It's time I started posting some actual writing again, so here's a short story I wrote a while back. At this time it's not part of a larger work, but hey... you never know :) It's only 2500 words so not too long to read over a cup of coffee. In fact, I'm having one now...
The Back Side of Wisdom
by: Lynda Meyers
My mother always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Turns out my mother said a lot of things. Some of it was diamonds and some just ordinary coal, although time and pressure would test the latter. I guess that’s true of most advice.
I watched a movie once where a woman’s lifeless body got dumped into a fire, but after a few minutes the fire intensified and a brand new body was lifted up out of the flames. Her new body was stronger, nearly invincible, and for the rest of the movie she even dressed differently, a rather unflattering yellow dress giving way to a pair of men’s trousers with a shirt and vest combination. I guess when you walk through the fire you earn the right to wear the pants.
Something about this idea of reinvention appeals to me...It’s been three years since my mother died, and at first I was thrilled to inherit her closet full of clothes. Smoke-infused as they were, her top-dollar, designer rags fit me like a glove, and lucky for me the dry cleaners were able to take care of the stench. Those outfits, I’m convinced, are what landed me the job I currently adore as well as the man I’m engaged to, so I’m grateful for them, really I am. But the last of those clothes went to Goodwill this past week, in bags tied up with pieces of my life with her.
It was time.
When I was raising small children and alternating between sleepless nights and diaper duty you couldn’t have told me I would miss that simple chaos, but a few short years later, in a classic case of “that can’t happen to me”, my mother, who was stronger than anyone I’d ever met–was diagnosed with brain cancer. She was only forty-eight.
I’d been mentally prepared for the ‘aging parent’ thing. In fact, many of my friends and a few of my neighbors were already trying to raise a family while caring for their elderly parents, but my mom was still so young. And I was only thirty. She’d been in a car accident some years before, suffering a traumatic brain injury that by some miracle she recovered fully from, so the diagnosis was especially hard to take. How could this woman, who’d never let anything beat her, be dying?
It was an aggressive tumor, and I began caring for her at home, in between little league and car pools. The whole package turned out to be too much for my already fragile marriage, and three months before she died my husband bailed, leaving me with full custody of the kids, the mortgage and all the other bills before disappearing into thin air. The spiral was maddening.
I started having insane conversations with my mother as I fed her soup that dribbled down her chin–insane because the situation could have easily been reversed. I felt completely overwhelmed, as if every one of my “have-tos” was like that aggressive mass of destruction, crowding out what little function I had left. But I had no choice. There was no one else to talk to. Some days our conversations went something like this:
“Mom, how did you do it? How did you raise me and Peter all by yourself?”
Gurgle, spit, gurgle
“I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m coming unglued.”
Gurgle, hand pat, gurgle
Even when she couldn’t respond I knew she heard me. I could tell by the way her eyes moved and changed. It was subtle, but I’d been staring at her for so long I felt like I could almost read her mind.
Other times she was lucid, and I endured the gibberish just for a glimpse of the woman I’d always known. Out of the blue she would toss quotes up to the surface like they were pieces of gold mined from deep within a dying cortex. I wished I could weave them together into a sweater I could wear as a reminder, something to keep me warm in the cold, dark days that lie ahead. I began writing them down on colored post-it notes until they lined the edge of my bathroom mirror.
“Freedom comes from sacrifice. Sacrifice comes from love.”
“Forget about love that’s been lost. If you don’t choose to love, you’ll always be lost.”
I’d be doing the dishes and hear her talking to no one in particular, rush in with my pad and pencil, and try to jot down anything that might have meaning. Invariably though, the best of her wisdom came in the quiet hours of the morning, when I’d fallen asleep in the chair next to her bed. I’d open my eyes only to find her staring at me, eerily awake but in a trance-like state. Her mouth would move with confidence in monotone stanzas that would send chills up my torso. I began to live for her dying words. Somewhere deep in my soul I knew that when all was said and done this would be all I had to keep, this mismatched collection of mind-altered snippets.
The pain medication was substantial, so I don’t know why I allowed myself to cling to her words like that–it was likely all rubbish anyway. But it was her rubbish. And for that, and for my children, I kept a diary.
She saw me writing in it one day, and her eyes asked me what it was. I wiped the drool from the sagging corner of her mouth and told her I was keeping a diary of our time together.
Clear as blue sky she smiled up at me and said, “I used to keep a diary.”
Shocked, I closed my brown leather moleskin and replied. “You’re kidding me!” My mother, the consummate antithesis of a dreamer, had actually written something down that didn’t have check boxes and goals attached as action-items? “Where?”
But she was gone again.
“Where mom?” I shook her shoulder gently and tried to get her to look at me. “Where is it? Where is your diary?”
It was no use. Her speech garbled, her brow furrowed and then the vacant stare returned. I smoothed her hair back, kissed her forehead and said, “It’s alright. We’ll find it later.”
But I couldn’t let it go. I became obsessed with the idea of finding that diary. It was probably long gone, I reasoned. Burned or tossed or torn into tiny pieces and scattered with my grandfather’s ashes. There were way too many variables. Still, I looked everywhere–her house, her garage, the attic, even her safe deposit box. It was no use. There was nothing but order, and every single thing in its rightful place, as always.
