The phone shouldn't ring this early. When I answer, my aunt Irene rushes into the news. "Your mother's been in an accident. She's been in surgery all night. She's probably going to die."
This can't be true, of course. I'm waiting for the story. Irene will laugh her exasperated laugh and say my mother used to date the surgeon. Or she's already secured a better hospital room. But Irene says my mother's in a coma, and when she finishes that sentence, I stop moving around the kitchen and sit. She usually calls her sister Daphne, but she keeps saying "your mother." My mother had a head-on collision after a dinner party. I want to ask if she was sober. Irene probably asked the same question of the person who called to tell her.
"The police have a record this time," she says. "The hospital has a chart."
The adrenaline of true emergency goes through me, and I draw a blank. I keep thinking, "My mother had an accident," but the thought has nowhere to settle and stick.
"Susy?" my aunt says. She's worried for me.
If I speak, I'll say, "Do I have to go?" So I mustn't open my mouth. I try to think what other people say in this situation.
I'm afraid my mother will die. I'm afraid she won't.
In a house in Montana thousands of miles from my mother, I am thirty-seven, leading an unremarkable life. My mother lives in Barbados, where she stayed after her third husband died. I've never seen her house. She plays tennis and has houseguests, I hear, but we don't speak. Instead, I concentrate on the organic granola my two boys like, the seascape mural I'm about to paint on their bedroom wall. I preside over their school board and review movies for the paper. I send the photos of Halloween costumes and birthday parties to my father and stepmother. Last night, like most nights, my husband and I read books to each of the boys, crossing back and forth between their beds with kisses for them and patient hugs for their stuffed animals. This morning my husband will pack the lunch for our six-year-old, and I'll play with the two-year-old until his nap. We've just purchased this hundred-year-old house. On moving day I realized we would never invite my mother to see it. We live in sunny rooms messy with socks and books, a bathroom scattered with tub toys that are always drying, never dry. Christopher and I wonder before sleep at our boys' happiness and their invisible trust. Sometimes I'm jealous of them.
Over the years my aunt Irene and I have wearied together of the stories that start "Guess what Daphne did?" I tell a couple of them myself, rarely now but sometimes at a dinner party. My mother gave me cocaine! You wouldn't believe what she said to my new boyfriend! She had an affair with a mobster! These aren't stories I tell my children.
The boys' voices topple down the stairs before they come into the kitchen. I'll need to hang up when they start to tug at me with their small demands. Irene says my grandmother, also in Barbados, has not gone yet to the hospital. "She's hopeless. A complete wreck." I should ask for the hospital's number but say, "Let's talk later," and hang up the phone. I tell Christopher enough to give him a sense of the news and go to another room to call my sister. What she knows will be different from our aunt's story. This is how we move forward in my family, calling one another in almost every configuration five people can make. One woman gets a call, puts down the phone, picks it up again, repeats the story, hears another version. We fold in the new details that are not yet our own and patch together pieces until a certain sense emerges. My younger sister and I have an uneasy truce on the subject of our mother. We don't want to fight, so we don't mention her.
When Penelope answers she sounds like she's drowning. "Oh, sweetie," I say until she can stop sobbing and tell me what she's heard. Newly married, lucky with fun jobs that flame out fast, Penelope lives in the New York apartment where we grew up, subletting from our mother. She doesn't seem to mind being buoyed by the swells of Daphne's manic behavior. When our mother comes to the city, Penelope gives her pink sheets in the room that used to be ours and carries the paper in to her in the mornings.
Penelope's report matches Irene's.
"I've got the first flight out in the morning. What about you," she says, inflection absent.
"I've got to figure out the kids," I say. I'll call her back.
Christopher's mother could stay with the boys. He says, "Just let me know what you need, I'll do it." I'll need him to come with me, but what else? What else do I need? I go on-line, look into fares. All the flights are full, the cost enormous. "I'm not sure I can do anything," my travel agent warns. I'm off the hook, relieved, but there's also the part of me that longs for my mother in moments like these, her gall and grandeur. In the airports of my childhood she'd say, "Girls, you sit down over there," and she'd straighten her fitted suede jacket, align the silk scarf at her throat and ease her way to the front of the first-class line for an overbooked flight. "Don't worry," I'd tell Penelope, holding her hand. "She'll get us on." I could pick out our mother's laugh above the other voices, then her confidential murmur as she made a gift of her attention to the clerk behind the counter. People, men especially, liked doing things she wanted, couldn't help themselves. She made them feel they'd be important to her. Her well-cut hair flowed past her shoulders, and she lined her eyes with kohl. She had elegant arched eyebrows. She wore platform heels, even with her bad back, and sheer blouses fastened in a V between her breasts. Sometimes people thought she was our babysitter, a sophisticated, pretty teenager. She'd brandish her knockout smile and say, "No, I'm the mummy." She knew wit made her sharp features softer, and she was funny, agile with an anecdote or a naughty observation. When she beckoned we got up and went over, and the clerk would say, "I'm sorry about your grandmother" or "I hope your daddy will be okay." We knew to fall into the act long enough to make it to those first-class seats.
