Friday, May 13, 2011


The yellow Volkswagen Beetle sped down the road in hot pursuit of its competitors, hugging the center line of the two-lane highway.  As the British countryside unfolded, the little vehicle began to pick up speed and overtake the other cars one by one, its transmission roaring in delight as it conquered each successive gear and shifted to the next.

A cobblestone church flew by on the right as the Beetle darted past a competitor, claiming sole possession of third place.  On the left, an old mill with a thatched roof was only recognizable as a blur of washed-out earth tones.  The speedometer read 145 MPH, as the little Beetle zipped around a wide turn and across a weathered cobblestone arch, which spanned a tumbling, misty waterfall.

Up ahead, the brook-side village with its busy streets was approaching rapidly.  The paved highway morphed gradually into a patchwork of bricks and stones.

As the Beetle rounded a sharp corner, it smashed through a public telephone booth, shattering it into thousands of glass and metal shards.  The leaders of the race were now in full view about two hundred yards ahead…

     “Dinnertime, Dave!  Come to the table!”

…Suddenly, the entire field of competitors in the race and all of time skidded abruptly to a halt.  The yellow Beetle hovered at a standstill in mid-flight, suspended precariously over 50 yards above the winding pavement below.  The maroon and green Beetles in frenzied pursuit of the leader froze in their tracks on the asphalt; all momentum and inertia that existed in the universe were no more…  and everything mobile – meadows, trees, grass, wind…  waited…  waited…

I sighed as I paused my game, set the controller on the carpet, and muted the volume on the television.  As a youngster, I had always put up a fight around dinnertime when I hadn’t finished my game.  The primitive video games of my childhood didn't have a pause function, and the arrival of dinnertime usually meant that my gaming session was over, regardless of how far I had progressed.

But tonight, I was upset for different reasons.  Even though dad had prepared my grandmother’s famous meatloaf recipe, I wasn't looking forward to dinner.  Truth be told, I hadn’t really been looking forward to our evening meal for the last few weeks.

In the kitchen, Dad was retrieving baked potatoes from the oven one-by-one with a worn oven mitt.  Mom was sitting quietly, watching the birds dance and dart around the feeder hanging outside the kitchen bay window.  The birds swarmed in towards the feeder in small groups, pecking and picking through the seeds for a few seconds, and flipping aside the empty shells with their beaks.  Then, they scattered frantically as the next herd moved in.  Mom looked up at me and smiled as I started filling our glasses with ice and tap water.

     “Hi...  Dave,” she said softly, her eyes transfixed on my every move.

I bent down and kissed her gently on the forehead as I filled her glass.  Mom was usually the one scurrying around the kitchen before dinner, transferring the main course to the center of the table while putting the finishing touches on any side dishes she had brewing.

But tonight, she simply sat and watched my father at the stove.  She was wearing faded jeans and her favorite Maine sweatshirt.  A lime-colored hat with a shallow brim rested on her head, covering up what was left of her thinning hair.  She spoke very little and seemed content, instead, to observe her surroundings.  Her glances wandered from the empty plate in front of her, to my father as he worked at the counter, to the long shadows cast by the branches of the tired Sycamore in the backyard, and finally back to her plate.

Dad brought the meatloaf to the table and set it on a cooling rack between our place settings.  Immediately, Mom reached out towards the scalding dish, but he quickly intercepted her and gently placed her arm back at her side.

     “Be careful, Ellie!  It’s very hot,” he kindly warned her.  “And remember, we can’t start eating until we say grace.”

     “Oh?” she inquired in a quiet, thoughtful tone.

She looked confused for a brief moment, looking questioningly at the casserole dish before glancing back at my father.

     “Oh...  Mmm-hmmmm,” she said, in a more reassuring tone.

Dad took his usual place at the end of the table, and we joined hands to say the blessing.  When my sister had left home for college several years ago, we had shied away from reciting out traditional family prayer.  Dad had decided that he needed to use his keen imagination and superb semantic skills to compose a new prayer every night to break up the monotony.  However, we had recently reverted back to an old favorite that was easy for everybody to remember.

     “God is great, God is good…” my Dad and I began in unison.

Mom jumped in and recited the remaining lines of the prayer to perfection.  As we continued, she grew more confident and authoritative.  Towards the end, my Dad and I lifted our heads and opened our eyes to watch and listen.  Mom’s face was calm and peaceful as she recited the blessing we had shared for years without really giving it a second thought.  I paid more attention to the words tonight than I had during the past few months.

