By Phyllis Carol Agins
“You know, I won’t be here much longer,” Morris had threatened all of our lives—even when his hair was still black.
While we were growing up, we were forbidden to say that word—death. We, his three daughters, never mentioned our grandparents’ graves. Even when Morris regularly accosted us on the stairs, his fingers pressed to his neck, his face full of panic, we had to answer quietly that there was nothing different that we could see. No drooping mouth or fluttering eye. Nope, he looked just the same, we would assure him.
He was almost ninety now, and even the most optimistic person might anticipate a deathly visit any minute. But after our mother died and reluctantly left us our father in her will, after he inventoried all of her tarnished costume jewelry, her underwear, her neatly rolled stockings—because he was sure someone would enter the house to steal these things—Morris kept going.
As if our mother’s death had created agreement between stubborn tribes, the three of us worked together to get him into an independent living facility. We told him that we were taking him for a little ride—only three hundred miles away. Declared he was going to the best hotel his money could buy. We even swore our mother would meet him there.
“Do you promise?” he demanded before he climbed into the car to follow the van south.
We kept that vow—transported her on a flatbed truck and found a new grave in the same cemetery that had held my young husband for ten years. Gave her a nice spot in the sun because she always liked the islands. We introduced Morris to his new hotel and told him that his furniture had simply needed a change of scenery. And we imported his desk in case he felt he wanted to do some business. Whatever that was.
He was busy all right. Found a new girlfriend in just a month. Even with broken and missing teeth, he still cut an elegant figure. Dressed in the clothing our mother had chosen for him—the plaid jacket, the blue shirt, the softly patterned paisley tie. He might be losing his mind; he might open junk mail that found him miles from home with the intent of the man of business he once had been. But he never forgot his pocket handkerchief.
That girlfriend wouldn’t take him to family picnics—unless he fixed his teeth first. Yet she never let another woman near him, and his empty mouth was acceptable enough to attend her funeral when she died suddenly. Everyone worried that Morris would fall apart—losing two women inside of a year, and one a wife of sixty-four years. But they didn’t know him—our father.
One morning, the home called. “He’s fallen down the stairs. We sent him to the hospital.”
My hair still wet from the shower; I had no time to cover the dark circles that appeared when my husband died ten years ago and had never diminished. I pulled up to the ER and wondered if this was it.
Morris was sitting up in his bed, attentive to everything around him. They’d taken his glasses, so he looked like some diminished bird, twisting its head toward every small sound.
“If they don’t stop, they’re gonna get it.” He was saying.
The usual words. If you’re not quiet while I’m eating, you’re gonna get it. If you ask for reasons, you’re gonna get it. If you speak up at all, you’re gonna get it. Then the fury of slaps all over. You heard them first—even before you felt them—the sting turning your face red and bruising your shoulder. I took a deep breath.
“There you are.” I tried to sound cheerful. “You don’t look sick.”
“I tripped,” Morris answered. “That’s all.”
“The hotel wanted to be cautious. You like when people are cautious, don’t you?” I hadn’t used that tone since my kids were under ten.
“A lot of fuss about nothing,” he answered.
The doctor poked his head into the cubicle and motioned that I follow him into the hall. He was holding the results of Morris’ scan.
“Nothing too serious here. Just shrinkage. We see it all the time.” He smiled at me as if I should know this medical condition. “The brain is actually shrinking inside the skull.”
I’d learned while my husband was sick that body parts never belonged to the patient. It was always the blood, the lungs, the white cells. As if they were attached to some anonymous person, and not to the young man who was dying before me. No matter how long and how often I’d prayed to each and any form of god.
“What you are saying,” I tried, “is that you now can confirm his dementia.”
“That’s correct,” the doctor replied, happy that I’d understood.
My sisters would have laughed. “We’ve been dealing with this for years,” I added.
Then one morning at 3:30, he pulled the fire alarm.
As if I’d heard the alarms ringing a few blocks away, I threw myself into a tracksuit. Trouble was marching down the street, and I hoped that it was dressed in someone else’s name for a change.
From two fire trucks, lights swirled into the soft summer night. Old people in socks and sandals, in bathrobes with curlers in their hair, without their teeth and glasses, were all herded under trees and guarded by scurrying attendants. Even patients from the Alzheimer’s unit, where people only saw the world from a screened-in deck, lined up with their wrists attached to another’s like nursery school children being taken on an outing. Frenzied attendants tried to keep people in one place because knocked knees and flapping bathrobes might propel them down the street and into the city, where they would surely disappear forever.
