The beginning of the end was the day she fell. “I did not fall,” she said. “I sat down.” It’s customary when you see an 86-year-old woman lying by the side of the road that you call the paramedics, which the passersby did. “If it hadn’t been for the paramedics, I would have been fine.” She was on her daily walk through the neighborhood hills, up to her favorite high point where on a clear day you can see the open expanse of Orange County before you, the broad peak of Mt. San Gorgonio behind. The paramedics put her on a stretcher. “They strapped me down and wouldn’t let me up.” They checked her vitals, “You should see the bruises on my thighs where they buckled the strap,” and prepared to take her to the hospital for tests. “Whatever you do, don’t call the paramedics. You’re better off without them.” Soon the firemen arrived, “I prefer firemen,” to find her arguing with the paramedics. “Take me home.” The firemen said if she wants to go home, take her home. The neighbor lady was out front when the ambulance pulled up, and she helped her inside. The paramedics told the neighbor to make sure she was seen by a doctor, “What good is a doctor going to do me?” and suggested in the meantime she walk no farther than the cul-de-sac out front. “For heaven’s sake, I was on house arrest.” After that she lost her confidence. First she walked around the cul-de-sac, as the paramedics had prescribed, and then around the front yard, and then around the living room, and then from her bed to the living room, and then from her bed to the bathroom, and then from her bed, with a caregiver’s help, to the wheelchair, and then she didn’t get up to walk again.
You know how people say to tell family and friends you love them, to tell them you love them right now because who knows, by tomorrow without a moment’s notice they may be gone, and for the rest of your days you’ll regret that you didn’t say I Love You. When you had the chance. Well, my mother never told me I Love You. I had never said I Love You to her either, but then how could I? I think we were both good with that.
I was with my mother during the last weeks of her life. I’d taken off time from work to spend with her, and those days were maybe the best we’d had together. I sat by her bed and sometimes we talked and sometimes we didn’t, both of us sedated by her death, by its presence in the room. Eventually the day came, though, that I had to return to work. I promised her I’d be back after the first of the year, even though she and I both knew there’d be no after the first of the year. But how else could we have said Goodbye?
That last day I moved slowly. I tried to hold those moments even as they ran like sand through my fingers. She’d been sleeping all day, settling deeper into her bed, one long thin arm resting over the top of her blanket. When the last moment came, when I had to leave or I’d miss my train, I stood outside her door and looked in. Should I tell her I loved her? Why was I uncomfortable? I could take that moment of action or live a future of regret. I took the moment. I walked to her bed and gently ran my finger down her bare arm. She didn’t open her eyes, but she could hear me. I leaned over and said, “I Love You.” I waited. “OK,” she said.
Used to be that a late night train ran from Billings, MT, to the historic hotel at Chico Hot Springs, settled near the Yellowstone River, not far down the road from Livingston. Montana’s a land best appreciated by sight; no writing or image can release the visceral experience one feels by being there—-the enormity of the mountains, the expansiveness, the all-consuming sky. I was 13 when I first visited Montana, traveling on that train from Billings to Chico, rolling across the high plains under bright stars on a winter night.
My mother and her new husband Lowell had wanted their kids to meet. We’d be step sisters and brothers now. In our family it was three girls, Kathy, Susie, and I. We lived in California. Lowell’s kids, Sam, Cary, and Martha, lived with their mother in Billings. We were close in age, middle and elementary school kids, still on the edge of life, now both our families broken by the mid-life yearnings of Marge and Lowell. An adult understands how that happens. Children don’t. So it was that we kids arrived with suspicion on that winter’s night for a journey intended to bond us as siblings—-albeit long-distance ones—-to unify us around a shared interest, our mother and their father, who were, inexplicably, in love. It was bitter cold, and we kids sat in the last train car, not talking, each of us staring sadly through frosted windows at the land passing us by, our train taking us to a future we didn’t know. But as children do, we soon started talking, shyly at first, but eventually we began telling stories, comparing schools, discussing boys.
The train moved across the open country, alongside shadowed mountains, snow eventually falling around us. Soon we pulled past Livingston, and then on to the hot springs at Chico. We ran excitedly into the hotel lobby, filled with old parlor sofas and bear mounts, crystal chandeliers, dark mahogany, tapestries. We scattered to our rooms and changed into bathing suits, then ran barefoot and screaming through the snow and jumped into the hot pool. It was well after midnight, but we had the energy of day, and we squealed and splashed in the water, never having swum on a winter’s night. Snow fell from high in the sky, melting into the steam around us. It was there we bonded, Sam and Cary, Martha, Kathy, Susie and I. Siblings now, our shared wounds hardening for the long years ahead, six of us enjoying this brief reprieve under the Montana sky, our small bodies warm under the hot water, our heads high and exposed in the cold winter air.
