J. F. Gross
First her dog died, then her mother. Truth be told, it was the dog Beth missed. He had been so easy. She adopted Mac, a yellow Lab, between her first marriage and the second. They’d hiked hundreds of trails together, maybe thousands. His tail was always moving; not back and forth, but around and around, propeller-like. She thought of it as akin to a man humming under his breath as he puttered, content with everything. When she picked up his leash he combed the yard for a tennis ball, the way she hunted her keys, and only then was ready to go. Run, retrieve, repeat. The woods were littered with yellow balls, if he lost one he could always find another.
She had worried about his air jumps, how he soared from the ground like a pole vaulter, deftly snared the ball and landed like a gymnast. He was an athlete, an artist. But after fourteen years, the leaps took a toll on his hips that led to a downward trajectory — first limping, then dragging one leg and, finally, needing help to get to the grass outside. The second husband had come and gone by then and Beth had trouble lifting Mac alone; she scooted more than lifted him down the porch steps. When he started whimpering steadily through the effort she knew that it was time. When he hadn’t eaten for three days, when the May sun was blazing over the mountains and the sky at peak blue, she called the vet and sat by Mac’s bed on the cabin deck, stroking him as she watched Dr. Dave leave his small clinic-home by the lake, stroll down Main Street and turn onto the road that led up the hill to her house. She hoped when it was her time, death came for her that way: calm, ambling.
Mac greeted Dr. Dave with one soft thump of his tail and as the vet injected the syringe, she whispered, softly sobbing, what a good good [sic] dog he was as he drifted into perpetual sleep. A week later she received a simple box filled with his ashes, with all the details of his birth and death in an ornamental script on the cover.
Her mother fell on the Fourth of July. One moment she was standing in the dining room and the next she was prone on the polished wood floor while Beth packed in the bedroom and her sister Joan filled the dishwasher. In the ambulance, when the paramedics asked how the fall happened and Beth admitted she didn’t know, she felt like a mother who’d lost track of her toddler; she cancelled her afternoon flight.
In the Emergency Room they wheeled her mother to and from Imaging, then again for another round of pictures. A surgeon surfaced to explain the fracture, its location and prognosis. “Your mother is disoriented from the painkillers,” he said, “can either of you sign for the surgery?”
“I have power of attorney,” Joan said.
“I live out of town,” Beth apologized.
“It should be done soon,” he added. “I can schedule time tomorrow.” The tie and white coat, the salt and pepper hair, the way he towered over them made it impossible to say no. They looked at each other and shrugged, said yes, sure, I guess so, while he glanced from one to the other, gave a clipped okay and left them with their mother. She slept as if already anesthetized, anchored to the gurney by a seat belt across her midriff for the rides through the halls, her hue like a gray sky, her white hair a bright cloud.
“We couldn’t say no,” Beth said.
“You know she doesn’t want to live,” Joan answered.
“You don’t die from a broken hip,” Beth argued. “She’d just be in constant pain.”
“I pray every day to be taken to Daddy,” their mother had told them. “I pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.”
“It’s not a lost cause, Mom,” Beth said. “You will die someday. Probably just not this year, your health is good —.”
“I want to go this year.”
“You can’t always get what you want,” Joan said, “per Mick Jagger.” She cleared dishes from the table; slices of Christmas ham lay untouched on her mother’s plate. Beth ferried glasses and silverware to the kitchen. “This is festive,” she said.
“It’s been like this every day.”
“It’s only been a month, maybe she’ll get better.”
Joan rested a palm on her cocked hip and tilted her head at Beth. “Or maybe not,” Beth conceded. “I thought coming home for the holidays would help.”
“Nothing helps,” Joan said.
“You had plans tonight?” Beth asked. “Fireworks?” They whispered across their mother’s legs though she was absent in her drugged slumber.
“Just a small party.”
“Go. I’ll stay.”
“Yes! Take a break while I’m here,” Beth said, and added, “I’ll give Anna a call.”
