Here is Chapter 26 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Polly and Loren hunch over mom’s kitchen table, weary from their travels, yet thrilled to see her looking well. I have alerted them to her chronic fatigue in the wake of our California trip, although mom now appears to have fully recovered. Their visit has done much to rejuvenate her spirits, if not her body.
Their bodies must be worn out as well. They are older than mom and must take care not to exhaust themselves lest the burdened become the burden. Polly spends much of her day in a wheelchair or using a walker. Loren appears to be in far better health than his wife of 54 years, but appearances may deceive.
As we converse, I am an archaeologist searching for clues. I study their faces for signs of pain felt but not talked about, of ailments wrestled with but stoically endured, of vulnerability partially masked but visible to those who will see. Eventually, I am satisfied they are what they seem — an elderly couple who must take care to conserve their energy, but a couple that possesses resources and a reserve of strength ready to be tapped in times of need.
Normally taciturn when Polly and her relatives spin their yarns, Loren steps into the breach caused by his wife’s exhaustion. He asks me about the driveway. “So why did we park at the road?”
When Paula and I had our house constructed three years earlier, our builder, Mark McKrow, gave us an allowance for interior and exterior features. If we went over on one item, we had to subtract it from another. Unfortunately, we depleted our “concrete allowance” to construct a sidewalk from the driveway to the door of mom’s apartment, which left us with no money to pour concrete out to the road. As a result, part of our driveway was paved with gravel. Now, three years later, we have finally saved the $2,700 required to finish pouring the concrete. We chose August as the month to complete the work before we realized that Polly and Loren would be visiting. Thankfully, the concrete is almost a week old; it should be fully set by tomorrow.
Loren and I share tales of concrete poured and financed for close to 10 minutes before Polly succumbs to boredom. “I think we should move on to another topic besides the driveway.”
Mom nods vigorously. “That is very good for your soul, Polly.”
We have shared coffee and conviviality in the 45 minutes since they arrived. A second pot is brewing on the counter behind us. I can hear burping, slurping sounds emanating from the Mr. Coffee. A store-bought Key Lime pie, recently thawed, has made the rounds; little is left but crumbs and a sliver of the tart dessert. We have consumed the sweets well in advance of the evening meal; we are a daring lot.
They would have been here sooner, but Polly forgot to bring the written directions I sent. They have driven from the airport to my house numerous times, but this time they had a GPS navigation system that somehow steered them to an unfamiliar road. Lost and tired from the journey, they called from a BP mini-mart on the outskirts of the little town of Between, Georgia. I met them in the parking lot and led them to our house.
Despite their weariness, they have entertained us with tales of family foibles and close encounters of the nerd kind. I have done what I can to update them on Laura’s latest adventures, including her “dreaming our loud” exclamation in the parking lot of the Liberty Tax Service. Laughter and good cheer abound. It is a moment to be remembered and savored. Even Shelby, normally immune to the charms of adults, seems enamored of our company.
Several times in my life, when I have reached a crossroads, my brain has deliberately assessed the situation with an iron logic that is almost frightening. It is as if my head is snapping photographs and saying, remember this moment; it is special. You will recall this scene long after it has passed. Something is happening here that will make you a better man when you reflect on it. Perhaps I am being melodramatic, but that is how it feels.
This is not the first time I have felt this way, nor is it likely to be the last. I remember when mom dropped me at Furman University on my first day of college. It was September 10, 1980. I cannot always remember what I did last week, but I vividly remember that day more than a quarter of a century ago with each minute detail impressed upon my mind. I knew at the time I would remember the intimate details. My brain kept snapping photographs and tucking them away. I remember mom gassing up her Toyota Corolla at the service station across the street from the McDonald’s outside the back gate of the college. I remember unpacking my suitcases in my dorm room. I remember walking mom to her car and watching as she drove away, cigarette in hand, with the remnants of my childhood nestled inside her car. I remember turning to face my dormitory and walking across the grassy field that led from the parking lot to my new room and my new life.
I remember a day four years later with the same intense clarity. It was June 2, 1984. The campus I had greeted as a stranger in 1980 had become a dear old friend by 1984. I remember walking around the lake, watching the ducks and swans fuss with each other and flap their wings, half-flying, half-swimming into the water. I remember running my hands along the top of a neatly clipped hedge near the bell tower while I drank a 7-11 Big Gulp soft drink. I remember standing outside the stadium at the rehearsal when the assistant registrar called the names of graduating seniors who still owed money for overdue library books, telling them in no uncertain terms they must settle their accounts or they could not march in a few hours; their grandmothers would have traveled hundreds of miles for no good reason except to receive a heaping dose of shame on the family name. I remember trying on my cap and gown in the Ramada Inn before the graduation ceremony. I remember listening to the graduation speaker, South Carolina Senator Ernest F. Hollings, spouting out the usual clichés about success and keeping one’s chin up, wallowing in his thick, slow-as-molasses-sounding Charlestonian accent, and wishing he would shut up so we could march onto the stage and snatch our diplomas.