I have recurring nightmares about my childhood home, a 1960s California ranch on Melody Lane, a quiet street in the hills of Orange County. We were children of the air raid sirens and Kennedy’s bloody motorcade, mothers on Phenobarbital. We didn’t understand why Martin Luther King was shot on a balcony in Memphis or Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. At slumber parties, we talked in the dark about how Charles Manson had stabbed a knife 16 times into the pregnant womb of Sharon Tate. He could come to our house too.
Our family lived on Melody Lane from the time I was seven until I graduated from high school, and during that period my mother divorced my father, dated and soon married another man, and had a baby who died two days after birth. Never during my mother’s pregnancy did she acknowledge she was pregnant, even though my two sisters and I could clearly watch her belly grow. My mother carried the baby for nine months and then one morning, while loading clothes into the washer, she said to me, “I’m going to the hospital today.” I didn’t ask why and went on to school. That evening our stepfather brought McDonald’s home for dinner. “Your mother had a baby boy today,” he said, unwrapping hamburgers on the table. “The doctors don’t think he’ll live.” And, sure enough, two days later my mother came home empty handed, and nothing was ever said again.
I was 12 and my sisters 10 and eight when my father sat us down in the living room one Monday night to announce he was moving out. “Your mother doesn’t want me living here anymore,” he said. My parents had never openly fought, so I had no context for this statement, yet it pulled from me a thread that had tied my world together. If more were said that night I didn’t hear it, so I walked down the hall to my room, while my sisters and father went to the den to watch Andy Griffith on TV. The next morning my father packed some boxes and moved to an apartment near the freeway.
It was 1965. I didn’t have a friend whose parents had divorced. No one in our neighborhood was divorced. I didn’t know what divorce meant. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened until the next summer when I was at my grandparents in Iowa and I wrote a postcard to my best friend, revealing the news. She told me she had already heard.
After my father moved out my mother distanced herself from my sisters and me as she wrapped her arms around her new husband, a masculine guy who’d pull up to our house in an old army Jeep with a bicycle strapped to the back. He was athletic, and soon my mother and he were skiing on weekends and climbing mountains. They took rock climbing lessons at Yosemite. Rappelling ropes and ice picks hung on the wall above their bed.
My mother didn’t often look at me, but when she did, her eyes were hard and black, and she took on a casual indifference I didn’t recognize. For about a year after she remarried, I’d wake up around three every morning and lie under my covers in the dark, imagining her waiting for me in the shadowed hallway outside my door.
In my dreams, I’m standing across the street from my house, looking back at it. Usually I’m planning to go home, but it’s night and I’m afraid of the interiors, dark and silent, and the half-closed doors along the hall. In my dreams, I never go in. The other night I had the dream again. I was at my girlfriend’s house across the street, and it was getting late and had begun to rain. I wanted to rush home to turn on the lights, but I couldn’t do it. Perhaps in some other dream I will. A small girl waits for me there, still hiding under the bedcovers, probably needing to be held.
When you die, your will designates the beneficiaries who’ll receive the residue of your estate, basically the junk that’s left after your assets and significant possessions have been dispersed. I’d never seen the word residue used this way until I read my father’s will and realized he’d left his entire estate to his young wife and the residue of his life to my sisters and me. That is, we got the dust he left behind. His faded plaid shirts and broken down shoes, a Burl Ives record collection. So when I did an exhaustive weeding out of my old clothes last weekend, I was reminded of that awful word, residue. I sorted through probably eight years of clothes that had been stuffed into “Winter” and “Summer” tubs stacked in the basement. Dreary old cardigan sweaters (what was I thinking?), short skirts, ill fitting jeans, purses and pointy shoes, now thrown into heaps. I thought about my father and the worn shirts he’d left me, and how when I’d received them, I’d put them on to see if I could still feel him inside the cloth, but they had hung lifelessly against my skin. The younger me who’d once filled out the residue now piled on the basement floor had disappeared too. The younger me was gone forever, while my residue awaited resurrection at Good Will.
My friend Anne has a lump in her breast. She sends me a text when I’m in a meeting: “How about a visit to Frankenstein’s castle?” she asks. She wants me to go with her for the surgery, but the deal is, hospitals don’t set well with me. I don’t like the long halls and seascape art, the clatter of IV poles wobbling across tile, those families sitting glumly at bedsides.
