Leslie is taken aback when she calls Dad the morning after Mom dies. He begins the conversation as he usually does by asking her what she’s up to and how the kids are doing. She wonders if he’s forgotten that when he left the hospital, Mom was dying. He goes on to list what chores he must do today. Doesn’t he care, Leslie wonders, or is he unable to deal with her death?
“Dad,” she interrupts, “Mom died last night.”
“I’m here. What time?”
“Around ten-thirty. It was peaceful.”
“That’s the way it should be. I’m glad she didn’t struggle at the end.”
Leslie waits to see if he’ll say anything more. Finally: “Mark and I want to come by today. We thought around noon. We’ll take you out for lunch.”
“Later if you’d like. We don’t want to rush you.”
“Are you all right for now?”
“I’m making breakfast. See you at noon.”
Leslie calls me after Dad hangs up. She’s confused and upset. “I don’t know what I expected. I thought he might break down, but instead he seemed indifferent.”
“He’s been living alone for years. Mom’s death hasn’t become real to him. It’d be different if Mom had still been living there at the end.”
“Except now he has nowhere to go in the afternoons. Wouldn’t he have some emotion?
“He may be upset but doesn’t want to show it. I never saw Dad cry about anything.”
“Pick me up around eleven-thirty. If lunch goes well, we should stop at the funeral home.”
I call work to tell them I’ll be out for the rest of the week. Then I take a shower. Letting the hot water pummel my back, I think about what Leslie told me. It’s natural she’s shocked at Dad’s apparent lack of emotion. She must be reliving her own husband’s death twenty years ago...
Rachel and I were shocked when we heard about her husband’s heart attack. Although serious, the operation was a success and his prognosis good if he followed his doctor’s orders. Sean could be stubborn about following anyone’s orders, but the seriousness of his condition put the fear of God in him. We all thought the crisis was over. Six months later Dad called to tell me that he’d had a second heart attack. I asked if he was still in surgery. “No, you don’t understand. He’s dead!”
I'll never forget that moment. Besides feeling heart-broken for my sister, I was thankful that Rachel hadn't been the one to die. I later told Rachel if she died before me, I'd never speak to her again.
After my shower, I sit on the edge of the bed. I’m dry-eyed but depressed. And afraid. Afraid of the future.
While making breakfast, I remember that I'd never seen my father cry, but I had heard him crying in his bedroom with the door closed. When I arrived home from high school, Mom met me at the front door and whispered that Dad received a telephone call with bad news. Mr. Crawford, the best man at his wedding, the man who'd sold us our dog, had died in a hunting accident. He was climbing over a stone wall when his shotgun discharged in his face. He'd been hunting alone, and police searched for two days before they found him. I found it hard to believe an experienced hunter would be that careless with his shotgun. Poor Dad! Always careful to show no emotion, he had been brought to tears by the death of his best friend.
Leslie waits for me in the apartment’s parking lot. “I hope this goes well.” She acts on edge as if nervous about Dad’s reaction. I knock once to alert him that we’ve arrived but before I can unlock the door, it opens. Dad is wearing his coat, hat and gloves in his hand. He blocks the doorway as if not wanting to let us in. Is he afraid we’ll become emotional remembering Mom in the apartment?
“Where are we off to?” He closes and locks his door.
“We thought we’d eat at your favorite spot in the Center. The place with the sirloin tips you—”
I chime in. “I’ve been thinking about their burgers all morning.”
Leslie drives with Dad in front and me sitting in back. He looks out the window as if seeing the town for the first time. “It’s always a treat when someone else drives. I can enjoy the scenery.”
I’m in awe of his ability to repress reality when he cannot deal with the emotional fallout.
We’ve beaten the lunch crowd and the hostess takes us immediately to the back section of the restaurant. Leslie looks around. “How about that table by the window?”
The hostess changes direction, seats us, and hands out the menus. “Enjoy your lunch.”
Leslie is indignant. “The place is empty, and she tries to stick us next to the kitchen. We couldn’t hear ourselves think over there.”
