I hate retirement homes, even the good ones. Especially the good ones. When you cross the threshold through automatic doors, a perfectly manicured woman wearing a pressed white blouse and too much perfume welcomes you with a smile that says, “I’m sorry you have to be here, sir, but we’ll try to make your stay more like doing penance than serving time.” I sign my name, Tansey Martin, pour a cup of coffee from the silver urn costing me thousands of dollars each month, and stride down the hall hung with framed Audubon prints to elevators where a metal cage houses a large brown and white rabbit attractive to grandchildren.
Not my grandchildren. I never married. Well, technically, I did, but it was over before the month was out. Dahlia and I were both virgins, our choice, and we thought our abstinence would bring us closer. On our wedding night, my wife cried when I walked out of the bathroom naked. She jumped in the hot tub, thinking, perhaps, coitus couldn’t occur under water. Her father, a Baptist minister, had led her to believe, she explained later that night, that God allowed only Adam and Eve bare-skinned bodies. He told her that it was a sin to lust after a man’s body, and penetration should occur solely for the purpose of procreation, and then only fully clothed—or the nearest thing to it.
After five days of feeling cotton breasts and a denim ass, I got horny enough to propose we have a baby. That night she wore men’s pajama bottoms, a turtleneck and ski socks.
A few years later, she married a Jew and went with him to live in Israel. She kept in touch, sending me periodic updates on her conversion not to Judaism, but to an offshoot of Christianity that defied title, as far as I could tell. Her letters rang with the conviction of church bells: God’s presence was accessible as a cell phone call, Jesus sat at a 911 desk 24-7, the difference between life and death, here and there, was all in our heads.
Any time you felt the need to leave earth to enter heaven, the threshold would open admittance, with the right spiritual leaning, guaranteed.
A liberal Methodist minister, my father would never have bought such rot, and I, a contentious agnostic (after only one college physics class), thought Dahlia had stepped into the Twilight Zone, but she didn’t press her views on anybody, as far as I knew, so I treated her new-formed faith as harmless. When hearing Dahlia had finally found her right match, my mother, who loved to go on giggling shopping trips with her, was delighted.
After our divorce, she spoke to Dahlia more than when she was my wife, Mother ringing Israel from the States so her ex-daughter-in-law could save on phone calls, their relationship sparked by opposite charges, jolted by a wicked beauty each beheld in the other.
Some twenty years after the divorce, I wrote to let Dahlia know my mother was dying. I hadn’t remarried, having found solace in the silence of home and the solemnity of a prestigious law firm.
Father had died before my marriage, dropping during a Sunday sermon as though offering his congregation an example of how to deliver oneself into God’s domain with the sanctity such crossing deserved. A doctor performed mouth-to-mouth and pushed on his chest while the masses prayed. Neither worked. If he had an out-of-body post-life experience, if he hovered in the rafters and looked down on us like an ethereal end zone camera, if he breezed down a long tunnel bedecked with angels and dead relatives ending in a bright light, he must have liked what he saw there more than the promise of life back here.
My mother lost her mind not through a dramatic mid-morning stroke, but gradually. She forgot first the little things, like where she put her makeup, looking in kitchen drawers, then the big-ticket items, setting out in the car to a hair appointment with a coiffeuse who had left the business twenty years previously. When she fell asleep with pork ribs broiling, smoke leaked into neighboring condos, resulting in firefighters breaking a window to purge the apartment and take out the overdone ribs, burned the color of Sterling silver.
That’s when I moved her into Brewster McFain. I visit every Sunday when the Bears play a noon game. She appears happy to see me, but often doesn’t use my name. I kiss her on the cheek, then, for half an hour, listen to phrases echoed every few minutes, each time voiced with the same inflection and enthusiasm.
“I love that shirt. It must be new. It makes your eyes look lovely and blue.”
Attendants keep her hair combed, fingernails clipped, lipstick applied. Less than a minute after leaving, I know she’ll recall shovel and pail days on Jones Beach, her Chicago speakeasy dates, and her honeymoon at Lake Banff more clearly than where the foot-high plastic Christmas tree came from she watched me weave with lights and tinsel.
I got the call at around 2:00 a.m.
“Mr. Martin? It’s the Brewster McFain Home. I need to convey some information.”
I already had the light on, and was sitting on the edge of the bed ready to write. “Yes, yes. Go ahead.”
“It’s about your mother. She’s, well, she’s disappeared.”
I saw her empty room, the tree’s tiny white lights illuminating a bed with the covers thrown off and the private bathroom door hiding dim shadows inside. “Go on.”
“She’s been known to leave her room at night. She comes to the desk to ask when her husband is coming home. She accuses him of faithlessness. Ordinarily, she returns to her room. Tonight the attendant was called away from the desk, and apparently your mother got into the elevator.”
“When did this happen?”
