I hang up the phone and sit there for a moment. Waiting for something to happen; for some feeling to overcome me, an emotion to sweep through my body. For anger. For sadness, for regret, for something. But nothing happens.
The only thing that washes over me is the heat. A fresh wave of mugginess blows through the open windows. A fan whirls at high speed with perfect uselessness.
I look back to the phone. It’s quiet now, almost innocent, as if it hadn’t just housed a voice that spoke of death not as a prognosis but rather a prophecy.
The sun is creeping down outside. The sky turning vibrant colors of purple and orange and red. Though the sunset’s beauty was in the reprisal, in sparing those of us without air conditioning of the relentless heat.
I pick up the phone again, the dial tone impatiently sounds back into my ear. I start to dial Theresa’s number, but only get halfway through before I realize I’ve forgotten the rest.
Outside, kids are just beginning to come out, to brave the outdoors now that the oppressive sun sank beneath the covers. These twilight moments, minutes in which the heat disperses but the light is still present, are magic.
I get up from the La-Z-Boy and walk to the window. The phone is still in my hand. I want to put it down, but I felt connected, like a child does their teddy bear. What was the point?
I look at my hands again, as if I’d be able to see something in them.
But they’re just hands. And I’m just a man. So why don’t I feel human?
We never got along. I don’t think I have a single memory where the two of us are smiling in the same room. A clash of personalities maybe. More likely I was too much like my father. Quiet, simple minded, outwardly emotionless.
I place the six-pack in the fridge, and pry a can from the bundle. It’s cold. Inviting. Unlike the last time I relapsed, I don’t hesitate. I pull the tab to the can and take a long, greedy gulp.
What’s odd about my mother is—quite frankly—everything. While my sister and I would eat in the kitchen, she’d take her plate to the bedroom, or the backyard, or sometimes the bathroom. Somewhere away, usually behind a closed door, in front of a TV or both. I thought this was normal for a long time, for parents to be away from their kids. It wasn’t until I locked myself out of the house in the fourth grade and had to spend the evening with Richy’s family that I saw something else entirely.
At Richy’s, it was very different. They sat around a table, food sitting in the center, in each other’s company. Sure, it wasn’t all rainbows and puppies, but they engaged with one another. Had a conversation. Asked questions—asked me questions. Questions about my day, about my family about my favorite thing to do in school. I was dumbstruck. I stuttered my way through it and hoped I hadn’t made it painfully obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.
The next day, after Mom made us dinner and plated it for us, I asked her why we didn’t eat as a family. Like Richy’s family does.
She looked at me, a face of perfect indifference, then looked right through me and walk off to her bedroom, plate in hand.
I don’t know what to call it. She wasn’t abusive, she didn’t drink, she paid for our clothes and kept us fed. Nowadays they’re calling it neglect, but I’m not even sure I’d call it that. We were her children, and so she had to feed us. She had to clothe us. She had to care for us.
But love was something else entirely.
I’ll never forget that evening at Richy’s. It was like an awakening. A click in my mind where I saw a world not devoid but full. That’s when I started putting up my wall.
A kid hit a baseball in the street and his teammates cheered. Their faces beaming.
I tip back the rest of the can and made for the fridge.
A twilight moment of happiness.
The door opens and closes after I’ve finished my sixth beer. They lay scattered on the dining room table so there’s no hiding it. I think maybe I wanted her to see them. She did immediately.
“So we’re drinking again?” She says, her purse hanging from her hand. I start to speak, but she interrupts. “Because if we are I’m walking out of this door right now.”
She’s overreacting. The kind of beer I’m drinking would have a hard time getting a toddler drunk. But I get it, too. History overrides.
“I know.” I hear myself saying. I’m pulling at the tab of one of the cans, like a child fiddling with something when they know they’re in trouble. “I know. I just got a call—“
“It better have been your sponsor because—“
“It was from my mother.” I blurt out. The words feel weird on my tongue.
She mulls it over, still clearly upset, but a small amount of understanding has pushed through her stoic personality. Jill places her purse on the couch and runs a hand through her hair. She takes a deep breath and lets it out, sounding more tired than she usually does.
“And?” is all she can muster.
I pry off the tab of the beer and drop it in the can. The process was cathartic and now that it’s done I feel more empty than I did when I hung up the phone.
“Um,” I say, searching for the words. “She’s sick.”
“That’s all she said. Says she doesn’t have a long time.”
“Did you tell her she should have thought of that when you were a child?”
“Of course not.”
She crosses her arms, “Well, what did you say?”
“What does it matter what I said? What can I say?” I stare at the floor for answers. “I felt nothing, Jill. Not angry, not sadness, no regret, no nothing.”
Her eyes soften, “What did you expect to feel?”
“Something.” I breathe. “Anything.”
“Indifference is a feeling, Brian.”
