A fiction adventure previously published by Indiana Voice Journal.
More than Patchwork
by Diane Stallings
“Come quick, Jewel,” my brother Jack told me on the phone. “Her mind is slipping fast. She might not even recognize you.”
And that would be a bad thing? Aloud I said, “You think she wants to see me?”
“Of course she wants to see you.”
But geez, do I want to see her?
Suffocating, I boarded the plane. She had always suffocated me. And here I was, after years of therapy, flying straight into that.
Up and away.
My trusty ukulele, my comfort, sat in its soft case on my lap.
My carry-on bag lay at my feet in front of me.
My heart sank to the bottom of the ocean underneath us.
Get a grip.
How can I, when the whole ocean weighs me down? Can’t breathe.
Yes you can. Don’t let your imagination carry you away.
Heavy as an anchor way down there in the sand.
Anchor. What does the anchor say?
You’re right. Family ties. So heavy. It’s her. It’s me. That’s why it hurts so much. Love defined by the cage she put me in.
She wanted to protect you.
I know I know I know. We don’t have to go over this. I get it. But my heart wants to breathe, not choke again.
At least the suffocation wouldn’t last long. She was on her way out, dissolving headfirst. Headfirst, losing her head. Headfirst into whatever darkness lay beyond.
In her little house, she’d been putting the milk in the cupboard. Cleansers in the fridge. She tottered around, messy and cantankerous, my brother said. He’d had to find a home for her. One of these private homes where they hosted a few like her. They took Medicare, Social Security, and a chunk of Jack’s paycheck.
That was another thing. I’d have to step up to the plate financially.
What a drag you are, Mom.
I grabbed an airport rental car, my escape if everything went totally sour.
Let’s get this done. The afternoon sunlight slanted golden upon the landmarks of my old town. Nice, but it couldn’t fool me.
Let’s say hello to Mom, whether she knows me or not. Then on to Jack and Linda’s house. I rolled past my old high school. Go, Rams. Hoo boy, scenes came flooding back.
Fifteen years old, heading out to school in my new blue jeans.
Scandalized, Mom grabbed me before I could touch the front door.
“Where are you going like that?” Voice shrill, eyes wide, fingers clamped on my forearm.
“School,” I said sarcastically. “Where else?”
“I won’t have you looking like a tramp!”
“All the girls are wearing blue jeans, Mom.”
“Oh I doubt that!” Her fingers squeezed tighter. “You will change this minute into a skirt!”
“I will not!”
“You will!” She shoved me against the door, bumping my head.
I laughed in disbelief, even though my head hurt.
“Stop it!” She jostled, bounced the back of my head – whack, whack! “What’s wrong with you?” she shouted. “Are you on drugs?”
What the f__? My jaw dropped into a huge grin. What planet was she from! “No I’m not, Mom. I’m just wearing pants.”
“Shabby jeans! Don’t be a slut!”
Bitch! “They’re not shabby, they’re just jeans! Get with the times, old lady!”
“Don’t you old-lady me!” Whack!
Driving past the school field, I shook my head like a dog shivering off mud. Hell, I was sixty years old. I refused to let her bother me. No matter how sour she was. No matter how grumpy, fierce, combative.
I would make my peace with her. If we fought, I would exit. If she didn’t know me, I would play her a tune and take my leave.
Ukulele in hand, I knocked. On the door.
A woman opened it with a wad of keys dangling from the deadbolt.
I walked into the aroma of Hamburger Helper.
They were eating before sunset. Like little kids, I thought. Feed them early, put them to bed.
Mom stood up from her half-eaten plate. Big smile, big wave. “Jewel! You’re here!”
“I’m here.” Is she on drugs? “You know me?”
“Sure I do.” She swayed as if she were drunk. “Will you stay with me?”
Hell of a question. “How have you been?” I asked.
“Oh you know.” She shrugged.
“How do you like it here?”
She looked at the furry slippers on her feet. “I will show you around.”
We looked out the glass Arcadia door to the backyard. “”Yard,” she said.
“Kitchen.” We peeked into the kitchen, nodded to the cook.
We shuffled down the shag carpeted hallway. Mom peered into one bedroom after another, murmuring, “Nope.”
From the smells, I thought somebody was wetting the bed.
“Here,” she said, possibly recognizing her old avocado bedspread. She gave me the chair, sat down on her bed and looked at me with a huge grin.
“So,” I said. “Is it okay here? Are you getting to know people?”
“People,” she smiled. “Sure.”
She answered about like that, like a little kid, to everything I asked. But the whole time, she beamed at me. Taking me in. With feeling. I had to glance away.
“It’s so good to see you, Jewel.”
“Good to see you, Mom. It’s been a long time.”
If she didn’t know, I hated to tell her. And if she could skip out on answers, so could I.
“You have some fun pictures here,” I said. Jack had filled a wall with the family photos that used to crowd her mantle. Here they were clearly displayed – from her parents’ wedding photo to her own, to family portraits and excursions.
What to say? I took a breath of the musty air.
She stared at me. I nodded.
I stood up to look at the pictures. Dad’s Air Force photo. “Dad was such a handsome guy. What a catch, huh?”
She put her hand on my elbow. “Yes he was.” Her eyes glistened.
“There we are in the forest,” I said, side-stepping to a family shot, the four of us on a camping trip. “There’s Dad again, and you. You must have been in your thirties back then.”
“Yep. And there’s Jack the teenager. But who’s that girl?”
“That’s me, Mom.”
“Oh yeah, yeah!”
We browsed along the wall.
I wondered about the patchwork of her mind.
At least her chronic anger had dissolved into peace. Or was it the medication? Or was it that she couldn’t remember anything long enough to be angry about it?
Whatever it was, her tone had softened my guarded shoulders.
We sat down again. Again she gave me the loving stare-down.
Again it overwhelmed me.
I swallowed. It took some courage to hold her gaze. To stay present to her, as she apparently was to me right now. To smile. To nod. No words.
“How about some music?” I unzipped my ukulele case.
“Ohhh,” she said, enraptured, when the hidden was revealed. “You play?”
I shrugged. “Only four strings, Mom – I can hardly go wrong.”
“Not you.” She shook her head in wonder. “You always were amazing. Anything you put your mind to, you could do it. I admire you.”
My face burned. Oh boy, who took my mother and left this sweet lady here? She never but never but never said anything like that. To me. My eyes blurred with tears. My throat tried to close.
I strummed and shakily sang a campfire song.
She joined in, glowing at me.
We sang it out, feeling better every minute.
“Remember our Girl Scouts?” she said with excitement.
“I do. Do you?”
Memories, accurate scenes, bubbled up for her. We talked about real events. We sang every song from those days.
She was real. Yes this was my mom, yes this was the good side of my life as a child, yes this was nothing I expected today.
She wouldn’t stop looking at me. She seemed to want to fill up on me.
We even held hands, reminiscing.
Her eyes, her adoring eyes, stayed right on me like sticky on flypaper.
All the love withheld, all the love diverted into controlling me, protecting me, whacking me, trying to make me perfect – all the real love poured forth.
This had to be the best part of losing the mind. Without her mind, she was all heart.
Hugging her goodbye, I had to double-check my doubt. “Mom. You do know who I am, right?”
“Sure.” She squeezed me. “You’re my treasure. My Jewel.”
Okie-dokie, now I can barely see straight to drive.
. . .