We place our orders as soon as the waitress arrives. “We’re easy to please,” my father jokes.
“Sounds like you’ve been here before. I’ll be back with rolls and water.”
Leslie watches her while she enters our meals into the computer. “She looks familiar. I think her mother was in my class in high school. Do you remember her, Mark? Ann-Marie Ottermann?”
I shrug. “Unless she was in the drama club, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.”
“You’re no fun.” Leslie is exasperated, and I wonder if I should pretend to remember her. “Don’t you remember anyone from high school?”
“I remember Rachel.”
The waitress returns with a basket of warm rolls. “Anything else I can get you before dinner?”
“My daughter is curious. She thinks she knew your mother in high school.”
The waitress smiles. “You went to Lynnfield High? Both my parents went there.”
“No, I went to Arlington High.” Leslie is confused. “I’m sorry. I thought you were the daughter of a classmate. An Ann-Marie Ottermann. You could be her twin.”
“Oh, no. Ann-Marie is my grandmother.” The manager signals to her from across the room. She nods to acknowledge him then turns back to Leslie. “Her maiden name was Otterman.” The waitress leaves to speak with her manager.
Leslie slumps in her seat. “Damn, that makes me feel old.”
I laugh. “Don’t ask the question, if you can’t handle the answer.”
“Both generations must have had kids before they were twenty, for heaven’s sake.”
During lunch, Dad says he wants to sue the nursing home.
“You what?” His news takes me by surprise.
“Dr. Madison called this morning. He was sorry to hear about Mom. He said she was dehydrated which caused her kidneys to fail.” Dad spreads his hands on the table as if his conclusion is self-evident. “The staff was negligent.”
Leslie is skeptical. “Won’t that be hard to prove?”
“And expensive,” I add. “You may have to pay a retainer unless it’s an open-and-shut case.”
“I’ve already called the nursing home for a copy of her records.”
“You called this morning?” Leslie asks. “What did the staff say when you told them Mom had died?”
“I didn’t talk with the nurses. I called Patient Records.”
“The man said it will take a couple of days before the copies are ready.”
I ask how much this copying will cost.
“Madison said there’s no cost. I have a right to a copy.”
Leslie leans forward. “Did Madison put you up to this?”
“No. I said I had questions, but he needs a copy of her records before saying anything.”
From the restaurant, we drive to the funeral home to finalize arrangements for Mom’s memorial service. Both she and Dad prepaid for the arrangements. They are to be cremated. We sit on a sofa in one of the viewing rooms waiting for the funeral director to finish with another family.
“We’d just started dating,” Dad says. “Walking back to her house from the baseball park, I held her hand for the first time. Her hand fluttered in mine and I remember thinking, “She must really like me.” Dad laughs. “It was awhile before I learned the truth. Ah, the blindness of love.”
Mom is cremated the next day. Her ashes will be kept in an urn at the funeral home until the ground thaws for burial. We hold a memorial service a week later. Since I’m speaking at the morning service, I’m preoccupied with performance anxiety. At a signal from the minister, Dad, Leslie and I follow her into the nave.
The minister welcomes the congregation and says a prayer of invocation. As soon as she says “Amen,” the organist plays a chord to begin a musical selection. The thrilling sound electrifies me and at that moment I accept that Mom is gone. After my remarks, Dad pats my hand. “Good job.”
The Ladies’ Auxiliary serves a collation in the church parlor after the service.
Dad calls three days before Mom’s service to tell me her records are ready for pick up. He doesn’t want to pay the postage. “I’m packing Mom’s belongings tomorrow and will get them then.”
I park at the building’s front door. The ombudsman left the records at the receptionist’s desk. Then I drive around to the parking lot. I catch myself looking for Dad’s car until I remember he’ll never be there again. I walk to Mom’s room. The hallway is deserted. No staff, no residents. I have the odd sensation that the nursing home, seeing me on the premises, evacuated the floor.
