How did time slip past me so quickly? I have stopped paying attention to my face in the mirror, sidle quietly out of camera range, avoid looking closely. Not because I find myself hideous or unappealing, it's not that, but because I half-recognize this adult woman looking back at me, small lines around her peering eyes.
I look so much like my mother once did, the way I remember her as a child, back before her Undoing. She seemed very old to me then.
My father, the O.W., shuffles to the door to greet us, his slippers dragging audibly on the thick cream carpet--his lone upgrade since we moved out twenty years ago. We take off our shoes and go inside, hugging him gently, conscious of his new frailty.
He now holds his left arm, bent at the elbow, to his side, the hand twitching rhythmically. He complains about it continuously, the stream of irritation broken only by laments about his depression, lack of motivation, inability to function.
He asks if we two really have the energy to put up the Christmas tree; the annual tree he managed by himself for twenty years, and which his father accomplished solo till the Alzheimers took him away in '89. He wonders how anyone could have that much energy. We say, yes, of course we can do it, we have the energy, it's not a problem, really, don't worry. But he wants it to be a big deal.
We prune the Noble Fir--he likes it thinned out and perfectly conical--then remove the lowest branches and shave the base to the mandatory five-inch diameter. It has been an hour, and he is now too exhausted from watching us to continue.
I go downstairs to the room I shared with my sister from infancy, zoo-print comforters still covering the twin beds, and look around. Her poster with the Siamese cat is still on the closet door, and the little geodes I collected sit untouched on the white wicker bureau. I remember the O.W. (he was just Daddy then) hopping lightly down the stairs each morning with a tiny cup of milky coffee for each of us, his trick knee clicking as he went. I remember the happiness of playing dress-up with my sister in this room, the way she'd neatly part and braid my five-year-old's mop of honey-blonde hair, then demand that my less-sophisticated fingers do the same for her. I remember wanting to be older, so that I could be as capable as she.
We are at my grandmother's house. When she eats anything at all, it is never more than a few mouthfuls. She weighed eighty-two pounds when she went to the hospital earlier this year; her bones are revealed despite the carefully-chosen layers. As the pounds and ounces of her tiny self evaporate, day by day and year by year, she becomes even more luminous, more beautiful, and more serene, as though her spirit can infuse its shrinking house with even less effort.
Her mind and opinions are as clear as ever, and she wants us to look around the house and tell her what special things we want when she's gone; she says this without self-pity but with difficulty and self-awareness. I look at this beautifully-maintained room, this room that hasn't changed in twenty-four years, and want to weep. I cannot stand the thought that it will not be here, that she will not be here, one day soon.
J. offers to fix her sagging trellis, the trellis my grandfather built when they moved to this retirement complex in 1980. He offers to fix her kitchen light fixture, which my grandfather built one day when she said she was having a hard time seeing well enough to ice the gingerbread men and reindeer cookies she made every year. And then we try to fix the fountain, a beautiful thing now housed in a kiddy pool in her Southern California concrete atrium instead of the slate-tiled in-ground pond my grandfather had so lovingly created for it when they moved it from Ohio to Houston in the fifties, two decades before he was forced to retire.
Now that the tree is pruned and the O.W. has had a night to relax, if not to sleep, we begin work on the Board. My grandfather made it in 1934, the year my father was born, from a collection of motors, pulleys, pumps, a piece of plywood, a music box, a train set and a dozen beautiful German automated toys from the late eighteen hundreds. He created a carnival scene, with the train running round the edge, a zeppelin Ferris wheel, dancers, drummers, windmills, carousels and a miniature version of the fountain, perfectly proportioned. The board has a 5" hole in the middle for the base of the tree.
This year, the fountain has finally corroded beyond repair and leaked, warping the wood underneath. We filled its tiny pool with depressing plastic snow. The little drummer boy stopped drumming, his pulley sliding off after just a few rotations. The train has to be helped around the track where the fountain leaked, because of the warping. I give the little engine a push, and that's enough; the music box, however, no longer plays anything except the first tune, "Carmen", and I am starting to forget the others. Was "Toreadora" on there, or am I imagining it?
When I was four or five, I remember my grandfather filling one of the train cars with candy and bringing it to a stop in front of my delighted self. I ate a peppermint and gave him the butterscotch.
My brother, now forty, is gray at the temples and has the soft build of a middle-aged suburban dad. When he was twelve, my father showed him how to run the Board--a rite of passage. (Never run the train when the toys are going; it overloads the motor. Always back off the train power around the second curve, then give it full juice after the third. Be on the lookout for drooping tinsel.)
Perhaps in seven or eight years, my brother can show his son, but it seems unlikely; the Board is aging like the rest of us. I had hoped one day to show my own child--now even more unlikely.
My sister, still stunning as she nears thirty-eight, has just realized that she won't have any more children. She has no money to do it on her own, and no love with whom to share a child. Her two teenagers are bigger than she is, and independent. They listen to oldies music--from the eighties--and belt out Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" at full voice. I remember crying, brokenhearted, to that song when my trenchcoated boyfriend left me for a friend. My sister doesn't know what she'll do when they've moved on.