Joan stopped in the doorway. “Really? Good luck with that.”
Beth hadn’t been in a hospital in the two decades since her daughter was born. The ER seemed futuristic, single rooms with sliding doors and foreign apparatus. No more three-quarter-length privacy curtains and Nurse Ratched uniforms. The staff wore identical blue scrubs so she couldn’t tell a nurse or technician from an orderly — if they were even still called orderlies. Whoever they were, they were huddled behind a circular central command and the majority appeared to be twenty.
Beth stepped outside to call her sister. She practiced her voicemail through the persistent rings but on the last one Anna picked up, answering with a curt, “Yes?”
“Anna, hi, it’s Beth.”
“Beth?” she asked, not meaning Beth who but why?
“Yes, look, I’m here at Mom’s and I have some bad news and some good news.”
“Give it to me in the same sentence.”
“Okay, well, Mom fell and broke her hip but they’ve already scheduled surgery and she should be alright.”
“So there’s no problem,” Anna said.
“Well, I’m at the hospital with her now, she’ll be here awhile then she’ll need rehab for some time.”
“So there’s no problem.”
“I’d say all of it’s a problem, Anna. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Not really,” Anna said. Beth retreated and a few monosyllables later Anna ended the call. Beth felt like Charlie Brown after Lucy had pulled the football; it always ended the same. Why do I set myself up? she thought. “Because I’m an idiot,” she said aloud. Anna’s bitterness towards their mother overflowed onto Beth and Joan, and though they’d all endured the same neglect and brutality as children, the same manipulation and hostility as adults, Anna considered them enablers. “I’m neutral,” Beth insisted — just the middle child seeking middle ground, she had always thought. “No you’re not,” Anna had argued, “you let her be her.”
Back in the ER she waited as the sky turned black. She couldn’t leave yet, they were searching for a bed for her mother. She didn’t want her mother to awaken and not have a clue where she was; more and more often she didn’t have a clue.
Beth had arrived this visit in the late afternoon and they’d relaxed on the patio with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, talking past dusk. Inside her evening routine — wine and nightly news — her mother appeared unchanged. But the following day, when Beth emerged mid-morning from the guest room, her mother demanded in a small, confused voice, where was that woman from yesterday and why was Beth wearing her clothes? Only after Joan vouched for her was their mother convinced that Beth was Beth. She knew there’d been other episodes — her mother attempting to change TV channels using the portable phone or enduring an entire conversation with no idea who was on the line. “Who were you talking to?” Joan would ask and her mother would admit, “I don’t know.” It had been years now since their father died and they thought their mother’s surfeit of solitude was beginning to affect her mind. Just the day before she had asked Beth, as they sat at the dining-room table, “Did you see him?”
“Who?” Beth said.
“Daddy. He just walked across the living room.” Beth had simply said no and left it at that.
A nurse came in to check her mother’s vital signs, said they hadn’t located a bed, she didn’t know how much longer it would be but the fireworks were starting. It was something to do, the young woman offered, and she could watch from the Sky Bridge! Beth thanked her and then — because the nurse had been so thoughtful and Beth didn’t want her to think she wasn’t grateful — she took elevator five, found the bridge and stood alone at the railing. Through steel and glass, over steel and glass, she watched as sun-size balls of red, white and blue exploded against a dark sky and vanished into vapor.
At home every Fourth, with her daughter and friends, she watched in her yard overlooking the lake as the police chief and deputy launched a rainbow of rockets across the night sky, illuminating the water below. In the morning they lounged on the deck, tanned feet propped on the railing, and loudly cheered on the parade — two fire engines, one police car, an ambulance and the Sheriff’s SUV. No marching bands, no giant balloons, but sometimes a trio of motorcyclists, a handful of cowboys on horseback and, if he remembered, Doc Parker in his Model T. They circled Main Street more than once, stretching it out for the locals lining the plank sidewalks, then ended at the Pioneer Tavern for the Beer and Brats Fest. Beth whooped and whistled wildly, backed by echoes from the mountains; this was her pack now, this raucous, cheering crowd. Her mother called the town Whoville and refused to stay there when visiting, though it was only minutes from the university where Beth taught, in the city at the base of the canyon, which the locals called downtown.
