Read an Excerpt
On certain autumn days in New York City, the light seems to come from every direction. Maybe it's because there is so much glass, so many reflections and so many ways a beam can be fractured and redirected, but by the time sunlight reaches street level, it can appear even brighter than the sky. There are moments, particularly at midday, when people and objects take on a peculiar, almost hallucinatory clarity, and those days have a way of fixing their events in our memories with remarkable, almost excruciating detail.
With no effort at all, I can recall a day like that from four years ago. A friend and I were walking back from lunch, heading east on 57th Street. Just as we came abreast of an apartment building halfway down the block between 8th and 9th Avenues, a frail old woman emerged from the building, tottered toward the curb and collapsed at our feet. The doorman who had been holding the door for her saw it happen and rushed to her side, yelling over his shoulder for someone to call an ambulance. A nurse ran out from a doctor's office on the ground floor of the apartment building. In less than a minute, the crisis was under control. It was one of those small, miraculous moments when, for once, everything goes exactly right. So, with nothing left for us to do but gawk, I drew my friend away, and we walked on, talking about what we had just witnessed. Then, half a block down the sidewalk, I stopped at the window of an optician's shop and pointed out some sunglasses I liked. After a moment or two, she moved away, muttering that she really wasn't in the mood to look at sunglasses. Hearing that, I felt immediately ashamed and apologized for my callousness. My friend assured me that it wasn't callous, and we dropped the subject and turned in at our building. But I could not stop thinking about what had happened. Though not nearly as kind as my friend, whose first impulse was to climb into the ambulance and ride with the woman to the hospital, I, too, had been concerned about that old woman. And then, unconsciously, I had turned that feeling off as quickly and absently as you would turn off the tap. Back at my desk, going over and over the episode, I tried to fathom how I could stare at someone so helpless and in need one minute and window shop for sunglasses a minute or two later. It took me the better part of the afternoon to figure it out-and even before it came clear, I saw that some part of me did not want to understand it-and by mentally tracing my steps back to that disturbing scene on the sidewalk, and forcing myself to look down again, I saw at last what had so frightened me. It was my mother.
Reconstructing the moment in which the woman fell and then lay there on the concrete, small and pale in that ginlike autumn light, I broke open a door kept locked since my mother died, a door behind which hid every image of her steady decline into helplessness and senility and finally death. I saw a woman who for the last year of her life had come unmoored in time, a woman for whom the past now formed only a continuous present: one moment she was a child in a tiny South Carolina mill town, then a middle-aged single mother in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, then a happy single schoolteacher just out of college and dancing in the moonlight on the beach in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. In her mind, it was all the same, compassless and clockless. When she slept, her face was like a dozing child's, blank and slack, but sometimes, even in sleep, some emotion, faint as breath, would ripple across the surface, light and quick, like a little breeze across a glassy lake. Most wretched were the infrequent moments when she did break through the fog, when you could catch, behind the doll's-eye blankness of her gaze, some brief kindling of terrified awareness signaling that she knew where she was and what was happening. A month before she died, she woke up in the hospital and realized that her leg had been amputated. "Oh God," she cried, "please let me die. Don't take me a piece at a time." And it wasn't just her helplessness I saw but my own as well: all those moments staring down into a bed-beds in the nursing home where she lived out the last years of her life, or beds in the hospital where she would be taken occasionally, each time returning a little more disoriented. I remembered standing beside her, listening to her talk and trying to decide from moment to moment who she thought I was-her father, her husband, her son? Faced with the fact that the one person who had known me longer-and yes, adored me more-than anyone else now no longer knew who I was, I felt almost as lost as she was. Being with her eased the sadness. The worst times came when, driven by some kind of perverse optimism, I picked up the phone in New York and called her room in the infirmary in Winston-Salem and then sat there gripping the receiver, willing her to answer-the phone was right there within easy reach of the bed she never left. Sometimes I let it ring for a minute, and a minute can seem like a long time when no one is taking your call. I felt like a man trying to drill through a rock with a feather. As long as she was alive, I never had the phone disconnected, but she never picked it up again.
I can't say what surprised me more: the vividness of those memories or the unconscious ruthlessness with which I had buried them. Until the moment when that woman collapsed on the sidewalk, I would have said "banished," not "buried." But now I understood that those memories had never gone away. They had been there all along, waiting for the right moment to erupt.
When my mother died, I was not sad, only relieved. She would suffer no longer, and neither would I. There would be no more emergency plane trips for me when she went to the hospital, no more making decisions for her and hoping I was choosing wisely. There would be no more bills to pay or doctors to interrogate. I felt little guilt. But there was doubt. When my mother's considerate friends assured me that I had done all I could for her, I believed them, because I wanted to agree with them, and because "all I could do" was not necessarily the same thing as "all that could be done."
