Cindy Zelman is a graduate of the Solstice MFA program of Pine Manor College. She’s been writing since she was six and her mother bought her a pink notebook. Her stories appear in literary magazines, on her blog, and on other websites.
I’m doing a great job of mourning my mother, who doesn’t happen to be dead yet. I start mourning her when I am five years old.
I am traumatized by having puked mountains of chocolate ice cream on the lilac carpet at the end of the hallway. The babysitter, an angry young teenage boy with horrendous acne, tells me to clean up my puke by myself. Later in the evening, my mother cleans me up, cleans the carpet, and puts me to bed. I ask, “Mommy, will you stay home with me?”
She says no, she has to leave, and so she does.
She says to me when I’m nine, “Do you want to go to the movies Saturday and see “Paper Moon”? Then we can go out to eat.” This is my first date with a woman. My mother is in her forties and beautiful. And on this Saturday she asks to spend the day and evening me. She is usually gone by 3 p.m. and I don’t see her until the next day.
It’s Friday morning and I’m driving my mother to the hairdresser. My car is a mess. Empty water bottles fall to the floor and onto the seats from my dashboard. My mother tries to catch one rolling off of the console. Rather than say to her, “Just let it roll to the floor,” I grab the bottle roughly out of her nervous, twitching hands and stuff it between my legs.
“Ooooooohhhh, Jesus,” she says under her breath. She recoils, as if I’ve struck her.
My mother is 82, and while she’s not ancient, the decades and the gallons of vodka and diet cokes have combined to create an elderly woman who does not comprehend easily.
A few years ago, I tried to teach her to use a PC. She called me at work.
“The mouse isn’t working!”
“Are you moving the mouse across the screen?”
“ARE YOU MOVING THE MOUSE ACROSS THE SCREEN?”
“Yes, what’s wrong????”
We determine that physically, literally, my mother is lifting up the mouse and rolling it across the LCD monitor. Three more lessons on using a mouse and a mouse pad. This is why I refuse to buy a Brita water filter. I am sick of having to explain every fucking thing three times.
Yet each Friday night, I stand in the Stop and Shop, Aisle 8, and stare at the Brita Water Filters. For ten minutes I study sizes, prices, read about the health and environmental benefits: no plastic bottles to destroy the earth; only happy minerals left in your water. What a good idea.
After each weekly study, I move on down the aisle and buy a 24-pack of bottled water, knowing all the bottles will eventually land in the trash, with a few rolling around in the car. My mother can figure out how to open a cap on a bottle of water, but how would I explain to her the Brita water filtration system?
My mother and I, born 32 years apart, are both experiencing vaginal itching. When she finally admits her symptoms to me and to a doctor, which takes her the better part of a year – imagine itching for a year – the doctor assumes she has a yeast infection. He gives her a prescription and a recommendation for Vagisil or Monistat cream, until the pills kick in. When I start having similar symptoms, I go to the gynecologist. Well, I get her nurse practitioner. She inspects my vagina; she’s at least 15 years younger than I am. This is what she says:
“Your vagina is atrophying.”
Wonderful. What every woman wants to hear.
“The cells are drying up, shrinking,” she continues, without mercy. “The dryness leads to itching. It’s a bigger problem in menopause than hot flashes, but no one talks about it. Because it’s embarrassing.”
The nurse practitioner gives me a prescription for Estrogen cream and explains clearly: Take a small amount on your finger and insert it into your vagina every night for two weeks, then twice a week after that.
“For how long?” I ask.
“For the rest of your life.”
My mother’s Vagisil and Monistat do not help her. Neither do the pills meant to kill a yeast infection. During one of her doctor’s appointments, I tell her primary care physician, that I, too, have vaginal itching and Estrogen cream has helped. The doctor agrees it can’t hurt for my mother to try it.
Soon, we have individual tubes of Estrogen cream. I hide mine far out of reach. That’s all I need, you know – sharing a tube of vaginal cream with my mother.
On the drive home from the pharmacy, I explain to her, “Use it every night for two weeks, and after that, twice a week.”
“What?” she asks, of course.
“USE IT EVERY NIGHT FOR TWO WEEKS, AND AFTER THAT, TWICE A WEEK.”
She says nothing.
