13

Coffee-mate

I never really liked coffee.

I think that most of this has to do with my mother. It's not a negative association kind of thing, though. It's more the fact that the only kind of coffee she drank was one part Folgers and three parts Fat Free French Vanilla Coffee-mate. The saccharine concoction was her lifeblood, and as something so vital to her wellbeing, it had its own ritual. "Coffee Time" was always the best part of the day. It was right while Louie and I were finishing our breakfasts at the kitchen table, near the bay window. Louie always sat closest to the window, which also happened to be the seat closest to the door. He spent most of breakfast shoveling down whatever Mom made and staring out the window for the first sign of the neighbor boys being ready to leave. The minute they came within sight, he would shove his plate forward, throw an "I love you!" over his shoulder and bolt out the door.

I, on the other hand, sat more towards the center of the sunny yellow kitchen, and would turn my chair around so I could watch my mother in her element. She would flit across the room, from the fridge to the counter space, simultaneously making our lunches and brewing coffee. The kitchen was large and airy, but her presence in it was large and tangible despite the fact that she was only a couple of inches over five feet. It was in the yellows of the kitchen and the sunlight that streamed in from the bay window and the window over the sink. It was in the water colored pictures of flowers that she painted and subsequently hung up around the room. It was in the smell of baking bread, and of course, coffee, that seemed to permanently hang in the air. She was everywhere in the room, and yet she maintained one path, back and forth from the fridge to the counter.

And while she never stopped moving, she also never stopped singing. She always started out with "Good Morning," her favorite song from Singing in the Rain. Even though it was her favorite song, she never knew all of the words—something I didn't discover until after I married Carey and he made me actually watch the musical. I think it took me until I was married and moved out to realize this because I never felt like anything was missing from those moments. Whenever she didn't know the words, she would make them up—different ones each time—or distract us by dancing around the kitchen with her coffee mug or a loaf of bread. After a while, she would switch to church songs so Louie and I could sing along, although it was really only ever me. Finally, with the lunches all packed, and it just about time to be ready to go, she would bring her mug over to the table, a quarter of the way full, and have Louie or me pour the Coffee-mate until it was just the right creamy shade of tan. I got so good that by the time I was seven I didn't even need supervision. Instead, I would taste it after pouring in the creamer to make sure that it was just right, that I had poured in enough of the Coffee-mate that you couldn't even really taste the coffee anymore.

"It's perfect," I'd say, my nose wrinkled in disgust, as I pushed the mug over to her.

She would always laugh and take a sip. "You'll like it when you're older. It'll become your armor for the day."

I seemed to take this as a challenge and somehow, miraculously, passed through my college years on twelve awful ounces of 7-Eleven cinnamon flavored coffee. Twenty years into waking up at six in the morning to drive back into Lansdowne and to the high school that I thought I escaped after twelfth grade, I can still count the number of cups I've ever had on one hand.

The one I'm drinking right now makes five.

I curl my fingers around the mug that, like everything else in my parents' kitchen, has faded. The kitchen walls are no longer the sunshine hue I grew up with, but they have paled and chipped and smudged into a dirty wheat-like color. It's wheat after it's been tossed around by a storm, not the golden hues that I remember from our cross-country road trip in seventh grade. My mother's paintings have also faded along with her passion to draw. After she fell, all she was able to do while my father was off at work was sit around the house and paint. I think that, more than the arthritis, is what really killed her love for art, in the same way that fall stopped her from dancing, and when she couldn't dance, what was the use of singing? No, instead of flying around the kitchen, singing songs, she's sitting quietly at the kitchen table, idly stirring her coffee flavored creamer.

"Mom?" She doesn't look up. She just keeps stirring the coffee and staring down into it, so all I can see are her grey curls that have been cropped short for easy management. I wait a few minutes listening to the ticking of the cuckoo clocks that hang on every single wall on the rest of the first floor with the exception of the kitchen. "Do you want anything to eat?"

"I'll get something myself," she says, abandoning the spoon in the coffee and preparing to push herself up from the table.

"Just drink your coffee, I'll get it. What do you want?" I quickly interpose, standing up out of my chair and crossing to the fridge.

