His Mother, Her Ending

He sat in the chair, his left hand fingering the nubby gray fabric of the arm rest. His right hand lay on the bed, browned and wrinkled and rough against the snowy waffled blanket.

He glanced down and the thought crossed his mind – not for the first time that afternoon – that his mother’s hand seemed so small, so fragile against his. Her pale skin was crinkled and scored with lines; her knuckles were bruised and swollen, a result of the arthritis that puffed up her joints. He rubbed a thumb over the fingers, taking comfort that they were still warm.

It was funny, he thought, that his mother seemed to have shrunk over the years, yet she remained tall, strong and vibrant in his memories. The red-headed woman with the bawdy laugh, the easy smile, the toned arms that would just as soon wrap you in a bear hug as wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper.

“Excuse me, sir?”

He jerked his head up, his eyes focusing on the man in the white coat in front of him.

“Yes,” he said, standing and wiping his now clammy palms on his corduroy pants.

“I’m Dr. Kent, your mother’s physician. Can we talk for a moment?”

“Sure.”

He followed the doctor out into the hall, his tennis shoes squeaking on the tile floor.

Dr. Kent glanced down at his clipboard, reviewing his patient’s history before settling his calm and steady gaze on the nervous man in front of him.

“Mr. James, are you aware of your mother’s condition?”

“You can call me Albert. I just know that she’s real sick. Is she going to get better?”

“Albert, I’m sorry, but she’s not going to get better. As it stands now, the best and only thing you can do is make sure she’s comfortable. We can give her medicine to relieve some of her pain, but her organs are gradually shutting down. The machines in her room are helping to keep her alive, and you need to seriously think about what you want to do. I strongly recommend speaking to her attorney, or whoever may have power of attorney. Again, I’m very sorry.”

Dr. Kent patted Albert’s shoulder before striding away, his coat flapping behind him.

Albert turned and leaned a shoulder against the cold metal door jamb. He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his graying curls. He was a simple man, a farmer, one who rose with the sun, who put one foot in front of the other, who did what needed to be done. But, Lord help him, he didn’t have the strength to deal with this. Any of this.

He let out a long breath, his cheeks ballooning, his lips spreading. He walked slowly to the bed in the middle of the room and looked down at his mother’s gray and wizened face. Her eyes were clamped closed, the lashes stubby and thin, the mouth pursed, even in sleep.

Albert leaned down and kissed the papery-thin cheek.

“I love you, Ma. I don’t know what to do. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do.”

A tear dripped from his eyes, clung to his skin before dropping onto his mother’s neck and sliding down onto the pillow.

As he fought to hold back his grief, Albert felt a gentle touch on his cheek, a delicate, shaking finger wiping away the wet track of the tear. He opened his eyes and stared into the clouded green of his mother’s.

She laid a hand on his cheek, and her mouth pulled up gently at the corners. Her eyes sparkled, full of love. She gave a slight nod of her head, the effort causing her puff of hair to shake, her eyes to close.

And Albert understood.

“Goodbye, Ma.”

Falling Leaves

The road stretched before him, its curves and dips and leafy debris reflected in the round lenses of his spectacles. The eyes behind the lenses were a watery brown and red-rimmed. The face was tired and sagging, and deep lines were carved into the gray skin. The mouth hadn’t lifted into a smile in more than three years. Perhaps it didn’t even remember how.

The man sighed, the long breath whistling out of his lips. He tightened his fingers around the leather-trimmed wheel and steered through another bend in the road. Up ahead was a sign with neatly worded letters, “The Hillside Manor.” The sign’s two legs stood still and sturdy in the packed earth. Patches of browning grass sprouted around the faded-white supports, and an occasional breeze whipped red and orange and yellow and russet leaves around.

But the man merely read the sign and turned into the drive, his eyes brushing over the spots of color.

At the top of the steep drive stood a large brick building, its exterior faded by winds and snows. White shutters, repainted every summer, hung at every spotless window. The building was old and settled, and the cosmetic changes did little to hide its age. But the effort was made.

The man turned into a narrow parking lot, the loose gravel crunching under his tires. He parked and lifted the emergency brake. And then he sat there while the car ticked and hissed. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and breathed deeply, rhythmically. This visit was going to be one of his last, he promised himself. Maybe not the final visit, but this would be the end of his regular trips here. His heart just couldn’t take it anymore.

He lifted his head up, rolled it around to stretch out his neck. He grabbed the trench coat he’d tossed onto the passenger seat and got out of the car. He shrugged the coat on and dipped his fingers in the pockets.

As he approached the visitor’s entrance, a round face popped out and sent him a bright smile.

“Well, hi there, Mr. Blatt. How are you doing on this fine day?”

Mr. Blatt nodded at the nurse and gave a terse response.

“Fine.”

“Your girl is upstairs waiting for you. Make sure to sign in first.”

The nurse reached over to pat Mr. Blatt’s arm. She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “She’s having a good day today.” Then she winked.

Mr. Blatt fought the urge to grimace at the nurse’s cheer. Cheer that seemed so harsh and glaring in a place like Hillside Manor. A tragedy and a farce, hand in hand.

