The daughter waves a hand in front of her mother’s face, fascinated—and alarmed—by the half visible irises, the rheumy whites. Her mother is sleeping, mouth open, a hoarse rattle emanating from deep within her throat. She has always been known to sleep with her mouth shut, sometimes clacking her teeth behind sealed lips, chewing on her dreams. The daughter once laughed at this oddity, teased her for it. Now her mother does not appear to be dreaming. The hospital bed takes up half the living room.
Galvanized by the words fatal and late-stage, the daughter has flown across the globe with a suitcase full of too many pairs of underwear, not enough socks, none of her books, prepared to nurse, to provide comfort. But now that she is here, she stares and stares at her sleeping mother, thinking, What will we do now?
Her mother finally stirs, runs a heavy hand over her lips, smacking her tongue to moisten it. Her eyes widen, then dim even as she smiles. “Baby girl,” she says, “this wasn’t meant for you.”
On tables flanking the bed are bottles of prescriptions, ayurvedic creams, a pain log, and crystals purported to cleanse the atmosphere. On impulse, the daughter squirts cream into her palm. Her father used to beckon the mother over to the sofa after dinner, seat her between his legs, press hard fingers into the muscles along her spine. Her body arched cat-like at his touch. Sometimes she’d want her feet rubbed, her calves. So now the daughter pulls her mother’s legs free from the bedcovers, begins to massage each. She is horrified by these legs, by the lifeless pale yellow of them, by the fluid that has collected, stretched the skin taut. But she does not betray this. Instead, she frowns as though concentrating. Her mother protests, says it’s not necessary, but the daughter continues to work.
Her father watches them, his usually brown skin now blotched and gray. “I bought her I Love Lucy, the complete series.”
The daughter meets his eye, sees him differently. He sits on the makeshift bed he has built in the bay window beside his wife; since their wedding day thirty-three years earlier, he has rarely slept without her. Now, in the night he must sometimes bring her water and help her to the bathroom. Often he holds her hand in the dark when she has nodded off.
Before, in the mornings, her mother packed his lunch for work, borrowed his sweaters during the day, left sticky lozenges, crumpled tissues, shells from the beach in his pockets. She ironed his shirts, edited the articles he wrote for his company newsletter. Before bed they shared the minutia of their days, sipped nightcaps, debated the veracity of global political conspiracy. Now, he is already alone, and this is worse than the leg the daughter is kneading, which suddenly feels spongy, too yielding to her fingers.
“I’m glad I’m here,” she tells him.
“We’ve traveled, your mom and I,” he says, rubbing his hands up and down the length of his thighs, generating heat. “Been almost everywhere in the last fifteen years. We built a new life while you built yours.”
The daughter stops massaging, tucks the bed covers around her mother’s legs, longs for the studio flat she abandoned where her neighbors spoke a different language, left homemade pickles on her doorstep.
“It’s okay,” her mother says, chiding. “She’s back.”
Abroad, the daughter felt liberated by the strange currency and food, the grand architecture, the foreign nuances of gesture (two kisses, not one, first the left side then the right), the freedom to explore without inhibition, without the weight of responsibility, of duty. She spoke to her parents occasionally, once a week if time allowed, but more likely once every other week, which she preferred. Her mother was very curious about the daughter’s experience, but her father never asked questions.
Before the daughter left home, he scooped ice cream—coconut, his favorite—into bowls and sat her down on the sofa. “You’re needed here,” he told her. “This bohemian lifestyle of yours will haunt you later. One day you’ll be forty, wearing a smock, that beautiful hair of yours cut too short, with no place to call your own. Nobody has that kind of stamina.”
She cupped her bowl with both palms, as though making an offering at some altar. She was not a child, not anymore. He’d kept her from school dances, told her to make money, that art was a distraction. He alluded often to his full plate—trim the hedges, wash the cars, stain the decks, renovate the rental properties, expunge viruses from the laptop, shampoo the carpets. When she dared say no, that she was too busy to help, he grew a shade cooler, regarded her as if from a distance, and she was filled with a nagging, ever-present guilt. She didn’t like this kind of love, the kind that kept people too close. Her hands ached as the cold of the bowl penetrated her skin, moved through her in tendrils until inside she went numb.
He ate his ice cream, which seemed to make him happy. “You can have mine,” she said, holding her bowl toward him.