“The attendant last saw her at around 11:30.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“The police have been notified. Our own security is searching the building and grounds. It would be a fluke for her to have gotten out of the home. We’re quite sure she is still in the building.”
I made sure she had my cell phone number before hanging up. In less than ten minutes, I was in the car, even though the voice had encouraged non-participation. “There’s really nothing you can do that our staff and authorities aren’t already doing,” she advised.
Half and hour later, I pumped the brakes to a stop on the black ice lake of the home’s parking lot, empty except for cars driven by graveyard shift staff. I took a handicap space next to the door and left the car running, the heater on. Even though visiting hours ended long ago, I wanted to be nearby. A snowstorm the day before covered everything in blue light from a full moon. I scanned the channels until Christmas carols filled the car. “Silent Night, Holy Night.” “Away in a Manger.” “White Christmas.” An ambulance came and went. Somewhere a siren wailed. I dozed.
My cell phone’s 60s rock and roll classic woke me.
“Mr. Martin? We found her. Security discovered her in a closet next to the elevators where they store the pet supplies. An empty rabbit cage alerted the guard. Your mother was inside holding it on her lap.”
“I’m in the parking lot. Let me in.”
“Mr. Martin.” The woman’s voice paused. “Mr. Martin, she’s not here. We sent her to the hospital. Her left side did not respond. It seems she lost some voluntary movement.”
I turned off the radio and drove to the hospital. Christmas music, call-in shows, infomercials, nothing seemed appropriate. Only dead air soothed. Dementia had transformed my mother psychologically, and now her brain was attacking her physically. Slurred speech, too, the woman said. However, she added, her condition could improve.
“Oh, and one more thing you need to know, Mr. Martin. For your mother to stay here, she needs to be able to eat independently. In her present condition, she’ll find it more suitable in our Lewis Cotton facility. They are prepared to work with people who have advanced assisted living needs.”
The night staff asked me to have a seat in the waiting room. Two hours later, an Indian doctor told me the obvious, that they were going to run tests today and tomorrow. She had a private room, and I could see her during visiting hours. She had been given a sedative, and would not be much fun right now.
With her room’s telephone number in my pocket, I went home, showered, tried to read, then watched the weather, its clean, bright graphics sweeping white clouds our way.
Then I called Dahlia to give her the latest. She wanted to know everything, so I gave her everything. After that, I let my law office know, and followed up by personally talking to clients who might need a partner’s advice. Most people understood.
I started out, most of the way luckily following a salt truck scraping snow and pelting salt. The three-tiered parking garage looked too much like a mausoleum, so I risked losing my car under a foot of snow by parking in the roofless lot, plodding my way to the canopied entrance. With visitor card in hand, I rode the elevator to the third floor, wishing I had gotten Dahlia this morning instead of leaving the terse message that covered the basics: stroke, paralysis, phone number.
My mother’s eyes spoke for her. One eye, her right, worked well, zigzagging furiously, telling at me to make everything normal. Her other eyelid hung half-closed and inert. From her mouth came guttural groans punctuated by intakes of breath or fits of coughing. A soap opera blared on TV. She never watched soap operas. I turned down the sound and looked at the screen. A young man and woman sat at a restaurant table with white linen and a red and green seasonal floral centerpiece. He ate, looking solemn; she refrained, looking angry.
I leaned over and kissed my mother on the cheek. A few minutes later, the doctor walked in. After perfunctory greetings, he said without smiling, “If your mother will not calm herself, we will give her another sedative. Distress has taken your mother hostage. There is no reason for suffering in today’s world.”
When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “Physical therapy will help your mother. They have made great leaps.”
For the next five minutes, this young Indian doctor in blue jeans and running shoes sticking out beneath his white hospital coat assured me that victims of stroke today could count on science, therapy and hope. When he had gone, I sat by the bed and watched her eyeball run an invisible track around the ceiling. She won’t remember any of this, I reminded myself. She lives in the moment. How wonderful. How dreadful.
The bedside phone rang. Mother’s good eye darted at me. She didn’t know it would be Dahlia, of course. How could she? She said something that might have been, “I know you have been told.”
“Tansey, tell me everything that’s happened since you left your message.”
Mother’s eye quieted as I relayed what I knew, promising to send mother’s new Brewster McFain assisted living phone number. After I finished, she said, “You know, don’t you, the end is near?”
She was beginning to sound like an Old Testament prophet. “They can do wonderful things,” I told her. “They work with them in bath-warm swimming pools.”
Unbelievably, she laughed. “Get a grip. Face it, your mom’s mind is a cracked record stuck playing the same thing over and over. Now she can’t even wipe herself. You know what she loved: parties, people, gift-giving, vodka, volunteer work, raising you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Put the phone up to her ear,” Dahlia ordered. “Right now.”
I reached over and pressed the receiver to her ear. After about a minute, she mumbled something and handed it back to me.
