This is an excerpt from the novel, Why People Take Pictures by A. S. King
All I know is my mother is going to die soon and she doesn't like to talk about it. For us, it's a twenty-year-old mystery - a life-long list of research - MS, Parkinson's, lupus, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, anemia, scleroderma, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, bone degenerative disease, tumors, rashes, temperature fluctuations, immune disorders, severe flu, AIDS or plague - you name it, and my mother could have it.
The last time I asked her about it, back in 1986, she answered, "I look at it this way: I have all of them, I have none of them. What does it matter while I'm dying?" After she said it, she turned the stereo up, Louis Armstrong and Ella, and kept the beat with her index finger, as if it could stop the word 'dying' from echoing round my sixteen-year-old head. She added loudly, "And anyway, aren't we all dying from the minute we're born?" Fran Miller - Dixieland philosopher.
The first time it happened was in 1985, when I was fifteen. She was fifty-three. She'd been admitted to Blue Marsh hospital after several doctors couldn't figure out why she was so exhausted. They did a few tests, and tried a few meds, and kept her overnight to keep an eye on her. The next morning, my dad and I came in to pick her up, and a nurse told us they had to do one more test. I remember how she said it.
"We need to take Mrs. Miller down to x-ray for a final scan. Should only take an hour. Someone will be back to pick her up in about five minutes," she said, and then smiled, replaced my mother's chart to the end of the bed, and walked out.
Then, once we were the only three people in the room, my mother had a heart attack right in front of us. I guess the machinery she was strapped to made the red light at the door blink, and the alarm sound down at the nurse's station. By the time I got to the door, I saw a nurse with a bottle of oxygen running full speed toward me.
Call me dumb, or naïve, or slow, but I really, for about five seconds, truly thought the nurse was going to the next room. I made up a story, even. I decided there must be an old man in the next room, an old man who was dying. It was about then when the nurse with the oxygen took a sharp left into my mother's room. Others arrived. They asked us to wait outside, so we did.
Two days later, my father outlined the 'facts' with me.
"Six months," he said. She would live another six months.
The only answer I had was: The doctors are wrong. My mother can't die when I'm fifteen years old.
And as it turns out, I was right.
* * *
Of course, for her, this was where the secrets started. From the minute she was released from the hospital, bruised and black from the prodding nurse's aides and their unforgiving syringes, she acted as if nothing had happened. Heart attack? No! Dying? Aren't we all dying?
She still took every opportunity to tell my sister Julie her hair was too long to get a decent job, "Just where do you think you'll get a job looking like that?" she'd ask. "Who wants to hire a hippy-dippy-know-nothing fresh out of high school?"
She still bitched about Jo's decision to drop out of college and pursue a career in fitness, even though Jo hadn't darkened our doorstep in two years (since my mother coined the term "muscle losers").
She still scolded Missy for having kids before she could put her degree in business administration to 'good use.' "Who in the world told you that being a housewife was a good idea? This is just the first step to you completely wasting your life, Melissa!"
And of course, she still had plenty of time to lecture me about what the 'real world' was going to be like. "Jessica, in two years, you're going to be in the real world, you know, and no guidance counselor is going to help you then." This, after I failed two geometry exams.
"How do you expect to get anywhere in the real world with B's and C's? You're so much smarter than this! Why are you ruining your life?" This, after I got a C in a stupid social studies class she made me take. She's lucky I didn't fail. I hated it. Who in their right mind takes a class called Effective Parenting in the tenth grade, anyway? Plus, it was nothing but ironic sitting through lectures on honesty and communication between parents and teenagers. The mere name of the class mocked me. Effective Parenting. The more I thought about it, my parents were effective. They did raise us. We weren't bank robbers of serial killers. But I seemed to be the only person in my real world who saw that my mother had just died in front of me.
In my real world, there was a list of things to talk about that had nothing to do with job recruitment and the 'skills' area on my resume.
* * *
Sometimes I wonder why my mother survived that heart attack in 1985. I don't mean the physical stuff - the remedy of it. I mean the soul. Why did she survive? Was it out of love? Out of spite? What made her willing to fight long enough and hard enough until the doctors and their magic medicine pumped life back into her body?
If I was her, I'd have lived to spite her father who beat the living daylights out of her whenever he was drunk and felt like it. If I was her, I'd have lived to spite her sexist executive bosses who didn't pay her enough, who didn't promote her when they should have. I'd have lived to spite the men she worked harder than for less, the ones who talked about her behind her back. The ones who thought she should be at home, making dinner, and cleaning the house. She had her children. She made her dinner. She cleaned her house. She did it all. And what had they managed to do? Go to work. Well, what's so goddamn important about that if you're not doing anything else useful?
Last week, she said was doing winter chutney. I told her to wait for me, but the mangoes were pitted and peeled by six. Canned by nine. When I arrived at ten, she was doing the last of the dishes in hot soapy water and thirty packed jars sat displayed on her kitchen counter. It smelled like ginger heaven. Miles Davis plays there.
"At least you waited for me to put them away," I said.
"Well I know my limits."
But she doesn't. She doesn't know her limits. She is seventy-three and is limitless. She wants to make strawberry jelly with my daughter, Edie, she wants to teach her how to roll potpie noodles, she wants to show her how to hand-quilt edging onto a border, she wants to explain the subtleties of bebop, but Edie's three years old and too young to care. So now, she wants me to promise that I'll pass it all on.
"One day Edie will want to know all this stuff."
And it hits me.
Once my mother goes, I will be top of the barrel. I'm only thirty-five years old. How can I be top of the barrel? The matriarch? And how can I possibly pass on every tradition she expects me to? Surely she's written it down for the sake of my slacking? Surely she didn't trust me to actually listen to her for these last thirty years.