The Sacrament

Heather King

I say Mother. And my thoughts are of you, oh, House.
House of the lovely dark summers of my childhood.
—O.V. de Milosz (1877-1939)

Let’s put it like this: my mother goes her own way. She once went twenty-nine years without seeing a doctor. She braves New England winters in a beige rayon windbreaker and a pair of Rich’s Discount sneakers. She rinses out plastic garbage bags, hangs them out on the line, and “re-purposes” them.

Mom plods, I’m a hummingbird; Mom minimizes, I exaggerate; Mom keeps stoic silence, I emote. One year, along with her birthday check, I sent a poem by (the at this point admittedly way over-exposed) Rumi, which ran in part:

Bring a hundred sacks of gold and God will say, ‘Bring the heart.’

And if you bring a dead heart carried like a coffin on your shoulders, God will say, ‘Oh, cheat! is this a graveyard? Bring the live heart! Bring the live heart!’ . . .

“Did you like the poem?” I asked shyly next time I called. “No,” Mom replied.

Everything with Mom is played down, minimized, euphemized. A stroke is a “spell,” a gangrenous ulcer a “spot,” a person in the psych ward after a suicide attempt “feels low.” When my father was dying in 1999, we all came home and sat vigil for a week, hanging around his chair saying all the sappy things we’d always been too embarrassed to say when he was well: “You’re the best father in the world.” “I love you.” One day, as things looked truly dire, I realized Mom hadn’t had her turn. “Let’s clear out and give Mom some time to say goodbye,” I told the others, my voice trembling. “Go ahead, Mom,” we urged. “Take as long as you want.”

My little sister Meredith and I went out to the breezeway and huddled together, sobbing. “What could she be saying to him?” we wondered. “Forty-eight years together . . . oh my God, it’s so sad. . . .” Two minutes later Mom appeared, dry-eyed, at the door. “So,” she said, briskly tying an apron around her waist, “what does everyone want for supper?”

Mom’s way is to spend as little, use as little, and take up as little space as possible. Within weeks of my father’s death, she gave away all his belongings, sold the family homestead, and bought a condo the next town over, at the far end of a complex that backed right up to the woods. Since moving to L.A. in 1990, I’d fly home once a year, usually in summer, staying first at the old place, then for the last few years, here at the condo. A stand of old evergreens casts the living room in perpetual shadow (this was fine with Mom: she’s always hot; I’m always cold), and inside, the place is as still and spare as a mausoleum.

She’s always been so self-sufficient that even I, the alarmist, had been slow to acknowledge that Mom’s memory was failing. Her handwriting was increasingly wavery, her memory increasingly sketchy. “That place where people like to go” turned out to mean Las Vegas. “That business with Nita” transpired to be Nita’s funeral. I found myself talking loudly to her over the phone, the way you do to people who don’t speak English. “Taxes,” I’d almost yell, or “yogurt,” filling in the words she could no longer find herself.

One of the reasons I’d moved to the West Coast had been to put thousands of miles between me and the place where I was raised: not because there was anything wrong with the place I’d been raised, or the sainted people who’d raised me: I was simply too weak to flourish there. The wounds would have been forever fresh; my longing to see the rest of the world, if thwarted, would have crushed me. I’d always felt guilty, torn, as if I were shirking responsibility, never more so than now, as she began to fail in earnest. True to form, she was steadfastly refusing to admit anything and refusing all help, but clearly she wouldn’t be able to manage on her own much longer. As the executor of her estate, the caretaker of her money, and the oldest of her six biological kids—my older brother, Allen, and older sister, Jeanne, from my father’s first marriage, made us eight—I felt compelled to go home and see if there was anything I could do. Also, when and if she moved, there would no longer be a physical “home” to be sent out from or go back to. Especially living so far away, “home” was a vital, urgent image.

So in the early fall of 2007, spurred by an almost atavistic urge, I started out from L.A. on a cross-country road trip. In fact, to myself I styled the trip a pilgrimage of sorts, ordered by my attendance at daily Mass. Outwardly, nothing special: featureless freeways, Motel 6-es, unremarkable churches—but a church doesn’t need to be remarkable. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “Mass could be said out of a suitcase in a furnace room, and the sacrifice would be the same.” The most ordinary Mass is a re-enactment of the most stupendous event the world has known. And my ordinary road trip signified a blind, almost frantic urge to transcend my puny limitations: to do something hard for my mother that she would not understand or even know about, for which I would not be recognized or thanked. For once in my life, I would try to be the competent, self-sacrificing daughter my mother had always deserved.

Finding a church that offered Mass each day was more difficult than I’d expected. Some days I drove 500, 600 miles at a stretch. The trip was difficult for other reasons. I was 57 years old, divorced, childless. A sense that my life was not bearing fruit had gouged deeper the abandonment wound I’d suffered since childhood. But why? I kept wondering. Why such an intense sense I’d been abandoned, when as the oldest of the kids my father had had with my mother I’d gotten, if anything, more than my share of attention, validation, love?

