“I ate yesterday.”
“I know. Come on.” She held her mother’s hand and helped her to rise. After too much time spent on this metal bench, her mother’s body straightened slowly, popping and creaking at the new movement.
As soon as she was fully upright, Mom pulled away from Meredith and walked up the flagstone path toward the house.
Meredith let her go on ahead.
Meredith followed her into the kitchen, where she called Jeff and told him she wouldn’t be home for breakfast after all. “Mom was in the garden again,” she said. “I think I better work here today.”
“Come on, Jeff. Be fair—”
He hung up.
Stung by the sound of the dial tone, she called Jillian instead. They immediately fell into their easy routine, talking about school and Los Angeles and the weather. Meredith listened to her eldest daughter in amazement. As was happening more and more often lately, she heard this confident young woman talking about chemistry and biology and medical schools, and Meredith wondered how it had happened, this growing up and moving on. Only yesterday, Jillie had been a pudgy girl with gaps in her teeth who could spend an entire afternoon staring at an apple bud, waiting for it to blossom. It’s coming, Mommy. The flower will be here any second. Should I go get Grandpa?
And teaching Jillian to drive had taken about ten minutes. I read the manuals, Mom. You don’t have to grit your teeth. Trust me.
“I love you, Jillie,” Meredith said, realizing a second too late that she’d interrupted her daughter. She’d been saying something about enzymes. Or maybe ebola. Meredith laughed; she’d been caught not listening. “And I’m really proud of you.”
“I’m putting you into a coma, aren’t I?”
“Just a deep sleep.”
Jillian laughed. “Okay, Mom. I gotta run anyway. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Beetle.”
When Meredith hung up, she felt better. Whole again. Talking to her girls was always the best prescription for the blues. Except, of course, when those same conversations caused the blues. . . .
For the rest of the day, she worked from her mother’s kitchen table; in addition to paying taxes and reading crop reports and overseeing warehouse costs, she cajoled her mother into eating and paid her bills and washed her clothes.
Finally, at eight o’clock, when the dinner dishes were done and the food was put away, she went into the living room.
Mom sat in Dad’s favorite chair, knitting. A floor lamp glowed beside her; the light gave her face a softness that was illusory. To her left, the candle on the altar of the Holy Corner sputtered and sent smoke spiraling upward.
Mom’s eyes were closed, even while her fingers wielded the knitting needles. Shadowy lashes fanned down her pale cheeks, giving her an eerily sad look.
“It’s time for bed, Mom,” Meredith said, striving to sound neither impatient nor tired. She flicked on the ceiling light and in an instant the intimacy of the room was gone.
“I can manage my own schedule,” Mom said.
And so it began, the endless grind of getting Mom upstairs into bed. They fought about all of it: brushing teeth, changing clothes, taking off socks.
At just past nine, Meredith finally got her mom settled into bed. She pulled the covers up to her chin, just as she’d once done for Jillian and Maddy. “Sleep well,” Meredith said. “Dream of Dad.”
“It hurts to dream,” Mom said quietly.
Meredith didn’t know what to say to that. “So dream of your garden. The crocuses will be blooming soon.”
“Are they edible?”
That was how it happened lately; one moment her mother was there, behind her blue eyes, and then just as suddenly she’d be absent.
Meredith wanted to believe it was grief that was causing these changes in her mother, all of this confusion. With grief, there would be an end to it.
But each day it went on, each time Mom seemed disconnected to the world and confused by it, Meredith lost a little bit of faith in Dr. Burns’s assessment. She worried that it had to be Alzheimer’s instead of grief. How else to explain her mother’s sudden obsession with leather shoes and pounds of butter (which Meredith now found hidden all through the house), and the fairy-tale lion that she sometimes found her mother talking about?
Meredith touched her not-mother again, soothing her as she would a frightened child. “It’s okay, Mom. We have plenty of food downstairs.”
“I’ll sleep for a minute, then I’ll go to the roof.”
“No going to the roof,” Meredith said tiredly.
Mom sighed and closed her eyes. Within moments, she was asleep.
Meredith went around the room picking up the blankets and other items Mom had dropped.
Downstairs, she put a load of clothes in the washer so they’d be ready to go when she got here tomorrow. Then she finished the two care packages for Jillian and Maddy.
It was ten o’clock by the time she was done.
At home, she found Jeff in his office, working on his book.
“Hey,” she said, coming into the room.
He didn’t turn around. “Hey.”
“How’s the book going?”
“I still haven’t read it.”
“I know.” He turned to her then.
The look he gave her was familiar, full of disappointment, and suddenly she saw the two of them and this moment from a distance, and the new perspective changed everything. “Are we in trouble, Jeff?”
