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By Susan Morse
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2011 Susan Morse
All rights reserved.
September 10, 2007, 11 a.m.
I used to be able to pick out Ma's parked car from all the way up the block. It's been over a year since she stopped driving, but I still expect to see that beat-up Camry's nose protruding from the line of neatly placed cars, sticking its tongue out at me in cheeky nonparallel defiance. (There wasn't enough room on the street but, Susie, I simply CAN'T use the garage anymore. That dreadful pillar bashed into my car again this morning. It knocked off my side mirror! I may have been in a bit of a hurry, but we must tell them about that pillar. It's very poorly designed.)
When I step out of my own law-abidingly parked minivan and head across the street to the lobby of her apartment building, I feel weightless and uneasy. I'm not here to take Ma to the doctor today. I have no shopping bags to plop with the doorman so I can make a quick getaway. No calculator—this is not one of our monthly sessions of despair untangling her impossible checkbook. The kids are in school, my husband's out of town, and nobody else needs me, so I'm here. Nothing to protect me but a rather gigantic chip on my shoulder, and my camera. I'm on a strictly social call. Social calls can be dangerous.
My mother is becoming a nun today. She's eighty-five, so I guess it's about time.
I'm pretty sure it's just a new attempt to secure my full, undivided attention.
I gave up trying to educate myself on Ma's religious pursuits when I reached the age of consent. The identifying aspects of her latest conversion are a bit of a blur (we're on number six, after all). I do know an Orthodox Christian church when I see one now—their cross is distinctive. It has the traditional upright beam with the crossbar most people know. But instead of a single horizontal, you get three: There's the classic beam about a third of the way down, as expected, and a smaller one at the top, which must be the plaque they posted above Jesus's head. I can't make any sense of that other odd little messed-up beam near the bottom. It's cockeyed; sort of dangling, as if an essential nail popped out and nobody had the nerve to fix it.
We're coping with all kinds of inconvenient new Orthodox differences, like Christmas, which Ma insists must be in January now, not December. And there's been an awful hullabaloo about who gets to be a saint. There was a schism in the eleventh century when a bunch of Christians disagreed about something, and they all excommunicated one another. Then the upstart Roman Catholic Church's crusaders grabbed a lot of priceless icons and relics in Constantinople and made off with them so they could hog all the glory in the West. The Orthodox are essentially Eastern, which is closer to where Jesus lived, and they refuse to acknowledge any of the new saints named by heretic Roman popes. Francis of Assisi is not legit. He's pleasant enough but sadly misinformed: a pope's man with a thing about birds. Ma's got her own Orthodox saints now: Nicholas, the murdered tsar; his extinguished wife and children; and lots of others, Greeks and Russians mostly, with long complicated names I'd rather not try to keep straight. Even if I could.
I'll have to shake myself into a more open-minded, friendly mood before I reach the tenth floor, because there will be other people up in Ma's apartment. A few of her old friends have rallied at the last minute. The bishop called yesterday on his way down from Toronto to announce that her in-home nun ceremony is finally a go. They call it tonsure. Younger, fitter candidates must be tonsured in church—I hear they lie prostrate on the floor for a large chunk of the service. Because of Ma's advanced age and general decrepitude, she gets a break.
There will be priests—but not the kind I'm used to. Not the Episcopalian kind who baptized me as an infant: their only distinguishing accessory an unassuming white collar tucked almost apologetically into the neckband of a plain black shirt. And not the Roman Catholic kind who came next, swathed in rich satin brocade. Today's priests on the tenth floor of Ma's building will be the kind who really sorted her out for good with a full immersion dunk in the River Jordan a few years ago. These guys are old school: serious Orthodox Christian dudes with gigantic crosses chained to their necks; long beards and ponytails; exotically draped Middle Eastern-type robes.
The elevator in Ma's building stalls on occasion, so I have the front desk's number on speed-dial in my cell phone. I could use a little interval suspended between floors today, on the off-chance my timing's not right—when I told Ma I'd skip the main event this morning and just arrive in time for the after-ceremony brunch, her lack of protest put me on guard. I've learned to dodge Ma's ceremonies, no matter how hard she tries to get me there. My attendance can be interpreted as spiritual hunger, and trigger a flood of instructional pamphlets in my mailbox with helpful notes in the margin and follow-up pop quizzes on the telephone.
The doors slide open. I take deep cleansing breaths on the long walk to the end of the hall, plaster on a smile for my bad-prodigal-daughter-who-missed-the-important-stuff entrance. An elaborate crucifix hangs reproachfully over Ma's peephole. On the other side of this door will be my mother, reborn. I turn the knob.
There are six people sprinkled around the living room. Walls lined with choice artwork and old family photographs do nothing to absorb the crackle of tension in the air. Ma is nowhere in sight.
