Mississippi University for Women literary magazine, Ponder Review, accepted from me a piece of nonfiction for their current issue. I’ll also post it here.
Frankie told me Mama was ready to die. Told me, “Before you come up here, you might as well know about last Friday when I took Mama to the clinic.” I listened to the silence on the phone, heard my brother take a long breath, and knew he was out on the porch, smoking his brown cigarettes.
He told me, too, that she was coming unglued over something and he did not know what she was asking for. “You know how she does, pointing this way and that when she’s trying to get us to figure out what she wants?”
I told him I know how she does.
“Maybe, by God, you can hit on what it is,” he said. “She’s been mighty upset for two or three days now. Won’t let it be.” I told him we’d both try once I got there.
“I’ll be passing through,” I said, “but I won’t leave until we settle her down.”
Ordinarily, when I pushed my car north up the western edge of Alabama those two-hundred and fifty miles from Fairhope to Mama’s house in Kennedy, it was to stay with her for the weekend and give Frankie a break. Let him go camping or fishing, or whatever he wanted to do. He lived with Mama. He had offered more than a dozen years earlier to move in and take care of her when his own struggles threatened him with homelessness.
Frankie was a year younger than me, had been married three times with no children, was a recovering alcoholic with a host of health issues. He’d had open heart surgery at the VA hospital in Birmingham to put in a new valve. “You hear that sonofabitch clicking?” he asked me. “Come over here and put your ear close.”
“I hear it,” I said. It had been six weeks since his surgery.
“Well, by God, it’ll just have to click ‘til it quits. They’ll not get their knives and saws on me again,” he declared. The surgeons had misaligned his rib cage at his sternum when they closed him up. Frankie said it stuck out like a bird’s breast. And he was right.
My two sisters, Sandra and Missy, they also each took a weekend in rotation. We did it for years. Sometimes, on that fourth weekend Frankie would hire a neighbor woman to take his place, come and keep Mama. Other times he’d just stay close himself. “Ain’t like I got shit else to do,” he said. “I just need a break every now and then.”
My mother couldn’t talk since the stroke—about eighteen years now—but she could read a menu, and she could sing some songs. She could say a few words. “Okay, yes.” And “Okay, no.” Not much, but anything helped a lot.
On this trip I was just passing through. William Gay, a writer friend from Tennessee, and I had done a reading together someplace. We would stop by Mama’s on my way to give William a ride back to his place in Hohenwald.
William didn’t drive. He didn’t like to merge, and he didn’t like going over bridges. Nor would he fly—because he didn’t want to. But I had some of Daddy’s diesel fuel in my veins. He was a long-haul trucker, among other brief callings. I loved it behind the wheel. I was his son, the king of car road trips.
William and I once made an 1800-mile roundtrip to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, for a literary event in William’s honor. I drove every mile. We talked a lot and missed a turn and found ourselves in rush hour traffic in New York City. Funny thing, we’d once done the same thing on a trip to Fort Lauderdale, missed our southbound turn off I-10 west. We only woke up from our nonstop conversation when we got to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean.
We landed at Mama’s house in the early afternoon. Frankie greeted us at the door. Mama sung out from the couch, “Okay!” She was grinning and her green eyes were shining. I hugged her, and sat beside her for a few minutes. I introduced her to William. He leaned in close and took her hand. She smiled and pulled him in for a hug. He obliged and came up grinning himself. Cut his eyes at me. “I like your mama, there, Sonny,” he said for her benefit.
“Okay,” she sang again, nodding at me. She liked this fellow, too.
Mama’s lap blanket moved as her Chihuahua Lilli Belle crawled from one of her legs to the other, but careful to stay out of sight.
I got up and went in the kitchen for a glass of water. Mother sat on the couch, watching “The Price is Right.” She cried out, “Okay!” She sounded angry. Same word. Totally different intent. Easily detected.
“Here we go,” Frankie said. “What I told you about.” He tacked on, “Good luck.”
I put down my glass and went to sit beside her again. “What is it, Mama?”
“Okay,” she said, agitated, her eyes wide, insistent. She pointed in the direction of her bedroom down the hall. Also, the bathroom was that way.
“Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
She shook her head, and waved her left hand, her right hand paralyzed, pointing in the general direction of the hall. Or maybe the dining room just there. “Okay!” she repeated, frowning.
“Do you need to go someplace?” I asked my mother. She pointed her finger at my chest. “I need to go someplace?”
“Okay, yes,” she nodded with some relief. But we still weren’t done. Frankie and William looked on. Frankie’s face said, Don’t get cocky, Brother.
In narrowing it down, I decided it was not a room, or anyplace inside that she wanted me to go. So I named the towns that lay in the general direction she was pointing—Millport, Kennedy, Columbus, Vernon. It was Vernon that got the nod and another “Okay!”