And there it was, that shadow settling over his face. She let the guilt come, ripple right through her.
On the way to the airport, toward a plane bound for a different continent, her father drove in silence, and in the backseat her mother sat beside her. “He’ll get over it,” she whispered. “He comes from a family of wanderers.”
Squeezing her mother’s hand, the daughter replied, “We should all have that.” She intended to leave for an eternity. “Stability is overrated, sucks you dry.”
These first weeks home, the daughter has spent the majority of the time upstairs, while downstairs her father brushes her mother’s hair, gives sponge baths, administers medications. Her mother, too weak to leave her bed, would like to find an old scrapbook, has suggested places where the daughter might search for it—the garage rafters, the many bins stacked in the corner of the den, on the shelves in the father’s office. But this morning, the disarray of the house is disconcerting—so many stuffed closets, an excess of dust-collecting ornaments, cupboards crammed with papers. She has determined to be methodical in her search, to begin in her parents’ bedroom before tackling the other areas of the house. She wades through the room, creating “keep” piles and “toss” piles. Progress is slow as she sorts through the chaos of her mother’s belongings, a sixty-seven-year collection of clutter—old clothes, grocery lists scribbled on the backs of receipts, gag gifts made in China.
She rummages through the top of the back clothes closet, in the recesses where there is a tangle of yarn and knitting sticks, musty extra pillowcases of now incomplete sheet sets, music tapes from a previous decade, shoeboxes full of balled socks. Cobwebs tickle her face. She cleans, organizes everything.
She approaches the dresser. A pin pricks her as she feels around toward the back of the drawer containing her mother’s pajamas. She sucks her finger, curses, yanks the drawer out, empties its contents onto the floor. She pushes back her hair, stares at the mess, slumps down to tidy up. Other drawers contain photographs, handwritten letters, curios she hasn’t seen since she was a child. She touches a black and white picture of her great uncle. He often stole her nose with a quick cup of his hand over her face. She did not miss him until now.
In a chest among her art projects dating back to preschool she finds an empty cigar box that smells of her long-deceased grandfather. In a panic, she scours the room for something that will capture her mother’s scent, but she was gone too long. Nothing is familiar to her. Everything smells of illness.
She places the “keep” items in boxes, which she takes to the sickbed. Together she and her mother sift through the contents, shaking their heads in wonder at who they used to be, not really understanding who they’ve become. Her mother momentarily drifts away on a current of memory when she sees a ceramic doll, a hairline crack along its face.
“It was under the bed,” the daughter says.
“A gift,” her mother replies, eyes unfocused, calm. “From my mom.”
The daughter suddenly feels as though she is not allowed to enter some private and unassailable space, that there are things she doesn’t know. This disturbs her, causes her to wonder about her mother as a child with toys, with parents who read her stories, as a young woman who fell in love, perhaps more than once. She replaces the doll in the box. A sliver of afternoon sun through the window burns the back of her neck.
“My scrapbook?” her mother asks when they are done looking through everything.
“It’s not so easy,” the daughter says.
Her mother makes space on the bed. “Perhaps tomorrow,” she murmurs. “Come. Let’s watch an episode of I Love Lucy.”
Smiling, the daughter eases herself gently beside her mother, who kisses her hair, holds her in arms once stout, now feeble. The smell of sick skin is too close, but still, the daughter is consoled when her mother squeezes, a store of old strength used for this moment.
“This is good,” her mother says. “Let’s laugh.”
In the mornings the daughter pours coffee, joins her parents in the living room, turns down the eight o’clock news they’ve been watching. She is still sleepy but enjoys the mornings, how raw and untouched they seem. She opens her journal. Each of them does, pens ready.
“Christmas,” her father says. “1982.”
Her mother claps, sharp, as she remembers. She points at the daughter. “You were five, lost your shoe.”
“Went off into the mud instead of helping cut down the tree,” her father says. “You dipped your foot into a bog, withdrew a pristine white sock. Brand new shoes!”
The daughter shakes her head. “I fell.”
“Fell down crying,” he replied, “after you saw your shoeless foot.”
She laughs. “I was such a mess, you both made me walk to the car. There was a squish in my sock that I will never forget.” She grins because they’re having more fun together than they have in years. She scribbles in her journal, records everything.
