By J.D. Prickett
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When my brother called to tell me my mother was dying, I didn't know how to
respond. Anger, frustration, pain, what? Memories of ma came in waves,
hitting me hard and dragging me under. It wasn't fair. What did he want me
to do? See her? Call, write, what?
I hadn't seen her in all of ten years. You make life choices, you know? I
mean, everyone has to decide where his or her own life is headed. Mine, well,
mine was headed nowhere fast; literally, it was headed straight to the
crapper, and it was all because she was in it. And so she left. Just left,
one day when things got a little weird. Straight the hell out of my life,
not to see her in ten whole years. And now this.
Coming from my brother, things didn't sound all that bad. Really, that's the
way with him. His wife goes out and cheats on him, he calls me up the next
day and says, "Johnny, she cheated on me. What do I do?" And that's it. No
tears, no emotion, just straight talk about some pretty rotten shit, if you
ask me. And he doesn't even take my advice, that's the real bummer with that
whole deal. I told him I would kill her if it were me dealing with my wife,
but what that means in the language of brothers is to find the dude, mess him
up a little, and don't talk to her for a week or two. That should set 'em
He lets her off the hook with a couple of hot nights in the sack, and it's
over. Man, I don't know how he could do it. Sleep in the same bed with her, I
mean. That stuff is pretty hard to take, if you ask me. I don't deal with
things all too well.
My mother is mean. She says one thing and means the other. My grandmother,
her own mother, doesn't even like her.
"Your mother, Johnny, she's a rare bird, she is. What's the matter with her,
doesn't even call me on my birthday. I tell you what, she's out of the will
if I don't hear from her in the next coupla' days." My grandmother's a bit
crackers herself, if you ask me. Always taking people out, then puttin' them
back in if they do something nice for her. Tick her off, though? You're outta
the will. Nothin' to it. Just like that with my grandmother. It kinda' makes
you wonder when she's gonna kick the bucket, just to see if there really is a
will. Sort of mean, I know, but look where I get it.
Anyway, my mother is baby-sitting one night - my wife, Micki, and I, we
hardly ever get a night to ourselves - and she brings a bottle of wine with
her. This wouldn't be so bad if my kids were older. But they're not. A
one-year-old and a five-year-old can't take care of themselves all too well.
So I tell her not to drink in front of them and maybe take it easy until we
get home, we wouldn't be too late. She passes out cold on the living room
floor with the kids still up. I mean, they're climbing on her, my oldest
daughter screaming in her ear, "Are you dead, Nana, are you dead, Nana?"
When I spoke with her the next morning, she was actually surprised that I
would accuse her of being drunk and irresponsible. Accused me of being a bad
son, that's how far she takes it. I haven't seen her since that night. And
The airport. Shiny, clean, white. Almost too clean, and I feel like I am in
a hospital waiting to be seen by the shiny, white, clean doctor. I don't
like it one bit. And then I see her. Only it's not her, it's a skeleton and
I'm in my room at the house on Chester Street. The skeleton moves slowly
yet certainly and I know I will not be able to do a damn thing except lay
there under the covers and wait until the vision fades. It comes across the
floor and it jangles its bones. They clank together as they swing toward me
and I begin to feel a wet spot between my legs where I have just pissed
myself. And here is my mother.
She is wheeled across the shiny white linoleum of the airport lobby area.
The stewardess looks at me as if saying, "This is your mother, why don't you
take her?" And I don't move, I only stare.
Yes, she is my mother, I want to tell the stewardess, only I don't want her.
I smile at her. The stewardess, that is. She is pretty and I would rather
take her home instead. Think of the fun we could have, you and me. Dinner,
movies, the beach, trips to foreign countries. My mother motions to me. The
stewardess turns and disappears back up the tunnel to the plane.
Her eyes, they are not any certain color. Only dark, and sunken into her
head. Black rings engulf them, and the glasses upon her nose can serve no
imaginable purpose. Her hands are shriveled and crippled and there is a tube
leading out from under her hospital smock. A urine bag. There is a urine
bag attached to the wheelchair and as I watch, it fills a quarter of the way
up and still she motions to me to come closer.
I take large steps and quickly, I am in back of the chair, pushing her to my
car, not wanting to speak to her. I don't even stop at the baggage claim
area because I could care less if she has any baggage, I only want to get
her home before anyone sees me with her and I have to identify this hideous
woman as my mother. If this sounds illogical, it probably is. It's not like
I would run into anyone I know at the airport in the middle of the night on a
weekday. Only I don't care, I am so damned ashamed of this woman.