"I want you to stop telling me what to do," she starts again. I clench my teeth. I thought her meltdown in the hospital had been our last one today. I thought the coffee would help some, but like everything else, its potency seems to have faded as well. "I want you to stop telling me how to feel." Her face scrunches up and grows red. "I want you to listen to me because sometimes, just sometimes, I'm right. If you had listened to me, he'd be here. I told you he was getting worse." She breaks down into sobs that shake her whole body and cause me to tense up. I wish I wasn't so frustrated with my mother. I wish I was the kind of person who's warm and comforting and always knows what to say. I wish I was Ben, her baby boy whose mere presence makes everything right in her world. But I'm not. I'm Connie. I'm the one who fixes things and makes them work even if I can't always make them better. I'm the one who's not fair to her because I refuse to let her fall into self-pity. I'm the child she forgets to worry and care about because as she herself has said, I'm not her child anymore.

I'm her mother.

"You were both saying different things, and he's the one who actually has the cancer." I try to explain myself patiently, but either she doesn't hear or she doesn't want to hear.

"No one ever listens to me anymore. It's like I've lost my knee and my hands and my voice and now my husband."

I listen to her cry for a few minutes as I stare past her, looking at the basement door. I wish I could escape down there the way my father used to. The way he used to let me. But I can't. I walk back over and wrap an arm around her shoulders. "Let's go to bed," I whisper. She doesn't protest my help this time but abandons her half drunk coffee and shuffles along with me, past the basement door, out of the kitchen, into the entrance hall, and up the stairs to the second floor. We climb slowly because it's hard going with her bad knee, and she can't even hold onto the railing that well.

It takes almost fifteen minutes to get her upstairs, changed into her pajamas, and tucked into her bed. I smooth the covers over her and fold them under the mattress, the same way she used to when I was little. "No more room for monsters," I say gently as she sniffles.

"I can't do this alone anymore," she whimpers up at me. I want to point out that she hasn't done it alone for years. I want to yell at her that Dad has always been there for her, helping her through everything, and now it's her turn, and she's dropping the ball. She has never had to do it alone; that's the problem.

"I know," I whisper.

"You don't understand how hard it is for me, Connie," my mother sniffs again.

"I'm losing Dad, too," I argue softly, my voice wavering.

"But I'm losing my husband. You don't know what that's like. You could never know what that's like. I need him for everything." I take a shaky breath in and then blow it back out.

"I'm so sorry." I'd be surprised if she could hear my voice. I sit with her for a while more until she's finally snoring and I can go home.

I check my phone in the car. Carey has already texted me that he's home and making Shepherd's Pie for dinner. Annie's tried to call twice from school. I hope she's doing ok, but I don't bother calling back; she'll call tomorrow. I only called my parents monthly when I was in college, but she calls everyday, sometimes more than once. Some people told me I should be worried that she's calling so much and what it means for her life up there. They don't really get Annie though. She calls because she's a good daughter, because she wants to hear about what my days are like and give me a chance to vent. Sometimes she talks about her time at school and the struggles she has with her roommates and with the boys out there, but most of the time she just wants to hear me talk. I love it because it's exactly what I need. I hate it because it makes me feel exactly like my mother. Well, not exactly. I still listen to her problems and don't try to turn them into mine. And that's when it hits me that I need to call everybody. I try Heather first.

"What happened?" She doesn't bother answering with hello anymore, and I'm really ok with that.

"We went to visit Dad today, and—"

I hear a cry rise up from the background and a familiar whine of Mooom! "Hunter! Get off your brother. Now," Heather snaps in the background, but she's so loud it sounds like she's still talking to me.

"I didn' do it!" the young boy protests and breaks into tears.

"Get!" Heather snaps, and I can hear the heavy footsteps that indicate her making a grab for her youngest son. I assume she gets a hold of him because in the next second he bursts into tears and I can hear the heavy footfalls as she marches him into his room and commands him to stay there and think about what he's done. As if that ever works. "I'm sorry; what were you saying?"

"We went to visit Dad and apparently he's—" There's banging on the other end of the phone, and I realize Hunter is banging to get out of his room. I stop, waiting for Heather to settle the issue.

"He's…?" she shouts over the ruckus. Hunter is now pleading her name, and crying. I hear giggling in the background and guess that it's coming from Ryder. "Knock it off, I'm on the phone!" Heather barks, and now both boys are crying. "Sorry, what?" she tries to get me to start again.

"It's not looking good, Heather," I cut my speech down to this sentence, knowing this is all she has the time for.

"What are we down to?" To her credit, my sister doesn't cry. Her voice doesn't even get watery. Heather's stronger than all of us. I think back to when she was a baby and Mom and I would take turns rocking her to sleep and making sure she was ok and breathing. She spent her first few months on this earth fighting for her life and is all the stronger for it.

I have to swallow a couple of times before I'm able to get out the words. "We don't think he'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with us." She's silent for a while, probably counting down the days—because that's what we're down to now, days—that we have left.