Sometimes, in the afternoons, friends and family visit. “We’re praying for you,” they tell her mother, their voices somber, their heads cocked mournfully. Scripted solemnity her mother calls it. And one person actually does script it in a thirty-two-verse poem that he insists on reciting. Another sings hymns. Yet another delivers hemp powder and a crate full of cantaloupes, sits down and maps out a strict diet involving only these two ingredients.
The daughter worries these people are doing more harm. Her shoulders harden, muscles cramp whenever the doorbell rings. But at each occasion, her mother sits up in her bed with frank amusement just shy of rolling her eyes, calls for tea to be made, for cookies to be set out on plates. She lifts the mood, asks her guests many questions, about their lives, their hopes. And they tell her everything. The daughter begins to love these visitors, the room warm with the feeling of good fortune.
The days, then weeks, pass in this way, and the daughter begins to believe she can forget her other life, the places she has yet to see, her plans to trek the Himalayas, to lounge in a Balinese artist’s colony, to run a bed and breakfast on New Zealand’s south island. She begins to believe this time with her mother does not have to end, that it can go on forever.
Throat tight, the father reports the latest lab results. Breathless, he loosens the collar of his shirt, sinks down onto his bay-window bed. An increase in white blood cells.
The mother, who has been bedridden for so long, throws off her covers, takes her husband’s arm and makes her way to the kitchen on shaky legs. “I’ll make your favorites,” she announces. “Every dish you’ve ever loved.”
The daughter sets up a chopping station where her mother can sit and dice. Her father flicks on the classical radio station. Her mother taps her feet to Schubert, points her knife at her two sous chefs, conducting the rhythm of the kitchen in which she once made fruit roll ups and cream puffs, casseroles and curries.
It is long after dark when the food is ready and they finally eat. The daughter’s legs ache from standing so long at the stove, but the ache is good. The tandoori chicken marinated in spiced yogurt, the eggplant Parmesan prepared with extra basil, stir fry veggies in a sweet peanut sauce, all are exactly as she remembers. She sits, enjoys the relief in her muscles. She takes some of everything, eats quickly, barely chews. It is like she will never feel full.
“That’s my girl,” her mother says, serving the daughter seconds.
The refrigerator is empty. Her father makes a grocery list, grabs his keys, heads for the door. The daughter watches him go, her limbs weak with a sudden lethargy. She also wishes for the chance to leave the house, to breathe a different air.
“I’m tired,” she says to no one, but these are not the right words.
She has been through more than half the house in search of the scrapbook, but still she cannot find it. Oxygen tanks, stacks of gauze, and other hospital supplies obstruct the greater part of the living room, but today the daughter decides to tackle this space. She works with a grim focus, combing through the congested nooks of the display case, the entertainment center cupboards, the large wicker chest, dusting everything, tossing junk, reorganizing. Her mother doesn’t seem to notice. Today the yellow cast to her skin is darker, almost amber. Her eyes have gone flat. She holds the television remote, flipping through the channels. Hours pass.
“No sign of it?”
The daughter shakes her head.
Her mother runs a slow finger over the remote buttons. “I was young once,” she says, her eyes wet. “Like you. But I don’t recall ever being that way.”
It’s past lunch, so the daughter eats a quick sandwich, and although her mother has not complained of hunger she cuts an apple and slices cheese, arranges the wedges on a small plate, adds blueberries, pours a glass of sparkling water, takes everything to the sickbed. Her mother eats half before setting aside the plate. She doesn’t drink the water, continues to flip through the channels.
Settled in a recliner, the daughter reads a novel, the story of a man who sprouts wings and flies south for the winter. Soon she is sleeping and her book falls closed on her lap. She can feel her head lolling to the side but is too exhausted to get up for a pillow. She dreams of grass, long, the kind that undulates on hills, like waves at sea. The grass appears soft, fine like rabbit’s fur, but when she sets her feet upon it, she is disappointed to discover it is coarse.
At once the daughter is on her feet, jolted awake by the urgency in her mother’s voice. She is not scared, not yet. She is just ready.
“My bucket,” her mother points.
