Peter checked the side mirror and darted into the right lane to get by the slow truck in front of him, then switched lanes again once he passed it, only to be stopped by a red light. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, changed the station on the radio, and lit one of the cigarettes he supposedly quit smoking three months ago.
It was silly to rush. His mother was already in the emergency room and his sister was with her. But Martha had asked him to stop at Crestview and pick up a few things that Mom would need—a hairbrush, some bobby pins, her glasses. Why hadn’t Crestview sent the stuff over with her? For $7,000 a month, that was the least they could do, especially when today’s accident had come on their watch.
A block before he got there his cell phone rang. The lawyer who was handling the settlement on his mother’s house in Pittsburgh. Thank God she had signed the papers before this happened. The closing was set for next week, almost a year and a half since her move to Virginia. More like a kidnapping, actually. She had fallen then, too, breaking a wrist and a kneecap. He and Martha had coaxed her to Martha’s house for a few weeks’ convalescence, already thinking that they’d have to find a way to make it permanent. Many tantrums and tears later, they had managed. He shuddered at the memory. There had been no choice. They just couldn’t let her live on her own anymore, not at 86.
He pulled into the parking lot closest to the assisted-living wing of her building and hurried out, only to be stopped by a resident who blocked the entrance. He stood a few steps behind her and watched her maneuver her walker, sliding it forward a couple of inches at a time, the green tennis ball bottoms rubbing the pavement. Could he scoot around and beat her to the door without being rude? No. No need to be unkind. He made himself slow down and wait for her to take the last few steps. The automatic door slid open and she tried to move more quickly, as though she were afraid it would close on her. Her whole body strained with each step, from her scrunched-up shoulders to her thick legs sealed in brown support hosiery. She was bundled in a tan raincoat, despite the warm fall day, and only her gnarled hands and thin silver hair were exposed to his view.
Just inside, she moved out of the way to let him pass. Had she sensed his presence? He doubted she had heard him; they were all pretty deaf. As he passed, she turned her head in his direction and said hello, louder than was necessary. He smiled in return, signed the visitors’ log and went up to his mother’s apartment, unlocking the front door with the extra key he always carried. A musty smell hit him and he opened a window, figuring even a few minutes of fresh air would help. He gathered up the items Martha had requested, then dug out his mother’s wallet and a few other valuables. He didn’t know how long until she’d be back.
He took a last look around before leaving. The living room couch, what his mother called French provincial, was covered with an old blanket to protect it. He tried to remember how many times in the last four decades he’d seen it without something to protect it. Only when company came, and that wasn’t often.
The covering was to protect it from dust and sunlight, not from use, because they never used the parlor at his house except when visitors were there. A smile crossed his face when his most vivid memory of sitting on it came to mind. He was about fourteen when a cousin of his mother’s had come with her family, and he had ended up sitting next to their sixteen-year-old daughter. Their thighs had rubbed and at one point, he’d had a good view down the front of her blouse. He knew how quaint that would sound to a teenager today.
Though a few hundred miles from its original home, the couch was still bracketed by the two end tables topped with figurine lamps that had adorned it in Pittsburgh, torn shades and all. He had moved as much of Mom’s furniture as they could so she’d feel more at home, and it had made a difference. He decided to bring a couple of photographs for her hospital room. There were plenty to choose from. Pictures of the family—five generations’ worth— covered every inch of available surface space.
At the elevator, Peter saw Mr. Hewitt, one of the other residents, a cheerful man whom he often ran into, although Hewitt never seemed to remember him.
“How are you, young man?”
Peter smiled. Only at Crestview would anyone call him that. “Not so good. My mother fell down and she’s in the hospital.” Peter spoke loudly, but if Hewitt heard, it didn’t register.
“You know, this is a great place if you’re a man—vastly outnumbered. That’s why I don’t wear my wedding ring anymore. It was cutting off my circulation.” Peter smiled as he did every time the old man told him the joke.
To exit, Peter had to walk through the lounge area, past a dozen or so residents who were sitting around, waiting for dinner to start. Meals were the center of their lives, giving them structure and a chance to see each other, though what they talked about remained a mystery. Whenever he asked his mother, she just shrugged, as if she couldn’t remember.
It was quiet in the lounge. Most of the residents were just sitting, staring off into space. Four were at the card table silently playing bridge, and a few were reading in the library.
