“You know Mom, if you had told me that there was a Trader Joe’s twenty miles away in Gainesville, I wouldn’t have shipped you all that food from Bellingham.” Mom’s response is not only valid, it’s well rehearsed. “You know I don’t drive that far unless I have to. You can mail me stuff. I’ll wait. ”
She waits for the phone to ring on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the days she knows I’m not in class. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons her only child (me) is not in the car driving to Western Washington University. I’m also not thinking to call my mother. I have my reasons. I can always find reasons not to call. Excuses really- homework, a writing project, dirty laundry, the dogs need a walk, or it’s time for dinner; the list of available excuses is as long as my arm and always at hand. Regardless of the interval between telephone calls my mother sits quietly by the phone and waits.
She waits for Wednesdays to take the trash to the landfill eight miles away. She places the single black bag in her trunk for the ten minute drive, remembering to double bag her trash to prevent leakage. Her nose on sensitivity overload, she wishes she could drive with the trunk open to eliminate the fumes coming from the rotting potato peels, tomato tops, chicken bones and the cloying scent called mountain breeze that the manufacturers add to the bags to eliminate the smell of rotting vegetables.
Wednesday is recycling day. Paper and cans, bottles and newsprint, all dutifully sorted and delivered to the appropriate bin. Save a bag, save the world. She nods at the man working the trash compactor and tosses him a friendly “see you next week” before the long ten minute drive home. She doesn’t know his name and despite her shyness she makes an effort to talk to him. Sometimes he saves books for her; books he finds in recyclable plastic bags placed beside the heavy brown dumpsters. Old books at the landfill are like stray dogs that need to find a new home.
Evaluated solely from the images on their front covers, or from skimming the reviews printed on the inner flaps of the book’s jacket, she keeps the books that look interesting. Those books she keeps in a tightly tied plastic grocery bag and places the bundle into the freezer when she gets home. “Old books pick up hitchhikers like book mites, and bed bugs. Freezing for a month or so kills the critters,” she explains to the unnamed man. He nods and waves goodbye until next week.
Twice a month on Thursdays, she waits in the La Crosse Fire Station parking lot for the bookmobile to bring some new book into her life. Hard back books of fiction are her favorite way to whittle away the hours between waits. Borrowed books and Oprah Winfrey have become her closest confidants-sometimes she includes Dr. Phil, although she often thinks he’s a stuffed shirt when he counsels women. When Dr. Phil says to a poor woman on his show, “How’s that workin out for ya?” She wants to yell at his smug face on her television, “FUCKER! How’s that working out for you?” but she considers herself too much of a lady to verbalize the words. She used to like watching Dr. Oz but lately he’s gotten too preachy about diet issues.
Mom prefers large print because her eyes, her good eye- the left one, isn’t so strong anymore. She reads with very few filters; fiction but not science fiction, short stories of any variety, non-fiction if it doesn’t criticise the democrats, and history if it’s not about war. Occasionally she reads Louis L’amour style westerns and the occasional harlequin romance, but most of the romances are so poorly written that she thinks they must have been a vanity project of the writer. She thinks that everyone has at least one good book in them to write, but so few people ever pick up a pen. She includes herself in this criticism. The last time she put pen to paper was to pay her electric bill, her handwriting a calligraphy script worth waiting for.
In the spring of 1965 the man who would become my father enlisted as a Seabee in the Navy to avoid being drafted to fight in an Army infantry division. Three months after their marriage, the woman who would become my mother wrote to tell him that they were going to have a baby. After basic training he was deployed for eighteen months to Vietnam. She wrote every day of her pregnancy, and every day of the first two years of my life. One letter to mail, one letter arriving at the post office four blocks away- every day, rain or shine. Three years of white envelopes with red and blue stripes, air mailed directly from Korea or South Vietnam. Three years of dreading an officious looking government telegram or the arrival of a sharp dressed man in a military uniform at her door. She saved his letters, every tale, every photo, and every boring detail about digging latrines and wells, building barracks and schools, every harrowing tale of driving a gasoline truck off the posted schedule to keep the front lines moving against the communist North Vietnamese troops. Mom saved every single “I love you,” signed Jack, the pen hand upside down, the signature slanted with a left-handed scrawl.
During our last telephone conversation she asked, “What ever happened to Jack’s letters? I know you read them. Did you give them to your father after the divorce? Or did you throw them away?” When I was fifteen, I had read her letters- hundreds of them. It took weeks of sneaking around behind mom’s back to swap out the next stack of rubber banded air mail envelopes. Yes, I read my father’s letters, every single one. But I hadn’t thrown them away. How could I? My parent’s love story was beautiful, heart-wrenching, and filled with a sense of waiting for the war to end so that they could start their lives.