One day I was washing her backside and realized her skin was beginning to break down. The hospice nurse had warned me about this. It was time for the dreaded hospital bed. The nurse ordered one with a special top to minimize pressure sores, but I warned her that mom was pretty particular about mattresses. Getting her used to something new might take whatever fight she had left. She’d been adamant about bringing her own bed with her to my house, but its full-sized width made it increasingly difficult to work with her shrinking frame, and my back was feeling the weight of all the extra bending and reaching. An electric bed, the nurse assured me, would be like having an extra set of hands all the time. Now there was an idea I could get behind!
The day the new bed arrived the nurse came in with a special lift. We rolled mom onto the lift and literally suspended her in mid air while the bed guy rolled the new one underneath her. A push of a button later and the contraption lowered her down onto the new air mattress. She grimaced at first, but when we got her all settled and turned she drifted off into the most peaceful sleep I’d witnessed in weeks.
The nurse stayed while I picked up my kids from their various practices and school activities. After I got them all settled in bed for the night, I went about stripping her old bed. Bleach or no bleach, those sheets were going in the garbage. The pad was in great shape and surprisingly thick, but underneath that the mattress itself was zipped into its own white plastic covering. This didn’t surprise me, because my mother was anal about everything, but knowing I was likely going to try to sell the mattress set, I figured I should inspect it before putting it on Craig’s List.
I unzipped the plastic cover and slid the mattress from its sheath. You could have blown me over with a hair dryer. In fact, if my mother had seen me standing there I’m convinced she would have said something along the lines of “Close your mouth, dear.”
There, like a string of mysterious crop circles, were multiple circular cuts in the mattress going all the way down to the coils. The tufts of stuffing were still there, like plugs in a dyke, and as I lifted them one by one, a river of understanding began to flood over me. There, in the holes in the mattress, were my mother’s hidden diaries–ten of them, to be exact.
It was unfathomable. Of course, no one would buy the mattress now, but none of that mattered. What I’d found was worth more than I could ever make off of Craig’s List. All those years, going to all that trouble to hide those diaries. No wonder she’d insisted on bringing her mattress with her! And yet, she didn’t put up a fight, when it came time to change beds. It was as if she’d wanted me to find them.
Like a thief I gathered up every one of those gems and stashed them in my room, then put the old mattress and box springs in the garage. My mother was still asleep as I made a cup of tea and sat down to take a closer look. She’d dated all her entries, making it easy to put them in chronological order. These miniature treasures had come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, which ran totally contrary to her predictable, symmetry-loving nature. Also curious was the fact that I didn’t have one memory of watching her write in them. Not one.
What I found, hidden in those pages, shouldn’t have shocked me. It shouldn’t have made me question my life, but it did. What I found, buried beneath all those tufts of stuffing, was a woman–a real woman, with thoughts and fears and feelings. All the wisdom I’d been saving onto post-it notes, those were just bits and pieces. The mother lode, as it were, was sitting in my hands at last.
I read from ten o’clock until two, when my mother started gurgling again. I suctioned her mouth and turned her and she settled quickly back to sleep. Good thing too, because at that point I couldn’t have stopped reading if the house was on fire. So many surprises. So much humanity. And pain. Incredible pain. Pain that caused me to weep with wracking sobs that shook my bed like a small-scale tremor. Pain so deep that it made me doubt every perception I’d ever had of her, to repent of every wrong judgment I’d made.
She too had been married to a man who chose personal freedom over commitment, a kind of self-love over his own children. No one would have guessed the depth of his depression, or the toll it took on my mother’s heart. After his death, his parents withdrew. Her parents lived in another state. The Catholic Church shunned her on behalf of his sins. She was completely alone. I cried for her. I cried for myself. I cried until a calm kind of clarity settled over me.
I had never known my father, but I met him on those pages and it made me somehow grateful. It allowed me to hope for my children. Here lying in the next room was a woman who was not made in Hollywood, but had also walked out of the fire and lived to tell about it. There was hope for me. And I wasn’t losing my mind, although sometimes it felt like it.
Throughout the last days of her illness I found so much comfort in those pages. Even though she had stopped responding completely, she and I could still “talk” over tea. I read and re-read those books in the months following her death. I grieved. I cried. I tried Valium but settled on Yoga.
And then one day the clouds lifted. I looked into the faces of my children and realized I had my own pages to write, so I boxed up hers and put them in the attic. I cleaned out her closet and I donned her clothes. I sold her house and I paid off my bills.
There was a confidence in me that hadn’t been there before she got sick. She’d always been so strong I’d felt weak in her shadow, but it’s funny how the end of the storm is buried there, inside the dark clouds. Sometimes you just have to wait it out. When the sun finally appeared it hurt my eyes to look at it, and it took some time for my vision to adjust.
When I went on my very first interview for something other than a minimum wage job I wore my mother’s best Tory Burch gabardine slacks and a drop-dead red cardigan over a white silk blouse. One of the museums in the city was hiring. It had been over ten years since I’d walked across the stage at my college graduation with a degree in Art History and a bun in the oven. I assumed, like everyone else in my program, that my degree would be ultimately useless, and so I never really tried. Still, I’d always carried a passion for both art and history, so why not give it a shot?
The curator at the museum met me for coffee in the café across from the gallery downtown. We ended up talking for three hours straight. He hired me that very night. Six months later he asked me to dinner, and just last week he asked me to marry him. My mother would have loved him. My kids adore him. Even my brother conceded that he’s “not such a bad guy after all”.
I’m not really sure what I’ll wear in the next few scenes of my life, but I can tell you it won’t be drab or unflattering. Three kids and one brush with bankruptcy later and I can also tell you it probably won’t be designer, but that’s ok too. A comfortable pair of yoga pants and a stretchy top will have to do for now.