“Uh, this is Dad. Your mother…your mother had a bad thing. An aneurism burst. She’s in surgery now; it’s going to be eight hours. I’ll call you when it’s over. This is a serious thing.”
Everything stops inside me but Mister Baby doesn’t stop. He’s still strapped to my chest, squirming to be changed and fed. I call The Pater to please come home. I call my siblings. I call my uncle but he doesn’t have any fresher news. There’s nothing more to know until my father calls again. There’s nothing more to do but hold my breath.
Also languishing on the answering machine is her annual tuneless recorder rendering of Happy Birthday which I save all year, every year. Just two weeks ago we enjoyed a wonderful visit with them and I had been thinking, however unrealistically, that I can’t imagine my life without my mother. While we were there she gave me her mother’s jewelry; we bent over each piece, remembering when Nana wore it. She kept back one necklace, “I don’t know why, but I’m going to hang on to this for now,” she said as she held it up, making it sway like a hypnotist. She also gave me two travel clocks, my Yiddish workbooks, my elementary school report cards, some essays from high school, an ice bucket in the shape of an owl and a spaghetti spoon.
Fear prickles along my skin. I hold her in my belly, where Mister Baby used to be. If I cradle him with the utmost tenderness, it is her caressed; if he sleeps easily, it is her sleeping; if I can soothe him, it is her comforted. If I cut this tomato in perfect sixths, this garlic razor thin, it will keep her whole.
The phone calls ping pong up and down the eastern seaboard.
“She made it through surgery but they’re talking about collateral damage.” His voice is stretched and scared and I can see him with his palm to his upturned forehead, eyes squinting.
“What do you mean collateral damage?” I ask.
She is her brain and I wish I could hold it, bathe it, lick it clean.
“I think you should come down,” my father tells me.
“She’s two dimensional, flat, like she was run over by a truck,” my father tells us, smacking his hands together, his eyes screwed tight and his mouth gaping open like a bass on ice to demonstrate what to expect at the hospital. He tells us how she just bent down to pick up a carton of milk that had fallen out of the fridge, how she had worked so long the evening before in the garden tending Gerte’s god-damned heirloom tomatoes. He says if he hadn’t been home, she probably would have just gone and lay down. The housekeeper was here, he says, and she kept vacuuming even after the ambulance arrived. How the ambulance got there so quickly and how he followed in his car. He tells us that she knows what happened, she was conscious when he told the doctor that her mother died this way. My uncle, her only sibling, looks bilious.
She is tubes and wounds and pain. She comes to consciousness like a fish swimming up for air. Her liver-flecked, work worn hands do her talking in familiar gestures, performing solo where they were once members of an ensemble. Her shrugs, nods and eyebrows act in concert to tell us about her pain and discomfort, her fear and questions. My brother plays his violin while I comb her hair and sing her favorite song from the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, the one I sing to Mister Baby. There is dried blood in her hair at the base of her neck. I am her simian daughter, picking nits from her big grey head.
When my father tells her he has bought a cell phone, her eyes go wide with cartoon shock and mock horror. I don’t know if she’s reacting to the idea of a cell phone or the fact that the situation requires one.
My sister and I flit back and forth between Mister Baby and my mother. We have dinner as a family, my uncle, brother, father, sister, Mister Baby and I all at the Chinese buffet. We have Sunday dinner at the dining hall with Gerte as they do each Sunday. I do the laundry. I throw away the threadbare t-shirt she was wearing, torn down the front to get at her chest.
“Did you tell Paddington?” I ask, looking at the 25 year old, stuffed bear at the foot of their bed.
“He was here,” my father says, “he saw the whole thing.”
I bring her a clipboard and pen when Gerte and I visit. She looks at Gerte and writes: How are you? She underlines the ‘you.’ Then she writes ‘pain,’ and we get the nurse. She will remember none of this.