Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Investigating My Mother's Disappearance

My mother wears tiny, elegant black velvet slippers embroidered with carved glass beads, but otherwise she favors loafers, and dull, earthy shades of khaki ("shit tones," is how she describes her palate). She hardly ever gets dressed anymore, so she might be in her nightgown—my mother is very specific about nightgowns. Sleeveless, lightweight, with the hemline reaching exactly to her knees. She's tiny, so she often has to shorten her nightgowns by hand. Her nightgowns are pretty, pale pinks and blues, and some are trimmed with tiny seed pearls, eyelet, or satin ribbon. Isn't it curious, that counterpoint of femininity and camouflage, night and day? I hadn't noticed before.

          She craves strong, pungent flavors: sardines, lox, raw mussels on the half shell, sauerkraut, spicy chicken wings, mustard—not ketchup, red wine, liver braised with onions and vinegar, bleu cheese, Kalamata olives in brine.

          When her stomach is upset, she drinks beef broth, but when she has a cold, she always wants chicken soup. I prepare it the Armenian way, with a raw egg yolk and the juice of a lemon. 
          She drinks her coffee black with no sugar, two mugs every morning, while she reads The New York Times. In warm weather, she enjoys an Armenian drink called tahn, an iced mixture of plain yogurt thinned with water.

          My mother prefers specific fruits: pomegranates, blackberries, Concord grapes. She avoids bland, insipid sweets, such as shortbread, but she loves licorice, crystallized ginger, and tart key lime pie. 

          These little details, these specks of information, are important clues. I'm sure no one else possesses her exact constellation of habits and preferences. But of course you should know that her name is Roxanne—Araxie, in Armenian. She's been shrinking for years; now she's really quite small, about the size of a child of 9 or 10—but of course very old and stooped, although she prefers to lie down lately. Her eyes are a deep, penetrating brown, with an owlish gaze. Those eyes convey all her emotion, even when her words don't. And she has a Bronx accent.

          I'm not really a careless person. In fact for decades I don't recall losing anything more cherished than a single earring and, I suppose, my youth. Not until I was 51, the year my mother vanished.

Here my mother would interrupt me. I'm not lost, she'd say, I'm just dead. She was always the practical one. But I won't back down on this. I can retrace my steps exactly.

          I would tell a Private Eye that I sat at your bedside on the fifth floor of Princeton Hospital just before one a.m. on December 18, 2013. I was holding your left hand, which was quite warm. And a little swollen because your kidneys were failing. 

          Every breath you took was followed by a surprisingly loud, shameless gurgle, and an even longer silence. The silence was stretching, and your mouth was stretched in a long oval, like a fish out of water. Of course I couldn't help noticing your resemblance to my father. I would have been sharing this observation with you, except now it was actually happening to you, and we couldn't compare notes anymore.

          Do you believe this, I wanted to say. Did you ever imagine you'd end up like this? But there was no answer, not even in my imagination. 

          There was another deathbed moment you shared with my father. When your blank, fixed features contracted in a deep spasm, with brows knit, a vertical furrow appeared between your eyes—in all your life there had never been such a crease! It may have been a grimace of pain, but it looked even more like concentration.

          I had understood my father's grimace, years earlier, as the result of his effort to stop all systems, once and for all. The heart is so used to beating that to stop altogether must require almost as much strength as pumping. In his expression, I saw the harnessing of all his body's dwindling energies. When you winced like that I knew you would die very soon, but I couldn't keep my eyes open for another second.

          It's so hard to get comfortable in the hospital; the chair was so much lower than the bed, and even though I'd lowered the bedrail it was still dividing us. I couldn't seem to get close enough, but I managed to rest my head against your thigh. I focused on the solidity of your leg under my head rather than the coarse texture of the hospital blanket between us. With closed eyes, I timed the seconds between each gasp...12, 13, 14.

          When I woke up with a jolt you were gone. You had gripped my hand hard with your last strength. I felt it—or imagined I did. 

          I stood up and leaned across your body, pressing my fingers against the side of your throat. There was the faintest reverberation under the skin, and a succession of images flickered through my mind. A runner crosses the finish line and continues to run a few extra strides, stumbling a little, before coming to a full stop. After a performance, the drummer places his sticks against the rim of the drum and there is a tremor. Nighttime, raindrops.

        Once I was sure there was no more pulse I sat down beside you again and waited for the change. Before too long your skin turned a waxen yellow and it was no longer possible to imagine you were living. I hadn't let go of your hand and I would continue holding it for quite a while. I would sit with you till there was no more warmth. The absurd idea came to me that I might be transferring my own heat to you and, if so, we might hold this pose forever; but it was of no consequence. As long as your hand was warm, I held on.

So right there, in those few minutes between closing my eyes and opening them, my mother had vanished. She vanished while I held her hand. 

          My mother doesn't believe in God, she believes in annihilation. She told me often that death is The End. She said it a little smugly, to be honest, as if she was the more rational, reasonable person who refused to be duped or mollified. But it's not reasonable to vanish.

I'm sure you would see that now if you were still here. And even the PI, if he were to materialize, would help me search.