“Let’s see, Vernon, hmmm—” I said, cutting a glance at Frankie. Then in William’s direction. Back to Mama. “Vernon? Why do I need to go to Vernon?” Mama looked at me like I was a cotton sack full of claw hammers. Shook her head, agitation rising. I felt useless.
“Do you want to go see Uncle Carl?” Frankie asked.
Mama scowled at Frankie, and whipped her head toward the window beside her. She stared away from me. We always sat her on the end of the couch closest to the window. We’d hung a hummingbird feeder and another bird feeder just outside so she could watch birds fly in and out all day. But not now. She was getting pissed and just wanted to look away from her dumbass son. “Not Uncle Carl?”
She looked back at me. “Okay, no,” she said in a small voice. She was about to cry. I reached for some humor. I scooted closer on the couch, cut my eyes around the room, leaned in and said, “You want to go to the county jail?”
“Okay, yes,” she fairly shouted.
“What the hell, Mama?” Frankie asked. “You’ve been on me for three days. And you’re making like you want to go to the jailhouse?”
“Vernon’s the county seat?” William asked. He looked from me to my mother. Frankie said it was. “Have y’all paid her land taxes? It’s time to,” William said. “We just paid ours.”
Mama let the tears roll without blinking, and held out her hand to William. He stepped up and took her hand. Frankie and I looked at each other. Neither he nor I spoke. I patted Mama on the knee and she drew me to her. I don’t know if anybody else was crying. Real men don’t check each other out at a time like that.
“We will pay your taxes, Mama.” She was still crying, but nodded and tried to smile. I guessed Sandra had already paid the tax bill. Mama looked back out the window.
“Gotta be tough, you know,” William said to Frankie and me.
“I can’t imagine,” Frankie said. I just shook my head.
It was a very big deal to Mama that we understand her unspoken intent. Is it bigger than a breadbox?…and that line of query had got us by with Mama. Everybody just making do with the hand dealt her in the stroke. Frankie was best at catching her silent meaning. On balance, all of us were pretty good at discerning what Mama wanted us to know. And she knew a lot. Her mind was sharp as ever. It was the rest of her that didn’t work so good anymore.
William sat beside Mama, and watched some of her TV show with her like it meant something to him, too. I rejoined Frankie in the kitchen. “So what did Mama do at the clinic?”
Frankie said, “Well, she was pointing this way and that, getting pretty upset. Finally, the nurse told us she had been pointing up when she’d been in the room with her earlier. By this point,” he said, “Sandra and Missy were there in the room with me and Mama.”
“Pointing up?” I asked.
“Pointing toward Heaven,” Frankie said, and looked down at the floor. “Sonny, she’s been crying a lot since she came back from your house over Christmas. Several times a day. I believe she’s tired, bub. Had enough of this shit. Ready to go home.” Frankie told me the nurse who had been taking care of Mama for several years was the one to solve where she was pointing, and lost it herself and went out in the hall. “Hell, she was just boo-hooing.” I put down my water glass. I hung my arm over Frankie’s shoulder. “You still coming to see Mama next week for your birthday?” he asked me.
“I am,” I said. “I’ll come about Wednesday and stay on through the weekend.”
“It ain’t your weekend,” Frankie said. “It’s mine.”
“Yeah, I know, but I want to spend a few more days this time with both of you. All three of us will have a merry old time,” I said.
“Around here? Bullshit,” Frankie said. “But it’ll be good, bub.”
Mother was sixty-two when the stroke hit her. My twin nephews, Cameron and Kelsey, got off the school bus at Granny’s house to find her on the floor in the bedroom. My sister Sandra was a school teacher, and still at work. She and her boys were living with Mama for a few weeks following her divorce. I don’t know if those first-graders could say their ABCs, but that afternoon they had the presence of mind to take off running to a neighbor’s house. Right there, my nephews saved their grandmother’s life
The local rescue squad ambulance came and hauled Mama first to the small hospital in Fayette, then on to Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa. My sister Missy, a radiology technician at DCH, actually read the head CT on some patient who she’d soon learn was her mother. Mama was in a coma for five days, and Sandra and Missy made a cassette tape of singing and talking that was played to her on headphones for the whole time. When she came around, she was immediately wheeled into surgery. We were told she would likely not make it through the night. That head CT had revealed a huge bleed in her brain.
When the neurosurgeon finally came out and talked to us, he shook his head and said he could not believe it, but they discovered in surgery that the bleeding had stopped on its own. So, she’ll be all right? We wanted to know, relieved.
“The aneurism was in the left hemisphere,” the doctor said. “She will have some paralysis on the right side of her body. Her speech will be affected. We won’t know the full extent of damage from the stroke until she is awake and more time has passed.”
