A short story by Lindsey Mead
The sky is at its most intense, deep blue, before it fades to blackness; autumn’s leaves are stunning in their doomed shades of red and orange and yellow, before they crumple to uniform brown and fall to the frozen ground. So many things are at their most beautiful just before they die: the last gasp of beauty.
I thought about this a lot as I witnessed my mother’s fleeting, ethereal beauty leading up to her death in the last weeks of winter. She was so gentle, so strong, so prepared; she took me away from my terror, my loneliness, my despair. It was as if the entirety of her fierce spirit surfaced during her last days; her fragile skin was so transparent it seemed to reveal not only her deep blue veins but also the fullness of her heart.
Driving through Harvard Square, the muddy tired snow reminds me of those long days, two winters ago, in the room with the medicine-saturated air, lit by the clear winter light that poured into the room only during the coldest season, when the tall trees surrounding our Victorian house were barren and skeletal. I reach down to change gears but the stick shift is stuck; this car is so old, dammit. I have to take both hands off the wheel and use my full weight to shift to fourth gear.
“Lizzie, come on, you can do it! Relax and ease the pedals past each other. It’s really easy; it’s just the balance you have to get right.” In my memory, my mother smiles calmly at me, acknowledging the tears of frustration in my eyes. I take a deep breath, wipe a summer-browned arm across my forehead, turn the key in the ignition again. I can’t get the damn thing into first gear. I keep on stalling and jumping forward. It feels like my mother and I are riding a bucking rodeo horse. I know she doesn’t want to be here, teaching me to drive. This is her vacation, too, and she would rather be on the beach with her best friend than in a beat-up Jeep that smells like mold in a deserted high school parking lot. I feel so American and so teenaged, learning how to drive. It is such a clichéd rite of passage, yet I am angry and impatient, annoyed that I cannot figure this stupid thing out.
My mother is patient, but she cannot quite describe what I’m doing wrong. It reminds me of when she used to try to help me with basic French grammar. Her fluency removed her from the introductory stuff just as her instinctive comfort at the wheel is difficult to break down into steps I can actually practice and follow.
Mum died two years ago; everything reminds me of her. I cannot go through an hour without being drenched by a waterfall of memories. I am waiting for that moment, that day, when I can be happy with my memories and smile about them; I know that is what Mum wanted (wants?). She always told me she wanted to be remembered with laughter, during our many long late-night talks, over big mugs of herbal tea (she’d choose ginger tea – I hated it, it made my tongue numb), or, in the summer, over tall glasses of iced tea. Mum had a million friends; she was the most popular person I have ever known. But in the family, it was just the two of us. Dad left us when I was five years old, and I never really remembered him. He traveled a lot. His final departure wasn’t that much different from the others, except that he never came back, sweaty and cranky and demanding. Mum’s parents have been dead for a long time, I never knew them, and she didn’t have any siblings. Luckily for both of us there was enough money in the Chase family that Mum could work with the political activist groups she loved so much without worrying about putting me through college. We lived comfortably. We had a summer house by Buzzards Bay where I learned to sail, and an old Victorian house in Cambridge.
Mum was a national sailing champion in college. She also played bridge for money, earning her train fare for weekends visiting her brother at Amherst , where they would drink bourbon at his fraternity. Mum was a huge person contained in a regular-sized body. Of her many passions, sailing was the most essential. She instilled it in me. When I was very little she and I would go out into Buzzards Bay in the Laser or the Sunfish or, for longer sails, the J24. By the time I was eight I was sailing by myself. I understood the balance between boat and sail, wind and water. Mum taught me racing strategy, explaining what it was to steal someone else’s wind during a race. She told me that I should try to do it as infrequently as possible because it wasn’t “nice,” though she knew full well that I would eventually have to steal wind in order to win races.
And I did win, early and often. My trophies – silver bowls that Mum liked to use for fruit, engraved cups, and models of sailboats – began to crowd hers on the mahogany mantelpiece in our living room in Cambridge. I didn’t understand why Mum always had tears in her eyes when I raced up the dock to her after a race, ripping off my sailing gloves, untying the harness that helped me hike out over the edge of the boat, holding my blue first-place pennant and bubbling over with questions about the race, how I did, how I could have done better, gone faster.
Adolescence brought me to a more profound understanding of sailing and what it meant to my mother. When I sailed by myself (one of my favorite things to do during the long sunny days of summer) I would feel my mother’s hands in my grip on the mainsheet and look through her eyes as I gauged the wind direction. When my toes squeaked against the centerboard case I remembered how I’d giggle when hers made the same noise so many years ago, when I sat in the bottom of the cockpit of the boat and played with the bailer as she sailed. I would lean back and trail my long red hair, so much like my mother’s, in the dark green ocean just as she had taught me to do.
