I keep the brown blur in my peripheral vision and trudge up hill, stinking of sweat and Deep Woods Off. A few yards off the trail, the canine dervish whirls her speckled body, thick neck thrashing in the air. She springs high on muscular legs and drops, scraping her face in the dirt, raging to escape the muzzle strapped on her snout. My submissive dog, Trink, a Springer Spaniel, plods alongside me, a safe distance I think, from Sandra’s dog. My tank top and shorts are sopped, sticky after a six-mile hike in the steam bath that is South Carolina July. I upend my water bottle and guzzle, throat wide open. Yowling lacerates the silence and I pivot, see Trink pinned down by clenched jaws. “Sandra! Get your dog off!”
Petite Sandra plants her legs wide and straddles the snarling animal and grabs its collar, tugging with both hands, her shoulders heaving backward. I sprint to my car, fling the door open and Trink scrambles to me, belly dragging the ground. I boost her onto the car floor and she flattens, an instant fur pancake. I see the blue blanket crumpled under her. Blood is spreading, saturating it.
When Mother died, I donated her belongings to St. Luke’s Resale Store.
I kept the blue blanket.
Her frail body quivered under the goose down comforter at Laurel Woods Assisted Living. I slid the thermostat lever all the way up, leaned over and stroked her icy cheek with tenderness I wished I felt. She laid diagonally, a heap of old woman, trembling in the twin bed against the wall. I patted her shoulder and bent fingers darted from under the bedclothes, yanking them up over her head.
“Are you getting warmer, Mom? The heat’s up as far as…”
“NO…get the blue blanket, under the bed…what I pay you’d think I’d have heat.”
My throat constricted and I tipped my head back. This eighty-nine year old woman, this tenuous bundle of flesh and blood was still hostile, even as she unraveled.
Kneeling on the floor, I crouched low on my elbows, shoved one arm under the bed and smashed my knuckles into Mother’s mahogany jewelry box. She’d hidden it again, convinced that villains lurked in the halls, plotting to steal her Joan Rivers Signature Collection pendant and earrings—limited edition items, not available in stores. When we moved her into the new room, she’d ordered me to take her jewelry and Hummel figurines home and lock them in the safe she imagined I had.
I peered under the lace bed skirt and ran my free hand over the booty stashed under Mother’s bed. A crumpled J. L. Hudson’s shopping bag contained L’ Eggs Knee Highs and eight or ten threadbare, Maidenform girdles. I marveled that the paper sack must be thirty years old, the Detroit landmark department store having been demolished decades ago. A crinkled Rite-Aid bag bulged with sugarless candy, five bottles of aspirin-free pain reliever and a 24-ounce bottle of congealed Pepto Bismol. I laid my ear on the floor, craned my neck sideways and spotted it—the finely woven, pastel blue blanket.
Mother had been alone for thirteen years, since the Saturday morning in 1994 when her doting husband had a heart attack and crashed his Mercury Sable into a massive oak tree. We lingered at Dad’s bedside in Cardiac ICU for a week. Heroic surgeons installed a heart pump that failed and then determined he wasn’t a candidate for more surgery at age eighty-one. Managing his pain became increasingly difficult and on the sixth day the stoic cardiac team surrounded me. “We’ve done all we can, Mrs. Tucker.”
An hour later, flanked by a hospital administrator and a cardiac nursing supervisor, I signed the pile of documents ordering the removal of Dad’s life support. Pen quivering in hand, I thought of his last coherent words, spoken two days before, “Take care of your mother, Les. For me.”
And I did.
I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong.
For fifty-three years Dad had protected and provided for Mother in the manner gentlemen of his generation did. She’d written checks only at the beauty parlor and grocery store, had never pumped gas or had her car serviced. She knew nothing about insurance or the investments that would keep her in comfort for the remainder of her life. After Dad died, I paid her bills, balanced her checkbook, and handled the disposition of his estate. I chauffeured her everywhere on Michigan’s congested freeways and supervised her home repairs and yard work.