When we went out together, my mother made us the stars and the champions. She tossed off rapid, irreverent remarks, urged indulgence out of the most recalcitrant of salesgirls, seduced the most unhaveable of men. She spent money with fuck-you abandon. To walk into a deli with her and order a sandwich was a particular commitment, a willingness to let her own the day.
I've lived apart from my mother since I left for boarding school at fourteen. I called home often then, pressing her voice to my ear, our mutual interest insatiable. She called me from restaurant cloakrooms and lovers' beds, ready to start new rumors. She called from hospitals after back surgery. She phoned from airports, dinner parties and the lobbies of movie theaters in which she stood weeping over a love story. She needed me, she said, to calm her down.
Her sexual allure extended from bartenders and cabdrivers to rock stars, football heroes and anchormen. "He calls me whenever he's in town," she told me of an actor whose name was bigger than any movie he'd starred in. I was eleven, precocious with contempt, and said, "That's too much, I don't believe you." She had him call me that afternoon from his hotel suite while she was there. "Your mother says you don't believe her, Susy." It was obviously him, his famous seduction in each slow syllable. "Susy? You should always believe your mother." I had to admit that now I believed her.
One night the following year, touring boarding schools, we took a Cosmo quiz together. We traded the magazine between the motel beds, circling multiple-choice answers on pleasure and technique. She used a pen and I used a pencil so we could tell our answers apart. As I tallied our scores she was restless, up and down, over to the dresser where she had cocaine set out. That admissions guy was cute, didn't I think? She wiped at her gums in the mirror.
"This is weird," I said, nervous. I tried to ignore the tiny smug feeling.
"How'd I do?" She bounced onto her bed.
It was there in the numbers. Her score meant she was a "Shrinking Violet," but I'd aced the test. The magazine called me -- the eighth-grader, desperate for a first French kiss -- "High-Powered Lover."
"I guessed," I said.
"Miss Know-Everything," she said and shut the bathroom door on me. I wanted to erase the pencil marks and give her my answers. I knew she seduced movie stars, even if Cosmo didn't believe her.
While I was pregnant with my first child a friend told me, "Having the baby brought me and my mother a lot closer together. You'll see." This made me uneasy, not just because I was dubious about that intimacy, its conditions; I couldn't explain to my friend that my relationship with my mother had never adhered to predictable guidelines, social models. I didn't have a language for the tangle of being with her. In the insomniac hours near my due date, I phoned Daphne a lot. It was true, pregnancy gave me permission to accept her attention, and we could make each other laugh so easily if I let go. She'd repeat the adventures of young marriage, of having me at nineteen, and I listened with new interest. She seemed to remember everything and told on herself so well. I'd quiet my laugh in the living room, away from my sleeping husband.
After Daniel was born, though, I began to inch off further. I needed my energy for my child. My mother hadn't given me a useful example, although she insisted she had. "I know I fucked up quite a lot," she'd say, merry. "But you always knew you were loved. You always felt loved."
I didn't want her around the baby, couldn't imagine leaving him in a room with her, and she knew it although we didn't mention it, real hurt on both sides, real loss. I just stopped inviting her, and I scheduled my visits to New York between hers. For a few calm years I only talked to her now and then. It seemed like that would work. At the birthday parties of friends' babies I watched grandparents help with the candles or the camera. I went into the bathroom and cried, jealous and ripped off. Why didn't we get to have that? At the time my answer, my comfort, was that no one was responsible for the rupture but stubborn me.
The morning I delivered my second son I called her from the hospital bed. We still shared the rare news in brief, formal calls. Daniel was four then, wearing the baseball caps she would send him. She sent more presents for the baby. Then she got cancer.
My sister called to tell me, weeping. "And it's such a painful kind," she said. "Oh, God."