When we finished, Dad began dishing out the meatloaf.  I placed a baked potato on Mom’s plate before serving myself.  She waited patiently until everyone had been served, and then she began to eat the food on her plate.  She took a forkful of baked potato and began to chew.  She paused for a moment, swallowed, and then frowned.  Instead of taking another bite, she placed the fork on the edge of her plate and looked frustrated.  She began to scan the table in front of her.

     “I need…  ,” she began, “I need…  ”

     “What is it, Ellie,” Dad asked gently.  “What do you need?”

     “I need…  ,” she repeated, this time more urgently.  “I need…  ”  She continued to examine the items on the table, hoping to point to what she wanted.

     “It’s OK, Sweetheart.  Take your time.”

     “I need…  ,” she repeated, as she shook her hands emphatically, trying desperately to express in words the image or idea that was apparently tumbling through her mind.

She pointed towards the right side of the table and the small collection of food that was sitting between my dad and me.  Dad followed her gesture with his eyes, and his view settled on the bowl of peas that was sitting between us.

     “Ellie, do you want the peas?”

     “Yes,” she said, nodding enthusiastically.  “I need…  I need...  peas.”

Thinking that he had discovered what she needed, Dad breathed a quiet sigh of relief.  But Mom vehemently protested as he reached for the dish to pass it to her, shaking her head and frowning.

     “No, NO...  ” she said.  “I need…  the peas.”

     “Ellie, I have them right— ”

     “No,” she interrupted, shaking her head vigorously.  “I need the PEAS!”

Dad became slightly flustered as he set the dish back down.  He began to point to each individual item in an attempt to solve the riddle – a riddle that had become a nightly ritual at the dinner table.  He pointed to the butter, but mom continued to shake her head.  He reached for a few napkins and looked up hopefully.  She shook her head in rejection and continued to ask for the peas.  Finally, he grasped the saltshaker, and before he had a chance to ask, she began nodding her head in excitement.

     “Yes…  YES,” she exclaimed.  “That’s IT!”

Gently, my father passed the salt to my mother.  She snatched it from him and sprinkled a healthy dose on her steaming baked potato.  As she took a bite, she became calm and peaceful; the stress and anxiety vanished from her demeanor almost instantly.

     “…the peas,” she repeated quietly.

     “It’s OK, Ellie,” Dad whispered, a lone tear trickling down his cheek.

I picked up my fork and continued to eat in silence.  I shoveled bits of meatloaf and baked potato into my mouth and forced myself to chew and swallow.  During the last few weeks since the surgery, my mother had been having more and more difficulty with her speech.   It was heartbreaking to witness this cruel game of charades every night at dinner, but unlike my father, I didn’t feel like letting my emotions out in front of others.  I just tried to focus on my mother and tried to imagine how she was feeling, what she was thinking…  what was really happening inside of her mind.

We had first noticed that she was having trouble earlier in the summer.  For the most part, she had appeared to be functioning normally, but she had definitely been having her difficult moments.  On some days, her concrete thoughts seemed to slip away in mid-sentence.  On other days, she was just very quiet.  It was uncharacteristic for somebody who chose her words carefully and always conversed in a thoughtful, intelligent manner.  But the idea that something was seriously wrong had never crossed our minds.  My mother had always eaten pretty well, exercised on a regular basis, and taken good care of herself.

It felt like a punch in our collective guts when the neurologist had told us that there appeared to be a malignant tumor growing on her left cerebral hemisphere.  The cancer had damaged the language centers of her brain, causing her to have trouble with her speech.  Suddenly, one of the people that I had relied on my entire life for guidance and wisdom was unable to carry on a normal conversation.  Although her difficulties had only been really noticeable during the past few weeks, I was having a hard time remembering what she was like when she was healthy.

The last time I could actually recall having a normal conversation with her was in April of that same year, while I was still away at college.  She had called me on the phone to tell me some really great news.  Whatever she'd wanted to tell me must have been really special because I was actually at my girlfriend’s apartment (girlfriend at the time, anyway), and she had made the extra effort to hunt down Emily’s number.

     “It’s for you, Dave,” said Emily, handing me the cordless phone.

I put down my Heineken and my hand of cards and went to the next room where the noise wouldn't drown out the conversation.