After three months, the geriatric therapist I consulted was adamant. “You’re not doing your mother or yourself any favors by taking over,” he said. “Why not teach her to manage by herself?” According to the expert, Mom was a healthy and intelligent seventy-six-year-old and capable of handling her own finances.
I called before visiting with her checkbook, insurance documents, bank statements, bills, and Revocable Living Trust in hand. We’d review financial matters together, I said, I’d help with the new responsibilities. We’d ease into it.
“Wouldn’t it be better for Don to help me? Men are better suited…”
I bit my lip. At forty-six, I’d managed my own finances with precision and accuracy since age eighteen, throughout two marriages. And she knew it. I set up a file for monthly bills, marked her calendar, gave her new checks I’d ordered. Her demeanor was icy and although she learned fast and managed well for the next decade, her anger at me simmered.
Once, before leaving on vacation, I stopped by Mother’s house with contact information for Don and me. She stood on the threshold, blocking the front doorway. “How nice. You have time for a vacation when you’re too busy to handle my finances.”
I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong. I was a wild child, and high grades and musical accomplishments never made up for my squirming when she’d read fairy tales or demonstrated how to whipstitch a hem. I preferred handsprings on the lawn and riding my bike like a banshee over sewing dirndl skirts and changing bobbins with her. The rowdy, geeky girl who chopped her own crooked bangs never pleased the plant-leaf-dusting-lady. I grew reckless, sunk into the sensuous 60’s and became a teenage mother. I twisted the lid of our relationship down tight and smothered any hopes she had of my becoming a lady.
I was ten on that Saturday afternoon in August 1958. My younger brother was staying with a friend and I was headed to Sally’s, two doors down, for an overnight. I’d packed my suitcase, actually Mother’s Singer Sewing machine case, and scurried downstairs, jumpy as a monkey. The tall wooden windows were flung wide open and a brisk breeze swirled through our brick colonial. Raw silk drapes billowed like parachutes against the baseboards and the canopy of elms outside rustled like taffeta. My parents would have thought they had the house to themselves.
Sally and I sprinted up to her attic and were quickly engrossed in our favorite game, Murder Mystery Dress Up. We draped her mother’s 1920s evening gowns on our scrawny bodies, concocted intricate plots, and acted them out with glamorous costume changes. As The Motor-Cycle-Riding-Flapper-Murderer, I needed a gun and told Sally I’d run home and grab my brother’s cap pistols.
Kicking off my sequined pumps, I bolted down two flights and flew home. The official Lone Ranger cap pistols were in my brother’s room, in their holster, and I grabbed them, buckling the belt around me, imagining Sally and I shooting it out in our sparkly dresses. And then I heard it—Dad’s baritone snoring reverberating through the upstairs.
The hallway was windy and the door to my parent’s bedroom was propped open with an encyclopedia volume. I peeked in. Why would Dad be sleeping in the afternoon?
They were both sleeping! Cuddled up, her back rounded, his bare arms encircling her naked shoulders, their bodies were nestled together under a light blue blanket. His hair, usually slicked back with Brylcreem, was tousled on his forehead and fluttered in a puff of breeze. Mother’s face was smooth and the two straight lines that carved a number eleven between her eyebrows had disappeared. The blue blanket cocooned around them and I spotted a torn foil wrapper on Dad’s nightstand. Mother stirred and he adjusted the position of his arm, pulling the blanket up over her bare shoulder.
Stealthy as the murderer I would portray in Sally’s attic, I backed up on the balls of my feet, crept down the stairs and slipped out of the house.
Nowadays, after hikes in the woods, the blue blanket protects the backseat of my car from mud and dog drool, and the washer and dryer don’t seem to damage it. The blanket is over fifty years old, faded but not frayed, and the zigzag stitching around its edges is intact. On the day Trink was attacked, the blanket had slipped off the backseat onto the car floor. She sprawled across it as her neck and face spurted blood.
* * *
The phone jarred me from a fitful sleep at 5:00 am. Dazed and clumsy, I pawed it up to one ear. “Mrs. Tucker, this is the night nurse at Laurel Woods. Go to St. Luke’s. We’re sending your mother over there. She’s having trouble breathing and she’s hit the nurse’s aide again.”