It sounds fanciful to say that after that afternoon I allowed my mother back into my life. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I acknowledged that I could no longer keep her out. I had been trying to do that for my whole adult life, without much success. When I was a child—her only child—we were inseparable. After that, I retreated, while she laid siege to my defenses in a battle that continued until she died. Each of us tried, at various times and in very different ways, to bridge the gap that lay between us. My mother wanted her little boy back. I wanted her to see me as I saw myself, not as the idealized child she had lost. Until she died, I nursed the hope that things could be better between us, and I believe she did, too. But both of us were stubborn. We each wanted the reconciliation on our terms, and neither of us gave an inch.
When my father died, six years before my mother, the ground felt like sponge beneath my feet for a few months, and then things righted themselves. My parents had divorced when I was twelve, and after that, my father and I rarely saw each other. We loved each other, but we were never close. When my mother died, it was as though a planet had suddenly been removed from the solar system, and not some marginal, Pluto-like dwarf planet but one as big as Jupiter or Saturn. It threw my whole life off balance, not for just a few months but forever. Even now, I find it hard to admit how much of my life was defined by her, how I lived-no matter how far away I got-with respect to her, and how much remained unchanged even after she was gone. Nothing about her dying surprised me much. It's how fiercely she stayed alive after she was dead that caught me unaware.
When I was five, my uncle took me to a marionette show. At first I did not want to go, because it meant missing a morning of kindergarten, but also because the show was in the elementary school across the street, and as an only child who spent most of my time alone, I was vaguely frightened at the thought of sitting with a lot of big kids I didn't know. But Uncle Tom explained that we would go together, and that was fine. I was used to going places with my uncle, a Presbyterian minister. Several times a week—and sometimes almost every day, now that he was picking me up at noon from the kindergarten at the First Presbyterian Church downtown—I accompanied him on his errands to the hospital, the newspaper, and sometimes to people's houses for what I learned were called pastoral visits. I liked it when things had special names that not everyone knew.
The big brick elementary school-built between the two world wars, when the architecture of schools was still as stolidly handsome as that of banks or post offices-sat across Patterson Avenue from my uncle's church and the manse where my aunt and uncle lived. (Manse was another one of those secret words I liked, but it was troublesome, too, because no one else I knew had any idea what I was talking about except the grown-ups in my family, and with them I just felt foolish if I asked, "Are we going back to the manse now?") Every afternoon I would stand in the yard and watch the big kids as they came out of school to walk home. I never beheld the broad, brick two-story building without feeling both eagerness and trepidation in equal measure. Then and for a long time thereafter, hope and fear were the two guiding polestars in my life. On the one hand, I was an incorrigible optimist. I had no reasons for this, never figured out where this notion that things were bound to get better came from, but nothing could extinguish it. At the same time, I spent a good part of every day being terrified of something-anything from mayonnaise in sandwiches to batting against the older kids in backyard baseball games. I was like the boy who confronts a roomful of manure and becomes convinced that somewhere in that room is a pony. It was just that I was equally convinced the pony would eat me.
Now that I had actually set foot inside the school for the first time, there was not even a second to savor the experience because we were caught in what seemed to me a fierce and endless current of children all bigger than I was, all pulling, tugging and jostling and none in the same direction. Without even having to think about it, I clung to my uncle's hand and hugged his side. But instead of moving forward, Uncle Tom stopped and began talking to another man whom he introduced as the principal, a tall, thin man with thick black hair covering the backs of his hands. My mother had a principal at the school where she taught, too. Lately she had been insisting that it was the polite thing to do to engage people I met for the first time in conversation, and I was going to ask this principal if he was "picky" like the one at Mother's school, but before I could say anything, we were shown to two seats in the auditorium that had been saved for us.
Tall windows ran the length of the long walls on either side of the auditorium, but the drapes had been drawn over the windows, turning it gloomy inside the room that was, I noticed, even taller than the sanctuary in my uncle's church. Unlike the church sanctuary, which had a hush about it even when it was filled with the congregation on Sunday morning, the school auditorium was noisy with the sound of the other children laughing and talking as they were herded by their teachers, one row at a time, into their seats. I decided that this was not like church but more like the movie theaters downtown where I had been taken to see Bambi and Snow White and The Ten Commandments. Only this was a lot noisier. I wondered if this was like the Kiddie Show. (The Kiddie Show was held every Saturday at the Carolina Theater downtown, and it lasted all morning. Disc jockeys from radio stations that no one in my family ever listened to or even acknowledged existed played host to games and old movie serials and cartoons, and served all the drinks and popcorn you could swallow before the main feature, which, my friend Sam told me, was usually a Hercules movie. Sam's mother offered to take me once, but when Mother found out that there would be no adult chaperones in the theater during the show, she refused to let me go along.) Then the lights went out in the auditorium, except for the lights that played against the curtain across the stage. The principal came out and started talking. I was not listening. My attention was drawn to a smaller rectangle within the larger rectangle formed by the stage proscenium. The curtains on the stage came up to each side of this smaller box, which I recognized as a smaller stage with its own curtains. I had never seen anything like this, and I leaned over to ask my uncle what it was all about, but he just squeezed my hand tight and pursed his lips. He was smiling, so I knew it was all right. Then the principal was gone and the room went dark.