We do not speak on the car ride back to the apartment. A one-hour drive from
the airport. I had no idea that silence could be so thick. It is rich and
syrupy and I love it because I have no intentions of speaking with her. What
would she have me say?
I sit and stare at her until light breaks through the living room shades.
Micki doesn't ask why I did not come to bed the night before, and she keeps
the kids away from me for most of the next day. I love them, I miss them
without seeing much of them, but I need time to process all that has just
The phone rings.
"Johnny boy!" An old childhood name only my brother can get away with,
only I don't think it is all that funny at the moment.
"Lee, whadda you want?" My mother sleeps across from me in her
wheelchair. I don't know if she wanted to sleep somewhere else for the
night, but I didn't care enough to ask. It is 7a.m.and Lee is talking to me
as if nothing happened. Maybe in his life nothing has, but mine is a whole
"John, what's ma doing?"
"I don't know."
"Whadda you mean, she's in a wheelchair for God's sake; its not like she
went out for the night. What time did you get in, anyway?"
"I don't know. Listen, can we talk about this some other time? Mick
wants to go out today, some outlet mall or some crap. You gonna be around
later? I'll call you back." Anything I can do to get him off the phone.
"Yeah, sure. Listen, Johnny, you're a good son to take her in, man. You
should know that."
I hang the phone back in its cradle and look at my mother. Her eyes are
closed and her glasses rest in one hand. I have a sudden urge to snatch them
from her and smash them under my foot. Elsie, my youngest daughter creeps
into the living room and sits next to me on the couch. She is ten and
doesn't know much about her grandma. If only I could be so lucky.
"Daddy, is that grandma?" She whispers this so close to my ear that I
can feel her breath and my ear tickles and I love her so much that I don't
want her to get wrapped up in all this crap, but I don't know what else to
do. I nod my head.
"What's that?" She points to the urine bag that is still only filled as
much as it was when we came in last night. And then she notices her hat.
"Why does she sleep with her hat on, Daddy?"
"Cancer, honey. She lost her hair."
"Does it hurt?"
"No, honey, it doesn't hurt." I wish it did, though, I want to add. I
It is night. Micki took the kids to her mom's house for a couple of days.
It's funny how she can call her mother "mom," while mine I call "mother."
How impersonal, how uncaring a word. Just like the woman herself.
She sits across me from in our small but comfortable kitchen. I have made
coffee, but only because I plan on having some. Though she drinks a mug, I
do not make it for her. I hope she knows that. It's not something I can
actually tell her without sounding like an idiot, though. "I didn't make
this for you, you know. I'm not doing anything for you, you know." Yeah,
that would sound real good. Not at all immature.
While the kids were here, my mother pretended to be asleep the whole time.
She didn't say a word to Micki, didn't even bother to say thanks for letting
me stay at your home. No, that would have been too much.
"It must be hard, raising the girls." Her voice is soft and gravelly, barely
more than a whisper. I do not want to engage in this conversation. I will
say something brief, to the point, not allow her to continue.
"I love them, mother. I guess you wouldn't know about that." I look her
straight in the eye and I speak each word slowly, with conviction. I regret
them almost as soon as they are out, as her face drops and a tear spills to
No, I will not allow myself this feeling. I have no right to feel pity for
this woman. She's the one who did the crappy job raising me, she's the one
who decided to move away when the going got tough, when she made more
mistakes than she knew what to do with. No, I refuse this woman. I refuse
everything she has to offer. She cannot possibly offer me anything I don't
already have in abundance. I will simply let her stay until I figure out
where else she can go.
Her head slowly rises from its defeated position. The tears have dried up,
though her eyes are still moist and bloodshot, and I can hear her shallow
breathing. We sit and stare at each other. Her eyes are glossy and she is
far away. I wonder what she thinks, but do not venture forth to ask. There
is quite an impressive display of pill bottles set up next to her on a TV
tray. I didn't want her wheeling around the kitchen, taking up everyone's
space and making a nuisance of herself. She is already that just by being
And how did we get to this point anyway? When I glance up and look at her,
and she's looking at me like this is the place for her, like this is what all
kids should do for their dying and aging parents, I have to quite literally
hold myself back from jumping up and wheeling her out to the curb.
