Time to stand and bring the celebration to a close. The bowl of potato salad yawns with the last slice of pickle, the platter offers only one schnitzel; the three wine bottles stand empty. Our woman of the hour has told many lies and we have laughed. I turn off The Bartered Bride recording with its refrain of “How can we not rejoice when the Lord has given us good health.”
“Mami,” I say, “we are thrilled at your four times twenty, look forward to another twenty in your company. We have been blessed. To your health!”
For once she resists a sharp comment. She looks for a moment at the empty chair next to her, where my recently buried brother should have been sitting, then smiles and raises her glass.
“We have much,” she says.
She suffers with depression, insomnia, heart murmur, high blood pressure, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, incontinence, panic attacks and assorted mental health woes. She laughs at them and herself. She’ll call in the middle of the afternoon, hum Mozart, report that she has not slept in forty-eight hours, that her pain medication is not working, that she is out of breath and coughs without ceasing but is calling to recommend a new Nova show, which I’m sure to enjoy. She laughs again and hangs up. When she was recovering from a knee replacement in a rehab center, Dr. Robinson told me to bring all her pills for disposal. Sitting up in bed, Mami said, eyes bulging and breath short, that if we steal them from her, she’ll kill herself and haunt us for eternity. The doctor sighed, “I give up.” She stopped seeing Mami, but I could not. Soon after, Mami overdosed and I sat by the hospital bed as, with unseeing eyes of delirium, she conversed with her father and late husband, and lectured ghosts on the importance of her writing. Doctor Hajzl, the attending physician, insisted on seeing every medication from her house, and after emptying the bathroom medicine cabinets, the bedside table, the kitchen drawers, I counted the vials. One hundred and thirty-two mixtures of brightly colored capsules with the occasional dull white pill in for color contrast, labels with no relation to reality, prescribed by fifteen doctors, dispensed by six pharmacies. On occasion she popped them individually like Smarties, by the handful at other times. The doctor and I consulted but skirted the wrath and suicide threats; he cut down on the numbers, had them arranged in bubble packs for organized dosages.
After a month in rehab, she no longer yelled and accused.
“Do you remember the red bike I bought you for your eighth birthday?”
“Sure I do, Mami.” The calendar I brought from her home, to personalize her room, is turned to Picasso’s La lecture. The faces conjoined at the nose both stared at me; the open book was both consoling and threatening, like all our conversations.
“You were so happy to have it, wanted it so much and your grandparents thought I was a fool to get you one so big. But I always knew what was best for you, didn’t I?”
“I watched the PBS broadcast last night, Mami,” I say. “The baritone was excellent and Frederica, as usual, just stunning.”
“I held the back of the seat for you, ran behind as you struggled for balance, stopped you from falling and by the end of the afternoon you were biking up and down the road by yourself, even though it was too big for you. A perfect gift.”
It was so many years ago and maybe she really thought it happened. “Yes, thank you, Mami, it was truly wonderful,” I said. “One of the best of all time.”
Gratitude is not the response she expected. She smiled through thin lips, missing the hoped-for fight. She closed her eyes and left without a goodbye.
Opera resounded in her condo at full blast; she sang along with Carmen, Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin. When a young couple moved into the condo next to hers, kept their doors and windows open, rocked on with AC/DC and the Stones, she pounded on their wall and complained. The wide-eyed man said, “When do I get to play my music?” She retorted, “Never.” Faced with an unhinged inferno, they moved soon after. Fortunately, I was happy to sing along with Mami and Donizetti.
She was a magpie, delighted in shiny objects and stones, wore heavy amber necklaces, amber brooches and earrings. On a walk, she’d pick up a sparkling piece of mica, caress it, breathe in its beauty for a few days before depositing it in a jewelry box. Thursdays were Senior Discount Days at her thrift store and the collectors lined up before the doors opened. Each made a beeline to their Promised Land. Mami’s hands burrowed in the costume jewelry bin; she pulled out strings of beads, chipped, with broken clasps, but to a discerning eye still lovely. Her basket filled before she moved to the oversize clothes racks and the opera CDs.
She loved her hairdressers, owners of small salons in dingy strip malls, whom she’d quiz on their lives in Greece, Egypt, Macedonia, getting to know wives and children, commiserating about failed exams, crying with broken hearts. Often she was treated to a shot of ouzo and a plaintive melody performed by a tenor with a missed calling. She’d return radiant with the lives of her friends. Just imagine,” she’d say, “poor Magdalena had another miscarriage but still wrote the TOEFL test and is convinced she got perfect. Such a smart girl. If my son weren’t entangled with that hussy, I’d set them up. Magdalena would be wonderful for him. But come to think of it, she is in a relationship, too. Bit of a barrier.”
On the last day, when I arrived at her condo, her body was cold and damp. She’d fallen back on the bed. Her denture-less mouth gaped; a nosebleed crusted her face. My eyes coursed over the familiar room, the Degas ballerinas, the O’Keeffe throbbing peony, the bird calendar, the bust of Bedrich Smetana. The walls pulsated with life.
On her bed, a body. Only a body. Mami was elsewhere.
I was frozen in the doorway of the arctic cold room.
The policemen had me translate the handwritten Slovak scribble on her desk, not a suicide note. The diary entry for each of her last three days consisted of a single word -- Pain. Next to Mami’s bed stood a pair of silver high-heeled stilettos.
I plant a For Sale sign on the lawn of her condo, spend days trying to clear out decades of assorted treasures. The door-bell keeps ringing and I receive visitations from a string of senior citizen well-wishers from the neighborhood, telling me how wonderful she was, what a loss for us all. A chickadee hops from branch to branch, in search of company. I lean on the doorframe, wishing I had a sweet, or even a sweet word to offer the tottering grievers, but I have nothing.