An Act of Surender
This is what I know: it was a bad accident. They flipped off the road, their old and cherished Pontiac battered on every side. It was somewhere upstate, on that long and lonely road between St. Ignace and Saginaw that when I was young felt like the saddest and most beautiful stretch on earth. The doctors say Mom was conscious the whole time. But Dad was knocked out on impact. And now, this is also what I know: after a 24-hour coma, he’s out for good.
So now I’m in Amsterdam, waiting for my connection, loitering at the gate with an international phone bill that will scald my eyes next month. I’ve cancelled all of my classes for the next week. I thought the department would ask more questions, but I guess they know that if I’ve been known to show up with a 103 degree fever, it must take a lot for me to pull out.
The kids are with George, but that’s nothing new. Luke’s bedroom at my house has been in the same state for months -- that’s to say, empty. Eliza is busy making the rounds of backseats of all the blue-eyed boys in her class, so it’s doubtful she even got the message. Kate’s been on her own for a few years now, but she’s the only one who remembers enough of them to care. Even still, her memories are of the floral print couches that sag just a bit too much to be comfortable, and the barren midwestern trees, and the silence that endured between them and me in our numbered visits. After the last one, I’m sure she understands my position: apprehensive, and alone.
Detroit was just as dismal as I remembered it. Maybe even more so. If you’d told my dad that in fifty years’ time his neighbourhood would be half boarded up and the rest impoverished beyond recognition, he’d have laughed in your face then told you to get out of his respectable, hard-earned living room. But it’s true: the dilapidated train station and wide streets that echo emptily for miles would hurt even a visitor’s feelings.
I didn’t dawdle much, though. Made a quick round of the old haunts in the rental car then got straight onto I-75. Not that it got much better -- if anything, the bleakness just gets more pronounced as it expands outward, the blue-collar decline settling into the landscape more and more the further you drive away from the city.
I’m headed to Gaylord. If Dad knew he’d die in a hospital in a town called Gaylord, he’d have driven a bit further before making his dramatic exit off the road. He and Mom were always the types who turned their heads with disgust at any reference to the homos, as they used to spit with Catholic-conditioned vitriol. I remember bringing my friend Claire home from Ann Arbor for Thanksgiving one year, since her folks were way out of state. We hadn’t even broken the bread before they spotted her short hair and unkempt fingernails and called her a dyke. Not long after is when I caught wind of the Social Anthropology programme at Cambridge and made my Great and Controversial Escape.
Miles and miles of nothing but gas stations and pitiful main streets give way to state parks lining the highway. There are no geysers or sequoias, but still I’m relieved to see something, anything, besides mementos of the fallen industries here. It’s getting dark and nothing’s lit well. I can understand why Dad might have lost sight of which way was straight.
Finally the sat nav indicates I’m somewhere near civilisation, or close enough: Ostego Memorial Hospital. Among the one-lane roads and shingled bungalows, it sticks out like a sore thumb: a beacon of sterility and bad news, fluorescents illuminating just a bit too fiercely for comfort. Pulling up, I have to resist every urge in my body to make the world’s grandest U-turn and hightail it all 300 miles back to the airport. It’s not a big place, but imposing enough in its glowing red EMERGENCY sign and metal pillars to fill me with dread. On the bright side, I think: I’ve already had the worst day of my life, so this can’t hurt much.
“What’s your relationship?”
I guess, on strictly literal terms, it’s “daughter," but if I were to answer truthfully, it’d be “mutually loathsome, distant and irrevocably fucked up.” I assume the nurse doesn’t want to hear many details, not now.
“They’re my parents.”
She looks at me with big doe eyes lined with too much drugstore makeup. I don’t think they get many big traumas here in Gaylord. Just your standard-grade pneumonias, near-tragic drunk driving incidents, maybe a few high-risk births or power tool mishaps. One look at this nurse’s face and I know they’re preparing for me to lose it, because they already have. Maybe, on second thought, my extended “relationship” answer would have been helpful.
“I’m so sorry,” she moans, sympathetically enough for me to feel sorry, too.
“Thanks,” I say, immediately feeling the way my voice wavered. After more than two moons of solitude, in transit from overcast England to the sleepy midwest, I realise I’ve spoken to no one but myself recently, and this will soon require a lot more talking for which I might not have the right vocabulary.
“It’s okay though. These things... happen.” I wonder if I’m consoling her or me.
The nurse eyes me like I’ve just sprouted an extra eyeball in the middle of my forehead -- totally alien in my irreverence.
She gives me a little hospital directory, with Xs marking their respective rooms, then sends me on my way, distrustfully, looking for some kind of sign I’m not sure I’ll give.
Back before Detroit got its rep as the sorest example of the death of the American Dream, it was its birthplace. And I mean it--as far as the eye could see in my neighbourhood, well-kempt children leapt in and out of sprinklers on the front lawns of three-bedroomed houses, and fathers returned home from the plants proudly in their five-seaters. After dinner mothers would gather to smoke cigarettes and play bridge while the kids sat in front of their televisions, mesmerised by the splendour of American modernity. Everyone knew someone who worked for one of the car companies, and we all regarded Henry Ford as some kind of Michigan-bred messiah.
My dad was one of those auto industry posterboys, the eldest son of immigrants, working his way up from janitor to lineworker to supervisor. He was quiet. Somehow the great roar of engines and whirring of pistons endeared him and its grip never loosened. The last time I visited, with Kate and Eliza covered in freckles and Luke still pink, Dad was holed away in the garage, tinkering with something or another, or perhaps pretending to because he knew no other way. It was his nature to operate in the shadows, tacitly follow routines, listen to baseball on the radio with charcoal-coloured hands. Mom was loud enough for the both of them to be heard.
