Polly goes upstairs for a nap, falls asleep and wakes fuzzy; thinks someone’s stealing her little dog, the dearest thing to her. Puts the dog, Max, in the closet, calls 911 and they all come. Firetrucks, police. The sheriff calls me on her phone,
“I want to verify that you’re Polly Kaufman’s daughter.”
I hear my mom laughing and talking in the background.
The sheriff says she’s telling them all about Haskell Island and she’s having a good time. “At this point, as long as she gets more steady care, we don’t have to do anything.”
My brother and I already have our plane tickets.
The tiny light flashes white and now green. I’m connected. I twist pods in my ears and listen. The music floods my entire brain. (No wonder people do this. It’s fantastic!)
I close doors to the rooms I am in.
New housemate, Alberto tastes metal from my old Revere wear my mother gave me 30 years ago and I quickly replace them. Alberto takes care of Easy, the cat. Jake & Chloe go to Denise at Aspen Moon Farm where they sit in tall grass, take walks, and wonder how to play with Cayenne, who zips around like, well, pepper, while Denise works in the garden and feeds chickens.
Rog, and I write an ad for potential caregivers. “Need help so our 91 year-old mother can continue in her home, with her small dog, in Harpswell. Short term memory loss. Still has her personality and positive outlook, mostly. Companionship. Light cleaning. Walk dog. Cooking. Help getting ready in the mornings, evenings, with potential for increased hours.”
Polly is confused after naps, and when the sun goes down. She puts on the same clothes for the third, the fourth day. She picks up crushed stones as she walks Max on her road, and she places each stone on her small yellow bookshelf which holds her published books and favorites from childhood. She’s worried about the rock that looks like a dog missing one eye. There’s a crow, a horse with a mane, a turtle, a scary goat. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg rock sits in a soft white open shell. “Maybe the dog is winking,” I say.
I dream my brother and I are watching Polly swim in a stream, and at one point she goes face down. All I can see is the back of her full white head of hair.
“Oh, look!” I say to Rog.
“Better go in,” he says.
He dives in first, then me. I hear the wide splash as I hit the water all around me at once and think, that’s kind of a shallow dive, a dive that goes out, not down.
When author, Yiyun Li was at Iowa Writers Workshop, her teachers insisted that she write in her original language. She preferred to write in English. She says that we have private and public languages. Chinese was her public language. English was the language she thought in. It was closer. Maybe it came to her later, when she was more who she wanted to be.
Sitting in the aisle seat going home to Colorado I don’t know how exhausted I am yet. I hold myself in tight for a week, until the migraine. And even then, I don’t really slide into tears until I hear Bonnie Raitt sing the words in my ear canals just now,
“I am an old woman, named after my mother…If dreams were thunder and lightning were desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago …Make me an angel…”
Even so, it was so great to see my brother and stay in the clean and spacious Airbnb in Maine together. He’s in one room zooming with therapy clients and I get the couch for writing classes and the big wood floor for Yoga online. It’s easy to live together. He’s kind and smart and funny and we can talk easily and laugh. In the next room he laughs to himself quietly like when he was little, in the next room, singing gentle morning songs.
And now, Jeff Buckley starts his version of the Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah; the song we all went to when Leonard died (and you-know-who got elected). Jeff’s version begins with a big exhale directly into my ears and breaks off into his own journey. It’s raining. The water comes over the bridge in the park so much that the geese easily float over the place we would usually walk.
Last week in Brunswick Polly and I count “one, two, three” to push herself to stand out of the car seat. At the ankle and foot place Doctor McDonald parts his hair down the middle and wears multi-colored crocs.
“Oh mom, he’s got a sense of humor!”
“It’s the way I can do this— what I do all day,” he says to me.
“What’s with Colorado?” he says to me.
“Oh, the shootings, I don’t know.”
My mother’s feet and legs are swollen and her toes cross over each other. As I peel off her socks, I see her nails are overgrown like over-grown hooves on neglected ponies. I gasp, which, I guess, is an inhale (the opposite of Jeff Buckley). The doc is light, and funny as he cuts the thick toenails with special instruments.
“Is it OK to say Ouch?”
“Yes of course, you can say it.”
“He didn’t scold me.” Polly says. He cut the nails and scraped off the corns and told us what to do. Walking to the car was easier, like it was for the ponies.
In seat 29 D I as I open this notebook, flakes of black mica fall out I found on the road my mother lives on. The young woman next to me is excited about the mica and I give her a piece. We’re all usually so careful not to talk on planes but she’s talking with our row, and the row behind her. People are buoyant and the plane sort of bounces and we go, “OH!” We’re eating pretzels, drinking our cans of ginger ale, tea, bottled water and the children are quiet. The woman across the aisle has a piece of cake and two moon pies in her plastic box. She sits and watches her cake and waits to eat until she gets tea.
“Take a nap then.” the guy behind me says
“No, I can’t. It’s like being in a jacuzzi,” the woman next to him says.
The girl beside me puts air pods in her ears and the beat of the music comes over to my ears, which are unplugged.
When I return from getting prescriptions, with lemonade, from Walgreens, my mother is asleep in the car. When she wakes she is thrilled about the lemonade. She tells me she dreamt of Dr. McDonald. And then it’s Dr. McDonald all day.
Night before last she was going to get it straight.
“Just tell me. Just one more thing. Just one more thing. Just one more thing. Just one more thing. Just one more.”
My mother looks at the green leaves on the birch tree, “They’re dancing!” She tells us how she wants us to visit the Bath Maritime Museum to see the Sidney Chase painting she donated.
“The exhibit won’t be up long,” she says. “He’s not Wyeth. It’ll be up six weeks, six months, something like that. Then it will be taken care of forever. That’s the best thing.”
