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My father insisted on paying for the flight, the limousine from the airport and whatever extras. He knew I would prefer to stay at my old friend Beth's place and not with him at the house, but I needed a car, so he offered my mother's. My dead mother's. Her flash, maroon 2011 model Ford Mondeo, the prize baby she loved so much. She used to marvel at how fast it moved from twenty to seventy coming onto the highway.
'It's so smooth, Jo, you don't even know you're moving,' she'd say. 'But watch out, those state police will get you for going over just five miles an hour, so best be on the safe side.'
I used to worry my mother would fall asleep at the wheel on interstate 90 on her long journeys to visit my uncle Tom, the priest, who lived in upstate New York near Albany. Not much skill needed to drive these things. Americans meander along happily on automatic pilot, cell phones, travelling coffee mug in hand, music blaring, their own private oasis until – wham. It only takes a second and it's over. No, that's not how she died. Lung cancer was the unsurprising culprit, but after Ma passed away Dad discovered she had taken out another life insurance policy that covered accidental car death. She was pretty thorough in planning for the future.
The route out north from Boston Logan Airport is as tedious as ever, in spite of the tempting mid-March clear sky that shakes and shimmers along the edges of the urban landscape. After passing a few local news billboards, flawless anchormen and women smirking with perfectly made up complexions that you want desperately to squeeze till there's nothing left, my driver moves farther away from Boston and onto route 60 where the shopping plaza strip soon begins.
Revere's International House of Pancakes is a stop I knew well during my high-school years, a popular hangout on Friday and Saturday nights after cruising the beach. The IHOP has survived in this same location for more than thirty-five years. I shouldn't be surprised at the longevity of such places around here. A few years ago, to my parents' great disappointment, the Hilltop Steakhouse restaurant up on Route 1, well-known for its gigantic cactus sign and several large plastic cows that hovered out front by the entrance, closed down after serving the community for over fifty years. Who needs fancy urban food innovation for lactose-intolerant and gluten-free snobs – that just translates into small portions – when you can rely on the old gas-generating favourites? After all, you're not getting value for money unless you're taking a doggy-bag home. Still. Fifty years. They had their time, just like Ma.
Still going strong, The Squire, a local strip joint that's had its fair share of shootings with drug deals gone wrong, looks cleaned up. The place sells itself as the 'Premier Gentlemen's Club,' but don't be fooled. You won't spot any gentlemanly-squire types around here.
By the time you hit the mini plazas, gas stations, Italian-American and Chinese restaurants, the all-day breakfast diner, Dunkin' Donuts and yet another Papa Gino's, you can be sure you'll never have to worry about starving. America. Land of the free and the home of the obese.
I can't claim the taxi ride from home in north London to Heathrow is much more exciting. But somehow the slog through the outskirts of that rain-sodden, grey capital doesn't generate the same aversion in me, that wave of nausea way down in the gut when I'm emerging out of Logan to the place I used to call home.
Match all this with the conversation I have with the oh-so-friendly Italian-American driver, Dino. His perfected, rocket-speed small talk with characteristic Bostonian whiny shortening and stretching of vowels would win him a gangster-film Oscar in a flash. If only he knew he possessed such talents. It appears Dino has become some kind of personal escort choice for my parents.
'Jimmy's old school, but that means he does things right. Yeah, your father, Jimmy,' he pauses, as if to contemplate the enormity of Jimmy O'Brien's transcendent qualities. 'He's good people,' he says, glancing at me in his rear-view mirror. 'I'm sorry to hear about your mother. She was a nice lady, she was.'
Dino picked me up a month ago, when my mother was dying, after Dave phoned to tell me about the hospice. 'You better get here soon,' he said with an urgency I hadn't heard until that point.
I rushed over on a flight the next day and saw her later that afternoon. My mother was sitting upright scanning a newspaper in the sun room of the renovated colonial mansion, now her hospice, and offered me a bright, toothy grin. For someone who was so close to the brink I thought she looked pretty good.
My visit lasted three weeks and while I was there she decided to postpone her death. My brother brightened up fast, said we should get together, catch up with a brother and sister night out. But Dave never brought up the subject again. Two days after I arrived he went away for the weekend away with a friend. A woman friend, I thought. Oh, that's strange, wasn't our ma just about to die when he called me, but I stopped myself from saying anything. Be kind.
'So you have a girlfriend now, that's nice.'
'No, no,' he said. 'She's just a friend ... a friend with benefits.' He belted out his trademark laugh, reminiscent of an excited seagull. 'You know that kind, right? They're the best, those friends with benefits. Right? Am I right?' And off he went to have his fun.
After my mother had pressed her doctor to tell her how long she had left, she had shopped around for the perfect surroundings where she could say her goodbyes. The website described it as 'a home away from home,' but I knew from first glance it was much grander than the old homestead. 'I really like the look of that bedroom fireplace,' she said in her email. 'And it has wifi.' She knew she couldn't die in the house where my brother and I grew up. 'Your father can't cope with all that,' she said on the phone, her voice fading. 'And the last thing I want is to be worrying about him.'
