Unsuccessful Serenade

I had just sat down for Thanksgiving dinner when my phone rang. It was my sister, but I couldn't understand her. "Take a breath," I implored. After doing so, she cried, "Mark, Mom's dead! She didn't come out of her room this afternoon and Arlene broke do

Exiled from Main Street XXXIV: For Jenny

I had just sat down for Thanksgiving dinner when my phone rang. It was my sister, but I couldn’t understand her.

“Take a breath,” I implored.

After doing so, she cried, “Mark, Mom’s dead!

She didn’t come out of her room this afternoon and Arlene broke down her door and found her face down on the floor! Oh God, Mark...

My sister’s 54 kids — visiting their grandma in Atlanta — were in the background howling, creating pandemonium. I assured her I would be there as soon as possible.

My mother had been ill — emphysema, for starters — had been saying “goodbye” to me as if it was the last time for a year. She was right finally, and because I had a performance in Athens in two days, I missed proving her wrong again by a rotten few hours.

Add to that the fact that I had been harried by my preparations for said show and, as a result, lacked patience the last time we talked. She had called late, made little sense. I was convinced she had started drinking again, but her sisters who were caring for her assured me this wasn’t true.

Now she was gone.

After hanging up, I wondered what my last words to her had been. Then, I recalled a scene from my youth: Recently divorced, my mother had moved my sister and I into a condominium. One night soon after, she disappeared. We heard faint sounds coming from somewhere indiscernible; searched all the rooms to no avail. Then, we opened the door to the walk-in closet to disclose my mother sitting in a large box of shoes, mumbling incoherently and holding a salt-and-pepper shaker in each hand.

We laughed about that for a long time. Up until the nightly wailing started. Until the sound of ice clinking into glass sent shivers up our spines. Until the prescription pills, the suicide attempts and the interventions.

All of which sat counterposed by her intellectual and professional lives. My mother began reading at age 4, had always found rewarding, challenging work. In many ways, she was a trailblazer— a corporate Rosie the Riveter — often making more money than my father did.

Nonetheless, she always found time for me, too. When I was young, thunder frightened me to the core. A storm would descend and no sooner my mother would pull up early from work, sit on the couch as I forced my head between her back, deafening the tumult.

But she might have been the least resilient, most unforgiving person I ever met. She never got over anything. Never got over being the only child conceived from a different father in a large family. Never got over being treated differently because of it. Never got over the marriage she had run away to at an early age.

In the intervening years a hysterectomy, a double mastectomy and doctors doling out OxyContin, morphine and Klonopin simultaneously all but delivered a knockout punch. Cigarettes would do the rest.

I bought another ticket to Atlanta. When I arrived, my family sat around the kitchen table, recounting the day. They laughed and cried, while I remained strangely unmoved, like a character out of Camus.

It fell to me to pack up my mother’s room. She didn’t have much: a bed, a Lazy-Boy, some books. I spied the manuscript I had given her the last time I had visited.

She had expressed that she wanted to read something of mine before she passed away. Thus I created a “radio edit” of my most recent manuscript, changing all the references to cocaine and speed to that of weed, even when it didn’t really make sense.

I gave it to her late the night I was to depart, thinking she would read it after I left. Nevertheless, she emerged from her room early in the morning book in hand, with a list of edits. Per my wishes, she limited herself to one lament: “I kept waiting for a story about me,” she said. “Guess I’ll get that as soon as my place on the ocean.”

I put the manuscript in a crate. Minutes later, I would open her dresser drawer to a hammer and powder on tinfoil. I threw the latter in the trash, the former next to my manuscript where it belonged.

We had business at the funeral parlor. First, they asked if we wanted to see her. They led us to another room, and there she was, under a blanket. Her face belied no relief or endorsement of either life or afterlife. She was 62, looked 80.

We surrounded her while my aunt lovingly removed the blanket to reveal my mother’s dead body — all 78 pounds of it. She was so small and stiff she looked like a puppet, not real at all. So goddamn tiny and frail, wearing pink pajamas that could have been made for a doll, little white socks with ribbons on her feet.

“Oh Ma!” I cried, finally. Not thinking anything in particular, just feeling the sadness of it, of her. A life she barely wanted but never fully relinquished. An ailment impervious to medication: heartbreak. Once, she had only kindness and love to give, but she had allowed the world beat that out of her long ago.

Although you will not hear it at any church, there are fewer saints than corpses. Sometimes there is no better way to live than the opposite of your parents.

So there it is, Ma: your piece. It’s the wrong kind, a year late and nowhere near the beach, but perhaps you can forgive as much? Ultimately, you had a hand in writing it.

CONTACT MARK FLANIGAN: [email protected]

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