I can feel my leg bouncing, I’m impatient about something. Maybe getting to the point. I don’t know how to continue so I backtrack. “I’m sorry.” I say.
Jill stands there for a moment, just long enough that’s required, then walks over to me and holds my head in her arms. We sit like that, in silence, for what feels like a long time. “You need to go back to the meetings.”
“I know.” I say.
“And you owe me a least a dozen foot rubs.”
“I know.” I say looking at the empty can. Then after a moment, “It really doesn’t have that much alcohol.”
I can sense her eyebrow raised.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to say. Perhaps too much time. By the time I buy the plane ticket, it’s been six weeks and four AA meetings. I don’t share about my mother at the meetings. Some might call it lying, an offense of omission, but I think it’s that word Jill said. Indifference. How can something affect me if I don’t care about it?
The immigration agent eyes me over, then outstretches his hand for my passport. I hand it over to him, carrying nothing more than the small carry-on with three days of clothing.
“Good Morning.” He says only as a formality.
“Hi.” I say.
“What brings you to Canada today?”
I open my mouth to speak, but find the words fumbling in my mouth.
“Business, or pleasure.” He says after a few seconds.
“Neither.” I say, then catch myself. “Just visiting family.”
“Joy.” He says in a tone that suggests the opposite. He pulls out the stamp and slams it down on the page in my new passport. “Enjoy your stay, Mr. Sandal.” He says, then calls for the next in line.
I have to take the bus, she lives three hours from the airport and I’m not about to spend another $100 on a taxi. In a way that’s a bit of strange poetry: I left and now I’m coming back on a Greyhound—the same way, twenty-five years apart. I find my seat near a window, by the time the bus is ready to leave, most of it is packed but no one has chosen to sit next to me.
Or so I think, and then an elderly woman starts working her way back. She passes by several open seats, and catches my eye about halfway down. She smiles warmly, holding a purse in one hand and a walking cane in the other with little tennis balls on the end.
“Is this seat taken?” She asks, looking at my small bag. I say of course not and move the bag to my feet.
She sits and soon after the bus begins to move.
It takes all of four minutes before she asks me a question. I don’t hear her at first, so I pull out a headphone.
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“Where are you heading off to?”
“Visiting some friends.” I say.
She waits for me to move my headphone back to my ear before speaking again.
“I’m going to go see my granddaughter.” She says.
“Is that so?” I say.
“Yup.” She says. “It’s her twelfth birthday.”
“Well, happy birthday to her.” I say.
“I’ll pass that along.” Her smile feels genuine. And she continues. “I had a very hard time finding a gift for her.”
“She’s not the boyband or terrible teen movie type?”
“I don’t know actually. I’ve never met her.” She says. Then adds rather matter-of-factly, “I hate her mother.”
“You hate your daughter?”
“I can’t seem to figure out how she’s mine. But it is.” She says, her hands resting on the cane. “I birthed her—a 36 hour of labor was just the beginning of our tumultous relationship—but I can’t fathom that she’s mine.”
“Interesting.” I say, but feel the opposite.
“She’s a brat, to start. She dropped out, got into the wrong crowd, started doing drugs, never applied herself and then got up and pregnant out of wedlock.”
“Worst yet,” she continues, “She stopped going to church. I can’t seem to figure what happened, except that the devil himself is housed within her, but even I’m not that supersticious. Her other siblings were never so much trouble.”
“So you haven’t talked with her?”
“Nope.” She says, looking out the window beyond me. “I’ve lived within 20 miles of her and we haven’t spoken a word. Not in fifteen years. It was a pretty good arrangement if you ask me. I don’t believe I would have made it to 90 if that harlot had stayed in my life.” She mulled a bit with her mouth, seemed to be squinting off not at the landscape outside but instead a far-off memory. “If I wasn’t already dying, I think I’d be happy to just continue on my merry way without her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I say.
“Don’t be. We’re all dying, and you don’t know me. Besides, I’m a bit bored.” She says. “I’m only going because Janelle sent me a letter. She’s my granddaughter. She doesn’t know that I’ll be gone before next summer and that’s just fine. I don’t really have the energy to make up for lost time.”
I wasn’t sure what to say so I say nothing.
The woman sighs. “Anyway, where did you say you were going?”
I tell her the same lie, and for some reason make up something about a wedding. She eyes my small bag but doesn’t pry further. She gets off the bus a little while later, that smile returning to her face when she says goodbye. I don’t know why, but I expect her to turn around and wave as the bus pulls away, but she just walks off.
Not even a second glance.
The door opens and I see her. She’s wearing PJ’s, and has her arms crossed against the cold. Snow is frozen on the front lawn, and the heat of the house feels welcoming. For a moment, she doesn’t recognize me; her features are sagged, face riddled with wrinkles that are new since I last saw her. We’re both getting old. She almost looks through me, instead of at me, then her face shifts when she sees me. The features tighten.