In St. Luke’s Emergency Lobby, the triage nurse motioned me toward the ER. Mother was collapsed on her side when I opened the curtain on the darkened space. The blue blanket was tossed on top of the hospital bedding and she grasped a clump of it near her throat. I moved her clenched fist away from her face.
“Mom, it’s me.”
“Mom, I’m here now. They’ve given you a shot to help you relax.” I patted her shoulder and she shrugged away, fierce. “It’s not helping. Nurse didn’t know what she was doing, gave me the wrong shot. If you’d been here…”
“I got here as fast as…”
“Not fast enough. I don’t trust these people and…”
“You’ve got a hospital ID bracelet and your Laurel Woods ID is around your neck, they check both before anybody gives you anything. They’re familiar with your case, Mom. This is a small hospital.”
“Is Curt here? Is your brother here yet?”
“Remember? His back is injured. He’s in Michigan. We talk and he’s thinking of you. When you feel better I’ll call him on my cell phone and you can…”
“You and that damn cell phone. Why would I talk on that thing?”
“To talk to Curt, I…”
“You’re not allowed to use them in here, there are signs up. Still can’t follow the rules can you. Is Don coming? Why isn’t he here?”
“He’s back at the house. His parents stopped on their way to Florida. Remember? They only a have a couple days, arrived this afternoon. Joe’s been sick since his heart surgery—this is the only time Don has with him.”
“Of all times for them to barge in, make you drive here in the dark, alone on these mountain roads…”
“No problem, I’m…”
“You don’t know a problem when it bites you in the face. Why are they staying? Don’t they know I’m in the hospital?
“They had no idea, their trip’s been planned…”
“Stop badgering me…”
A nurse poked her head through the curtain and motioned me into the hall.
“Dr. Allene would like to speak to you, Mrs. Tucker.”
I stepped back inside the curtain, leaned over the gurney and pulled the blue blanket high up over Mother’s shoulders so she could feel the fabric on her chin.
The dog that attacked mine is a Belgian Malinois, a breed known for its “jaws of steel.” It is trained for specialized police and military work, is the official dog of the Kenya Police Unit and is used to patrol men’s prisons in Kenya and Tanzania. I shudder to imagine what that means.
Sandra adopted her Malinois, Kaley, from a shelter in Michigan, years ago, and was horrified by the dog’s vicious behavior on the day of our hike. There had been other incidents, never as serious, and Kaley wore the muzzle for hiking. The day of the attack, we women were breathless, drenched after hiking in the stifling heat and Sandra worried that Kaley needed her tongue free to pant and cool off. She removed the muzzle and in a flash, Kaley sunk her teeth into Trink’s neck, clenched her jaws, and shook a forty-pound Spaniel like a rag doll.
I stepped into the hospital hallway and Dr. Allene, the palliative care specialist, told me what I already knew. Multi-system organ failure. Mother was dying and all we could do was make her comfortable, a turn of phrase that hit me like an ax in the forehead. Making Mother comfortable was a task for titans. For several years, she’d astonished everyone with the anger and aggression she mustered as her body declined.
Mother was transferred from the ER to a private room and a morphine drip was hung. Valium capsules were opened, the powder moistened and the nurses and I took turns rubbing the paste into her gums. Dr. Allene assured me that although Mother moaned and pulled on her bedding, she felt no physical pain. The doctor had seen this syndrome before, was certain that in a few hours Mother would relax, sink into a morphine coma, and spend her last hours in peace.
Four days later, the night nurse urged me to give up my vigil. “Go home. Get some sleep,” she said. In thirty years of nursing she’d never seen such fervor, such fury in someone so heavily sedated.
When the morphine finally took hold, Mother was non-responsive, propped on her back, drawing long, rasping breaths. I kissed her forehead. She didn’t flinch. I tucked the blue blanket up around her shoulders.
Windows wide open; I drove home through the clear black night, brisk December wind blasting, arriving around 4:00 AM. I collapsed, dropped deep into velvet sleep and at 4:30 the phone buzzed. Mother had died minutes after I left, had never opened her eyes or uttered a word.
