Outside Mother’s garden apartment black swans, a couple, hover just inside a low fence surrounding a manmade pond. A fountain gushes loudly there during daylight hours. It sits at the center of her senior living compound, a place laid out with such gracious design it allowed her, finally, to consent to being old and she sold her home in exchange for having assistance at her fingertips.
“There’s real quality here,” she bragged on my first visit after move-in day. “Retired professors from Princeton. People who go into the city to hear concerts. They wear jackets and dress for dinner. Not like those other places I checked out. No hoi polloi here.” Seated on a white leather settee facing Mother in her lift chair, I find it odd that ever since I arrived the two black swans have been squatting on the bank of the pond rather than swimming with their necks bent luxuriously, leading one’s eye as they glide along.
How do I tell her I’m leaving Ben? The good son-in-law who fixed her dresser right there in her bedroom with the tools and glue and clamps he knew to bring? Who handled cheap particleboard as though it held historic value, like the antique kaas chest that came over with her family following the war, now the centerpiece of her living room, its broken hinges replaced with antique ones Ben searched for online? Who set her up with a Wal-Mart card and made her Rx payments automatic because she couldn’t hold the details in her head?
I brought along York Peppermint Patties, Mother’s favorite, and stuck them in the freezer before we went out for a taco lunch. Now I get up to arrange some on a cut-glass dessert plate while she sits with hunched shoulders in her chair. She likes being served, her hands folded under her chin, her face looking up with shy happiness, ready to receive. I lower the plate and she lifts a gnarled hand, her mother’s signet ring loose and turned on her finger. She picks one frozen patty delicately up and lays it on her shrunken bosom on the napkin I hold out with my other hand.
My sister said to tell her slowly, to lead her to it gently, words I practiced in my head on the drive down, words that sound stilted more than gentle but will have to do. As the patty thaws, she licks chocolate off her fingertips and leaves a smudge on her bristly chin. “You have something here,” I say, touching mine to show her where. “Oh, leave me alone, I’m enjoying it,” she snaps. Mother relishes being my opponent, but not only mine: she’s the world’s opponent. Black—no, white! Up—no, down! In—no, out! purrs out of her like an engine spiriting her to her next match, her next spar, her next opinion ready to opine.
I take a deep breath and tell her about the apartment Ben and I had been looking for and just found, about the good morning light it gets, one of Ben’s requirements. I’ll bring pictures next time, I say. She looks confused. “For Hillary or Liz?” No, I say, the apartment is for Ben. He’s moving out. She looks at me with shock and dismay, brown smudges intact. “Are you crazy?” she says, as though it was my idea for my husband to search out an old girlfriend after we finished going through his cancer treatment together. Which she doesn’t even know about because I couldn’t handle my own terror, let alone Ben’s and the girls’, if I also had Mother’s to deal with. Important occasions have always served as ripe opportunities to stir things up. At our wedding, she took the stage picking a laser-aimed fight with my sister so she could display for all what giving the silent treatment looks like. We ignored it but it’s what my sister and I remember.
A round of reprimand follows—I wasn’t nice enough; didn’t work hard enough to keep him; she always feared this would happen; growing old alone is pure horror, but what do I know, I’m only your mother—and I’m ready to get some air.
Her modest patio is as wide as the glass doors I slide closed behind me. A large crack splits the cement diagonally in half despite the joints put there to prevent that from happening. Two folding chairs I bought for her are shoved into a corner, unused. “That fountain, so loud it’s ludicrous!” I hear a sharp rap on the glass behind me and turn. She has raised herself up with her lift chair and holds tight to her walker. She shouts through the glass door so I know she’s mad at me that she’s going to the bathroom, then ambulates off.
The swans had been sleeping, their red beaks tucked into dark plumage. Now their necks are stretched and orange eyes alert. I begin my slow approach; I want to see them in the water, to make them go in, but as I draw near, they only stand up. Closer still, they remain unmoving save for their heads tilted defiantly, so I throw out my arms and run at them making the sound of a monster until they do, indeed, strike into the water with a great splash. I stop at the pond’s fenced edge and stare them down in the near distance, portrait of woman triumphant, arms akimbo. Only then do I look down and see, tucked into the grass, a feathered nest cradling two eggs.
Beneath Mother’s incurious criticism I know she’s frightened for my future. But when I think about being at home, the empty nester alone, I imagine the sadness I’ll feel will be lighter than the grief I’ve been carrying and all I want is to dive in.
Cecile Callan earned an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poetry and fiction appear in the Fish Anthology and Louisiana Literature and the Los Angeles production of her controversial play, Angels Twice Descending, won multiple Ovation awards and was optioned as a television movie. She has written for the Brevity blog and is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Cecile lives with her husband and small dog in the Hudson Valley where she is at work on a novel.