An Essayby Kate Small
Once my mother was a young girl, and then a young woman, and now she’s an old woman who sleeps in her chair.
She sleeps in her chair in the front room of the house where I grew up, fifteen miles west of Philadelphia. My brothers care for her, have for years. Mike. Chris. Kevin. Ed. The boys, my mother still calls them. One more handsome than the other. A wall of brothers.
Mike, the eldest, leaves his house early each morning, before my mother wakes, and drives one town over to my mother’s house to check on her. He parks his truck, walks down the short driveway, and enters through the unlocked back door. Every day is the same. He climbs the steps to the second floor and walks down the hallway to the front room, where she sleeps. He stands at the doorway, watching, listening for her breath.
He’s a good boy, I can hear her say.
Throughout the day, one or another of my brothers will visit her, dole out her medicine.
I’m fine. Just fine. Don’t bother.
But they do. Every day, for years now. Their lives wedded to hers; her life unimaginable without them. They’ve watched her grow old, grow bloated, grow into that blue leather chair. They take her to the doctor, to the dentist, to the grocer. They do everything for her.
I live an hour away. I call maybe once a month.
Through much of my life, I’ve kept my mother at arm’s length. A visit here or there. The bare bones of a mother-daughter bond. Still, even I am surprised when in October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy barrels up the East Coast, I do not call and check on my mother.
On the night the hurricane hits, I lie in bed and listen to the high pitch of the winds, the clock unlit, the power out. Dan, my husband, sleeps.
And I see her, old, alone, sitting in her chair, on the second floor of my childhood home. I see the tiny yard, the enclosed front porch. I’ve grown so far away from that house, so far away from her.
What kind of daughter doesn’t call her ninety-three-year-old mother? Do you have milk for the morning? Batteries for a flashlight? I imagine the wind swirling through her front door, up the steps, around the banister.
The dog paces by my bed. I get up and find my way to my husband’s side of the bed. I lean over and gently lay the palm of my right hand flat on Dan’s back, feeling his warmth. I pick up a flashlight. I go down the steps in the dark and cold, toward the hook that holds my brown coat, the dog behind me.
Outside the temperature has dropped, and it’s snowing. It’s eerily still, the sky orange and gray. Everywhere I look there are ruins of trees, black boughs sticking up and out of random piles of snow-covered leaves. I think again of my mother. I walk down the driveway, flashlight in hand, dog on lead. I point the light up and down the main road. Snow swirls.
When she dies, I want to feel settled, at peace, a daughter finally reconciled with her past. Tomorrow. I’ll call tomorrow.
Here are the things I do when I don’t call my mother. I go to work. I make the bed and clean the dishes. I do loads of laundry. I run to the dry cleaner. I pay the bills. I call the plumber, the painter, the electrician. I knit. I call my own children, grown now, but still, they have their needs.
I live my life, separate from my mother. On my own. Apart.
Now I wonder: What is the cost of keeping her so separate?