March 30, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
This week’s blog post is a work-in-progress version of the story I will tell at Story SlamMN on April 1st at Kieran’s Irish Pub, the theme being “courageous.” The word is barely touched on in this story, but it is where my meditations on the concept of courage have led so far. Right now it’s about 150 words too long. Feedback is welcome.
My daughter Maggie and I spent this past Christmas together in Chicago, where she is finishing up a graduate degree.
Then we went to the small town in New York where I grew up, and where my parents live now. Ostensibly this was about a late celebration of my dad’s 85th birthday, which was on the 22nd. But it was my mother I was feeling the strongest need to spend time with, before that vacant expression takes over her features completely. While she is still not afraid to ask me how my son Aidan is, even if it sometimes comes out “And how’s…the boy?”
Aidan works in retail, so for him doing anything around the holidays was impossible. But when Maggie was done hosting her mother for Christmas – a first for us both – we got on a plane at Midway, and then, after a stop in Detroit, we landed at Elmira Corning Regional Airport, “serving the Southern Tier of Central New York and Northern Tier of Central Pennsylvania since 1945.” Probably with the same planes. Or should I say Greyhounds with propellers.
“If she stumbles on your name…” I say, as we head up the ramp.
“I know, Mom, I know.” And she does know. Though if I make any tentative jokes about my own memory, she rolls her eyes and cuts me off. “Mom. You’re fine.”
My mother doesn’t stumble on Maggie’s name. She looks almost normal. She hugs just the same. My sister warned me she might cry, but she doesn’t.
The first evening, after the dinner at Cracker Barrel – my dad wanted to take us to a chain restaurant they hadn’t taken us to yet – Maggie and I help with the puzzle.
It has five hundred pieces, and it has been on the dining room table for over a month.
“We usually do 250 pieces,” my dad says. “I don’t know what got into your mother’s head when she picked this one.”
“All the birds,” says my mother.
“Yeah, but they’re in all those leaves!” says my father.
My mother laughs.
My dad needs a magnifying glass to tell his fours from his nines, and all the puzzle pieces look the same. It’s the macular degeneration. My mom has a disease we don’t name, though my dad will occasionally refer to her “memory issues” and the problems she has “getting her words out.” It’s like her mouth has become a vending machine, and the words get caught in the spirals.
She used to be able to tell all the birds apart: the cardinals, the waxwings, the bluejays. She can still with some. But soon they’ll all be birds, like the leaves are all leaves.
My father brings out a box of chocolates.
“We need to finish this puzzle, and we need to finish these chocolates,” he says. “In this house, we finish what we start.” My parents built that house, and my father has always said the only way he’s leaving it is if he’s carried out in a box.
Maggie sits at the head of the table, my mom across from her. They are the north and south poles, my dad and I are east and west. Across the vast plain between us is the puzzle.
I’ve never been good at puzzles.
At least not the spatial kind. My puzzles have always been around getting the words right, getting the images right, witnessing to the texture and complexity of human experience, getting the story down. Now I am trying to look at what happens when a person stops being able to do that. But it takes courage. Often I’d rather make up my own story. Sometimes I do.
My mom picks up one puzzle piece after another and tries them out, then puts them back.
“No… no. Not there.”
I am reminded of my eighth grade self playing softball, pretending to guard the outfield. Going through the motions. Trying to fit in.
When Maggie has success, both grandparents cheer her on.
“Thank God for Maggie!” my father says.
“Thank God for Maggie, or we’d never get done,” says my mother.
Once or twice Maggie finds a piece or two in my mother’s pile – “do you think that goes over there?” and my mother is as delighted to fit those pieces in as if she had found them herself. And then, the pump having been primed, she does find a few.
My father decides it is time for his bath.
I sit with my back to the rows and rows of books on shelves that line one side of the room, as if it were a library. All my mother’s.
My dad believes in reading the news and the comics, though both are hard for him now. But he wanted to show off all the books my mother had read, so he had the bookcases built. My mother’s summers as a school teacher were filled with books; my own summer reading list was always hers from two years’ back. When they retired, and the traveling began, my father’s souvenirs were always magnets; my mother’s, books. When they stopped traveling, the books were her travels.
“You’ve read so many books, Mom,” I say as we head into the living room for the evening ritual: wine and snacks and news. “What are you reading now?”
She pretends not to hear me.
“You should take them all home,” she says. “I’m not going to read them again.”
I pretend not to hear her, too.