thought we might have a simple closeness again. Maybe it could have happened if I’d had a baby of my own. It occurred for my two sisters within the neutral arena of feedings and rattles and mashed bananas.
When I called home after the AA meeting, Jernine, my mother’s black cleaning lady of thirty years, a woman we used to refer to as “the maid,” answered the phone. “Phillips residence,” she said, smooth as the Sacramento wind.
“Jernine, hi. It’s Patrice. I can’t believe you’re still cleaning that immaculate house. How are you anyway?”
“Just fine, honey, only older. Had three teeth removed last week and now I got to watch myself so I don’t go and whistle out my words. I’m telling you, it’s just the wildest damn thing.”
“I don’t hear a sound,” I said, remembering how Jernine’s easy laughter had filled our stifled home with something recklessly alive. She taught me about Tampax and playing hard to get, and helped me gain weight with thick milkshakes full of pecans and vanilla and Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
“Don’t worry, you’ll hear,” Jernine said. “Now what’s this your momma’s telling me you broke up with that doctor man of yours?”
I chuckled at my mother’s dire rendition of the situation with my marriage-shy boyfriend, Mike, who instructs me to tune out my mother as if she were a radio station, as if there’s a knob I simply don’t use. I reassured Jernine that Mike and I were still together.
“Honey, ah honey,” she said, “what you calling here for when you know your momma’s still down at the doctor’s, you know, at that Catholic hospital. I got her number right here.”
I could say nothing.
In the background, I heard the familiar sounds of Jernine’s soap operas. She sighed, trying to relieve the silence between us. It was a deep, horrible sigh, full of pity and confused loss. Then, too cheerfully, she said, “But you moved on out of the city, though, didn’t you? You in Half-Moon Bay for a while now. Finally got some sense in you, Patrice. Finally got some good sense after all.”
I sat down on a kitchen stool covered with the morning paper. I almost couldn’t hear my own voice as I said, “She’s sick then?”
“What now, don’t you know? She gone got a dot on her lung the size of a bitty pea.”
“Wait a minute. Just wait — just a minute.”
I could tell you I wanted to race to the hospital to hug my mother. I could tell you I wanted to write an apology letter that went on for fifteen pages. I could even tell you about the vase filled with lilacs I wanted to place beside her bed. But these are all wishful lies. I can tell you that I wanted to scream so fiercely that my neighbors who have never said hello would call the police.
“When?” I asked.
“I don’t know I should tell you, Patrice. Maybe your momma doesn’t want me going on telling this stuff. Now did you hear it that time? That whistle coming through? Fs make me crazy as a rat.”
“Just tell me. I’ll know soon enough, either way.”
“Well, since you’re putting it to me like that, then all right, I’ll just go right ahead and say a month ago. But now don’t you go on telling her that I’m the one told you. Do you have something to take her number down?”
“She has a phone?”
“Well, yes, sure she does. You know, she got herself a private room and all.”
“Did she also tell you I’ve been sober for more than two years?”
“Why no, no, she didn’t. Had no idea in the whole wide world my little Patrice was a drinker.”
Our conversation went on for an hour. I laughed with Jernine until I cried.
A few places my mother has smoked: in the bath; in the air-conditioned car; in the elevator at Saks; in the middle of breakfast, lunch, and dinner; in my newborn nephew’s room; in the lobby of Sloan-Kettering Hospital, where she spent three months being treated for lymphoma. I was fifteen then and full of adolescent romance. I lit eight small, red candles each night on the windowsill overlooking the cripple-limbed paloverde trees. I believed all that warm, yellow light would give me my mother for eight more years, after which, at twenty-three — an age I then considered mature — I would be fine, just fine, without my mother.
What I didn’t realize then was how elusive maturity could be. I also didn’t yet understand that, while some patients see recovery as a miracle, others see it as a curse.
When I called my younger sister, Susan, in Burbank she told me, “Mom was lucky before. Maybe she will be again.”
“She wasn’t lucky before,” I said.
“Don’t be morbid.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Though Susan and I are sisters, she is as light as I am dark. She told me not to drink and I told her I might, or might not, depending. Susan suggested we send flowers to show Mom that we know. I suggested we save them for the grave. That’s when she hung up on me. She always was the family door-slammer.
