Prepare a Place for Me

There was only one reason why my father would be calling me. My mother must be dead.

He explained how it happened, how just last week he had given up taking care of her at home, that for the third time, she’d gone limp in the bathtub and he’d had to call the fire department to come lift her and take her to the cherry wood bed they’d bought as newlyweds 64 years before.

He apologized to me. If he hadn’t been holding their ancient wall phone, he would have been wringing his hands. She had only lived a week in the Alzheimer’s Unit and he had visited every night, he said, taking tapes of the music he thought she would remember and playing it on the old Press Play tape player they kept in the basement.

He was sure she still knew him. He told me how she had kissed his hands when they last said goodbye. She had taken both of his hands in hers and kissed his hands. I couldn’t imagine it. It was my mother whose hands would be kissed. It was my mother’s impossibly soft cheek and the smell of her face powder and English Lavender soap that drew us to her seeking the blessing of kissing her. Alzheimer’s had changed a lot about her.

The realization that I was, temporarily at least, sibling in charge, hit me hard after I got through Chicago traffic and on to the smooth raceway across western Michigan that is I-96, mile after mile of rolling countryside with no interruptions except the tiny roadside wineries giving away free shots to interstate drivers. I found every possible reason to delay. I sampled the wine, hunted for snacks at massive trucks stops, and even pulled over to check the old Michigan map to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to drive home.

What was I thinking being the first responder on the scene of a catastrophe? That was my brother’s job. I stalled as long as I could, going the speed limit and not a mile faster, but eventually, I made it to my folks’ driveway and, within thirty seconds, my dad was standing at the screen door.

“Thanks for coming, Janice,” he said, like I was the last guest to leave a dull party. To add to the oddness of the night, my father than hugged me. I was 53. My father must have hugged me before this night but I don’t remember it ever happening. So when my father hugged me, I told him I needed to go to the drugstore right away.

“What do you need? We probably have whatever you need here,” he said.

“I need to buy make-up, Dad. I left home without my make-up. So I need to go the drugstore and buy stuff, you know, like mascara,” I answered.

Barely having put my keys down on the table, I grabbed them back up and started toward the door. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” As I walked out the door, I heard the familiar screech as he pulled the level to bring up the footrest on his La-Z-Boy rocker. He was sitting in his chair where he belonged, I thought. In a minute, he’ll turn the TV on and resume watching CNN with the sound muted and then he’ll pick up the book on top of the stack next to his chair and start reading where he left off when he’d heard my car in the driveway. I knew exactly what he was doing. I felt relieved that he was doing what he always did. He wasn’t crying or hugging me. He was being himself.

The drug store had that fluorescent weird feeling that all stores have when it’s eleven o’clock at night and no one is there except the girl working the check-out and the guy in back restocking the Fritos. I walked up and down the cosmetics department. L’Oreal, Maybelline, Max Factor. I got stuck at Maybelline a long minute looking at the mascara and wondering if they still made the little red plastic boxes with the tiny brush and bar of dark color that required a little squirt of spit to moisten. I remembered the little box in the right hand drawer of the cherry wood vanity, sitting atop an embroidered guest towel that my mother used as a drawer liner, and next to the mascara box was the eyebrow pencil she used on her beautiful, business-like eyebrows, and, sometimes, to give herself a beauty mark low on her right cheek.

In the evenings, she would sit at her vanity table with the small lamp casting a yellow light in the darkness of her room, a place so serene and cool and off-limits, and she would paint her nails red leaving perfectly lined half-moons. She was as ephemeral a person as ever lived on this earth and she was not going to be there when I went home. Was she?

We talked about my mother’s funeral. “Whatever you think is right, Dad,” I kept answering whenever he asked what to do. Should we have a graveside service or a full-fledged funeral? My father, once practiced at snap and sometimes life-changing decision-making, was clearly stuck. For the first time in his 88 years, he was indecisive.

“John thinks we should just go with the graveside service. Not that many people would come to a service at the funeral home. Do you think that’s right?” He had just hung up the phone after the third or fourth phone conversation about this topic with my brother, stuck in bad weather across the country.

“I think that’s fine, Dad.” I didn’t really think it was fine. My mother deserved the whole funeral shebang. Plenty of people knew her and liked her. I didn’t want anything about her funeral being quick or cheap. I held my tongue. I had been estranged from my parents for ten years until just a year ago. It wasn’t my place, I thought, to have an opinion.

We picked out a casket together and the clothes that my mother would wear. I took off my pearl earrings and asked the funeral director to put them on my mother along with the locket my dad had given her 65 years before when they were engaged. Later, I drove back to the funeral home to make sure they knew to curl my mother’s hair. In her Alzheimer’s fog, she had taken to wearing a baseball cap over her straight hair. My father may have remembered her curled hair but he couldn’t do anything about it.

Dozens of people came to her wake. My father stood in the center of the large room, my mother lying in her open casket off to the side, and he talked to everyone as if he was hosting a cocktail party. He talked about golf and bowling, two things they had done together. He greeted former employees from their Ben Franklin store and listened to their stories about how wonderful and kind my mother had been to them. He looked toward the door every few minutes to see if my brother was there. But he never showed, still stuck in bad weather in Oregon.