"What stage is it in?" This was a question you asked about cancer.
"I don't know," she said.
I thought of my boys, whether I'd made a mistake keeping their grandmother from them, how there'd be no chance unless I hurried. After Penelope hung up, I called Barbados. Daphne answered quickly. I told her what Penelope had said.
"I've already started treatment," my mother said. "I'll probably have to leave the island to get better care."
"Is Penelope going to come down? Should I come?"
"It's too far," she said. "You have a newborn." She was vague on the progress of the disease and wouldn't let me talk to her doctor. "He's been absolutely wonderful, though," and in a faultless Bajan accent she gave me a few details about him.
We started flirting.
"Tell me about Jack. Has he smiled yet?"
I wanted to tell her. His noises, the way he watched his brother.
"And his little tiny toes?" she said, as I knew she would. "Are they tiny and perfect? Oh, toes!"
Even though this talk sort of revolted me, it was our way, a sumptuous code. As I held the baby, I wanted it obvious I understood that cancer took priority. And I wanted to share other news, too, sort through all our gossip together.
She said she was dying but brightened. "At least it's brought us back together."
"Yes," I said, careful, feeling an ominous weight. I had dropped my grievances too fast, drunk on the old intimacy.
"I'm glad we're back, darling," she said.
She called many times then, called lonely and looking for reassurance, called wistful and tired and sweet and sad. I took the calls, though I had to manage them amid breast-pump instructions and Daniel's meltdowns and supper prepared one-handed. In a quick few days this was too much.
"Can I call you back?" I said one morning, the baby at me, my sleepless temper frayed.
"You probably won't hear from me for a while," she said. "I'll be incommunicado during chemo."
She was suddenly better. She was cured. She didn't want to talk about any of it. She felt good now, she said. Could she visit, see the baby? My sister and I matched up our pieces of her recovery. We were used to checking with each other (" -- and please don't tell your sister"), fitting together a complete story from the fragments she discarded. But we couldn't get these details to align. The discrepancies were too great, and we didn't want to notice this together. Then a family friend told me Daphne hadn't been "incommunicado" for six weeks of radiation. She'd been at a spa in France or at a diet clinic. There was no doctor. It was an invented doctor.
Usually I ignored the discovered lies until they mattered to me less. But that day I phoned.
"So you didn't have cancer." I made sure we both understood the topic.
"I can hardly move," she said. Her voice perked up. "How's the baby and his tiny perfect toes?"
"Can we talk about you?"
She sighed and referred to the emergency room. "I was in agony. It could have been cancer."
"I need to have a relationship with you in which you don't lie to me."
"What?" She slapped the word. "Don't you lie? Haven't you ever lied? How dare you?"
"Mum, you lied to us about having cancer. About dying." I would slow this down, go carefully. I didn't know how my sister had handled it, her reaction. "Lying makes farce between two people. It makes me stupid, and we can't have a real relationship if I -- "
She pounced. "You're being melodramatic. And you can cut the formality with me, miss. You sound like your father."
I had expected an assault, then my habitual resolute surrender; it was easier to let her say what she wanted. In a few months or weeks, she'd be telling the man beside her on an airplane about the nausea of chemotherapy and the doom of medical bills. She told things compulsively until she believed herself. By next year she would be a real cacer survivor, and I wouldn't be able to recall why the episode confused me. I'd be the daughter of a cancer survivor. In the kitchen Daniel played at the table as Christopher unloaded the dishwasher. While my mother listed her accusations, I could hear my son's placid chirping and the radio turned low, a habit ingrained by years of napping babies. My mother, entrenched in her fictions, wasn't real life anymore. I thought: This is our last conversation.
Now my aunt says she's really going to die. My sister says she's going to die. After those calls, I cancel things. Around me, friends gather close, the network of concern immediate and effective. Someone drops off food and takes the boys to school. My Montana friends haven't heard much of Daphne, her absence in my life so thoroughly settled. This morning I have to say, "My mother's been in a bad accident." Because it's her it doesn't sound like the truth. "She's in a coma," I'm telling them, and resent the soap opera.
"I'm so sorry. How awful. When will you go?" They assume that I'll leave quickly, that a daughter far away wouldn't stand around wondering about anything.
