That summer I had to put my mother into The Ponds, a retirement home out near Byrd Park. The Ponds and The Crystal Ponds were adjacent to one another, but I could only afford the nondescript one. At the latter, there were two little man-made water holes near its entrance where Canadian Geese waded in the spring and summer, but from The Ponds you could only see a busy intersection and a row of bungalows with broken toys and faded laundry on their porches. I had to take a second job as a ditchdigger to support her. She’d run through all her money buying cheap plastic kitchenware over the phone. Before she really started to lose it, she told me the act of buying, of talking to someone on the phone, made her feel less lonely. Eventually, a local artist agreed to give me fifty bucks in order to melt the kitchenware into some kind of puddle shaped mass he was going to hang in his gallery.
The decision to place my mother in the Ponds, it came after she had driven to her lady’s mall-walk in a fur coat with nothing underneath. The other ladies remarked how wonderful she was, not to succumb to the animal activists’ taunts. Though they didn’t quite understand a fur coat in 90-degree weather at seven in the morning. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen my mother run and I don’t believe she possessed the fluid movement she claimed to have, executed so gracefully as when she performed the hundred-meter dash for her high school track and field team. Swinging her arms and pumping her legs out of rhythm must have caused her coat to fly open. Some of the ladies were outraged. They gawked and shrieked and shouted for the authorities, who, upon seeing my poor mother standing there, confused and crinkled, the coat now open and hanging from her shoulders in the way of her ancient and beloved film stars, quickly covered her up and carried her to their patrol car.
I was called down to the station and found her wrapped up in a wool blanket in the waiting area, gnawing at her knuckles. She didn’t know who I was. When I tried to explain, she pointed her finger at my head and said, “Your mind is full of eyes.” Or maybe, “Your mind is full of flies.” I can’t remember.
On the way home, she talked about Sweden. We were in Sweden. We were on our way to see her sister, but she lived very close to the mountains and it was likely the road would be closed and, “why are you driving so fast toward a closed road you stupid, stupid, man? Stop the car. Stop it! We have to walk the rest of the way.”
Mom told me that a rabid dog had bitten my Aunt Edna when she was twelve years old. She died on the floor, in the house near the mountains where my mother’s family lived. I never heard my aunt mentioned more than once or twice growing up.
I parked a mile or so from the house. The pavement was steaming, but my mother complained of how cold it was. When we got home, I drew a bath for her and searched for places that could take better care of her than I could.
I worked full-time at a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, packaging and shipping textbooks for ten bucks an hour. I was educated at a decent university but got in a bad way because of a few crucial mistakes between point A and B.
The part-time ditch digging job was at the Old Hermitage Cemetery on the other side of the Old Hermitage Country Club. The crumbling gravestones in the northeast quadrant were frequently struck by the flying Titleists of weekend golfers with unfixable slices. We dug the holes early in the morning and saw the procession arrive, and then lowered the bodies down to the symphonic cries of the mourners and crows.
Of course it was depressing, but what can you do? Your mother’s your mother. She would have said—if she was of mind to say such a thing—ditchdigging is nothing compared to what I went through to push your little butt out into the world.
In July, the fair came to town; and one day I went alone after work. Due to the fact there was the smell of sweat, the brush of elbows, the pervasive taste of dirt, all the while I felt myself missing the people I had helped bury.
I won a giant stuffed ape by shooting water into a clown’s mouth. I gave the ape to a little girl half its size. I ate fried dough and chili dogs and drank wine slush. I paid an admission of fifty cents to see the world’s smallest woman. The sign gave her measurement at two feet and two inches. She looked frozen, but her eyes blinked and her head turned in the little wooden case they had her in, covered up by a dirty blanket. She looked at me and smiled. She had fake teeth, too big for her mouth.
“You could be me,” she said.
Some drunken college kids stumbled into the booth. One of them threw up in the hay. I left and walked back through the smell of dirt towards the parking lot. I felt so full of sadness.
The next day I rode out to see my mother at The Ponds. According to the nurses, she had saved half of a tuna fish sandwich from lunch and woke in the night hungry. While eating, she choked on a dried chunk of tuna and lost some blood to her brain. Clinically, she was dead for approximately three minutes. They thought it best not to call me, because she seemed fine and she’d been talking more than usual. No more allusions to her childhood in Sweden, she was in the cosmos now.
I sat beside her and petted her hand. She turned her head to the side, to the open window that looked out on another open window.
“Do you have any idea how many dead people are out there?” she said.
I shook my head.
“When you die you no longer have a body, like this nasty thing that’s around me now. You’re just a pinpoint of light and you can see and hear all the other points of light whooshing by, whoosh, across the space beyond space.”
I gripped her hand and a pain shot through my chest.
“Are you hungry? They said you choked on the tuna fish, so why don’t we get you some soup for now?”
“Didn’t you just hear what I said? You have no idea how finite your life is until you die.”
“Then why live at all?”
“To build. That’s the secret, honey. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re building our own eternities, day after day after day. Every thought and memory and experience I’ve ever had, you’ve ever had, it’s all in that light and we go there and walk through our past dreams of the future. Any thought of a place—Ghana or Egypt or Argentina—places you’ve never been before, they appear and you walk through them or take a camel or boat or spaceship.”
“It sounds real nice, Mom,” I said. But nothing seemed more frightening.
A nurse with a cart stopped by the room, and deposited a cup full of pills that contained three colors.
“One day you’ll be there to love me, no matter who or what I am,” she said.
I kissed her cheek and held the cup of water for her to drink as she took her pills.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hopefully not,” she said. “Hopefully I’m an octopus. I always wanted to be an octopus.”
I told the nurses that my mother was officially out of her mind and I wanted extra care, around the clock care, top-of-the-line care. They were annoyingly amused.
“The nurse-to-patient ratio doesn’t allow for that,” one of them said. “You’d have to bring her to The Crystal Ponds.”
“Crystal Ponds is pretty exclusive,” the other nurse said. “Nothing but old-money millionaires.”
“We’re not millionaires.”
“That’s why you’re at The Ponds,” the first nurse said. “We do our best.”
“But your best isn’t the same as The Crystal Ponds’ best?”
“Right. Our best is less than theirs.”
“I’m afraid she might try to take her own life. She wants to die.”
“They all say that,” the other nurse said. “Then they ask for pudding.”
I went back to my mother’s room. She was conked out. She had drool down the side of her face and her tongue was hanging slightly over her lower lip. I pushed her chin up and centered her head on the pillow.
“I love you, Mom,” I said.
A week later, she passed away.
It was strange to watch another man crank her body into the ground, but he did it the exact way I would have done to his own mother, with the kind of slow, building rhythm of an unbroken circular motion.
Front page image by Linzi Clark.