He nodded once more. And then he was climbing the stairs, his brown shoes squeaking on the linoleum, the stairs groaning underneath his weight.

“You have a good day!” The nurse called after him.

He ignored her.

When Mr. Blatt reached the top of the stairs, he was out of breath. Not the young man he once was, he thought, picking a white handkerchief from his pocket to mop the beads of sweat forming at his temples.

He turned to the left and the hall stretched before him, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance. He paused, waiting for the dancing stars to leave his vision, then took one shaky step after another, his hand pressed to the wall.

He knew the way to the room. He’d been here, in this building, in this hallway, hundreds of times over the past few years. Weekend after weekend. Sometimes on holidays. Once on his anniversary. His destination was seven doors down, on the right, room 236. Room 234 was before it, room 238 was after it.

He walked his 50 paces to the front of the door, his stomach sinking. He felt as though the closer he came to room 236, the unhappier he became. He dropped bits and pieces of happiness with every step, leaving them littering the sterile white floor. And he couldn’t pick the pieces back up when he left.

Mr. Blatt knocked on the metal door then pushed it open to reveal a stark white room. One bed, one bathroom, one window, one chair. No color or life. No photos or artwork or flowers or sewing paraphernalia. Dullness permeated room 236.

At the sound of his knock, he heard a mumble come from the bed. He shuffled into the room, obligation pushing him over the threshold. In the white bed with white sheets and a white blanket lay his wife, Marianna.

She wasn’t the wife he knew, the vibrant, loving, sexy woman. She was a shell, and her lively spirit had vanished long ago, taken away by the wind that spun outside the window.

“Good morning,” Mr. Blatt said, pulling the chair close to the bed. He stretched his arm forward, and the pads of his fingers lingered at the top of her hand.

Marianna’s faded blue eyes hardly moved at the feel of his touch. But she lowered her wrinkling lids once.

Mr. Blatt sat back in the chair, crossed one leg over the other. He glanced around the room, thinking again how lifeless it was. He couldn’t gather his thoughts, couldn’t think where to start. He felt like such a fool, talking to his wife this way, like she was a stranger. Not the woman he’d loved for decades.

“The kids are good,” he offered. “Robbie’s got a new writing gig in Hollywood. He has a new girlfriend, too. He didn’t tell me, but Bonnie did. The girlfriend is a single mother. She has a son named Mark.

“Bonnie is good, too. You know how the kids keep her busy. You used to know, I suppose. Angela’s going to be in high school this year. She is so beautiful. She looks just like her mother. And her grandmother.”

Mr. Blatt lightly stroked his wife’s hand one more time before linking his fingers with hers, drawing her hand into his lap.

Marianna blinked her eyes once more before shifting her gaze so it landed on her husband. She curled one finger around his, though her eyes showed no recognition of the man in front of her.

“I had the plumber come yesterday. That pipe in the basement started leaking again, and I didn’t want a repeat of the flood of ’96. Remember how we had almost a foot of water down there? Such a shame that we lost all of the Christmas decorations, some of our book collection.”

Mr. Blatt paused. Why did he think she would remember? He lifted one hand off of hers to scrub his forehead, pinch the skin between his eyes, tug on an earlobe.

“I miss you, Marianna. I miss you so goddamn much, every single day. And I hate – I hate – this disease that’s taken you from me. I hate it.”

He lifted her hand, rubbed it against his stubbly cheek. Then he twisted his neck to kiss her fingers.

“What a waste,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

He lowered his head, laid it into his own hands and that of his wife. The tears clung to his lashes, dropped onto his glasses, dripped onto the clasped hands.

With a wet sniff, he lifted his head to catch her gaze. When her eyes held his, his breath hitched.

“You’re a sweet man, aren’t you?” she asked with a grating, weak voice.

“No, no I’m not.”

“You look like a sweet man. And a sad man. Why are you sad?”

“I miss my wife.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s not here.”

“I’m terribly sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“No. No, there’s nothing you can do.”

“Would you like me to call the nurse? Maybe she can help you find your wife.”

“No, thank you. She can’t help.”

“What’s her name? Your wife.”

“Her name was Marianna. But she was Mari to me.”

“Mari. That’s a pretty name.”

“Yes, it is.”

“What was she like?”

Mr. Blatt turned away, away from the seeking eyes, the curiosity, the ignorance. Away from the frail body, the thin voice.

“She made my life bright. When we first met, she was one of my students. Brilliant, she was. And she had the most luxurious hair. Long and curling and red. It would tickle my cheeks and my hands when I was near her. One day, she said she was coming home with me. She never left.”

“She was a good wife?”

“She was a good wife, a good mother. An entertainer. She used to throw the most wonderful parties. She would dance around the room and around people, and the light from candles and chandeliers would glint off of her hair. She was like an angel. I used to sit on the staircase and just watch her.”

“That’s very nice. I would’ve liked to meet her.”

“Me, too.”

A brisk knock at the door jamb shook both Marianna and Mr. Blatt out of their conversation. The nurse from earlier, whose nametag read “Martha,” stood in the doorway, a grin plastered on her face.

