Into This Clearing

Tablet Original Fiction

Andrew Eckholm
April 05, 2023
© Brett Weston, All rights reserved 2023/Bridgeman Images
‘It surprised me, to hear that she had still imagined her mother might change.’ Brett Weston (1911-93), ‘Building and Tree, New York,’ 1944© Brett Weston, All rights reserved 2023/Bridgeman Images
© Brett Weston, All rights reserved 2023/Bridgeman Images
‘It surprised me, to hear that she had still imagined her mother might change.’ Brett Weston (1911-93), ‘Building and Tree, New York,’ 1944© Brett Weston, All rights reserved 2023/Bridgeman Images

I think you should call her, you’ll regret if you don’t, but I should warn you. She was screaming when I called, just screaming. I know, I know, but the thing is, you need lung capacity to scream. That’s something you learn in the ICU. If you can scream, you don’t have pneumonia, said my mother, adding, I know it sounds terrible, but I don’t think the virus is a horrible way for her to go.

My mother’s mouth had trouble rounding the vowels, her voice was slurred and heavy over the phone. A jogger described a wide circle around the cemetery in which I stood, and I saw her effort in his gait, which was strangely halting, as if he had just risen from a long rest. You just fall asleep one day, if you don’t have pneumonia, you just fall asleep and never wake up, there’s no coughing, no blood. There are so many horrible ways to go, for old people in this country, is part of it, and this is far from the worst, said my mother, who had been an emergency care doctor before she became a journalist.

How many horrible ends she must have seen, I thought. A horrible way to go, I thought, turning over the phrase, and my mother said, We treat old people so miserably, in this country, we keep them alive for so long and we charge them so much money. Did you know most of these places are owned by venture capital? Not Diamond Point, but the other places I looked at for your grandmother, they wanted her to sign these forms, where you turn over your money—your bank accounts, your apartment, your art—and they make a profit as long as you die before it’s gone. If it does run out, they kick you over to Medicaid or out altogether. Vultures, she said, the venom in her voice modulated by exhaustion and by the palsied slur she had carried since her head injury three weeks prior.

I examined the metal graves of this odd half-abandoned cemetery. The beaten tin sheaths, where not oxidized or overturned or crumpled like paper, appeared strikingly clean and new. Before looking closely I had thought them unnaturally well-maintained stone, a mistake no doubt intended by their long-dead builders. My mother quietly said, She was always so afraid of being alone.

The jogger was the first person I’d seen in the Most Holy Trinity cemetery aside from the two overwhelmed groundskeepers and the watchman, always asleep in his car. The jogger turned now at the fence that separated the cemetery from the larger expanse of graveyards of which it formed a part. Moving no faster than a walk, he hobbled alongside the bordering elevated railway as my mother’s voice sounded in my headphones. She had resumed work only the week after her hospitalization, ignoring my stepfather’s protests. It was something I had always admired about her: While the slightest personal setback would send me into a curdling exhaustion, distress drove her out of herself and toward the world. I sometimes thought this was the base reason I was attracted to them, women I mean, all of them: The visible contrast of outer poise and inner turmoil—of beauty and pain, as if the one implied or demanded the other—gave them a dignity, a surface tension, that I found nearly unbearable even as it pulled at me, like a physical force.

She was always so afraid of being alone, my mother said. At least she’ll be with her husband now, she’ll be the doctor’s wife she always wanted to be. Did you know she’s been paying rent on a plot next to my father this whole time? Fifty years; more. It’s strange that we never visited it, considering how she talked about him. From the day he died, it was all, he was such a wonderful man, such a kind man, a famous doctor—from that day on. There was no drinking; there was no cruelty. All of it was so gone you would think you had imagined it.

The jogger reemerged near the entrance and I imagined what he now saw, the green hills and the citylike extension of graves spreading out all around as he made the rise in the wet cold air. I stepped off the path, eager to avoid his circumambulations, and passed several rows of rusted graves into a declension. Stumps were here and there visible, remnants of wooden crosses gone to rot. The grass was lush. As often happened in cemeteries I experienced a twinge of nausea, as if the sheer mass of horizontal bodies momentarily convinced me that they, not I, had the correct orientation.

