Like a Mother

like a mother

(c) 2011 L. Lambert Lawson


Dramatis Personae

My mom. A printer by trade. A gamer by hobby. Shy around large groups. Kept grandma’s daily medicine organized.

My wife. I left my beach and set sail with her. A few minutes later, I threw away the anchor.

Me. A writer. A teacher. A top set to spinning.

Junior. My uncle. A printer by trade. A hunter by hobby. He owns property fifty miles outside of town, in the middle of a forest. He built his own cabin there.

Linda. Former Peace Corps Ukraine medical staff. She was always a bright candle in the darkness of night.

Jan. My mother-in-law. Knows baseball and how to support someone.

Justin. My cousin. In truth, my brother. Solid. Honest.

Greg. My best friend. His soul and my soul shook hands, long ago. They’ve yet to let go.

My grandma. An unrivaled country cook. When her eyesight went, everything got sweeter.

Kris. My aunt. Toned cheeks from always smiling. Once, she painted her entire kitchen sunflower yellow. After two years of mocking, she brought back the eggshell.

Jeff. Junior’s good friend. A barrel of a man. The living room floor would creak under his weight in a certain way. My grandma would roll her eyes and smile.

ACT I

My mom wrote, “!Call home plz!” This was at 4:57:03 am Ukraine time. My mobile was switched off.

My mom wrote, “!Plz call home!” This was at 4:58:27 am Ukraine time. My mobile was still switched off.

Karen said, “You’d better call her.” She was slipping into a pair of velvet green house slippers. Her hair was loose about her shoulders. I can remember thinking that I had a lot of planning to do for the day’s classes. I ambled into the kitchen and dialed my mom in California.

My mom said, “I need you to sit down, hon. I need you to sit down.” It was 11:30 pm. Pacific Standard Time. Her voice, how it warbled through the static. Her voice, dripping. Weeping. I stared at the greasy knobs on the stove. My grandma was diabetic and too ornery to give up her habits. My heart sped up until there were no pauses between the beats. My mind scrambled from my body and raced back through time.

My mom wrote, on 14 January 2006, “Gma is okay. What problems and how soon you movin? It’s still raining here. Kyiv was colder than Sarny yest. Luv u. Luv Mom and Gma.” I had talked to mom a few hours earlier; we had talked about our impending move to yet another host family in our provincial Ukrainian village. Grandma couldn’t talk because she was winded from her walk to and from the bathroom. I could hear her raspy breathing as I told them both I loved them and would call again soon. I called four days later. One day too late. One day.

My mom said, “Honey, your grandma’s passed away.” Five seconds later, my heart stopped.

I said nothing for a while. Then I talked to her until my account was out of money. A few minutes later, I noticed that my account had recharged to the amount I had before calling home. I called Mom again. The money ran out. The account recharged. I called again. Again. Again.

My mom said she was sitting in front of the fireplace. Even at 2:30 am she was still planted in front of the crackling hearth. In fiction, a fire or a window is a good place to set a character for reflective moments. She said she hadn’t eaten. She wouldn’t go near the kitchen.

Junior said, “Promise,” through a six second delay and a thick wall of static, “you won’t come home.” In my shock, I agreed. He was worried about the money. No one had enough to get us home. He was worried about our work in Ukraine. He thought that if we came home, we’d have to quit Peace Corps.

Junior said, “There’s no plane in the world that’s going to get you home fast enough to change things.” While he talked, I looked out my bedroom window. I watched the people walk by. Watched them take one step and then another through the shin-deep snow. One step and then another.

Linda said, “I’m sorry for your loss. I want you to know that I wish we could send you home, but we can only pay for volunteers to go home for the deaths of immediate family members.” Grandmas weren’t on the list. I was sitting on an orange and yellow couch. I remember the feeling of sinking.

I said to Linda, “My grandma was like my mother. She raised me until I was five. Then my mom came home. They raised me together after that. Right up until the time I ran away from home.” I told Linda about that too. At the last minute, I mentioned the resolution to our housing situation. We had moved in with a new woman. She lived alone. She had laughed at the amount of luggage we hauled into her apartment. All of it suddenly seemed so little. So small.

Karen said, “I’m so sorry.” She was crying with me. She knew. She knew. Two months prior, I was in her small shoes. On 5 November 2006, her grandmother passed away. We had visited with her, in the hospital. The week before we left for Ukraine, Karen had said her goodbye. Had made her peace. Then my news came. She kept me breathing. She held me as I hitched and spasmed. As my grandma’s death pierce every piece of me.

Karen, though she wasn’t home two months prior, said, “I wish you could be there.” Burial brings closure. Finality. Karen had warning. She had her own kind of burial. I had no warning. I had nothing. I gripped a picture—my grandma in a floral blouse—and cried.

Linda, calling me back, asked, “How long did you live with your grandmother?” Something about our conversation had nagged at her. I told her the story again. Fifteen years. Mom was not around for the first five years. There never was a father.

