“Happy,” Pharrell Williams’ peppy pop tune, was playing on the car radio when my phone rang, and I pulled over to the curb. My mother’s doctor told me she had “days to live.” For the previous nine months, since I’d found out my mom had lung cancer, my car had become my crying place, always accompanied by some cheesy song on the radio. Because I’m happy/ Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.
My grief surprised me. I cried easily in this moving solitary closed capsule, on the six-hour trip from my home in Montreal to visit her in New York.
I stayed at my mother’s apartment, a short drive to the nursing home where she’d just moved. The June night was absolutely still, the air close and damp, a wet breeze wafting through the leafy streets now and then like a blessing.
It was eerie to be in Mom’s apartment without her, surrounded by plush and plants. I remembered my childhood home as a jungle: a scarlet and green rug, like untended grass on fire, plants suspended from windows and ceiling, torpid glassy-eyed beasts as furniture, tropical bird mobiles, a tiger chair, and squashed-can giraffe. Mom, a psychiatrist, and Dad an endocrinologist, out working while we three kids fended for ourselves. My older brother Andy was isolated and dreamy, rescuing strays, filling this Hollywood extravaganza of bad taste with skinny cats and homeless dogs; he always loved animals more than people, both before and since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I looked after my little brother Danny as if I were Little Mommy and he was my baby.
I was on my own now, here. Andy lived in a halfway house, while Danny was a radiologist who had mostly cut off our family.
I was hungry but too fried to make a meal, and I knew that Mom kept her best treats in the freezer. She always had a plentiful supply of chocolate, ice cream, chips, and honey-roasted peanuts. Not to mention Scotch. I fixed myself a plate—a little of everything—and ate standing up, stalking around the one-bedroom apartment.
I spotted Mom’s handwriting on a prescription pad for Alprazolam: Can’t take care of myself. What to do?
Running a bath, I brushed my teeth furiously to get rid of the sweet and salty metallic taste in my mouth, cranked the air-conditioner to high, and then climbed into Mom’s queen-size bed.
As a girl, I longed to cuddle with Mom, to feel her hands in my hair, to have her waiting when I returned home from a long, lonely day at school.
I remembered being in first grade, dressed in holey tights, my long thick hair a wild and dark unkempt tumble. Mom took me to the hairdresser, where the stylist did not conceal her disgust when she couldn’t get a comb through my jungle of congealed knots, informing me, my mother, and anyone within earshot that I had crusts in my scalp. The shame I felt for us was more painful than anger.
Since Mom told me that she had lung cancer, I’d tried to find out everything I could about her. About her before us. I understood a bit more why she was the way she was—blind and heedless, even mean, to her own children. My daunting Grandma Florence raised her with a continuous artillery of criticisms and demands: Mickey, stand up straight, hold in your belly, bring me a coffee … Once, when my mother angered her by bringing home a stray kitten, Florence dragged her by the hair across the parquet floor, slapping and screaming, while my gentle, blue-eyed, Grandfather Julius said, Enough Florence. That’s enough.
I drove to the Sarah Neuman Center, “the new Jewish home,” the next morning. Mom was in bed, resting under a sheet, a folded wheelchair by the door. I wanted to hug her, but froze, as if she were dipped in Plexiglass, or I was. I kissed her lightly on both cheeks, Montreal-style.
“How you doing, Mom?”
She had a fentanyl patch beneath her lower back. “Is it relieving the pain?”
“No,” she said, in a small voice. “It’s too strong.”
I felt an ache of tenderness and pity for her. Her body barely made a bulge under the sheet; she weighed 100 pounds, scarcely flesh to cover arms and thighs.
We caught up on family news between spells of her raucous, unrelenting cough.
“Do you have a mirror?” she scratched out of a hoarse throat.
I pulled out a tiny mirror shaped like an envelope, gold, with rhinestones outlining the flap, and handed it to her.
“Where did you get this?”
I snatched it from Mom’s dresser as a teenager and kept it with me until it became mine. I’d always longed for a gift that she’d chosen especially for me.
“I borrowed it.”