Two months later, on the way home from another visit to the doctor for her quarterly checkup of everything, she says, “I need another tube of that cream.”
“What? How much are you using? A tube can last 6 months.”
“I’m doing what you said. I’m using it twice a day.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? That’s the opposite of what I said. I’m not taking responsibility for that!”
She sits, as always, passive in my passenger seat, then passive-aggressive, “I thought you said…”
And I cut her off. “I SAID ONCE A NIGHT FOR TWO WEEKS, THEN TWICE A WEEK!”
She says nothing, my 82-year-old mom; the old lady hangs her lower lip. Once again, I have intimidated her into silence.
“Do you understand?”
“Repeat it to me.” Oh god, I never wanted kids.
“Once a night…for…two weeks….and, um… twice a week after that.”
“Yeah, just skip the two week thing this time, okay? TWICE A WEEK.”
How the hell am I going to explain a Brita Water Filter to this woman?
So instead, I rip water bottles from her old hands, and make her cry, “Oooooh, Jesus.”
I am 50 years old. I am in menopause, mourning the loss of my period – well, that’s what my psychiatrist says. This means I’m not in a good mood most of the time. I am not with a lover. I am with my mother. We’re both living in the house I bought a decade ago and twice a week sticking Estrogen cream up our vaginas.
This is not how I envisioned my life. But there you have it: vaginal itching and elder abuse.
My mother is a drunk until she is 77 years old and I am 45. She comes home so drunk one night, she collapses in my downstairs hallway.
I yell, “I’m not 8 years old anymore and I don’t have to take this shit. I’m 45 and this is my goddamned house and you will never come back to my house drunk again. Do you get it?”
“Just let me lie here,” she says, “I’m fine.”
“THIS WILL NEVER FUCKING HAPPEN AGAIN. DO YOU GET IT?”
I repeat, “DO YOU GET IT?”
“Yes, I get it. I’m fine. Let me lie here.”
I scream and criticize her for another 30 minutes as she lies on the floor, paralyzed, poisoned from vodka. I don’t try to help her. I yell. “I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE YOU’RE STILL DOING THIS,” and “DO YOU THINK THIS IS FAIR TO ME?”
“Just let me lie here,” is all she says. “I’m fine.”
That is the last time my mother takes a drink of alcohol.
I guess I ripped the bottle from her hands that night, too.
My mother never wants to be wrong. “I was a good mother, wasn’t I?” she asks periodically, a question I usually don’t answer. She turned away from me, and so I turn away from her. We go through a lifetime together like this.
I am in her bedroom. I’m 50 years old and she is 83. I vacuum up Doritos crumbs off the carpet near her bed. I lift the lamp and find more crumbs near the base. It’s as if now she is the five-year old.
I had gotten through my forties doing a pretty good job ignoring her aging, her increasing isolation, her level of physical frailty. I distracted myself with work. Or I went out dancing and met women with whom I’d have disastrous short-term relationships. I’d work out.
In my late forties, I am in the best shape of my life. For the first time, I feel invincible.
And then my cat, Sweetie, a beautiful and big Maine Coon, dies in my arms at Angell Memorial Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
I walk into the animal hospital with a carrier full of cat and I walk out with a carrier empty of cat. I walk to the parking lot; it’s deep winter and the sun shines blindingly on the hoods of cars, on the snow. My father died in the dead of winter, too, on a very similar bright and glaring day. I’m dazed by the loss of my cat in a way I never am by my father’s death. I call my mother.
“Hello,” she says expectantly, hoping for good news,
I sob into the phone, “They had to put her down. I’m sorry.”
I sob nearly the entire drive home. I never cry for my father but I cry for the loss of the cat.
After Sweetie passes, I start to mourn all the inevitable endings, beginning with the passing of my invincible forties into this new and different territory I call my vulnerable fifties. Where my forties are about joy and adventure, my fifties are about reflection and loss.
I hold onto Timmy, who wraps himself around my neck every evening purring and loving. Timmy is my orange and white Angora boy, and he lives with me now, along with his mother, Mia, and a bunny inherited from an ex girlfriend, and my own ever-aging mother. I tend to stay home more than I used to, clutching Timmy, letting his purrs sink into my body, the vibration of his stomach against my own. If I can hold onto Timmy each night, I feel as though I can stop time. I can live forever. And my mother will never die.