I remember those events of my young life with an unusual clarity. Those memories are hardly surprising, however, for they are the standard rites of passage for young people. Some events are so obviously landmarks in our lives we need little prompting to snap photographs for our mind scrapbooks.
What strikes me as unusual is I realize my mind is doing it now, as we sit around the table in mom’s apartment on this balmy August evening. I am snapping photographs every few seconds even though this day does not seem to be a memorable occasion. Perhaps my subconscious knows what my conscious mind refuses to admit: Given the age and condition of my loved ones, every time we sit around a table and laugh at the old times, it may be the last time.
And so I snap my photographs. I mentally tuck away scenes of Polly and Loren, exhausted but still enjoying themselves, gesturing and smiling, crow’s feet running across their faces all the while. Paula, still wearing a dress from work because she has not had time to change, is now an integral part of our family. None of us, especially me, knows how we functioned before she arrived on the scene. Looking at her there, laughing and gesturing, my heart fills with a love I did not know I possessed. I see Shelby, facing a troubled adolescence we have yet fully to grasp, genuinely laughing without her usual sullenness or posing. And I see mom — mom, sitting tall in her wheelchair; mom waving her left arm back and forth as though she is a conductor working her way through an intricate, upbeat piece of music; mom, happily, unselfconsciously engaged in the moment; mom living the remnants of her life as well as she can.
I glance at my wristwatch. “I’m worried about you, Polly. Why don’t you lie down for a little while?”
Loren adds his two cents. “That sounds like an excellent suggestion.”
“I want to visit with my baby sister. I’ll lie down in a few minutes. Besides, I need to get started on the casserole.”
Paula chimes in. “Shirley will be here in about an hour. She usually cooks for Laura, but if you want to fix the casserole just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
Polly must be tired because no power on earth can dissuade her from taking charge in the kitchen unless she is worn out. The cumulative effect of her relatives insisting she relax from her long trip bears fruit. Her shoulders sag.
Mom notices the change and laughs. Even after suffering a stroke, she can spot a shift in family dynamics. “This one can make this puppy rest for awhile.”
“You’re right, Laura. You’re right.” She bends her knees to stand.
Loren shoots up from his seat and whizzes around the table. It is amazing to think he is 75 years old; he has a spring in his step that men half his age would envy. “Here, let me help you, Polly.”
He gently takes his wife by the elbow and guides her a few steps to her cane. Although she has not suffered a stroke, Polly battles crippling arthritis and the normal infirmities that accompany old age. She is almost nine years mom’s senior, and the wear and tear is showing. She sometimes jokes “it’s the mileage, not the age” that slows her down, but whatever it is becomes apparent when she is tired, as she is at this moment.
“Okay, folks, you win. I’ll lie down for a bit. First, let me show Paula how to cook the casserole.”
While Polly lies down, we map out a series of activities suitable for the age and condition of our loved ones. Paula has heard of a musical comedy running at the 14th Street Playhouse in Midtown Atlanta. Titled Menopause: The Musical, it has garnered rave reviews in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution.
Loren and I exchange looks. I squinch up my nose as though I have detected an unpleasant odor. “What’s it called again?”
Witnessing this exchange between Paula and the men in the room, mom laughs and points. “This one can take the garbage out!”
Paula frowns. “What’s so funny, Laura?”
“She’s laughing because Loren and I aren’t sure we want to see a musical comedy about menopause.”
“It’s supposed to be funny.”
“We’ll be the only straight men in the audience.”
Mom cackles. “Only straight men in the audience, yes.”
Paula closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Oh, come on. Don’t be silly. You’ll enjoy it.”
“I don’t know, Paula.”
“You should do it for Polly and Laura. They will both absolutely love it.”
Loren and I exchange looks again. Paula has brought out the nuclear weapons. We want to please the Mellette sisters. If Menopause: The Musical will accomplish the goal, who are we to stand in the way?
I wave the flag of surrender for both of us. “Okay. You win.”