“This is mine.” She flipped open the mirror. “Ami, my eyebrows. You could braid them. And my hair is feral.”
Gently, I brushed back her thick, light brown curls, then tweezed a few stray hairs from her brows, shaping them with a finger dabbed in Vaseline until they formed a smooth glossy arch.
She looked into the little mirror.
“Who’s going to see me?”
“You. And me.”
While she rested, I picked up a few things at the market. “I have ice cream,” I said on my return, “chocolate and coffee.”
She managed a smile, sat up.
I opened both pints, spooning up a combo of chocolate and coffee and extending it to her. Like a child, she reached forward and ate. As she held the spoon in both hands, I spotted the topaz ring on her hand. It glittered golden in the light and I felt a spasm of nausea before memory coalesced.
On my 13th birthday, I opened the small velvet box she gave me to reveal a smoky topaz ring, an echo of hers. When I slid the beauty onto my finger, the stone popped out, rolling onto the floor. My mother’s olive complexion turned ruddy and her nearly black eyes sparked, then went flat. She was possessed, terrifying.
I felt a hard smarting crack across my cheek as she slapped me. “You wiggled it and jiggled it until the stone fell out! Everything I give you, you turn into shit.”
I ran to my room and bolted the door, too stunned to cry.
I never saw that ring again, and we never discussed the incident.
Now we sat quietly eating ice cream, the day outside her window blooming and bright, a courtyard rife with roses and violets and daisies, now filling with other residents. With the help of an aide, I managed to get Mom settled into her wheelchair. Outside, we found a patch of shade under an apple tree, hoping for a breeze.
“Remember the topaz ring you didn’t give me?”
“I’m sorry.” My mother’s voice was soft, contrite.
“Can we just, for once—”
“Don’t let’s talk about it.”
This was my Grandma Florence’s mantra.
“All my jewelry is safe in the vault for you—after I die. But I want to give you this, while I’m still here.”
She slid the topaz off her finger, both hands trembling. When it whizzed off unexpectedly and bounced on the grass, there was a terrible moment. Then we both laughed, as I stooped, then crawled to retrieve it.
I slid the ring onto my finger and held the topaz up to catch the brilliant sun.
My mother took a turn for the worse that afternoon and was hooked up to oxygen, steam curling, an aqueous burble filling her room. Mom lay on her back, eyes closed.
“Rabbi Brown called,” I said. “He’d like to come.”
“I can’t see anyone.” She was restless with worry or pain. “You bless me, you say Kaddish. You put a stone. Rinse it in rainwater, put a stone, we always put a stone.”
I played her favorite song, “Greensleeves,” and then the Shema, the Jewish prayer she sang with my two brothers and me every night before bed, one of our few family rituals. At the sound of the Shema, tears streamed down her face, and I felt rachmones for her, despite everything, love and sadness and pity all knotted up together.
We did have our moments in the water, floating on our backs staring up into an impossibly blue sky.
I kissed Mom’s forehead, her skin surprisingly smooth, and held her hand. I was relieved that she smelled good.
Sensing she was close to death, I repeated something I’d heard in a bad film. “You can go now, Mom.”
Her dark eyes flew open. Her voice was strong, even strident: “Ami, go where?
She died soon after.
For several weeks after Mom’s death, I called her cell phone, just to hear her voice, that bumptious tone, the strong New York accent. Funny about voices, they offer an eternal present.
Now that my mother is dead, she is with me all the time. One night, inside a dream, I hear Mom’s voice coming from my antique rolltop desk.
Open up, she says.
I roll back the top and there she is, carved right into the writing surface. She is living there now, part of my furniture.
Ami! She calls out, welcoming me with a love and warmth she rarely managed in life.
Mom! I am overcome to see her, to hear her voice, the grit that comes with flashes of love or anger, the break that comes with tenderness or hurt, my Mom speaking right into my ear.
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Ami Sands Brodoff is a novelist in Montreal. Her most recent novel, The White Space Between, won The Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction. She has a new novel, In Many Waters, forthcoming in 2016.