August 30, 2006

The Album

By Mella © 2006

The apartment is toxic. We have only been inside for ten minutes and already I am feeling suffocated. She is in her bedroom, pulling herself along the bed, dragging her legs behind. He is on the couch, ignoring us and intently watching a movie I don't recognize with the closed-captioning on. A silent car chase and a black box spells out C r a s h.

Finally, she emerges from the bedroom, moving quicker now, with wheels beneath her. She is my mother's younger sister, not yet turned fifty.

I left the Medicare page bookmarked for you. She says to him, her husband of fifteen years, and he doesn't respond.

The hell with them, he says, turning to me and my mother and launching into a tirade about the corrupt government and how the world is out to screw him. He quotes Michael Moore and rants about the evils of the Whitehouse - reading books to children and sleeping with Bin Laden. Listening to him makes me tired. Thankfully, she is ready - jacket on, earmuffs placed crookedly over her head, gloves shoved in her pockets.

Let's go.

The cold today is relentless. She wheels through the doors and winces as the wind pinches at her cheeks, but all she says is, Remind me to take my seizure meds at three.

Taking her out is our weekly commitment, to give them each space. Trapped in that apartment, they're both bitter and biting at one another. She cries. He drinks and retreats to his bedroom. She worries, but knows better than to question him when she smells pot seeping from the crack under his door. He throws things; sometimes they bounce and bruise her legs and arms. He denies everything, but her skin turns black then purple and yellow then back to milky ivory, stretched loosely over swollen green veins.

We take her to a local diner to eat before shopping at a nearby discount store. She is nursing a plate of liver and onions with strips of shriveled bacon and a scoop of mashed potatoes. The platter is shiny and brown and watching her enjoy it makes me queasy.

Instead, I flip through a book she has handed me. It is a small plastic album filled with pictures of herself and her boys, her granddaughters and various other people of note in her life. Siblings. Parents. Nieces and nephews - each photograph labeled on the back with dates and explanations: My boys and I - 1988. My boys - 1984. Our wedding - 1991; she is young and beautiful.

I look at her now, carefully slicing through a long brown onion, still beautiful - despite a toothless smile and soft cheeks that sink in around her lips. Her eyes are the same sparkling green, but lined at the corners with delicate crows feet. I stare at her legs in her wedding picture; they're not dangling from a wheelchair, covered in a flannel blanket. In the pictures, they're strong and standing, holding up the weight of her petite body, dancing even.

At her each of her son's weddings, she managed to stand just long enough to dance their mother-son dance - gripping them tightly around their necks and balancing her small feet on theirs. She hasn't walked in years.

She explains the album to us while she chews. She keeps it on her at all times - just in case a stranger finds her dead and is searching for explanation.

Oh Kara, my mom gasps and reaches to stroke her sister's arm. But she isn't sad; she thinks she's being practical. Her doctors gave her less than five years to live – eight years ago.

I turn back to the album - my high school senior portrait is tucked neatly into a plastic slit. We share a smile. Her world was a different place when I gave her that picture. Not perfect, but not toxic either. She was in her wheelchair, her health was terrible and money was always a problem - but at least he was still a friend and partner - a husband. They even slept in the same room.

Sometimes, she says while wiping a napkin over her lips, I want to take those wedding pictures and wallpaper my bedroom with them.

Mella is a full-time grad student and over tired mama, staving off insanity by writing.

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