This was the part of Crestview that always gave him pause about having made Mom move. But he didn’t dwell on it. It may be depressing to live here at times, but being all by herself in her old home was depressing, too And dangerous—truly untenable. And she had made a good adjustment in some ways. She even attended the frequent concerts and movies, most of which were well suited to her tastes, from Frank Sinatra to Fred Astaire to Cary Grant. She seemed to enjoy her new life. “What’s not to like?” she would say when he asked, and she even stopped talking about moving back to Pennsylvania. And the biggest step of all—she had reluctantly agreed to sell the house. “I can only live in one place at a time,” she’d said, knowing it made no sense to pay for two.
Martha looked worn when he finally found her and his mother, still in a curtained-off cubicle in the emergency room. He kissed them both, and his mother opened her eyes, but then closed them again without speaking. In seconds, she was snoring softly, despite the bright fluorescent lights and the monitor beeping incessantly in the bay next to her.
“I thought they admitted her,” he whispered.
“In theory. They have to wait for a bed.”
A doctor suddenly appeared, dressed in the standard green gown with a stethoscope around her neck. She nodded to Peter and Martha.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Bender?” she asked, loud enough to wake her.
“Where am I? What happened?”
“You’re in a hospital,” Peter said. “You fell, Ma, remember? You hurt your hip.”
She turned to him but didn’t seem to comprehend what he’d said.
“Take me home, Peter.”
“You can’t go home yet,” he said gently, wondering exactly what she meant by home. She’d never used the term to describe Crestview.
“You can’t go home yet, Ma,” Peter said again. “You hurt your hip.”
“I’m afraid it’s more than the hip,” the doctor said. “She also dislocated her shoulder. And her lungs are full. She may have pneumonia. We’ll have to take more X-rays.”
“Pneumonia?” Peter said. He glanced at his mother, but she had slipped back into sleep. “How do you get pneumonia from falling down?”
“You don’t,” the doctor said, looking down at the chart in her hand rather than at anyone in the cubicle. “It can come on pretty quickly at her age, and sometimes they get weak from that and then fall and break something.”
“When can we get her into a room?” Peter asked.
“As soon as one opens up. I’ll see if I can hurry it along.”
“And then what?”
“It’s up to the orthopedist, but he’ll probably want to put in an artificial hip. It’s a bad break.”
“Is that the only choice?” Martha asked.
“It depends. You’ll have to ask the orthopedist.”
Peter sent Martha home to get some rest. He’d stay at least until they got her into a room, but it took another eight hours for that to happen, giving him plenty of time to think. An operation was hard enough to fathom at her age, but what really scared him was pneumonia. The old people’s friend, they called it. A quick and relatively easy way to die. Just last week he’d been thinking she was acting happier and more energetic, and he was pleased they made her move. On Sunday, he brought her over to the house for dinner with Judy and the kids. She was in good form, more like when Dad was still alive. She had a little trouble with the front stairs, but when he tried to help, she shooed him away. “Stop treating me like an 80-year-old,” she warned, then smiled when she realized what she’d said.
But now, just a few days later, here she was, helpless, with broken bones and pneumonia. He remembered his father’s last days and how quickly things had spiraled downward. And the lawyer’s call, coming just when it did, kept nagging at him.
“If you sell this house, it’ll be the death of me,” she’d said during one of the most pointed conversations he’d had with her before the accident that brought her to Virginia.
“Ma, it’ll kill you to live here by yourself. You can’t keep doing this.”
It was two years since that conversation. He’d left work early one Wednesday and driven the five hours to Pittsburgh to spend a night with his mother, with the specific intent of pushing her into a decision to move. Although he had told her he was coming, the house was dark and she didn’t answer when he rang the bell. “Ma, it’s me, Peter,” he shouted.
When she finally opened the door, he was surprised by her appearance. She wore a frayed blue sweater over a shabby blue and yellow flowered housedress and moved her stooped and fragile body even more slowly than usual. “What a nice surprise.”
“You forgot I was coming?” He immediately regretted the accusatory note. He hung his jacket in the hall closet, put his overnight bag to the side and followed her into the kitchen. They sat across from each other at the large oval table that had served as the center of life for as long as Peter could remember. It was not only where they ate all their meals, it was where they had all they conversations, where he did his homework, and where his father sat when he studied the bills and wrote all the checks.
“Are you hungry? I have a cherry pie in the freezer.”
“No, I stopped for dinner. How are you?”
“Dinner was a long time ago. Are you sure you don’t want something? A cup of coffee? Or I’ve got some bagels I can thaw out in a minute.” She was already lifting herself out of the chair.