She could see that he was a little relieved by her question, that he’d been waiting for her to ask it. “Yeah.”
“Oh.” She could see that she’d disappointed him again, that he wanted to talk about these troubles she’d suddenly excavated and tripped over, but she didn’t know what to say. Frankly, this was the last thing she needed now. Her mom was crossing the road into crazy and her husband thought they were in trouble.
Knowing it was a mistake and unable to correct it, she left his office—and his sad, disappointed look—and went up to the bedroom they’d shared for so many years. She stripped down to her underwear and put on an old T-shirt, and climbed into bed. A pair of sleeping pills should have helped, but they didn’t, and later, when he crawled into bed, she knew he knew she was still awake.
She rolled over and pressed up against his back, whispered, “Good night.”
It wasn’t enough, wasn’t anything, and they both knew it. The conversation they needed to have was out there, like a storm cloud, gathering mass in the distance.
In mid-February, green was the color of defiance. White crocuses and snowdrops blossomed overnight, their thin, velvety green stalks pushing up through the glittering white blanket of snow.
Every day, Meredith vowed to talk to Jeff about their troubled marriage, but each time she made such a promise to herself something would happen that moved her in a different direction. And the truth was that she didn’t want to talk about it. Not really. She had enough on her plate with her mother’s increasing confusion and weird behavior. A newlywed might not be able to understand how troubles in a marriage could be ignored, but any woman who’d been married for twenty years knew that almost anything could be overlooked if you didn’t mention it.
One day at a time; that was how you made it through. Like an alcoholic who doesn’t reach for the first drink, a couple could simply not say the sentence that would begin a conversation.
But it was always there, hanging in the air like secondhand smoke, an unexpected carcinogen. And today, finally, Meredith had decided to begin it.
She left the office early, at five o’clock, and ignored the errands that needed to be done on the way home. The dry cleaning could be picked up later and they could go a day without groceries. She drove straight to her mother’s house and parked out front.
As expected, she found Mom in the winter garden, dressed in two nightgowns and wrapped in a blanket.
Meredith buttoned her coat as she went out there. Nearing her mother, she heard the soft, melodic cant of her voice saying something about a hungry lion.
The fairy tale again. Her mother was out here alone, telling stories to the man she loved.
“Hey, Mom,” Meredith said, daring to place a hand on her mother’s shoulder. She’d learned lately that she could touch her mother at times like this; sometimes Meredith’s touch could even help ease the confusion. “It’s cold out here. And it will be dark soon.”
“Don’t make Anya go alone. She’s afraid.”
Meredith let out a sigh. She was about to say something else when she noticed the new addition to the garden. There was a bright new copper column standing next to the old verdigris-aged one. “When did you order that, Mom?”
“I wish I had some candy to give him. He loves candy.”
Meredith helped her mother to her feet. She led her back into the bright, warm kitchen, where she made her a cup of hot tea and reheated a bowl of soup for her.
Her mother huddled over the table, shivering almost uncontrollably. It wasn’t until Meredith gave her a slice of bread, slathered with butter and honey, that she finally looked up.
“Your father loves bread and honey.”
Meredith felt a surprising sadness at that. Her father had been allergic to honey, and the fact that Mom had forgotten something so concrete was somehow worse than the previous confusions. “I wish I could really talk to you about him,” she said, more to herself than to her mother. Meredith needed her father lately, more than ever. He was the one she could have talked to about the trouble in her marriage. He would have taken her hand and walked out in the orchard with her and told her what she needed to hear. “He’d tell me what to do.”
“You know what to do,” her mother said, tearing off a chunk of bread and putting it in her pocket. “Tell them you love them. That’s what matters. And give them the butterfly.”
It was perhaps the loneliest moment of Meredith’s life. “That’s right, Mom. Thanks.”
She busied herself around the kitchen while her mother finished eating. Afterward, she helped Mom up the stairs to her bedroom and brushed her teeth for her, just as she used to do for her daughters when they were small, and like them, her mother did as she was bid. When Meredith began to undress her, the usual battle began.
“Come on, Mom, you need to get ready for bed. These nightgowns are dirty. Let me get you something clean.”
For once, it was too much for Meredith—she was too tired to fight—so she gave in and let her mother go to bed in a dirty nightgown.
Outside the bedroom door, she waited until her mother fell asleep, began to softly snore, and then she went downstairs and locked up the house for the night.
It wasn’t until she was in the car, driving home, that she really thought about what her mother had said to her.
You know what to do.
Tell them you love them.
The words might have been tossed in a bowl of crazy salad, but it was still good advice.
When had she last said those precious words to Jeff? They used to be commonplace between them; not lately, though.