It’s fitting, then, that he went out doing what he did best--driving that olive-coloured clunker of theirs, probably dozing off, Mom yammering away while he was just trying to hear the sixth inning commentary.
“Lily. Do you want to see him?”
A doctor and another woman whose exact purpose I momentarily forget look at me with wrinkled brows, entirely aware of the fact that I’ve zoned out of everything they just said until this phrase.
I consider the implications of either answer. It’s been nearly 15 years since I saw him, dead or alive. The last time was so ugly that I willed it out of memory, so really it’s been even longer. I imagine him older, more withered, tempered by the years and the violence with which they say the car careened into the ravine. I wonder whether he’s still in his golf shirt or whether they’ve changed him into something less alive.
“I don’t think so,” I finally admit.
The doctor and woman look at each other. Refocusing, I peer at her white plastic name tag, pinned neatly onto her ribbed turtleneck the colour of a dirty canary. Sandra. Evidently she is a resident social worker at Ostego Memorial. Evidently she’s singled me out as in need of confiding. Evidently I am expected to verbalise my stream of consciousness coping mechanisms with this cloying woman. Under the aseptic white light, her red lipstick seems to make her mouth jump out of her face and challenge mine to speak.
“I mean, it would probably be a shock.”
They both nod.
“Very well. You will get another opportunity to decide whether or not you want an open casket at the funeral. We’ve compiled a list of resources and providers near their home in Detroit that can help you with that process,” Sandra says, softly, as though speaking to an injured fledgling.
She hands over a pamphlet and a copy of the Serenity Prayer.
The doctor, Dr. Ferber, waits a moment before moving on to the more pressing, uncertain matter.
“Heidi is just out of surgery from a few hours ago. We aren’t entirely sure about the exact extent of her injuries. Thus far we can gather the range of bones she’s broken -- sternum, collarbone, three ribs, both wrists, vertebrae. She’s still critical because she hasn’t been stable enough for us to explore the possible internal injuries she’s sustained,” Dr. Ferber explains. He speaks slowly as he details her condition, fashioning each broken piece of skeleton into a tiny tragedy.
“Still, it’s nothing short of a miracle that she’s been more or less conscious since the accident, save for the times we’ve had to sedate her,” he adds. “So strange and so terrible, the way we found them. A clear ten-foot drop, crushed interior, no signs of collision, on a day as clear as they come at this time of year.”
“Miraculous,” Sandra nods. “Your mom is a true fighter. You don’t get survival stories like this every day. A really special woman. You should be proud to have such a strong lady for your mom.”
“Strong,” I say aloud, making sense of her judgement. “Yeah. You could definitely call her that.”
Dr. Ferber and Sandra exchange glances again. Sandra clears her throat loudly, purposefully.
“We both think it’s best that for now Heidi shouldn’t know about Robert and his passing. At least not until we can better ascertain what’s going on internally and ensure she’s in a stable enough state to handle the news,” Sandra says. “Grief is a powerful thing and it’s not uncommon for elderly partners of the deceased to pass soon afterward, in their shock.”
If there is one thing I know about my mother, it’s that in spite of all of her pushiness, despite her assertiveness and wearing of the proverbial pants in their relationship... her self-assigned value as a woman is very much intrinsic to her status as a wife. A good wife, even. A woman in service of her husband, the man who provided for her perms and kitten heels, the man who no matter how loudly she’d wail would listen until it was no more than a whisper. She was fierce enough in character to fend for herself in those sixty years of their marriage, but somehow, she wouldn’t have. Not without him.
So now, I’m supposed to withhold information from the woman whose prying and nosiness and need to know it all has permeated every relationship she's ever had. Not just with me, but with my friends and my friends’ friends and their second cousins thrice removed, never mind my ex-husband and my children who, lately, I keep as far away as she kept me. I’m supposed to keep privy the heaviest and most meaningful news of her life. I'm supposed to listen to Sandra and her firetruck mouth, telling me she knows what's best for my mother, fighting for her life, unknowing that her veritable other half has already lost his.
I think, this will not end well. I think, these people don’t know my mother well enough to know what’s best. Then again, I think, neither do I.
Dr. Ferber has a few other patients to check in on and other families to liaise with, so for now I am left with Sandra. We roam the hallways, its walls painted a shade that I can only compare to butter that’s been left open in the fridge too long, linoleum floors gleaming with some kind of artificial brightness that juxtaposes the dull ache of the building’s spirit. She asks questions. Where I live and why it took me so long to come. (Cambridge, and because unfortunately they haven’t mainstreamed teleportation technology yet.) Questions about my work (professor of postgraduate education) and my hobbies (long-distance running, reading, walks in the cold). If I have any children (yes, three, though they’re not children anymore) and the loved ones I’ve left to look after them (I loved him once, but for now I let that can of worms remain tightly sealed). I feel rude for not reciprocating her curiosity, but she hardly leaves the opportunity, filling in every gap in conversation with a prompt so that I’m not left to my own devices in our silence. Finally, she stops in her tracks.
“Lily, this is your mom’s room. I want to reiterate how astonishing it is that she’s made it here, relatively in one piece, alive, and by all considered measures, well,” she says. “Still, it’s not easy for anyone to see a loved one in pain or on medical support. I can go in with you to see her this first time, to help you through the process. She’s still sedated, so anything you say, or any difficulties you have, won’t be heard by her.”
I half-grin to myself. That’s a first.
“I’d also like to invite you to my office afterwards, if there’s anything you need to talk about in private. I’m here to help.”
She grins, brightly, and despite my disdain for her chirpy nature, I can see her eyes smile too. I’ve never been one for counselling, but I’ll give her genuineness.
“Let’s see how we get on,” I say, inhaling, readying.
