The next morning I went for a walk while my mother slowly read the paper. I found a pay phone, and called Charles. Jesse was once again out of the country, but I was scared and needed family to help me. I told Charles what I was seeing, the loss of weight and the reluctance to eat, as well as the loss of mental faculties.
"It sounds like a case of depression to me, though I can't say for sure," his calm voice told me. "Can you get in touch with her doctor?"
"She doesn't have one and refuses to see one."
"Is she competent, Sully? I hate to ask that, but if she isn't, then we can insist that she see someone, or perhaps you and Jesse can decide what would be best for her."
"She appears to be able to function, maybe not what we would consider 'normally', but close enough to getting by that she wouldn't be declared incompetent. I don't know how long it can last. She looks like hell."
"Do you know of anyone who could convince her by any means that she should go to a doctor?" If Charles is out of ideas, what the hell can we do?
"I need to sneak off and see the neighbors if I can. I think I'm going to try kidnapping. Just make a doctor's appointment for her and take her for a drive and end up at the doc's. Think that would work?" In any event, I couldn't see leaving Mom on her own for a while, I had already come to the conclusion that a leave of absence was going to be necessary to get her back on a more normal track. Maybe I could get her to come live with me; surely she would get used to Gabe once she met him. (She refused to come visit me because I kept such a big dog in the house, even though I always promised her he could go stay at the kennel.)
"This would be worth a try! Jesse says that your mother cannot be convinced of anything she hasn't thought of for herself, but I have always felt that she was exaggerating, and that perhaps your mother may have always been waiting for you two to stand up to her." Yeah, right, Charles. The harshest reprimand he ever heard from his mother probably was, "Charles, please do stop making crumbs from your toast."
"Charles, thanks for listening. I wish I was visiting you and the kids instead. Say hi to Jesse for me when she calls."
"Don't worry, Sully. Occasions like this are not abnormal after a death; I truly do not think that there is any reason for alarm at this time. Your mother has always been a survivor, I'm certain she will suddenly find herself hungry and make up for her loss of appetite." Charles made things sound so easy to be handled. I was comforted, and we hung up.
The next call was to my boss. I told him a quick version of the situation, and he told me to take whatever time was necessary. Definitely the next Friday, and after that, who knows? Mom was always healthy before, and with the proper help, would probably rebound stronger than us all. I left Mom's on Sunday evening, after chatting up her favorite neighbors across the street, Gerry and Tammy Warthrup. I asked them to keep an eye on her, and told them I was making an appointment for the doctor for her. They agreed that she had seemed to withdraw after my father's death, and promised to look in on her until I could get back to stay with her.
Mom herself was back in the fakey jolly mode, and I fancied that she somehow knew what I was up to. "Oh, that old Mrs. Soto, she had to move in with her son, that's what Clara Morton was saying this morning when I went out to get the mail. I could never do that, what a terrible thing for her. Still, they say she likes it, but I never could. Don't you worry about me, Sully. Solange, I'll call you that when I feel like it. I gave you that name. It's a beautiful name. Sully sounds like an Irishman, a Sullivan. I'm your mother, I can call you what I please. Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Right after your father died, I had a -- ah .. ah .. well it wasn't a nightmare, just a dream I keep remembering. I dreamt that Mark, your father that is, was waiting for me. Just standing, waiting. But I suppose I'm not ready to go yet, am I? Not yet. Drive carefully! When were you coming back? You don't have to come back that soon. If you do, fine, but you certainly don't have to. I guess I better rest up if you're coming back to visit. Bye."
Flee! To my safe haven, my home. To my dog, for whom I paid extra to get him out of the kennel after the usual business hours. He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him. In fact I didn't let the poor beast out of my sight until I fell asleep, lulled by about four glasses of wine.
I called around the next day, exploring attitudes about death and grief with doctor's offices in my mother's general area in Sacramento. One receptionist actually was willing to listen to what I had to say, and I made an appointment for Mom for the following Friday afternoon. Now all I had to do was get her there. I called her and told her I was coming to visit again on Friday morning. "Oh," she said. "So soon?"
The dog was barking at someone at the door. I pushed him out of the way and looked through the peephole in the door to see who it was. There was a tall, blonde woman there, and I opened the door. She looked like my old friend, Joan Maris, only blonde instead of dark. The woman said, "It's me, Connie. Do you remember me?"
Oh, yes, Connie! I did remember her and was very glad to see her, even though I knew no one named Connie in my life. I told Babe to lie down and stay, and let Connie in. "Sully, I need a place to stay for a day, can you help me?" I had an empty bedroom, and Gabe seemed to think she was already a new friend, so I said, "Sure!"