I stopped frequently along the way, to visit with friends, to stay at monasteries and retreat houses: San Antonio, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Spencer, West Virginia. I reached New Hampshire three weeks later, in the middle of an August heat wave. At Seabrook, the first town over the state line, I pulled into the Welcome Center, collapsed into a bathroom stall, and cried. I drove the remaining back-roads stretch in the fugue state of mingled excitement and dread with which I always approached home, intensified out of all proportion by the 3500-mile buildup.

Mom was upstairs when I arrived, which gave me time to case the joint. The shades were drawn to a precise six inches above the windowsill. The table was bare save for a salt-and-pepper set placed neatly on a plastic Old Man of the Mountain placemat. The fridge held a block of Velveeta cheese and a half-head of browning iceberg lettuce. Stashed among the “good” china was a lone can of Planters peanuts (three-quarters empty, so I’d feel too guilty to eat any myself) to ration out for good behavior, for having deprived herself, for a treat.

And then there She was, coming down the stairs. Mom. My mother. Patient, slow, steady, though not as steady as she used to be. Her hair snow white now, in a straight bob, parted on the side. Blue cotton pants, neatly pressed, her shrunken legs lost in the folds. A cotton blouse, also neatly ironed. A vest she liked, beige with red and blue flowers down the front. Now that I’d done my big ritual of driving thousands of miles and made it “home,” possibly for the last time—because surely she was going to have to move, soon, into “assisted living” or “senior retirement,” places which, up till now, had remained shadowy netherworlds in our collective unconscious—I considered doing something totally weird, like breaking down in hysterical sobs, falling to my knees, and wailing, “Mom, would you hold me for a minute?”

Instead, she greeted me as if I’d blown in from next door, rebuffed my proffered embrace—“Don’t, my hair’s wet”—and over lunch, gave me instructions for her funeral. No flowers (people might have to spend money). No cortège to the gravesite, just family (people might have to waste time). No eulogy, just a simple service (people might have to think of something nice to say about her). Cremation, naturally: why waste money on a casket?

All my life, I’d sensed a secret grief in my mother I’d wanted to ease but couldn’t; a gap between us that no amount of straining on my part could bridge. I couldn’t remember my mother ever touching me, or caressing me, or telling me I was pretty. I knew as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west that she loved me, but when it came to expressing feelings, she was like a blank wall that afforded no purchase.

Mom “did” for the other person in a way that made it almost impossible to do anything for her. She was no annoying faux martyr; she just habitually made things easier for you, and if it was at her expense, so be it. She insisted I have her room that night, for example, which I truly appreciated, but I kept thinking of her in the smaller guest bed; plus, not a breath of air stirred; trying to sleep, I felt as if I were choking. The blinds were drawn, the sliding glass doors wedged shut with a wooden dowel, the screens behind them patched with hundreds of pieces of browning scotch tape where Honey had clawed.

Honey was an indoor cat who desperately wished to be an outdoor cat. Every time I opened the front door she was there like a shot, trying to escape, and she spent the rest of her days gazing hungrily out at the birds and shredding the screens.

I knew just how she felt. I’d spent half my adolescence looking out at the sky through my bedroom window, and the other half sneaking down to the beach looking for booze, drugs, and sex.

Mass the next morning was at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, where all my childhood lapsed-Catholic friends had attended school and, by their lights, been ruined for all time. For my own part, as a convert I related to the protagonist in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: “I realized, on some level, that whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny.”

The atmosphere in the sanctuary seemed slightly strange, a little subdued; after I minute I figured out why: everyone was white. I was used to attending Mass among squalling Hispanic babies, Filipino clans, three generations of Koreans, so to look across the sanctuary and see the guy who used to work at Aubuchon’s Hardware, or my high-school biology teacher, or the sister of a half-remembered grade-school friend was jarring, as if heaven had intersected with earth in a whole weird new way.

Afterward, I drove to the beach, parked at Rye on the Rocks, where the surfers hang out, and set out on foot for the fish houses in North Hampton. Beach plums, goldenrod, the horizon and marshes in mist. Yarrow and hydrangeas. The overheard New England accents—baath for bath, gahden for garden. A girl sitting with her back against a rock, looking out at the waves. Gulls wheeling overhead, their feathers the color of ash.

My older half-sister Jeanne lived in the adjacent town of Portsmouth, and she wasn’t doing well. The lung cancer with which she’d been diagnosed a few years ago and metastasized to her bones, and I’d offered to take her and Mom out to lunch—or to drive anyway: I loved using Mom’s credit card when I was home.