Mike sleeping is a portrait of freedom and need. I walked into our bedroom ready to shake his warm arms, prepared to hear him groan to himself, “I’m not on call. It’s just my current nightmare.” I wanted so much to tell him. But I couldn’t do it. He would say he’s sorry, and I would have to confront the fact that I’m not so sure I am.
Instead I just watched him with his wide feet sneaking out from under the sheets, his mouth a perfect O, his naked chest moving slowly up and down, his penis slightly erect under the covers. A doctor in training should be disturbed only for love or something treatable, and I could offer him neither.
That’s where my mother and I converge. We are both not only short with ski-jump noses and narrow hips, we are also untreatable. When my mother gave me a set of Royal Dalton china as a consolation prize for turning thirty without a husband, I was overcome by an urge to smash it.
“Don’t you like the pattern?” she had asked.
“Sure,” I answered, staring at the floral blur.
“Then why don’t you try to act like it, Patrice? It cost an arm and a leg.”
I sat on my front stoop in the weak April sunshine, my fingers tearing at loose cuticles. I couldn’t stop thinking about a spicy Bloody Mary with a stalk of crisp, green celery. It was the only drink I drank before noon, and it was the only one I still craved. I used to say it helped me get started, but that was the deceptive mind of an addict speaking. The one thing that helps is knowing that what you see is what you see — there is no blame, no alibi, no special lens, no dark hole that isn’t just a temporary haven.
I have seen my mother throw a wine glass at my father, who, while he was living, drank vodka with ice and called her names like honey and dear, selfish and suspicious, sweetheart and dumb. He had a lot of love but very little compassion. That night he had told her intelligence was not measured in crosswords completed and antiques collected. Real intelligence, he’d said, came from being in the real world. That was when she tossed her Beaujolais at him and forever ruined the ivory slipcover of his wing-back chair.
I have watched her scream orders before every dinner party she ever hosted, yet when the phone rang, she would answer with a cool, breathy tone one decibel above pillow talk.
I have looked in disbelief at my mother when she refused to give me two hundred dollars for an abortion after having paid thousands in orthodontist’s fees.
I have stared at her proud smile as she told us girls about graduating from Stanford summa cum laude, when we all knew her father had pulled the plug during her junior year at Mills College.
I have watched her turn gray from chemotherapy and too many cigarettes and not enough food and always far too little comfort. Through it all, I have stood by as my mother smoked a bluish haze around her delicate world, and I never said one word to her. (At times, however, if I could do it quietly, I would crack a window.)
Seeing, watching, staring — all instruments of silence. Remember, I have told you nothing. Nothing has been said. I could tell you my mother’s two favorite expressions: absolutely and leave me alone. If I could be sure you wouldn’t laugh, I would add that my mother’s dark and damaged voice curls through me like gift-wrap ribbon, softly tying my tongue in blue and pink and lemon yellow. But I will let you in only on this: I went inside the house and looked up the number for Saint Augustine’s Memorial Hospital; it was easy to remember: 454-4000.
As Mike left for work in his white jacket and green high-top sneakers, I stood on the front steps and said, Goodbye, and he asked me, What’s wrong? Nothing, I told him, and he said, It looks like a big nothing. (We aren’t married, but still we talk that way.) He said, See you later, and I said, Great, see you at four. What do you mean, four? he asked, and stopped walking down the driveway. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. I don’t know, I said, It’s just a number, you know, four. Then I reached for the front-door handle. We stared at each other. Finally I said, Whenever, see you whenever, and I heard my voice tremble and hoped Mike hadn’t. He said, Why don’t you just tell me? and I told him, I just can’t.
I couldn’t explain anything, especially not how the blinking blue Coors sign at the corner bar made me want a frosted mug, cold and heavy, in my empty hand.
My older sister, Julie, is the worst kind of Christian: born-again. She lives in Seattle with her five kids and husband, John, who designs bombs for Boeing and calls it “aerospace engineering.” I don’t visit her anymore, and she doesn’t visit me either, since she — the sister who ran a small drug ring from our suburban basement — doesn’t approve of my living with Mike. Last Christmas I told her Jesus preached against self-righteousness and she gave me the finger, which is one of the reasons I still love her, despite everything.