I shake hands with Olivia and Babbie, huddled together in the corner looking slightly startled: dear old friends who live nearby in a retirement community. My friend Margaret's mother, Ellie, is also here. She's devoted to Ma, and seems sincerely relieved to see me for some reason.
Photini, Ma's Orthodox partner in crime, is perched near Ma's paint box and easel: prim on the fraying sofa in her usual kerchief and Amish-style denim pinafore. She and Ma met at a Byzantine icon workshop when they were both still infidels. (Ma's the one who decided they had to go Orthodox. She found the first church they tried in the Yellow Pages.) Photini introduces me first to a nondescript, mousy little man in faded blue jeans with a gentle smile whose name goes instantly in one burning ear and out the other. Next is a guy I mistakenly assume is the bishop. It turns out he's actually part of the entourage: a priest. He has the standard cassock-type thing over his significant belly, long hair tied back out of the way, and a huge frizzy white beard that is trying to take over the whole top half of his body. He's very excited when he hears my last name.
—You're the daughter with that husband! I wanted to meet you! I thought I was going to be an actor, too!
This kind of non sequitur can throw me. My life's been so disconnected from that show business world since we moved back East thirteen years ago. Days will go by without me even remembering what my husband does. When this fuzzy-faced, friendly hedgehog of a person erupts with a delighted riff about his early years in the theatre, I'm speechless—too self-conscious with our family eccentricities all out in the open like this. Everyone seems to be waiting for me to say something, and no socially acceptable response comes to mind: How sensible of you to fall back on becoming a leader in an obscure religious sect instead; why didn't I think of that when I gave up acting? Or: Maybe if you'd had a shave and a haircut you could have had more range?
Better to change the subject.
—Where's my mother?
Ellie lifts her eyebrows.
—She's in the bedroom having confession with the bishop.
—Oh, how was the service?
—It hasn't happened yet.
—Oh great, I say. I was so hoping I wouldn't miss anything.
Ellie looks skeptical. She has known me since I was three.
My cell phone rings: my brother, Felix, calling, safe in Vermont.
—How did it go?
—Still hasn't started. They seem to be running behind. You know Ma.
—Right. What's happening?
—I guess she's having an extra-long session in the bedroom with the bishop.
—In the bedroom ?! What are they doing in the bedroom?
—Oh. Good for Ma. She's got a lot of stuff to cover, so don't hold your breath.
There are bagels for after the service, which Olivia tells me conspiratorially are her calculated donation in the spirit of ecumenism. It seems the need for unity, respect, and cooperation between the various Christian faiths is what was being debated when I arrived. Orthodox Christians aren't big on cooperation. The one thing I actually have looked up is the definition of that suspicious qualifying adjective: orthodox. We've all heard of Orthodox Jews—they're the ones with all the dietary restrictions. What's an Orthodox Christian?
Orthodox means Traditional, according to an online thesaurus, which is not offensive. It also means Correct, and this is where they lose me. It's not sporting to name your religion Correct Christianity. Ellie, who is not without her own opinions, tells me she desperately needed a way to change the subject while they were all waiting for Ma to emerge from the bedroom, because things were advancing to a confrontational head. Perhaps this explains why she looks so glad to see me.
Between Ellie's ecumenism and Olivia's bagels, I'm feeling a reassuring sensation of solidarity. Behind them on the wall (flanked by two nineteenth-century Italian sconces—old family treasures) is a gilt-framed canvas I covet: a still life of tart green apples so immediate they make your teeth hurt, painted by Ma during a typically fraught visit with us in Los Angeles before the kids were born and we moved here to Philadelphia. Ma's art is a confusing comfort to me; it's so compelling, it almost makes up for everything. I check the pass-through kitchen to see what needs doing. It's pretty tidy, but I know enough not to open any cupboards or drawers (there is alive stuff in there, and it might escape).
This business about confession shouldn't surprise me. Felix was only partly serious, but still: What if this is some kind of test? I thought the tonsure ceremony was a done deal, but who knows? What's really going on in that bedroom? She could be facing herself so sincerely that the bishop (or maybe even Ma herself) might decide she's just not cut out for this nun idea after all. What's everybody going to do then? Eat the bagels and go home?
I peer down the hall, past Ma's gallery dominated by all of our Main Line patrician ancestors I can't ever get straight. They are partly to blame for this mess we're in now: pale, inbred, and inscrutable in lace and starched collars. I watch the closed bedroom door. I wait.CHAPTER 2
Backing up about nine months, to January 12, 2007, 9:30 p.m.
Ma is eighty-five. She's struggling with a stomachache. We've been on the phone a lot, especially tonight, which happens to be the night before my birthday.
—Yes. Hello, Doctor Maxwell.
My mother and her GP have been playing phone tag all week. She calls his office and offers unintelligible descriptions of her digestive affliction to the staff:
—Tell the doctor that there has been considerable difficulty with elimination, resulting in great distress in the undercarriage, if you please.