There is no preparation for the truth of it, though. There’s no way to mistake her, even with the low whir and occasional blips of equipment surrounding her bed, even with her body stripped of its blouses and nylons in favour of a shapeless cotton gown. My god, she’s gotten older. Those expensive creams from Montgomery Ward could only fend off wrinkles for so long before gravity and the years caught up. She’s rigid. Propped nearly upright in a neck brace, plastic corset and two plaster casts that stretch the length of her arms. Of course, her nails are flawlessly French manicured. Even her hair retains a certain pomp to it, holding on to the last of the aerosol before it all went wrong. The curtains are pulled slightly so that the last of late afternoon sun may stream onto the bed, illuminating the inhuman nature of it all.
Sandra stands behind me, just inside the doorway, tentative.
“How do you feel?” she asks.
I think, Why? or even What? do you feel would be easier questions to answer.
“I feel like I want to check in at my hotel and get settled, maybe eat something and have a nap, before doing all of...this.”
Sandra, for once, lets the silence permeate the distance after my words.
“It’s sad,” I add, finally. “I think it’d be better if I can sort out a few things then come back with a clearer head, when she’s awake. How long til she’s up again?”
“A couple hours. They put her on pretty heavy meds. I think Dr. Ferber plans on coming back and doing a scan or two, assuming he confirms the surgery went to plan,” she says. “Just to make sure there’s not something more we’re dealing with...that we don’t know about yet.”
I stay with my back to Sandra, eyes transfixed on the bed, the image of my mother’s battered body filling my eyes with unbearable presence. I scan the room -- the woolen armchair in the corner, the framed watercolours and pastel trim on the walls, the trio of daffodils in a vase on the nightstand. To lie unconscious in Ostego Memorial, off the highway in Gaylord, Michigan, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Not even her.
I sit in the parking lot, rental car warming up, staring at the dashboard, wondering if all 34,632 miles on the odometer were spent as terribly as these. On the radio they’re asking listeners to call in with their worst stories of infidelity and I swiftly change the channel. Smooth jazz. No thanks. Motown. Too sad and nostalgic. Traffic and weather. Doesn’t matter. Radio goes off.
Driving away, I pull into one of the gas stations between the hospital and my Holiday Inn and buy a pack of Camel Lites. They’re cheap as shit here. I guess all the men made prematurely redundant need something to fill their days besides drinking Schlitz and lamenting the Tigers.
Back on the road, I smoke one with the windows rolled down, even though March in northern Michigan is far from summery. The end of winter feels good on my skin. Though I’ve just seen my mom in a state that they say you’ll never forget, all I can think of is the way she looked that day fifteen years ago, in her apron and rollers, eyes filled with nothing but reproach even as they became distant in the rearview mirror. I exhale smoke. I wonder if even the most powerful sedatives could cloud that.
The hours I spend at the hotel are restless. In my haste to pack in Cambridge when I got the news, I didn’t bring much -- just the last of my heavy-duty American winter jackets, a pair of boots and a pair of flats, a few sombre black pieces lest the need for them arise (and it most certainly has). So there isn’t much to unpack. I pay $14.99 for wi-fi access, just to check in with the kids, but none are online. I leave brief notes for them, just to let them know I’m here and more or less alive. The TV doesn’t offer much of a reprieve -- mostly pay-per-view mixed martial arts and celebrity gossip about people I’m dumbfounded are famous. A nap is out of the question -- I’ve never been a good sleeper, certainly not now -- so I mostly sit on the edge of the bed as dusk quietly creeps down the horizon and the night pulls closer the inevitable return to the hospital.
I smoke another cigarette on my way back. I’m not a smoker, not by any regular means, but there is something about the muffled rush of nicotine that has soothed me since I first knew what it was to need relief. From the walks around the neighbourhood I took as a teenager, craving a break from Mom’s incessant berating, through to the passing stresses of college, all the way to those embittered days of my divorce. Something about the aftertaste still carries the pain, but also the knowledge that it will pass, just as it always does.
The shock of the hospital is more subdued now, but sedation can’t last forever, and that’s what gives my heart its weight as I pull up this time. Deep breaths. She needs me now, I try to convince myself. Even if I’ve never satisfied her needs before.
Sandra and Dr. Ferber are waiting for me. They run me through all that I’ve missed in the few hours I was away: the scans were clear, save for a bruised lung from the chest trauma, and she’ll need assistance with breathing for the next few days until she can better articulate what she’s feeling and what she does or doesn’t need. They’re fairly certain the small fracture at the top of her spine won’t gravely affect her overall mobility. She’s awake, but still a bit loopy. They reiterate the need to keep news about my dad quiet; I should try to skirt the issue however possible, and if she’s still insistent, to just say that he’s here, in the hospital, but not doing so well.
The walk back to her room from Sandra’s office is like one of those terrible dreams we all have, the ones where faces are talking to you but it sounds like you’re underwater, and all the air has left your throat when it’s your turn to speak, and you feel an overwhelming need to run but your legs can’t muster the lightness to do so. I feel like a crippled elephant with a thousand bricks strapped onto its back. A crippled elephant orphaned by its mother, crawling through desolation for some kind of comically fucked-up family reunion.
And we’re here. I stop in my tracks. Take as deep of a breath as I can muster in my gasping nightmare state. Look to Sandra and Dr. Ferber for some kind of signal, but they’ve just got their eyebrows raised, suggesting this is all me. Sandra gives me a nod, and in I go.
Her eyes are only half-open when I walk in, but widen enough that they seem to swallow her forehead when she recognises me. She’s got an oxygen tube running into her nose and is strapped up to the point of being immobile, but it can’t stop her bruised lung from dispelling a long, low groan out of her mouth. It’s the most subdued, yet somehow the most poignant, communication we may have ever shared.
