Mom will call for me before she goes.
Josh kept repeating what he could fit in his mind while his mother lay in an assisted living center 450 miles to the south, where hospice care was now assisting her dying.
It was the hospice nurse who called Josh’s home office in San Francisco on a Sunday in January. “I think you should come down here if you want to be with your mother.”
Josh packed for a week, Mom should live at least that long. His wife Sally kissed Josh goodbye after dropping him at the crowded, fog-challenged airport. He hadn’t cried yet, but there he almost did.
The plane descended into the balmy smog-lit winter tropicalia of Long Beach. What a contrast to venerable gray Brooklyn, where Mom had grown up in a noisy expansive rowhouse, with ten siblings and half-siblings who sweltered and shivered together through all those early 20th Century summers and winters. What a change for Mom from the crisp clean coast of Maine, to which she and Dad had escaped sixty years ago to raise Josh and his two brothers. After Dad died and Mom had grown older and lonely, she’d let herself relocate to the Good Samaritan Assisted Living Center in Oceanside, California.
It was an ironic placement for an ethnically Jewish woman who’d learned to label all religion as the opiate of the masses, but she was summoned there by Esther, the youngest of her half-sisters, who’d long ago relocated to Oceanside from Queens with her husband Abe.
Josh picked up an airport rent-a-car, switched on the air conditioning and the Long Beach jazz station, and headed south. The freeway flirted with views of the Pacific, all along the way to San Diego County, where Mom was now at least near another ocean. Josh had grown up loving his seaside strolls with her, on Maine’s Atlantic coast. Unlike the land, and the people who’d built their lives on it, the sea never changed, it was maybe eternal, a place you could always go to, no matter what.
At the end of the 90-minute drive, Josh parked, signed the log at the Good Samaritan, and nodded to the grand piano in the lounge, a gift from a benefactor. Mom had made her own since arriving, offering up impromptu concerts for one and all till as recently as a week ago. Her captive audience would miss her fearless virtuosity.
Walking into Mom’s room, number 146, Josh also entered his memory of the bedroom at 7 Atlantic Avenue, some fifty years earlier. Mom had always seemed regal in that private place back then, particularly in the early morning after Dad had gone off to work at the Laboratory, leaving her undistracted, except by Josh. Was he her favorite son? She’d worn a quilted robe, her already graying hair streaming down her back. She’d always have something to say.
Now she was silent beneath the covers, her head and pillows slightly elevated, her eyes waiting for something to watch. Josh waved to Juanita, the hospice nurse, who was sitting beside the bed, glad for his arrival. He drew close enough to see the sparkle in his mother’s gray eyes, and then leaned in to kiss her brow. She reached up towards him, speaking very softly.
“Hi, Mom. I’ll be here for a few days.”
“Good, darling. Juanita has been keeping me company.”
“I know. I brought you some music.”
Josh pulled a cd album of Schumann’s Papillions from his shoulder bag and put it on Mom’s portable player. He smiled to see her extend her arms along the top of the institutional comforter and begin moving her swollen fingers to the music. She seemed happily both awake and asleep, like the drifting figures in the 19th Century music.
Rachel dozed herself back to livelier times.
Joshie is a toddler sitting beside the piano bench, smiling up at her, listening attentively, but watching his mother too, watching and wanting. Wanting to dream Schumann’s pretty dream with her. Rachel plays back to Brooklyn, where her own mother, Beth, and the mother of her eldest half-siblings, also named Beth, sit in the living room of the rowhouse, as Rachel performs Papillions for them and for several of their many children, several of who are also Rachel’s piano students. Two mothers, living and listening under the same roof.
“Ahhhhh,” the Beths murmur to each other in Yiddish, “Rachela should be playing for big money at Carnegie Hall. She should.”
The evening lingered outside the windows of the Good Samaritan. Inside room 146, not much was said, the lights were switched on, and it came time for dinnertime. Josh bid his mother and Juanita good evening, and drove to his Aunt Esther’s handsome home, in a well-kept development up against the scrub and cacti.
Inside and warmly greeted, avorites, Joshie,” and she helped him settle into the spare room before serving up a delicious supper. Josh put the soundtrack from Kiss Me Kate on his aunt’s cd player. Esther has always loved musicals.
“So how did your mother look to you, Joshala? I’ve been up to see her every day, you know, sometimes twice since she got the congestive heart failure diagnosis, did she look okay to you?” Esther the concerned little sister.
“Well, she didn’t have much to say, but I brought her some music, some of the music she taught me when I was a kid.”
“Good, she would have liked that, it’s important to her that you’re here with her now. Whether or not she shows it. And she never saw enough of you, but even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you that she wanted to see you more. That’s just the way Rachel is.”
Nephew and aunt went off to bed early, glad to be keeping each other company under the same roof with the same mission, but glad to have some relief from that mission for a few moments.