And there was no fire.
“Why did he do it?” my youngest sister, Becca, asked the next day.
“Because he heard the buzzer go off on the stove,” our middle sister, Caroline, said.
“He never cooks,” Becca stated. “Even the microwave confuses him.”
“That doesn’t mean he can’t remember that buzzer was for something,” Caroline said.
“So he pulled the alarm in the hall?” I asked.
“First he called out Fire, fire, and no one answered.” Caroline sighed.
“Rather logical,” I said.
“Right,” Caroline said, “if pulling an alarm because a stove timer goes off is logical.”
Caroline never had much patience. I tried again. “He thought there was a fire. He pulled the alarm. No one was hurt. It wasn’t cold outside and it wasn’t raining. And they probably could use a drill or two.”
“But people could have died of fright,” Becca said.
“I can’t deal with this anymore,” Caroline said.
“You live two hours away,” I told her. “I’m the one who lives next door.”
“It would have been easier if he’d died first.” I can hear Becca crying.
I focused. “He was thinking.”
“He reached the wrong conclusion.” Caroline insisted.
“They want him in assisted living now,” I said softly. “In the other building.”
“We’ll come down,” Becca offered. “You don’t have to do this alone. You’ve had enough packing up.”
Our mother’s dreams for her three daughters had long since disappeared—none of us was still married. Caroline early on had decided that two kids and one overly domineering husband were enough for her lifetime. Becca had invested her innocence in an early marriage at eighteen that had nearly destroyed her—poor choice, bad husband, no future. When she divorced five years later, she substituted generations of cats for potential babies and grandchildren. And as if she’d read a book on the isolated life, she’d earned a master’s in library science so she could spend her time with index cards in the early days and with computers later on.
And me? Widowhood had claimed the love-of-my-life, as my friends mouthed when they thought I wouldn’t see. Alone at forty, raising three kids. Ignoring my own life and filling it with obligations: teacher conferences, baseball teams, jazz practices, therapist visits for all three of them—enough shrink bills to pay for someone’s university degree. Later, with college visits and applications and packing trunks to send them off, fulfilling my promise to my lost husband that I’d raise them well.
And finally, just when I could breathe, there was Morris. Only around the corner and never happy with the short coffee I’d stopped for, never satisfied with the quick conversation, although he couldn’t remember what he was saying from one moment to the next. I even hired a man to drive him around—Kmart was his favorite daytime destination. But he’d show up at my door, his driver apologizing with soft brown eyes for the insistent Morris, who was used to getting his way.
“He’s got a new girlfriend,” the director informed me on the day I delivered some snacks. “You know how it is, something reminds them of the old days.”
“Where is he?” I asked. He’d made the move to assisted living without a complaint. Two small rooms this time instead of three. Gone was the pretext of the desk and his Rolodex. Someone helped him dress and gave him his meds; someone gathered him for the three meals a day. There wasn’t a stove in the apartment—no buzzers to confuse—just a small fridge, good for the plump grapes I’d found at the market.
“In his room,” she answered.
“Morris,” I called from his door. We’d all taken to calling him by his first name, divesting him of some of his former power. Morris, not Dad, or Daddy. A person separate from us, a person on the list of things to care for, and certainly not the father who once terrified us.
“Don’t come in.” I heard his voice from behind the closed door of his living room.
“I’m not alone. I have a friend.”
“I’m happy to meet your friend,” I try. “I’m going to open the door.”
Morris waited on the couch, his glasses on the coffee table, his hair disheveled.
“You’re alone.” I pictured some imaginary friend as Morris made his mental trips backward.
“No, I’m not.”
I looked around. Empty room.
“Over there.” He pointed to the door. “Don’t embarrass her.”
I peeked behind the door and found Edna hiding, as different from my stylish, blond and dynamic mother as anyone could be. Tall and thin, white hair curled tightly into a perm. Nowhere the leopard-print silks and gold jewelry my mother favored.
Edna followed me to the kitchen, all the time fastening the pearl buttons on her white blouse and tightly bowing the ties at her neck. “I hope you girls don’t mind,” she started.
“Not at all.”
“We don’t do much,” she offered. “But I do let him feel my boobies.”
Elderly Morris was feeling up an old lady. She was getting more than I was, my kids might laugh.