Beth watched the grand finale, a tornado of thunder and color, then retraced her steps to the ER. Her mother was gone, a gape in the room where her bed had been. Beth froze, telling herself they’d found a room though her thoughts went straight to the morgue.
She found her on the fourth floor, attended by a cheerful young woman in peach scrubs who held an accordion straw to her lips. “You’re awake!” Beth smiled. She’d worried in the elevator that her mother might not recognize her but saw by her frown that she did. “How are you feeling?”
“What’s going on?” her mother demanded.
“You fell, and we’re here at the hospital —.”
“— I know that. Why am I still here?”
Beth cut to the chase. “You broke your hip, Mom. You need surgery. They’re doing it tomorrow.”
“I don’t need surgery, it doesn’t even hurt.”
“Because there’re painkillers in this drip,” Beth said, fingering the IV tube. “It will hurt plenty if you don’t have the surgery. There’s no way around it — you can’t just not fix a fracture.”
Her mother strained against the lap belt, ready to march home, then cried out in pain. Beth jumped as the nurse grasped the IV, upped the flow and said, “She should get relief pretty quickly.” Her mother’s breathing was labored, as if she’d jogged to the fourth floor, and Beth spoke soothingly to her — repeating everything was just fine — until she was gone again.
“We’ll keep it going to where she doesn’t have any more pain,” the nurse said.
“Thank you. I’m sorry,” Beth said.
“No problem,” the young woman smiled.
The surgery was a success, the recuperation strained. Her mother balked at the physical therapy, the bland meals, the confining IV, the diversity of the ward. The more she complained the more Beth humored the staff. When her mother hissed at a black nurse changing the sheets beneath her, Joan closed the door and confronted her. “You can’t do that! You won’t get away with it here. These people are helping you. They’re the reason you survived.”
“I know!” her mother raged.
By week’s end — Beth marveled at the speed — the nurses had located a rehab they were sure her mother would like. She was transferred to a suburban complex more resort than rehab Beth thought. A cherrywood bed and nightstand, and an armoire with a flat-screen TV, belied the medical setting. When Beth fell asleep in an armchair one stultifying afternoon her first thought when she startled awake was a four-star hotel. She hoped if her mother woke in the night she’d imagine a vacation with their father.
“She might lose some cognitive ground,” the doctor warned. “When the elderly are removed from their routine it can happen faster than it might at home.”
Beth and Joan attempted to recreate her routine — Happy Hour, her favorite part — by smuggling in a cooler of Pinot Grigio and brie cheese with butterfly crackers. They drank, watching NBC Nightly News, until they were more than a little tipsy and their mother indeed seemed happy. When Beth said so one night, her mother cheerfully raised her glass. “I am!” she toasted them. The sisters exchanged shocked smiles.
But when Beth found her in the dining room in the mornings, dozing in a wheelchair alone at a table, she again had trouble placing Beth and couldn’t remember if she’d eaten or not. “That happens,” the doctor said. “They can forget to eat just like they forget other things.” Thereafter Beth spoon-fed her mother, an arduous task that took longer than with an infant.
“We should probably update Anna,” she mused one endless afternoon watching their mother sleep.
“Really?” Joan asked. “You want to go through that again?”
“I was hoping you’d take a turn.”
“Okay,” Joan shrugged. “I won’t let her get away with her bullshit.” But when Beth walked into the hall at the end of the call Joan was shouting, “Really? Really? You wouldn’t come to her funeral?”
“Why should I?” Anna shot back. “She refused to come to my wedding.”