I prepared for my brother not being there the next day when we would follow the hearse 90 miles to her hometown and bury her next to her parents on a hill in the cemetery where, during our estrangement, I had seen their headstones already in place, waiting for them.

That night I searched the house for a Bible, looking for the verse that had the words, “Let not your heart be troubled.” My mother said this to me, so many times, but her version was “Let not your heart be troubled, Bunky.” And so I endeavored to find this passage in the Bible with the idea of reading it (without the Bunky part) at the graveside the next morning. I wanted someone who knew my mother to say something at her burial, not just the pastor at the church in her hometown who she didn’t actually know. I could do this, I thought. I can be the child who does this for her mother.

I found the Bible on the bookshelf in the TV room, the inside inscription with my brother’s name. Of course. Late that night, my brother arrived. We set out the next morning from the funeral home, driving in a tiny caravan to the cemetery where I sat on a folding chair next to my father holding the Bible with the passage marked. I said to myself, over and over, “Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled.” And I held on to the Bible with both hands.

At the end of the service, I stood up, walked across the grassy hill and handed the Bible to my brother, “This is yours, John.”

Janice Wilberg
Prepare a Place for Me
Precipice, The Literary Anthology of Write on Edge, 2012

My Field of Dreams

It’s a ballet of sorts.

Maybe you’ve seen a guy, the last guy to leave the ball park, maybe he put his glove down and picked up a ball and bat and then tossed the ball high in the air and as it came back to earth cracked it with the bat, a metal one or a wood one, and then stood to watch it sail against the blue sky and finally bounce on the greenest grass ever grown.

It is effortless what he does. He isn’t doing it as a test. He swings his bat at his tossed ball because he loves the ballet of it. How it feels. It feels beautiful.

I wanted to hit a baseball in that effortless, beautiful way so I picked up my five-year old grandsons’ small metal bat and one of their t-ball baseballs, softer than a hardball but a baseball all the same, and I tossed the ball in the air and I hit it, smack, with the bat and it sailed, not far, but against the blue sky so it was beautiful the way I imagined.

I was emboldened by this, me, a girl always chosen last for the neighborhood pick-up games, and so I decided I should try to hit a ball pitched to me. This is something I don’t recall ever doing before. So my daughter, who is considerably more athletic but not a baseball player, pitched a ball to me and I swung and hit it and it traveled, not in a loft against the blue sky, but barreled right for her head. She ducked just in time.

Then it was her turn at bat.

Both of her sons stopped what they were doing to watch. She took some practice swings and then settled in for my pitch. I threw the ball and, almost as soon as I did, it came sailing back at me, aimed at my head, my temple actually, so I ducked hard. And almost wet my pants or sort of wet my pants but saying either seems untoward even if true. It was that much of an emergency I want to say that one might lose one’s composure.

I’ll remember this – the boys watching, the crack of the bat, the balls sailing, ducking, first her, then me, the blue and green of it – I’ll remember all if it forever.

99 New: Sustenance

My mother didn’t make pancakes. She made pancake.

She would ask if I wanted her to make pancakes, but then she would produce a single pancake, a pancake the exact dimension of our cast iron frying pan. It was a thick, serious piece of work, my mother’s pancake, and it could keep a person alive for a week. It would take an hour to eat and then one would have to lie down like a cow having eaten too much hay or whatever it is that cows eat. We weren’t farmers.

I put my mother’s pancake along with her bean soup, potato soup, beef heart, and baked apples under the heading DEPRESSION COOKING, the era, not the mental health condition although my mother was plenty depressed most of her life. My mother always cooked, I will give her that, through bouts of depression so severe that cooking dinner would be the only thing she did that day, rousting herself from her dark room to rattle the pots and pans in the kitchen, giving us all hope for a warm end of the day. God, I love my mother for doing that.

She knew Depression Cooking because she lived through the Depression. Her family kept apples in the basement, canned green beans, grew corn in their backyard. Her mother had a flour bin in her kitchen where I imagine she scooped out cups to make her cast iron frying pan size pancake. My mother and her mother before her had a solid repertoire of survival cooking. Both knew how to cook to keep people alive and well.

My mother also knew how to make a pattern for a dress using newspaper which she did for me one night when I needed a Pilgrim costume for a school performance the next morning. She made one from sheets or something, I don’t remember, but it was an act of maternal valor the likes of which I’ve never seen since.

My mother held our sometimes very difficult life together with her bean soup, with her relentless devotion to making do, to using what she had to create five equal portions.  Even now, so many years since I was a child, I remember her standing in her apron in the warm light of the kitchen peeling potatoes and making hamburger patties. She took care of us. She kept us alive. She gave us hope every night with that light. I don’t think she ever knew that. I wish I could tell her.