This is passed on to Maxwell, who doesn't seem to be grasping the urgency of the situation. I sense we are destined for a colon specialist of some kind, but I dread the process of choosing one. My mother has strict specifications, which she won't articulate. I have to guess.
Last month, she wanted a gynecologist. When I checked her HMO's approved list:
—How about John Mathews at Stone Mills Hospital?
—I won't go to one in Stone Mills; it has to be Abington and it has to be a woman.
—Okay, how about Alice Greenberg in Abington?
—Why? What do you know about her?
—I just know I don't want to see her.
—I don't want to see her, either.
—Ma. What's going on here?
—Nothing, I just don't—
—I've got one for you: Martha Sullivan. Nice Catholic-sounding name. That okay with you? Oh, never mind—someone named Ali Mohammed shares the office with her, we can't have that—
—Oh stop it. I have to be comfortable. This is my body and I have to feel all right about who I see.
This afternoon, I poked my nose in and called Maxwell's office myself. Maybe they've spoken to each other by now.
—Susan. Your mother has explained her symptoms to me, and I am deeply concerned.
Maxwell is my GP, too, and my husband's. This outburst is a little abrupt for him, which is alarming. Like most doctors for whom medicine is a calling as well as a career, he does his best to keep things human with a little personal talk before getting into the technical. When my mother is the subject, we usually have to first get through Susan Susan Susan. I want to make sure you're taking care of yourself. That woman is incredibly headstrong, so first I want to know about YOU.
Maxwell's as busy as any doctor, which makes it easy to excuse him for forgetting I've heard this lecture over and over. But tonight he cuts straight to the chase:
—Susan. She needs to go to the emergency room at Abington Hospital and be evaluated right away. Can you drive her there?
—Of course. (It would have been nice if they had spoken earlier in the week, when this could have been handled in a normal office instead of the frigging ER....)
—Susan. Did you know she has blood in her stool?
—This is very serious, Susan. Your mother may have a bowel obstruction. It could be a matter of Life and Death.
Ma sits erect on a bed in Abington's ER, managing somehow to look elegant in her hospital gown. People often say we resemble each other, which makes me uneasy and pleased at the same time. I wouldn't mind aging as gracefully as she has, with her limber, trim figure and flashy, close-cropped white hair. She's mostly been blessed with good physical health—I've only had to take her to an emergency room once, eleven years ago, when she slipped on some ice and broke a kneecap. We did spend a lot of time together in an ICU in Florida when my father was dying. Those two events aside, it occurs to me now that the only other time we've been in a room in a hospital together would have to have been forty-eight years ago almost to the day. The night I was born.
We've brought an overnight bag, and Ma's friend Bess has typed up a list of her medications and supplements. But the intake nurse, Jeffrey, wants to hear it from Ma.
—Do you have any allergies?
—Lots, says Ma.
—Like what? How about medications? Antibiotics?
—I am allergic to all antibiotics.
—How do you know? Did you take them all?
—No, I didn't have to. I took one or two and now I just know.
—Which one or two?
—I don't know.
—What doctor prescribed them?
—I don't remember; it was in Sarasota.
—What happened when you took them?
—I just felt—ah.
Ma gives a discreet little gasp, tilts her head, and looks pained.
I love my mother's description of her near-fatal brush with antibiotics. For years, I have been dreading the moment when some doctor tells her antibiotics are the only way to keep her alive and she refuses them because one time years ago in Florida, some drug nobody made a note of caused her to gasp a little and look pained. What if she is unconscious and they want me, with the Medical Power of Attorney, to approve the use of them? Do I allow it because I don't think her explanation has been valid enough, and possibly cause her accidental death? Or do I withhold them per her wishes, which could kill her for sure?
Which reminds me of Maxwell: a matter of Life and Death. And here we are.
—Where are you from? he asks.
—I'm from Philadelphia.
—No, I mean originally—your accent is British, right?
—This is the way I was brought up to speak, by my family and my school, Shipley.
Ma's people were Philadelphia WASPs. They all had nicknames like Gaga, Aunt Tiny, Cousins Buckety and Hebe Dick. Ma's mother was born where her family summered on the Isle of Wight: a few miles off the southern coast of England, conveniently and strategically within very close range of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's summer digs. That whole side of the family had faintly British accents going back many generations. My grandmother somehow managed to pass hers on to Ma and the rest of her children, despite the sketchy amount of time she actually lived with them. This mostly depended on how long my grandmother stayed married to their fathers and whether or not the courts deemed her fit to be left alone with her own children while she was carrying on with dwindled funds and whatever dashing but equally penniless new husband she had taken up with at the time.
Excerpted from The Habit by Susan Morse. Copyright © 2011 Susan Morse. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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