Elsewhere by Richard Russo

  Even in terminal illness, her emotional cycles continued, exacerbated now by physical ones that proceeded as expected and predicted. There were good days and bad days, and it was the good ones we all came to fear. On bad days, when her energy level was low, her breathing difficult, my mother fussed and found fault less. On bad days her Meals on Wheels were a godsend, the people who delivered them saints. When listless, she understood she was too ill to be left alone, that she needed help with almost everything, even getting up from the sofa to go to the bathroom. On days when she woke up feeling better, though, watch out. Then the Meals on Wheels were inedible, and (again, shades of Woody Allen) the portions inadequate. When a delivery was running late, she’d call and tell them not to bother; when it came anyway, she wouldn’t ring whoever was bringing it into the building. The health-care workers, who’d all been warned, bore the brunt of it when she went on the warpath. Some quit. Others—several of whom she’d taken an aversion to at first sight—she refused to let in the door. She knew as her condition deteriorated that she was becoming increasingly dependent on them, but on good days she couldn’t see why people who most of the time just sat and watched television with her were paid so much. We’d never discussed what these costs amounted to, but she knew it was expensive and not covered by Medicare, which was partly why she was so unreasonable on this subject. To her way of thinking, to justify such expense, the people we hired should always be working, vacuuming or scrubbing the bathtub, as if they were maids with medical training. Did they have to be in the apartment with her when they weren’t needed? Couldn’t they wait out in the hall? Couldn’t she ring for them? “Maybe you don’t care if you’re getting ripped off,” she said whenever I tried to explain what their duties were and weren’t, “but I do.”

  That spring, before we went to London for a few days to visit Kate, we planned our absence, hour by hour, with Vickie, who ran the health-care service, making sure my mother’s days and evenings were all covered. Night had become a particular bone of contention. Not long after she was diagnosed, she’d gotten a push-button necklace that would summon help in case of an accident, but she didn’t want anybody in her apartment overnight. Only after intense negotiation did she reluctantly agree to have someone stay for the duration of our London trip. I was still worried, so we came up with a contingency plan. If she took a turn for the worse in the run-up to our departure, I’d remain behind. For a while it looked like that’s what was going to happen, but after a string of bad days she rallied, and her doctor assured us that she’d be stable until we returned. I called one last time from the airport to make sure, but she swore everything was fine. The night person had just arrived, and they were watching TV. I should go and have a good time. Something in her voice gave me pause, though, and when we landed at Heathrow seven hours later, I wasn’t surprised to find there was a message on my cell from Vickie. My mother had waited until we were safely onboard our plane, then fired everybody.

  A month later she had a minor heart attack that put her in the hospital, and things got even worse. She claimed the recommended regimen of physical therapy was simply too difficult to do, though the nurses said she’d never so much as tried. They’d also recommended what they made the mistake of referring to as “psychological therapy.” I explained that this was all about rethinking how, after you’d suffered a heart attack, you rose from a chair and got out of bed in the morning, but my mother was having none of it. There was nothing wrong with her head, and she knew perfectly well how to get out of a chair. Which left the hospital staff little choice but to return her to Megunticook House, where it soon became apparent she was going to need a lot more care. Whether she liked it or not, somebody had to be there at night to help her get to the bathroom. The problem was that of all the workers sent from the agency to help her, she liked only a couple. They of course had families and lives of their own, and there were more hours in the week than any two people could cover. Shift changes were especially problematic. My mother particularly hated falling asleep with one caregiver in the next room, then waking up to another the next morning. Moreover, she didn’t want the night attendant to stretch out on her sofa, fearing for its springs. “It wasn’t made for people to sleep on,” she complained, “especially not obese Mainers.” I tried to catch her caregivers near the end of their shifts, in part so they could bring me up to speed on what had transpired but also to find out how badly they’d been abused and insulted and to apologize. They were no sooner out the door than my mother would use what little remained of her failing heart and lungs to berate those she considered lazy or stupid and to bemoan the fact that her favorites weren’t always available. Vickie, she believed, was saving all the good ones for her favored clients, whose families insisted on top-quality care.

  There were times when I seriously considered wringing her neck, but then the cycle would end, and there she’d be again, my mother, lost and frail and afraid, with barely enough energy to draw her next breath, her heart a sledgehammer in her chest—anxious, it seemed, for this terrible struggle to be over. In the weeks before she entered the hospital for the last time, she couldn’t get comfortable. In the living room she’d struggle to her feet and announce that she couldn’t stand it there any longer and was going to bed early. I should go home. (By this time I was visiting, literally, morning, noon, and night.) But twenty minutes later she’d emerge from the bedroom saying she couldn’t bear lying down, that sitting up was better. In addition to sapping what little strength remained, these short journeys were also treacherous. Forgetting she was tethered to the oxygen machine, she often managed to tangle her long lead of plastic tubing when she went around corners, pulling it free of her nose, which she sometimes didn’t notice or immediately realize was why she suddenly couldn’t fill her lungs. Back and forth she went, ninety pounds of pure will and desperation, life reduced to purposeless, exhausting motion, until another heart attack, after which even that tortured, senseless motion became impossible.