It surprised me, to hear that she had still imagined her mother might change. As a child I found her ability to locate slights and machinations in my grandmother’s difficulty vaguely uncomfortable, even paranoiac. And yet when I tried to remember what my grandmother had been like back then, in my childhood, I found that these last, interminable visits to her retirement home—The Diamond Point Premier Residences of the Bronx—had erased all that preceded them with a shocking completeness. All but the most fragmentary memories had been burned clean from my recall and I was totally unable to imagine what my mother might be experiencing. It seemed her accident had broken barriers she’d spent a lifetime erecting, barriers not against her mother but against her own memories, her own love. But her love for whom? I wondered.

It’s funny, but I understand him—my father, I mean—better now than I understand her. Part of that is the drinking. But it’s also: After working in the ER, I understood what it was to see children die day after day and then to come home to your own—children that, in his case, he never wanted, and that he spent his life blaming my mother for foisting upon him. Many of his patients were children with leukemia. He was horrible to us; but his patients loved him. He didn’t love us; but he loved being a doctor. He would come home and black out by dinner every night.

One time I came to her for help when I was really having problems with drinking, and I said that I remembered how Dad was. But she denied everything. All she said was, Oh, you’ve got to be careful. I thought she might be able to help me, or want to talk about it, but all she said was, Oh, you’ve got to be careful. They were thinking about divorce, once. But people didn’t do that back then, said my mother, before abruptly shifting to a lower register. Oh what a horrible way to go, alone in that place, Diamond Point, those rooms

How desperate she must have been to imagine her mother might help her, I thought. We turn to our mothers when we are utterly out of options, and they disappoint us with their inability to give more than they have, to be other than they are. I was distracted now by the subway pushing along the bordering railway, elevated only 10 or so feet from the earth. It moved from right to left with a clanking implacability, its corrugated grooves catching the sunlight even through their coating of filth. Virtually empty, it passed over the underpass through which I had entered and, rather than indeed taking flight, gradually disappeared from view. I feared impermanence, and often had the sense that my life was passing by without trace. And yet I didn’t quite understand what my mother wanted. The past few days, in our daily phone calls, she’d kept saying, How do you mourn someone you don’t like? and I wondered, Do you? Why? Maybe the kindest thing was to let them fade into oblivion, those people who knew nothing or almost nothing but suffering in this life.

I’m not ready for her to go. I’ll never be ready, I thought now. I had no barriers against my love, and I didn’t want any. Taking my cue from the train I weaved among the hedges of indifferent graves and exited through the thrown-open, green-lacquered, wrought-iron gates onto a broken cobblestone path that immediately forked in two, one branch making a long low curve up to a cluster of squat gray buildings and the other leading to the underpass. I turned right, toward the exit. She can’t really talk, my mother said, except the nurse told me, all day she was asking for chocolate ice cream. She gave a small, tired laugh, and I thought, There are worse last words. I had again asked her about calling my grandmother, if it was even worth it. As so often with my mother I couldn’t assess the truth from her words even as I knew she believed what she was saying. My grandmother didn’t have a fever, nor a cough; and yet my mother was certain she was dying. An exhaustive battery of tests had failed to ascertain why my mother had collapsed in her kitchen; and yet my mother was certain she herself would make a full recovery. If you need to go, don’t let me keep you, my mother said sadly. It’ll be OK whatever you decide to do.

The side street broadened into a wide avenue after a sharp, angular turn, but was still deserted; it was lined by low brick buildings with tagged metal roller-doors, and trash lined the gutters despite the spray-painted warnings: No Dumping. I was just about to bring the call to an end when, following a stray sudden thought—a professional curiosity, one might say—I asked my mother about the possibility of a divorce. I asked how she knew that was an option, given that her mother never told her anything. Well, the plan was to go Mexico, she said, and paused as though that was an answer unto itself. It was impossible to get a divorce in New York state at the time and so they wanted to go to Mexico. She paused again and then carefully, very carefully, said, I don’t know if I ever told you, or if I should tell you. But there was one year where my father didn’t live at home. He lived in the city for a year, near his work, at this apartment on the Upper West Side—I never went to it—at this apartment with this woman. For almost a year we didn’t see him; he abandoned us. I don’t know if he was in love; but you have to understand he had so many problems; he hated living with us, and he drank so much and smoked so much—he destroyed his liver, you know, that’s part of why he died on the operating table—and I even remember drug paraphernalia in the bathroom. I don’t know what it was for, what substances, but you can imagine that it was easier to prescribe such things. Anyway, he moved in with that woman and left us in Scarsdale.