No one else in the family could take her. That's what I'm supposed to
believe. They actually said that to me, that I was the one who should take
ma because I was the oldest, and they would too, had they the extreme
misfortune of being born first. Lovely. What a prize for being first. I
always thought it was supposed to be a trophy, a big ass-kicking shiny gold
plated trophy with my name engraved on the front name plate, and the word,
"WINNER," in great big shiny gold letters. Gee, I won. Yeah.
In the morning, I get up to leave for work and the phone rings. It's grandma.
"Well, how does she look?"
"Not so good, gran. All she does is sit in her wheelchair and look around the
place or sleep. Wanna talk to her?" I honestly don't believe she will want
to talk with her only daughter, but she surprises me. It is to be a morning
of surprises, regardless of what I might have to say about it.
"Yeah, sure. Put her on." Rustling on the other end of the line. Her poodle
yaps away like a madman, grandma breathes her smoker's breath. Carlton Reds.
I bring the phone into ma, who sits at the TV and stares at a blank picture
tube. She looks up at me but I'm not sure she knows I'm there. I hand her
the phone and go into the kitchen. I can barely hear her as she speaks to
"Ma? Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good. You? No, Ma, I don't want you to come
over. I don't need anything. Yeah, kids are great. Such angels they turned
out to be, huh? No, look, no, Ma, I really should hang up. I really
shouldn't get into this with you."
She hits the off button on the phone. For a moment I don't hear anything. I
make half a pot of coffee and head to the door for the paper. A cold hand
reaches out to touch me as I walk past. It feels like rubber, it feels like a
cold, rubber hand, a prank you'd buy at the novelty shop. I don't want to
turn around, I don't want to see the tears well up in her eyes, and sit and
listen like a good son to her sorrows and all the things she regrets. I don't
want to sit and listen to how much she missed me while I was growing up, how
much she wished she hadn't made the choices she had made, and how damned much
she wants to be a good grandma. I don't want to hear. I won't listen to it.
Lowering my gaze, I note that her eyes are dry. Her lips, too. Her hand,
the one on my arm, barely touches me, but fights to maintain some type of a
"Johnny, when I go, I want to be cremated. I want to be scattered, anywhere.
At work I think about ma. I think about how I walked out of the room after
she mentioned her death, not a word of comfort from my mouth, not a word at
She is dying. It's not like I didn't know that this was the inevitable end
for her. For any of us, for that matter. But it was a different feeling, a
feeling that it would go on forever, that she would live with us
indefinitely, that maybe we would even talk peaceably. Maybe the girls would
come to know their grandma, listen to stories from her childhood, laugh when
they heard baby stories about me, like the time when I smeared poop on the
wall next to my crib. I thought a lot about what could happen. I dreamed
many nights; forever, it seems, about what it would be like to have a mother,
a grandmother for my girls, a mother in law for my wife. Everything in its
place, a place for everything.
The girls are still at Micki's mom's house. They called today to say they
would be staying on a coupla' days longer. I sit here with a beer in one
hand and a cigarette dangling from the fingers of the other hand. Smoke,
billowy gray plumes of stale smelling smoke drift up to the ceiling and
linger there awhile, then disintegrate. Carlton Reds. The dark living room
becomes darker, hazier. If Micki came home now, she would probably think she
had the wrong apartment. I don't smoke, only on occasions.
My Mom's head is covered. She wears her hat to cover her head, bald from the
cancer. Her shriveled hands lie still in her lap, the urine bag and catheter
lie on the floor next to one big wheel of her chair.
I take a drag from the cigarette, inhale deeply. I think about the smoke and
how it rages through my lungs, looking for a place to hide, a place to sleep
for awhile, the cancer soon to follow, claim my life, too. I think I'll sleep
for a coupla' days, dream about my Mom and how it should have been, dream
about the perfect place to scatter her remains.
I'm glad the girls aren't here right now to see their grown daddy cry. My
littlest angel always used to tell me she wanted to see my cry. She didn't
think boys knew how. And to tell you the truth, I didn't think I would
remember how. Certainly not over my Mother, anyway.
There is something so final about death. All the possibilities in life are
taken away, all the chances you wanted to take, all the things you wanted to
say, the people you could have comforted. I don't regret much about the way
I have lived my life, about how unforgiving I may have been, how unwilling to
take chances, give people chances. But looking at my Mother, her lifeless
body slumped in her wheelchair, I think maybe that part about my life has
changed. I'll have to think on that one for a coupla' days.