When I was fifteen, about five years ago, Mum mentioned to me that, in the distant future, when she died, she wanted to be cremated. She told me that she wanted me to sprinkle her ashes in the ocean and read “Sea Fever” by John Masefield (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…”) as I did it. I laughed, but her face was serious, and she told me solemnly that she really meant it. It was early in April two years ago that I drove to Buzzards Bay with the ornate urn buckled into the seat next to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my mother would have hated the fussy, formal urn – I had picked the plainest, simplest one the funeral home offered, and it was still far too gaudy. I almost laughed through my tears when I thought about how she still had her seatbelt on while I drove: even in death she wasn’t confident of my driving. I realized these were our last moments of CQT, as we used to call our Car Quality Time, the intimate, meandering talks we’d have during long rides.
“Mum? Um … may I have some more tea?” I am hedging, indicating the black and white cow-shaped teapot that my mother loves. She also has a pitcher that looks like it’s made out of stalks of asparagus that she adores. Random stuff clutters the kitchen. We never had a neatly matching set of plates or any policy for what was used when. The family silver came out for everyday breakfast and was most often used with the chipped earthenware plates that she had brought back from a trip to Paris years ago. Mum reaches out to the pot and pours more tea.
“Yes, yes, everything is fine. I don’t know, Mum, here’s something I want to tell you,” I chew on my thumbnail and then catch myself, pull my hand out of my mouth and start to toy with the handle of my mug instead.
“What, Liz?” Mum is distracted, looking out of the kitchen window into the night. She does that a lot; I always wonder what she looks at and I asked her once. She told me she just liked to see how black it got outside and to ponder how complete a blanket night could be.
“Well, it’s about Chris. Something that happened …” I look down and concentrate on my bitten fingernails, feeling my face flame with redness.
“Mm-hmm?” Mum isn’t really paying attention to me.
“Well, we slept together, Mum, and I, ahhhh—I guess I just wanted you to know, okay?” I stutter while talking, and finally, I force myself to look up into her eyes. She is looking at me at last. I am nervous about her reaction and also having a weird, vivid flashback to the day I told her I got my period. I’d been similarly nervous, and she had thrown her arms around me and started to cry, whispering, “Welcome!” Her reaction had touched and embarrassed me at the same time. I waited to see what she would say now. I have wanted to tell her since it happened last weekend, but we haven’t really had a chance. She’s been so busy at work.
“Liz, you know what? I know. I could just tell. I do know you pretty well. I know that you love him. And I think that he loves you. And I think that’s wonderful! What was it like?” Her final question kind of creeps me out, but I feel I have no choice but to answer it. “Well, it was okay… I mean, it hurt and all, but I’m glad. I mean I just feel really close to him and we talk about it all the time, which is good, I guess, and I am really happy about it because I do really love him…” I stop myself because I know I am babbling. I am so relieved to have finally told her.
“I’m not going to give you a lot of stuff about being careful because I know you’re a big girl, Lizzie.” Mum has always talked to me like a grownup. I think it’s a result of it being just the two of us for so long. “But if you do have questions, feel free to ask them, I’m here. And I’ve been there.” She smiles at me, and when she does, all her wisdom and love and understanding seem to flow across the table from her brown eyes, the same shade as mine, directly to me. I am moved, but I stare hard into the bottom of my cup and concentrate on the brownish murky swirls at the bottom of the tea, holding back tears.
About three weeks after that talk Mum went to the doctor because she found a lump in her breast in the shower. She was swept into a whirlwind of mammograms and biopsies, and it was quickly confirmed that she had Stage IV breast cancer. It had spread to her lungs.
My mother went haywire. She had never been sick a day in her life. She had walked around for 10 days with a fractured tibia before finally conceding to an x-ray. The day she was given the final diagnosis, she had gone to the appointment alone, refusing to let me skip school to join her. I think she was guided by some impulse to shield me from what she intuitively knew would be bad news. When she got home she marched through the front door of our house, threw her pocketbook into the corner of the entrance hall, and walked directly to the liquor cabinet. I was sitting in the big rickety rocking chair, studying SAT words, and I looked up when I heard the door slam. Mum poured herself a big glass of scotch and downed it fast. I was nervous: Mum never drank.
“Lizzie. I’m dying. I have cancer. Why didn’t I do that stupid self-exam more often? I have cancer. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me, I just read about it. I have cancer. I have cancer. Do you think I’m going to get used to saying that?” She sat down heavily and began to cry. I was stunned; I shut my thick book with a thump, feeling irrational irritation at its laminated, brightly colored cover. I stood up slowly and walked awkwardly over to my mother’s heaving shoulders.
“What did Dr. Goldman say? What happened?”
“Yeah, it’s cancer. So much for that ‘one in ten lumps is malignant’ crap. So much for ‘you’re still young.’ I guess 42 isn’t that young anymore. Oh, Lizzie, why? Why? What did I do?” She started to wail and got up and poured herself another scotch; her hand shook as she sloshed the brown liquid into her glass and some spilled onto the dark wood table.
