Short Story (part two)
The next day Richard and I drove to Seattle to get Leif. We waited across the street from the apartment building where he and momma lived. The front doors to the building were large and made of glass and although the lobby was dimly lit we could see the murky green water of a neglected swimming pool inside. Leif appeared in the lobby, hesitated a moment, then pushed through the doors shifting the weight of the backpack he carried from one shoulder to the other. His facial muscles seemed to collapse and pull the skin of his cheeks and eyes and mouth downward and I knew he’d been drinking.
“I-I had some beer, “ he announced like an apology as he hoisted his body into the back seat of the Yukon. He closed his eyes as his mouth tried to form the words his brain searched for, “I-it was squeezin’ my heart so hard!” He let out such a big sigh that I thought he might fall asleep on the way to the hospital but the alcohol had loosened his tongue and he chatted on about nothing in particular. I looked at Richard who shrugged his shoulders and kept his eyes on the road.
Nothing had changed in momma’s hospital room. The window near momma’s bed still framed the tree with its glory of green leaves on November 23 and the breathing machine pushed oxygen into momma’s diseased and dying lungs. I looked at her exposed feet and the perfect little toenails. Leif had to buy baby clippers to cut them with. He said they were soft as white tissue paper.
The respiratory therapist came in and explained what would happen as the tube was removed. Nurses came to disconnect the heart monitor and remove the IV bags and the chaplain came to say a prayer. The hospital bed was lowered a few inches and Leif moved in closer and kissed momma on the cheek. The tube was slowly pulled from momma’s lungs and I watched as the therapist withdrew it, dabbing at spittle that gathered on momma’s lower lip. She gasped inward but seemed unable to exhale and in just a few minutes she was gone.
“I love you momma, I do. I do love you!” I wanted her to know I was there, to hear my voice as her soul drifted away but I felt panic that she was leaving, that we had not said all that needed saying. Leif was still at momma’s side and his eyes remained clued to her face. He seemed intent on gathering the details to be stored in memory as he focused on her mouth, her hair, and her closed eyelids. His hands began to motion in the air and I watched him, feeling embarrassed and thinking he was still drunk, but he began to sing something about a fisherman and a little girl and then about a red rose bush. He began working his hands like he was pulling in fishing nets and I stood and watched, deciding not to care what anyone might think. His voice rose and I knew it would make momma happy, ‘all colors bleed to red, asleep on the ocean’s bed, drifting in empty seas, for all my days remaining…’
I had such tender feelings for momma during those first few weeks after she passed. It was like she’d never done anything wrong, like she was an angel or something and I was the one needing forgiveness. Maybe it was God’s grace workin’ its way through my heart. Maybe it’s how those that die get a peaceful send off from this world, even if they’ve done some bad things to the people they loved—even if they don’t deserve it.
But that’s not really for me to say is it? My children had been protected from her and they really didn’t know their grandma. How sad. Momma accepted it like an ordinary thing. Even Richard had nothing but bad experiences with her, and one of those experiences involved a steak knife, so he was not someone who would understand my roller coaster of emotions.
The guilt I carried was mine and mine alone, like a brick at the bottom of my purse, a pebble in my shoe and gravel on my pillow at night. It was mine and there was no one to share it with. The one person I could talk to about momma was Leif but I knew he was probably drinking himself to death, on a marathon bender to beat all others. I called him everyday just to make sure he was alive.
“Lief?” His tongue was thick and slow to form words. “Oh, hey I’m here.”
“Did you eat today?”
“Ah, I don’t…”
“Leif please eat something.” He sighed and dropped the phone. I heard a thump and a bump and a sound like a chair being dragged across the floor.
“Jus miss her. Miss her soo much.”
The silence between us sucked the air from the room I felt that hollowed out painful feeling like I did when he wondered aloud how anyone could live with half a heart. He promised to eat a bologna sandwich and I said I’d call tomorrow but
Leif called me early the next day to say he was going to detox.
“I called 911”. He sounded more exhausted than intoxicated but I knew he needed to be in a doctor’s care. Momma told me once how he stopped drinking and had delirium tremens, how he was hallucinating and she had to take him by bus to the hospital.
“I can’t be alone right now. When I get out can I stay with you guys for a few days?”
His question caught me off guard. I heard a loud pounding at his door providing an interruption to me answering his question.
“Leif are you gonna get that?”
“They’re here. It’s the aid car. Will you ask Richard? I can’t be alone right now.”
“Call me when you get out. I’ll ask him.” And I hung up wondering what Richard would say.
Richard agreed and I went to pick Leif up a few days after Thanksgiving. When I arrived home from work that day, Leif was unpacking his suitcase. He was nervous and jumpy from the ravages of withdrawal. I gave him a big hug and told him we were glad to have him stay with us. We gave him the spare, empty bedroom, setting up an old army cot and piling on several blankets and quilts. He was tired but relieved that he wasn’t alone.