Beth wasn’t surprised; Anna kept score like a bookie, tallying every insult and slight. Lord knows there was plenty to tally, from childhood until now. When Beth scanned her mental archives for a comforting image of her mother she never could locate one — never an arm around their shoulders or a hug on her lap, very rarely even a smile. Rant, rage, repeat. It was their father who’d lift them away to another room or outside, and promise a soda, a toy, a puppy, anything to make it right. But he was only a bandaid, never admitting their mother was too harsh or wrong, never brokering a truce, so it always happened again — and again and again. Several times, after her father had actually delivered a puppy that jump-started Beth’s love, her mother snatched it away, sending the dog to the pound with no explanation. “She’s like that wire mother in those deplorable experiments with rhesus monkeys,” Anna had said more than once.
Anna was right about the wedding: it was her mother’s major mistake, though she would tell you she was never wrong. Never. When Anna announced she was marrying James — whom her parents met once before — their mother leapt into oppo research. James wasn’t good enough, tall enough, bright or successful; his parents were nouveau riche. She was a leaky faucet of complaints, an IV drip of insults. In the end, when Anna didn’t give in, of course, her mother just said No. No, they wouldn’t travel to the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado, what an ostentatious place to have a wedding.
They all knew her thinking: James wasn’t a Catholic, in fact he was Jewish, an unabsolvable sin. Their mother was more Catholic than the Pope, Anna always said, never meaning it as praise. She’d forced religion down their throats like a pill down a reluctant dog and just like that it came up again, rolling away on the floor. Not one of her daughters cared a whit. But on the scorecard for marriage (as sacrosanct as religion), while Beth was minus two and Joan at zero, Anna was the runaway winner, still married to James after all these years, a fact her mother ignored.
Beth secretly sided with Anna; she’d been there herself. When her first marriage ended, to a man her mother nominally accepted, she’d told Beth she knew all along it wouldn’t last. She dismissed Beth’s second husband, never once saying his name in eight years, and when that marriage failed too she called Beth a two-time loser. As Beth sobbed in the dark every night, brutally lonely, Mac crept onto the bed and settled with his back against hers.
When Beth thought of her parents’ own marriage — its improbable fifty-two years — it was as if they were happy neighbors she’d watched through a luminous picture window, who’d never invited her in. This is not for you, her mother told her, in a thousand million ways.
Beth swapped her summer reading for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, hardly a beach novel but undeniably a mystery. She realized her mother had dismissed the five stages of grief, skipping beyond to a step of her own invention — desire. Her mother didn’t just accept death, she welcomed it. When Beth finished reading On Death and Dying, she decided her mother needed an opening to talk. After lunch one afternoon, when she seemed unusually alert, Beth wheeled her back to her room, closed the door and sat on the bed facing her. “Mom. I want to tell you something,” she started. Her mother stared expectantly, a flickering smile on her lips. “I want to tell you I’m sorry for all the fights we’ve had. I never wanted to fight with you.”
Her mother anemically waved a hand as if shooing away the past. “Oh, mothers never care,” she said. “They know it doesn’t matter.” She smiled benignly as Beth waited for more but nothing more was said. Finally, Beth helped her mother into bed and as she tucked the sheets her mother whispered, “I know I wasn’t a very good mother.” Beth’s heart leapt as if electrocuted but she calmly asked, “Why do you say that?” as her mother’s eyelids drooped and she slid into sleep. Beth wanted to shake her, wanted to shout say more over her measured breathing. What did she mean Mothers never care? What doesn’t matter? It was all suddenly enraging to Beth and she vaulted straight to the anger stage.
Finally vacation was over; time to get home to the planning meetings for the upcoming semester. Penitentially, Beth bought her mother new clothes — underwear, slippers and nightgowns — and wrapped them as brightly as birthday presents; her mother was as thrilled as a child.
“Do you need anything else, Mom?” Beth said. “Do you want anything from the condo?”
“I have a condo?” her mother asked, her eyes opening wide.
“That’s good, right, that she doesn’t remember?” Joan said later that evening. “It will be easier on her, going from rehab to a home.”
“You’re putting her in a nursing home?”
“She needs round-the-clock care, Beth. I can’t do that.”