From this point my memories blur; the following months are hazy and ragged at the edges, in distinct contrast to that afternoon whose details will always be crystalline in my memory. I could draw the cover of that SAT book in perfect detail. After that, I remember Mum started to drink more. She withdrew from her friends and her work and from me and simply sat around all day, staring out of the window at the fall. It was a spectacular fall, I do remember that, and Mum seemed to spend all day long looking out of the bay windows of our house at the trees as their leaves changed. I recall wondering if she ever actually saw them. She never said anything. The house was choked with silence.
I kept going to school, going through my days with mechanical motions. Chris and I broke up because I was so distracted, so preoccupied. I didn’t even notice that he was gone from my life. For a while Mum stopped talking to me at all; she was completely silent for three weeks. I spent a lot of time at the houses of a couple of close friends. I became really angry. In fact, my anger sort of excited me; I thought if I could synthesize enough anger, then I could cancel out and erase my grief and terror. I fed on my anger, making myself madder and madder until I was so angry that I didn’t think I cared about Mum at all. That she was dying became some kind of twisted relief. In my fury I told myself I was looking forward to the day she was gone. To the day the silence and anger would finally dissipate. October and November passed in a monochromatic, echoing quiet blur.
This has become a familiar scene: I open the fridge door, pull out two chicken breasts, cream, and mushrooms, slam the door. Our fridge is old, and the door doesn’t shut without a lot of force, so there’s a lot of slamming in the kitchen. I find a wooden chopping board and start to slice the mushrooms with precision, concentrating. Slice, chop, wipe off the blade. Slice, chop, wipe off the blade. The sensation of steel slicing through the soft firmness of the mushrooms is oddly soothing. The gray-brown spade-shaped slivers form reassuringly regular rows on the edge of the chopping board. Mum wanders into the room, glass in hand, and sits down at the kitchen table, watching me. I put a pan on the stove and melt some butter into it; I watch the bubbles and hear them sizzling before tossing the chicken and mushrooms into the pan. I wait for them to brown in the heat. When I add the cream I stir it around and it turns from thick white to thinner brown-gold. I turn off the stove with the same soft click I’ve heard every day since birth and slop the chicken breasts onto two plates. Balancing the plates on my right arm like a waiter I pull open a drawer and grab two knives and two forks. I sit across from Mum and slide her plate and silverware across the wooden surface.
“Lizzie…” Mum whispers, keeping her head bowed, focusing down as she toys with the prongs of her fork. She is gripping the thing so tightly that her knuckles are going white around the edges. I notice her cuticles are ragged and bloody; she has always bitten her nails, preferring them short to “those tacky talons,” but they have never looked so destroyed. I refuse to answer her and look instead directly at her forehead, my gaze so full of resentment and anger I feel as though I could burn a hole through her dry papery skin.
She pulls her head up slowly, as though it’s heavy, and meets my gaze tentatively. Immediately her eyes drop again when she sees the expression on my face, my clenched jaw and pursed lips. “I’m sorry. I don’t know…” her voice is so quiet, like the rustle of dried leaves. My mind flies wildly to a memory of us raking leaves when I was a child, of jumping into a pile of them, of being surprised by the damp sogginess under the crispy brown top layer.
My feelings threaten to overflow my body. The last months have been so controlled as I deliberately constructed fences around my fear. These barricades come bursting open now, and my pain is alive, terrifying in its immediacy and power. I feel like a woman suddenly. I feel like my mother’s peer for the first time. Looking into her eyes I see how scared she is, how sad, how much she needs me. I am overwhelmed with these revelations, by the crushing, instant knowledge that my mother is a person, too, with needs and fears. I push my chair back roughly and run around the table to her side. I kneel on the floor beside her chair and throw my arms around her neck, sobbing into her chest, between her diseased breasts, the breasts that kept me alive in the first months of my life and that are killing my mother in the last months of hers.
Author’s Note: I wrote the first draft of this story before I had children at all. When I revisited it a few years later I was frankly astonished by the themes I had touched on, perhaps subconsciously. I am fortunate to live a mile away from my mother, and to regularly watch her interact with my 10-year old daughter. The way the generations ripple and echo fascinates me. My mother’s closest friend, who was a kind of second mother to me, passed away when she was 49, and her death is very present in this story also.
About the Author: Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and headhunter who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and son. A childhood spent moving around the world left her with a contradictory combination of restlessness and a deep craving for stability. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English and has an MBA from Harvard, and is currently eschewing her peripatetic childhood by having lived in the same house for 11 years. Her writing has been anthologized and published in a variety of print and on-line sources including Torn: True Stories of Kids, Careers, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, So Long: Short Narratives of Loss and Remembrance, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Literary Mama, and others. She writes daily at A Design So Vast.
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