“No, Ma, nothing. I’m fine. Sit down.”
He looked around the kitchen, still in 1950s mode, with the original double-oven stove and pine cabinets, cheap and worn from years of grasping hands. The refrigerator was new, but she didn’t like it. The shelves, no matter how many times he adjusted them, still weren’t the right height. She wished he’d had the old one repaired instead of replacing it.
“How are Judy and the kids? They couldn’t come with you?”
“No, Ma, the kids have school. And I’ll have to leave tomorrow afternoon. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come for a weekend but it’s a busy time.
“They’re all okay, though?”
He told her what they were up to—Natasha who had become a teenager at eleven and Ethan, still all innocence at nine. He made a comment about being too old to keep up with them.
“You should have gotten married sooner. And who told you to wait so long to have babies?”
Peter sighed and stared out the window. But it faced the backyard and it was too dark to see anything but his own reflection.
“Would you like a piece of pie? I’ve got a cherry pie in the freezer. I could thaw it out in the toaster oven.”
“No pie, Ma, but I’ll take a cup of coffee.” He really didn’t want it. It would be instant and cheap and decaf, but it was something to do. “I’ll make it,” he said.
“What? I can’t make a cup of coffee for you? I’m not an invalid.” She got up haltingly.
“Are you okay? Is something wrong with your leg?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s just old, like the rest of me.”
While she filled the pot with water, he got up and went down the hall to the house’s only bathroom. It was neat but not very clean. She had clearly lost some of her energy in the past year, the year since his father died.
Back in the kitchen, he found her sitting and staring off into space. The water was boiling, but she hadn’t taken out a cup or the jar of coffee. He collected both, measured a heaping spoon for himself, and added the water and a little milk.
“You want a piece of pie? I got a cherry pie in the freezer. It was on sale.”
“Okay, Ma, I’ll have a piece of pie.” And he even let her put ice cream on top. “Ma, we need to talk.”
“I knew that was why you came. Just leave me alone.”
“You can’t stay here by yourself anymore.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I love my house.”
“What kind of life do you have here?”
“You’ve lived like a hermit ever since Dad died.”
She got up and started to clear the table
“Ma, it’s time to sell the house.”
“I’m not going into a home.”
“It’s not a home. You’d have your own apartment. They have activities, you get your meals. You can be with other people.”
“I don’t want other people, especially old people.”
“You can bring your own things. And we’ll all be able to visit more often. Don’t you want to see your grandchildren grow up?”
“If you sell the house, it’ll be the death of me.”
“Ma, it’s just a house. It’s not a life.”
“Leave me alone” For a second, he thought she was going to cry but she rechanneled it into anger. “I like my privacy. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. Like on a cruise ship.”
He wondered where she got that. Must have been a line off one of the endless television shows that filled her hours. She’d never been on a cruise herself, never allowed herself that or any other kind of luxury, though she could have afforded it.
“Let me do your pills.”
“I can do it myself. Don’t treat me like a baby.”
He started to argue, then stopped and just went silently to the dining room, where she kept her prescription bottles and the large red pill organizer he had bought for her. He started counting them out but then noticed that yesterday’s pills were still in the Tuesday compartment, and there was a lone Atenol in Monday.
“Ma, haven’t you been taking your pills?”
“What do I need so many pills for? All my life, I never took so many pills. Who even knows what they’re for?”
“Ma, we’ve been through this a hundred times.” Then, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice, “The little white one is for high blood pressure and the big pink one is for your ulcer.” He didn’t mention the antidepressant or the one she took for memory loss, not that it did any good. He knew she’d never take those if she had any idea what they were for.
“Ma, if you move into this place, you’ll have people to help you, to be around if you need anything.”
“What do I need?”
“A little help wouldn’t hurt. How much longer can you live here by yourself?”
“You like the home so much, you move into it.”
“It’s not a home. You’ll have your own apartment.”
“I want my privacy. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You can’t even walk and you won’t tell me what happened.”
“I remember just fine. There’s nothing wrong with my memory. I remember things that happened eighty years ago.” And before he knew it, she was in another world, telling him one of her favorite stories, about when her father was grazed by a car that had backed up into the pedestrian walk. He’d been knocked down and bruised, but he just got up, dismissed the driver with a wave and went back to work in the store, not even asking for an aspirin.
