I Told You So
When I was seven, I liked to climb the white picket fence near our backyard swamp and gaze into the muddy water below.
"What if I fall in? Will the monsters get me?" I would ask.
"There are no monsters," Mom always told me. "But you'll scrape your knees on the fence if you keep hanging on it like that."
Shot down by adult sensibility. The swamp lost its dangerous charm as it was magically transformed from an exciting playground into a stinking mire and home to a million bugs. And my mother had no sympathy for the scrapes on my knees.
"I told you so," she would say later, bandaging the wound. I loved to watch her hands while she worked because they were so sturdy and practical-looking. The were hands that knew how to get things done, and they looked it-except for the fingernails.
My mother had the most beautiful fingernails I have ever seen. The grew perfectly round and strong, never requiring a file. She didn't have to manicure them; in fact, I often saw her cutting them back to a manageable length with the good kitchen shears. Like her, they were impossibly strong and unbreakable, but somehow feminine and delicate at the same time.
I rarely saw my mother cry while I was growing up. There were no tears when her divorce was final, or when Dad remarried six months later, or when her own second marriage crumbled. She sat dry-eyed, through her brother's funeral after the Army mailed him home from Viet Nam. "He was so little," was all she said. Even as the final crystalline bugle notes dripped "Taps" from the autumn leaves, she didn't cry. I remember that I did, although I barely remembered my uncle.
The only time I saw her tears was the day she sat at the kitchen table with the telephone dangling limply from her hand. She stroked her right breast with her other hand and wept. "It's only tissue," she sobbed; "blood and skin and tissue. I'll still be me. I'll still be a woman."
I was so young at eighteen, so full of the foolish optimism of youth. I put a water glass in front of her and told her, "It's half-full, Mom, not half-empty."
It was she who became half-empty when they sliced off her femininity, although she managed to joke about being a real one-breasted Amazon now - history's only five foot tall Amazon, she would chuckle. She found a poster at a women's store with a picture of a naked woman whose mastectomy scar had been tatooed into a weaving floral vine across her shoulder and chest, and she displayed the poster prominently in our living room - much to my embarrassment.
She took pride in her prosthesis, standing in front of the mirror and bouncing up and down experimentally to see if the false one jiggled as well as the real one. "The fake looks better," she announced one afternoon.
"It should," I said. "It didn't nurse three children."
"I suppose you're worth it," she sighed.
She ordered a custom-made wig to exactly match the color and style of her own hair, and we watched the calendar, making bets on whether or not the wig would arrive before her hair fell out. Every morning, she would shake her head in my direction and give me a thumbs-up sign. Every evening before bed she would cross her fingers and reach up to pat her hair.
One Sunday, she awoke with perhaps a dozen hairs left on her scalp. I found her hiding in the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head.
"Don't look at me," she whispered.
When the wig finally arrived, Mom was able to joke again. "At least I'll never have to worry about bad hair days," she laughed. She lost weight and began to look older, but the treatment was working.
"Remission," the doctor said.
"I told you so," I said.
She planted bulbs that fall. Tulips, daffodils and crocuses. "I can't wait to see them bloom," she told me.
She took part in a fundraiser fashion show for post-mastectomy clothing. "I'm not sure how I feel about this," she confided when she was asked to be a model. "What does it say about my looks that I had to go bald and lose a breast before anyone would ask me to model for them?"
I thought she was doing well, actually getting better, until the October evening when she suddenly hurled her book across the room.
"I can't read it!" She screamed at me. "It doesn't make sense. I don't understand the words anymore!"
The disease had moved into her brain. She went back into the hospital for stronger doses of chemotherapy, but it was too late. Nothing could slow the growth of seven brain tumors that soon led her to forget my name, forget who visited her, forget how to use the toilet. She would lie in her own waste, assuring us that no, she really didn't have to go.
I rubbed lotion on her raw, chafed buttocks. Amaretto lotion from Jacobson's where I couldn't afford to shop. It was a gift from a friend. They always brought her presents and then darted out the door like minnows scattering from a human stepping into the water. The shorter the visit, the more expensive the gift.