“Hi, mom,” I say, as warmly as I can.
She tries to mumble something, but her lips and tongue are still an hour behind her brain in waking up from surgery.
“Lily just got here earlier this afternoon. Isn’t it so great to see her all the way from London?” Sandra is doing her best to make peace, unknowing there’s any reason to, and also displays the American tendency to refer to anywhere in Britain by the name of its capital.
Mom’s eyelids flutter and she lets out another short mumble.
“I came as quickly as I could,” I say. “I’m so glad I made it to see you...and dad.” As soon as the afterthought comes out of my mouth, I know it was misjudged -- the mere mention of my dad’s existence seems to remind her that something is very wrong, and her heart rate monitor immediately speeds up in its bleeps.
I hear Sandra’s breath catch in her throat. More mumbling from mom. Dr. Ferber steps in, probably well-versed in these kind of cataclysms.
“No need for alarm Mrs. Barro, he’s been well looked after by my team in a different ward. Lily’s going to be splitting her time so that she gets to see both of you, until things smooth out,” he says, coming to her bedside to gingerly rest his hand on her shoulder, maybe the only part of her upper body that hasn’t snapped in two. He gives me a look out of the corner of his eye, silently urging me to be more prudent. Slowly the pace on the monitor slackens.
I remain still, unable to touch her with any semblance of affection, even now. I think of the state of their car when it was found in the ditch, crunched inwards on itself, and the way Dad must have looked, facedown on the steering wheel. I imagine my Mom’s sleepy eyes filling with terror, but the splintering of her old bones keeping her from so much as resting her hand on his bruising, bald head. I think inside that vehicle, in the moments leading up to help arriving, must have been only place worse than here.
“I think it’s a good idea to leave you two alone for a bit,” Sandra suggests.
“Yes,” Dr. Ferber concurs. “Let you catch up while we speak to a few other patients and family members. How’s that sound?”
I nod. Can’t bring myself to verbally agree, but I know it’s inevitable.
“We’ll come back to check in on you shortly,” Sandra says, with a grin and a wink too cheeky for me to bear. Maybe my mom won’t be such bad company after all, if only for being incapable of making such facial movements.
Suddenly I feel more exhausted than I have in weeks, even after the all-nighter with Luke when he almost overdosed, even when I did nothing but read theses round-the-clock for a week. An insomniac’s coping mechanism: shutting their eyes when life demands its utmost attention.
“Sounds good,” I say, putting on the most upbeat tone I can muster. “I’ll be here.”
Dr. Ferber and Sandra leave the room, and I see my mom’s eyes fixated on me, only me, morose and critical at the same time. I pull the armchair from the corner of the room closer to the bedside -- though not daring to get too near; nearer than we’ve been in decades -- and sit. Only when I’m there do I realise the angle is too low for my mom to see me, unable to bow her head from the neck brace, and I sit for a long while with my head in my hands, willing myself to stay.
An hour passes. We sit mostly in difference and in silence. What can be said? As time goes on the fog of sedatives slowly lifts from her thought process and muscle movements and she interjects into the quiet every so often.
“How is he?”
“Why aren’t we in the same room? I thought this is what we paid insurance for.”
“When will I get to see him?”
Each time I wince.
“Don’t worry, Mom. The doctors here are great.”
“Maybe you’ll be moved soon, when you recover a bit more.”
The heart rate monitor rides the waves of her panic like a tragic crescendo.
After a while of this back-and-forth leading nowhere but to conversation about Dad, I try to seize the talking lead. I say how wonderful it is that my department found a substitute lecturer so quickly and with no questions asked. I tell her of the buttercups already poking their heads through the soil on my running trails. I mention that I saw Stanley’s Donuts had closed, which is a shame because I’d ached for their jelly roll all these years. I talk and talk of everything I can think of that’s happier than this; anything that doesn’t direct her thoughts towards Dad, even if they never left. I’m a terrible conversationalist, but I’ll talk for hours if it means she doesn’t get the chance to pester me about George and our great demise.
She doesn’t respond, and after many minutes of slowing beeps on her monitor, I’m sure she’s asleep. I quietly pick up my purse, take a breath and rise. It’s only when I’m in the doorway and flick the lights off that the moonlight illuminates the tears on her cheeks, and the whites of her eyes which peek through like crescents when she thinks I’ve walked away.
The next morning I wake to unbearably bright sun streaming through the tacky tartan curtains in my hotel room. I could draw them and become one with my bed for the rest of the afternoon, but I know it’s futile -- Dad will stay dead, and Mom will stay broken and persistent, even if my head is under the pillow. Anyway, this funeral will not plan itself, especially not if his most cherished still thinks he’s lain on another rock-hard hospital mattress, if at rest then at least with a pulse.
I skim through the pamphlets Sandra and Dr. Ferber gave me, little encyclopedias of the businesses that are too grave for the regular phone books. The cremation resources are totally useless -- Dad would die a second death before he’d consider turning to dust, not after all those years of Catholic schooling and marriage to my mother.
I shortlist three cemeteries, the only three I can place after more than thirty years off the city’s grid. Of these, there’s one I could never forget. Mt. Olivet, the biggest in Detroit, the one whose pathways would last longer than Jack Ryder’s two joints whenever we’d walk through it after dusk. Afterwards there was the cracked leather of his backseat, and the hiss of the radio, and the shifting of my skirt before I traipsed back into my parents’ house, eyes full of weed and sex and shame. Those were different days. The summers were engulfed in fury, riots blooming up from the hot asphalt like desert flowers. Inextinguishable. Detroit was a festering wound in those years, but Mt. Olivet was a suspended oasis, nothing but darkness and silence and escape. Dad only withdrew further into the lounge those months of disquiet, so somehow I think it’d suit him to be in the only place that never saw the great ruin.