In Josh’s dream he’s in a house like one of the ones the rich folks owned back on the Island in Maine, right along the Shore Path. Mom is there, but no one else. They wander together, from her regal bedroom to the kitchen where she often overcooked the pot roast to the living room where her Steinway always stood waiting for her. But she doesn’t sit to play there. She stays standing, waiting and wistful. Josh knows it’s his role to make Mommy laugh, no one else is there to. But his efforts are gagged, he only mumbles. Mom isn’t laughing. There isn’t time enough.
Josh pulls himself awake, then wonders if he should have stayed in that dream house with his mother. But there’s a shower and a smiley breakfast of bagels and lox and orange juice with his aunt waiting.
His aunt smiling beside him, Josh drove to Good Samaritan through a sunny suburban Monday morning. Dad would have called this kind of community ‘bourgeois’. Dad had labeled Josh ‘bourgeois’ once, in a stupid argument at the dinner table over how much time his son was putting in on extracurricular activities at the high school, when he should be studying. Josh called himself a liberal, a champion of the rights of women and minorities. While Esther chatted with her bedridden sister in Room 146, Josh followed hospice nurse Juanita down the hall to the cafeteria for coffee.
“It’s good that you have come to her at this time,” Juanita said. “You are so important to your mother.”
“I was surprised she made me her executor,” he said.
“I am not surprised,” Juanita responded, “but that is really not what I mean. She is not talking much now, no, but she has told me about this special thing she feels with her second son, with you, Joshua. Sometimes it sounds like it is a music thing, sometimes it sounds like it is a love thing, I don’t know. But it is there. So, I prayed for Rachel, your mother, last night, Joshua. The doctor has said she will not be with us long. Her heart, it is not reliable any more, it is weak, and it is skipping beats. I prayed for her comfort. And the doctor, he is feeding her morphine through those tubes, to help her breathing. I prayed for you too, Joshua.”
“Muchas gracias, Juanita.”
Back in the room, which the Southern California sunlight was also visiting, Josh put the Bach Two-Part Inventions on the cd player. Rachel’s heart begged to borrow the strength of the beats, and the warmth from her son’s hand, as he sat on the bed beaming at her. All that and the morphine drip lulled her into a dreamy sleep.
It’s a smokey Brooklyn morning, and Rachel is holding hands with Harry, that intense boy with the dark hair from a few blocks away. She’s a normal school student, dancing in the auditorium with him. They’d met at the Young People’s Communist League, where she couldn’t really tell how much Harry might be falling in love with her and how much he might already be in love with Karl Marx. Ha-ha. And he’s so smart, this Harry, he studies science at City College. Science and scientific socialism, Harry tells her, will make the world right. It’s all too exciting. The shouting about the Manifesto and the coming Workers Revolution in America, a cure for cancer, the big band music, it all makes Rachel’s young heart beat better than it ever has. This is the way to go out into the world. They’ll elope, her family doesn’t have to know about it, they don’t much care for Harry. “He’s just too serious,” both Beths say, “and a communist? What are the communists doing with our people back in Russia?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rachel responds, tears in her eyes. She’ll get her stuff and sneak away with Harry, when the family isn’t looking. “But what about the piano? What about the lessons I’m giving my little brother? “ “Don’t worry about your brother, Harry replies. He’ll become a bourgeois pharmacist just like his father. He’ll be just fine.”
“Aunt Esther? I think Mom is dreaming.”
“Well, she is starting to smile, Joshala. I’ll bet she’s dreaming about you. So I’ll get a taxi back home, you call me if anything, okay? And you and me, we’ll have dinner, okay?”
“Okay, Mom looks pretty happy right now, it’s probably music in her dreams.”
Rachel dreams an adolescent Josh onto the piano bench beside her, on Atlantic Avenue. “We’ll play through the four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale.” “But Mom, I’m supposed to be getting with some of the kids from school, we’re putting together a talent show at the Casino.” “Tell them to start without you, Josh. You won’t have your mother forever, but you will have Beethoven forever And you need to practice.” “I can’t tell them something like that.” “Tell them something else then.” “Okay.” “Good, you play the primo part, you’ll be the melody, I’ll be the secondo, supporting you.” “But Mom, you’re so much louder than me.” “I’ll try not to be, and you try too, Josh. Try not to get in the way of all the brooks and rainstorms and rainbows that Beethoven put there, let them shine and be heard. There’s even a dance, your friends should appreciate that.” “Does Dad ever appreciate this kind of stuff, Mom?” “Well, your father is his own man, he does play some clarinet.” “He never was the one who wanted to have kids, was he? It was you, wasn’t it, who wanted us.” “We shouldn’t be talking about that. But I suppose he never really felt he needed children. And me, I knew I did. And I’m not sorry about that. I came from a big family, and I wanted a family of my own.” “I will too, Mom, some day.” And you’ll want to play piano for them, so let’s play right now. For us, for you and me. And for them.”
