Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Last Dance

Prowling the house at midnight I can't sleep so I walk the rooms. Huge and full of windows, a house I once called home, now mostly empty and for sale. A coating of dust dulls the polished floors, and my pacing leaves prints. By the light of a half moon, my wool-socked feet muffling the sound, I touch things as I pass--odd pieces of furniture, a chipped place in the dining room wall, glass doorknobs, a phone on the wall in my mother's office.

Seven years ago, after they'd found a tumor in her belly, when she was in remission, her body weight up to 90 pounds, my mother lay on her bed one Sunday afternoon sewing neckties for Christmas presents. She stitched with her mouth full of pins, fussing over the maroon silk, deftly tacking and folding with small knobby hands that arthritis had distorted over the years. I lay across the foot of the bed on my stomach, head over the edge looking down. She told me she was going to bake Christmas cookies later, and asked me what kinds I'd like. That was only a couple weeks after my brother had carried her out of the car, into the house, and up the stairs to her bed, so weak she couldn't sit up in a wheelchair. I murmured something about the frosted fruit bars she'd made every year since I could remember, and was pierced with the realization that they might be the last cookies of hers I'd ever eat.

As it turned out, that the was the beginning of a year of last things. I walk the October-dry floors this night and list these things. Last roses opening along the path to the front door, tended year after year, each bloom a joy to her. Last burnt sugar cake for my birthday, gritty from eggshell in the batter in her absend-mindedness. Last leaves turning red and gold in October, month of both her wedding anniversaries. Last Christmas. That dreaded holiday that presses like a too-tight sweater, a table laden with too many sweets and everyone wanting you to try just a little. (A pang of remorse and relief at once over that one.)

After I left her that day, and walked the short distance up the street to my house, it occurred to me that I had finally met and begun to appreciate my mother as a person, after years of awkward encounters and participation in family gatherings. She and I did much better living our separate lives, the invisible bond between us undisturbed by daily contact. Knowing she was there was enough for me. For her too, I think. Over the years we'd been forced by circumstance, such as my father's death at 49, into situations of great intimacy and knowledge of each other, and we both needed room to escape.

But during that last year with my mother I suddenly wanted to know her better, to press her deep into memory. Not the mother of my childhood and growing up, the mother maddened by grief at the loss of the love of her life. Or not only that mother. I wanted to know the woman who lay on her bed sewing neckties in the face of death. The woman slowly shrinking down to the vital essence of pleasure and grit. The hopeful planning for holidays, the daily treats--wheat thins with almond butter, caramel chocolate swirl ice cream, deep red plum jam on toast in the mornings.

In the hospital during daily radiation treatments, while hooked up to a plastic bag of saline fluid, and catheterized, my mother planned her last ball gown. She imagined the trip to the Catskills in October to attend an annual ballroom dance competition she'd won prizes at every one of the previous thirty years. Propped up on pillows, she figured out who would drive, and where everyone would sit. She asked my brother's wife to help her cut the deep purple velvet, combining favorite features of three different patterns as was her wont, and sewed it on a 50-year old Singer in the other room. My sister-in-law had never before made a dress from a pattern that was largely imaginary, but she started in, gamely ripping out and resewing under my mother's watchful eye.

By the time they finished the dress my mother had gained five more pounds, but still she had to fill out the top of the bodice with kleenex. On a brilliant blue and gold day in the middle of October, my brother made a pallet for her in the back of his van, stuffing luggage and pillows around the edges, and drove her to The Pines for a weekend of dance and renewal of friendship. Her husband wept the whole way, but did his best, helping her out of the car, into the wheelchair, rolling her into the auditorium the night of the opening ceremony. She told me later that the other dancers stood when she came in the room, applauding and weeping for nearly 10 minutes. Her years of winning the prize, of sparkling gowns and flashing movements in the spotlight were over. But the tiny woman in purple velvet and rhinestones in a wheelchair up on the dais had brought the room to its knees.

I walked the empty rooms until a trace of brightness in the east began to bring trees into clarity. I'm finally sleepy. My mother's been dead for 5 years but I feel her presence still, and I'm filled with her light, her grace and her courage every day of my life. I'll never forget the emaciated woman in a purple gown, too much rouge on her cheeks for the cancer-pale skin, gripping the arms of a wheelchair in the dazzling lights of a ballroom filled with dancers in sparkling gowns, speaking into a microphone brought down low for her, telling a roomful of people how glad she was to be alive.