"Peter has off on Thursday. We'll come in."

"Thanks," I say. "I love you."

"Love you too," she hangs up quickly, leaving me to call Louis.

The phone rings to the point where I'm sure that I'm going to talk to his answering machine, but then, finally I get an answer.

"Hey, Connie? Can I call you back?" he asks and I can hear Leah in the background trying to bribe the boys into taking a bath.

"Louis!" Leah snaps in the background. "Put down the phone. I need your help."

"I just have a quick update about Dad," I say.

"Yeah, I—"

"Louis!" Leah shouts. "Now!"

"Can you call later or, actually, can you just leave a message on the answering machine?"

"Just thirty seconds," I plead. "Dad—"

"Look, I've got more pressing things right now," Louis negotiates.

"You would say that, wouldn't you? You've never—" He hangs up. For a second I consider making him call me back, but I know that wouldn't work. He wouldn't care enough to. He knows that I won't be able to keep myself from calling if it's really important, and so, I call him back and leave a message about how they're stopping chemo, and how, if he's done being an asshole and feels so inclined, he should probably buy plane tickets to come up soon.

I'm in tears by the time I call Ben. At least he has the decency to not pick up. I leave the same message for him except without the part about being an asshole. I didn't expect Ben to actually care.

By the time I hang up the phone, I'm pulling into the driveway. Through the bay window, I can see Carey in the kitchen, finishing up dinner. He sticks the Shepherd's Pie back into the oven for a few more minutes, and I decided to take the opportunity to sit in the car for a the little bit of extra time and cry.

The minute I realize that the sound is my ringtone and not my alarm, I know what's happened.

He's gone.

It's hard packing up the house. It's where I spent my entire childhood, and there are just so many remnants of Dad that surround us. The model train sets, the Baja racing photos, the abundance of cuckoo clocks that tick away each minute as I work to place things in boxes with Carey and Annie and Cole. I hadn't been able to stop myself from calling Annie the minute after I found out about Dad. She had immediately packed a bag and after a failed call to Cole, called his R.A. and gotten him to wake Cole up so he could get ready to leave. The two left in the middle of the night and were home by breakfast. These past couple days she's been great. She's gotten up early and made breakfast and coffee everyday for Carey and Cole and myself. She knows I don't like coffee, but after seeing how tired I am she forces it on me by telling me to just take a sip of hers.

I can hear her now on the other side of the house, pounding away on the peddles of the old player piano that has sat unused in the living room ever since my mother fell. Annie's working through "Good Morning" and singing it as best she can. It's weird to hear all of the right lyrics echo through the house when I'm used to the immediacy and mistakes of a live performance. I want my mother to come dancing in through the door to the kitchen, swinging around a mug, but she hasn't danced in years. She hasn't been allowed to.

Instead, Cole comes into the room holding an empty box. "When's Aunt Heather getting here?" I've already placed him on Ryder and Hunter duty, but for the time being, he's been working at taking down most of the cuckoo clocks with Carey since they're up too high and too heavy for me to take down. I hope we can get most of them down before Thing 1 and Thing 2 get here, I don't want them to break the clocks that my father spent so many hours fixing.

"Soon," I sigh. Heather and Peter will be the only help we get, and I know that Carey is going to be busy running Peter interference to make sure that my brother-in-law doesn't say anything insensitive to Mom. It's not that Peter's a jerk, not like Louis, he just doesn't really think before he speaks. Or if he does, his filter's a lot more liberal than the any normal person's. Last Thanksgiving he showed us videos of whales exploding during most of the meal, and at Christmas, he talked about how, if you think about it, Jesus is Arabic, so wouldn't that make him a terrorist? Heather usually screams at him for these things, but she's also laughing, so he hasn't made much improvement over the years on determining what's appropriate.

At least he's coming, I think to myself. Louis won't be here for another couple of days, until just before the funeral. Ben had been unable to afford the soonest plane ticket in, so he'll be coming in two weeks, which means that in two weeks, I'll have to deal with Ben putting on the act of being the "good son" and hearing Mom rave about him and how if he was in the right situation, he would have let her move in with him.

Heather had offered to let Mom come and live with her and Peter, but Mom didn't want to deal with Ryder and Hunter. I knew Mom wanted me to offer, but I just couldn't. I couldn't be there to help her up and down the stairs. I couldn't watch her every moment of the day and make sure that she was ok. I couldn't be her hands and her cane. She needed a professional for that, and so, as much as she hated me, we had to put her in the home without Dad. We had to.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Cole reaching for the door to go down to the basement. "Cole!" I burst, stopping him.