The next night finds Polly, Loren, Paula, Shelby, mom, and me at the 14th Street Playhouse. As we suspected, three quarters of the audience is comprised of women in their forties and older. A few sullen-looking teenage girls aside from Shelby sit among their aging womenfolk; they are distinctly unenthusiastic about watching actresses sing of the “change of life,” as Weeze used to call it. Then again, teenagers seldom seek the company of adults, regardless of the venue.
Of the men sprinkled throughout the crowd, more than a few are obviously gay. If this observation sounds homophobic, it is not meant to be. The fellows I am speaking of walk with a certain roll of the hips, a sway that most straight white southern men would find anathema. Their fashion sense tends toward pastels, tight pants, and hairstyles that might best be characterized as “free-spirited.” They flail their wrists when they speak and begin sentences with the word “darling.” They notice and comment on styles and shades of eyeliner and blush with more attention to detail than most men I have known.
Neither Loren nor I is especially homophobic, but at the same time we have been raised to be comfortable in our straight white maleness. We are southerners, for good or ill. As for me, I figure we should live and let live. Still, despite my liberal sensibilities, I struggle against my conspicuousness in the audience of Menopause: The Musical. It is silly to feel this way, I know, but I desperately want anyone looking at me to realize I am a heterosexual male who is trying to do right by the women in his life.
Mom is as happy as I have ever seen her. Dressed in her best pantsuit and jacket, she is out for a rare night on the town with her relatives. Everything about the experience is thrilling. She enjoys watching the people in their fancy clothes drinking chardonnay in the lobby before the performance. Parking in the handicapped section, she loves hearing the banter among Polly, Loren, Paula, and me as we debate the gender makeup and sexual orientation of the crowd. During the show, she cackles loudly as the actresses sing about hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and doctor’s appointments. She may not follow intricate plotlines, but she understands broad comedy set to music. Several times, Paula has to assist mom in blowing her nose after repeated eruptions of laughter.
Even as we file from the theatre, the night has not yet ended. We crowd into Benedetti, an Italian restaurant located near Emory University. The laughter and jokes flow through the entire meal, from the initial presentation of the salad and rolls to the rigatoni, spaghetti and, finally, the tiramisu. Without appearing obvious, I steal glances at mom as she sits there with her “That’s Italiano!” bib draped around her neck. I silently revel in her mirth. This, too, is a memory to be cherished and tucked away against hard times to come.
I am as sad as mom is to see the night end. Polly and Loren must head out in the morning — they are visiting a friend who is in the hospital in Florence, South Carolina — so we will not see much of them after this evening. As we bid everyone a good night, I wheel mom downstairs to her apartment.
“You’re awfully quiet. Did you have a good time tonight?”
She nods. “Yes, Michael. A good time tonight.”
“It’s always nice to see Polly and Loren, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It is always nice to see Polly and Loren.”
“Are you sad because they’re leaving so soon?”
“Yes. Sad because they’re leaving so soon, yes.”
I do not speak. Instead, I park her in front of the kitchen table while I reach for her medicine and arrange it in a pile near her place setting. “I’ll get you some juice so you can take your pills. Remember: You have to take them all, even the potassium.”
She grimaces but does not argue.
“Paula will be down in a minute to help you get your clothes hung up and your nightgown on.”
“Okay. Thank you, Michael.”
I speak to Hortense, her Beagle, who lies in the corner and looks up at me with sad eyes. Her tail lazily thumps the floor in response to my sing-song voice. Daisy, our dog, is upstairs with Paula, but she will be downstairs in a few minutes. She follows Paula everywhere she goes.
“You know, mom, maybe we can arrange a visit to Polly and Loren’s house at Christmas. Would that be fun?”
Mom’s eyes light up. “Yes. Fun, yes.”
“I’ll talk to Polly about it after she recuperates from this trip. But don’t think you’ll be flying first class again. That doesn’t happen every time.”
She laughs. “Yes, that doesn’t happen every time.”
“And Leila said in her latest card you should visit with her at the Santee.”
“Yes. Don’t you remember? I showed you the card a few days ago. It had a picture of white doves printed on the cover.”
She shrugs. The days are a blur; facts don’t always stick in her head the way they once did.
“So maybe we should take her up on her offer.”
Mom nods. “Maybe we should.”
“What I’m getting at is that even though you’re a little sad with Polly and Loren leaving tomorrow, we have a lot of things to look forward to, mom.”
She nods. “I know it.”
Pouring her juice and watching as she chews her pills, I, too, fight the blues. “We have a lot to look forward to, mom.” I’m not sure if I’m trying to convince her or myself.