For a year he pretended we didn’t exist. I don’t think she told her parents or any of her friends, either, since they were all other doctors’ wives. The plan, for a while, was for them to go to Mexico and get a divorce. But then the woman left him—of course she did—and he was living alone in the apartment on the Upper West Side, and that’s when my mom got a call from the police explaining that her husband had just burned down an apartment with him inside of it. The drinking, commented my mother shortly. They dragged him out unconscious, he got on the phone and begged her to come; she was always good in those situations. Then he came home. Not much later he died.

My mother spoke in clipped, measured bursts that gave the impression of intense effort and concentration, emotion evident only in the pauses. Perhaps this had been how she spoke in the ICU, I thought. No matter how often she said she hated the profession, she still had something of a doctor to her, and I couldn’t help but think her later success would have been impossible without her medical career. She always said that she only became a doctor because of him.

As I listened to her story, it occurred to me that neither would she have been able to escape from this unhappy career if not for his influence: I felt I could see him on the day he decided to stay in the city, to abandon his family, to move in with the other woman: This was someone who was willing to do whatever it took to be happy. And I could see him too the day after the fire, waiting for my grandmother, happiness confirmed at last as beyond reach.

Did I wonder if my mother’s head injury was the result of a fall, and did I further wonder what might really have caused such a stumble? Did I wonder if her newly damaged gait was rather a subducted expression of her own mother’s inchoate disability, that near-refusal to attempt to locomote that had limited her to an increasingly circumscribed life until finally she existed within a circumscription that consisted of one? Of course I did. And, of course, I didn’t.

My pace accelerated as a familiar scenery of brownstones emerged, many of them a pale yellow sandstone. The broad avenue curved gently round what my phone said was the corner of the graveyards, and the streets came alive as Hasidim, recognizable by their long black cloaks, swaying tzitzit and preoccupied air, strode here and there, men with hands in pockets and heads bent forward. A few mothers and daughters herded children alongside, casting frightened glances upward as though a storm threatened the sky. One had the sense that there were two cities supervening without touching, as though these women saw even a different sky than the one I saw with its immense white cumulous clouds overhead in the fading light. I enjoyed the anonymity, the abstention of the passerby, and I breathed in the scent of the mounds of wet earth that sat behind a tall iron fence about 30 paces to my right.

I turned off toward the cemetery, where a wide paved path curved through the gates and, in the distance, made several switchbacks up a series of mounting hills. I wondered, as I passed among its large silent graves, if the plot where my grandfather was buried was also in a Jewish cemetery. If so, it wouldn’t be by choice. My mother often told the story of how he would place a large Christmas tree in the sunroom to taunt their Jewish neighbors. But my grandmother might appreciate it here, I thought, examining the large graves beveled into curving slopes, the image in which those worn tin graves had been crafted in cut-rate imitation.

In her later years my grandmother had made gestures at Judaism, but they weren’t serious, no more so than my own intermittent flirtations. What she would appreciate instead was the décor, the facades, the austere monumentality of the headstones; it reminded me of her apartment, impressive with its white-box walls and art-gallery lighting. Of course, one might think her taste had developed to compensate for her poor, Jewish roots, just as her performance as a doctor’s wife was all the more important for the spouse of the first Jewish hematologist at NYU. As so often with my grandmother, it was easy enough to outline how her suffering might have shaped her. Indeed, it verged on cliché. But something made me doubt that it was so.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, I simply didn’t believe people changed, I thought. The few times I had tried praying it was to a Christian god, a father I threw myself at and begged to break, transform, and forgive me, in that order. The wind had picked up and it cooled my sweat as I made the rise, now and then pausing for breath as I eyed the headstones.

I just don’t know what she would want, said my mother. The home had asked if my grandmother wanted a rabbi’s ministrations in lieu of a family visit, given the restrictions. I said that I thought she would want whatever she could get. It was kinder for her final descent to happen in private, both for her and for us. She had spent so long hiding her pain from those closest to her; it seemed cruel to expose it now. There was no waking her from the endless dream she had fallen into; though it was a nightmare, it was one she didn’t want to leave.

What would she want? She told us all the time. She wanted help. For a lifetime she rejected help; in her final descent, she begged for it. But the help she requested was in truth aid in her self-destruction: Help, don’t take me outside, help, a stranger is talking to me, help, the nurses are trying to kill me.

