So much left over, and not enough, not at all. It's about two in the morning, and I'm down in the basement at my dad's desk going through a drawer of old mementos. We've been doing this for the last few days: opening drawers and cupboards, sorting and cleaning, looking for the one item that will prove this is an awful mistake and bring her back to life. It's as if we expect to find a receipt we can take to the doctor: something broke. Take it all back.
The afternoon she died we went through a kitchen cabinet. Got it nice and neat. Then Kim and Dad and myself looked for good burial jewelry. That night when Dad and I came home from my sister's house we ended up in the basement looking through one of the closets in the Forbidden Room, the unfinished part of the basement where Mom stored what she could not bear to throw. I found her bowling ball: heavy. Old bowling shoes. A stack of Better Homes and Gardens. A box of boxes: dozens of gift boxes, folded so flat she must have put them in a steam press, arranged by height. She never knew when she might want to give someone something, and might need a box. Growing up the boxes had rarely matched the item inside, and I had occasionally wondered why. Now I had discovered her strategic box reserve. We set them aside for recycling.
Dad went up to bed, his first night as a widower. I poured a scotch and went through a drawer filled with Grandma's stuff - childhood photos on the farm, dim snapshots of a visit to Florida in 1917, old newspapers saved for a passing reference to a friend or neighbor. There were a few items from great-grandfather Charles Newton, Civil War veteran, resident of North Dakota before it was a state. It was interesting stuff, and a pleasure to pick through. I was certain, after all, that Grandma was dead. That wasn't in dispute.
Then I found a scrapbook of my mother's,- a high-school book stuffed with name-cards of her classmates. A program from a school play (she was an extra in the soda-shop scene), a card from a secret admirer ("I've seen you around campus. J.K.") a group shot of the band. A few photos from the farm, with my dad. A couple of letters from Dad in the Pacific. They would have been high school sweethearts if he had gone to high school instead of the war. But she had waited. J.K made no time, I am sure of that.
I put the book away, did the evening pushups - something I now recall Dad doing every night before bed - and went upstairs. The house still had a medical scent, a forthright and unsentimental odor. The rented hospital bed was still in the living room, sheets stripped.
She had slept in my old room the last year. The pain kept her up all night, so she listened to tapes of synthesizer music, pan flutes, minuets, aural landscapes of surf and birds, passing the hours by reading stories of people who beat cancer with good thoughts and vegetables. I shut off the light and tried to imagine what she had thought in this bed at night. But of course, you can't possibly imagine.
And you don't want to try, because you might succeed.
The only Halloween decorations in the hospital are in the lobby. Friendly ghosts, heads tapering like the tips of soft-serve ice cream cone, waft from the mouth of a happy pumpkin: boo!
I'm leaving the hospital for a walk around downtown. omewhere on the floor of a Fargo street is the tomb of my mom's hometown. Twenty years ago, in response to new suburban mall, Fargo redesigned Broadway: covered walkways, new trees, a serpentine street that mimicked the curves of the Red River. Stones engraved with the names of river valley towns were embedded in the street. Mom was born in Harwood. I can never find the Harwood stone.
I had an hour to spend before returning to the hospital, so I went to find the stone. Mom was asleep and not likely to wake for a while. She had not slept for a year, really. The pain kept her up. If my Dad woke at three AM, he saw a thin light from my old room, heard the soft sigh of the music tapes she used to fill the hours. When the hospital gave her drugs for the pain, she was seated at a banquet of sleep, and she was feasting.
And so was her sickness. Cancer isn't greedy, though. It takes no more than what you have. It's curious; it likes to travel, and it likes whatever it happens to taste. Sometimes you can beat it, but it never knows it has been beaten.
I passed Herbst, the old department store, now an office building. Down the street, the old Woolworth's, home of the town's sole escalator. It always smelled of turtles and hamburgers, mothballs, old-lady perfumes. Gone for years. Then DeLendricies, my mother's favorite store. It fled to the mall, but the old shell is now an elegant office block. Inside you can still see the contours of the grand emporium, imagine the inscrutible chimes that passed messages among the employees, hear the hiss and boomph of bottles thumping out of pnuematic tubes.
