By Jane Ciabattari
“I don't know how much longer I'll last,” she says.
Nearing 90 she is between worlds, and there is not much I can do for her from a distance. Just listen. I don’t really know her. Our relationship is rusty. I learned at a young age to swallow pain and keep going. It is not a bad lesson.
“How are you doing?” I ask each week when I call from my house in Sag Harbor, a former whaling village thousands of miles from Kansas.
“I’m just waiting for what happens next.”
“Anything new?” I ask.
What she knows is she walks wrong. Bowlegged. Her father takes her outside after dinner and trains her to keep her toes pointed forward. Her mother buys her special shoes. Brown. She hates to wear them.
“Not much goes on,” she says. “It's just as well. I have a lot to be thankful for. They take good care of us here. I sure miss my flower garden. When you plant them, you don't think about leaving them.”
The house is gone now, sold to pay for her care.
“It's nice of you to remember to call me,” she adds. “I'm glad I have memories still there. We can't always count on that, right?”
Her parents have taken her to a new town. A tornado blows a sewing machine across the horizon. She is astonished. She wonders who gets it when it lands. She wants it.
“I’m sorry Francis didn't live longer,” I say, using my father’s first name in hope that she will remember him. “You're bound to miss him. You were married sixty years.”
“I'd forgotten how long.”
“You met when you were only 13. He said he’d had his eye on you for a long time. Still does, I’ll bet.”
“Do you think so?” She laughs coyly.
She curls around the pit of adolescence, fragrant with lust. She wants Paris gowns, hats with little veils, a wasp waist. She wants to be a fashion designer in New York. She swerves, tempted to linger, and is caught. He sits behind her in Latin class. He wants her to drink sloe gin. She refuses.
“He didn’t live to be 80. You’re 86.”
“I don't know how much longer I'll last.”
I want to say, ‘don't be afraid.’ But I stick to practicalities.
“What time is lunch?” I ask.
She cooks every day for decades: meat loaf, chicken-fried steak, pot roast, veal birds, scalloped potatoes, Floating Island, Anadama bread. Peaches and berries on a Pyrex plate, fifteen minutes at 325 degrees. Done in a jiffy. She is so busy in the kitchen she has no chance to try her hand at anything else.
“I don't know.”
“Where are you now?”
“In this house where I live.”
“But where in the house?”
“I'm where the telephone is.”
The next week when I call, the nurse tells me that she has trouble breathing at night. They are giving her morphine four times a day. It helps her breathe easier, the nurse says. “But she is...” The nurse searches for the word. ”Disorganized.”
“I’m getting my money together,” she says when the nurse puts her on the phone. “Out of my dresser drawer, to get some patterns.”
“Sewing patterns, a couple of patterns for the things we make. Let's see... I have…I'm a little… I've got a cold. I'm supposed to see the doctor. It's a little hard for me to keep track. I'll get some new patterns, we'll go from there.”
After several years of trying, at last she has a daughter. She sews her a ruffled organdy frock. There is a long interlude of diapers and bottles and Madame Alexander dolls, with tiny dresses she makes herself, then piano lessons and golf clubs. Everything costs so much.
“Are they giving you oxygen?”
“Someone was smoking. That was trouble.”
At first she won’t let Francis kiss her. He is a smoker, and she can’t stand the smell. He is smitten. The two of them, too young for their parents to agree for them to marry, elope.
“I’ve had a bad cold for a couple of days. Hope it will soon be over. Then I can get on with the rest of my life.”
“Your daylilies bloomed this summer,” I tell her. She had sent me a couple dozen before she moved out of the old house. She wrapped each one in newspaper with a tag giving its name in delicate tracings of pencil. Stella d’Oro. Mary Todd. Wine Cup. I planted them. In the spring, all the nametags were blank, erased by rain and snow.
“I've been reading the paper,” she says. “It's the Kansas City Star. I've had it all my life. I’m used to the headlines. That carries me along. I read the newspaper. Then I think a bit about breakfast.”
“I’m just waiting for what will happen next,” she says again.
“While you're waiting, what do you think about?” I’ve always wondered. She has never revealed herself, only glimpses.