One minnow brought a box of Jordan Almonds, which my mother couldn't eat because they were too hard for her to chew. I ate them all because they were my favorites.
"They'll make you sick," Mom warned me in a rare moment of clarity. She wet the bed and the smell made me vomit.
"I told you so," she said.
I hate Jordan Almonds.
In February, her doctor said that she would surely die any day. For three days, she prattled in some unknown language that was almost understandable. At the end of those three days, she stopped. I was dozing in the chair by her bed when it dawned on me that the incessant murmur of her voice was gone.
Wide awake now, I kept my eyes closed for a long moment, seized by fear and hope but not sure what I was hoping for.
When I looked at her, she was watching me with a smile.
"Hi there," she chirped.
"Do you know who I am?" I asked her.
"Of course." She closed her eyes and settled back against the pillows with a smug look on her face.
"I know who you are," she repeated, not opening her eyes.
"What's my name?"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake. You're Amy. See? I told you so."
After she slept, she told me about the voyages she had been on during those three days. She believed she'd been to England, dancing for the Queen.
She made plans for her future from her bed. She and I would write a book together, she decided. I would have to do the actual writing because she could no longer focus on a page, but she would feed me the ideas when she came home from the hospital.
"You're not coming home!" I finally snapped one day in May. "You are dying. Why don't you just get it over with?"
She lost sentenced after that, murmuring disjointed words about tulips and used Corvettes.
Her fingernails warped and curled and turned black, and eventually fell off. The skin beneath them was tender and pink but she was beyond feeling pain. Her hands were like shelled lobster meat when its hard, protective armor is removed. Bare and vulnerable. She would lie in bed, stroking the chipped polish on my nails and humming a forgotten tune. "Red," she would say happily.
One night, I noticed short, dark stubble on her scalp. That meant that the chemotherapy was completely out of her system, allowing the hair to grow again. The cancer was growing, too. I held her nail-less hands in mine and kissed her as I left the hospital for the night. I told her, "I love you, Mom. I'll see you in the morning."
I'll never know if she heard me. When I left her that night, she was curled in a ball and keening a wordless lullaby.
"This is it," I thought with relief. "It's finally going to end. Please, let it end."
I cried again that night, ashamed of my relief. I already missed her because the mother that I knew and loved for her spirit and strength had left me long ago. The skeletal simpleton in the mechanical bed was just her body, and I didn't expect to grieve for its passing. I honestly didn't believe that I could miss her any more than I already did.
I was wrong.
Even now, when I close my eyes, I see her as she was on that final night, wailing like a helpless child. I have to look at older snapshots of her to remind myself of her sideways smile or the funny gap between her two front teeth. I can hardly remember the granite-hard green of her eyes when she was angry and I don't recall which eye had the dropping eyelid. I can't visualize the way her stick-straight black hair poked out behind her ears no matter how she tried to curl it. Photographs remind me of all of this, but not my memory. The only pictures in my memory are of a dying woman, her skin yellow under a bald scalp, her bones jutting out sharply under her parchment-like skin. I can still see her gaping black mouth and cracked lips gibbering in her idiot's voice in words that not even she understood.
The next morning, I noticed for the first time that her flowers had begun to bloom across the front lawn. The telephone rang as I gazed at them.
I stared at those flowers, planted in the autumn of our hope, and I began to laugh, for order and reality had obviously begun to slip for her long before she planted the bulbs. The blooms stopped in silent confirmation of the disease that had ravaged her mind even as it destroyed her body: here was a tulip, there a daffodil, here one of each. They sprinkled the lawn in reckless abandon, scattered reminders of my mother's faith in blossoms.
I barely heard the crisp medical voice on the other end, telling me how sorry it was. I thanked it and returned to the bizarre flower bed, where I sank to my knees near a cluster of daffodils and brushed my face against the petals, expecting tears but finding none.
In time, I stood and brushed the dirt from my knees. There were things to be done, details to be taken care of, responsibilities to be shouldered. I had taken care of my mother for months, as she had taken care of me for years, and now it was time for me to take care of myself.
The flowers would be mulched the next time I mowed, effectively ending childhood and naive optimism.
"It's finally over," I assured myself. "I told you so."