When I returned from my walk all seemed well–Mom was nicely dressed in a green and blue pleated skirt and pretty white sweater–except that she was wandering around looking for her comb. She had one comb, an ancient yellow plastic comb I swear we all remembered from high school, and she was constantly losing it. I finally found it sitting on the window ledge at the bottom of the stairs.

After that, she started walking around with one hand trying to hold back a hank of hair—she had long white hair that was no longer all that kempt and looked eerie and ghostlike—saying, “Where’s my . . . my . . . my . . .?”

“Bobby pin?” She has this one bobby pin with a little fake pale pink jewel at the crook of it.

“Yeah,” she replied, and started scrounging around in the drawer where she keeps her pens and Elmer’s glue and stamps.

“Mom, if it’s anywhere, it’s gonna be upstairs, not with your office supplies.” After I found the bobby pin, she “misplaced” her glasses, and after I found her glasses, we had to search for her wallet. She’d given up on a purse and taken to toting around a dingy turquoise nylon “wallet” in one hand and her keys in the other. Every once in a while she’d look up and ask, “What day is it now?”

The day was humid, the light gloomy, and by the time we set out for Jeanne’s, the sky had opened and begun pouring down warm rain. Jeanne and her brother Allen were my late father’s children from his first marriage, a subject that to this day, though we’d all grown up together in the same house, my entire family still studiously skirted. Until the previous year in fact, when Jeanne’s son, Rick, had thrown a “Celebration of Life” party for Jeanne, none of us six kids from my father’s marriage with my mother had ever laid eyes on Marjorie, Dad’s first wife.

I’d always felt deeply the failure of my father’s first marriage, Jeanne and Skip’s loss of their “real” mother, the fact that when my own mother was fourteen, her father had left one day for work and never returned. But feeling deeply doesn’t translate into action. Why couldn’t I have ever done something: consoled us, healed us, saved us? Then again, why did I think that was my job?

At this late stage of the game, I was still looking for a parent. Instead, glancing over at Mom, shrunk down like an aged doll in the passenger seat, I realized I was poised to become a parent myself.

Jeanne was staying at her son Rick’s place in Portsmouth along with her daughter-in-law Tracy and a houseful of fashionconscious teenage girls. “Hi dahlin,” Jeanne greeted me. She moved stiffly, and though she’d clearly not stinted on the pain meds that morning, insisted on driving us to the restaurant in her van. So we maneuvered Mom into the back and proceeded at breakneck speed down Lafayette Road, the fuzz-buster loudly bleating, to Lamie’s Tavern in Hampton. Jeanne’s response to the “scarcity mentality” of our childhood had been to over-spend, over-shop, and become basically one of the most generous people I knew. Year after year, she’d worked double shifts, then taken Rick, Tracy, and the grandkids to Disneyland. She was notorious for buying Christmas presents for all seven of her siblings; I, on the other hand, was usually either too broke, too strung out on booze and drugs, or too fearful to buy anything back: exchanging presents was too much intimacy, too much of an inroad upon relationships that experience had shown very well might not sustain. When I’d had cancer myself, she’d sent me a card, often accompanied by a stuffed animal or a scented candle or bath salts, every day for a month.

Everyone who knew Jeanne knew that the love of her life was a guy she’d dated decades ago, forever referred to as “Steve the Drummer.” To his everlasting credit, he’d shown up at her Celebration of Life party, and over chowder now at Lamie’s, I asked her about him now.

“Broke my haaht,” she said, taking a swill from her “vodker” tonic, then with a little secret smile added: “The bastid.”

Beside me, Mom sipped at her onion soup: her spoon hand trembling, the other clutching the threadbare turquoise wallet.

For comic relief, I made the rounds of family and friends. At the pier in Portsmouth, my commercial fisherman brother Geordie showed me his new boat, then said of a crewmate, “He’s a good guy but he can also be such a pain in the ass that you want to gouge out his eyes and behead him.”
My friends Marynia and Richie live in Exeter with their two teenage daughters and Richie’s brother Larry. Larry has Down Syndrome, is deeply religious, and, he informed me over ginger ales on the back deck, prayed constantly. “For what, Larry?” I asked, thinking World peace? Your benefactors Richie and Marynia? “Th— . . . th— . . . ,” he stammered, “that the girls will pick up the bathroom.”

Then there was dinner with my ex-husband Tim. “Do you even remember being married?” I asked him.

He rolled his eyes—we’d spent sixteen years together—and made a sawing motion over his wrists.

