The nursing home calls to tell me my tenderhearted mother has taken up rage coloring. She presses down so hard she leaves tiny gravesites of torn paper and crayon rubble wherever she goes. They’re sorry, but they have to ban her from using the Tranquility Room.
“I’ll try to get her to switch to jigsaw puzzles or Tai Chi or something,” I say.
Last month Mom thought she was Fidel Castro. Insisted we take a trip to the Army Surplus store to pick out some new green fatigues. She looks pretty good in them, I have to admit. But each month I visit, she looks a year older, a pound lighter, a shade paler, a step closer to turning into just a memory.
Mom’s place at Hopedale smells of fresh paint and Chanel No. 5, the usual single drop on each pulse point. I hug her for as long as she lets me. When she finally loosens her hold on me, she lets out a soft sound, then an even softer sound.
She complains that it’s been three weeks since they re-painted her apartment, yet the walls and bookshelves are still bare. Her favorite books and relics, old family photographs, any vestiges that gave voice to her once rich life had been temporarily boxed up and stacked high in the middle of her living room.
Mom wants to go to Long John Silver’s for lunch even though she dislikes seafood. She hands me Dad’s old set of car keys. The passenger door creaks when I open it for her. We take her car because it has bench seats that remind her of a time when people weren’t afraid to sit close to each other.
Mom orders the two-piece fish combo meal. There’s certainly nothing wrong with her appetite. She keeps her head down while she eats. When she’s done, she scolds me for something I did back in 1982. I’m too old to try to lie my way out of whatever she thinks I did. At least today she remembers my name for the first time in a long time. “I’m sorry, Mom,” is all I say.
After lunch, we stop at the Dollar Store. I get her a folding card table and chairs and some gripper socks. She’s not interested in the puzzles. She points at the Crayolas. They have two boxes of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener.
“Can I get these?” she asks.
For the first time, I see her as a child. “Sure, Mom.”
She leafs through some coloring books. “These too?”
I nod. “It’s getting late, Mom. We should be getting back.”
We leave the store and some gangbangers are eyeing Mom’s Caprice Classic. She takes my arm, not because she’s afraid, but because she knows I’m taking her back to Hopedale and won’t see her again for another month. I don’t know if it’s the army fatigues or the hollowed look on her face, but all the young street toughs say is, “Nice ride.”
Back at Hopedale, I make a small clearing in Mom’s living room. I set up the table and chairs, fan the coloring books out on the table. The room is quiet. The late afternoon light is subdued. I help Mom into her chair.
Mom looks serene. She looks beautiful. I’m standing beside her but she doesn’t know I’m there.
I start unpacking boxes. I place a framed eight by ten photograph of Dad on the table, and beside it, one of our whole family. She picks out a light blue crayon and begins gently coloring in the sky of a harbor scene. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The smell of the paper and the wax of the crayons reminds me of my childhood, cold mornings at Sunday school, snowball fights with my brother Tommy, reminds me of Mom before her hair turned white, and all the running, laughing children she had hoped I’d one day have.
Todd Clay Stuart is a Midwestern writer and poet. He studied creative writing at Iowa. His work appears in Milk Candy Review, Bending Genres, and Emerge Literary Journal. He lives with his wife and two loyal but increasingly untrustworthy pets. Find him on Twitter @toddclaystuart and at toddclaystuart.com.