“Brian.” She says.
I stand in the doorway awkwardly, hands deep in my pockets and recite what I practiced. “Theresa, I’m here to see her. I want to talk to her. I have some things I want to say.”
She scowls for a moment, as if trying to understand what I was saying, then her features soften again. They retain that tired sag I’d seen before.
“Oh, Brian.” She says.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry it took me so long. I…” I want to explain myself, but the words don’t even hold meaning to me anymore.
“No.” she says and pauses.
“No?” I say. “Theresa, I’ve flown 1,100 miles to get here and you’re not going to let me in?”
She doesn’t look me in the eye, instead she talks to her feet. “It’s bad.” She says.
“Bad?” I say.
“I better just show you.”
She turns around and walks away without seeing if I follow. I close the door behind me. She goes down a set of stairs, then around the corner in a narrow hallway. I haven’t been in this home in nearly three decades but I know where we’re going.
There’s one last closed door. My old room. I see my name written in crayon taped to the door. An art project I put up in elementary school that somehow survived my teenage years.
“Before, she said she wanted to keep it.” Theresa says. “Now, I don’t really have the heart to take it down.” She turns to me and says, “If you can, please be kind,” then walks off.
I stand in front of the door for a moment. Thinking about what I want to say. Like before, I want to be angry. I want to be livid. I want to stride into that room and say what I’ve wanted to say for years.
I want to feel something.
I open the door, light creeps through and illuminates the dark hallway. She’s sitting in a chair. When I close the door, she turns around. She doesn’t look like I thought she would. I thought she’d look old. I thought she’d look 70. I guess in a way she does, but she also looks vibrant. Like she has another twenty years in her. She doesn’t look like my mother.
“Hi, Mom.” I say.
She squints her eyes. “Hello. Theresa didn’t tell me I’d be getting a visitor. Do I know you from somewhere?” She says.
I open my mouth to say something. I’m your son. Is what comes to mind, but instead I grab a seat. She’s sick, but not how I thought she’d be.
“My name is Brian.” I say.
“Gloria.” She says.
I look down at her lap. She’s knitting something. “What are you making?”
“A doily.” She says.
“It looks lovely.” I say.
“Thank you.” She says. “I’ve been knitting, sewing and quilting for a long time. It helps keep my mind off things.”
“For twenty-four years.” She continues. “Let me show you what I’ve done.” She gets up from her chair with no sign of ache in her bones or lethargy. She opens a chest and inside is an array of textiles.
She begins pulling them out and showing them to me. I take them in my hands and look at them and o-o-h and a-h-h at all the right times. She explains first their simplicity and then their complexity. She shows me the first and the last she’s made, and she tells me she’s proud of the difference between the two. We go through the entire chest, and I hear myself telling her how impressed I am.
And then she smiles at me, the one I’d missed in my life. I feel something expand and then contract in my chest. A sensation rolls over me, but before I can examine it, she tells me there’s more if I’d like to see them. I say yes.
She grabs my hand and opens the door, we walk down the dark hallway. “It’s so nice to meet someone to share my quilting with.” She says. We walk to another room, and she’s about to open the door when Theresa appears at the end of the hallway.
“It’s time for dinner.” She says.
My mother scowls. “Already? The nurse is a stickler for dinner. Won’t let me miss a second of it.”
“Because you won’t eat it if it gets cold.” Theresa says. “Brian, do you want to join us for dinner?”
I make an excuse not to, and the both of them walk me to the door.
“I did enjoy meeting you.” My mother says, walking towards the kitchen. She turns around at the doorway. “What did you say your name was?”
Theresa looks at me, but I don’t meet her glance. “It’s Brian.” I say.
My mother nods her head, as if confirming something. “Lovely name, that. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to show you all the quilt, maybe tomorrow?”
“I can’t, I’m sorry.”
Theresa takes Mom by the arm, leading her to the kitchen. “Come on, Mom. Let’s get you some food.”
I make my way to my car. It’s only gotten colder, the frozen snow crunches beneath my sneakers. Despite growing up in the area I’ve somehow under packed warm clothing. I flip on the heat to the car and wait for the frost to melt away.
The sun is just beginning to set, a school bus rolls by and stops three houses down. A handful of kids file out, wrapped in large coats and hats. They talk and smile as they walk, then one of them breaks off and begins to pack snow in his hands. Before his friends can see him, he hits his friend in the back of the head with a snowball, who in turn makes and throws his own snowball.
Miserable cold. The setting sun. Children laughing and playing in the snow. A twilight moment of happiness.
I keep the car running and jog back to the house. Theresa looks confused when she answers the door.
Before I can change my mind, I say, “How about Saturday?”