She did that more and more often, thinking and talking about her childhood. Her father and how he had come over alone on the boat and worked his way up to own his own storefront grocery, the strong and commanding mother she had adored, her six siblings of all shapes and sizes and interests and talents. And of course the brother who had been killed in the war, a death that had devastated her mother and by extension, the family.
He let her go on for a while, though he’d heard all the stories many times before. He even prompted her to tell her favorite story.
“And you were the only one of the family to finish high school?”
“Yes. I wanted to be a teacher. My sister wasn’t much of a student, and my brothers were always getting into trouble. And then of course, they quit to go into the war.” She went on to describe her high school days, how she’d come home from school and cook the family dinner because her mother worked in the store until it closed at 7 p.m. How she learned to cook from an aunt who sometimes came by with full-course meals for the family, a token of appreciation for the financial help she got from Peter’s grandparents. His uncle was a drunk and a no-good, as his mother put it. Couldn’t hold a job. And then he’d run off with a neighbor’s wife for six days before returning apologetically, though that story was rarely told when Peter was growing up.
Peter retired to his room, the same one he grew up in. It hadn’t changed all that much beyond getting shabbier and dirtier. The throw rug on the floor was tattered, kept there mostly to protect the hardwood finish rather than for comfort or appearance. The desk was covered and cluttered with an ancient computer he had given his father. When he finally climbed into bed, the mattress yielded instantly, leaving an uncomfortable crevice for his body.
The next morning, he acquiesced to a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon and then surprised her with an invitation to visit the Frick museum. She wasn’t really the museum type—her interest in art or ancient artifacts was minimal—but the Frick had always been her favorite. She loved to walk through the house and admire the furniture that reminded her of her childhood. Though it was obviously a lot more expensive and exclusive than what she had grown up with, it was the right age and style to remind her of the old days.
She hesitated, as though thinking about the walking that would be involved.
“I’m sure they have wheelchairs. It’s pretty much the law nowadays.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, but he pressed on. “Come on, Ma. You haven’t been in years and I know you like to go.”
At last she agreed, though she ruled out a wheelchair. That meant the visit was relatively short, but she seemed to enjoy every minute of it. She even admired some of the artwork, lingering in particular at a Lepicie painting of a mother feeding her child. That was no surprise, Peter thought. Her children had always been the center of her life or more accurately, her children had been her life. Peter and Martha knew how much she had always sacrificed so that they could have what they needed. She was never wasteful—no hundred-dollar sneakers for them, but her parents had worked hard so they could live in a nice suburb with good public schools, and so they could both go to the college of their choice.
Peter had intended to use the morning to push her to move, but he decided to let her enjoy herself instead. After the Frick house, he took her out to lunch and then brought her home and said his goodbye.
Peter surveyed the other people in the hospital waiting area. A man in his sixties wearing a bulky sweater, sitting quietly and holding the hand of a younger woman, probably a daughter. A woman in her forties who looked like she hadn’t slept in days trying to concentrate on a magazine. And one large family talking in hushed tones. He turned to Martha who had been staring at the same page of her book for several minutes. She gave him a half-hearted smile. Judy was there, too, holding his hand. She hadn’t said much, sensing Peter wanted to be left with his thoughts.
It had taken a week for the doctors to bring Mom’s pneumonia under control so they could safely operate on her hip. She was still too congested for a general anesthesia, so they had used an epidural. It was better that way, the doctors had said.
The orderlies had taken her to the operating room 90 minutes ago, and Peter and Martha hadn’t heard anything since, although the surgeon had told them it would only take about 40 minutes to insert the artificial hip. The operation had probably started late. Her blood count had been low and they were going to give her a transfusion first. Plus they had to wait for the epidural to take effect.
Another half hour passed before the surgeon came out. “She’s in recovery. The hip is fine, but we had to give her two extra transfusions. Her blood count is very low and heart rate is high. And she’s having a little trouble breathing.” Silence hung in the air a few seconds before Judy finally asked if she was going to be okay.
“Once we get her blood count back up, she should be fine. She’s going to be pretty uncomfortable for a while, though.”
“Can we see her?”
“Not just yet. Why don’t you get something to eat and come back in an hour. You should be able to see her then.”
They’d been at the hospital all day and hadn’t eaten so they walked over to the cafeteria and surveyed the offerings. At the hot food line, the server waited while they looked at the dried-out turkey, a tray of macaroni and cheese, and mixed vegetables that had obviously come out of a can. The salad bar wasn’t much better, with a skimpy selection of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, bacon bits, and croutons. Peter sniffed, as if he thought he might smell the nitrates. They finally settled on tuna fish sandwiches but just picked at them mechanically before giving up and deciding to go for a walk. As they were leaving, Peter’s cell phone rang. It was the lawyer in Pittsburgh. The closing had gone smoothly. The house no longer belonged to his mother.