"What?" He's clearly confused, and I wince a little bit, feeling bad for shouting at him. To him, it's just a basement. It's not the same forbidden wonderland it was to me and my siblings. Growing up, my mom kept the upper three levels of the house "company ready." She was built for being a Disney-level homemaker in her younger days, before she fell and shattered her knee. Her small frame was always sprightly and full of song. She even had the golden blonde locks and crystal blue eyes.

The basement, on the other hand, was my father's domain.

From the top of the stairs you could see it all laid out before you: just piles and piles of stuff. Abandoned woodworking projects, old motorcycle parts, toys that my parents and my siblings and I had outgrown, as well as things that my father picked up from the weekly yard sale shopping. Neither of my children would see any value to the broken rocking horse, or the old pink plastic tea set, but I had spent hours with my father in order to earn those gifts. Every Saturday he would wake up at 7:00 and then rouse us kids with a clear sharp whistle. The five of us would all load into the car and then cruise around the neighborhood looking for yard sales. Eventually Louie dropped out to watch cartoons, and after a few months of teasing from Louie, Ben did too. Heather and I, though, we went for hours with Dad, looking for stuff that maybe one day could be of use to somebody.

Amidst all of the piles of things were narrow, winding passageways that led to a couple of little clearings: one in the laundry area, and the other my father's work bench, out of which came new kitchen cabinets and wardrobes and things from yard sales made new and dozens and dozens of cuckoo clocks. My mom had always encouraged him to start a clock repair shop, but he'd never gotten around to it. He was so busy working on elevators that he could never find a good time to leave and start up his passion. "They have a new big job that they need old hands for," he would excuse. Or there was always his favorite comment, "This new helper is probably more broken than any clock I've ever prepared. They really need me to train him." It wasn't until they found the cancer that he was able to step away from the elevators, but then life happened and there just wasn't enough time then either.

I just shake my head at Cole. "I'll take care of it later." I don't want anyone touching the basement. I don't want anyone touching the yard sale memories or the memories of me being the only child allowed to repair clocks with my father. The door opens and I hear a scream of "I'm a T-Rex!". Heather has arrived.

We're halfway home before I get a call from Mom. She's almost unintelligible. Heather and Peter are too busy with the boys to help her go downstairs, and she just wants a cup of coffee since she won't be able to sleep anyway. "It's bad enough that I'm going to be ignored for the rest of my life. I just want someone to care about me now, a little bit, before you send me away." The whole car hears this and I can hear Annie mutter something. She's tired of dealing with my mother. We all are. But that doesn't change a thing when you're a parent.

"Carey," I plead softly as my mother resumes her sobs. I can hear Heather's voice calling out for my mother on the other end of the phone, but Mom doesn't listen. She's too focused on sending me on a first-class guilt trip. I look over at Carey as he heaves a sigh. His eyes are red and his jaw is tight, but he flips on the turn signal and turns around. We're back at the house in fifteen minutes.

By the time I walk in, Heather has Mom sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. "I'm sorry," Mom begins to tear up again, her whole face growing red. "I'm sorry, Carey. I'm sorry, Annie. I'm sorry, Cole." Annie brushes in and hugs Mom, sending my mother into a fresh wave of tears. Heather takes the opportunity to stand up and whisper to me.

"I told her I'd take her downstairs as soon as I finished putting the boys in the bath." I hold up a hand to stop her and shake my head.

"Don't even worry about it," I sigh. "Why don't you go back upstairs and help Peter?" Heather looks uncertainly between me and Mom, and then she leaves. Carey and Cole are in the living room already. I can hear Family Guy in the other room.

"How's your coffee?" Annie asks, sliding into the chair next to my mother.

"She made it wrong," my mother pushes the coffee away from her, sloshing some over the side. Annie's immediately up and crossing over to the sink to get paper towels. Meanwhile, I take the mug and dump the remainder of its contents out into the sink. There's still a little bit of coffee left in the pot from when Heather brewed some, so I pour what's left into the mug and then take the Coffee-mate out of the fridge, setting them both in front of my mother.

"Just pour it in until it's the right color," I instruct gently, overseeing the progress as she gets closer to the familiar shade of tan that indicates the perfect combination of sickly sweet and caffeine. I stop my mother once I see it's getting close, which is good because she goes for a few seconds longer before she stops. I lift the mug to my lips and take a taste. It's the same now as it was when I was a child, but I don't feel nauseous after this sip. Probably because I could use some armor now. I place the mug down in front of my mother, and immediately she lifts it up and takes a sip. "It's perfect," she whispers.