I went downstairs where the lunch counter was. I had once spun around on my seat so many times I felt ill, and was sure my Black Cow shake was going to come up right there. My mom bade me to stop, relax, and it would get better. She promised. She was correct.
I scorned this town in my last years in high school and college; I rolled my eyes when I told people where I was from. In other words, I was an idiot. I somehow knew everything, or at least more than my parents, and how my Olympian abilities fit with my small squashed self-image I could not quite figure out. I knew if I left Fargo that things would work out.
They did. But the more I know of Fargo the more I believe I grew up at an intersection of history and people not likely to be repeated in my lifetime. I look at the old photos of the downtown, with the jumble of smart signs and sleek cars, the streets filled with shoppers and businessmen, the cathedral ceiling of the oak trees on Main, the sin strip of NP Avenue with the big neon signs for the bars, the roads that led out of town until they went from pavement to gravel to dirt to fields. We were all alone up there on the prairie; we behaved. They built a wonderful city.
I am still glad I left; I need a larger place. But Fargo is larger too. The population of the area has doubled; the new developments stretch south and west for miles. But all the stores downtown, all the names unique to that place, are gone, and in their stead Fargo has the Gap and Olive Garden and Holiday Inn and Chili's and every other example of glossy mass culture. You can get tandoori chicken in Fargo now; ethnic food is no longer limited to Phil Wong's Chinese restaurant or the Mexican Village. That doesn't mean it's a better place, just a place where are there greater choices of smaller importance. But I don't live there. It's easy for me to criticize. I have decades of practice.
I keep walking. Quality Bakery, home of the fresh warm glazed donuts Mom bought when we went downtown: gone. Service Drug, on the corner of Broadway, where I bought comics and snuck a peek at Playboy - gone in the last year. The Bismarck Tavern, where my childhood friend Jim McDonald swears he saw a nun come out with a six-pack under her arm - is still there. The popcorn stand next to the Fargo theater: gone 20 years now. There was an old man who sold the greasiest corn on the planet - the bag was sopping by the time you got it into the theater, and he salted it like someone who'd invested solely in Morton's Inc. and hypertension drugs. None better. We always pitied him, an old bent stalk spending his last days bagging popcorn. Turns out he put three kids through college on the proceeds of the stand. I'm happy to have helped.
Next door was the Flame bar, which introduced me to irony at a young age by burning down.
On the way back to the hospital I looked for my two favorite signs in downtown, old painted ads on the walls of brick buildings. One is for a hotel coffee shop; in breezy 40s letters, it says JUST A CUP OF COFFEE TO YOU, BUT A REPUTATION TO US. It closed before I had the chance to visit. The other is f a faded sign for a bourbon, six stories tall on the side of the Universal Office Building. This one haunts me.
There's less of it every year. The details had been obliterated by thirty years of Dakota wind, but if you looked at the wall without expecting to see anything, a picture emerges. It's a laughing cowboy, happy at the prospect of life in general and bourbon in particular. But he has no eyes. He has a face and a smile but no eyes, and there is something in his expression of sightless mirth that unnerves; there is nothing left to see and nothing to see it with, and still he's trapped with the same idiot grin. You wonder if the cowboy would be relieved if you scraped him off the wall for good.
The 7th floor is the cancer ward, an embassy of involuntary citizens. Each room has someone who looks different from you, so keep looking: you'll find yourself eventually. A young man, old woman, stout middle-aged guy, a girl in her teens. The nurses glide around with their usual immunity, carrying tackle boxes of salves and needles. Their health is a rebuke to everyone here; they're nuns in a ward of sinners.
Two yeas of quiet, incremental butchery - conducted up to now off stage and in private - has put Mom at the end of the hall, facing North, the part of town where she lives.
During a PT break Dad and I sit outside by the window - one of those idiotically narrow windows architects loved in the 60s and 70s, slits that were supposed to make us grateful for the ration of scenery were allowed. The entire hospital has small slit windows, but the seventh floor - the high-roller's wing - has big panes for a panavision view. But at the end of the hall, slits.