If you’re female and over 40, a good percentage of your life is spent wondering if you’ve got a lump growing somewhere inside your breast. Any day, out of nowhere, there it is. You get those diagrams on self breast exams, how to stand in front of a mirror and look for puckering or changes, how to press your fingers into your breasts and arm pits while you’re taking a shower. There’s a process for checking when you’re lying down too. Then, when you’re not self-examining, you’ve got the mammogram, so cruel and barbaric that machine is, flattening your breast like a grilled cheese. First you put this arm here and that arm there, then you turn your head to the left, now lean back, hold your breath. Yes, just like that. Steady. Ho-o-o-ld it. Perfect. One in eight women will have invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Before you’re even aware, those greedy cells will start gobbling up your insides, taking over your body like they own the place, all while you’re making a presentation at work or trying on shoes at Nordstrom.
At 5:30 a.m. three days later, I pick up Anne at her house. It’s dark and cold, a fall morning. She’s wearing green sweats and tennis shoes, her hair still wet from the shower. Someone going for surgery would look just like she does. Shiny and clean. We drive across the sleeping city and pull into the hospital’s back lot to enter through the outpatient wing. Signs on the walls direct us: Having surgery? This way. Having surgery? Down this hall. Having surgery? Please come in.
The receptionist in the waiting area is disinterested when we approach, but she checks her roster against the computer, and then snaps the ID bracelet on Anne’s wrist. I peek from the corner of my eye at the people in the room. A woman by the door shakes her leg, while her husband watches TV. A small child fusses at their feet. No one’s bothered to open the curtains, even though a hint of sun is forcing its way through. We sit down, and soon a woman in blue scrubs arrives, marching briskly into the room. “Anne?” she calls, looking at no one. What can we do but rise and follow this woman toward the future before us? Down the hall and past the work stations we go (what good soldiers we are!) until we get to the prep room, with its gurney bed, clean and waiting. Anne sits at the foot of the bed while the nurse explains how the morning will go. The anesthesiologist will come in, then the surgeon. Surgery will last about an hour, and then there’ll be two stages of recovery. All visitors who enter Anne’s room must wash their hands, and she has a right to request that they do so. There’s a coffee cart for me, down the elevator and to the left. Anne puts on her gown and lies down. Blood pressure normal. Lungs good. When was your last bowel movement? What time did you eat? Do you have any pain? Here, take this pen and mark an X on your breast, over the spot where the lump is. That’ll help the doctor. Can you make a fist? It’ll burn just a bit once I start the IV.
When the nurse finally wheels Anne out on the gurney, I make her stop so I can get a picture. Anne’s wearing a wrinkled paper scrub cap. She smiles at the camera. “Wait for me, okay?” she says and lifts her hand to give the peace sign.
I used to tell people I went to the University of Wyoming because all they did in Laramie was drink beer and make babies. That was 1971. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do in college. One day, early in my first semester, I cut classes and went to a park to sunbathe. I hadn’t been there long before this guy walked up and asked me if he could bum a cigarette. He was from Ohio, a business major. I told him I was from California, from near the beach, close to Hollywood. He hadn’t been to a beach before, had never seen LA.
We smoked and flirted and decided maybe we should drive out to California, stay at my mother’s house, she wouldn’t care. We could go to the ocean, hang out in the city, miss a couple days of school and drive back in time for the next week’s classes. He had a van, and we had some money for gas. He’d pick me up at the dorms by five. I would make up a story to tell my mother once we got there.
We drove across I-80, into the dusk, smoking dope and cigarettes, getting to know each other. He was tall and stocky, and I liked the confidence of his voice. Maybe he would be my boyfriend. It was possible.
In Salt Lake, I took the wheel, and he slept through the night, pushed up against my side. We drove until late the next morning when just short of Baker, a small California desert town, the van started choking and rolled to a stop. He got out and poked under the hood, while I tried restarting the van, but the engine was done. How far it was to town, I can’t say, but we walked the highway for quite a ways before coming to a small gas station by the off-ramp. One of the station guys drove him back to his van while I waited inside on a bench. A thermometer on the door said 113 degrees.
A good two hours passed before they returned in a truck, the station guy pulling the van by a chain. By that time I’d forgotten the reason I’d made the trip. The station guy told us it’d cost $600 for parts to fix the van, or he could give us 50 bucks to buy it. We took the cash.
Still over a 100 miles west to my house, we thumbed down a string of rides until the last driver dumped us at the corner of my street, after I insisted he not drive us up to my front door. We got out of the car and stood there on the corner for a moment, not speaking a word. Then we carried our suitcases down the street, me and this guy, with nothing more in common than the dirt on our faces, until we got to my house, where my mother had just stepped out on her front porch to grab the mail.