Rachel woke to the ring of Josh’s cell phone. She felt happy, his hands were beside hers on the covers. His ringtone was the sound of seagulls, it reminded them both of Maine and of the ocean. The call was from Mitchell Bros., one of the mortuaries Josh had contacted on recommendation from Good Samaritan. They did cremations, and that’s what Rachel wanted, just as her husband had. Josh had to drive over now to make the arrangements, maybe he could can get a little lunch along the way.
His mother started to speak, more than she had so far during this visit. Josh thought about calling the place back, and cancelling the appointment. Why make arrangements, why should he be leaving her now, why would she be leaving?
“Go and do what you should do, Joshie. I’m happy that you’re here, you know? How is your wife? How are my grandchildren? Are they making music?”
“They are, Mom, whenever we can get them to stay put. They’ll want to come back down and visit you during school break, they’ll want to hear you playing that grand piano for them again. They don’t get enough classical music in schools these days. And they’re so proud to have a grandmother who’s a virtuoso.”
“I could have been that, Joshala, but I had to support your father, you know. I know. And I had to be a mother.”
“You still are, Mom. And you gave us all a lot of music. I’ll go do this, and we’ll listen to some more of your favorite stuff this afternoon when I get back.”
“Alright, darling. Kiss me. I’ll probably be sleeping.”
Josh waved goodbye to Juanita, who looked like he felt, about to cry, but not yet.
On the way to the mortuary, he picked up a taco to go. It was warm and spicy, but it settled cold into his gut, where it remained as he parked and walked past the stucco columns into Mitchell’s, which looked like some Southern California office of the Department of Death. Josh had no appetite for the magazines in the waiting room, with their glossy posed covers. He was wide awake, but he felt like he was back in his little kid’s dream, abandoned on Main Street, with a long wait and nowhere to go and no why about being there.
At the Good Samaritan, in room 146, Rachel took a sip of orange juice, looked long into Juanita’s teary eyes, and then settled into her pillow. She’d agreed to this whole hospice thing, but she really didn’t understand it, she didn’t want to think about it, or about what the doctors were saying to her about her body. Harry could have figured it all out, he was the scientist. But neither Harry nor Karl Marx would have had much to say about death. Or memories, or music.
“Your son is such a good boy,” Juanita said, even though she knew that Rachel was falling back asleep, and that Josh was in his sixties. “And your son brought you such nice music. I think I will put this one back on the player.
It was Schumann’s Papillions again. Juanita had never heard of it before Josh’s visit, but she was already humming along with its pastel swoopings.
A man in a suit and tie with a preternaturally anesthetizing voice flipped Josh through the pages of a big book with pictures of pseudo-Greek urns and lists of services above four-figure total charges. Mom would never have known what to do with this kind of thing. Dad would have, but of course he would have judged it impossibly ‘bourgeois’. Josh made a choice, signed the papers, wrote a check, and headed back to his rent-a-car, still suspended out of place and time.
Rachel’s voyage in room 146 is serenaded by the gossamer loveliness of Schumann’s pianistic fantasy, written early in his short life, and by old Juanita’s alto hum. Rachel flutters with the butterflies. They fly beyond the science of socialism, beyond the science of medicine, beyond the fond bonds of family, far beyond the gardens of memory, even beyond the primal pulse of the heart which had long ago become hers and hers alone, inside the womb of her mother. This heart, not now needing any body, stills and stops itself after the last of the ageless chords.
When the seagulls rang on his ride back to the Good Samaritan, Josh was afraid he knew what it meant. Juanita told him the news, and after he’d gotten there, she sat with him by the piano in the lounge while his mother’s body was prepared for transport to the mortuary.
“It is often like this,” she told him. “Our loved ones will not go while their loved ones are beside them. They will wait for them to be away, and then they take their own leave.”
“Was she okay?,” Josh sighed.
“I think so. She was listening to your music.”
Josh was almost ready to call Aunt Esther when he saw his mother wheeled motionless to the lobby, awaiting the imminent arrival of the van. That’s when his tears came to him. He wanted to water her face with them, as if that would give life to her, or at least grow something of hers that he could take with him. Juanita was there to warm him with a grandmother’s hug.
Next summer in Maine, there were tears again, this time with a glint of joy and the taste of salt spray, as Josh stood on the granite outcrops flanking his hometown, just where Mom had told him to go, beyond the Shore Path. He opened the urn and tipped it, and as the tide slowly surged, in and out, Mom’s ashes waltzed away in the wind and out across their ocean.
With this semester, Jeff Kaliss has published fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and playscripts in Forum magazine and blogs. Jeff holds an MFA in Creative Writing from SFSU, and is a longtime entertainment journalist and author. He reads at open mics, showcases poetry with jazz, and hosts a CCSF poetry podcast.
I’m Eunbin Lee from South Korea. Studying digital photography at CCSF as an international student. Currently living in Nob Hill in SF, trying to take more photos of my neighborhood and around me.