Mom and I lie side by side on the living room floor in the old house, the always freshly vacuumed wool carpet nibbling our bare arms. Our feet are up on the couch in the little tract home in West Orange where I graduated high school. It's quiet and dust motes shimmer in shafts of light that warm us through the front windows, hallowing our quiet conversation. We've spent the entire day talking and finally succumbed to just lying here looking at the ceiling and letting the loose ends spill out as they may. Without eye contact we reach out from our own galaxies and place a few last pearls in the sky, a few final fragments to reveal.
Mom still lives in this house with Louis, her second husband but on this visit I no longer feel the panic of claustrophobia I did before I left home. I'm staying in my old bedroom while I'm here but don't feel the choking grip of depression around my throat that finally drove me out as a teenager. Most of the family ghosts that sucked the life out of everyone who dared to trespass into their space seem to have died of old age. I haven't been back for ten years, and another ten before that and in that time I've learned to breathe. The boxy rooms don't feel like a prison any more. This time I've flown across the country because I want to feel mom's and my connection just once more.
I've come back from Oregon for a few days because her Alzheimer's is progressing rapidly and there isn't so much time left. She's at the point where she still has moments - sometimes even the better part of a day - when she's lucid enough to be scared of loosing her mind, but more often now she just wanders her private, interior byways and stares through the ones she's loved. She says she's managing but it's a valiant and futile attempt to show me she isn't afraid because I've seen her wear that mask too often before for Marc and I. When we were young and she would come home from a soul-draining day of work, finally get us fed and to bed, I knew she cried sometimes, but never in front of us.
Today is one of her good days. She gets tired easily though, much more than you'd expect from a woman in her late 60s. Hence, the afternoon wind-down to our prone positions. She waits quietly there behind her watery eyes, her once-beautiful hands now translucent and withered as desiccated leaves. It's hard to fathom how fast she has gone from a vivacious, beautiful woman to an old lady. That's the kind of Alzheimer's we have in our family, quick and deadly. I think this trip will probably be the last time I will see her.
The accumulation of our lives, together and apart, sit as milestones around us beckoning to revive all too familiar journeys. The favorite chair in which my father sat and read in our home in Tucson, as I peered around the corner afraid to bother him, speaks so loudly to me. Photo albums of the newly wed Hy and Gert, photos of their two boys, everyone serious in a post-war spring; and then the more recent trinkets mom collected while living and traveling with Louis, symbols of her hard-earned, newer and better life after her first family. Once Louis retired, mom finally realized her dream of visiting exotic places; photos of tour groups on the piers of Europe, suspended against Hong Kong's furious street life, the wind curling her skirt in Egypt, Louis in Bermudas, mom hanging on to a floppy sun hat. I wouldn't have believed it but I might have inherited my compulsion to travel from my sensible mother as much as my father.
I've told mom that Gyana is doing well, which I know makes her happy. I've told her about my new English wife, Peronelle, still out in Oregon, whom she has never met. Her parents are a bit upper crust, I report, "Lord Douglas and Lady Bridgette" and less than pleased that their daughter has taken the name 'Goldberg'. Mom doesn't say much but her slight smile tells me she is happy that at long last I have my feet on the ground. A child, a wife - these are the things that make her feel I am finally safe. She never talked much about it as she watched me in my teens and 20s, thrashing, loosing my grip to drugs, and far-off places but I know now much of that time she worried that I wouldn't outlive her.
We talk about Marc and my Dad, usually skulking in the deep background of my mind but today their proxies sit silently in the living room, watching and listening as we reveal a few last, cogent things.
While the angle of the sun diminishes, moments of silence are poised, suspended easily between us, as powerful a confirmation of our connection as a thousand words. And then, deliberately,
"David, I want to tell you something."
"When you were a child…I'm so sorry I beat you so much…I was just so frustrated I didn't know what to do."
I didn't see that coming.
"It's all right, mom", in a breaking whisper, "it wasn't so bad."
She'd been a beater all right, but it really hadn't been so bad. Usually it was just an occasional explosive slap to the face. Once in a while it escalated to "Go to your room, take off all your clothes, lay down on your bed and wait for me." - the long moments waiting for the belt or the hairbrush on bare skin so much more memorable than the actual pain. It didn't happen that often and was over quickly - not really so vicious. Everyone did it back then. You could expect corporal punishment from teachers, parents, camp counselors. I guess it was one of those things that made me want to leave home but I hadn't really thought our home was any different than anyone else's. It didn't come up until many years later, when I became a parent myself. It had been an easy decision for me to vow never to hit Gyana.
Now I remembered this young woman, almost still a girl, left with two willful boys, no family backup, frantically scrabbling to make ends meet - now telling me, sometimes she was "just so frustrated she didn't know what to do". I really loved her at that moment, and I understood. Whatever I may have carried at all about the beatings just evaporated. She had always tried to be there for us and she had done the best she could.
I did come home again a little while later, to bury mom. Marc and I met Louis in West Orange and then flew to his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia where he would someday lie beside her. We stood around with his brothers and sisters and their families, nice, southern strangers. Marc and I stood stiffly in our quickly-purchased Sears suits, and listened to a Rabbi perform an alien ceremony. I hadn't gone to my father's funeral which had taken place thousands of miles from our Tucson home, and this strange ritual on the lawn in a confederate graveyard, surrounded by towering sugar maples, felt equally distant. But it was fine. I did it for my memory of mom and for Louis who had sat by her bedside until the day she died.
For me, mom's and my relationship lived as strongly as ever. Perhaps it's the ancient wandering Jew in me - you constantly have to be ready to take the things that are most precious with you. It had always been about the connection for me, more then the proximity. Maybe this didn't make me such an ideal son but wherever I was, she was always in my heart. I hope she knew.