Dad complained about the long drive, the cost. 'Greedy sons of bitches. Making money from dying people.' He kept his visits to Ma's hospice short.
It took her longer to go than we all imagined. After my second week there, with each day that passed, it looked as though her body was getting more ready, beckoning her closer to that eternal light she sometimes talked about. Her eyes began to look glazed as if she was in a trance. Her mouth appeared frozen, cracking slowly when she tried to smile.
'I'm not afraid,' she told me. 'It's going to be beautiful when I'm up there with my maker. They're all waiting for me, you know. My parents. Sisters. My brothers.'
But something kept holding her back. I'm sure now the something must have been me.
I was the only visitor who saw her daily from morning till evening during that three-week stint. She felt bad, she said, about the inconvenience she was causing me, the busy academic with my important work.
'You know you don't have to stay so much. Aren't you bored? All this hanging around when I'm sleeping? I hope you brought some work with you.'
'Hey, Ma,' I said, leaning towards the bed from where I sat in the armchair. I noticed the red fleece blanket by her feet and started to unfold it. 'I'll decide for myself what's boring and what isn't.' I covered her feet and legs with the fleece. 'And I can tell you,' I continued, patting her arm, 'there's lots of times when I'd like to grab some rest and relaxation. Yup, I wouldn't mind a chance to just sit and do nothing.' I nodded a few times, pursed my lips and sighed. 'All comfy now.' I glanced up with a smile and caught her eyes for a few seconds before returning to smooth the blanket over her knees.
'Oh, Jo. I knew you'd come. You know I appreciate it, don't you?' she said, with moist eyes. 'I just want you to know that. You know that, right?'
I sensed that staying alive was an effort for her. There must be nothing worse than opening your eyes to another day, knowing it's going to be the same as yesterday; the pain, the disturbed sleep, the retching, more sleep, waking up again. She was on standby at the gate with her boarding pass and she was pretty pissed off with all the delays.
'My doctor said three months, max. Look at the calendar, Jo. Now it's four. I've had it. Enough already.'
The old man across the hall kept her awake day and night.
'Waitress? Waitress? Anyone? Can I have some service here? What kind of a place is this? Never coming back here again. Oh, please. Please! Why are you doing to this me? Can't any of you hear me? Hello?'
But one night the man stopped screaming, my mother said, and the next day he was gone.
There was a shouty nurse who would bounce into my mother's room, all chippy-chirpy, and call my mother hon or honey. 'Hiya, hon. Aren't you looking good today?'
In spite of my mother's irritation, she offered a polite response. 'You think? Maybe better than I feel, but thank you.
Must be all the weight I lost. Cancer's the only diet that ever worked for me. Hah, hah.'
And more laughing and singing and dancing from the nurse until Ma puked up her breakfast.
Dino the driver remembers me from that recent trip, but still runs through the same barrage of high-pitched questions. 'What you do for a living? You married? Kids? How long you staying? Did you sprain your ankle, sweetheart, is that why you got the cane?'
I remind him that I teach art history at a university in London. I lie in my efforts to keep it brief. I actually run this course called Critical and Contextual Studies in Art and Design. No one on the outside really gets it and I'm not in the mood to try to explain. I tell him again, yes, I'm married. No, I don't have kids. No, not even one.
'Oh,' he says in a consoling tone, and shuts up. He doesn't stop yapping for long. The sad fact about my mother's passing and any normal assumption that I may be a grieving daughter, not to mention jet-lagged, doesn't stop Dino.
When he mentions the cane I wonder whether I should retell the boring story of my failing body that's been taken over by MS. I've managed some feats in my lifetime that I never thought were possible for someone like me, but I can't seem to conquer this one. I tried to explain it to him the last time but regretted it after detailing the different types . But like others, he didn't know how to respond except to say, 'Hey, that's a real bummer.'
'Yeah, it's just a little ankle sprain,' I lie. 'Not too bad.'
His shrill rattle continues. 'And what'll you be doing for fun after all the family business? You're staying with a friend? What's her name? I got a good business you know, my cars are the best in Boston. I work too much, but I like the karaoke over in Chelsea. Does she like karaoke? Here's my card. That's me, Dino Palozzi.'
At a hundred dollars for a twenty-five minute airport trip he must be doing OK, but I'm pretty sure he's not Beth's type.
We reach my parents' house, a small two-bedroom 1950's house that would benefit from a good scrub-up. Some half-decent perennial flowerbeds and shrubs out front wouldn't go amiss either. My mother's Mondeo, recently washed and sparkling, waits for me in the driveway.
