FICTION: My Inheritance
My mother is dying. There are shuffling noises overhead coming from her bedroom. She has cancer, and her death is imminent. I am her only child. We never liked each other.
I stare out the window at my large backyard covered in a crust of ice. The bird feeder is nearly empty. I know I must replenish it, but I can’t command my body to move.
Before my seventy year-old mother moved in, I thought I’d continue working and hire a nurse to care for her. I wavered. In the back of my head I wondered if we might find an emotional connection before it was too late. In the end, I convinced the senior partners at my law firm that it would be better to work at home for a while and take care of her myself.
Now I see my wish to wring more from our relationship as foolhardy. It’s elusive, like an important thought I can’t recall that hovers in the back of my mind. Now I just want to get through this miserable time and have it end. I’m so tired my teeth ache.
I climb the stairs and enter her bedroom. My mother is packing, her open suitcase stuffed with clothes and her silver tea set. Glints of light ping off the gleaming surface of the polished metal.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” I ask her.
Without a word, she places her underwear beside the tea set, overlapping each piece two inches apart.
“I’m still alive. I’m going home.”
Her words bounce in the air and their meaning nearly slips out of my reach. We have only talked around her impending death. When she chooses, she blocks out what the doctors told her. “You can’t go home. You’re not well.”
“I’m better. I want my salad bowl back, too.”
My mother barely stands upright. Her handwriting is no longer legible. “We sublet your apartment and put most of your things in storage. Remember? You’re staying with me for now.”
She glares at me. Although she’s shriveled four inches from her original height and lost a lot of weight, her presence still fills the room.
Her attention focuses on a nightgown slung over a chair. It’s one that she brought from home. I grab it, crumpling it under my arm. Three weeks ago, when my mother first arrived, I bought her a batch of better fitting clothes so that her weight loss wouldn’t be so apparent. Each lost pound seems to represent one less breath left in her limited allotment. I’ve tried to count the number of breaths she takes in an hour. Then I multiply them over a day, a week, a month, figuring how many are left. It’s a senseless activity that fills long voids in our conversations.
She stares at the floor. “I’m real sick, aren’t I?” Her voice is a hoarse whisper.
“Yes, but I’m taking care of you.” She looks pathetic. Then her expression hardens, and she narrows her eyes.
“You want me dead so you can get all my things.”
Her belongings are like her emotions; meager and held tight to her body, like the empty pocketbook she takes to bed each night. Neither one of us can love freely. That became only too clear to me after my two marriages failed. Still, I’ve decided that we will have some kind of resolution before she goes even if it kills me, too.
Seating her warped body into a wicker chair she frowns. She shakes her finger at me. “My miserable life gave me this cancer.”
The implied message is I’m partially responsible for her death. She’d already accused me as being one of the instigating factors. I think back to the time I was eighteen and leaving for college with a full scholarship. My mother, full-bodied and powerful in those days, stood in the doorway blocking my way. In my pocket I had a one-way ticket that I bought with money earned working in a fast food restaurant.
Eyes hooded, she had looked at me accusingly. “So, Little Miss Hot Pants has gone through all the boys in town and wants fresh blood.”
I had twisted my lips into a malicious grin, and pushed her aside, stumbling as I made my way out the door. Dear old Mom was half right. The other half was that I needed to put as much distance between us as possible.
“You only think about yourself,” she had screamed. “I’m alone. First your father deserts me and now you.”
I found that quite funny since she had kicked my father out on my seventh birthday because he had bought me a doll we couldn’t afford.
“All right,” she had shouted at my retreating back. “Go, but by Christmas I’ll be dead. It’ll be your fault. You have been killing me, piece by piece since you were little.”
Her threats had sent barbed hooks into my gut for she’d already made a few weak attempts at suicide. I hesitated. What if she succeeded next time? Then I realized it was her life or mine. I left.
I plugged through college and law school. To avoid ever going back home, I had worked as a waitress part-time, year round.
Now I glance over at my mother. For an instant I want to slap her, shout obscenities, tell her I’m glad she’ll be dead soon. I want her to siphon off my ugly childhood memories so that she can take them to her grave and leave me in peace.
I take a deep breath. “Let’s just try to be nice to each other.” I put my hand on her shoulder. It frightens me to feel her protruding brittle bones under parchment skin. It’s as though her body is a series of chicken bones connected with thumbtacks. My mother jerks her shoulder loose from my grip.
“I hate to be touched,” she says. “I told you that a million times.”
Despite her fragility, her meanness thrives. It’s as though all the sinews and muscles in her body decided to prop up her feisty personality until the bitter end.