  MORPHINE. A BLESSING. During the last month of my mother’s life in the hospice wing at the hospital, the drug did its almost-mystical business of protecting the self from itself, of relaxing her so that she could “breathe easier” both literally and metaphorically. Under its influence her features sometimes unclenched, allowing me to glimpse in the tiny, mummified figure in her hospital bed the confident, lovely, brave young woman I’d known as a boy. When a new dose was administered, she’d smile and slip under the wave, and often, exhausted, I’d follow her down, falling asleep in my chair as if I, too, were connected to the drip. At other times, powerful though it was, even morphine failed to vanquish the anxiety that had come to rule her life, and then her eyes would grow small and hard with concentrated terror and defiance, the old, unwinnable battle still raging on. I tried to calm her by saying I was right there at the foot of the bed and promising I wouldn’t go anywhere. But knowing she wasn’t afraid of death, I was curious, as well, and asked more than once what was scaring her so. “That things, you know …,” she’d begin, but having gotten that far, she’d grow confused and frustrated.

  “Can you explain?” I persisted, hoping that, even at this late date, if she could just articulate her fear, I might be able to help her dispel it.

  “You know,” she said, as if she suspected I’d somehow forgotten something I knew perfectly well, that I could summon the memory if I just concentrated hard enough. “That things … you know … won’t …”

  “Won’t what, Mom?”

  “You know,” she insisted, smiling weakly now, “won’t turn out right.”

  MY MOTHER WASN’T the only one confused and disoriented those final weeks. Meaning to visit her, I’d often drive over to Megunticook House, realizing only after I’d pulled in to the parking lot and turned off the ignition that she wasn’t there anymore.

  One night not long after she moved into the hospital’s hospice wing, I went home early and fell into a deep, dreamless slumber from which I was awakened, bewildered and panicked,
when the telephone rang a few minutes before midnight.

  “Rick?” she said, perhaps not recognizing my sleep-thick voice.

  Had I forgotten, I wondered, to go over to her apartment after dinner?


  “Mom?” I said. “What is it?”

  “I need you to come.”

  “Mom, it’s midnight,” I said, staring stupidly at the clock on the nightstand. Had five whole hours passed? How was that possible?

  “I pressed the button.”

  “What button, Mom?”

  “For the nurse. Ten minutes ago. She never came.”

  “She will,” I told her. Barbara put a hand on my shoulder and rested her forehead on the back of my neck. “Be patient.”

  “It’s you I need.”

  “I’ll see you in the morning. I promise.”

  Silence on the line, then. Had she hung up? No, she was back, needing me to understand. “It’s terrible here,” she said. “You have no idea.”

  IT’S YOU I NEED … it’s terrible here.

  Seven small words, but embedded in them, somewhere, is the reason that a man who makes his living with words isn’t able to offer any when Emily and Kate finish speaking. The closure that death is supposed to bring has somehow eluded me, which must be why in last night’s dream I was carrying my mother toward that unknown destination and why it felt like I’d be doing so forever. Although it’s been several months since her death, when the phone rings in the middle of the night, I still expect to hear her voice on the other end of the line, wanting to know where I am, why I’ve abandoned her.

  It’s terrible here. I’ve belatedly come to understand that for my mother here was really the place inside her head where everything played on an endless loop. There was the place she never stopped trying to get to, where she’d be happy. Don’t I deserve a life? She must have asked my grandfather this before me, the question serving as explanation for why she was leaving Helwig Street for Arizona. How had he answered it? He’d served in two world wars and was exhausted and slowly strangling, his lungs full of leather dust. I can imagine him telling her that nobody, including her, was entitled to anything, but of course I wasn’t there and he might well have said nothing of the sort. She never asked me if I minded her tagging along. She just told me about the job awaiting her in Phoenix and painted a vivid picture for me of the new, free life she’d have when we arrived, leaving me to challenge her right to it.

  Or am I misremembering? Did she ask me, and I just forgot? It’s possible. That I honestly can’t recall something so important seems right, somehow. The mechanism of human destiny—that intricate weave of chance and fate and free will, as distinctly individual as a fingerprint—is surely meant to remain life’s central mystery, to resist transparency, to make blame a dangerous and unsatisfactory exercise. I don’t blame my mother for anything, certainly not for her ongoing unhappiness, any more than I take pride in having managed to parlay the same genetic character traits that bedeviled her—stubbornness, defiance, an inclination to obsess, an excess of will, a potentially dangerous need to see things my own way—into a rich and satisfying career.

  It’s you I need. From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands. How often over the years did she credit me, or my proximity, with restoring her to health? My rock, as she was so fond of saying, always there when she needed me most. My own experience, however, had yielded a different truth—that I could easily make things worse, but never better. Or at least not better enough. I was, just as she said, always there, but to me that meant always failing, never being able to cure what ailed her. I could help her step back from the precipice and restore the status quo, but the status quo was neither health nor happiness.