Dino takes out my suitcase and surprises me when he stretches his stumpy arms to offer a hug. While it feels a bit weird, his shoulders and back are soft and somehow this is comforting. He pulls back and hovers, a sign it's time to tip, even though my father told me his pre-payment included an extra ten dollars. I throw another ten at him as I don't have anything smaller.
He smiles and says, 'Take care of that ankle, sweetheart. Hey, let me know if your friend needs a ride to the karaoke.'
As he drives away I remind myself not to feel begrudged. Let it go, Jo. Let it go.CHAPTER 2
I find the keys to the house and the car, along with the sat nav, in the glove compartment of Ma's Mondeo as planned . I sit in the driver's seat and inhale the car. I wish Jon was here. I've never met anyone who's better at mastering exotic dinner recipes for two from nothing. He's the kind of guy who slaps on rubber gloves when washing dishes, always sets down the toilet seat, and even wipes the floor clean afterwards. And he still has a sex drive that I can't quite keep up with. If he didn't snore like a hog, expel dead-animal-scented farts, or spend his waking hours seeking physical activity in his efforts to avoid boredom, he might even pass as a picture of middle-aged male perfection. But hey, who am I to complain? My grandmother always told me if I could find a guy who kept a full-time job, didn't have a criminal record and wasn't a drunk, I'd be onto a winner. In the end I scored a senior social sciences' academic at an old London university, a prestigious Russell Group establishment, kind of the equivalent of the US Ivy Leagues.
As I'm trying to orient myself with the unfamiliar controls there's a hard knock on the window that jolts me. Dad's seventy-five-year-old mourner's eyes look tired, heavy bags underneath and half-moon circles with a twinge of deep purple in the creases. His black four-wheel-drive Ford pick-up is parked on the drive.
'I had to take a truck delivery for the day out to New Hampshire, but I'm back early,' he says. On his head sits that same Boston Red Sox cap he's always worn, sunshine or not, wiry-white sideburns creeping out near the ears. A toothpick dangles from the left corner of his mouth, his oral fixation since he quit smoking a decade ago. He likes to chew on it, move it around, feel it under his tongue. It makes him speak with a bit of a lisp, an observation he's always rejected.
'I talk just fine,' he used to shout when my mother teased him. 'How about worrying about your own business for a change and not me, huh?'
'Hi Dad, how are you?'
He nods. We exchange a few words about the car. I get out, he takes a step back, no hug offered. Still, I remind myself to be forgiving. Must remember to be a better person today.
I follow him inside the house to use the bathroom and get a drink of water. I notice straightaway the usual build-up of dust on the floor in the corner, on the two-tier bookcase filled with my mother's old nursing magazines and crime novels, a newer pleasure of my father's. Layers also cover the coffee table, the television, the top ledges of the crowded photos that sit on a table next to the TV. After I urged my mother several months back to find a cleaner to help she reported a big improvement, but since her final exit Dad has got rid of her. He doesn't trust anyone in his house, claims he can manage himself.
The perennial smell of cigarettes pervades the place. Some of it may never go away. My mother exhaled her way into the porous walls that had no choice but to absorb her. Maybe Dad, even as a non-smoking toothpick-sucker prefers it this way. It's a means of holding on to her. He's already decided not to take her voice off the answering machine, a rare decision that I agree with. Since she died I've sometimes called when I know he won't be home just to hear her. Hello, you've reached Jimmy and Terry. We can't come to the phone right now but if you leave a message we'll get back to you as soon as we can. Have a nice day.
Dad mumbles through a list of things he wants me to do. Go through Ma's clothes, shoes, do things he has no time or patience for. Cancel credit cards she didn't tell him about, call her more distant friends and relatives who don't know about her passing.
When there's a pause, I say, 'OK, Dad. Don't worry. It'll all get done. Why don't you tell me how you're doing with all this? How are you coping?'
'Fine. I'm fine,' he says quickly. He takes off his cap, checks the inside, gives it a shake, checks again. Gazing into the cap again, he says, 'Did all the crying. Got it out of my system. It's done. She was dying for a long time. So. That's that. Nothing more to say.' There's a long silence, his eyes still lowered. 'Oh, before I forget,' he says, suddenly, 'I want to show you where I keep our will. So you and your brother know where it is in case something happens to me. I'm the one and only executor, remember.'
He leads me to their bedroom. My eyes are drawn to the warped venetian blinds that cover the two small windows. They are kept closed, but the beams of light creeping through the top and sides with their surrounding dust motes emit a strangely pleasing halo, even after Dad has turned on the light. My mother's bedside table is clear, empty of life, while dad's reveals his ongoing attempts to keep afloat. A pill dispenser box and several orange bottles of prescription meds cover the surface, note pad scribbles indicate his pill schedules. A large digital clock, keeping Dad on time, casts a white glow over them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How We Remember"
Copyright © 2018 J.M. Monaco.
Excerpted by permission of Red Door Publishing Ltd.
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