Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Magical Thinking

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines

In our old house in Princeton that is covered with vines, my mother sleeps in a room filled with flowers while I await a call from her doctor. He will be interpreting her future for me, based on recent CAT scans of her brain, abdomen, and pelvis. A physiotherapist will also be arriving soon to conduct an evaluation.

In a car with a red light
they drove out into the night.

Madeline woke up two hours
later, in a room with flowers.

           My mother refuses to get bathed or dressed or have her breakfast before the therapist arrives; my mother wants to be awakened only when absolutely necessary.

          I should be insisting, but I don't. Let the outsider come and see how it really is for us.

...They brushed their teeth
...and went to bed.
          Instead of bathing or getting dressed myself, I drink another cup of coffee and try to recall how my Armenian grandmother used to read the grounds that were left over in my cup when she made Turkish coffee. I wish now she'd taught me how to read before she died, but I hadn't been interested then.

          After drinking slowly from one side of a demitasse cup, when only the bitter sludge was left at the bottom, she would ask me to place the saucer over the lip of the cup and flip it over. Then I would twist the cup clockwise three times before letting it set. A little later, my grandmother would lift the cup and scrutinize the pattern that had hardened inside. The cup was divided into quadrants of meaning, starting at the handle. My grandmother would point out designs I couldn't see—birds, flowers, triangles, trees—and arrive at conclusive answers about both past and future.

          I've been up for hours but remain steeped in a dream, as if I never fully awakened. The dream may have something helpful to offer, but because its atmosphere is so inhospitable I've been unable to completely reenter or fully withdraw from the dreamworld. I can't escape from the in-between.


In the dream, I knock on the door of a childhood friend from whom I've been estranged, but she isn't home.


When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 30 years ago this friend had stopped talking to me. Children do that sometimes, when something is unbearable, going to whatever lengths are necessary to manage their fear. She befriended me again the following year, when we were 17, as if there had been no break. But it was understood that the subject of my mother remained taboo.

          When I left for college the next year I was scared of becoming a stranger in a new place, but instead I was a stranger at home. My new friends weren't wild like my childhood friend, they were nerdy like me. I was worried my old friend would be disappointed. The friend sent a letter telling me it was inevitable that we go our separate ways. There were no more letters after that. Until lately, it never occurred to me that she might also have felt left behind.

          I bump into that friend sometimes when I do errands in town. We smile and chat, shy and a little flirtatious. It gives me a stomach ache; masking our aversion leads to cramps. When I learned that her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I asked about her. She told me the chemo had been rough. Then she blushed and mumbled an apology.

          "I don't know how you handled it back then—I'm sorry," she said, and changed the subject.


My friend's mother lets me into her house. She is entertaining after the death of her husband—like a wake without a corpse—but secretly he is still upstairs dying. She ignores me so I'm free to explore the house.

          Upstairs there are no longer interior walls, just one big room: unfurnished, light-flooded, empty. The white paint on the walls is still wet. When I break the caution-tape to tip-toe out into the middle of the room, it feels like venturing out onto thin ice. The old floor boards are buckling and spongy; to tread there is clearly hazardous.

          The husband makes his grand entrance, while I dumbly occupy center stage. Already wrapped in his white shroud, he demonstrates how he finds the strength to go on: he is rehearsing for a play. When he is acting he skips vigorously across the sagging structure of the house. But whenever he stops, he gasps for breath and resumes dying.

          It's not right to clap, but I do admire how lightly he skips in his white shroud. I'll have to try this sometime, I think. If he just keeps pretending, he could live forever.


What the hell does that mean? I don't give a damn.


Because I'm preoccupied with the dream, I forget to bathe or get dressed for the physical therapist. When a car slows down in front of the house, I realize I haven't brushed my hair or my teeth and I'm still in my robe. I decide to act as if this is perfectly normal.

          The PT is a pretty, delicate Filipina who is too diminutive to be driving that giant, white SUV. After parking diagonally across the sidewalk and part of the front lawn, she opens the door and hops out like a child leaping off a jungle gym. I don't want to make a bad first impression, so I call out to her, as nonchalantly as I can manage, "Hi, there! It's okay if you park on the street."