The daughter scrambles, shoves the container below her mother’s chin, and instantly the air is rancid. Suppressing a gag, she wishes to cover her mouth, but she does not. Instead she sits beside her mother, rubs her back. Her mother leans in, lets her head fall against the daughter’s breast. They don’t move for a long while. The daughter, whose body has grown numb, refuses to shift, even slightly, eyes averted from the contents of the bucket. Her mother shivers, and after a time murmurs, “Can we stay here, like this?”
The daughter nods, her skin warm with a shock of affection that also feels like fear. “You don’t ever have to move.”
There are many trails along the beach where they live. Her father has been gone now for hours, and the daughter suspects that he has left, that he has followed the coastline without once looking back. She flushes her mother’s mess into the toilet, and as she rinses the bucket with antibacterial soap, she pictures a man in a coat, collar turned up against the wind as he travels on foot, his pockets empty, no trace of the people he left behind.
She tries once more to read her book, but sees only words on the pages without being able to decipher them, her brain hot with latent panic. Daylight is eerie and orange when keys finally jingle in the lock. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath.
“Trunk’s full,” her father calls, setting several bags of groceries on the kitchen table. “We’re restocked.”
Voice low, the daughter asks, “Where were you?”
He indicates the bags on the table and with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, nods toward the car in the driveway. “The bags won’t carry themselves in.” He heads back outside.
She follows. “That was hours ago.”
“I sat in the parking lot,” he replies, hefting more bags from the trunk. “I didn’t even think.”
“She threw up,” the daughter says, straining against the shout lodged in her throat. As he walks away, she grabs his arm. “You left me alone.”
Her father swivels around on his heel, snapping his arm free, blood in his cheeks. “You’ve got that backwards, my girl.”
As if over night, the mother’s bones have suctioned her skin—now waxy and sallow—causing her eyes and cheeks to sink, her nose, chin, and eyebrow ridge to jut forth. She wears a scarf, an over-sized sweatshirt, pajama pants, and thick wool socks. There is always a draft. The mood takes an upswing when she does eat, during the rare occasions when the smallest bit of food disappears off her plate, particularly when it seems as though it will stay down.
“She ate more today,” the father says in the evenings, placing the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. The daughter never says this, although, as she empties a plateful of untouched fruit, cheese, and saltine crackers into the trash, she would like to believe him. She begins a list of foods her mother still likes, concocts creative recipes, new ways for her to stomach them.
Her father has tried to limit guests now, but people insist on dropping by. One neighbor wishes to share news of a new meditation practice that has proven to cure ninety-two percent of apparently hopeless cases. Her mother does not listen, shifts onto her side, clutches the edge of her pillow.
The daughter ushers the neighbor out of the house, closes the door, twists the lock shut. She is convinced these visitors talk amongst themselves, that they keep a competitive tally of how many times they’ve brought homemade soup or flowers. The flowers are the worst; the living room smells nauseatingly sweet. Petals litter the carpet.
She needs good energy, they say, needs to be surrounded by it. They don’t seem to consider that what her mother needs most is their absence, a chance to replenish her reserves.
The daughter wonders if this also applies to her. Her lungs compress, her stomach churns. She swallows this sick feeling, trying not to think of those phone calls from abroad, when all she did was talk. It’s amazing here in Guatemala. Clouds ring the tops of volcanoes like fur wraps, like white mink. It’s impossible to stand in the Black Sea if you go in deep. The sensation is wild, like you’re out of control.
She never asked her mother about what was happening back home.
She is suddenly aware of every demand she has ever made: crust-less sandwiches, jewelry, new clothes, so much of her mother’s time that might have been spent on a degree in architecture or engineering or something other than administration. She asked her mother to hold many secrets—her lack of money, the ex-lover who blackened her eye, her fear of being alone, of never becoming anything of value—to store these confidences, keep them safe despite the worry and heartbreak they must have caused.
Mom, can you help? Mom, I need you. Mom, Mom, Mom.
The bathroom tiles are cool through the cotton soles of the daughter’s socks. She’s crouched low, arms raised, fingers curled over the edge of the sink, forehead pressed against the porcelain underside of the basin. On the other side of the closed door a mess awaits; she has undone the den, and though the process of doing so seemed to happen gradually—first this bin emptied, then that—it appears frenzied and desperate in the aftermath, an explosion of debris. And still, no scrapbook. Her strict sense of order eludes her now. She presses her forehead more firmly into the porcelain.
