[box]This piece appears courtesy of the East Nashvillian magazine, where it was originally published in the March-April 2013 issue. [/box]
It was really good to see you today. In the face you’re peaceful, and there’s still a glimmer in your eyes. You knew me when you saw me. You might not have been able to place me or come up with a name, but you knew I was somebody from your life. The one you had before wheelchairs and nursing homes, when you could still read your bible, still talk to me on the telephone, still remember who I am.
Your friendliness astounds me. You could run for office. You have a remarkable facility for having never met a stranger even when you have no idea who anyone is. You have a smile for everybody, even as you introduce my sister to the nurse as your youngest grand baby. Every time you meet me for the first time, you charm my socks off because you’re so darn happy to meet me. My son comes forward to greet you; you take a gander at his T-shirt and exclaim, “The Ramones! I love ’em!” Gabba gabba hey! We accept you, one of us.
You’re ninety years old today. Ninety years. I wonder what sort of wisdom a person might possess at ninety that transcends faulty cognitive wiring. This I know: Your sense of humor is razor sharp. You laugh at me every time I make a funny face and every time I don’t as well. You say, “I’m sure glad you’re here.” Sometimes I wish you’d throw a “son” in there, but you don’t — and you aren’t going to. Deep down it doesn’t matter. You know you know me. Somehow. The details aren’t important. You’re here. I’m here. We’re together. That alone is precious as perfect jade.
You don’t carry around your bible everywhere anymore. I don’t know what your concept of God is now, or if you’re wired into the godhead in a way I can’t conceive of. Looking into your eyes now is like looking into a baby’s — or a puppy’s. There’s no way to tell what’s on your mind and no way for you to tell me; not that it seems to distress you. Indeed, you radiate more contentment now than you ever have.
They say living well is the best revenge. The pain’s gone now. When you were 9 or 10 years old, sitting at the table in a sharecropper’s shotgun shack, your own father fixed you with a withering gaze and, without prelude, hissed, “You’re about the ugliest thing I ever did see!” And then he stormed out the front door. You smiled because you were sure it was a joke and sure he’d poke his smiling face back inside the door and let you know he was joking. But he wasn’t joking, and he didn’t come back. A life that was already hard got harder.
At 16 you married Dad. The honeymoon was awkward, maybe non-existent. You wound up in the bedroom, and a slick-haired 20-year-old version of my father ignored you, sat down on the edge of the bed, removed his socks and started digging at his toenail with his pocketknife, utterly shutting you out. As the minutes dragged by you eventually put on your nightgown and went to bed with him showing you his back.
Years went by. You’d think with a preacher for a husband that a dinnertime bible study and devotional would be a no-brainer, but Dad shot that down pretty fast. “I don’t see no point in prayin’ just ’cause it’s dinnertime!” he declared. Okay, then.
You’ve outlived them all. We buried Dad 13 years ago, and, for many years after, heaven help the unfortunate soul who brought up his name! That was asking for an hour dissertation. Now that doesn’t happen. He’s deader than he’s ever been. The last time you mentioned Dad was three or four years ago when you encouraged me to stop by the house and see him because he was lonely. I went along with it. Sure, Mom, I’ll stop by and see him.
I’m 50 years old now. I don’t feel 50. I don’t even know what it’s supposed to feel like. I get the impression that you don’t feel 90 either. Call it a hunch. It’s been four or five years since we’ve had a proper mother-son conversation of the sort where I’d be able to pour my heart out to the only mom I’ve got. That’s not going to happen again. But even though I know that, I still know I’m going to fall apart when you arrive at your great gettin’ up morning — when it’s final, done, and I’ll never again see your smiling, fearless face, so happy to see me, whoever I am.
I love you.