I wrote this piece years ago. It is the creative spark for my new novel, which (for now) is titled, I Am That Mother.
As I open the door an alarm announces my entry to the garage waiting room. In the harsh glare of florescent light, I see rows of blue chairs hugging the walls and two vending machines standing guard side by side swallowing up the space in the corner. The room is devoid of life except for an old couple huddled together on two of the blue chairs. I walk to the service counter. A mechanic appears and after a brief exchange about my car’s flat tire, I take a seat as instructed and wait.
My attention is drawn to the old couple seated across from me. The man is small and stiff, his body contorted in the shape of a question mark, a shape mimicked by the tarnished cane he holds. His head is covered in a green cap, tufts of gray hair protrude around its edge. He feels my scrutiny and lifts his head, painfully it seems, as it breaks out of that question mark mold to meet my eye. I acknowledge his gesture with a smile. He returns a smile that splits his face and warms his watery gray eyes. It is an odd moment that lasts too long, lingering far beyond a normal greeting between strangers. Still I cannot look away.
“Stop flirting with the pretty young girl,” his wife says in a teasing tone. I shift my smile to her, thinking, I would not describe myself as “a pretty young girl.” Clear oxygen prongs are visible in her nostrils, the excess tubing coiled at her feet like a snake, the end connected to an oxygen tank at her side. Her tightly curled bouffant looks as if it would survive all of our recent hurricanes—perfectly intact. Like her husband she is also small, but unlike him her body is relaxed, her posture straight.
I like her smile. I like her raspy voice. But there is something in that openness, like the extended eye contact with her husband, that causes a slight unease. I know this about myself: frail, sick, elderly people make me feel vulnerable and a little sad. There is no hiding the failing bodies, so evident now in this couple before me. How can this be the reward for a life, to be trapped in a body that you no longer recognize as your own?
Almost as if she reads my mind, she says, “Don’t believe what they say about the golden years, there is nothing at all golden about it.”
I look at the tubing that presses across her face from nose to ear. And again she reads my mind—or my obvious open face—and answers my unasked question. “I smoked for years, too many years. Now I can’t breathe.” An expression of sadness passes over her face and is quickly replaced with a vacant look.
The service station attendant calls their name. The man rises out of the chair slowly; he shuffles his feet and taps his cane as he makes his way toward the door. This time his head does not lift to meet my gaze. His wife gathers up the coil of tubing at her feet and pulls her oxygen tank behind her as she follows her husband toward the exit. She smiles at me once more, and says, “The blind leading the blind,” then chuckles softly at her own joke. I rise and open the door as they slowly exit.
The room is now empty, the book I brought waits unopened. I wonder about the old couple. What caused the man’s body to become imprisoned in that question mark posture? Was it genetic? Osteoporosis? Did his raspy-voiced wife start smoking in her youth? Was she addicted before the surgeon general imprinted each cigarette pack with a warning label? Has she accepted that oxygen tank as her constant companion, or does she regret each puff that robbed her of breath?
Perhaps the changes in the old couple came from circumstances more complex than the ordinary events I imagine. Maybe they survived a tragedy, a heartbreak that they were unable to escape.
I pick up my book, try to lose myself in its pages, but it doesn’t hold my interest. I close my eyes and rest my head back against the chair. My mind returns to the old couple, and I daydream.
The son she cradles has had his fill and falls asleep, his downy cheek resting against her breast. His sweet mouth still making small suckling motions. Her heart swells, bursting with a love she never thought possible, every cliché come to life within her. She is alone in the room, save for the baby, her husband asleep in the bedroom upstairs. She treasures this precious time with her son. She talks to him, whispering of the life he will have, the perfect life she will make for him.
His son is two, a rambunctious two. Blond haired, blue eyed, the apple of his father’s eye. They walk in the garden together; it is early spring and the ground is still partially frozen. The father is talking to his son of the plans he has for their garden, the vegetables they will grow in perfect little rows. The son looks up at his father, talking his baby talk, only some of his words recognizable. The father smiles and is delighted with his boy, not at all discouraged by his lack of understanding. He looks to the future and sees all the wonderful things they will do together.
It is his fifth birthday party, the warm September day attracts bees which cause the son’s friends to shriek in terror. The party is moved inside. Proud parents join voices with their son’s young friends singing Happy Birthday while gathered around a strawberry birthday cake topped with five flickering candles. They look into each other’s eyes over the boy’s head, their faces alive with joy and love.
Half way through the boy’s first grade school year, the woman receives a phone call from her son’s teacher and an appointment is made to discuss the son’s school work. The couple discusses the appointment later that evening, after the son is read his bedtime stories and is snug in bed. Neither is concerned; they presume it is just a formality. Perhaps the teacher wishes to discuss the curriculum. They are wrong. They sit in miniature chairs dumbfounded as the teacher discusses the details of their son’s learning problems.
He is in fifth grade and now occupies a desk in special “LD” classes. How the couple hates those words: learning disabilities. The learning problems have progressed into behavior problems, the boy’s anger increasing as his body grows. His parents are unable to understand this new boy who seems to have overtaken their son. Raised voices and outbursts of anger and frustration occur with regularity. They seek outside help, school counselors, professional tutors and therapists, but they make little difference in the son’s behavior.
The parents feel helpless and work to control their own anger, each coping in their own way. The man choosing to walk away, his head bent toward the floor, unable to look at the son he loves, his posture a portrait of sorrow and loss. The woman removes a cigarette from the pack that now sits beside her coffee cup. She places it between her lips and lights it, inhaling deeply before blowing smoke out of her mouth and nostrils. Her face is devoid of expression, her heart numb.
The son enters the high school LD program. He has grown tall and strong, gone is the softness of his youth. A mixture of pain, sorrow, and anger live in the young man’s eyes. The eyes of his parents look much the same. Their once peaceful home has become a chaotic combination of resentment, desperation and fury. The son slams the door on his way out. The man assumes his shrinking bowed posture and walks away. The woman lights her cigarette, her face a blank mask as she stares out the window.
There is no high school graduation, no celebration or tears of joy. The son is expelled from high school while his parents watch as terrified spectators. They have long given up even the pretense of control. The sound of the phone, once a welcome sound bringing voices of friends into the kitchen, now forms a ball of anxiety in the pit of the woman’s stomach. She often ignores the shrill ringing, instead choosing to walk away from the sound, leaving the painful words and a trail of smoke lingering in the empty room.
The police frequent the phone and the doorbell—never good news. The man can no longer lift his head to meet the officer’s eye; he answers the door in his stooped posture, staring down at the floor in shame. His wife is left to handle to situation, her face sober and sorrowful, a cigarette snug between her fingers. Smoke curls up around her, a barrier to the anguish of the officer’s words.
The room is stark, chilling, surreal. Their son is lying on the bed attached to a ventilator. The nurse’s voice is muted by the hissing sound of the machine keeping him alive. The old couple stand frozen, stunned by the realization that their son, whom they haven’t seen in twenty years, now lies on the bed before them. The nurse guides them into the hospital room, to the chairs placed beside the bed. The man’s shuffling gait is aided by a shiny silver cane. His wife wheezes softly as she takes the seat beside him. Silent tears blur her vision.
The garage attendant calls my name, and I pay for the tire repair. I walk out the door, the same door I opened earlier for the old couple. My car once again rides smoothly. The feeling of satisfaction I have as I drive home ends abruptly when my cell phone rings. I look at the screen and see his name flashing—my son Lucas. That familiar ball of anxiety forms in the pit of my stomach. My finger hovers above the button, hesitating, before I answer his call.