When I was fourteen, my grandfather died, and before we could find a good home for her, my grandmother stayed with us for a few months. I remember coming downstairs hearing the crying. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her arms, sobbing as my father rubbed her back. "I'm doing my best," she cried as I crept in, heading towards the coffeepot and the tin of Folgers.

"I know," my father soothed, stroking her hair. I turned on the sink to fill up the coffeemaker, and his head whipped, but my mother didn't seem to notice. He shot me a smile before turning back to her.

"I'm not trying to send her away. I just can't take care of her here. I just can't," my mother flew back in her seat, her hair wild and face completely red and swollen. "I mean look at it," she bawled, gesturing to her mangled knee. "How am I supposed to keep up with her and care for her when I can hardly even walk up the stairs by myself. She just doesn't see that no matter what I do it's never enough." It was the first time I ever heard my mother position herself as a victim because of her knee. It wasn't the last.

It wasn't until I opened the fridge that she realized I was in the room.

"Oh, Connie," she whimpered as I set the mug and Coffee-mate in front of her. "Don't let me get like this. Please, just don't let me." Her fingers wrapped around the mug and she shot me a watery smile.

Only the basement is left to pack by the time Louis gets here, which is good because the house has dissolved into complete chaos. Leah stalks around the house complaining about how there's nothing to feed the boys because everything has Red Dye #40 or Yellow Dye #6 or gluten in it. Heather hovers around Mom, trying to be extra helpful, but leaving Mom frustrated with the fact that she can never be alone with her own thoughts. Carey babysits Louis and Peter by entertaining them with ESPN and feigning interest in Peter's YouTube videos. Annie and Cole are on full-time kid duty, which mostly entails Cole allowing all five boys to chase him around the house while Annie sits in front of the basement door to keep them from bothering me. I'm sitting on the basement steps with an empty box next to me, trying not to cry. Trying, and utterly, miserably failing. I can hear the boys outside the door asking Annie what that noise is and why they can't go downstairs.

"It's a ghost," she tells them in a hushed voice. "And you don't want to walk in on a crying ghost because when they cry they get very hungry, and they might swallow you whole." The boys scream with delight and run away to find Cole.

I know I need to stop. I need to actually go into the basement and start sorting through our treasures and placing them into the boxes, but I can't stand up. It's like I'm five years old again, staring down the waves of the Ocean City, New Jersey beach as my parents try to coax me into the water. It was just the three of us at the time. Well, Louie was there, but he was two years old and attached to my mother's hip at all times.

"It's just water," my father prodded, extending his hand out to where I stood, a good four feet away from the edge of the water, arms crossed against my red and white striped one-piece. I scrunched my nose and shook my head.

"Just like the bath," my mother said with a smile, adjusting Louis so he sat on her other hip and she could reach out for me. "Take our hands, and we can do it together." I was able to hold out for a few seconds more before the smile got to me. Slowly, hesitantly, I walked forward and took both of my parents hands, and we made halting progress towards the water. I stopped once I reached the hard sand, still cool from where the last wave washed over it. The next wave came in, the water rushing up towards my feet and working its ways between my toes, causing me to jump up and down and squeal.

"Doesn't it tickle a little?" my mother asked laughing, and I nodded. "Do you want to go in further?" I nodded again and my parents walked me out further, until the water was up to my knees. I could see a wave building ahead of us, this one closer than the rest, growing taller and taller until it was clear, that this one wouldn't just lap at my knees. My parents seemed to see it coming too because their grips on my hand tightened. "This is a big one," my mother said. "You ready? On the count of three, we'll jump. One." The wave rushed forward, picking up speed.

"Two," my father said on my other side as it started to crest and fall.

"Three!" I jumped, and they lifted me up further into the air.

The door to the basement opens, and Annie finds me still sitting on the stairs. I see she's holding a mug. "You don't have to drink it if you don't want to, but I just thought you needed something," she explains as she scoots down next to me on the stairs. She hands over the faded mug, and I look down at it, tracing the words on the side with my thumb. It was the same mug I always gave my mother whenever she let me pick: I Mom.

"Thank you," I mumble looking up at my daughter's face. She gives a tightlipped smile and reaches over to taking my free hand in hers.

"We can do it together," she suggests. "On the count of three we'll get up and go down and pack it all. Alright?" I nod and tighten my grip around the mug. "One."

"Two," I follow, my heart pounding.

"Three."