Of course, my Dad’s voice was the first that I heard on the other end of the line.  My parents always operated this way when talking with my sister and me, while we were away at college.  Dad would call us from the phone in the kitchen.  Once successful contact was made, he'd scream at the top of his lungs that he had gotten through.  Mom would then pick up the other phone upstairs and join the conversation.

     “Oh...  Hi Dave,” said Dad.  “You’re over with Emily tonight.”

I was about to commend him for stating the obvious, when he unleashed vocal fury.


Unfortunately, my father usually forgot to cover up the mouthpiece when trying to get Mom's attention.  Usually, I never heard her say hello because my ears were ringing.  However, on this particular evening, I heard her voice loudly and clearly.

     “Hi Dave!  How are you?”

I loved listening to my mom on the phone.  It didn’t matter what kind of a day she'd had.  She always seemed to be in a cheerful mood when she called.  It meant a lot to me just knowing how much she enjoyed our conversations.

     “We have some great news for you!”

     “You’re...  going to finish my English research paper for me," I said hopefully.

She just responded with one of her typical mom cackles.  Whenever I said something ridiculous or absurd, she would let loose with a distinctive laugh.

     “No,” she said, “We have even better news.  Remember that basketball pool that you signed up for a few weeks ago?”

     Basketball pool, I thought to myself.  Oh yeah, that's right.

I had entered a basketball pool at the bank where I'd worked during summers and college vacations for the past few years.  The NCAA Basketball Tournament is a big deal every March, as college basketball fans all across the country join betting pools and try to predict which team will emerge from the field of sixty-four as the national champion.  I never bothered to participate.  I always thought it was just a big waste of time.

     “Sure, I remember,” I said.  “What, did I win ten dollars or something?”

     “Not just ten dollars,” said dad.

     “You came in first place,” Mom exclaimed.  “You won seven hundred dollars!”

     “Seven hundred dollars!” I screamed into the mouthpiece, returning the favor to my father.  “You're KIDDING!”

As it turns out, my parents were quite serious.  The teams in the NCAA tournament are typically seeded from the four different geographical regions throughout the country.  I had managed to correctly predict all of the games in one of the major regions, as well as the Final Four participants, the two teams to advance to the championship game, and the overall winner – Michigan State.

I was absolutely elated, as I had really never won anything in my entire life up to that point.  My father was extremely happy for me, of course.  Although he didn’t show it, I’m sure there was also some mild bitterness on his part.  For years, he had filled out his brackets each March and entered them into a pool, which was run by an acquaintance that owned a pizza parlor across the street from his office.  After ten years of miserable failure, he decided that it would be less stressful if he simply filled out the brackets without betting any money.  I could just imagine him grumbling to my mother about my good fortune after we ended the phone call.

On the other hand, there was no question whatsoever as to how pleased for me my mother was.  I could hear the excitement and warmth radiating from her voice as she offered her congratulations.  My mother was so remarkable in that she was a woman of few words, but several reflective moments of silence after a few poignant comments spoke volumes.

One of her co-workers at the school where she taught had once commented that Mom was the best moderator he had ever known.  During tense meetings, she would sit quietly and listen thoughtfully as the participants debated back and forth over academic matters.  When the storm had subsided, she would thoughtfully offer her two cents in such a way that both parties would understand the opposing viewpoint.  She just had a knack for easing the tension during heated situations.

Even the students in her classes knew how sharp she was.  When they realized that they could never get away with any mischief in her classroom, they began referring to her as 'Old Eagle Eyes'.

I chatted with her for a few moments about the progress of my English paper, my experiences as assistant coach of the college track team, and a few other significant events that were taking place during my final semester in college.  I didn’t think anything of it as I hung up the phone and resumed my evening of cards and beer with Emily and her housemates.  I had spoken to her hundreds of times on the phone before, and I always assumed that I would continue to do so for the next fifty years as I entered the perils of adulthood, relying on her wisdom to guide me along.

That was the last conversation during which I was completely oblivious as to what was taking place inside of her head.

There are some moments during our lives when we are completely naïve as to what’s really going on in a certain situation.  Even if significant changes are taking place, they don't immediately affect us if we are unaware of them.  I’d really like to give back those seven hundred dollars… just for one more evening of obliviousness.  Looking back at that phone call, I find it hard to fathom that the most important thing on my mind at the time was a relatively mediocre quantity of cash.  I’d like to give back that money in exchange for ten or fifteen more minutes on the phone with my mom.