Between Julie’s children, call-waiting, and her dog, Boomer, our conversations are alternately scattered and determined, a study in interruption. Calling her offered some relief, however. Only minutes before I had confronted the cheerful hospital-switchboard operator: “Good afternoon, Saint Augustine’s Memorial Hospital, how may I direct your call?” I’d hesitated a moment before telling the woman that I was sorry, I had dialed the wrong number.
When Julie heard this she laughed her little-girl laugh of mostly air, vowels, and shaking shoulders. What makes Julie so easily amused is a miracle beyond me, like resurrection itself.
“Jesus Christ, Julie,” I said, “it’s not funny.”
“I’ve asked you not to take the Lord’s name in vain around me, remember? It’s offensive, really. It is.”
“You’ve talked to Mom. You already knew about this, didn’t you?”
“I did not.”
“You did too. Mom always tells you things first.”
“Oh, get over it, would you? She does not, and anyway, she didn’t tell me anything. I’ve been trying to reach her. I figured she went back to Maui.”
“Why? Why do you even bother wishing so much all the time about things you don’t even want?”
“I beg your pardon. If it wouldn’t impinge upon your blessed freedom of speech, please tell me just exactly what you mean by that remark.”
“I mean you wish for a mother who’s warm and cozy like your therapist or something. You wish for a man who’ll marry you. You think you can actually have hope without recognizing the truth of the Lord. Then you’re always shocked when you don’t get what you want.”
“I may be shocked right now, but that’s because Mom’s got a goddamn dot on her lung the size of a fist.” Sitting on my bed, I clenched my fingers.
“Patrice, I’ve asked you once already, OK?”
“Maybe it’s not as big as a fist, but I’m sure it’s close. I’m sure it’s mean and knotted-looking like a fist. It’s going to kill her, you know.” I slammed my hand on the mattress so hard Mike’s earplugs bounced onto the floor.
“We don’t know that, do we?”
“We need to call her. You’re the good girl, Julie, you call her. I’ll give you the number.”
“You call her. You do it. That would be a good thing for you to do.”
“I’ll only upset her. She hates my life.”
“She only hates that you don’t let her into it.”
“Did she tell you that? Did she? You and Mom just sit around talking about me, don’t you? Just take the number and tell me what she says.”
“You call. It’s one less thing you’ll have to regret, Patty. Listen, I’m smelling major toast burning downstairs. Can you hang on a sec? I’ve got to change phones before the fire department comes again and John Jr. really goes to jail.”
I could let you smell the poppy-seed cake burning on the toaster-oven rods. I could tell you my sister brilliantly and delicately analyzed my wishes. But what I will tell you is this: I hung up with Julie and called my mother.
First I drank six Virgin Marys. While I drank them, I stared at the black cordless phone and thought a thousand thoughts about my mother, who was finally going to leave me. I saw her closets full of neatly arranged clothing never to be worn again, never to hang perfectly from the body that brought me into this world.
Who knows why we think what we do? I kept thinking about my mother dropping me off at a party. I saw myself as a little girl in black patent-leather shoes holding her fingers in one hand, a wrapped present in the other, as we walked to the party where she would leave me until the closing chaos of cake and ice cream began. Then I would look up, searching for those long fingers that belonged to me, the hand that would lead me away to calm, and I would realize I was dropped off for good. I’d have to find my own way home. I felt enormously reckless and unmoored.
Finally, I began to see my mother as a woman in a hospital bed with a big problem and three daughters slamming obstinately against her like waves against a jagged coastline, restless and beautiful and unwilling to hold on to anyone.
I called her, yes. And when the call was sent through from the switchboard, that awful silence took hold of my breath like a bandanna stretched across my mouth.
Hello, said a small, cheerful voice clearly not my mother’s. I asked, Where’s my mother, Kathleen Phillips? and this voice told me, She’s no longer here. What do you mean? I asked. What exactly do you mean by that? The woman said, It’s not that, oh no, she’s just been moved to Intensive Care. She had a bad reaction to blood work. I asked, Who are you? and she said, The floor nurse. There was a deep pause, then she said, I bet you’re Julie, right? Right, I said. I asked for the ICU extension, but my mother was sleeping when I got through. I could see perfectly her dark, wavy hair pressed against the white pillowcase. I left a message that her daughter called. I didn’t say which one.
Diana Stuart Greene