“Hi, you two. Sorry to interrupt, but it’s time for Mrs. Blatt’s medicine,” she said in a singsongy voice. It sounded out of tune to Mr. Blatt’s ears.

She strode into the room, her white pants making slicking noises as her hefty thighs rubbed together. She held out a paper cup filled with colorful pills, white and pink and blue.

While Marianna tossed the pills into her mouth with a shaking hand, Martha poured her a glass of water from the plastic pitcher on the nightstand.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” she said, trading cups with Marianna. “How are you doing in here? Are you having a good conversation?”

“Yes,” Marianna replied after swallowing her medication. “This man was just telling me about his wife.”

“Was he,” Martha asked, raising an eyebrow at Mr. Blatt, who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “You know, honey, who is wife is, don’t you?”

Marianna’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed in concentration.

“No, I don’t believe I do. We’ve never met.”

“Sure you do, sweetiepie. You’re his wife,” Martha said, and a childish giggle bubbled out of her thick lips.

Mr. Blatt shook his head, unsurprised at Martha’s indiscretion, her stupidity. It wasn’t the first time the nurse had shocked Marianna, confused her, upset her. He preferred to keep his Mari in a safe place, in the cozy cocoon of denial.

“What do you mean I’m his wife? We’ve never met before,” Marianna protested, her voice rising a few octaves as panic overtook her. “I don’t know this man. Who is he? What is he doing here?”

Martha gave Marianna’s shoulder a brisk rub.

“It’s ok, darling. Don’t you worry about a thing. This man visits you every week. He’s no one to be afraid of.”

“What’s his name?” Marianna asked, peering up into Martha’s plump face.

“Mr. Blatt.”

“What’s his first name?”

The answer came from the man slumped in the uncomfortable chair, an elbow propped on an arm rest, forehead in hand.

“Roger.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted,” Martha sang as she swished out of the room.

Roger watched her leave, glaring at her massive bottom.

Marianna watched him, uncertainty twisting her features. She withdrew her hand from his, then rubbed it across the waffled blanket covering her chest. It was a gesture meant to soothe, to comfort. Roger recognized it.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said stiffly.

“That’s alright.”

“I came here today,” he began, “to talk to you about my wife. You are my wife. You were my wife. But you have a disease. Sometimes you don’t remember who I am, who our children are. But I come every week, hoping that you might remember.”

“Have I ever remembered?”

“Not in the last several months.”

“Will I get better?” she asked, her voice quaking, her eyes glimmering.

“No.”

Marianna looked at the popcorned ceiling and blinked her eyes furiously, trying to keep her tears back. After a few minutes, and with several shaking breaths, she had calmed, comforted, settled herself. She turned back to Roger, unsteadily took his hand in hers. Covered it.

“Tell me about myself.”

“You were lovely. You’re still lovely. We had a happy life. I thought we would grow old together, enjoy our retirement. You would garden, I would write that novel. We would babysit the grandkids every other weekend. Spoil them. But our plans never happened.”

Mr. Blatt adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. Bought himself time to make sure his voice was even.

“You came here three years ago. It was hard, very hard. You’d always been forgetful and absentminded, but this was different. You started forgetting my name, our children’s names, our address. You got lost going around the block. You couldn’t even remember which house was ours, though we’d been living there for 30 years. The doctors said you had Alzheimer’s, among other things. And it never gets better. It never gets better.”

Roger looked up. Marianna’s eyes were closed, her breathing regular and deep.

He removed his hand from hers. Then he pressed it to his slowly beating heart. He held it there, steadying himself as emotions ran through him, tingling at his toes, pricking at his fingertips, burning his chest. He had to leave.

He leaned down, pressed his lips to Marianna’s papery cheek.

“Goodbye, Mari.”

He walked out of the room without a backward glance, his footsteps heavy, his back slouched. He descended the stairs, past Martha, past the sign-out book.

He crunched across the parking lot, unlocked his car and climbed into the seat. He turned on the car with a twist of the key, lowered the emergency brake. And he drove slowly, deliberately down the drive, out of the gates.

About a mile outside of Hillside Manor, he pulled over and parked his car between two colorful trees.

He opened the car door and stepped out, his loafers slipping on the rocks underneath his feet. He slammed the door shut and looked off into the distance, through the trees, to the water below. With a cry, he suddenly bent to snag pieces of rock to hurl them into the distance.

The rocks flew out of his fingers. His shoulders ached with the effort of grabbing and throwing. His palms bled, the sharp rocks having scored the thin skin.

But he threw, and he threw, and he threw. He raged, and he shouted, cursing himself, cursing his wife, cursing the higher power he had never believed in. Finally he opened his mouth wide and screamed. Screamed so his face was shaking, his eyes were bulging, his delicate glasses were trembling on his face. His hands fisted around rocks, his nails pressing and breaking, tiny ribbons of blood snaking down his fingers.

Then he stopped. His grip loosened, and the rocks fell.

His chest heaved up and down.

He dropped his head.

And he got back in his car and drove, steering through the dips and curves, heading toward an empty house. His eyes focused on the road. He never noticed the richly-hued leaves around him. He never noticed the life around him.