I recalled now the first time I heard her cry of help help help, during one of my then-weekly visits. The phone rang and she began that regular, automatic request until an aide came over. The cry wasn’t panicked; it was already practiced, almost calm, and this was far worse. She did this at night, too, when she woke up alone and afraid, at least so her caretakers always said. It was part of why I stopped visiting, for we couldn’t do anything to help her: The help she needed was the kind better provided by professionals: fresh sheets, topical creams, soothing words, sedatives most crucially. (If she didn’t improve within the day, they would begin morphine, my mother said.) We put her in a nursing home precisely because we couldn’t help her, I thought, suddenly frantic as I pictured the elderly, the hundreds of elderly, each one trapped in their own small numbered room in the hotellike hallways of Diamond Point. Now and then an attendant would cross their threshold in full protective equipment, now and then they had to eat or take medicine. But otherwise they would be left to descend into their dreams which were perhaps not dreams; and it was as if I saw that image again as I looked out over the hummocked graveyard, nearly at the crest of the large hill. The difference between the grid of slablike gravestones and the corrugated rows of buildings behind appeared to me only a matter of degree, a more advanced stage in a process of entombment. And, as I looked out over the necropolis, I experienced the sensation of being compressed by an immense but diffuse weight, as if the innumerable strata of some ancient, continuously occupied city bore downward upon me.

I wanted badly to lie down on my bed in my small, cell-like room, laptop on my chest. I wanted badly to be inside and I was grateful for the restrictions on public movement. I leaned back against a headstone, the smooth stone cool against my forearm, and, taking care to unlock my knees, I cast about for a means to make my imminent exit less abrupt. If I asked just one more question, I could hang up, stumble home and sedate myself, I thought.

I weakly savored this prospect even as my mother, by way of answer—How did you know about the divorce?—began talking about how my grandmother had taken her to a therapist after the funeral. It was her own therapist, she’d been seeing him for a while, not that she told him anything, commented my mother with sharpness. I don’t even know if she told him about my father running away. After the funeral she told the therapist she was just trying to make sure I was OK, when it was her that wasn’t OK, that’s what I should have said, but instead I just sat there. I was angry but I was OK. I wasn’t, but enough.

I could imagine very clearly the day my mother would have approached her own mother for help. When my mother still lived in New York City she would eat dinner with her once a week. The day would have been marked in big felt tip pen on the oversize calendar propped alongside my grandmother’s easy chair, and it would have been confirmed with the aide the previous evening. What did my grandmother want to eat? She liked a burger from the chain restaurant across the street, which my mother invariably fetched for her before riding the elevator 21 floors up to her apartment. Inside, an argument between my grandmother and her aide, at this time a Georgian woman of impossible patience, had broken out. My grandmother wanted to find the remote control so she could turn off the TV. How else was she supposed to hear her daughter?

By the time her aide let my mother inward my grandmother was reseated, fuming, and the television remote was located beneath the piles of photographs of nephews printed on computer paper. It’s always there, the aide said. It wasn’t there before, said my grandmother. It’s never there when you need it. They reviewed the medical front. My grandmother wanted to pursue surgery for her vision, but the doctor had warned her there was little purpose considering the relatively minor impairment from glaucoma she suffered from now, the subtext being that she would be dead before it mattered. Then there was physical therapy, which since the fall last autumn she’d been traveling to attend twice a week, necessary if she were going to ever stop using the walker. Then there was family—grandchildren, cousins, the younger ones requiring updates on life course and the older ones checks upon their health. My grandmother’s husband’s sister had recently died. They had never really gotten along. But time had erased the causes of their conflict, so that my grandmother could say: She was such a fine lady. She really stood up for us after your father died.

By now they were at the table, the hamburgers and fries gone limpid.

M: Did she ever talk to you about his problems? About his drinking? G: Ah. (Makes a dismissive gesture). No, no, that was never really such a problem. M: Mom, what are you talking about? G: What? Your father drank. But everybody did. He couldn’t have been so successful at his job if he really had a problem. He was the first of his kind to be the head of hematology at NYU. He was a professor at Columbia. M: He wasn’t a professor at Columbia. G: He taught there. When you were very young. They sent him all over the world to speak—Bogota, Kyoto, China …

M: What about as a father? G: As a father? He worked hard, I know he had to spend a lot of time in the city, but he provided for us very well. M: What about when he would pass out? What about when you would send us upstairs? G: Are you—my daughter—going to be mad at me for sending you upstairs as a little girl during dinner? M: You didn’t send us up because I was misbehaving. I heard noises. We all heard them. G: I don’t appreciate this. I’m trying to have a nice meal. I don’t know what ‘noises’ you’re talking about, but please be respectful of me when I’m trying to eat my meal in my home.