What’s inside it? she asked her mother.
Plans, her mother said. I had so many. Wrote them all down. Checked off so few.
Dancing plans, big-money plans, hiking-up-Mount-Kilimanjaro plans, fame. I was going to be a tightrope walker.
Why do you need it? Why now?
Her mother’s thoughts seemed to wander then, as if chasing a daydream, but she said nothing, rubbed her eyes.
The father calls through the bathroom door, his hard-fisted knocks echoing off the tiles. Jarred, the daughter lifts her head. She hasn’t been sleeping and cannot be certain of her conversation with her mother, does not know if it was real. Perhaps these plans are her own.
Still knocking, her father raises his voice. “What happened out here?”
The daughter rises, slowly opens the door, her palm firm against the round metal knob.
His lips are stiff and colorless when he speaks, but he is not angry. She understands he is scared. “Not everything needs cleaning out,” he says. “I’m still here.”
She blinks, taking that in. “Where have you been?” she asks him. “On your travels with Mom.”
“Places you’ve never even heard of,” he says. He is just stating the truth. “Most times, getting there, we never left the house.”
She sighs, takes his hand. Although he keeps his distance, he lets her take it, squeezes hers in reply, and she wonders why her life, each adventure, each day away from home, hasn’t brought more wisdom and growth now that she is back.
Downstairs, midway between the sickbed and the bathroom, the father labors under the mother’s weight as she sags against him. He tried to take her to the toilet, but her body went limp. He cries out, and the daughter comes running. But she stops cold at the sight of her parents, at the stretched tendons of her father’s neck, her mother’s slack arms and the bulging knuckles of her bony hands.
Her mother is trying to speak, but she cannot form words. Her facial features droop like soft clay.
“Look here at me,” the father tells the daughter in an even tone, his eyes piercing hers. “You take her other side, but you look here, at me.”
And that’s what she does, she lets her father guide her. Even as her racing heart sets off the neurons in her head like firecrackers, he has convinced her that this is something she can do. He has convinced her that while she is panicked, he will not be.
An ambulance would take too long, as would the hospice nurse, so together they carry her mother to the car, recline the seat and strap her in. She squirms, seems to be in pain, so the daughter reaches out, touches her shoulder. Her father drives carefully, but his foot inches the pedal down, hands firm on the wheel, neck strained forward as he scans the freeway horizon for traffic jams.
“Honey,” he says, and the daughter is certain he is talking to her. “I’m right here.”
Admitted to the hospital, her mother sleeps with the aid of a morphine drip. The daughter sits with her in sweat-dried clothes, fatigued by her earlier surge of adrenaline. Antiseptic fumes sting her nose. The lulling drone of hospital machines vibrates deep within her muscles. She has never experienced this sort of quiet, of a body shutting down.
She feels a dull sense of obligation to get ice chips, a sandwich for her father, call relatives, but she does not want to move. She is in no hurry to leave this place. Her mother is here. She does not wish to hurtle toward the inevitable. She’s perfectly fine in her chair, watching, holding on.
Her father steps out, returns with coffee in paper cups.
“I can stay with you, if you need,” the daughter tells him.
“Not forever, but for a bit.”
The skin around his eyes grows tight. “Maybe when you go, I’ll visit.”
“Sure,” she says. “That’ll be fine.”
Her mother’s lost scrapbook is now foremost in the daughter’s thoughts as she sips her coffee, those dancing-big-money-hiking-up-Mount-Kilimanjaro-tightrope-walker plans. And there is more, she is certain, secret joys and fears, old coins and adolescent trinkets glued to its pages, notes from boys passed in class. These things trouble and amaze the daughter; she cannot fathom her mother in a time before motherhood.
She left no corner of the house untouched. Every room, drawer, cupboard, and shelf has been organized, weeded of rubbish. But now, as she sits here, she has this strange feeling she’ll find it as soon as she and her father get home. It will be somewhere obvious, right out in the open, and she’ll spot it immediately, see it without even having to search.
She continues to sip her coffee, considering this, closes her burning eyes. She’s floating now, in the Black Sea. She’s trying to force her legs down, swipe her toes against the bottom, failing to work against the brine. And her mother is there, doing the backstroke, making her way across the water that’s reflecting the pulsing sun, feeling no need to plant her feet on the muddy silt below.