Every time I brought up the subject of Mom’s failing memory or health or living situation, she came out fighting, doddering about looking for her comb until I raised the possibility of, say, hiring someone to “look in” a few days a week, at which point her mind suddenly snapped into adamantine focus. “For heaven’s sake,” she’d say, “I’m not ready for that,” or if she was really pissed, “I do not wish anyone to look in on me,” in the exact same tone Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener might have said, “I would prefer not to.” During the course of my visit, three separate neighbors and several of her friends took me aside and asked, “What are you going to do about your mother?” Clearly, almost as soon as I returned to L.A. I was going to have to turn around, fly back again, and spend some real time trying to square things away. This was a symbolic trip—a bird flying north not for the winter but for summer, something hard but not practical. Hard but not practical was my specialty.

The whole visit, an indescribable stench that Mom obviously couldn’t smell hung over the condo. It wasn’t the cat box: Mom could stretch a buck-ninety-nine bag of kitty litter farther than anyone I know, but she was also fastidious to a fault. The kitchen was so clean you could have performed surgery in it, and before going to bed each night she’d lay a section of fresh newspaper over the top of the wastebasket to ward off ants.

My next-to-last day the source of the odor was revealed to be a bag of thoroughly rotted potatoes, which were in the shoe closet in a plastic bucket with about an inch of rancid brown water in the bottom. How long had they been sitting there? Why had no one closer by noticed? I’d been holding together pretty well but that was when I snapped. “Things can’t go on like this, Mom!” I told her. “You don’t know what day it is. You don’t remember your kids’ names. You shouldn’t be driving.”

Immediately I felt terrible and offered to make her a chicken sandwich. Ever mindful of waste, “Let’s split one,” she said.

“Sorry I got upset, Mom,” I said, as I laid her meager half on one of the green melamine plates off which we’d been eating for the last fifty years. Before we sat down, I even went so far as to put my arms around her. I could feel the bones in her back. “I’m just afraid.”

“I’ll be okay,” she replied, but I couldn’t see how.

Should I give up my life in L.A.? Should I move back to New Hampshire, with its frigid, suicide-evoking winters? Would I have to live in Mom’s condo, way back under the dark trees, and feed her, give her a bath, change her diapers? Maybe I’d get used to my new assignment, maybe I’d come to enjoy spending time with Mom, the afternoon sun slanting in through the windows, reliving the childhood in which I’d always felt something had gone wrong I couldn’t remember, in the presence of the very person whose unworked-through sorrows had trickled down to me. Maybe we could listen to Beethoven’s late quartets together. Maybe I could fill the refrigerator with decent food, strew things around, talk loudly to my friends—swearing and cracking jokes—on the phone.

Maybe I could thank her for what she gave me: something to fight against, to struggle with. A distaste for social lies and the wrong kind of small talk. A love for music and books and silence.

The next night, I watched her make her laborious way up the cellar stairs with a pile of freshly folded laundry: each step, stopping to drag up first her right foot, then the left. Knowing she’d wave me off if I offered to help, my brain began to run in its usual rut: Why does she do this to herself? Why not get help, why not move to a place with no stairs, why not live a different life? And suddenly, I thought, Who the hell are you to purport to know one single thing about another’s life? For all I knew, my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was saving some other sick person from dragging his or her foot; for all I knew my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was keeping me alive.

I went to bed knowing this could very well be the last night the two of us ever slept together under her roof. Honey clawed the screen; the trees soughed; every ion of the summer night—so familiar, so beloved: the summer nights of my childhood that smelled of pine and hay and the sea—was charged with the construct of “home.”

I’d spent a lifetime constructing a false way of relating to people: saying yes when I meant no; being what I thought the other wanted me to be, then resenting the person; tamping down the holy longing of my heart, all out of terror of being abandoned. I’d spent a lifetime trying not to blame—the fault was mine; no wonder my mother hadn’t shown more warmth, I’d been an alcoholic: a nuisance, a bother; I should have had more compassion for her childhood—but you can observe without blaming. You can see what happened and mourn for you and your mother.

And I could also see that my mother had set herself an impossible, noble task: to be selfless and self-renunciating when she’d never had a foundation of abundance or nurturing or sanity from her own childhood. She was like the widow who’d given her last two mites; she’d given more than any “rich” person because she’d given from her poverty. Someday things would be made right. I could hear Mom puttering to the bathroom, bumping into things, calling for Honey.

I’d become a writer because of my mother.

They were right this very second. They were right now.

The next morning I drank a last cup of weak Maxwell House, ate a last bowl of generic Wheaties, stripped the uncomfortable bed Mom had sacrificed for me.

She came to the door to see me off as—faithfully, steadfastly—she had all my life. As we hugged goodbye, I felt the same tension I had all my life.

I gripped my keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

The words didn’t come easily. She spoke as if a bone were lodged in her throat.

“Love you.”

When she died all the light would go out of the world.

I bit the inside of my mouth till I drew blood. So I wouldn’t cry.

I left it at this—for once, for her: “Thanks for everything, Mom. Love you, too.”