Marty, the Meals on Wheels delivery man, walks through the front door just as I'm about to start changing Mom's dressings. He's jovial, likes to talk, says this is such a great job because he gets to meet all kinds of people and loves to hear their stories. “Like you, Millie,” he says to my mother. “How you have such a good voice and sing in the choir.”
Mom doesn't sing in the choir anymore. She hasn't been out of the house in months. She's got cancer. She's dying. Slowly, though, and mercifully, without too much pain. Yet.
She's polite enough while Marty is standing in her living room, looking down on her propped in her recliner, draped with an afghan, still wearing her purple nightgown and bathrobe. It's all she ever wears now.
“I used to sing with a community theater group, too,” she tells him. “Show tunes. ‘Climb Every Mountain,’ ‘Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,’ that kind of thing.”
“‘Ol’ Man River’?” Marty asks.
“Oh sure,” she says. “And lots more.”
After he's gone, though, she complains. “He just yammers on. He doesn't know a thing about music.”
It's hard for her to be gracious, I tell myself; she's uncomfortable. Still, I know she's said similar things about me over the years. These days I'm willing to forgive her, though, willing to overlook the unkind comments and criticism that once made me think she was more like the wicked stepmother than the kind and loving fairy godmother I needed.
So I pull on latex gloves and start snipping at the gauze that holds the dressing on her leg. “You should sing,” I tell her. Because it's the one thing she has always been very good at, one thing I can say I admire about my mother: how her voice sounds like flowers bursting into bloom on a warm summer day.
“Yeah. Why not?”
“What should I sing?”
“How about ‘Ol’ Man River’?” Because Marty suggested it and, well, I can't think of another song right this minute.
Her hearing aids don't work very well, though. “‘Moon River’?” she says.
“Sure,” I say. Because it doesn't much matter what song it is; whatever she sings, it will cheer her up.
As I kneel before her recliner, bathing the ugly, seeping lesions that are, I imagine, just like the malignancy that is eating away at the inside of my mother, she starts to croon.
Moon River, wider than a mile. I'm crossing you in style some day.
Her voice is gravelly now, but all I hear is crystalline grace. And while my voice has never been as elegant as hers—“Don't screech, Linda,” she would always command me—I sing along.
Dream maker. You heart breaker…
But all of a sudden I'm choked. Tears are running down my cheeks, and I'm struggling not to let her see me sob. Which surprises the hell out of me. I smooth the soapy cloth over her swollen leg lumpy with lesions, pat it dry, then run my sleeve over my face to catch the drips there. She thinks I'm having a hot flash, that I'm wiping sweat from my brow. My voice quavers, but I keep singing.
Two drifters, off to see the world…
I don't know why I'm crying. Maybe it's because there is such a lot of world to see, but she has seen so little of it. She's always been too scared to venture very far from familiar places. Now she'll never see more of the world than she can see this minute. She'll probably never even make it into her kitchen again.
Maybe I'm crying because I haven't sung with my mom since I was a teenager, standing in front of the sink in that kitchen, up to my elbows in soapy water, washing the dinner dishes while my sisters dried and we all sang Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. Mom lifted the plates and glasses into the cupboard and added harmony—notes that came naturally to her ear; she hadn't learned to read music yet.
Or maybe I cry because there's a beatific smile on my mother's face right now, even as I poke at the painful wounds that cover this grotesque appendage that is her leg. And maybe that's enough. Enough for me to forget she's not a fairy godmother. Enough for me to remember she's my mom.