When I enter Mom’s room, I find her roommate in bed. Mrs. Battersby beckons to me. Her eyes are clouded, and I wonder how she recognizes me. She takes my hand and pulls me closer. “I miss your mother. I was sad when they told me she’d died.” Her lips are cracked, and she has little hairs above her lips. “How’s your father? He’s a good husband. Never missed a day.” Two tears run down her cheeks, and she pats my hand. “God bless.”
“And how are you doing?”
Mrs. Battersby sighs. “I’m ready to die. I’ve been ready for a long time. God doesn’t want me yet.” She shows no anger or fear, only a bewilderment at God’s taking his time. “Maybe I’ll see your mother soon. We might even share a room in heaven.”
“I hope so. She’ll be happy to see you again.” I bend over and kiss her forehead.
She reaches up to touch my cheek. “I’ll tell her how much you love her.”
Mom’s space is not yet reassigned. I clear off her bureau and remove her pictures from the wall. Her suitcases are not in her closet. I look under the bed but find only a pair of dusty slippers. Now I remember, the staff stores the suitcases in the basement.
When I reach the nurses’ station, I don’t recognize the nurse. “I’m looking for Harriet Aherne’s suitcases.”
“I’ll have one of the aides bring them down to her room.”
She doesn’t look up from organizing the patient’s pills. I wait for her to say something like how sorry she is about Mom’s death, but she says nothing more.
Back in Mom’s room, I pile her dresses on the bed with her two coats and the contents of her bureau. I unplug her radio and carry it over to Mrs. Battersby. “Would you like this?”
She nods. I plug it in and place it on her bedside table. I pace the room waiting for her suitcases. The room is overheated and I’m sweating. While looking out the window at the parking lot, I remember the day she didn’t recognize me. That day seems months ago.
A trolley rolls down the corridor and an aide carries two suitcases into the room. After packing her clothes, I take a last look around the room and wave goodbye to Mrs. Battersby.
I’d planned to drive to Dad’s apartment and drop off Mom’s belongings and records, but I don’t have the energy. Seeing her roommate and the nurse, emptying the bureau and closet, is emotionally more than I can handle in one day. I want to drive home and crawl into bed. The sun is setting, and the blessed darkness gathering in the corners is all I want.
I don’t remember something important to do after Mom’s death until it’s too late. I’m watching a medical drama on TV. A brain surgeon is performing an operation. “Oh, damn.”
Rachel comes in from the kitchen. “What’s happened? Something on TV?”
“I forgot to ask the hospital to do a brain biopsy on Mom.”
“She’s already cremated. Too late now.”
Long before they moved into the apartment, Mom began having trouble remembering events that happened only a few days before. It wasn’t serious yet, but since her ‘real’ mother had dementia before she died, Dr. Madison suggested she see a specialist for evaluation. Dad asked me to accompany them. We told Mom that the visit was to discuss how she could improve her memory. We didn’t want to use any loaded words that might alarm her.
I drove them to the medical building and waited while Dad helped Mom out of the car. After parking, I met them in the doctor’s office. The woman who did the testing was escorting Mom into another room. “We’ll be back in about an hour.”
The doctor told us to be seated and closed the office door. He was young, thin, and in great shape. He had the scrubbed, spic-and-span face of an athlete. I bet he runs a marathon every Saturday. And two on Sundays. He got right to the point.
“Today’s test will serve as a baseline for future testing. I’ll estimate the extent of the disease, but there’s no test that’s definitive. I could order a CT scan, but I think the procedure would upset your wife. Research is making progress, but it will be years before there are drugs that can stop or slow the damage.
“Since this disease may be passed on to her children, I encourage you to request a biopsy of Harriet’s brain. This will identify the disease your wife has. If, in the future, her children have a problem, medication may be available to target that specific kind of brain disease.”
Dad had a question. “The biopsy you mentioned, is this done on an outpatient basis?”
The doctor, to his credit, maintained his professional poise. “Oh, no, this would be done after Harriet’s death.”
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