Better yet, I’d like to give back that money and be able to spend a quiet evening at home with mom, doing the things we used to do when I was home from college during breaks… eating ice cream and homemade apple crisp while watching a ridiculous, sappy Hallmark movie special, like 'Sarah Plain and Tall' (dad used to call it 'Sarah Stout and Stupid').

My favorite activity with Mom was playing a hostile game of Scrabble.

She would usually demolish me, routinely beginning the game with a seven-letter word on a Double-Word score, while I would have to work with six vowels and a 'G'.  After she had drawn first blood, I would sit there drowning in a pool of my own rage, helplessly rearranging vowels around the lone consonant in my possession.  Finally, I would take my 'G', along with an 'A' and an 'E', and piggyback the letters off of her first play.

     “PAGE…  That’s four, five, seven, eight…  doubled is sixteen points.”

     “That’s good,” she’d reply, making a paltry effort to boost what was left of my self-esteem.  “However, that 'G' was helpful to me.”

Then, she’d snatch all seven letters from her stick, arranging them carefully on the board.

     “REGLAZED…  Yesterday in pottery class, I REGLAZED my animal sculpture.”

For some reason, she always felt it necessary to use seven or eight-letter words in a full sentence, as if she thought I wouldn’t believe that 'REGLAZED' was an actual word.

     “That’s one, two, four, five, six…  let’s see, thirty points for 'Z' on the Triple Letter Score… thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, plus fifty for using all seven letters…  eighty-nine points.  That makes the score…  one hundred and seventy-seven to sixteen.”

And that's how a typical game of Scrabble with Mom went down.

While it may seem absurd to hold onto the memory of getting your backside handed to you during family game night, it was truly a blessing when one of these images passed through my mind.  Unfortunately, the thoughts and recollections of my mother when she was healthy were few and far between during her illness.  It wasn't until over two years after she died that I was able to remember her when she was healthy.  Only then was I able to completely block out the painful memories of her illness.

While she was still with us, my father and I were focused on making her life as comfortable and as meaningful as possible on a day-to-day basis.

As with every night, dinner on this particular evening was a gift.

We usually finished our meals first and then sat quietly, waiting patiently as mom continued to work on the remainder of her dinner.  She was thorough and very deliberate in mopping up every last piece of food on her plate.  Once she had finished, Dad and I worked together to clean up the kitchen.  I put the leftovers away, while Dad filled the sink with soap and hot water and began to scrub the plates.  Once the table was clear, I joined him at the sink and began to dry.  Mom sat quietly and watched us complete the job that she taken charge of for so many years.

When we were younger, my sister and I would help Mom clear the table and would take turns drying the dishes as she was washing them.  Once we were older, one of us would wash while the other dried.  Mom would always have to break up our arguments, as neither of us ever wanted to wash the dishes.

     “Why can’t we just get a dishwasher like every other normal family?” I protested.

     “Why would I want to buy a new one,” she’d answer cheerfully, motioning towards my sister and me, “when I already have two that work perfectly well?”

This response was unacceptable, and it made me miserable.

I hated wearing those ridiculous, womanly rubber gloves, and getting my hands all hot and clammy.  Eventually, Mom took over the washing duties from me when I inadvertently managed to flood the counters and floor every night, making the kitchen a hazard for anybody who dared to venture in for a late evening snack.  And she did so without holding a grudge against me for being a messy, underwhelming washer of dishes.  She knew I hated washing them.  Really, she was just happy to have her son working and helping out by her side.

Even now in her deteriorating state of mind and body, she usually insisted on helping us clean up the kitchen after dinner.  My father and I tried to convince her that we would be happy to just have her relax at the table while we did the work, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

Early on she was still able to wash the dishes and help out in the kitchen, albeit much more slowly.  However, as the weeks progressed and the cancer slowly started getting the best of her, we found that she wasn’t as efficient or effective as she used to be.  Sometimes there would still be food marks or streaks left behind, even after she took time to carefully scrub each dish, pot, or piece of silverware.  Other times, she didn’t remember which cabinet to put them in.

On good nights, Dad washed the dishes while Mom dried and left them on the table.  After putting the leftovers in the refrigerator, I helped her put the clean dishes into the cabinets.  On many nights, she was too tired from the day’s events to help out, so she rested quietly on the couch while my father and I cleaned up.

We said very little as the pile of dirty dishes on the counter gradually shrank and disappeared.  Dad dipped a sponge into the soapy water and began to wipe the counters down, while I continued to dry and put away the few remaining dishes in the drain.  I smiled at Mom before glancing out the window into the backyard.