I always make a big dinner of her favorite foods like meatloaf, roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas. She seems pleased when the plates are set out, but usually eats little.
“I’ll make your tea.” Without my mother knowing, I fix us marijuana-laced tea every night. It helps her sleep, eases nausea and calms my nerves.
She brightens. “That’s really good tea.”
I tell her I add special herbs to fight her cancer. Although I had hoped the tea might release the deadbolt shuttering her heart, my mother is silent during those times, her eyes flitting back and forth as though alert to an ever-present danger. The hush between us feels like the aftermath of a vicious quarrel.
As I help her down the stairs, her sharp elbows dig into the palm of my hand. Her eyes clamp on the items that came from her house; a chipped porcelain ballerina, a worn footstool and a tired wing chair. I brought a few of her belongings to my house to make her more comfortable. Instead, she treats them as bleak reminders of her demise.
“I’m leaving my things to Goodwill, and that goes for the silver tea service.”
Hearing that makes me angry. She doesn’t want to leave me even the flimsiest part of herself. “I don’t want anything of yours,” I say spitefully.
“Listen to Miss Snot Nose who buys all these expensive furnishings.”
I look about at my leather furniture; solid teak tables, burnished oak bookshelves, crystal accessories, comparing my home to the ramshackle house with tattered furnishings that I grew up in. My eyes feel singed.
“You wouldn’t have any of this if I hadn’t encouraged you to go to college,” she says. “If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have your big-shot job.”
I let go of her arm. She nearly falls. I catch her, and practically drag her into the kitchen. I don’t know whether to laugh or shout, so I say nothing and prepare the tea. The brew can’t come fast enough.
Finally, we sit and sip the hot, soothing liquid. My frozen nerve endings begin to thaw. Time stretches before me like Dali’s painting of a melting watch. As my mother drinks, her darting, black eyes slow their pace for a change. The tea seems to veer her away from constant complaining, pain and fear.
Unanswered questions rattle in my mind like bingo balls whirling in mesh cages. I picture the cage stopping and the winning ball rolling into the cup. It has my father’s name on it. I only saw him three times since he left.
I don’t kid myself. This ritual with my mother is about exorcising my own demons before I inherit her legacy of emotional failure. The marijuana helps me to believe that we can still work out a way to communicate even though I’m aware that under the wreckage of our relationship I’m digging out a false sense of hope. “How about we talk to each other instead of staring at the walls?” I ask.
“Talk about what?”
She looks at me as though I demanded she go out and commit murder.
“Are you afraid of dying?” Putting the words out there gives me a sense of relief.
She glares at me, and I have an urge to duck.
“I hate God,” she says in a monotone.
I almost giggle at the totally unexpected answer. Then I remember she hates laughter, too. “I’m afraid.”
“You’re afraid? I’m the one dying.” She tries to straighten her back. “I know what you have up your sleeve with all this wanting to communicate crap. You want to tell me I raised you bad. It’s not my fault if you can’t keep a husband.”
I gnash my teeth and take a deep breath. “I’m afraid of losing you, and I just want to understand what went wrong between us, the good and the bad.” I hear desperation in my voice, and rummage around for a nice memory. “Remember you used to walk me to elementary school because I cried when you left?”
I can’t keep quiet any longer. “Tell me about my father.” All I remember is that he worked all day, then came home and went to sleep. Once in a while he took me for a walk in the park and pointed out the species of trees. He seemed distracted but kindly.
“He was an idiot. It wasn’t my fault he never visited you.”
I get up and spoon more cannabis into the steaming pot. “I’m not blaming you.”
She stares at me as I return with a fresh cup.
“I don’t see any use in rehashing old stuff,” she says. “What good is it going to do me?”
I wonder if I’m pressing her so that she’ll be forced to reach out and hug me, say she loves me and always has. I feel like a starving person trying to break into a locked cabinet stocked with food.
She hands me her empty teacup. I refill it, recalling that nearly every day after school she made me sit across from her in the kitchen. She’d prepare tea in her precious silver teapot and then drink cup after cup. I was forbidden to speak. Silent gloom saturated the air between us. By high school, I didn’t go home until late, hanging with the boys who gave me just a few minutes of feeling wanted, desired and loved.
“Please,” I beg her. “Talk to me.”
She stirs her tea and doesn’t answer. Then she twiddles a lock of thin hair and it comes off in her hand. She stares at it.