During that last conversation, Mom told me that she was depressed, and lonely, and she had stopped taking her medicine a few weeks ago because it made her “brain fart.” She said “Seroquel,” the anti-psychotic medicine her doctor proscribed for depression, “caused electrical impulses in my brain that felt like little jolts of low voltage electricity. It’s very unpleasant. So I quit the meds. Oh no, not all my meds, I’m still taking the blood pressure pill and I have my asthma inhaler. I don’t go anywhere without my albuterol. I’m tempted to quit my doctor too. She is not very attentive. My doctor is a Muslim; at least I think she is a Muslim. She wears this scarf around her head.” In my mind’s eye, and probably in her living room, she’s mimicking wrapping a scarf up and over her head, then a loop around her neck in what she imagines is the proper style for a Muslim woman. I can’t decide if the gesture is racist or endearing, but she’s my mother so I listen and comment when I think she’s ready.
“Have you spoken with your doctor about the brain farts?” The more I think about what she’s saying- the more I want to giggle. Brain farts, who says brain farts? “I mean the side effects of the meds. The electrical shocks you experienced must be a known side effect, right? Isn’t there supposed to be some weaning off process when you take depression medication for any length of time? You can’t go cold turkey and quit taking them without some kind of withdrawal symptoms.” I make a mental note to find out what dosage she’s been taking and look it up in the PDR online. Are her meds over-prescribed, or is this a common side effect of prolonged usage? Six questions and a laundry list of suggestions for every one of her answers spring to mind.
She quickly gets frustrated. “If you were here you could just ask the doctor yourself. But you’re not here, so I do the best I can.” The guilt I feel in my gut ratchets up a notch, the same guilt that nudges me to call to check up on her. The guilt that says run, enjoy your freedom while you can. The guilt is the voice in the back of my mind that reminds me that I am an only child, her only child, and therefore her only resource when she can no longer care for herself. I’ve been running this race for years and the trifecta of guilt, time, and my mother’s deteriorating health is quickly catching up to me.
While I run, the focal point of my mother’s life has narrowed to a standstill, and now she demurely waits. Mom lives in the house she bought with my father in 1975, the beat up old farm house where she and I painted walls, scrubbed floors and hauled firewood until our hands were raw and our backs ached. The house we called “the refrigerator” because it lacked insulation and was so frigidly cold in the winter that it was often warmer outside. The house itself hasn’t changed significantly since my parent’s divorce in 1978, although every other aspect of her life has.
She tells me that she hates living in the house where her mother (my grandmother) died more than twenty years ago. She hates sleeping in my old bedroom, although the memories are better, fresher and livelier than the ones from Grandma’s old room. She says she should sell and move out west to be near me. She asks if I want to retire to Florida. Should she save the house for me? I tell her to “please pull the trigger-sell the house,” despite knowing that she is too afraid, too rational to make a transcontinental move alone. It’s the money that stops her in her tracks. Money, or more precisely the lack of money, has always stopped her from realizing her dreams, even the small ones.
Mom and I have had the same conversation so many times since I moved ten years ago that it feels trite, like a broken record, like a groove in the carpet that your feet naturally shift into as you pace the room. Sell the house, take the money from the sale and make a down payment on something nearby. But what exactly? What can she afford to buy between Bellingham and Blaine that is comparable to the home she lives in now? Having spent the last twenty years in real estate sales and finance, I know the answer, and it’s not good, in fact it’s nothing. With the exception of a thirty-year-old mobile home on a postage stamp lot in a trailer park for seniors there is nothing fit to live in that she can afford on her income.
I reassure her that she has help. I’ll subsidize whatever she needs, just start packing and I’ll be there when schools finished to help her sort out her belongings and get moving.
Now she remembers that she is the parent. Now she remembers that it’s her job to be self sufficient and not be a burden to her child. Now she is having second thoughts, and third thoughts. And some of those are pretty stubborn thoughts that don’t involve moving anywhere anytime soon.
So now I wait. I wait for the phone to ring. I wait for the day when the Alachua County Sherriff’s office tracks me down from a number scribbled in an address book from her purse. I wait for one of her neighbors to tell me that she’s fallen down the steps and is on her way to the hospital. I wait for the day when she doesn’t answer the phone, for the hours spent trying to convince someone to go to check on her because she’s had a stroke, or a heart attack, or maybe she simply got tired of waiting.
In two weeks I will graduate with a degree in English from WWU which will enable me to go back to my life, until then I am in a holding pattern. I can’t go forward, and I can’t go home.
She’s 68 years old and her life is all but over; all except for the waiting.