I went to the kitchen to make her something to eat, and was thinking furiously about what I could make. I hadn't been to the store in days and there were hardly any leftovers. I got a can of chicken from the pantry and started to make chicken salad for a sandwich. A voice in the living room got my attention; I looked and Connie had let her husband in. Anxiety began to tug at my throat. What had I got myself into? But there was plenty of chicken salad, and enough bread, so I got the extra slices and put them into the toaster, too.
The front door opened again, and a second woman's voice was heard, reassuring a couple of kids, "Don't worry, some food will be ready soon." I suppose I could have thrown them all out, but I felt strongly that God will provide whatever is necessary to those who welcome strangers and try to feed the hungry. So I opened my freezer and rummaged around, and found some meat wrapped in white freezer paper. It had to have been in there a long time, labeled "lamb shoulder steaks"; I could cut the meat up into little pieces and make some instant gravy to stretch the food out enough to feed the kids. I put a pot of water on the stove to parboil the steaks so I could cut them up.
Although the front door was the door to my house, my kitchen had changed and become the kitchen I remembered from earliest childhood, with the wide white sink and the ancient Frigidaire beside it. When I took the pot from the stove and began to drain the greasy water from the meat, the pot slipped from my grasp and slammed into the sink . Greasy fluid splashed all over my face! Ugh!
Four in the morning, my stomach roiling with the feeling of disgust. And the knowledge that no matter how much food I made, there would never be enough to feed the problem knocking at my door. I got up and stayed up, taking Gabe for his walk a little earlier than usual, and sitting with my cup of tea in my garden, waiting for the sun to rise, illuminate my roses, and show me that there was still beauty in the world. I wanted to run for Port Laughton, and the solace of Oesha's serenity, and Kelsa's belly-laughs, Owen's outrageous accents, Michel's sound-effects, and even Marca's sarcasm, all surrounded and smoothed by Charles' sensible, stable presence. But I would have to send my mind after memories and bring them here to me in the cool air, imagine the kids around my chair combing my hair for me, serving me imaginary tea, Oh! Don't use the comb on Gabe and then on me! Showing me their report cards, asking me to read or sing or draw. I'm going to shed tears now, so it may as well be for the children I'm missing as for the horrors I am going to have to face when I go back to Mom.
A big drawing pad, a black ball point pen, and a box of crayons were tools that I carried in my kit whenever I could get away, even for a night and a morning, to Port Laughton, and my nieces and nephews. Especially when they were still little, and had not yet begun to critique my portrayals of cars or wild animals, but still found miraculous seeing things appear on the blank page, lines pouring out of my hand like magic snakes to writhe and form lions, elephants, horses. Watching the children wiggle and wave their infant arms, recognizing shapes I had drawn the week before; thrilling to see them reach and try to pick up the images on the paper; feeling their fingers in my mouth as I pronounced the words to describe each creature -- I cannot fathom how Jesse was able to stay away and not savor these things. Each child in his or her own time would realize that The Pen made those lines, and they would take The Pen from me and try to make the trees and flowers and cats appear, only to find that the magic was in Aunt Sully, and that if she guided the tiny hand holding The Pen, wonders would once again issue into their sight: a rhinoceros, a fly, Mama's wide-brimmed hat.
I had to practice drawing things at home in order to keep up with their insatiable demands. They had coloring books, and God knows, once they got to kindergarten and school most of their assignments included coloring; nevertheless, once the drawing pad and pen were pulled from my room at the estate, demands were made for a fox, a dog in a tuxedo, a palm tree, a picture of Mama in a pretty dress, a bulldozer, a football player, Marca's favorite shoes.
That one was requested by Owen, who grabbed the crayons and colored one of the shoes green and the other like a saddle shoe, and then pronounced that Marca always dressed that way. Marca chased him out of the upstairs study, down the stairs, and into the dining room where fortunately, their father was not having dinner with the president of the university, and unfortunately, their chase beneath the long formal table culminated in the breaking of a vase containing an elaborate flower arrangement. I was as properly stern as I needed to be, and put the drawing pad away for the night, firmly stating that my art was not meant for their criticism of each other. Their father lectured them on humor and respect for household furnishings, as well as consideration for the staff who had to clean up the mess. The two received the punishment of having to scrub the outside of the planters outside the back door by the grape arbor the next morning (not very arduous, but dirty and tedious), and Charles and Nanny and I had to wait until the children were in bed to laugh about a six year old's commentary on his seven year old sister.
At times even now, when I observe Marca's insistence upon expensive and fashionable clothing, I can see overlaid on her feet one lemon-lime green shoe, perhaps in sequins, and one black and white clunky saddle shoe with a pink sock folded down above it. Tears begin to well up in my eyes with the effort not to chuckle to myself.
I'll take those kind of tears any day.