M: What about when he ran away? G: What do you mean? What are you talking about? M: When he moved to the city. G: He worked in the city a lot. It made sense for him to have an apartment.

M: And what about when he burned down the apartment? What about that? G: He could be a clumsy man. A very detailed, very fine man, but in his personal life a clumsy man. It’s often true for very brilliant people. You’ve got to be careful with fire.

G: Is there salt on these? I can’t stand salt.

G: It’s nice to talk about your father. Do you remember that camping trip we took? I was showing Inga the pictures the other day; we still have boxes of them. She’s very fond of you, you know. Did you know your father’s sister just passed? I wish we had been closer, but, after he died, I was so busy taking care of you three I never had the time to visit her. M: Mom, you traveled all the time. G: I did manage to travel when I could but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. How else could I have bought all this? That over there—do you know where I got it? M: Yes. Spain. G: It’s a Picasso. M: It’s not a Picasso. G: Excuse me. Yes it very well is. I bought it in Barcelona in 1974, and I have a signed certificate of authenticity. Inga! Help! Help! I need help!

M: I don’t need to see the certificate. G: Help! Help! M: Inga, don’t come. Mom. Stop. G: Stop what? Inga, come! M: I wanted to talk to you about something. It’s about dad. G: I’m always happy to talk about your father. He was a great man.

M: I’ve been having some problems. It’s been really bad. G: It’s the great regret of my life that he couldn’t have seen how you grew up. He would have been so proud of you becoming a doctor. M: Why do you think he died, Mom? Healthy 45-year-old men don’t die like that. It doesn’t happen. G: Have you been drinking? M: I haven’t been fucking drinking. OK? OK? G: Why are you speaking to me like that? You come to me asking for help, and then, when I try to help you use this horrible language with me. You always attack me when I try and help you. M: This was a mistake. You can’t help me. G: I’ll always be here to help you but you’re using such horrible, vicious language. Why can’t we speak like civilized people?

We’d been talking every day since her accident, and even now as I slipped away into my reverie I enjoyed it, my ability to help her without effort or activity. This type of help—the type children give to their parents—I could offer. My mother is the one person I can help, I thought, as she said, I got my own room, on the second floor, right before my father moved away. I painted the walls this horrible green color. She laughed, which sparked a brief coughing fit, and when she again spoke her voice grew quiet and her slur pronounced. Faintly I heard the sound of a pebble dropping to the ground from where I had knocked it off the headstone.

Once he went away, your grandmother didn’t want to sleep alone in their bedroom, she said. So for that year she slept in my bed alongside me. It was strange; I was 10. I don’t think I was ever her favorite; I guess I was just the oldest. Perhaps that’s why she chose to talk with—to—me. She would tell me what was going on with my dad in extraordinary detail, everything from the name of his mistress to their plan to fly to Mexico for the divorce.

Isn’t it strange? I sometimes hear her voice, when I’m half asleep or when I wake up. Or maybe when I’m dreaming. Whenever I hear her voice I stay very still so as not to interrupt, so as not to stop the voice from continuing. That’s what I did. I just let her talk; I never said anything. I lay still. I let her talk. I never told anyone. My mother paused, briefly. It’s so strange, she said.

As our conversation passed to mundane things my heartbeat began to slow, my vision to fill out. I said that I would call my grandmother that day. I asked after my sister halfway around the world. I looked down at the headstone and saw that I had been unconsciously thumbing the pebbles packed densely on its width. Guiltily I withdrew, casting looks about the empty cemetery. The pebbles must have been some kind of rite, but if so, their meaning was obscure.

Were they an offering, or a weight? I wondered as I turned to face the city, where the facades of the brownstones beyond the tall iron fence were cast into soft shadow. Two or three planes moved in the still-open sky, describing lines that were erased as they were made. A cluster of tan buildings displayed posters for funerary services in large yellow type. Before these advertisements clustered circles of men in black coats; and for a moment, I thought they might enter the cemetery. Instead, they coalesced into two larger groups of black coats, and set off in opposing directions. Into this clearing appeared a jogger.

Andrew Eckholm is a writer living in New York City.