“I don't know quite. They keep me in charge. They keep me notified. This is a real good set-up. I have no complaints.”
“I figured it was you when the nurse brought me the phone,” she says after a long interval in which I can hear her labored breathing.
“Happy birthday. Did you have a celebration at lunch?” I had asked the nurses to give her my gift at lunchtime, when she was most alert.
“Lunch? I just had...Nothing special. It was all right. I was glad to get this phone call.”
“You made it to 87.”
“I don’t know how much longer I'll last,” she says. “I’m not feeling so hot.”
She is in a wheelchair now, too heavy to walk. She is five feet tall and weighs 235 pounds. Her lower legs are swollen with edema. I think of the Willendorf Venus. They put her in a whirlpool and use ointment, but still there are blisters. She has fatigue, shortness of breath, lung congestion. The diuretics give her kidney failure; without them, she swells up.
For much of her life she has “sick headaches.” Coca Cola is the closest thing she has to a cure.
“How are you managing?”
“Just fine. I just keep going. The same things. The plant arrived.” So now she remembers my gift.
“I thought you might like to have an amaryllis. If you water it, it may bloom in a few weeks.”
“We had fun deciding where to put it.”
“You have lived into the 21st century.”
“How about that.”
The following Sunday she is sitting right by the phone by the phone. She has already had breakfast. She has a bad cough.
“When was Francis’s birthday, November 5 or 6?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“You were married sixty years.”
“I can't recall when I didn't know him.”
“You met him in Latin class, when you were 13.”
“It just clicked.”
The next time I call it’s a day of falling leaves, not a cloud in the sky. In the backyard in Sag Harbor I hear a steady sound as if there is a creature in the trees. It’s the leaves detaching and falling. It's the time for that. Something or someone drifts past, making the lower branches in the oaks by the side of the house sway in rhythm. That sound again: leaves, like the shadows of birds.
“I’m just out of my shower,” she says. “My hair is all curly.”
She always said she hated her curly hair, now she seems to enjoy it.
“That's on the program this morning. That's all I know.”
“Your lungs sound better. You were coughing last week.”
“It's just something in my throat. Don't worry about that. It's not an ailment.”
“Did you have a flu shot?”
“They may have given me one and I've forgotten it. It looks like a nice day.”
I look up: jet trails, falling leaves, a blue sky.
“Last night I watched the Leonid meteor showers,” I say. “It was better than fireworks.”
“I'm glad you have access to the outside world. It means a lot. I miss my garden.”
“How is the amaryllis?”
“I don’t know what happened to that.”
She is quiet on the other end.
“I love you.” I throw it out, taking a risk.
“I love you, too.”
It is a first. I want to ask her to repeat it, but I’m afraid she might not remember she has said it. I don't understand this love, how much it hurts. It makes no sense. We have nothing in common. Just blood.
“I was thinking today about the story you told of being in a tornado as a little girl and seeing a sewing machine flying down the street,” I say.
“I don’t know what happened to that sewing machine.” She is silent so long I fear she has fallen asleep.
“What did you have for breakfast?”
“I don’t quite recall.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Just waiting. To see what happens next.”
I am in the New Orleans airport, having visited a friend expecting her first child, when my cellphone rings. Kidney failure. She is not expected to last the night. Last. I imagine a long corridor lit with candles, her exit.
She rarely left home. She never went anywhere without telling me where she was going. It is unprecedented, inexcusable even, for her not to be the weighty anchor back there in the center of the country. She was short on tenderness during the years I was growing up, but she was always there.
I think of the last time we spoke. The sound in the trees. The heavy leaves, brown with age, heavy as leather, letting go.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection "Stealing the Fire." Her short fiction has been published in Ms., Literarymama.com, The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, and "The Best Underground Fiction" (Stolen Time Press, November 2006), and honored with O.Henry and National Magazine Award nominations and two Pushcart Prize "special mentions." Hampton Shorts selected her for an editor's choice "Stubby" award. She is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular blogger for the NBCC board blog, Critical Mass.
Photo "Lacy Leaves" courtesy of Dez Pain, Brisbane, Australia.
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