“But he always stops when I tell him to—you know what I mean,” she added.
“Not every man is so respectful.”
So there was the threat of rampant sex here, I thought. The very old chasing after each other once the lights went out. Or maybe when the attendants were busy giving pills or changing diapers. Passion and panting. Touching and cooing. Licking and tasting, in spite of dentures or broken teeth.
Where there’s life…, our mother used to say.
Then Edna died. Disappeared easily after one final stroke. A small leaf falling from a tree; a soul in transition. My sisters accused me of being too romantic. Caroline even bet that Morris would find another girlfriend within a month.
“Always more women.” She sounded annoyed, as if the statistics were enough to send her to bed.
Morris didn’t make Edna’s funeral. “I’ve had enough,” he said.
Despite all he’d done to prevent it. Despite watching his cholesterol before people cared, despite a hundred jumping jacks each day, despite an anxiety that caused him to vomit each and every morning before he left for work, despite a wife who did everything for him while doing what she wanted behind his back. Despite three grown daughters who saw him as another job, but who had enough human decency to act together. Morris was finally dying.
His caretaker put on football in the background for him to have something to listen to. He’d always hated football. The director reported that Morris had seen our mother beckoning to him.
We were all there to escort him out.
Becca was tearing up a little. “Oh,” she sighed when Morris’s breathing stopped for a moment.
We waited. Finally there was nothing.
“That’s it,” Caroline whispered.
“That’s all,” I answered.
Nowhere in that room was the giant who had bullied three little girls.
“I’ll make the arrangements,” Caroline offered. “You’ve buried enough people.”
“I know I should feel worse,” Becca said.
“We survived,” I said, and hugged them to me.
My husband was gone, my mother was gone. Now Morris too. I drove to the cemetery alone. My kids would join us there for a gravesite service. The cemetery was too easy to find—I’d been visiting weekly for ten years. My sisters were waiting at the gate.
“Don’t go in,” Caroline said.
You have to wait,” Becca said. “It’s not safe for you.”
I looked at their earnest faces. “There’s only our dead in here,” I answered through the rolled-down window. My husband was buried by the first tree just after the entrance.
They stepped in front of the car.
“We’re serious,” they yelled. “You cannot go in.”
I looked over their shoulders. The new leaves filtered the sun on my husband’s grave—gentle dancing rhythms of light that he would have loved. But today, mounds of earth piled around his grave.
“Did they dig him up?” I asked, my eyes tearing.
“It’ll be OK,” Caroline said, moving in for a crushing embrace.
“Please stay calm,” Becca almost cried.
My sisters shook their heads as I pushed past them.
“A little delay,” Becca said as she might talk to her cats. “No reason to get upset.”
“I am upset,” I shouted. “Where’s Morris?”
“They’re taking him for a little ride. Until…” Becca started.
“…until they can dig another hole and fill this one in,” Caroline finished.
“You poor dear,” Becca said.
“Promise me you won’t look down,” Caroline insisted, sounding more like her take-control self.
I pushed past them. I looked down. The bronze plaque with my husband’s name on it, with the place waiting for my name and dates, was covered in fresh dirt. His grave was totally covered.
It was mine that was open. And waiting. Just the concrete liner—a true six feet under. A small puddle of rainwater had collected in the middle; a tree branch lay across as if searching for a drink. Dirt fell in clumps as I stepped closer. It was just so dark…and funny. I wondered how many people had ever seen the bottom of their own graves.
This was where I would lie for eternity—whenever that would arrive. Where my children would come to visit the mother who had raised them and the father who had disappeared in the middle of his life.
“Are you all right?’ Caroline whispered. Becca was crying hard.
“It’s a message, isn’t it?” I asked.
“No,” Becca said in a stronger voice than I’d heard from her in years.
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Caroline said.
The sisterly arms surrounded me. Insisting: What a shock. I’m going to sue the graveyard. It will be filled in soon. Terrible, terrible.
“Don’t you see?” I asked.
Parents dead, children almost grown. I’d been buried for years as if I were already in this grave. But before…before they’d actually shovel dirt on me…there were still the years ahead to fill.
“What are you going to do?” my sisters asked, their faces wet with more tears than we’d ever cry for Morris.
I was laughing hard enough now to chase away that terrible last decade. I heard my mother’s voice and I knew. Now it was time to live.
Copyright 2016 Agins