She tells us how when we were four and six, Sidney Chase wanted to watch the Mary Poppins premier with children. It was my first movie and I remember the big screen and Mary Poppins took so many things out of her bag and she lifted off the ground, straight up, with her umbrella and her feet as if she were still standing, and how Mary and Bert stepped into a painting like you could do that. Like I could do that.
After weeks and weeks of talk, Polly told us she would sleep downstairs like we wanted her to, for her safety. When we returned home, she told us she wouldn’t sleep downstairs. “I want to sleep in my room, with Max, like I always do.”
“OK,” Rog says.
“OK. I say”
She leaves her bowl of cereal sitting full and soggy. Does she know, Is it the first bowl or the second?
She asks for ice cream at the store, and I say what kind.
“Any kind. When I was a little girl, I liked strawberry,” she says.
I pick up an old wooden ruler from this box of rulers. “That’s my ruler from elementary school. Let’s see if there are secret hidden messages on it,” We look. There are.
In the garage my dad’s boxes that held nails, screws, nuts and bolts, and tools that were neatly stacked are now scattered and tipped. I hold his pencil holder, rings of wires, like a wire-bound notebook for holding pencils, horizontally in place, ready to be grabbed if you were in the middle of a project. The pencils end up being at slightly different angles so you could grab one if you were high up or if you needed to squat and mark a line or write a message underneath a board.
I drive my mom to the point for a lobster roll, at a picnic table, looking across the ocean at Haskell’s Island.
“This is the best thing.” She says.
“All of it, the lobster, the view across at my favorite place. The place is my soul,”
“The last lobster of the season,” she says.
“Mom, It’s May, the season’s just beginning.”
“Oh, it is?!”
Later I say: “We had a nice time,”
“What did we do?”
“Remember looking over at Haskell Island and the stack of lobster traps, the ropes were knotted in perfect patterns?”
“I took care of you. Now you are taking care of me.” She says.
“Barely,” The house is falling apart.”
The insurance people write a list of things for a July 1 deadline. The roof, the shingles, the missing chimney bricks, the paint.
“Can I have ice cream?” She says.
“You just had some. Can you taste it in your mouth still?”
On the plane the woman with the slice of yellow cake and moon cakes has the same red shoes as mine. “They’re good if you only travel with one pair,” she says.
She uses the edge of her fork to cut a bite sized piece of the fluffy cake.
The young woman in the middle seat beside me shows me her gold Trump playing cards. She puts them in my hands. “They’re really nice cards,” she says. “Feel that. Not for the Trump, but for the gold and the feel.”
I like them too, for the feel and the gold.
“Do you know any card games, she asks,
“No” I say.
(I hear the boy in the window seat say no).
“What are you writing?” The girl with the gold cards asks.
“I’m writing about you.”
When I am walking Max up the road to the mailboxes the neighbor, Melissa, in her yard, tells me about the firetrucks and police and ambulance coming.
“They thought that Max was a boy, that she locked a boy in the closet. It’s happened before. She is wasting precious resources.” I shrink and believe it and tell my mom and feel ashamed and tell my brother.
“Wow!” Like, how uncompassionate can you be.” Rog says. We think of our mom, doing the best she can do (a precious resource). And the neighbors all tired of it.
“We see the woman drive her truck down the road to help her out. It’s a dead-end road so we see everything.” Melissa says.
“She’s getting more care. It’s been a rough year. We couldn’t come until now. The virus.”
“I don’t want anything from this house,” I say to my brother, “except maybe the ruler and the pencil holder and maybe a wooden box.”
“Well, the travel posters are valuable,” he said.
“OK, I want the Alps.”
Neighbor Steve, Melissa’s husband, brings mom fresh asparagus from his garden, from beside the stakes in the ground.
“When are you leaving?” Polly repeats. “I need to figure this out.” Just tell me when.”
But when we do leave, she doesn’t seem to care. Then she calls us while we’re driving to Boston.
“You’re cutting out” we say.
And she calls again.
“Are you coming today?”
“No, we’re on our way to the airport.”
“I want to say both of you thank you for coming,” she says.
The last day in Maine, Rog and I clomp up the stairs to our light, fresh and new navy blue and robin’s egg blue and white cottage with a beautiful small square porch looking out at the birch trees and birds, above the garage, and pack our clothes and notebooks and special things in our black suitcases and breathe out.
At home I describe my mother’s condition to my Megan, over the fence. I can’t imagine her in memory care, or without her dog. Maybe it’s a little dangerous and maybe we’re looser than we should be, but it’s her good life and Rog and I don’t want to fight anymore and I’m tired. I tell Megan my mom fell softly backwards on the ground yesterday, a week after we left, and crawled to the garage to a ladder to pull herself up. Her tinnitus gets really loud when she is alone or stressed. Her thoughts spin repeatedly as she tries to figure out that which is never figured out. Megan points to two sides of her head and tilts her head playfully, “It’s a small room.”
At home after zooming with a potential caregiver, just as I close the laptop, I step on a hornet, the hornet I had been trying to catch in a paper cup. I smash it with my shoe. I yell/cry “ouch” so many times Alberto comes out of his room. I smother the stung toe with meat tenderizer which doesn’t work and then Alberto pokes around my toe.
“It may swell up and hurt for a little while, maybe into the next day.”
Ice 20 minutes gives me 20 minutes of no pain. I decide I am so tired I can sleep through the pain, (I wish I hadn’t killed the hornet).
In the morning my pain is gone. I order new pots, the kind we had at the Airbnb. Stainless, with glass covers and a tiny hole so the steam can escape.