“Great,” he told the lawyer, but when he hung up and told Martha and Judy, he didn’t feel great.
“Let’s take that walk,” he said. Martha nodded, but Judy said she’d wait in case the nurse came looking for them.
Night was falling and the temperature had dropped below fifty. Martha had her coat on but was still cold. Peter, in shirtsleeves, didn’t seem to feel the chill. They walked the length of the driveway and onto the sidewalk, then onto a side street to get away from the bustle on the main road.
“I wonder if she’ll even know what I’m talking about when I tell her,” Peter said after a while.
“Tell her what?”
“That the house sale went through.” He remembered how strange it felt when his mother had finally agreed to let go of it. “As long as we get a good price,” she’d said. “May they be as happy in it as we were.”
“I think she’s accepted it,” Martha said.
Peter agreed, then realized something he’d been unaware of until now. He was having trouble accepting it. A wave of sadness crept over him. It was just a house, he told himself. Yes, he’d grown up there and returned hundreds of times as an adult. Almost every big event—every Thanksgiving and family gathering, even Martha’s wedding reception—had been held there. He thought about his room, how it was stuffed with too much furniture and how he’d always felt cramped at the desk they bought for him to do his homework. He’d preferred the kitchen table, though in truth, he’d never done that much homework. His room had been his escape, a place to hole up and spend hours on the phone with friends. No Facebook in those days. No home computer, for that matter. He smiled to himself when he remembered a secret hiding place for his first copies of Henry Miller and Playboy.
But it was still just a house. A building. He’d never understood his parents’ attachment to it. They’d never traveled much, and after they retired, they rarely were away from it for more than a couple of hours at a time. He knew it represented an achievement for them. Having been able to save enough to buy a home in a safe and comfortable suburb to raise Martha and him meant a lot to them. He could see that. But he never saw anything special about the house. It was modest and his parents had old-fashioned tastes and were cheap with the upkeep. He’d never felt attached to it. But now it was gone and he felt the loss. Strangers would be moving in tomorrow.
Martha looked at him and saw his eyes were moist. “She’ll be okay,” she said.
“I just keep thinking about the house.” His voice broke on the last word and he had trouble going on. “I just keep remembering….how she said….selling it…would be the death of her.”
“Oh, Peter.” She hugged him. “Don’t do that to yourself.” But now she was crying, too. “We did the right thing.”
“I don’t know anymore.”
“Look,” Martha said, regaining her composure and stepping back a pace. She was a few years older than Peter, and every once in a while that responsibility took hold. “She’s been happy in Crestview. I’m glad you were strong and insisted she move.”
“I insisted? I thought we agreed.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I just don’t know if I would have been able to force her if you hadn’t been the strong one. But it was the right thing to do.”
“I hope so.” he said with a sigh and put his arm around her. “I hope so.”
When they returned to the recovery room and asked if they could see their mother, the nurse looked at them skeptically but finally relented. “One at a time and only for a minute. Down that corridor, bed number six on the left.”
Peter went first. He found his mother lying there, her eyes closed, hooked up to several tubes and monitors while a nurse gave her still another transfusion. Peter assumed she was asleep and just took her hand. He was surprised when she opened her eyes. She looked at him for a second before she recognized him. “Peter?”
“Yeah, Ma,’ he said softly. “How do you feel?”
She stared at him. “You lost your hair?”
He laughed. “About ten years ago, Ma.”
“Really?” She closed her eyes and he left her to sleep.
Martha went next and was crying when she came out.
“She’ll be okay,” Peter said, as Judy got up to go see her mother-in-law.
“She doesn’t even look like herself,” Martha said. “She reminded me of how Daddy looked just before he died. It’s almost like she’s already gone. I was about to leave when she started talking to herself.”
Peter tried to lighten the mood. “At least she didn’t comment on your gray hair.”
“I wish she had. She was mumbling something about having to wash the windows tomorrow and how she was worried about Dad getting up on the ladder to do the outside and how you’d need to hold the ladder steady. She thought we were all still living in Pittsburgh.”
Peter took Martha’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “She’ll be okay,” he said again.
“She sure loved that house,” Martha said, then caught herself. “But I know we did the right thing in moving her up here.”
Peter looked at her but didn’t respond.