James Stafford talks about the last conversations.
I am with my mother. She is at the tail end of a neurological disorder with a ten year life expectancy. By her own accounting the first symptoms appeared in 2003. She was diagnosed in 2008 but didn’t tell me until 2011. “Why did you wait so long?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to worry you.” I understand that. It’s the same reason I’ve never told her about my various batshit lunacy.
Her disease slows her speech, thought, and body. Everything is difficult, like living life in that twilight state between sleep and waking: trying to run but your body won’t move; trying to scream but the sound won’t come. I talk to her about her health, and then I ask, “Do you get tired of talking about your health?”
“Yes,” she says.
“It seems like when someone is sick everything is viewed through the lens of the illness. Bob becomes Cancer Bob,” I say. “Where should we go for lunch? Will that be okay? Bob has cancer,’ that sort of thing.”
“Yes,” she says.
“Have people been treating you differently?”
The words come slow and thick: “They treat me as less than me,” she says. I change the subject to everyday things. We watch my kids cutting up in the hotel pool, trying to crack her up. She does, but her melodic laugh now is twisted by the disease into a loud wail, her face contorted. “It hurts to laugh,” she says, but she enjoys it.
Back in my hotel room we have a moment alone, seated face to face because she can barely turn her head. A hug now means she buries her face straight into my chest. She can’t tip her head upward at all.
“I wanted to see my grandkids because I’m dying,” she says.
“I know, Mom.”
“I think I’ll be gone by Christmas.”
“That’s what you said last Christmas, and it is August now.”
“I think I had the wrong Christmas,” she says.
I wonder how often she’s announced her deadline only to have it dismissed. How often do people tell her that she’s looking better or wave off any talk of the elephant in the room? I wonder if she has anyone to talk to. “Are you ready?” I ask her.
“Yes. I think I have it all figured out. I had a dream where I saw my cousin and then Johnny Cash sang ‘Ponderosa’ to me. I called my sister when I woke up and she told me that Juanita was gone and I know that Johnny Cash is dead. I didn’t know the words to ‘Ponderosa’ but when I woke up I knew them.”
“Sounds like you had a visit.”
“Yes. Dad doesn’t believe it, though.”
“It doesn’t matter whether he believes it,” I say, and she smiles. “Are you scared?”
“Because I don’t think I was good enough.”
“Yes,” she says, and she begins crying.
“Of course you are.”
“No. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t go to church enough.”
“Jesus didn’t say anything about attendance,” I say.
“I don’t know what Jesus said.”
“Sure you do. We both do. We’ve read the Gospels. He said to love each other, be kind, take care of those who need it. Church is a building, but what’s important is faith.” I feel like the wrong person for this conversation. I lost my religion 35 years ago.
“He said ‘No one comes to the Father but through Me,” she says.
“That’s right, and you’ve lived by His example. That’s what matters. If you can’t get into Heaven no one can.”
“I hope so.”
“I know so,” I tell her. “Are you in pain?”
I try to talk but my throat closes. I’m a 46-year-old man, a father, a son, the guy in the room representing the Holy Ghost, and I can’t hold it together anymore. Between heaving sobs I say, “I know it isn’t about me, but we all want to be selfish and have you as long as we can. I just want you to know that you don’t have to stay for us. When you’re ready I’m ready.”
“Okay,” she says, and I’m bawling on my mother’s shoulder repeating “I don’t want you to be in pain.” I pull it together and I tell her that I wish that there was something I could do. “Just be yourself,” she says.
“I’m trying, Ma. I’m not always successful, but I’m trying.” I file her words away as permission to write this, to write anything. My mother wants me to be myself, and I am a writer. It’s a self-serving interpretation, but that’s me, too.
The rest of the visit is pleasant enough. I learn how to help her stand, walk, and sit, and the kids focus on making her laugh. My daughter teaches her what little sign language she knows, shows her how the letters that spell her name also make the sign for “I love you.” The more we visit, the less important her illness becomes. Once you shake hands with the elephant it’s just another guest in the room.
We take her to an antique store where she picks out ceramic houses for her Christmas village. It once fit atop the television, now it takes the entire dining room table. Back at her house she points out where all of her Christmas decorations belong: “The angels go back there, and the nativity goes on this shelf. I need to figure out where to put all my bird ornaments when the tree is up so that I can see them all,” she says.
“You sure have a lot of Christmas stuff. Why do you think that you like Christmas so much?”
“I don’t know. Because it’s the only time my father paid attention to me, I guess. I was invisible.”
“Oh, I’m sure he loved you.”
“I was a middle child. I was…invisible.”
“I don’t think it was just you. Grandpa was a selfish man,” I say.
“Yes, he thought a lot of himself.”
“Why do you think he was like that?”
“Because his father was so mean to him.”
“I guess the trick is to try to make it a little better every generation,” I say. “Hopefully he was a little better to you than his father was to him, and hopefully I’ll be a little better to my kids and they’ll be a little better to their kids and on and on.”
“You have good kids,” she says.
“Thank you. I keep waiting for them to hate me, but they haven’t yet. I’m beginning to think that isn’t going to happen.”
“That’s because you’re a good father.”
She’s crying again. “I don’t know why people say I’m so good. I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. I know you would’ve been more generous with money if you could have, but you are so generous in spirit. You don’t have conversations to win, you have them to listen. It’s never about winning with you but about being. I have a good vocabulary thanks to all of those years where you sat quietly drinking tea while I combed through the dictionary looking for a Scrabble word. And I also learned that playing games wasn’t about winning but about spending time with people. You’re good because you make everyone else better.”
“I understand now,” she says.
“Do you think you aren’t good because you have angry thoughts?”
“Everybody has angry thoughts. The difference is you don’t act on them.”
“Sure. Even Jesus had angry thoughts. If the paragon of humanity dealt with angry thoughts, doesn’t that mean that it’s okay that you have some, too?”
“That’s right, He did.” She’s smiling again. We talk some more about faith and religion, reincarnation and people cherry-picking from their dogma of choice. I ask her what the best period of her life was and she says, “Sledding down the hill with my brother.” Eventually she nods off.
The next morning my parents pick us up at the hotel and we’re off to the airport. My father blares a rerun of Car Talk and makes small talk about the World War II era base that now serves as their community airfield. Maybe he’s too used to the elephant in the car to realize that this may be our last chance to speak with our mother and grandmother, or maybe the elephant is just too damned heavy. I don’t know. He parks in front of the terminal and says to her, “Stay in the car. They can come around and say goodbye to you there.”
She swings her legs out of the car and holds her arms out. I kneel and hug her, and I sing another WWII leftover while she cries: We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when….
“Okay,” she says.
“I love you, Ma.”
“I love you, too.”
“You call me if you want to talk about things.”
“Okay, she says.”
My kids and I stand at the curb, waving at her through the windshield. She raises her trembling hand and signs “I love you,” and we sign it back, and then she is gone.