"Look at all the water towers you can see," he says "Look how far out the town goes now."
We count seven, rate them by age and style. I can see the one on tenth avenue, a huge squat classic with the checkerboard paint finish. As a kid I had asked what it was, and Dad told me that he took baths up there in the tank. I had a vision of him in the stormy waters like Neptune, lathering away, whistling.
"What's that building?" he peers at an old structure wreathed in trees.
"Some apartment building," I say. "No - it's a school. The windows are too big for an apartment building."
"It's Horace Mann," he says. "I delivered groceries there as a kid from the Tenth Street Market." That would be fifty five years ago. He looks out the window as though looking for where the 10th Street Market was, half a century back.
I never see Fargo from the sky, he says.
He points to a small plane heading for the airport. A plane about the size of his own. Whenever I'm landing you're always too busy looking at the instruments and the runway. I never see the town from the sky because I'm too busy flying.
I count the water towers again. This time I count eight.
"There's eight," I say. "I missed the big blue one right across the street."
Dad grins. "First few times, I didn't count it either."
So it's eight from this view, then. We wait in silence for a while until we can go back into the room.
All conversations are underscored by the TV sound, trickling into the room from a small speaker in the bed. It's like an IV drop for the outside world - minute doses of applause, jingles, soap-opera dialog, stern news voices. No one hears the particulars. My mom never had the TV on during the day; she hardly watched TV at all. Now it plays up in the high corner of the room, perched like a gargoyle that finally can orate uninterrupted.
She looks great, I think. Lovely. Alive. But tired and slightly sallow. Kim comes in the morning and makes her up. Foundation, blush, moisturizer. Kim curls her hair. The gown is nothing she would choose to wear, and it barely conceals the reason she is here: a hard jutting fist of a tumor in the right breast, a parasite working away with great patience. The cancer is in her liver, her bones, her spine and any other place it has been curious enough to visit. It doesn't sleep, so she doesn't either. It keeps her up while it explores; where it has settled, it bores deep. It isn't greedy. It will only take as much as she has, and no more.
She has less pain now. There's morphine, cheapest and best of all the analgesics. She sleeps for the first time in months, in and out of a drowsy fog. Sometimes in the middle of swimming through a light doze it seems as if she comes across a dropoff, where the lake bottom evaporates. Everything drains from her face and she sinks. There is no light in the skin and no will in the hands, and her mouth hangs agape. Then she stirs and breaks the surface and joins us again.
Dad warns her to eat her dessert, because he will if she doesn't. She doesn't. He eats half.
I kiss her forehead - dry, warm - and tell her I'll be back on Friday.
Why ruin a good weekend? she says. I know what she means: Don't bother. This is nothing. I will walk again. Come back in two weeks, race me around the block.
It's the pills and the drugs that make her feel bad, she tells us. It's the fall on the ice many years ago that make her leg hurt. It's not the cancer. There's that, of course, but there's nerves and a disruption of the energy flow her chiropractor has been telling her about.
Nonsense. Bullshit. Everyone knows what this is about. Everyone is doing everything they can not to discuss it.
After sunset Dad and I try to find the water towers by their blinking red lights. We only find four. The blue one is the first one we count.
Denny's 10 PM
There's a skeleton hanging from the ceiling, revolving in the breeze of ventilation duct, twirling over the head of a fat man eating pie. I just had a piece of pie myself, which I did not taste, and now I'm having a cup of coffee, which I cannot taste. The last time I came here was four years ago, summertime, and I wrote a medicare column at the counter.
The hospital has a ludicrous normality to it - not the death-is-part-of-life normality, but as if this is not about death at all, it's just an uncomfortable hotel stay. The food staff has aprons and bow ties and nametags. The nurses stop by at the end of their shift to give a perky good night, and you expect they'll leave a check and say you can pay at the counter. Joanne will be your night nurse, and if you need a refill on your morphine, just ask.