On the first day of December I drove Leif back to his apartment so he could get some more clothes. We would scatter momma’s ashes in the afternoon and Leif wanted to wear something nice. We drove to Alki Beach, where momma loved to spend time. I had the box containing momma’s ashes on my lap. We found a viewpoint at the north end of the beach and walked out on a pier. It was cold and windy but the sun shone on the water and the sky opened up just above where we stood and provided a blue canopy. Leif and I carefully opened the box and untied the metal clasp. Together we gently shook the plastic bag and watched as the powdery remains fell into the Puget Sound. With a soft splash momma’s ashes hit the dark water. Immediately a beautiful pale green plume formed just beneath the water’s surface. It was translucent and captivating and seemed to be filled with light. We leaned over the pier and watched as the form responded to the motion of the water, expanding and undulating like some exotic underwater flower. Leif’s body shook hard as he tried but failed not to cry. I put my arms around his shoulders and squeezed, crying with him. The luminescent green body of ashes slowly dissipated and became less vibrant. Gentle waves lapped under the pier and coaxed the disappearing form into deeper and deeper water.
Winter hit hard that year and a snow fell that lasted the better part of a week. With our daughter living in the college dorm it was just me, Leif and Richard and we spent most days watching movies and taking naps. I made hamburger soup in the Crockpot and Leif ate it eagerly, commenting that it was just like momma’s, making me feel happy, like I’d somehow brought a small part of her back to life.
I’d wake early each day and start a pot of coffee. Leif would smoke cigarettes out on the deck and I’d watch him through the garden window. He’d sit on a wooden stool and stair out at the bare cottonwoods that filled the greenbelt, blowing smoke into the cold air. Sometimes he’d look up at the sky and I imagined he was thinking of momma and trying to send her a message. We’d sit at the kitchen table, bundled in sweatshirts and with double socks on our feet, talking quietly.
“Don’t you go feeling bad about not calling her.”
“I can’t help it Leif. I think about that phone call from the doctor every day. I guess I’ll just have to think that if I’d called, she would have asked me to help you.”
“And that’s what you’re doing.” He went on to say how sorry he was that momma gave me such a bad time about my trip to Tennessee–the trip to see my after–the man she hated. Leif hung his head over his empty coffee cup and sighed, “When she was harassing you about that I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t tell her anything though, you know she’d get mad and turn on me.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about that. I know you couldn’t stop her.”
When momma drank she not only burned bridges–she would destroy entire towns. My heart was scorched many times but somehow rebounded without too much scar tissue, surviving when other hearts would’ve been full of holes from verbal shrapnel.
Leif and I created a ritual for ourselves, one that gave us both a sounding board for our feelings and a time each day for grieving. I looked forward to our few hours in the early mornings and hoped momma knew Leif was OK. He was feeling better I thought, appearing less jittery and more relaxed. I still awoke every day with the thought in my head, momma is gone—gone from this world forever but my guilt was abating little by little and I had Leif to thank for that. He was on a waiting list for inpatient alcoholism treatment but it would be at least three months before a bed opened up.
Richard was kind, patient and generous, keeping Leif company while I was at work and taking him to his doctor appointments and to the store for cigarettes. He got a little tired of it at one point though and told Leif he’d have to take the bus back from Seattle after one of his appointments. When Leif didn’t arrive home after six hours, Richard called me at work, “Purslane, did he call you? I told him what bus to take. I shouldn’t have to be his chauffer!”
“It’s ok. He’ll get there. He’s a grown man and he’s not gonna get lost.”
Richard was trying my last nerve and I didn’t appreciate the distraction.
“Call me when he gets there.” I sighed and told Richard I had to go. His voice softened then and I knew he was really more worried than anything else.
“I just don’t want him wondering around lost and afraid to call for a ride.”
I smiled and hung up the phone and Leif arrived at our house a few minutes later. He’d stopped to look around at Walgreens and bought some new Tee shirts and underwear.
I sat our coffee cups on the table and waited for Leif to finish his cigarette. Squirrels played in the cottonwoods, nearly invisible against the gray, bare bark, their swishing tails calling out their presence. I watched Leif on the deck as he finished his cigarette and dropped the butt into a rusted coffee can half full of a brown soupy mix. Today we would sort through photos and I would keep what I wanted. It would be a tearful morning I knew, one that we’d started and stopped twice already. Each photo prompted a slew of memories and for the most part we smiled, finding a sweet kind of melancholy that was tolerable. Leif told me about locating momma’s own mother, Ola Mae, a few years ago.
“Poo wanted to see her and had been nagging me about going to see her. We knew she lived in Renton and the lady at the library helped us find an address. That was when Poo could still walk. We took the bus over there and saw Ola Mae.”
I’d heard of Ola Mae but never really thought of her as my grandmother and I knew momma was not on any kind of terms with her. I’d only seen her once and since momma never talked about her, I didn’t ask.
“Poo just stood and looked at her mother but didn’t say a word.” Leif shook his head like he didn’t quite understand.
I never knew about momma’s trip to see Ola Mae and it made me curious,
“Isn’t that strange? I asked, did she invite you inside?”
“No, she said her husband was sick and in bed. I did all the talking and Poo just watched. Ola Mae had on a gold ankle bracelet, I remember.” Leif paused and was gone for a few minutes in the memory of that day. It hurt me to think of momma being too scared to talk to her own mother but Leif said the trip made her happy and she seemed content with the visit. We finished our coffee and Leif took both our cups to the kitchen sink. I watched him rise slowly from the table. The gray sweater he wore had a hole where a button had been torn away and his navy boat shoes had worn spots where his big toes were threatening to break through. I heard a scratching sound and looked out to the deck where two squirrels ran along the railing.
copyright 2017 caceresbg