“Have you come to take me home?” my mother asks, in a high and thin voice.
My chest, like a balloon, inflates with guilt.
It’s Saturday. Every other Saturday I make the two-hour trip and arrive in time for lunch, nursing-home starches, heavy but tasty – yummy yeast rolls and banana pudding, one of the perks of a small-town facility where somebody’s grandmother is the cook.
“Not yet. It’s almost time for lunch, and today we’re having fried chicken.” I hear the false note in my too-bright voice.
But she lights up. Fried chicken is her favorite meal. Nothing to compare with hers, when she cooked for her family, but good enough. I push her wheelchair toward the dining room and settle her in a line of other residents in wheelchairs, waiting for lunch. Waiting, just waiting. Lots of waiting here.
The nurses say she asks the same question again and again. To the doctors listening to her tired heart. The preacher who comes to pray over her. Anyone who visits. Another benefit of nursing home care in a town where has she has spent her whole life is that people come by to see her. You taught me in Sunday School or I’m Miss Ossie’s daughter, we used to be your neighbors, or It’s me, Aunt Marie. That would be Linda Lou or Martha Jo, cousins who take up the slack for me. She asks everyone, “Have you come to take me home?”
They all want to go home, the nurses say.
After lunch, we sit outside for a while. It’s the time of year when the nursing home residents crowd the breezeway, for the cool shade and the warm sun. The afternoon gets by, and I have to talk with the nursing staff. Have to arrange for her to get a perm next week. Have to run a few errands. A trip to the Dollar Store to buy toothpaste, a new toothbrush, and dental floss. I am determined that a woman who has her own teeth after ninety years will not lose them in the nursing home.
All of these need-to things. It’s the need-to kind of devotion. I never quite get to the want-to things. I want to tell her that I understand now how hard it was for her those years after Daddy was gone and she was still in the house. Because I’m alone now, too. Divorced. Not the same thing, but when the ground shifted beneath my feet, shook up my own well-ordered life, I got a taste of what the loneliness and responsibility meant for Mother, married at eighteen, having to learn after so many years how to live her life without her man. I want to tell her that I know this place is not home to her, and I wish I could do better for her. And I want to tell her what she means to me, what she really means to me, but I feel the tangle of words at the bottom of me, and nothing I can say, not even “I love you,” is enough. So I do the need-to things and hope they whisper love.
I drive by her house to see that the renter is keeping it up. The forsythia is in bloom. My immediate thought is that Mother would like to know the renters have mowed the yard and trimmed the holly bushes. Then I remember that she doesn’t know I’m renting her house. Doesn’t know strangers sleep in her bedroom, walk the floors she used to pace when I was out too late.
Toward the end of the afternoon I get her back to her small room, claustrophobic to me, but she doesn’t complain. She pats the quilt on her narrow bed, one of many quilts she stitched by hand on long winter nights. “It’s a good bed,” she says. We look through her photo albums, all the faces that were so dear to her. She doesn’t remember all the names now, but she touches a picture now and then, and something seems to connect. I see it in her eyes that try to smile, a memory for which she has no words. We turn to a picture of some long-ago Christmas, our family at the table, and now Mother and I are the only ones left. I can still smell the comforting smell of the kitchen. Of home.
I’ve done all the need-to things and sit holding her hand for a while. And soon the afternoon is over.
It is never easy, the goodbye.
As I bend over to hug her, she grips my wrist with strong fingers. The skin of her hands is nearly translucent. Her nails dig a little deeper. She looks up at me, stares past me like she has just seen through me once again, and whispers, “Have you come to take me home?”
Another Saturday, decades ago, my mother arrives to take me home from a playtime at Janet’s house. I see the gray Plymouth pull into the gravel driveway, tires crunching.
As Mother opens the car door and steps out, Janet, a spirited, curly-haired girl with scraped knees, dashes across the yard calling, “Can she spend the night? Please?”
My breath catches. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. My friends talk about spending the night with other friends, but I’ve never been away from home at night. My friends do not know about my dread of the night. It’s not the dark so much that terrifies me; not fear that a monster will creep out of the closet. Nights mean long, empty hours spent clutching at my covers, listening to my own ragged breathing. I squeeze my eyes shut, but sleep is always just a little out of reach. A seven-year-old insomniac, I nap in the daytime, comforted by the clamor of cartoons or lulled by the drone of the school bus.
Someday I will figure it out. Someday I will pinpoint the fear I’ll die like my brother, but now I only know that I want to be in my own bed, with Mother nearby.
“Please let her spend the night – plee-ease, plee-ease,” Janet whines.
Mother’s eyes lock on mine, and she takes a long, slow breath, and I want to cry, Take me home. Please, please.
I grab her hand and squeeze.
She hasn’t said yes, but she takes a couple of steps backwards. I’m still holding on, digging my nails into her palm.
Janet is jumping up and down, her big new teeth shining in her big grin.
I feel the flutter in my chest, my heart like a trapped bird flapping its wings.
Mother studies me for a moment longer. “You’d better come home with me,” she says. “It’s a church night.” And she smiles her smile that always makes everything all right.
Now I’m a grown woman, thinking of how the time has slipped by, and it’s later than I meant to stay. In a perfect world, I would not leave her. I would say, “You’d better come home with me.” But I kiss her forehead, taste the sweet earthy smell of her, and say, “I’ll see you soon.” Soon means two weeks to me, nothing to her.
Mother dabs at her eyes with a ratty tissue.
“I have to go home now,” I tell her, and pull away.
“Home.” She nods slowly, as if a thought is trying to take shape. “I’ll be going home soon,” she says. And all at once she’s not looking lost and confused. Her eyes shine with a clarity that seems to say she’s not thinking of the home on Sevier Street. And I can only pray that the home beyond this place has a front porch and squeaky screen door, that the house is filled with familiar laughter and the next bedroom always has the sound of a baby cooing in the dawn light.
“You’d better go before dark,” she says suddenly. “I don’t want you driving in the dark.”
It’s that mother-voice, her voice. It’s really Mother, for that brief moment, the one who would never leave me, never make excuses.
My voice is sounding a little thin when I finally say goodbye.
As I wait at the door for someone to release the lock, I turn back for a last look at her. A nurse has come to check her once-strong pulse. Mother’s face is tilted up at her, and I hear her asking, “Have you come to take me home?”