Chemotherapy is hard. I find balls of white hair like puffs of floor dust on her pillow. When the anti-nausea pills don’t work I hold her head throughout the vicious vomiting. For all of that I am deeply sorry. My stomach curdles. The marijuana tea only helps so much.
We have returned from her sixth treatment. Once again, I find myself sitting across from her, sipping the special tea. There are peanut butter cookies, and she nibbles one then drops it on her plate.
I’ve always resented my mother for the loss of my father. Maybe my perceptions of what happened are distorted. Did my father’s emotional distance cause her to crack? He could have tried to visit more over the years. But that’s over.
“You never told me what your parents were like,” I say, pouring her another cup. I flinch inwardly since she always warned me never to broach that subject.
“I didn’t leave home at sixteen for nothing.” She turns her arctic eyes on me.
“I’m trying to understand you.”
“For an educated woman you don’t know much.” She seems to melt a bit and huddles in her chair.
“Do you want some other cookies like chocolate chip or ginger snaps?”
“Give me poison. I can’t take anymore.”
I want to snatch that wasted body into my arms and rock her like a baby. “Don’t talk like that, Mamma.”
She stares at me, and it feels like an hour, but is only a few seconds.
“You haven’t called me that since you were a little girl.”
“Do you want me to call you Mamma?” We lock eyes for a moment, and then she rests her head on the table.
“Yes,” she whispers.
Her answer, simple and affirmative, conveys more feeling than I have ever felt from her. “Do you want to talk some more?”
I rattle my cup in my saucer. We’ve just started, and she cuts me off. I know I‘m being unreasonable, but we have so little time.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” she says.
“I’m trying to find peace of mind for both of us.”
She screws up her face till she resembles that mean, cold-faced bitch that I remember only too well, the face that terrified me as a child.
“Find your own peace of mind. I can’t give it to you.” Her hard expression suddenly cracks. “I’ve never had it myself.”
The raw fear in her eyes rakes my skin. “Why are you always angry with me?” I put our teacups in the sink. I realize that the fighting between us has become our only line of communication. It is almost comfortable.
She curls her lips. “I’m angry because you remind me of your father. No backbone to either one of you. And your face is exactly like his. It’s like looking at his glazed eyes that never saw me. And, oh my God, when I see your full mouth, always pouting, I only see him. Just looking at you makes my bones hurt.”
It shocks me that the answer comes out so easily after all these years. Was that my crime? I can’t deal with it so I think of another direction to take the conversation. “Why don’t we tell each other nice stories from now on?” I don’t know where that idea came from. Desperation invents its own logic. I reach for her hand. She doesn’t move away, the first real step. I’m digging to come up with something that will move us to the next level.
“I don’t know how to start,” she says meekly.
Afraid any movement might alter the mood, I sit frozen, clinging to my mother’s stringy hand. Again she tries to straighten her back and I worry she might break a bone.
“I want to go to bed,” she says.
In the bathroom, once again, I lift her like a baby into the tub. I smell the faint odor of decay. She is decomposing before my eyes. I squeeze the sponge over the road map of tortured scars on her chest, over wrinkled hanging skin. She shivers even though the heater is on full blast, and I am sweating.
When we finish, I dust her with her favorite lilac scented powder, covering the smell of death. Getting her into a nightgown is a struggle because it’s hard for her to raise her arms. but I finally tuck her into bed, lean over and kiss her cheek. It feels like disintegrating old newspaper.
She looks at me wistfully. “If we tell stories will I live longer?”
It’s as though she’s a child who just lost a tooth, and wants to know if the tooth fairy will really appear. “I love you, Mamma.” To my surprise, the words tumble out.
She stares at the ceiling. “You can have my tea service and the other things.”
I inhale sharply. “Thanks.”
“And,” she continues staring at the ceiling, “I remember walking you to school.
At four in the morning I finally fall into a fitful slumber and wake at eight. My mother always awakens noisily at six-thirty wanting to be helped to the bathroom. But this time the house is filled with a chilling stillness. I throw the covers off and hurry to her room.
Before I get there, the tomb-like silence stops me. I picture her sitting in bed waiting for death to be postponed, a futile wish. And instead of opening her door, I decide to have a lone magical brew from the teapot that is now mine.
Downstairs I take a handful of birdseed and open the back door. A bracing surge of cold air smacks me in the face as I scatter seeds over the hard crunchy ground. Birds dive from the trees leaving tiny feathers floating in the air. They peck frantically as though having their last meal.
Inside the house, I pour myself a cup of tea and walk to the window. I savor the flavor, curious as to how long the taste will last.
(Editor's Note: "My Inheritance" appears in the short story collection The Hungry Heart.")