I call Mt. Olivet’s cemetarian, but he advises me that I won’t get anywhere without an appointed funeral director, especially not from afar. Trust America to make even the most sentimental of occasions a money-making affair. There’s a pamphlet for funeral directors, too, and lacking any other indicator I pick three by shutting my eyes and pointing. I choose the one nearest to our--their--house in Rosedale Park. It seems a bit dated, but decades into its practice, just a regular funeral home without any of the over-the-top fixings that never suited my dad when he was alive and definitely wouldn’t now. He was a man characterised by the ordinary -- both in ideals and in practice -- not wanting to elevate himself above his neighbour. Readying to call Wilson Akins Funeral Home, I realise I wouldn’t know who to invite; who of those neighbours bothered sticking around when it all went down the crapper, or even who’s still alive.
The man on the end of the line reassures me those preoccupations are for a later time. First there’s the business of transporting the body, and picking a date, and selecting a coffin, and registering a place at the cemetery, and let’s not forget making a deposit for the whole thing to be worth their while. He’s got a tone of reassurance and assertiveness that I imagine only comes after years of swindling money out of the bereaved. I follow his lead on most suggestions -- send a basic car up to Ostego Memorial; nothing fancy but definitely American-made. Five days seems a reasonable amount of time to prepare; not so hasty so as to rush myself, but also swift enough that hopefully my stay in Michigan won’t go on longer than necessary. I tell him Mt. Olivet is the preferred cemetery, and that he can use his best judgement on selecting a coffin that’s affordable but not so cheap so as to resemble cardboard. Likewise with the flower arrangements -- Dad was never moved so much by flora, but it is a nice gesture. He gives me a ballpark figure for the total cost, I read my credit card number through the phone for the deposit, and we agree to speak again tomorrow when the car is on its way. I should be prepared to select some clothing and beloved items for him to be buried in by the evening before the funeral, latest. I should also notify all interested parties of the service as soon as details have been confirmed. I decide not to tell him of the complicating issues with Mom -- until she’s allowed to know he’s dead, there’s no sense in bothering with the dreadful details.
I smoke a cigarette in-between phone calls, not bothering to step outside. After more than fifteen years of separation, I still am filled with nothing but disdain when faced with the prospect of speaking to George. George of dashingly good looks well into his 60s, George of the easy way out. The George who couldn’t keep his eyes off the graduate students’ wagging asses, after his gaze had strayed from his wedding ring. Twice. Thrice. I’d lost count. Once a bastard, always a bastard. Mom always said I should’ve known better, and only now will I admit that maybe she was right.
I wasn’t a fool. Neither was he. That’s what made him so endearing -- he was so fucking smart, and not in the type of way that kept him holed up in libraries and labs away from those of ordinary intelligence. Smart in the way that would charm the skirts off of ladies thirty years his junior, and funny to boot, always the first to be invited to dinner parties and the last to leave. He was almost 40 when I enrolled in his class, on the tail-end of his second marriage. No kids. First wife, Joanne, was a drunk. Drunker than he ever was, and his university sweetheart, but not sweet enough to keep him around. She paralysed herself on the back of a motorbike, arms wrapped around whichever drunkard had agreed to take her home from the pub. George was quick to make his exit before she even came to. His second wife, Lucy, was stinking gorgeous, but dimmer than you could believe. A bit of arm candy for the dinner parties, but she couldn’t keep up in conversation, something George found utterly unendearing. (He would later tell me he refused to procreate with a being whose IQ rivalled a meerkat’s.) This was around the time I enrolled in his statistics course, fresh-faced from my last summer in Ann Arbor, flush with the thrill of leaving America against my parents’ wishes.
I admit I was quick to fall for it. Only just 23, determined to seize everything and everyone that came my way in Cambridge because I’d be damned if I didn’t have something to hold on to when my visa days dwindled. It started off innocently enough. I always sat towards the front of the class, not because I had poor vision, only because he spoke quietly and I feared missing one of his puns. (I was still shocked by the lightfootedness of English wit and desperate to keep up.) Up close, I began to admire his features -- jawline sharp as a knife, no sign of slackening despite his age; hair that was starting to grey but hadn’t yet thinned; eyes that varied from stormy sea blue to ice depending on his intensity. I visited his office a few times in the early weeks. I hated statistics, but found myself desperately wanting to achieve; to make an impression on a man who didn’t seem easily impressed.
Wrong I was. Turns out he was impressed by a lot. Impressed by the freshness of my chest -- I was a late bloomer, after all -- and impressed by the way I would lament American politics and blow rings of smoke after I’d pleasured him in his office. Impressed even by my accent, which I’d worked hard to soften after discovering the graceful cadence with which my British counterparts spoke. I knew he was married, and couldn’t have cared less. He didn’t hide his marital discontent; rather almost used it as a lure, as if to suggest it would all be over soon, so I should get my place in the queue early while I could. Lots of other students fancied him, but as far as I knew, right then I was the only one who stayed past office hours. In retrospect I should have been turned off by his disregard for his wife -- it would be mimicked later on -- but at the time I was ignited only by his charisma and awe-inspiring intellect.
His class ended; our affair didn’t. Soon we became less secretive, and half of Cambridge knew we were fucking on the not-so-sly. He told me that Lucy had moved out, and whether or not it was true I didn’t care to know. He was taking me out to dinner and the theatre, even holding my hand on campus. We went punting beneath the willows on the river and stained our teeth an almost permanent plum from all the wine we drank. When we had been seeing each other for nearly a year, on a particularly tipsy evening, he told me that he was leaving Lucy for good; that the papers had been signed. I smiled, but didn’t overtly celebrate. On that evening he invited me over, and I was stunned by the elegance of his house. Late that night, he told me never to leave.
