Wednesday, September 14, 2005
A beautiful post by Camicao prompted me to write about September, the season of Virgos. September evokes my mother, whose birthday, like mine and my brother's, falls this month. September is always melancholy because it is the end of summer, but it is also the most beautiful month, the month when tourists have left but the weather is still summery, when school has started with its bustling promise of springtime achievement: degrees earned, papers or books written, classes done. When I was growing up it was the end of haying season, when fields everywhere were dotted with second or third cuttings drying in the sun, or baled in neat blocks that stretched on over the horizon. I learned to stack a truck so it would hold four or five layers of bales lifted right from the fields by the browned boys who hoisted them up to me in a smooth, swinging motion, bemused looks on their faces at my freakish strength. I loved haying. I loved the smell and the sunlight and the scratchiness and how afterwards my mother would let me and my sister have a beer, just one, in celebration.
The last birthday I spent with her, my sister and I flew to North Carolina, where my parents retired. We flew from different directions. Normally we might not have seen Mom on her birthday, especially after I moved to the midwest, but that year was different. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in June, and the doctors told us that no matter how often they operated, the tumor would come back. They wouldn't tell us how much time she had, only that there wasn't much.
When I saw her the first thing I noticed was that she had started walking with a cane. The second thing I noticed was how bloated she was from the medicine. The third thing I noticed was how cheerful she was.
Now, my mother could be very dark. She could make you feel like you had really let her down, or that you had behaved badly in some way that might take her years to forgive. She was witchy, too. Years as a nurse had made her a sharp judge of physical and mental health; she could tell within seconds of seeing most of the people she cared about whether they were happy or sad, healthy or sick, optimistic or depressed. She was moody and narcissistic, and loved nothing more than to chatter for hours about the lives of people I had never met or hadn't seen in years. When she felt as if she had money she gave it away; when she felt broke she brooded and obsessed about making ends meet.
The tumor had made remembering words difficult, and so my mother's greatest joy, which was talking a LOT, was reduced to monosyllabic commentary. Still, she crowed like a happy bird when she met us at the airport, and she crowed all weekend long simply because my sister and I were both there. We went to lunch at an inn on top of a mountain, and we ate at her favorite fried food shack. We bought a basket of crackling fresh apples from a farm on the way home. We talked about experimental treatments, about my other brother and sister, who were coming to visit another weekend. Mom had given up smoking and wine, her other two great joys, because they reacted badly with her medicine. She laughed about this, and laughed, too, about having worried about smoking and cholesterol and fitness in the last couple of years. You worry about these things for ages, she said in her halting words, and then you get a brain tumor. You might as well just live and enjoy yourself.
She kept a journal of her treatments in a little notebook, and wrote down words she was having trouble saying. She kept her words--as many as she could think of--on little bits of lined paper, as if keeping them there would insure against their loss. She said "monkey monkey" when she wanted a banana. She laughed about her growing aphasia. One afternoon the neighbor from down the road stopped in, and my mother got on a ripper about how all she wanted was for my father to weed wack the front path, and he wouldn't because his weed wacker had broken and he was too cheap to spent forty dollars for another one. She got angrier and angrier, and it was clear that she was having other issues with my father as well, as sick people often do with their primary caregivers. "Forty bucks!" she kept trying to say. "I just want a man with forty bucks!" Instead what came out was "Forty dicks! I just want a man with forty dicks!"
The neighbor lady defused the situation in a flash of sudden brilliance. "Oh honey, that's what we all want!" she said in her soft drawl. Mom looked bewildered, then cracked up laughing.
My sister's plane left first on Sunday; mine was delayed for several hours. I remember telling them to go and how they insisted on waiting with me until my flight boarded. I remember sitting in my seat and trying to wave at them as they stood, craning their necks to try to see. My father leaned against the glass, shielding his eyes. My mother stood beside him, leaning on her cane. I felt my throat swell. They looked so old and small and full of longing.
Or maybe the longing was mine. The Towers fell in New York a week later, and my mother was gone by Christmas. I think of her at this time of year, though, when the sun slants its yellow light in the shorter afternoons of autumn. September afternoons, when she celebrated hers and my and my brother's birthdays, she seems so near, when the days balance once more between summer and winter, and what we are losing every day seems somehow, impossibly, to also hold what we as yet are unable even to imagine.