99 New: The Elasticity of Names

When my daughter was born, it was the height of the 70’s women’s movement. I was determined that my child would be strong, brave, capable, respected. I wanted to give her a name fit for a judge. I envisioned her as a judge, her brass nameplate on the bench bearing the name I would give her. Her name needed to be regal, substantial. So I gave her a queen’s name – Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a name with an infinite number of derivatives. Betty, Bette, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Liza. Her name shrank for a while to Liz, which I liked an awful lot, but then expanded to her full judge name- Elizabeth – and I adjusted but not easily. She had become Liz to me. I saw her face and I saw Liz.

Unbeknownst to me, my daughter finally settled on Elizabeth as her permanent name which I shouldn’t have minded since I’d given her the name to begin with. With no warning, as if she should have to give warning about the use of her own given name, my daughter stopped being the person of derivatives and became her full self. I shouldn’t have been surprised since that was the plan all along – that she would be a woman of substance – but I was surprised and then I was glad. Satisfied, as if I had done this one thing right, given her a name fit for a judge. Or a queen.

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Photo by Church of the King on Unsplash

 

Worry Wear

I was recently asked the question: “What advice would you give to your 22-year old self?” Several tidbits came to mind: Make your own money. Keep going to school. Don’t worry about being the only woman in class. Remember other women are your sisters not your competitors. 

But the one that I keep mulling over is this one: Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby. Where did that come from, I wondered. It was so automatic, the first thing I thought of, the first book I reached for in a mile-long corridor of books. Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby.

Having a baby, having children by whatever means, is a wonderful, joyous, unbelievably lucky thing. I know, it’s happened to me four times. And while becoming a mother is extraordinary, sacred even, it means you will never be carefree again in your life. Your carefree days will be over, become distant, then unreal, and then mythical, as if you never lived on this earth as a person without worry.

You’ll see it sometimes, a person who appears to be carefree, a young woman diving into the surf and riding a big wave to the shore, laughing for the pure joy of being in the sun and the ocean and having no fear, just being able to be her whole physical, healthy self with a mind clear of things that might happen.

Raising kids is the fine art of keeping one’s terror that something will happen to one of them under control so you don’t ruin their lives and turn them into people who are afraid to do things. Sometimes I think I overcompensated and let my kids do things that someone less preoccupied with terrible things happening might not allow.

Once, we found a big, thick rope hanging from a tree on the shore of a blue lagoon off US 1 in the Florida Keys and my three younger kids immediately started swinging on the rope and dropping into the lagoon while I cheered them on, partly glad and partly thinking there were dozens of sharp tree stumps feathered with razors just below the surface. They emerged unscathed and delighted with themselves but eventually someone took the rope down. I shouldn’t have allowed them to swing on that rope, I thought, someone wiser than me put an end to it. Overcompensating is so fraught.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to ask women I know who don’t have children if they are carefree but I know they will say they aren’t because life is never carefree for an adult or for many children, for that matter. But if I ask them if they have worry that is constant like Mormon undergarments, there every day despite what is going on in reality, in the rest of the world, they would look at me and shake their heads. No, they’d say, I’m just wearing a bra and a pair of underwear.

There were occasions, very brief, when I thought this worry business was just me. It’s not. It is a mother’s condition. It is the price we pay for the great joy, the rent owed for getting our wishes granted, the threat that makes our children’s continued life and health and well-being the stuff of amazement and celebration. It’s a peculiar appreciation for dodging imaginary bullets, being grateful for terrible things that haven’t and will probably never happen.

I thought a lot about this on Mother’s Day. What all of us mothers do to keep our worry under control, keep it from splashing all over our kids and ruining their lives. It’s a huge invisible accomplishment. I applaud us, me, you, all of us for trading our carefree lives for the Mormon underwear. And I admire those mothers who, when it’s the right time, know when to take the heavy pieces off, fold them neatly, put them in the drawer and run into the surf.

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On Writing Down the Bones

I was nervous. I worried what my son would think of the essay I’d written about his accident, the one that I‘d read on public radio. The essay, “Billy,” was about the man who rescued him from his burning car after a bad accident; it only barely mentioned him or the great struggle he’s had since that day last July.

I remembered the woman in my writing workshop who remarked, “It almost seems like you care more about Billy than your son.” She often says these blunt, difficult things which, at first, irk me, but then later make me think harder about a piece. Once she circled every time I used the word “I” in an essay. I watched her circling from across the room, her lips barely moving as she kept count. She had a point, however bothersome it might have been.

I don’t care about Billy more than my son. I just know that Billy (and his four friends) not only saved my son’s life but saved me. From grief, from changing bandages, from despair, from having to see the man who was my baby screaming in pain, from all of that. So Billy.

My son’s girlfriend, the one who nursed him through the surgery that stitched together his hip with a the long rod and a dozen bolts, said that the essay made her cry. And I was glad for that in a way because she was there when it all happened and her opinion carries much weight with me. My son only nodded with a little smile. When they left that afternoon, I hugged them both. I kissed my son on the cheek and said, “I haven’t written the piece about you yet.” And I may never. It may be too hard.

He shrugged at me, not knowing the crammed-full closet of wild emotions that could be let loose if I started just plain writing about him and his accident. Better to stay arms’ length, talk about Billy, the weather, the triumph of it all. Not all things have to become words.

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Photo by Meta Zahren on Unsplash