A Second Chance
by Marcia Slatkin
My common-law husband Len has gone upstate on business. This is not unusual. He inherited his mother’s house, which he tends meticulously, as though it were an only daughter he didn’t want outside workmen to lay instrument on, much less hand.
My mother, who came to live with us more than three years ago, has seen him go upstate several times before. This time, however, her face registers alarm. No amount of repeated explanation can cut a groove in those areas of the brain filled with Alzheimer plaque. Eyes dulled, mouth tight, eye twitching, skin pale beneath its familiar coat of Vaseline, she can not eat her oatmeal. She is silent in the car as we drive to her day care center, answering my probes with monosyllables. But she does utter two full sentences just as I kiss her goodbye.
“A husband is not so easy to replace,” she says. “You must have done something very bad to get him angry.”
I get a phone call from the center at about 11 AM. “Your mom is worried about you,” the director says. “She’s afraid you aren’t feeling well.”
“What, did you think I looked sick?” I ask when she comes on the line.
“You look beautiful,” Shirley says. “I’m just worried about you. That’s all.”
I pick her up at 3:00, and she seems wretched: face chalk- white and wizened beneath oil, eyes dull and sunken, her mouth a pinched zero. “So,” she says on the drive home. “What are you going to do now that he’s gone.”
“But he’s coming back, mom,” I repeat. “He’s away on business. He has a house and he’s repairing it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” my mother says, waving her hand and turning away, her face a closed fist punching her own heart. “We’ll see.”
That night, when Len phones, I decide to let her speak to him. She has eaten almost no dinner; maybe he can soften her sense of my failure. Her eyes light for the first time all day when I offer her the phone. Her posture straightens, and the angle at which her head hangs decreases as she prepares her body to connect to a male voice.
“I’m so glad to talk to you,” she gushes, sitting down heavily, cradling the phone.
“You know, I have to tell you, there’s a big void in the house when you’re gone. It’s so quiet, and I have to admit, a little bit lonely.”
I don’t know what Len says, but he is a kind man, and perhaps he thanks her for noticing his absence.
“Sure, I notice,” she replies. “I miss you. And I’m sure Paula also. You know, I think of you as part of the family, and it’s not such a big family,” she continues. “Every person counts, and I count you a lot.” She stops for a moment, thinking. “I count you, and I count on you,” she continues, and then laughs.
He must’ve given the date of his return, because she squeals with pleasure. “Ohhhh, that’s wonderful, I’ll tell Paula, I’m sure she’ll be so glad you’ll give her another chance,” she says. “Sweetheart, I’m happy we’ll be seeing you soon.”
After the phone call, I go into her room. She rises from her chair and careens toward me dangerously, grabbing both my hands. Her face is flushed, her eyes bright and no longer sunken, her whole appearance swollen, somehow, hydrated and moist with excitement. “Mazel Tov, Paula, I’m so glad,” she says, and kisses me.
She sits back down after the hug, but continues to beam at me, breathing hard, as though she has run a race or done 50 push ups. And why not? Anxiety-ridden, indefatigable, loving – my Yiddishe mama has just single-handedly saved my marriage.