The hospice rep was by this afternoon. Hospice, she explained, was for people who have a disease for which there is no treatment, or who have elected not to receive treatment. It's a nice way of putting it. She was calm and kind and phrased everything in small sunny affirmations. Everything from here on out is about comfort. Ease at the end. Dad read the insurance policy while the hospice representative explained what services were available. Kim sat in the corner. Mom gave the hospice rep her full attention. No way out of facing what this is about. It felt like discussing what sort of car you want to take you from the funeral home to the cemetery. Black? Gray interior? White bows on the aerial? Of course. That's fine. Whatever you want.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Mom gave the hospice rep the complete history of her disease by way of proving how her previous doctor had been callous towards her. We have heard this story for two years. Her doctor was rude and dismissive because she would not seek treatment, and put her stock in alternative medicine and the power of positive thinking. The hospice rep listens and issues sad sounds at the appropriate moments. And she blanches when Mom describes how the doctor finally told her to go to Kevorkian, if that's what she wanted. Can you imagine?
At one point in the discussion on pain-killers I tell a joke about morphine-flavored cream cheese spread, and it breaks the tension. I would do nothing but tell jokes up here if I could, just to deflect and banish attention from what's going on here, but it would be entirely for my benefit and no one else's. I do not know what to do here; there isn't a single move I make in that room that doesn't feel false. At every step and moment in that room the truth of the matter has to be both acknowledged and ignored, just as it has been for the last two years. We have to acknowledge how bad this is, but we have to believe it is nothing she cannot beat in a few weeks. This is not the case. We are certain that everyone except her knows this is not the case. For her, death is not a fact. It is still a fear, which is far worse.
Without strength of will, there would be no pleasure left, no goal, no target for her to reach. She has to believe the carousel will continue to revolve until she grasps the ring. I want to shake her and tell her what she never told me, what she could never tell a child: it is not going to be all right. This is not a mistake. Enjoy what's left and lean backward into the wind until it ebbs and lowers you down. Enjoy the ride. Please. None of this raging against the dying of the light. The light is deaf. It doesn't take requests.
I want her to be happy; we all want her to be happy. I would rather she was at peace for a month than staring at the ceiling with bleak mute fury for half a year, unable to tote a moment without counting it against the ones she will not have. But none of us can give her peace. She spent a lifetime giving to others, and now when she finally has to give to herself she cannot do it.
At night in the guest room I listen to an audio tape I rented for the car trip. The story is quite good, and the troubles of a serial killer on trial seem amusingly stupid and irrelevant. I listened for a few minutes, fell asleep and then, in the first few moments when the brain assembles the casts and sets for the evening's dreams, I heard a choir: an immense choir singing a chord whose harmony seemed utterly unique and perfect. I heard it again as I woke. Silence: again. I was now completely awake, waiting for it, but it didn't come. I'd dreamed it.
Then room shuddered slightly, and the train rolled past at the end of the street. The whistle blew again, and now the sound was not celestial at all. Brash, Stupid. A bleat of a dumb beast. I went to sleep and woke up hours later, buried under the thick quilts, curled in a ball, drenched with sweat. I had no idea where I was and I fell asleep before I could pose another question.
Back on the freeway at noon. The drive home is the familiar ration of long flat prairie hours, taken in silence. The more I think about her, the younger she gets - the glasses vanish, the hair lightens, the slacks and sweaters turn to tap pants and thin blue blouses, the lipstick reddens, wrinkles smooth, laughter comes out in a tumble of apology and joy.
Mom at the sink, Mom over the washing machine, Mom on skis, about to hurtle over a cliff. Mom coming through the door with the bowling trophy. Mom at the piano, serenading herself after the chores were done. Ordinary moments of an ordinary life.
The ordinary now has its true face: miraculous. Growing up under her hand, her gaze, her heart was a miracle, unbelievable luck. I had no idea at the time; we never do. We take the miraculous as commonplace because it happens every day. And then you find yourself cutting the first piece of hospital chicken for your mother, and you realize that you cannot even begin to repay the debt. You'll spend the rest of your days discovering what you owe.
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