Humming in the gentle afternoon sun, hoeing weeds in the garden, a shiver—unexpected, demanding—runs up my spine. The hoe falls from my hand. I run for the house, not knowing why.
I call the folks’ apartment in LA. No answer. I barely catch Dad’s faded voice coming from the earpiece in its trajectory towards the cradle.
“Pop? Hi, it’s me. How’s Mom?
“How did you know?”
“What do you mean, how did I know? How did I know what?”
“I just walked in the door from taking your mother to the hospital. She’s sick.”
He doesn’t know exactly what with. I drive the six hours overnight to LA.
I do not believe in hocus-pocus. But that garden thing...
Mom’s tough. She’s lasted six years after being told she had less than one. All she ever mentioned to me, as an offhand aside, was that she got “sick,” lost her hair, got better. She kept her terror a secret from her husband and son—her men. (We can be so weak.) She shared her suffering only with my sisters. They did what they could to help her carry that weight.
I arrive at the hospital tired, cranky, scared. “Can you give me Mrs. Aronson’s room number, please?”
“I’m sorry. Are you family?”
“I’m her son.” The look in the nurse’s eyes makes me wince. Reluctantly, I lean towards the elevator.
I was a paramedic, and I know this; different hospital floors harbor different problems. The belly floor. The pediatric floor. The terminal floor.
The closest rooms to the nurses’ station contain the most serious cases. Easier to keep an eye on, quicker to get to if something goes haywire. Even the terminal floor has this hierarchy. A little staff secret. Mom’s room is just there, first in line. The rooms I pass from the elevator harbor very sick people. TVs are switched off, or are too soft—nobody listening. Silent figures lie motionless under crumpled covers. Tubes and wires and rhythmic mechanical beeps. Huddled groups of relatives sit bedside, haggard and worn. A brotherhood of the damned. They glance at me as I pass—their bloodshot, haunted eyes tell all. My chest aches. Sweat stings my skin. Shit. I’m such an idiot.
There’s her room number. I grasp the doorframe before coming into sight, look at my feet, draw a breath, set my mouth into a forced smile. I look up, turning the bend, never to return.
Was she always that tiny? I’m sure she was taller. Her skin is gray. I’ve seen this before, too. I swallow the bile in the back of my throat. Be strong for her. Surrounded by wires and tubes and beeps, we hug and talk, her passing to me what little strength is left her, like always. I’m seeing her for the first time in my life. Not just Mom. A person. A very scared person.
I wander back to the nurses’ station when she closes her eyes to nap. I ask for her chart, but the nurses stare hard, refusing. I ask for her doctor. He happens to be right there at the desk, doing charts. He looks up, scowling, as if to say, How dare you question my staff?
“What do you want?”
“I want to know what’s wrong with my mother.”
He replies, scolding me, “She has Aplastic Anemia, son. I’d be surprised if she ever leaves the hospital again.”
Lucky for him I don’t have a gun.
My dad’s “I am mightily-pissed-off” growl comes out of my own throat. This gets their attention. To this I add my own quiet threats. Flinching, the nurses hand over the charts. Head in hands, I struggle through the clinical charts and notes, trying to look informed instead of like I’m dying inside. I close the folder, compose myself, call my sisters.
“Should I fly in?” Linny asks. Hard call. Hopeful, I judge not.
“She’s pretty tough, Linny.” I stare at the advertisement on the public phone, but I cannot grasp what it offers.
Those few days, our last conversations. My mommy, who bore me and nurtured me and struggled for me. She does indeed leave the hospital, for the last time. I have her doctor changed.
I return to Santa Cruz, and begin what will become our final, tender farewell. We do not openly speak of this, but it is understood. We talk of nothing on the telephone, laughing easily, discussing books, love, trivialities, tribulations (mostly mine). No sense of impending doom in our conversations. Just easy and close.
Then Suzie calls from LA, frantic, and I’m back in the car for the long drive, thinking, thinking. I’ve seen plenty of death. It was my job, and I was good at it. Be strong, poised. Stay cool.
The easy sharing of the past months ends abruptly. My typically neurotic Jewish family crowds into Mom’s hospital room and spills out into the halls to jabber, cry, and argue. Thankfully, Mom is too out of it to take much notice.
During the calm, post-visiting evening hours, I pull a folding chair next to her crumpled, sleeping form and read.
Slowly, painfully, she rolls over to face me, manages a smile, and with great effort, speaks. “War and Peace…I read that twice.” Our eyes meet. She rolls back and is silent.
Uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends take over the hallway. We Jews can be pretty dramatic. I’d never noticed it before; it just seemed normal. An aunt collapses to her knees in the hallway, clutching my legs and wailing, “Oh my God! Jeffrey is crying! He knows she’s going to die!”
Drives me nuts. I can’t concentrate. I really needed to concentrate—though on what I cannot say. Mom is the matriarch, the center of the Family Universe, the glue that holds us all together. She is the one everyone always calls for advice, help, support. Now the roles are inverted; chaos reigns. We will never be the same.
I call my sister in Chicago.
“Hey, Linny. You might wanna come.” That is all I can manage. I speak softly, precisely. This scares the shit out of her. She takes the next flight.
Dad collapses again, this time in the elevator. They give him a Valium. He’s a real wimp with drugs. He passes out on the couch in the hall. I leave for a walk.
Numb, irritated, I trudge through the dirty air and streets of LA. My clenched fists pressed into my pockets hard and deep, head bowed, eyes staring at the cracked pavement. I only want a little calm space to be with her. Oh, please.
Where I go, what or whom I pass, I cannot say. I don’t see a thing. I am a guide by nature, by trade. I always know in which direction I’m traveling, where I am in the world. But this day I am utterly lost, adrift in a featureless, gray ocean.
I find myself sitting on railroad tracks, staring at nothing, tossing gravel nowhere. A rusty, beat-up pickup truck slowly drives into my line of sight. It creaks to a halt in the middle of the frontage road, directly in front of me. Two Hispanic guys look at me from the cab, gauging. The driver, sporting a gold tooth and straw hat, leans out the broken window and asks in his beautiful accent if I want some work.
“Hey, Señor. My crew did not show up this morning. We gotta bust up a whole parking lot at this apartment before dark, amigo. I need a third man. Sí?”
I smile. “No, thanks.”
“Señor. Five bucks an hour!” His open hand is out the window, for emphasis. His head tilts to one side, a supplication.
I shrug and hop in the bed of the truck, with the shovels and sledges and cement-covered wheelbarrows. A few blocks later, we are at the job site.
Straw Hat hands me a sledge, and we all three get to work. I am blind—with rage? Despair? I’ve never felt these things before. I will learn them pretty good though.
Time passes, though I cannot swear to it. With each swing of the heavy sledge, asphalt crumbles at my feet. After a while, sweating, I blink, look around. My arms are strangely sore, though I’m sure I’ve only just begun. I turn around, slowly. My colleagues are sitting on the open gate of the pickup, drinking beers and eating lunch, saying nothing, keeping out of my way, staring at me. The entire lot is broken into chunks of asphalt. It looks like a fresh volcanic field. We begin loading the chunks into the truck. Again, I fall into blankness. Again, I awake. Now there is nothing but bare dirt and a pickup on flattened springs overloaded with asphalt. The two men sit on a stoop, quiet, watching me with quizzical smiles. It’s not like they’re lazy—more like they’re watching a magic show or something. I do not feel separate. More like family. The family drunk. Or maybe the weak-minded one they take care of, get into fights for.
Straw Hat says, “We’ve been watching you for the past half hour, amigo. We couldn’t keep up with you, so we sat down and had a beer.” He lifts his can up to me. “You’re the best worker I ever seen. You want a permanent job, I’ll hire you on the spot.”
“No thanks.” I have to go.
“Wait, Señor. Your pay!” He holds out a small bundle of folded bills.
I leave them puzzled, mouths half open, beer cans forgotten. When they go home tonight, they’ll probably tell their grandkids about that crazy gringo who worked all day for free.
I get my bearings. I can see the multi-story hospital a mile or so away, breathe deeply and head on in. A block or two from the hospital, I pass a house with a yard full of rose bushes. Whites, reds, and yellows, all perfectly pruned. There is surely a strong, patient heart behind it all. I stop and bend some of the roses towards me, inhale deeply the luxurious fragrance, slowly exhale. The world pauses once again, as it has so many times today. But the one thing I really wish would pause, won’t. My eyes blur.
An old man I hadn’t noticed is looking at me, kneeling within this garden sanctuary, pruning shears in his gloved hand. My words spill out, brought forth like seeds exploding from a pod in bright sunshine.
“My mom’s up there in that hospital, and she’s going to die today. She loves roses.”
“Take all you want,” he says, rising slowly. “Take them all.”
