it went on and on. I tried to cover my head with my pillow, but I could still hear the moaning and sobbing. I understood what she wanted. Someone, anyone to come comfort her. Cough, cough, cough…. then a bit of silence. Maybe she fell asleep I hoped? Then a minute later, ohhhhhhh….sob…sob…aaahhhhhh. I was so tired. I’d been at school all day then a two hour swim workout after. I was exhausted.
I got out of bed wearing only my pajama bottoms as was our custom. At ten years old I would only wear a PJ bottom. Somehow to my three brothers and I this represented our growing maturity. My room was furthest away from hers and I wondered how come none of my brother’s seemed to have heard the moans. I walked around through her doorway and peaked in. She looked up from her bed. “Jer-bear?” “Is that you?”She asked in the dark. “It’s me.” I said walking over to her bedside. I looked down at her as she lay there holding her chest. She was so frail, thin and sickly. Almost bald, her skin paper-thin and gray with oxygen tubes coming out of her nose. “Sit here” she said patting the bed next to her. I turned slightly and sat with my legs dangling towards the floor. Her bed was the sort you would find in any hospital. It had the bars on the sides that could be raised or lowered and even had wheels in case she needed to be moved. She rested a hand on my arm. “Such a nice swimmer body” she said smiling. “Are you OK Mom?” I asked. “Oh yes sweetheart.” she said as if nothing was wrong. The stacks of pills on her bedside table, the filled ashtrays, empty glasses of bourbon and the twin five foot oxygen tanks told a different story. She was in constant pain and had been the last 6 years or so since she’d had a double-mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. She’d had her adrenal glands removed too and had a permanent open wound in her chest we changed the dressing on every night. The skin wouldn’t heal anymore and her bones were like swiss cheese from all the radiation, small fragments of which would occasionally appear in the wound and have to be removed. All of this she dulled with a crazy combination of narcotics and Jim Beam. Each of my brothers knew how to mix her drink. A tall water glass with two ice-cubes and a splash of water. “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. I wanted to say, “you know very well why” but I couldn’t. I felt so bad for her lying there all day and all night alone like she did. We were the only break in that monotony when we arrived home from school in the afternoon and then again later when we would each come in to kiss her goodnight. For all of this it didn’t seem strange to me, she had been like this almost as long as I could recall.
There was a time in my dim memory of a different woman. She was tall, blonde and statuesque. She wore mink and smelled of expensive french perfume. I rarely saw this mother though. That one usually left us with our nanny, Gloria. We only saw her as she left for glamorous outings with my famous plastic surgeon father. Later we might hear them drunk and fighting. She screamed for us then as we cowered in our beds. “Help me boys!” she would call as my father beat her but none of us responded. At 3 or 4 years old there wasn’t a lot we could do. I know my older brothers had each finally confronted him but they suffered for years listening before that. The mother of this world was exotic far off and mysterious like a tragic Queen. Sometimes she was”ill” and we wouldn’t see her for weeks. Then just as suddenly she was back joining us on Sundays for church in her pencil skirts, red lipstick and heels. Outside of church she was never without a cigarette held elegantly in long manicured fingers. The only place we went as a family then was Mass. I had six siblings but the older three no longer joined us. They were separated from the younger four of us by a gap of eight years. We rarely saw them anymore. They were off in college or busy with friends. More often than not the other three younger brothers and I were shepherded around by our angry nanny. She resented us for being privileged and white. Two things the young overweight black woman from rural Georgia was not.
But that fabulous mother was from another mythic time in a fairytale past. The one I sat next to longed for those days but her fabulous King husband had abandoned for a younger princess to adorn. They apparently even had a new set of children to fill their new kingdom although I’d never met them. The mother I sat next to would often regale that man for leaving her exiled and broken. She would cry bitterly calling him a fucking asshole or some other words I had been schooled in church to never use. Sometimes this mother would get up from her bed and dance in a narcotic and alcohol fueled memory of wonderful outings shared in former grand ballrooms with my father. She told me what a great lover he was and how he had swept her off her feet. Like Mrs. Havisham in The Dickens novel, Great Expecations it was as if time had ended when her husband left. The music had stopped and the guests had all left. Now it was just the 5 of us in this echo hall of past grandeur. My mother and my 3 brothers. I was number three. I had one younger brother who knew even less of the past than I did. The older two each knew more and I think were more injured for its memory.
“Want to watch a movie with me ber-ber?” she asked. Tired as I was, I agreed. “The life of Henry the Eighth is on at ten.” “Masterpiece Theater!” she said with some excitement. “Great Mom.” I answered crawling up next to her in the hospital bed. She lifted the remote and turned on the televison. “You’re going to learn a lot.” she said looking down. “I know Mom.” I answered back. I loved being with her and although I was tired, she was right. I learned a lot on these nights but most of it had nothing to do with the show on TV.