The shadows had all but disappeared as the remaining traces of the sunset faded into the abyss of dusk.  The birds had retired for the evening, leaving behind a collection of empty shells scattered under the feeder.  As night time closed in, the trees were visible only as lonely silhouettes, their branches reaching out and gently grasping the darkness.  I paused a moment longer before turning back to the sink in front of me.  I sighed as I dried the last glass and placed it in the cabinet above the sink.


I turned around at the sound of my father’s voice.  He was staring at Mom’s empty place at the table.  Apparently, she had quietly slipped out of the kitchen while we were finishing the dishes.

     “Where did she go?"

     “I didn’t even see her leave,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

     “Ellie?” he called again, this time more loudly.

He was about to check the living room to see if she had settled down for a nap on the couch, when we heard the sound of the front door opening.  I followed my father down the short flight of stairs leading out of the kitchen and around the corner towards our front entryway.  Mom had opened the front door and was standing quietly peering out through the screen.

The early autumn air was cool and crisp.  Our front walk and flower garden were illuminated by the street lamp at the end of our driveway.  She turned towards my father and looked at him questioningly.  Slowly, she raised her arm and pointed out the door.

     “What is it Ellie?” he asked.  “What’s out there?”

     “Richard, I...  ,” she paused for a moment.  “Richard...  ,” she paused and looked down towards the floor, furrowing her brow in deep, effortful thought.

     “Take your time, Honey,” he said, joining her by the door.  “Is there something you see?”

     “Yes--  No, I...  ,”  She pointed out the door again.  “I want to...  No, I...  ,”

     “Why don’t we sit down and try to figure out what you’d like to say,” he said.

     “NO!” she barked.  “I need...  I want to...  ”

She pushed the screen door open and stepped outside onto the front walk before turning around to look back at my father.

     “Mom, do you want dad to take you for a walk?” I asked, as my father glanced over his shoulder at me.

     “YES!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “It’s time to...  go for a WALK!”

     “Ellie, it’s already dark out and you’ve had a long day,” said my father, turning back towards the door.  “Why don’t we...  ,”

His voice trailed off as he realized she was already halfway down the front walk.

     “You could just take her down to the end of the street and back,” I said.  “She wasn’t too happy about missing it yesterday.”

Dad nodded as he took a deep, labored breath.  He paused before stepping outside, and we shared one of those silent moments that would become painfully more common in the days and months ahead.

At that point, it was still fairly early in Mom’s journey; the potential promise of treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery had been dangled deceivingly before our hopeful eyes.  But once the surgery had been unsuccessful, my father didn’t have a good feeling about her chances of survival.  When the initial trauma from the brain surgery had worn off, the bright, talented, and articulate woman who had been my mother was gradually replaced by somebody who seemed familiar at times, yet appeared to be slower, weaker, forgetful, and unable to communicate effectively.

She didn't seem like Mom...  and yet...  she was Mom.  She was my mother.

It still makes me feel guilty and thoughtless that I have to describe it that way, but these were the changes that were unfolding before our eyes.  Although she would survive for almost thirteen more months, my father had already started to grieve the loss of the woman he had been married to for the past thirty-three years.  As her condition worsened, his role in their partnership changed from spouse, to parent, and finally to hospice nurse.

I watched my parents through the screen door as they made their way down our sloping driveway towards the street.  At the bottom, my father gently took Mom’s hand and lead her down the side of the road.  The street lamp in front of our neighbor’s yard briefly illuminated their figures.  I closed my eyes for a moment and pretended... wished...  for a moment that my mother was healthy.  Upon her return from her walk, she would challenge me to a game of Scrabble.

When I opened my eyes, my parents had faded into dark shapes, slowly blending into the night.  They were far enough away that I couldn’t recognize Mom’s limp, and for just a moment my wish had been granted.

After a few more moments, I returned to the family room.  My controller was sitting on the carpet where I had left it, and the yellow Beetle on the television screen was still hovering high above the pavement.  I pressed the red button in the middle of the controller, and I escaped once again to my own fantasy world.

1 comment:

  1. Catching up on your blog while I'm at work. I should've guessed from the picture that this was a read-at-home entry (or else stock up on the Kleenex). It will be 20 years since my Mom died on the 28th...hard to believe it has been that long. It is hard to remember the healthy years, unfortunately, but I'm thankful for any time. Hope you are doing well...