Soon after my course ended, it happened. I was sick to my stomach at all hours of the day, and two weeks late, though I was doing my best not to keep track. In all honesty, I wasn’t trying for it, but wasn’t preventing it either. In those months I was faced with a soon-expiring visa and a struggle to find a job. My options seemingly ended at enrolling in a PhD program and borrowing more money I didn’t know if I could pay back, or marrying George. Getting knocked up wasn’t either of those, not directly anyway, but it helped. When I told him the news, he drank himself into a whiskey stupor, then apologised, hungover as all hell the next morning, and told me I shouldn’t even think of “taking care of it,” as I told him I would in a huff the night before. But I wasn’t fully convinced. Motherhood was never firmly in my plans, immediate or otherwise. I wasn’t totally averse to the matter, just favoured all the freedoms my mom’s generation wasn’t given. I never thought that I would enter the UK a single student and leave a pregnant housewife-to-be, but this was the scenario I found myself in that Christmas, a couple months after George took me to the register office to tie the impromptu knot. I didn’t know what was worse -- getting knocked up and then married to my parents’ surprise, or not doing it at all. But I accepted it as part of the requisite journey to stay as far away as I could from the bungalow on Artesian Street.
By the time I met them at the airport in Detroit, I was showing but doing my best not to. Wanted to let them down easy, tell them of my charming and successful husband before letting them put together all the shotgun wedding clues. Mom wouldn’t be fooled, though. Took one look at my swollen face and turned white. Wouldn’t speak a word to me all the way home. Before I left back for Cambridge, I made all the amends I could, but Mom would never let me forget that I was having an illegitimate child with a sinful man. Years later, she’d say “I told you so,” and she had. But that didn’t make me hate her any less for it.
The first few years after Kate was born were blissful enough. George made himself present, gave fatherhood as best of a shot as he could without having ever really wished for it. I wasn’t very good at the domestic thing, but fashioned myself into a mother I thought even mine would approve of. Kept a tidy home, threw dinner parties and only burned a few of the dishes, tried to feed the fire alight between me and George. This worked up until Eliza was born. But having two kids was way different than having one, something I guess not even my cynical, all-knowing mother could tell me. I burned out, and quickly. Started snapping at George for the littlest of things, just because I was stir-crazy. I missed my self, and I mean the self that wasn’t constantly in service of a needy little being. I stopped having time to read academic journals, stopped wearing decent clothes if I didn’t have to leave the house (and I often didn’t). It was a chicken-egg scenario -- did George pull away because I had pushed him, or did I push him because he was pulling already? Years later, I still don’t know, but I do know this: it was a tug-of-war we never reconciled. He spent more time at the office and stopped bringing me to his dinner parties. I was more sullen, less beautiful, arid even in the wettest months.
I had my suspicions, but it wasn’t until I found myself pregnant with Luke that I gave into them. I hadn’t wanted another kid, not after the downward spiral we found ourselves in after Eliza, but after many months of only intermittent sex, I stopped keeping track, figuring it was all a lost cause by then. I was totally against it, but George wouldn’t be reasoned with. He said maybe all we needed was a bit more man in the house; that maybe I’d find balance with a boy to dote on. When he was desperate to keep me grounded at home, he even pulled out the daggers: but what would my parents think of an abortion? Now that I think about it I wonder how he managed to make such comments, with the infrequency that he was at home during those months. Office hours turned into all-nighters; after-work drinks devolved into stumbling into bed at 2 a.m., me lain wide-awake, half sick with pregnancy and the other half sick with disdain.
I should have known. I was, after all, that girl with whom he spent those late-night trysts, while his other wife was at home, probably just as spiteful as I felt later on. On the day of our twenty-week scan, frazzled and up to my neck with impatience for the girls, I turned up to his office, sure that he’d forgotten the appointment and would need a reminder. I’d put on a bit of mascara and blush, resolute that if I was going to be having this baby we could at least play dress-up for the doctors, wondering why neither of us appeared to want it.
There I was, belly expanding more quickly than it ever had before, a sleeping toddler in one arm and a kindergartner tugging at the other, jaw dropping so hard it could have hit the south pole and bounced right back up. There he was, older but no wiser, balls-deep into a grad student with her polka-dotted panties around her ankles. Oh yes, he had forgotten.
When they told me it was a boy at the appointment, I cried.
“What do you mean he hasn’t slept at your house in months?”
Mom is incredulous and more lucid than I’d like the next day in her hospital room, the overcast afternoon at least shedding a bit less light on the lines on her face which only crease deeply with disapproval.
“It’s always been that way. Luke was George’s darling from the moment he left my body,” I say. “And anyway, I wouldn’t tolerate him in the same way George does. He takes no interest in school, no interest in sports, no interest in anything but his burnout friends and his sketchbook.” It’s only when the words leave my mouth that I reel at the similarity with the expectations Mom and Dad had for me, too. But I guess embitterment before birth doesn’t fade easily.
“It would have been nice if we had seen him more. You know they could have spent the summers with us. Robert can take him into the garage, show him something about the value of his hands. I bet they don’t teach you that in England,” Mom says.
We’ve spent the morning catching up on the children she never saw grow, the ones whose childhoods even feel far away from me now, blossoming while I shuttled from divorce court to classroom to the emptiness of my bed. If Kate and Eliza at least spent a few blissful years with the illusion of family, Luke got only the epilogue. The last time he saw my parents he could hardly keep his eyes open, and perhaps it’s better he didn’t.
“You weren’t exactly supportive the last time I brought him to Detroit.”
“Supportive? What was it you would have liked me to endorse? The shotgun wedding, the marriage to a cheater, or the broken family I saw coming all along? What you did to those kids was unfair and still is.”
