“Jenni,” she calls. “Jenni, I need to get up.”
Her voice is loud in the dark; it seems louder these days than it ever was when I was growing up, and I am glad. It means she is still strong—beneath the body that is failing her, beneath the mind growing weary, beneath the accumulated weight of years—she is still strong enough to call me in the dead of night, raising me from slumber.
Forcing my eyes to open in the darkened room, I sling my bare legs over the side of the bed. In the red light of the clock that blinks 4 A.M., I struggle to see her shadowy form with arms outstretched. I snap on the bathroom light and reach her, grasp her slight hands, feel the veins that crisscross over the metacarpals, and heave her up so that she can get to the toilet and relieve her bladder. Her hands are strong too, like her voice, and she grips me as we shuffle our way to the glowing rectangle of the doorway.
It has only been two weeks since she came to visit, two weeks since I have slept in my own bed with my husband snoring beside me. It feels like eternity, however—like this is all I have ever done: awoken to help her. These early morning hours are old friends of mine. My newborns called out for me with their own strong voices, wailing to be comforted, and though it has been eight years since my last baby was weaned, still I remember the same struggle to awaken, the same burden of being needed.
My mother has PSP, which is to say para-supranuclear palsy, and though she is only seventy-seven, she feels much older than some of the nonagenarians in her assisted living facility.
“Beverly just turned ninety-four last week,” she tells me in a plaintive voice. “And she’s perky as a robin in springtime. It’s damn depressing.”
I try to comfort her and tell her that she’s doing fine but she is not perky by any means. I have to ease her carefully onto the shower stool when she bathes so that the perennial dizziness that afflicts her doesn’t send her reeling against the tiles. I thought at first that it would be shocking to see her naked, this modest woman whom I barely remember ever seeing in shorts, but instead I feel only reverence. I look at the crepe-y skin, drooping breasts and soft belly and see my own future reflected there; it feels like coming home. This is the body that bore me, and I can almost remember the sound of her heartbeat rushing in my ears.
She was a beauty queen some six decades ago. She won the judges over with her perfect face and talent routine—a comical skit in which she wore a slinky dress and played a piano with a long black cigarette holder clamped between her teeth. My siblings and I flip through her photo album in awe, entranced by the glowing youth, the 1,000-watt smile, and the humor that carried her through the years. An agent begged her to come to New York where she would become famous, he promised. Instead she took her talents home, where she married our father and had five children. At bedtime we would beg her for entertainment and she would stand inside a sleeping bag, unzipping it as she sang the Chiquita banana jingle.
I’m a Chiquita banana, and I’m here to say she would croon as we giggled. Bananas are good for you in every way
She was never quite good enough for my father, however, who wanted her to lose weight for as long as I can remember. She is plenty thin now, not that it matters to a single soul how she looks in a bathing suit. Her flesh has melted away to a mere 123 pounds on her slight frame but my father is still not happy. She never was athletic he tells my brother, and the fact that she broke her hip in a fall at the grocery store as she stood by the ice cream counter is proof of this in his strange, small mind. He is not violent any longer—the rage has quieted in the spanning years—but the fear of him remains buried deep in his children’s hearts. He cannot understand why my mother doesn’t want to live with him anymore.
She is finished in the bathroom and hangs on the doorjamb in the half-light, waiting. I rise and escort her back to her bed, step by step in our slow waltz until she is tucked in once more. I lean to kiss her cheek and feel the disorientation of the moment. Wasn’t it was her face hovering over mine in the dark mere days ago, wishing me a restful sleep? Surely it was her hands helping me walk? The motion of time has eroded the space between us.
As I crawl back beneath my own covers I think of how much I wanted to be like her: beautiful and funny, ebullient and sanguine, a southern belle with beaus aplenty. I grew up beneath her gentle shadow and continue to look to her for guidance. Where will we be in two years? Two weeks? Tomorrow? She is the signpost, helping me find my way forward. I steady her, but she holds me up as we go, travelers together into the unknown.