Linda said, “There’s a clause in PC policy. If you are raised in lieu of one or more parents for five years or more, they are included on the ‘immediate family’ list.” She told me to start packing; we had to be in Kyiv as soon as the next train left. I dropped the phone.

Jan wrote, “I’m so sorry I didn’t get to know her. I’m sure she was so proud of you. My mom will be with her in heaven.” I received the message on my mobile. I was on the train to Kyiv. I tried to read a book. I failed at this. A man in our coupe was showing us comedy clips on his computer. I tried to laugh. I failed at that too.

I said, “Here we go,” as we dove out of the heated airport toward the tarmac. The snow was rushing at us. Sideways. The sky was a deep grey. It was negative 23 degrees Celsius. More apropos weather I’ve seen only once more. Two days later.

ACT II

Justin said, “He’s upstairs. He wanted to watch the plane land.” Justin towered over me. His mouth was tight. His hug was quick. Firm.

Junior said, “Are we okay?” He hugged me. His eyes were wet. He had told me not to come. I came. If he was okay with being defied, I was okay with being told not to come to see my grandma.

Greg said nothing. He just walked into the house. Into the kitchen where my grandma had always sat. He stared at her empty chair. Empty. I could hear his sobs three rooms away.

Justin said, “Where is she?” This is what I was told. He had run all the way from his house. Two blocks away. He always drove the distance, and we always laughed at him for it. That day he didn’t have his car. That day he ran. The police man met him in the living room. The police man put a hand on his shoulder and held him back. Justin looked at him one more time and said, “Where is she?” The police man stepped back and pointed to the kitchen.

My grandma said, “I don’t want anyone at my funeral.” I was seven when I heard this. Then eight. Nine. Ten. Twelve. Fifteen. Twenty-two. It was crystal.

Kris said, “This is for us. For you.” She was doing the arranging. The flowers. The obituary. Mom was too far gone to do it. Junior too. She found batteries for the stereo. She bought the tequila. She bought the beer.

Justin said, “My grandmother is not being buried in that.” He was pointing to the felt box my grandmother had selected to be buried in. It was the cheapest model. She chose it because it would be the cheapest. Justin refused. He wouldn’t let anyone else say anything. Not anything.

Junior said, “No.” My brother wanted to postpone the funeral until the weekend. He couldn’t miss work. Junior said, “He came from halfway across the world, and he’s on time. We are not changing the date.”

My mom said, “I’m not going.” This is what Karen later told me. I left her with my mom while my brother, with Justin and I, headed out early for a morning coffee. We were hours out, and my mom was refusing to go. She said, “I can’t do it.”

Junior, my brother, and I said our words. We couldn’t stop crying. No one could. It was raining. Leaking. A cow pissing on a flat rock. Water was coming down and up at the same time. Justin and I threw down our umbrellas. What was the point? The casket was covered in plastic. I wanted to rip it off and open the casket. Kiss her once more. I didn’t do this. I couldn’t. The casket floated when it hit the bottom of the hole. There was too much water. They would pump it later the diggers said. Too much water coming down to do it then. Grandma was sad. Or angry. Or both. Probably both.

We said, “To grandma,” and downed a shot. And then another. Another. Tequila. More tequila. Then beer. Bottles. The rain was drowning everything outside. The alcohol inside.

Jeff said nothing. He looked at me and nodded. He had caught my eye, staring at pictures of my grandmother. Kris had peopled the bureau in the living room with pictures of my grandma. Pictures from her wedding. With her and Justin at his 16th birthday. With her at my going away to Ukraine party. I stared. I couldn’t stop looking at those pictures. I kept looking long after everyone tipped their hats and walked into the rain. It was hard to accept that my grandma wasn’t two blocks away. Warm and safe. She was on a hill. In a hill. Soaking up the falling rain. Looking at her pictures helped me hurt. Hurt in a healing way.

I wrote, sometime during those rush of days, “I wish I didn’t have to go. I wish my grandma didn’t have to die. I liked to share everything with her. Tease her. Laugh with her. And now it’s only a memory. I think of how I’ll never get to have a new memory with her, except for visiting her grave. All I can do is miss my grandma. Miss her smile. Miss her laugh. Miss her interest in what I am doing. Miss her stories. Miss her looks. Miss writing the word ‘grandma’ and imagining her sitting in her chair in Fortuna and knowing that she really is there. I miss being able to call her. I’ll miss the comfort of entering my house in Fortuna, walking through the living room, turning into the kitchen, and seeing my grandma sitting there. I miss the way she moved. The things she said. Something she might have liked to hear more in life—she was like my mother. Losing her is like losing a mother.”

ACT III

Jan said, “I think it’s better if he had this.” She was in San Diego with Karen. I stayed with my family while Karen flew to see hers. She was holding a card soaked in my grandma’s blue cursive. My grandma had sent it to Jan and her family two months earlier. It was a sympathy card.

My grandma wrote, “We are very sorry for your loss of mother, wife, and mother-in-law. So sorry to hear of Florence passing. Do hope your [sic] all doing as we all do in a loss like this of our dear loved ones. Our sympathy goes out to you all. Love from all. Dorthy Holman.”