A snicker would not be enough, nor would it matter. Any conversation of family I’ve had with my mother since I was old enough to consider having one has devolved into this. My place as a wife and mother was never in the mould of hers. If I got married, it was for the wrong reasons. If I had children, I didn’t raise them right. If my marriage broke down, it had to have been my own doing. I was too stubborn, too foolish, too selfish. Too resolute that I would never end up like her. Too blinded to see that in the end, maybe I was.
The day has been trying. Mom is gaining more of a grasp on things by the minute, and her drive for information on Dad only wanes when she’s ridiculing my parenting decisions. Dr. Ferber and Sandra have done their best to keep her in the dark but I feel the weight of her unknowing more each time she asks. The car picked up his body before I visited Mom today yet somehow his presence remains, in the stillness and quiet. For now I will encourage her berating so long as she can stay off-topic. The day after tomorrow I have to leave for Detroit, and if I can manage to hold her off until then I might reconsider the possibility of miracles.
“Are you reminding Robert to use his eyedrops? And are you making sure his meals don’t have tomatoes? I’ve told the nurses a thousand times but they don’t take me seriously,” she interjects into the sombre space of my thoughts.
“They don’t tell me anything. I don’t understand why we can’t be in the same room. He didn’t work at the factory for these many years for his insurance to give us this crap.”
The monitor falls into its habit of quickening whenever measuring her heart’s leaps for Dad, and I will myself to be on the receiving end of her brutalities until I go, so long as the distraction keeps the needle’s swings from being too wild.
Before I went to Mom’s room today, Dr. Ferber pulled me aside to discuss some puzzling conditions of the accident. Mom’s maintained that she was asleep the whole while -- she will sometimes doze off in the passenger seat, lulled away by the smoothness of Dad’s maneuvering -- but the doctors think otherwise. Her wrists were shattered in such a way that she had to have actively resisted -- seen the drop coming, known the force with which they were about to crash, thrown her hands up against the dashboard in an act of surrender -- and they’re concerned she’s suppressing some of the trauma she might have experienced during and after the accident. Alert and motionless must be the worst combination for seeing your partner out of this world.
Anytime I breach the topic with Mom she flies off the handle entirely. After all, it’s hard to talk about the accident without talking about Dad. But the fierceness with which she maintains her state of slumber is something that unsettles me, somehow. The eyes of denial prick me more than any of her fragmented bones.
At the end of the day, after we look at photographs of the kids and compromise our differences, just as I put my scarf on, she sighs.
“If I had known we’d end up this way I never would’ve done it.”
I’m startled by her admission, but respect it -- Mom has never been well-known for her reflective qualities -- and on the drive back to the hotel, Camel Lite burning fruitlessly into the chilly Michigan night, I wonder what she meant.
At the hotel I log on to the webpage I created for Dad’s funeral. There’s no way I could round up all of their friends and acquaintances -- not when I haven’t kept track of who and where they are in decades -- but I sent messages to all of my childhood family friends, asking if their parents were still alive and still close to mine. Some didn’t respond at all. Maybe they don’t often check their messages; maybe my parents spread word of my unorthodoxy around the whole of northwest Detroit. Some did. Linda Brooks, Jimmy Tartleton, Mary Sanders, Donny Magnuson -- all still in Detroit, all with one more parent still alive than I.
One by one word seems to spread. Mostly it’s kids joining the group on their parents’ behalf, but a few particularly web-savvy friends and family members add themselves too. Dorothy, my dad’s younger sister who I haven’t seen since before I left for England, is no less wordy than I remembered. She leaves a message in the guestbook which stretches the length of my laptop screen. It’s mostly Jesus stuff and memories made in the ‘40s, but something catches my eye.
I guess we all knew it was coming soon, but that doesn’t make it any easier. May Heidi someday join you in Heaven so you both can finally be at ease.
We knew? Did I?
I suppose I accepted the fact that one day I would get the call; that one day I’d be confronted with something in-between grief, guilt and indifference. Each day I saw the deepening of the creases on my own face I knew theirs would by now be canyons. He was old. 80-something. Mortality is an obvious factor in those years. But that doesn’t make you any less blindsided.
... I guess we all knew it was coming soon…
... you both can finally be at ease…
I read her passage over and over until it’s mush. As I drift off to sleep, the words spin around my skull, reprimanding me for my distance and unknowing. Soon, soon, soon…
A day of rain. When I muster the will to draw the hotel curtains in the morning I see nothing but wet streaks on the pane and somehow I am comforted by the semblance of home on the isle. If I didn’t already feel far away from the watermelon juice, sticky on my chin, and the smell of fresh-cut grass on the baseball fields in the summers of my youth, I certainly do now. Even my most cherished Julys are sodden now.
I’ve received a message from the funeral director -- last-minute details, mostly. Questions of how many people to expect for finger sandwiches and a vague tone of assurance. He reminds me I must select something for Dad to wear -- even though I’ve already told them an open casket is out of the question, with the injuries he carries out with him -- and it dawns on me that I no longer have keys to the house. Hopefully Sandra and Dr. Ferber recovered Dad’s set from the car, or else the negotiation with Mom bodes poorly.
A few more members for the funeral group online. A few new emails too -- departmental notices, a check-in from my dean, a message from Kate. She’s holidaying in Morocco with her boyfriend, Tom, and sends along photos of shadows cast by a sun that never shines up here. She asks the requisite questions -- How’s everything going? Is Grandma handling it okay? How long ‘til you come back? -- but I know it’s more out of duty than genuine concern. She too asks about Luke -- if I’ve seen him lately, because he hasn’t returned any of her messages -- but there’s only so much talk of intergenerational estrangement I can handle in a short period of time.