It was clear within the following days, and after initial rehab therapy, that Mother would not walk again, and would no longer speak. “She’ll require round-the-clock care,” he said. She’ll be like a child, I said.
He corrected me. “No,” he said, “a child develops. Your mother will decline.”
I don’t know what we expected for Mother, from Mother, but she surprised us. Except for the effects of the stroke, she was mostly healthy. And through it all, her second son looked after his mother for about fourteen years. He cooked and cleaned for her, gave her shots and medicine, argued with her and talked to her. They sang some songs. He put her to bed of a night and got her up and dressed her of a morning. He took her to the bathroom. He washed her hair. He tended Lilli Belle. When he went somewhere in the car, he put her in the passenger’s seat.
They kept each other company, and fended off for each other what last week’s newspaper called the silent killer of the aged—loneliness. But then my brother finally called my sisters and me to say we need to do something different. We knew he was about done for. He was tired and his own body was worn out. He could no longer control his blood sugar. Mama was still going pretty strong, but there was one illness after another for him.
“I just want to go over to the county lake campgrounds and rent me a bungalow,” he said, knowing it would be a shed, really. The county park service had bought portables from Home Depot or Lowe’s, and converted them into something habitable. Each of the cabins was named for a fish, and Frankie liked the Catfish Cabin. “I want to stay there and fish and watch sparks fly up from a camp fire.”
And he did.
Missy took Mama in at her house. Sandra also lived close by. Frankie moved to the lake. Into the Catfish Cabin. And Mama’s house sat vacant for the first time in fifty-some years, since the summer of 1964 when the builder finished it.
Less than two months at the lake and Frankie got sick. When the doctor told him he had cancer, he asked how long he had. A few months. Sandra told me that pretty soon Frankie asked everyone to leave his hospital room. He said he just wanted to rest. Missy and Mama left. Sandra refused, and he didn’t mind, really. She was there to open his blinds so he could see the sun and sky above the parking lot outside. She could get him some water.
The weird thing is, in the afternoon the day before, I had lost my cell phone on the construction site where I was working. At ten o’clock in the morning on the day my brother died, a co-worker handed my phone to me, said some guy on the sidewalk beyond our barricades had found a phone. I turned it on and keyed in the password and saw call after call, and message after message from Sandra. She said Frankie was real sick and she was worried about him, and I should come to Tuscaloosa right away.
I left the job, dropped my hardhat on the pickup seat, and headed out of Mobile, making a trip I’d been making for forty years since moving away from Lamar County. I called my brother-in-law who was a cop and asked him about talking my way out of a ticket for driving a hundred miles an hour or better. He asked me to not add myself to some patient list and drive the limit and maybe a little more. “Please,” he said.
I didn’t take his advice. I ran between ninety and a hundred when I wasn’t near a town. I was getting updates from Sandra every quarter hour or so. Frankie was drifting in and out, she said, and more and more he was out. He would open his eyes and stare out the window, but then his head would sink into the pillow and his eyes would flutter and close.
Coming into Greensboro, about an hour south of Tuscaloosa, my cell phone rang. “You can slow down, Sonny,” she said. “Brother just died.” I took my foot off the gas pedal and cried, and slammed my fist on the steering wheel, and I cussed for losing my phone. If I’d got her first call that morning, I’d be three hours there right now. At least he was not alone. Sandra watched him take his last breath. She remains certain that he willed himself to go and not put up with the hassle. Neither do I doubt it.
Mama was strong through the funeral, oddly peaceful with her son’s passing ahead of her. But not by long. Grief set in and she joined him before the year was out.
Sandra recently sent me a picture of Mama holding Frankie’s hand as he lay in that hospital bed. It’s hard to look at, but it says something strong about a mother’s love. The real rock of ages. Religious differences will start a fist fight or a war, but a Baptist mama and a Hindu mama will both offer their lives in love for the sake of their children.
William died before them both. That news came to me when I was again stopped off at my mother’s place on the way to Hohenwald. This time to pick up William to travel together to a guest reading for the two of us at Lincoln Memorial University in east Tennessee.
Another odd thing with the phone. No cell service at Mama’s house, then as soon as I drove away and got in range of a signal, my phone blew up with messages and calls. People wanted to know was it true William Gay had died. I learned myself, behind the wheel, on the road, that it was true. But I drove on to his house, saw his son, and kept on to the college where I read on stage from William’s work.
Frankie Lane Brewer died on 11-12-13. Easy to remember. He was 63.
Mama died at the age of 83 on September 13, 2014.
William was 70 when he died on February 23, 2012.
People would ask Frankie how was he doing. “Good enough,” he’d say.
Yep, me, too, Bub. So far, I’m still driving at 69. Still paying taxes. The road out front of my windshield is shorter. And, my tax bills are lower. On both counts, Okay, yes! It’s all good enough.