“I can’t come see her,” Dahlia told me, “but I’ll get back to you. Bye.”
“That was Dahlia, Mom,” I said like an idiot. “She’ll call again. Soon.”
I held her hand. When I said goodbye, there was a slight increase in pressure.
Two days later, the advanced assisted living wing called. When they were transporting her into her new room, she had fallen out of the wheelchair and hit her head on the floor.
“I thought you attendants were trained to move patients safely.”
“It was not the attendant’s fault,” the voice said flatly.
Did that imply intentionality? Furious, I thought about who at the firm could help me sue the incompetent staff. Before I got to the hospital, however, I realized my reaction only revealed my denial that the mother who raised me had left this woman’s body long ago. I was in love with a stranger.
The nurses’ station told me my mother was getting a brain scan, so I waited in the room she shared with a woman recovering from “cardiac infarction.” A man I took to be her son said gravely, “She never stopped smoking.” Dressed for a business meeting in shiny black shoes, black suit, and a black overcoat he had left on, he nodded toward the empty bed. “What’s your problem?”
“Stroke.” I wished he would go back to his mother’s side to watch TV with her.
The man had left by the time they wheeled in my mother and slid her onto the bed. There was a gauze bandage taped to her forehead, but other than that, she looked the same.
“Mom?” I took her hand. No pressure. Cold as cheese.
That’s when I called Dahlia.
“What happened?” she asked as if knowing the phone’s ring brought bad news.
I told her about the fall, the incomprehension, the lack of responsiveness.
“Tansey. Tell her this. Tell her the threshold is open.”
“Just tell her, ‘The threshold is open. You can go through now.’”
“Look, do you want your mom to keep suffering, or do you want her happy?”
“I don’t remember any ‘threshold’ mentioned in Sunday school. What sect are you into over there? What kabala are you quoting?”
“Does it need a name and a justification if it’s true?”
“I know you love my mother and wouldn’t hurt her, but death is personal. Not to mention eternal.”
“And you, an unbeliever, are willing to risk her comfort for principles as inconclusive as ours. Do what you want, but your mom and I have an understanding. Connections you will never understand.”
The businessman strolled around the curtain. “Oh, on the phone. Won’t disturb.”
I nodded. “All right,” I promised Dahlia. “I’ll tell her. Do you want to hang on?”
“I’m in Israel, stupid. No, I don’t want to hang on. Call me back.”
I hung up.
“Everything okay?” The man’s GQ face wore an understanding half smile.
My bitterness melted. This guy who I didn’t know from Dr. Seuss was asking if everything was okay. I couldn’t hold back the tears.
“Coffee shop brews a good latte,” he said. “I’ll bring you up one.”
“Is it allowed?”
“If they don’t see it.”
He smiled again, gave me a thumbs-up and disappeared. After wiping my eyes with a corner of the bed sheet, I sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand. The good eye swept the ceiling.
“Mom. I heard from Dahlia. She said to tell you the portal is open. No, wait. The threshold.” I looked around to make sure the businessman wasn’t listening to this nonsense. “Whatever. Anyway, it’s open now and you’re supposed to go through. If that makes any sense.”
The eyeball slowed, looked up, then down, then floated back home. The lid fluttered, considered closing, thought better of it, rose, then shut tight. Something left the hand I was holding.
I lifted the bony hand, stroked its freckled knuckles, fingered the unpainted nails. Once full of gold rings topped with giant gems, these long, elegant fingers expertly played a three no-trump.
“Didn’t know if you took extra cream,” a voice whispered behind me. “I’ll just leave it on your mom’s tray. Nice she finally got to sleep.”
I let go of her hand. Or, rather, I let go of her. Standing up, I turned and swung back the curtain. The man, halfway into the visitor’s armchair, pushed himself up with a look of surprise.
“Thank you.” I thrust out my hand. “Thank you very much for the coffee. I’ll pay you back. No. I’ll get the next round.”
He shook my hand. I held onto it until he eased his grip, then I walked backwards, pulled closed the curtain and dialed Dahlia. After telling her what I knew, I hung up and reached for the cord to the neon light over my mother’s bed. The late afternoon sun was out and wanting to come through the curtains. I threw them open, then went to look for someone in charge.
On the way out, I picked up the coffee cup, and drained it in long, sure swallows.
Richard Holinger has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Witness, Other Voices, The Madison Review, Whiskey Island Magazine; creative nonfiction and book reviews in The Southern Review, Midwest Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, Northwest Review; and poetry in Boulevard, Chelsea, Southern Poetry Review, The Ledge, the new renaissance, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, ACM, The Texas Review, among others. Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.A. in English from Washington University. He is the recipient of the Illinois Arts Council Artists Grant for poetry. Richard teaches English at Marmion Academy, a college prep school, in Aurora, Illinois, and has facilitated several writing workshops in northeast Illinois. He lives in Geneva, Illinois, with his wife and two children.