I drive slowly to the hospital, letting the fat drops of rain linger on the windshield in the parking lot until they become one with the quiet.
I ask Dr. Ferber and Sandra if they took Dad’s set of keys from the car and a panic grows in-between us. In sending the Pontiac to the junkyard they didn’t think to remove them; the only mementos they recovered were on his body, now stained deeply with crimson and in a bag sent away to be incinerated. Mom’s purse was spared and now sitting in a corner of her hospital room, as a sort of reassurance of normalcy. The game plan is to rummage through her handbag in her painkiller slumber and, hopefully, make a run for Detroit before she can ask where I’m going.
Walking to her room from Sandra’s office, I make a mental map of the childhood home I haven’t spent more than a few days in since the ‘70s. The lounge, flanked by plasticine floral couches and a television which seemed futuristic upon its purchase but a relic years after. The bedrooms, tidy and dim, and the crispness of the sheets after Mom’s starch routine. The door which only unlocks with patience and a thrust of the hips. The backyard, small but noble in its well-tended perennials. Going back tomorrow to its reticence will provide less solace than a muted sadness.
Mom has fully gotten her bearings now, expressing her displeasure with the hospital meals and even moreso with the separation from Dad. If it weren’t for the swelling in her lungs the whole of the wing would hear her disquiet. Dr. Ferber trails me into the room and sets to our sedation mission.
“Morning, Mrs. Barro. I need to speak to you about the level of medication you’re receiving,” he says. “Seems there was a mix-up with my staff and you’ve been on a lower dosage than we normally recommend for someone of your age with internal damage. If it’s alright with you we’re going to up the steroids and morphine to ensure your lungs heal properly and you don’t feel pain in the process.”
“I think I’m doing just fine with what I’ve got, doctor,” she says, distrustfully. If there’s one thing my mom’s good at, it’s sniffing out bullshit.
“It may be true that you feel okay for now, but it could be that the painkillers are masking some real trauma that needs to be addressed. As your doctor I must urge you to consent. It will save you some pain and recovery down the line, when you’re no longer on the drip,” Dr. Ferber coaxes.
Mom tuts and falls silent. A woman accustomed to her own assertions faces an adjustment period when everything lies out of her hands. I should know.
Soon she is conked out, but not before she mutters as she goes under. “This was all a mistake.”
Night falls as the rental car pulls onto Artesian Street. Gloomy as the Detroit mood may be, only the miserable could say the way dusk hits the elms isn’t beautiful. Finding a parking spot isn’t hard -- of the residents left on this block, most of them lock their beaters up in their garages, a kind of Motor City buried treasure.
On the stoop someone has left an arrangement of forget-me-nots, and their blushing lavender seems out of place against the cracked concrete. I pick up the flowers and fumble with the keys, now foreign in my fingers. The door is no less sticky than I remember -- I marvel at how neither of my parents managed to break a hip swinging it open -- and when it finally goes, I almost drop the vase.
Gone is the militant tidiness with which Mom ruled the household. Unopened letters and years-old bills are strewn across the table in the hallway. Shoes are mismatched and scattered and scuffed with early spring’s mud. Dad’s myriad thermal jackets, once kept fresh and gingerly arranged in the bedroom closet, now hang off of every makeshift hook in sight.
I make my way to the kitchen to put down my bags and the flowers, which suddenly have quadrupled in weight in my hands. Something is very wrong here. Was very wrong here. On the kitchen table lies a stack of letters from the Michigan Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Assocation. A lump grows malignantly in my throat. I tear one open.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Barro:
Upon review of your health insurance we regret to inform you that outpatient care for Robert isn’t presently covered by your providers…
A rage blooms alongside a great guilt inside of me.
... we recommend contacting family members for assistance in this sensitive matter…
I rack my brain for any missed calls or messages I received from Mom in the past two years but recall none.
... and though outpatient care is the preferred choice of many families in your situation, we suggest reconsidering the residential care admission we spoke about during your last consultation…
My face is ablaze, my palms are damp and my heart is beating as quickly as Mom’s in her recent testing of the monitor’s pace. I feel equal parts fury and shame. Why hadn’t they spoken to me? Why hadn’t I been reachable?
My gut surges upwards into my throat but instead of making a beeline to the bathroom I traipse over umbrellas and weeks-old newspapers to their bedroom. Questions swim circles in my head quicker than I can ask them. Why was he still driving? Why didn’t Mom ask me for money? Why hadn’t the doctors mentioned that this might not have been spontaneous after all?
The bedside lamp had been left on, pale, but light enough to illuminate all I’d need to see. On the bed, lain forlornly, were Mom and Dad’s churchgoing outfits. A slim navy suit Dad had purchased in the ‘60s and Mom had tended to ever since. Mom’s pleated lilac skirt and white blouse with a straw bonnet to match. This had been premeditated and the only one who hadn’t seen it coming was me.
In my head the scene replayed itself in a more hideous light than I’d previously imagined. Dad at the wheel, against anyone’s common sense, hardly able to keep his mind focused on the date, much less the traffic. And Mom, scheming as she ever was, seizing the wheel when Dad had started to drift off, shutting her eyes and praying God would forgive her. In the end mortality’s joke was on her but no one, least of all me, laughed.
Next to their clothing was a handwritten note and a bookmarked Bible. Tears clouding my eyes like cumuli in the English sky, I make out what I can through my gasps.
I didn’t want you to find out like this. By now we will have both departed, but I hope you understand my intention was for it to hurt less for all of us.
God took you on a different path than we had intended but I do not scorn you. If there’s one thing I want you to remember it’s this - don’t ever let Kate, Eliza or Luke have to see you out like this. Make amends. Let love back into your heart. And forgive.
We love you.
And perhaps for the first time ever, Mom and her God have brought me to my knees.