“I know, I know,” Beth said, anxiety flooding her veins like a toxin. “Where were you thinking?
“Where Uncle Dan went?”
“He did okay there.”
“He died in a week.”
“But things were okay that week. He had Alzheimer’s, he wasn’t going to last.”
After midterms, Beth flew home. When she arrived at Beauchamps a petite elderly woman, barely the height of a doll and apparently stronger than she looked, wheeled her chair up to Beth, blocking her path down the hall.
“I’ve forgotten your name, dear,” she cooed.
“”Thank you for visiting me Beth!”
Cornered, Beth sat through the woman’s chatter and when she finally found her mother’s room it was empty. She searched the living room, dining room and game room, and the nooks with chairs where families could talk. Retracing her steps several times, past the row of wheelchairs with old folks strapped in, she finally realized with horror that one of them was her mother. The metamorphose was alarming; she had aged years in only months and had shriveled to the size of Beth’s new petite friend. Her halo of white hair was unkempt and a line of spittle was etched on her gown. When Beth approached and said Mom? her mother slowly raised her head and a glint of recognition grew in the recesses of her deadened eyes. Beth wheeled her outside to a colorful garden and kept up a cheerful patter though her heart pounded loudly as her mother sat silent. When she sank back into sleep Beth helped her to her room, changed the soiled hospital gown (and found a drawerful of unopened nightgowns), brushed her hair and put her to bed. She discovered a neon-red sore the size of a half-dollar on the instep of her mother’s right foot.
Shaken, she called Joan. “Have you seen her lately? She looks awful.”
“Of course I have. Her dementia gets worse every day, just like the doctor said it would. And she refuses everything. She fights them about baths and meals, about getting out of bed and getting into bed.”
“Fights them? She weighs as much as a cat, Joan.”
“You know how she is.”
The next day, Beth requested that a doctor examine her mother’s foot and waited at the front desk until one reluctantly appeared. He admitted the wound was infected and signed for a transfer for treatment.
“What happened?” Beth quizzed Joan.
“Apparently the wheelchair footrest fell on it, cutting her thin skin. They said she didn’t make a sound and nobody realized it happened.”
Beth slept on a recliner at the hospital, assuring her mother wasn’t released until the sore turned a healing pink. At the nursing home she copied the name of the doctor and asked that he call her weekly. When she kissed her mother goodbye, she stared blankly at Beth and didn’t appear moved or upset.
The doctor never called and each time Beth left a message she was told he had just talked to Joan. “Is that true?” Beth demanded. “Does he keep in touch with you?”
“Yes! It’s true. I’m there a lot, Beth, I know what’s going on.”
“What’s going on!” she shouted.
“She’s refusing to eat,” Joan sighed. “She’s starving herself to death.”
“But she doesn’t know it!” Beth said. “She doesn’t know anything.”
“Oh I think she knows, don’t you?”
“Really? Hasn’t she always done exactly what she wanted?”
The call came at seven in the morning on a gray October day as Beth watched the fog fade over the mountains. Joan, her voice weighted with relief, said their mother died at five.
“So no one was with her,” Beth said.
An aide had just come in, Joan said. He took her vital signs, she blinked at him once, exhaled slowly — and died. Beth was neither relieved nor sad, only deeply unsettled. “I hope she saw Daddy coming across the room,” she said.
When Joan called two days later, offering to send the urn, Beth simply said No.
On the next crisp morning with a huge yellow sun overhead, she hiked a trail through the Aspen forest that had always been their favorite and imagined Mac running ahead. The wind waved at them through the trees. She stopped in the wide open meadow where they’d played and took his ashes from her pack. She considered offering a prayer but he’d known every day how she felt. Instead, she just set him free, opening the box so the undulating breeze could lift and carry him away, out over the blanket of fallen leaves that covered the forgotten balls.
I am a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and have worked for newspapers in Colorado in various capacities, including writer, copy editor and production manager. I am now concentrating on writing fiction.