I go to bed and wake the next day, still not knowing whether to stay or go. My mother-in-law arrives. When the travel agent calls with a hard-won itinerary, I jot down notes about the connections. "Let me check with Christopher," I tell her. My mother-in-law sits me at the kitchen table and starts a list. Passport, sunscreen, a hat. She is grave but untroubled: disaster has its own rules, you just go. She pats the top of my hand and says, "You have to do it. It's not a choice." She's almost happy for me. I feel strengthened by this woman's moral compass, her certainty and sense of duty, and I leave the table to check the closet for my carry-on, then pick up the phone to confirm the flights.
"It's not a choice," I tell Christopher later. I'll believe it tomorrow on the plane. Today I'm relieved to have instructions.
"Why isn't it a choice?" he asks.
"Because she's my mother." I've started to stack folded clothes on the bed. I wonder if I should pack a bathing suit. "She couldn't help it this time. I have to go."
He gives me a tender look. For nine years he has watched me try to get the stories straight, or try to rebuild in the wake of her devastations and reversals. He knows the energy I've lost, the order I attempted to restore after each incoherent phone message, seething letter or abrupt departure. I tried to make each time the fresh start.
"You don't have to. You still can make a choice," he says. "It'll be hard, but you have the right to do that. You have a right."
I don't want the right. Of course I should go. Of course it'll be hard. Irene is going, my grandmother's there. My sister is waiting for me to arrive in a taxi from the airport. She's been on the island for two days already, grappling alone with news of nothing, while I, surrounded by my husband, my sons, my friends, have waited for paralysis to wear off.
This is the moment in the story when the facts converge: the estranged daughter, the threat of death and the one last chance. All the tellings should coalesce into a mutual truth. I overcame trepidation and did the right thing, my mother woke from her coma erased of her vulgar impulses and unable to lie, and my children admired my generosity and forbearance. Tragedy transformed us.
But that's not me. In my story I do not go. No one in the family disputes that.
I'm alone at the kitchen table, and I call my sister in Barbados, embarrassed I'm still at home. Right away she starts reporting. After three surgeries in thirty-six hours, the doctors are coping with our mother's shattered shins and pelvis. Her front teeth are gone; her organs won't reveal their damage for a few days. The details stagger me. Penelope knows too much and too little. Where's the relief of the con unveiled, the act resolved? But there's only my sister in dry tears and our mother, who won't wake up.
"Penelope." I stop her. For two days I've tasted nothing but contradiction. Should, can't, will, mustn't. I look around -- coffee at the bottom of the French press, the balled-up sweat jackets on the floor by the back door, the dog's empty water dish. I fix the vision of us in my mother's hospital room, and I become a character who hardly matters, picked clean, used well. "I love you more than anything," my mother used to whisper, italics in every word, pinning herself against me in an embrace. My sister needs her sister; we both do. I imagine being on the flight, and I can't breathe. To go I'll have to shut myself down, put myself away. I've done it before.
I inhale exhale choose --
"I'm not coming."
I'm a person who isn't going to her mother's deathbed. What will people think of me? I'm so distracted by relief, by the surprise of what I've given myself, that I forget my sister for a second.
"Is it money?" Penelope says.
"Yes. Well, no." I don't blame her for the focus on practicality. She doesn't see what I see, and I can't infuse her with my history. My sister, having lived the same years in the same rooms, lived them differently. She thinks I don't love our mother. I've never told her that at thirty-seven, sick with flu or after too much wine with a rich dinner, I kneel in the bathroom, heaving into the toilet, and that's where I wish for my mother. When I needed to throw up, Mummy came and sat on the edge of the tub. She put her arm around my shoulders and swept hair off my forehead. I was afraid, but she made it safe. She kept my nightgown out of the way, and I retched. She soothed me and said, "Almost done." When I throw up now, waiting for the next heave, I want her to lift the toilet seat for me, wipe my mouth, steady me against my own contractions. That's when I had her.
"I can't go to her anymore."
"You think this is about you?" Her voice is cold and so tired. She takes a breath. "Have you thought about how you'll feel if you don't say good-bye?"
"I can't go."
"You're not coming?"
"I love you," I say, and I'm the one who's crying. I mean these three words, the whole "I," the fervent intricacies of love, the scope of Penelope. I don't want to lose my sister, but I must wrap my arms around myself. With my mother I had nothing left to lose, the last of a daughter scattered as ashy silt, the orphan collapse. "I have to stay here," I say. "I have to, and I love you. You believe me?" But she's not listening anymore.
I'm not going. The words are out, and they make it true.
Copyright © 2008 by Susanna Sonnenberg