On Christmas Eve, I told her that we were trying, though without any success. She was shocked, had no idea; I thought she had guessed. She cried; I understood. There will be a part of her, a big part, that is happier if we fail.
We celebrate on Christmas Eve with my father and the family every year, as when my post-divorce mother was still functional she liked to claim Christmas Day for her own celebration. Until the Undoing, she managed to get a tree--a fourteen-footer in 1979, the first Christmas in her enormous new house, bought with royalties from her new book--and would buy presents. Sometimes, early on, the presents were thoughtful and beautifully wrapped; sometimes, she would hand us hundred-dollar bills instead. One year, she bought us each a set of sheets and a matching towel and did not wrap them. We thought it was odd.
By 1983, she had done away with trees, shopping and wrapping altogether, opting instead to take us to dinner somewhere nearby and offering promises of trips or purchases at a later time. She was very busy with her writing and lecture schedule and didn't really have time for Christmas. Usually, we just asked for money. One time, I bought myself a sweater with the money and wrapped it up in gold paper, then opened it in front of her. Thought she'd get the point, but she didn't.
As she devolved and willingly self-destructed, I pulled away. The last time I said more than a cursory few words to her was at our wedding, nearly five years ago. She showed up late, as expected, and dirty, wearing a stained cape with an enormous single butterfly pattern, cut so that, when she raised her arms, she appeared to have wings. It seemed to be part of a child's Halloween costume.
She was clenching her jaw and forgetting to blink. I pretended that I didn't notice. I wasn't sure if everyone else knew what a tweaker looked and smelled like and had her figured out, or whether they just thought she was eccentric.
She gave us gifts, a dozen at least, shoved haphazardly in used gift bags that she had apparently hoarded from years past, and one in a generic black garbage bag. (I remember that you like your gifts wrapped, she said with a secretive twitter.) J. thanked her; I tried not to turn away.
When we opened them, we found that one was a folder full of her "conversations" with a race of ethereal beings she called the "Goneyonders". The bulk of the bags contained an assortment of library books, years overdue, and pieces of thick stained cotton cloth--placemats? Scarves? The garbage bag covered a three-by-five-foot French country print that had evidently spent most of its life on a Motel 6 wall. The gifts were unified by the overpowering stench of cat urine.
As we're driving to the hotel from the O.W.'s house on Christmas Eve, close on midnight, J. remembers that we forgot to ask my grandmother if she'd like us to take her home. We call. I assumed she was staying the night at my father's, as she has always done in the past, but J. is right to ask: turns out she's planning to drive herself home to Alhambra, ten miles away, because she doesn't want to interfere with the O.W.'s sleep. She is ninety, her car is twenty, and she shouldn't be driving at midnight. We go back.
I pull past the driveway and J. hops out to fetch her. As I sit there, a battered black car pulls up, and out hops an elderly woman in a white bathrobe. It takes me a minute to recognize her; her thin hair is brown at the ends and white at the skull. She pulls brown grocery bags and crumpled gift bags from her car and scurries to pile them in my father's carport. As she drives off, she looks at me blankly. Her tail lights are broken.
Seventeen years ago, before her devolution was complete, we had an intervention for her. We pleaded, we cried, we told her we didn't want to lose her. She was unmoved, though she agreed to go to rehab when we finally threatened to tell her new publisher about the ketamine, the 2CB, the ecstasy.
We sent her in a private plane to a center in New Mexico that specialized in treating the high and mighty. We thought they'd know how to handle her ego. Within two days, she had decided that the psychiatrists were fools, snuck out, caught a $100 cab ride to the airport and was back home. She blithely presented us with overpriced turquoise jewelry and money clips, pricetags attached, from the terminal gift shop. She was surprised and offended when we refused them, and refused her.
We do not know what we will do with her. She refuses treatment, refuses the drugs that might help her, craves the ones that hurt her, enjoys her illness too much. Her ego is larger than ever, now that she is destitute and deranged--larger than when she had an entourage, a best-selling book and a million-dollar advance for the next one; larger than when she had the respect of her peers, her husband, her children. She believes that she is spoken to by some version of god, that she is chosen for great things. She thinks we are plebian and intellectually conservative, and wonders how she could have had such boring children.
She has no money anymore, lost her three houses one by one, her car, her friends, her profession. She is being evicted from her expensive apartment, rented with a chunk of undeserved cash from a generous publisher. She has dozens of cats, piles of hoarded junk from thrift stores, garage sales, curbsides. She calls my sister to borrow ten dollars for catfood, buys meth instead.
She no longer cares for other people; we hold no sway. She will not give up control, would rather live on the street than have someone else managing her finances, meager as they are. We offered to pay her rent and utilities but we cannot give her cash, for obvious reasons. We just don't know what else to do.
Do you ever feel your memories pulling along behind you, weights on a lengthening string? Moments, images, words just dragging, sliding, leaving little scuffmarks in the dirt?
I never wanted kids, for all those many years, and I had a dozen reasons. I never wanted to acknowledge it, but at the top of that list was that seeing any part of my mother in myself terrified me, and the thought of passing on pieces of her to our child was sickening. Still is.
But perhaps I have been giving her too much power over this theoretical child; the rest of the family is, after all, quite normal--plebian? Intellectually conservative, even?
Please, let it be so.