          She looks worried and says with an accent, "I was afraid there was no parking. I'll tell my husband to move the car." It's a chilly morning so I invite her to bring him inside, but she says it's not allowed. I tell myself this is only weird if I act like it is, so I pretend her husband isn't there.

          Pretty Girl quickly looks around, taking in the details of my mother's bedroom. There are pots of flowers and bouquets on every surface, like a sick room; I'm not sure she knows it was my mother's 87th birthday a few days ago.

          I see my mother through the pretty girl's eyes: grumpy, smelly, old, frail. But I'm wrong.

          Pretty Girl asks simple questions, measures her flexibility in centimeters, tests my mother's strength with simple exercises, like getting in and out of bed, walking back and forth across the room, pushing her so she can push back, to test the strength of her resistance. I watch my mother curl a 5-lb. weight, five reps on each side.

          "She's strong," Pretty Girl says. "Just needs to get out of bed and build up her endurance. You know, Medicare probably won't pay for more than two weeks of PT. After that you're on your own."

          "But she won't do it," I say.

          Pretty Girl shrugs, not unkindly.

          "Is she capable of fixing her own breakfast?" I ask. "Taking a shower? Changing her clothes? Sitting at the table to eat? She can take her own plate to the sink when she's done eating—she can walk with a plate in her hands?"

          Pretty Girl answers yes to each question. Her indignant yes sounds like, Duh, what did you think?


My mother doesn't want to get up or get dressed or take care of anything at all. I must have known this all along.

To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, "Pooh-pooh."

          After Pretty Girl climbs up into the SUV, driven away by her invisible husband, I close the front door. I stand on the other side, in the dark hallway, like a statue. I feel like smashing all the dishes—every single one of them, one after another, at a leisurely pace—until thousands of little curved blue and white pieces cover the kitchen floor, lapping my ankles like wavelets in a frozen sea. I would like very much to scream the whole while, at the top of my lungs, until every dish is shattered and I'm out of breath.

          I don't act on my desire. I remain perfectly still and silent in front of the closed door, but my fantasy is meticulously detailed and fulfilling. I stand there for as long as it takes, until I'm tired out and deeply relaxed. I do relax, once that last dish hits the floor, and then I inhale deeply.

          My cell phone rings; the doctor tells me all my mother's tests came back normal.

"Goodnight , little girls!
Thank the Lord you are well!
And now go to sleep!"
said Miss Clavel.
And she turned out the light
and closed the door
and that's all there is
there isn't any more.


I think of the ritual before take-off, how a flight attendant will silently point out the nearest exits, demonstrating with a theatrical flourish how to activate the oxygen and flotation devices in case of an emergency. A disembodied voice warns us to disregard our instinct, which is to save our child first. We must take care of ourselves first, because when we're helpless, we can't take care of anyone else.

          I walk upstairs to the bathroom and read my reflection in the mirror above the sink. The greenish layer underneath the peeling white paint of the walls is distracting, but I keep looking back at myself.

          I will brush my teeth and take a hot shower, dress myself in clean clothes and apply my make up with care, as if it matters: draw my eyes with liner, blend foundation for a more pleasing complexion, maybe even try some lipstick. I'll wear the antique diamond earrings my mother gave me for a long-ago birthday and, as a finishing touch, spray my favorite scent onto my bare wrists.

          Papers and mess have been accumulating, I've noticed, threatening through neglect to overtake my bedroom, the way nature swiftly overtakes ruined cities: I will put every speck in order now.

          This is how I start to care for myself. It's an act of defiance, of anger, as well as an admission of defeat. This is how something necessary to survival is passed, like a torch, from my mother to myself. She doesn't pass the torch, of course. I seize it before it before the light goes out.


  1. Good god, Charlotte - you are so very powerful a writer. And I love you. Yes, do seize what you need to before the light goes out. I do so wish to be there - to walk over to your house and give you an enormous hug. The other help, that does not really help the root problems - oh Charlotte!

  2. What is it about your writing that makes it so connectable to so many different people I wonder?

    I have a feeling it is because you have a way of showing those competing contradictions that are part of all of us and you're lonely struggle, your 'demons', your vulnerability and gritty determination to be honest and 'in good faith' ... true to yourself. That image I have of you standing silently as stiff as a board while inside you were smashing the fucking china and screaming is so incredibly powerful and unbearably moving.