At home with Trink on the day of the attack, I squat on the driveway, coax her into my arms and examine her. Although her face is swollen to twice its size, the gash on her face has clotted and the puncture wounds behind her ear are not oozing. I’ll put Neosporin on them later. Sitting on the back door stairs, I rinse her with the hose, lather on baby shampoo, and rinse her again. She loves it. I blot her off with an old beach towel and she stands and shakes and shakes. Inside, she drops like a bag of cement mix on the living room rug and snores for hours.
I grab the blue blanket from the floor of the car. Globs of mud and blood cover it. I spray pre-wash on the bloodstains, toss it in the washer and crank it up.
What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited?
I am overwhelmed when I recall the magnitude of my parents’ love affair. Mother and I never understood each other, but I loved her anyway and believe she loved me too. I’ve been a restless adventurer most of my life, one who learned patience in late middle age. It’s difficult to imagine how Mother endured, made a career of waiting to be with my father. She waited for him to travel the world, to graduate from law school, to fight a world war. And when the war ended, she watched other women’s reunions as American soldiers came home in droves. She waited almost two more years as her husband visited Nazi death camps, gathered evidence, and then prosecuted war criminals.
What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited? While he was landing at Normandy, she landed a secretarial job at General Motors. For four years, she lived with his parents, a squatter in his vacant bedroom in their lower flat. As he marched toward Munich, her eyes twitched, scanning newsreels in dark theaters. He led the battalion that liberated Dachau while she sipped Pepto-Bismol, quelling her nausea as Western Union rang doorbells in their neighborhood. She whirled around the Arthur Murray Dance Studio during “For Women Only” lessons, dreaming of the day she would glide across the floor with him. She hoarded money, emotion, and physical desire, all treasure to bestow when he returned.
How much room in her heart could she have had for a daughter born less than a year after he finally came home to her? A daughter he showered with his precious time and attention. Mother won her gold medal and had to share it with me eleven months later.
Eighteen years passed and by the time her daughter’s daughter was born, Mother had room in her heart. She cherished my baby girl, the polite, lap-sitting grand-daughter who loved learning to sew and was mesmerized by fairy tales. Grandma and granddaughter baked cupcakes, tossed bread chunks to the ducks at Quarton Lake. I shoved through college, partying with defensive fury, not yet understanding the anger that could have obliterated me. The bond my mother and daughter shared skipped over me, but I was the conduit. My blood connected them, and eventually, I loved each of them more for the way they loved each other.
The War Crimes Trials ended and the elation of reunion and post-World War II American dreaming consumed my parents. They raised and educated my brother and me, keeping their promises to each other for fifty-three years of marriage. Our family sat together in Dad’s hospital room for more than an hour after he died, until a nurse patted Mother’s arm. “How much longer would you like to to stay?” Still holding his hand, Mother whispered, “Not enough time…my soldier boy.”
I’ve passed sixty now, have divorced and remarried, and will not live long enough to love a husband for fifty years. I’ve escorted my parents through their last ravaged days, have faced down the medical posses and demanded that their final wishes be honored.
Thirteen years after Dad died, I boarded a Northwest commuter jet and flew to Detroit with Mother’s ashes in my lap. It was unseasonably chilly, even for Michigan, on that May day, and the sun blazed in the wind, flapping my coat open as I laid her next to him, just the way they wanted.
In the clarity of my mind’s eye, Mother and Dad are young and strong. Their unlined faces glow, just the way they did on a breezy summer afternoon over fifty years ago, when they lay together beneath a blue cotton blanket.
I unload the car at home today, after a hike with the dogs to Jones Gap where we’ve climbed the falls and splashed in the Middle Saluda. I hoist my damp backpack and mud-clumped boots from the car and pull the blue blanket from the back seat. Hunks of dog biscuit drop from the folds as I grasp two corners and unfurl it in the wind like a flag. I shake and shake it. Sun shines through thread in some spots and the flannel is buttery smooth on my grimy hands. I flop it over one arm and head toward the house, flexing and relaxing my bare feet on warm concrete.
Inside, I spray the blanket with stain remover, crank up the washer and toss it in, knowing it will come out clean.