I pluck one white and one red and turn away. I think I hear a muffled sound from behind me, something fragile and human, but I don’t have the strength to look back.
I return to Mom’s room at twilight, take a long, deep breath, put the roses in a vase and place it where she can see them if she opens her eyes again. She hasn’t woken since I left. Only Dad and my sisters remain. They are all exhausted. Dad is still drugged. He looks like a stray puppy in a kennel, yearning to get picked. I cannot cope with this. I hand him to my sisters, trusting in their strength.
“You guys should go home and get some rest.”
No rock remains to cling to in this current. Just keep your feet downstream, and breathe when you can.
As she’s leaving, Linny turns to me. “What do you think?” she asks. Just like that. I think I’m supposed to be strong. I think I want to curl up in my mommy’s arms and have her sing me to sleep again.
Ahhh, ahhh, bay-bee.
I say, “Go home and get some rest. I’ll call if anything comes up. It’s ok.”
Surprisingly, nobody calls me a liar. They kiss her cheek, each in their turn. This ritual is not slow—it is timeless. Silent tears ink the moment. Dad holds strong. For her. Their whole lives together, compressed into this one gesture. Awkwardly, they gather their stuff, silent. Before they depart, they all three turn and look at me. Utterly naked, painfully vulnerable, they stand, looking at me. I want to howl. How they gathered the strength to leave, I’ll never know.
Mom starts to toss and turn, moaning. The nurses arrive with more morphine. They’ve already removed all the tubes. As they give her one last shot, she fights them and moans, “Noooo….” I find myself elbowing the nurses away, leaning in to touch my cheek to hers. I kiss her forehead over and over.
“I won’t let them do that again. I promise.” She blinks. Our eyes meet, six inches apart. She frowns, concentrating hard, wanting to speak. The drug, and that other intruder—together they are too powerful.
“I know, Mommy. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of Daddy for you.”
Swear your oath. Swear it.
Her eyes slowly drift, blink, drift again. She’s trying so hard to stay with me. “Do what you need to do, Mommy. I love you. It’s ok.”
Her world narrows to my eyes. Farewell.
Visiting hours end; we are not disturbed. Somewhere, someone turns off the lights. I hold my mother’s hand in mine, stroking it. And dream…
She’s up there on the resort’s restaurant stage, singing Judy Garland, her favorite. Pretty damn good. Tables of elderly Jews on vacation eat, listen, clap. Dad’s there too, proud of his darling Florence. Her eyes find me hiding at a corner table, embarrassed. She can tell. She smiles for me anyway.
I awake, sitting on the floor, still holding her hand, resting my head on the edge of her bed. The room is soft, quiet. It’s ok. Let go. Simple. I place her hand under the covers and wander across the empty hall into a storage room. I collapse onto a cold, bare stainless steel gurney, using my arm as a pillow. Welcome, blankness.
A fly buzzes through my head, a glaring light pierces me awake. A nurse—angry, insistent. “Get up! What do you think you’re doing? Who told you you could come in here?” Her finger jabs the air.
“You gonna arrest me?” I ask.
Tight lipped, she remembers why she came. “Your mother has passed away.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Dawn is nearly here. She lies there, coverless. How can she be so naked, even with a gown on? And so very small. I didn’t think she was that tiny. Fifty-six years, no more, no less. I grab the blankets the nurses have thrown on the floor in their zeal, glad I missed it, and cover her back up.
The nurse comes back with a suggestion.
“You should take her wedding ring off. You never know.”
I ponder its value to a thief who robs mothers’ corpses. I remove her wedding band. For Dad.
She has a smile on her face still, like a saint in the stained glass at church. It gives me the strength I will need for my last task.
I call the house. Suzie answers. I say nothing, but she knows, anyway. They all know. There’s a thump in the background—Dad hitting the floor, his voice in the background wailing, “Noooooooooooo!” I picture him there on the linoleum, the floor all that lies between him and utter annihilation.
They arrive, I leave. We sense she still needs company for a little while longer. None of us have any experience in this, yet we know the goodbyes will be easier now than at the funeral. Like a just-hatched turtle, the ocean beckons me. I see not one street, not one traffic signal nor sign, yet I somehow arrive at a beach. The edge of the world.
A crescent moon rises out of the cold April ocean. The sky turns red, then gray. The surf beats like a heart, dumping onto the steep beach.
What does it mean to become a man? Everything has changed. Now the journey truly begins, and this is my first day.