  Now, standing with my family in the deepening dark, I feel profoundly what a terrible mistake she made in trusting me, in believing that we were cut from the same cloth, that one day I’d see things as she did, that given time I’d grow into the soul-mate role that she’d planned for me. She seemed not to grasp that I’m by nature a problem solver, that I’m fundamentally optimistic and believe most problems have solutions. When she asked me if she didn’t deserve a life like anybody else, she probably thought of it as a rhetorical question. Who would deny another human being the right to a life? She couldn’t have known that I’d take it as a riddle I was supposed to figure out, a problem that had a solution I’d eventually discover if I just kept looking, that I’d never give up.

  But of course I now realize that isn’t quite true. At some point along the spectrum of what we like to think of as “real time,” I simply flatlined and, without admitting it to myself, conceded defeat and started just going through the motions. This was why my dreams were haunted. Because I’d given up on someone I loved, someone who’d never, ever, given up on me. I couldn’t speak because the only thing left to say was I’m sorry, and the person I needed to say it to was gone.

  High and Dry

  AFTER THE VINEYARD, Barbara and I could feel the pendulum begin to swing, tragedy waning and comedy, at least in the Shakespearean sense, waxing. Kate and Tom had gotten married in London back in November, and we were now again in the nuptial mode, preparing for Emily’s in September. Caught up in the spirit of these proceedings, I started work on a wedding story. At least I thought it was a story. It turned out to be a novel, though, one that was cleaved right down the center, a wedding anchoring each half. Compared with the book that preceded it—my darkest, written and revised during my mother’s long, final descent—this new novel was a breezy tale that seemed to suggest I was finding my way back to the cautious, hard-won optimism that characterizes my fiction. Back on the Vineyard I’d feared that my nightmare—about carrying my mother through unfamiliar streets toward an unknown destination—might be a recurring one, but I hadn’t had it since, and I took this to mean that my mother was finally at rest, or perhaps that I was. It seems strange to admit it now, but just being alive was at some level surprising. In contrast to the remarkable longevity of the women on my mother’s side of the family, Russo males had a piss-poor track record, and somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve linked my mother’s chronological destiny with my own. Yet here I was, not only alive but, according to my doctor, in excellent health.

  So Barbara and I started making plans. After all, our circumstances had changed dramatically. Suddenly we had neither ailing parents nor heart-stopping medical bills. Our daughters’ educations were paid for. By autumn both girls would be married to the kind of young men we’d hardly dared to hope for, and all four young people were embarking on careers they were passionate about. Which begged an obvious question: what in the world were Barbara and I going to do with ourselves? At long last we’d been left to our own devices, only to discover we couldn’t recollect precisely what those devices were. Perhaps we’d need all new ones.

  One of the things we’d been unable to do while my mother was alive was to travel, at least not together. I could go off on a book tour, or to L.A. or New York for a script meeting, as long as Barbara remained behind to hold down the fort, and of course she could visit her family in Arizona if I stayed put. Now we could actually go places together. For years we’d longed for an apartment in Boston so we wouldn’t have to fly out of Portland, Maine, the preferred airport of hijackers and no one else. A place in the city would also give us somewhere to spend the darkest months of Maine’s interminable winters. All this was down the road, though. Meanwhile, the theme would be weddings, fictional and real. That felt both right and appropriate. Weddings are all about our hopes for and faith in the future, right? Right.

  Except not entirely. As I knew all too well from recent experience, and was learning more about with every new page of my novel-in-progress, weddings are also about the past.

  KATE’S WEDDING HAD BEEN HELD at the Royal Society for the Arts, a series of underground vaults, formerly wine cellars, just off the Strand. She and Tom, who’s English, would be living in London
, so there’d been no question of having the ceremony in the States. The wedding was relatively small: Tom’s family; some friends from the Slade Art School, where they’d met; a few of Kate’s college friends. Understandably, given the distance and expense, not many family members from our side of the Atlantic made the trip. The exception was my cousin Greg and his wife, Carole, both of whom have always lived in Gloversville. “Quite a ways from Helwig Street,” Greg said, taking in the venue. It wasn’t as grand as “Royal Society” might suggest, but the arching brick vaults, candlelit for the occasion, were impressive. There’s nothing remotely like it in an upstate mill town. The person who would’ve appreciated it the most, of course, was my mother.

  While we waited for the bride and groom to finish having their photos taken, the how-far-we’d-all-come theme occupied the American contingent. Nat Sobel, my friend and literary agent, immediately took to my cousin, telling Greg that as a boy he, too, lived near a tannery that released its toxins into the local stream, the water running a different color each day depending on the dye batch. And so, flutes of Prosecco in hand, we began swapping stories about the worst jobs we’d ever had.

  I recalled my brief nonunion construction job in Johnstown. Other summers I’d been able to get union work at an hourly rate nearly twice what men were making at the skin mills. That year, though, jobs were scarce, and I hadn’t gotten one. Nonunion construction was a different world. The first week we had to drill holes in a concrete abutment, not a difficult task if you have a drill. We didn’t. What we did have was a jackhammer and a foreman who was unconstrained by conventional thinking. The jackhammer guy and I formed a team that afternoon. Balancing his weapon on my shoulder, I held on for dear life as we jacked horizontally into the wall, sharp shards of concrete blasting back into our faces. Another thing we didn’t have was a spare set of goggles.

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