Flying To Cape Town
My mother will fly to Cape Town, South Africa, on Monday. She’s not asking anyone for permission. Not her children, not her last remaining brother, not her throbbing right foot, not the faltering lungs or the betraying legs. Most important, not the mind that sometimes flickers on and off like lamplight in a storm.
“Someone should go with you,” I’ve told her many times.
She’s going courtesy of the Cape Town Jewish community, an honored guest at their annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in which she will tell them her stories of survival. If she makes it through the airport at Istanbul, one of the largest in the world, surrounded by mostly Arab travelers flying down to the Dark Continent. Of course she’ll make it. She’ll probably wave away the offer of a wheelchair and slowly walk to the gate, lips tight, hands clenched around her handbag. She will pause at the airport shop windows and mentally calculate the currency equivalent of the prices, then shake her head to show she’s no fool, she can get things back home much cheaper than that. Trolleys will stop and thin dark men will say, “Ride, Madame?” and she’ll smile and say, “No, I’m fine, thank you. I walk very well.” She also saves the tip that way. She’ll want to watch her money and get gifts for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Cape Town, testament to her one last adventure, the second-to-last trick she’ll play on life.
I try to imagine this old East European Jewish woman down in the southernmost tip of Africa. She will want to go to Mandela’s prison island and shake her head at the tiny cells and the violent, breaking waters that separate it from the continent. Her memory may make a beeline to Edmund Dante buried alive in a similar island prison, Chateau d’If. She’ll turn to her host and ask excitedly if they read the book and if they still remember it. They’ll smile at her enthusiasm, unaccustomed to her meanderings. She’ll tell a terrible story and tears will streak her pale, still pretty cheeks, and then her eyes will open wide with recollection of the fruit dumplings her mother used to make, or how she read The Count of Monte Cristo two streets down from where they lived—not once, three times—because it wasn’t the kind of book you could bring into their small, overcrowded house. Recollections like these will stream along separate byways even as she nods and listens and talks, and why shouldn’t they? No longitude can connect her beginnings in a small, poor city by the Danube with Nelson Mandela’s Africa without lots of false trails and blind alleys. In her mind, Mandela’s resurrection is peppered with reminders of her father long gone, the red hat she wore that her neighbor Hanna admired just a week ago, and the first time she saw the ocean.
She’ll try to remember it all so that she could recount her adventures to her family when she returns, but mostly she’ll repeat—“Amazing! Unbelievable!”—not too different from her exclamations over her first computer.
Her stash lies concealed in the back of a bureau drawer: a plastic baggie, probably, with lots of different capsules. No nursing home for her, no adult diapers, not even wheelchairs. No one will ever tell her when and how to say good-bye. Don’t do it, I’ve implored her, it could bring on a major stroke; you’ll survive and be paralyzed for years. But her mind’s already elsewhere, on the rising price of olive oil, and how she helped her father butcher chickens as a little girl, catching and cradling them in her arms as she walked to where he waited.
The sun sets, the sky dims, the birds grow silent. The words pop up on the screen as though written by her computer, not by her at all. Is that the truth, she wonders, looking past the black table lamp and out the window. Does that really describe early evening?
To the west, on the other side of the house, the sky is yellowing with streaks of pink and mauve. But I’m not sure because I can’t see that from here, she thinks. What I see is a slope sinking into darkness, dark gray at the bottom and a lighter gray further up where it meets the road, lit by red treetops that still receive the last beams of sun. Is that true? Is that what evening looks like? The birds may feel it as encroaching cold, the bare branches as their daily portion of disappointment. What really is evening?
She thinks back to the early supper she had with Stan. She always asks him how his day went and he tells her in detail: McMurray called about the mortgage, Jane arrives from Colorado next week, the board meeting will take place Friday. And how was your day, he then asks. It took him the first few years of their marriage to learn to ask that question, only now that he asks it, she knows less and less how to answer.
“How was my day,” she reflects out loud. She cleaned up her desk, sent out emails on the housing project in the Cape, walked the dog, organized her files for the weekend conference, laundry. Was that her day? What about how bright the house looked in the afternoon on account of the snow outside? What about the mouse scurrying under the green suitcase in the basement as she came down to hang the sheets? The furrow on the chipmunk’s back as it huddled underneath the feeder, the dog’s tread on the wooden floor like something finally unsticking?
How was your day? What does evening look like? Sometimes she thinks it’s her limited vocabulary. But lately she concludes it may be her limited punctuation. She may not need that many words, but at the very least she requires another question mark or two to goad her into looking out again: What else is there? And what else? And what else?
By now it’s almost completely dark. Out front, on the other side of the house, a half moon rises, but that’s not what she sees from her window. What she sees is a loss of shape and definition, a deepening obscuration. Quick, before the night arrives, before it all disappears, what does evening look like?
THE LAST TIME
Al says no to the vegetable soup.
“You always like this soup,” Deborah says, and then, turning around and walking back to the kitchen, silently mouths I can’t eat anything, which are the exact words Al now says out loud to her disappearing back.
I always know ahead of time what he’ll say, she thinks, emptying the soup back into the pot on the oven. She’s hated Al’s predictability for a long time, the things only he did, and did them again and again and again. Like how he always told her not to spill the coffee each time she poured it from the coffee pot, though she’d never spilled it, not even once, in all their years together. Like how he always circumambulated their car parked on the street each morning, squinting carefully to see if someone had banged it up overnight. Like how he’d mutter I can’t see anything, I’m color blind, on their daily walks whenever she pointed out the sky, the clouds, or the leaves. Like how loudly he chewed his food during meals.
That took a long time to get used to, she remembers now. How had she missed it in those months of courtship, all those steaks at Lambert’s Bar & Grill? He always had a joke ready whenever she complained about the people at work, suggesting a walk after dessert at Angelo’s so that he could smoke a cigar. She’d watch his face relax into the cigar smoke, vanishing and reappearing in the vapor like a magician’s. Till they had dinner one evening at home two months after the wedding, it was salmon she recalls now, with boiled small potatoes and parsley, which he forked into his mouth one after the other, chewing each aloud, his mouth half open, and she wondered how she married him.
Now, as he lies in bed and can’t get up, as he needs her help for a sponge bath or to get to the toilet, things are even more predictable than before. He has no energy for life, never mind innovation. And what would she do to see him circling the car one more morning, checking for bumps and scratches, for one more comment on how she pours the coffee, or even for one more loud, rolling slurp of soup. Everything that has always happened may now be happening for the last time: a final flick of the eyes up towards the ceiling at the kids jumping on the floor upstairs, a last glance out the window followed by the words Nice day, the very last peremptory nod when she asks him, as she does each morning, How did you sleep, Al? The very last time he checks his watch, which he’s done innumerable times a day every single day they’ve lived together. Even now it drives her crazy.